This post contains spoilers to “The Name of the Wind” but mostly to its sequel “The Wise Man’s Fear”, which is something like maximally dumb because that is the only book about which I know that Zuuko hasn’t read it but plans to, and Zuuko is the only person I know who is sure to check this blog.
First of all, you may be wondering what the Cthaeh is. It’s a thing that appears in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles series. Our main hero, Kvothe, meets the Cthaeh while on a sojourn losing his virginity to a fairy (not like that!) about three quarters of the way through The Wise Man’s Fear. The Cthaeh is a tree (or, rather, it lives in the tree and doesn’t leave) and it is an oracle. Although there are some textual clues that it might not be the case, one character (Bast) claims these conditions about the Cthaeh:
1. It always tells the truth
2. It can see the future, and what’s more, it can see the branching paths of the future depending on what it says
3. It cannot leave the tree
4. It is perfectly evil
So, let’s say that all these things are true. This makes the Cthaeh a fun thing to think about. My first reaction upon learning these conditions was surprise that Bast (who believes them) doesn’t immediately try to kill Kvothe upon learning that he has spoken to the Cthaeh. I mean, I wasn’t really surprised because I could see the book would continue and I know it will have a further sequel (and a sequel which relies on the survival of Kvothe), but, within the internal mechanics of that universe, I initially thought it made sense for Bast to try to kill Kvothe. Below the fold is an atempt to figure out whether this initial intuition was correct, and more generally explore how the Cthaeh could function. Throughout, I may assume things about the Cthaeh that are contradictory to the book – my goal is not to predict what happens or offer analysis, but to consider a creature that fulfills conditions 1-4. I will also be using “free will” to mean “agency’, which I know is incorrect, but I doubt anyone reading this is such a compatibilist that they’ll be unable to let it go.
The Cthaeh and Free Will
So how does the Cthaeh work? There are actually several possibilities. One possibility suggested by condition 2 is that the Cthaeh is the only thing in the universe that has free will (it can choose among futures, whereas its ability to see the future means no one else can change it after it picks a course). Considering it is perfectly evil, that’s kind of a bummer of a universe.
Another, distinct, possibility, suggested by the Cthaeh’s designation as oracle is the Ancient Greek prophecy kind of deal where others have free will, but not the ability to escape some overall fate. In other words, the Cthaeh could be seeing and choosing among sets of grand outcomes whereas the details of what happens to get to that state are changeable by others.
A third possibility is that others have free will and can change the future. However, the Cthaeh’s predictive power lies in its ability to see all possible future paths that can stem from a certain choice, even though the Cthaeh doesn’t know which of these paths will be taken. The Cthaeh itself acts in a way that suggests this interpretation, as it almost exclusively sticks to making claims about the present and past.
A final consideration is that maybe we should think of the Cthaeh as a very computationally powerful, very evil chess program. It can try out certain moves and see where they lead, but only up to some future date, not forever. This could also work together with possibilities 1 or 3. One advantage of this supposition is that it is much more possible to imagine than something that sees infinitely into the future. It also would allow the book to have a happy ending.
What the Cthaeh say?*
So, given all these possibilities, just how powerful is the Cthaeh? What can it really do to affect the world? One really stupid solution is that the Cthaeh could just go through all possible true things it could say and pick the one that gives the worst outcome. Since there’s an infinite amount of true things it could say, there’s probably some classical chaos butterfly-effect-style result that the very worst outcome is given by “the tortilla is a mexican pancake” or something. Luckily for the reader, that’s not how it works in the book.
So let us instead assume that the Cthaeh can only influence future events by the content of what it says, that is, its only effect is making questioner know certain truths. It may also be somehow restricted in what it can say by relevance, as it seems to goad Kvothe into asking it questions rather than just telling him things. However, that might just be the Cthaeh’s ploy to keep Kvothe interested, seeing as any sort of power it has is lost once whoever has come to talk to it leaves.
Even ignoring any potential relevance limitation, we must conclude that despite its omniscience (however we decide it works), the Cthaeh is surprisingly not very powerful in most situations. Let us agree that it can probably deliver enough selective truth to make the questioner hate their life, or to ruin their relationship with anyone else. However, no one is required to keep listening to whatever the Cthaeh says indefinitely, and especially if it keeps saying relationship-destroying things, probably the questioner will leave, limiting the Cthaeh to only a couple relationships ruined or so at most. For most people, they are not important enough to the world nor are their relationships important enough for this to have huge consequences, except on a personal level. This may explain why the Cthaeh seems to often pursue a “just make the questioner horribly depressed” strategy – that’s about the most “evil” it can do.
A more interesting strategy is using hypotheticals. The goal here would be for the Cthaeh to entice questioner to do something terrible with selective information. For instance, tell questioner “if you rob a bank you will get away with it and get a million dollars” and do not mention that in this case questioner will end up killing dozens of people in a standoff. Here the different possibilities discussed in part one start to play a big role. The truth value of “if you rob a bank you will get away with it and get a million dollars” is not defined unless questioner actually robs a bank. If the Cthaeh can successfully convince questioner to do something disastrous, it can have a big effect. However if it works like Evil Chess, it is not likely to stumble on something that works out. What’s more, under possibility 3, any sort of statement like that is unlikely to be true in a foolproof way. But in the case of possibility 1 and a perfectly omniscient Cthaeh, this has to be an attractive option, giving a chance for even average people to change the world significantly for the worse.
On the other hand, the Cthaeh’s secluded, hard-to-get-to location means that most people who find it will be in some way NOT average. And the Cthaeh’s power calculation changes dramatically if questioner is a particularly important, powerful or violent individual. If the Cthaeh can convince questioner to make a disastrous choice on a question of monumental importance, it can have a lot of power. Imagine that it was the Cthaeh that convinced Gavrilo Princip to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example. Our hero Kvothe seems to be just such a powerful and extraordinary individual, so the Cthaeh should really be trying to give him some information to stray him from the path of good and into making rash, stupid decisions. Since we don’t know how the story continues, we don’t know how the Cthaeh is going about this task. We do know that it didn’t choose to ruin his life (or perhaps didn’t quite get the chance to) seemingly implying that Kvothe can do more damage than what the Cthaeh can gain from ruining him (i.e. an end to all the good he might do)
Don’t act like you forgot about Cthaeh
All of which still doesn’t explain how one should act if one is in Bast’s place – i.e. if you have two degrees of separation from the Cthaeh (fun hockey interlude: the Two Degrees of separation from Mike Sillinger). In case of possibility one, where the Cthaeh is totally omniscient and is the only thing that has free will, it doesn’t matter. Like some sad steroidified version of a Kierkegaardian worldview, no matter what you do, it will be regrettable because it will lead to the worst possible outcome.
But what about the other possibilities? On the one hand, if you meet a questioner that the Cthaeh “spared”, that probably means that this questioner is more powerful than just the ordinary individual whose life the Cthaeh would ruin. And it also means the Cthaeh probably intends this person to wreak some kind of disaster, and you’d be better off killing them. Unless of course, you killing them is something that the Cthaeh foresees and that is the thing that will lead to disaster. Alternatively, the questioner may not be some super-important person but just someone who had the good sense to leave the Cthaeh very fast. In case of possibility two – the Greek Fate Cthaeh – some global disaster can perhaps not be avoided, but you don’t have to get mixed up in it. And, if I’m assuming that after killing a basically innocent person one would be traumatized, you’d want to avoid that as well. Basically, given possibility two, the smart move seems to be to leave as soon as someone mentions meeting the Cthaeh and take pains to avoid this person in the future. Bast needs to consider that he is Kvothe’s friend, and even if Kvothe’s life may be globally disastrous, Bast’s own would probably be way better if he didn’t just up and kill his friend for no reason. Overall, it seems that in the absence of knowledge about how exactly the Cthaeh functions, the smartest move is to try to avoid anyone who has ever met the Cthaeh, rather than killing them.
*This is not to be taken as a show of support for that awful song