Fae and Cold Iron
In the KKC subreddit, I previously asked my fellow arcanists if they had any good guesses as to why iron hurts the Fae- from an in- world perspective. Patrick Rothfuss is too good of a storyteller to rely solely on the reasoning that this is common in our modern day mythology. In fact, one of the reasons I’m so interested in it is because I suspect it is somewhere where he is using our assumptions against us. There isn’t even a strong “nature versus civilization” dynamic between the Fae and the human occupants of Temerant, which is supposedly the origin of this trope in our real world mythology. The origin of the Fae is critical to the entire mysterious history of Temerant- it was the making of the Fae and the Faen realm that was at the crux of the Creation War after all. It puzzles me twice as much when you consider the contradiction of the Iron Rook, which is a fairy creature made of iron.
Anyway, no one really had much more idea than I did. So I have been considering it for a while. What’s below is hardly a bulletproof theory, but it builds on other ideas discussed here in this blog. And since this is an under-explored area of the lore, it seemed worth putting together a starting point:
What if iron hurts the Fae because it gets freezing cold when they touch it?
This musing all began with a single paragraph in Wise Man’s Fear towards the end of chapter 45: “All the way the winter wind chilled the iron around my hands and feet until it burned and bit and froze my skin.”
This establishes a narrative idea that making iron cold makes it feel like it is burning and biting.
Let’s compare that to NOTW chapter 23, Trappis’s story where he describes Encanis on the wheel:
“Where the iron touched his skin it felt like knives and needles and nails, like the searing pain of frost, like the sting of a hundred biting flies. Encanis thrashed on the wheel and began to howl as the iron burned and bit and froze him.”
It is the exact same wording.
So now let’s look at Chapter 1 of NOTW: Kote/Kvothe tells us that “iron or fire” will hurt “a demon” (aka the fae). Graham chimes in that it’s actually “three things: cold iron, clean fire, and the holy name of God.”
Back to Chapter 23 within Trappis’s narration that “all demons feared two things: cold iron and clean fire.” (I find it pretty interesting that in a priest’s story he doesn’t include the name of God, suggesting that in this portion he is citing a story that predates the Tehlin religion.) So once again, not just iron, but cold iron.
So what happens when Kote touches iron to the scrael?
“There was a short, sharp crackling sound, like a pine log snapping in a hot fire. … The room filled with the sweet, acrid smell of rotting flowers and burning hair.”
What about when Tehlu hits a demon with the iron hammer? It made the “sound of quenching iron and the smell of burning leather.”
To really see if this was significant, I put aside my assumptions about all of these smells and sounds, and did some research. So I knew and confirmed that burning hair mainly smells acrid because of the sulfur compounds released. It turns out that leather also smells bad when burned because of sulfur compounds released. (Truthfully, I couldn’t find anything about chemicals in rotting flowers, and I’m sure it’s very dependent on the flower. So I’m just skipping this one for now.) Next, let’s talk about logs cracking in a fire. What makes logs crackle in a fire is actually small gas pockets heating up and expanding until they break the wood. So basically the sound is caused by small explosive releases of gas.
Lastly- quenching iron. I don’t know about you, but when I imagined this I heard the sound of water hissing because that’s what I associate with blacksmith quenching from the movies. But that’s not really the sound of the iron, that is the sound of the water it is quenched in. And I have now learned that metal being quenched actually does make its own distinctive sound. There wasn’t a lot of information available on this, but you can see a YouTube video that has the sound of quenching copper, and there are several scholarly papers out there about measuring the audible sounds that quenching iron makes, so it definitely has one. Rothfuss didn’t describe steam or hissing, so it is at least as likely he meant the sound made by the iron itself as opposed to the sound of evaporating water that wasn’t there. (Possibly even deliberately playing with the assumptions of ignorant people like myself who have only seen blacksmithing in movies.) There is double evidence that when he says the sound of quenching iron he does literally mean the sound of the iron when you look back at chapter 23. When Encanis lied, “there was a sound like quenching iron, and the wheel rung like an iron bell.” It turns out that quenching metal actually makes kind of a ringing sound.
So if we take all of the above together, what that says is that when a fae is hit/touched with iron (at least when they are unprepared), there is the sound of iron super-cooling, the sound of hard material cracking as though to release a gas (at least when the fae in question has a hard exterior like a scrael does), and if they crack (or are hammered) a release of sulfur and probably some other organic compounds (that presumably has a sweet smell and matches to the rotting flowers scent).
Maybe a possible parallel as well with the bonetar canister cracking open from cold?
Oh yes, and when Ben quotes the exorcism scene in Daeonica, he says: “I will set fire to your blood and fill you with a fear like ice and iron!”
Now of course Felurian and Bast both touch iron in the books as well and they don’t crack open to release gases, but they obviously have strong reactions of pain that could be from holding something that “burned and bit and froze” them. I suppose it is also worth observing that Bast had lit a sulfur match in the room just before grabbing iron, his breath smelled like flowers while he was holding the iron, and it “rang dully” when he dropped it (although I’d sort of assumed that was when it hit the floor). Either way, it seems pretty likely that Bast’s hand wrapped completely around the iron ring could have muffled any vibrations that would have made a ringing sound from it supercooling, although I don’t have a good explanation for why there was no such sound in Chapter 104 with Felurian. Maybe it has something to do with being in her place of power in the Fae? Maybe the fact she is holding it “as if it were a snake struggling to twist around and bite her” indicates that she is wrestling to keep it under control? The text does not explicitly say she is in pain, but her hand trembles and her voice becomes brittle.
In any event, this supercold theory fits better than anything else I have found, even if it does just leave us with the next logical question: Okay, but then why does iron get super-cold when it gets in contact with the Fae? (I have no ideas, yet.)
Whether you believe this theory or not, I will point out that I think the phrase “cold iron” does hold more objective meaning in the books, making it a double meaning if you buy the above theory.
Rothfuss is careful to establish in the very first chapter of his book that in his world (unlike say the Dresden Files where steel also hurts faeries), any old iron alloy won’t do. Even just an iron drab “has too much carbon in it.” This is clever because in the real world “cold iron” as it relates to fairies is usually accepted to be just a poetic term for iron in general. However, there is such a thing as cold-wrought iron, which basically means strengthening the iron with a method other than heat treatment (or tempering). Tempering pretty much by definition adds some carbon to the iron. And that is why at the end of chapter 1, everyone specifically buys “cold-wrought iron.” (Kvothe also specifically does him cold iron work in the Fishery at one point.)
I was actually heading towards a conclusion with this post, but I think it’s entry is already quite long enough. More on why this might be meaningful later.
(As usual, cross-posted to KKC subreddit.)