The Lethani is a philosophy practiced by the people of Ademre. All Adem seek to live by the Lethani, an understanding of what is right and wrong. Legend credits the origin of the Lethani to ninety-nine instructive tales which Rethe told to Aethe.
The Tale of the Nine and Ninety Tales
Many years ago, before Ademre and the Adem, Aethe was the first master of the bow, able to shoot a silk shred swinging by the wind. He became famous, and many began to follow his ways, thus was born the first Adem school.
The master of the bow was often challenged, and was undefeated. He was clever in these duels, choosing his battleground carefully, but bringing only one arrow, stating that if he needed more than one, he deserved to die.
Rethe was his best student, "who stood nearest his ear and closest to his heart". She was growing wise and had many discussions with Aethe over the way he was teaching his art. Eventually, the woman challenged her master for a duel. Aethe was undefeated, and didn't fear his student would overcome him. However, Rethe laid aside her bow and sat cross legged, and was no challenge at all for Aethe, who shot her in anger. She then used her own blood to write a verse on a ribbon:
"Aethe, near my heart. Without vanity the ribbon. Without duty, the wind. Without blood, the victory."
She then used the same skills taught to her by Aethe to see the turning of the wind, and made sure that the ribbon - when released - would fly to him.
Shocked after reading these lines, Aethe repented, and knew Rethe to be wiser than him. Rethe managed to survive for three days, during which she dictated 99 stories to Aethe. These tales became the basis for understanding the Lethani and the root of the Adem. She told him the hundredth story would be more important than all the rest, but did not awake to tell it. Aethe never killed again and was known to say, "I won the only duel I ever lost."
The Way of the Lethani
- " There is no pretending to understand the Lethani. It is like swimming. It is obvious to anyone watching if you really know the way of it."
- ―Vashet, to Kvothe, chapter 113
The philosophical practice of the Lethani is not a way to fight, as foreigners often believe. The Lethani rules over everything in the life of the Adem. It cannot be described for it isn't fully understood, but it is constantly reinforced that it is "both the mountain pass and knowledge of the pass." This implies it is not only doing what is right, but knowing what is right to begin with. In doing so, you never truly lose a fight, argument, or come off worse in a situation. You always do something that furthers a goal, brings you closer to understanding, or otherwise help a cause, noted by Shehyn explaining the training to Kvothe; If people see him fight, they will think "He only studied shortly with the Adem, and look how strong he is. How much stronger are they, then?"; Yet if he loses, they will think "He only learned a piece of what the Adem know. He can't be expected to be so great with only that." Regardless of Kvothe winning or losing a fight, the Adem benefit from his reputation.
It is also a way to make the best of life, and it can be said that is the way to live properly, or with honor. Sometimes it seems counterintuitive, but it is frequently stated that no man, woman or child among the Adem claims to know the Lethani.
To kill without need is not of the Lethani. This is a moral path anyone could guess. However, some characters also say that taking any advantages at your disposal in a fight is of the Lethani, even if that could make the fight unfair. This can be observed during Kvothe's stone trial, when Carceret, an Adem woman who hated him from the moment they met, laid her sword aside. Kvothe did the same, thinking it wouldn't be fair to fight her armed when she wasn't. However, Tempi and Shehyn rebuked him for doing so, for his Ketan was much lesser than hers, so even if he fought with a sword, the fight would be uneven. Later Vashet, Kvothe's instructor, says it was of the Lethani.
It is possible to observe that the author meant the Lethani to be some primal, natural way of things. Kvothe could only answer properly the questions about the Lethani by letting his mind fall into a sort of meditation, which he calls the Spinning Leaf. In this state, his answers are automatic and instinctive, and generally satisfy his instructors, Tempi and Vashet, as it comes directly from an honest mind, with no thought to censor or lie.
The Lethani can be related to other philosophies such as Dao and Dharma. Both of these represent a concept of cosmic order, paralleling with "right action" and doing what is expected of you.
The Lethani in many ways can relate to love and the name of the wind. It is something that our young Kvothe is looking for, but he needs slowly introduce himself to it in order to successfully understand it. It is a complex topic that cannot be discussed explicitly.
Real-World References and Parallels
The philosophy of the lethani bears resemblence to a number of influential real-world philosophies.
The ineffible nature of the lethani is very similar to the notion of the "Dao" (道) in Daoism - which is usually translated as "way", "path", "route", "road" or sometimes more loosely "doctrine", "principle" or "holistic beliefs". In its Japanese form Dō this is used as a suffix to denote "the way of" in many martial arts such as: Aikido (合気道), the Way of harmonious spirit; Jūdō (柔道), the "gentle way"; or Karatedō(空手道), the Way of the empty hand.
In particular, Bushidō (武士道, "the way of warriors") - a collection of codes of honour and ideals that dictated the samurai way of life contains many analgous moral concepts.
Lethani translates to "Brings" in Zulu.
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