Chaos Walking #3: Todd Hewitt, ‘Hewn Heart’

Life is short, art is long; let’s get right to the alchemy, then, if you don’t mind.

As discussed previously, the books’ penchant for Christian and biblical names makes me think ‘Todd’ is meant to be understood as ‘Thaddeus,’ the Aramaic word for ‘Heart,’ the spiritual faculty of the human person, or “breast,’ as in ‘bosom buddy.’ The last name of our hero, ‘Hewitt,’ is a not especially opaque telling of “hew it,” which translates as “roughly shape or fell the hard object.” Together, I think the Dickensian cryptonym gives us “the stone or wooden heart’s felling” or, better, “the revelation of the heart out of stone.” His story is a postmodern Everyman tale of the spiritual journey to human perfection or apotheosis.

If you’re a newcomer here, that must seem a real stretch. Old hands, however, I’m sure, have already started asking themselves, “If Todd is the Stone/Heart being perfected, are the three books the three alchemical stages of the Philosopher’s Stone?” Indeed, they are.

Knife of Never Letting Go: Alchemical Nigredo

Todd’s experience is everything we should expect in the ‘black stage’ of literary alchemy. We have the Philosophical Orphan, who is an alien in his own community that is forcibly separated from this community and his artificial family in this world. Every idea he has of himself and his world is shredded until he is left with his core essence or destiny, prima materia, his innocence and love, call it “purity of heart.”

This is a Bildungsroman, of course, a coming of age story and manhood quest, but Todd’s story is mostly about the Heart’s relationship, ‘identification’ really, with Spirit, represented in story by Viola, the girl who appears from the Heavens, out of nowhere, if you will. Knife is their adventure through something of a Pilgrim’s Progress series of vignette’s about The World and its various ways of destroying or waylaying the Heart. Most notably, of course, the Church and the State, embodied by Aaron and the Mayor, do everything possible to force the Heart to become human on their demeaning and diminishing terms and to enslave Spirit to their cause. Only the Heart’s ‘father,’ Ben, is true and there to guide and protect them, if he is almost always invisible.

At story’s end, they discover that the worldly sanctuary or heaven they have been in search of, the city ‘Haven,’ is like all things in the world, ‘under the Fall(s)’ and subject to the Prince of the World, Satan, the tempter, here represented as the Mayor. Spirit/Viola is shot in the heart, a wound which is almost never fatal in this series but a means to purification and perfection. Todd the Heart is shattered by this but swears fidelity to Spirit as the curtain closes.

We experience a perumbration of the Heart’s perfection and place in the World, realized in The Source at series’ end, in the center of Knife, when Todd and Viola are picked up by Wilf (Part IV, Chapter 22, ‘Wilf and the Sea of Things’). This chapter deserves its own post, but it is a pasage, I think, that is more ‘destination’ and ‘hallowing’ than plot point. As important as Wilf is to the rest of the novel, I urge you to re-read his introduction after finishing Monsters.

The Ask and the Answer: Literary Albedo

Ask begins with ‘The End’ and ends with ‘The Beginning,’ so the reader is cued to expect the world being turned upside-down or inside out. Sure enough, Ask is a story for which there is little preparation or kinship with the travelogue in Knife but which continues the Heart’s trials in the World.

The story involves the separation of Heart and Spirit and their experience apart in the company of the Quarreling Couple, Mistress Coyle and President Prentiss. These story stand-ins for masculine and feminine power in the world are complementary antagonists that define each other in their opposition. The Healer is almost magically capable of curing disease and making injuries whole and the Mayor has super-human abilities to lead and direct the citizenry. But they despise and resent the other pole of existence — and the Heart and Spirit are torn between them and seduced into their service.

I should say “almost seduced.” Both Heart and Spirit remain true to their “other” and, if each suspects their love to have fallen, both are forgiving and determined to save him/her, even at the cost of their life. This novel, then, in which we see their bond grow tighter and closer despite the world’s twin attempts to distract and separate them, is about their victory existing only in the resolution of contraries and their union in faith. Mr. Ness represents this victory via an Alchemical Wedding of Heart and Spirit in the church ruins at book’s close, their defeat of the Mayor with Love, and their exchange of oaths.

Monsters of Men: Literary Rubedo

Monsters seems a tale that spins out of control but makes a profound sense and comes to a satisfying, even elevating finish if understood as Todd’s perfection and apotheosis. The two contrary points of Ask become four points in Monsters, as the arrival of Bradley and Simone in a spacecraft with weapons and The Land and The Sky to do battle brings the conflict of Mayor and Healer into a war of the four elements. Todd the Heart in his fidelity to and through the love of Viola the Spirit becomes Quintessence and world saver in this alchemical drama, a divinization experienced more obviously by his equally conflicted doppelganger, Spackle ‘1017,’ aka The Return and The Sky.

I especially enjoyed the return to the beginning, the journeying qualities of Todd’s alchemical transformation we had in Knife, at the end of Monsters in the rush to the Ocean, here a sign of the Absolute or God. The final battle between the Heart and the Tempter there — and the transformation the Mayor has undergone that makes his sacrifice possible — and then The Sky’s tragic mistake and his and Viola’s perfection in repentance and forgiveness that, with The Source, saves the Heart, was rich, edifying reading, indeed. Viola’s fidelity to him, calling him to return, by reading repetitively his story, is a metaphor I think in which Mr. Ness at last wants to acknowledge the value of the devotional life. Todd’s heart being destroyed, like Viola and Ben, before him is a death leading to a greater life.

More on that later. Today, though, I hope you will check in with your thoughts about the literary alchemy of the series. Is Mr. Ness, like Rowling, Meyer, and Collins, writing in the hermetic tradition of Shakespeare, Dickens, Williams, and Lewis? Your comments and corrections are coveted.


  1. Just a small bit of errata:

    “Thaddeus” is a name with obscure origins. It does not, however, come from the Aramaic word for “heart” (which is “leba” “leva” “lewa” or “lebo” depending on dialect; the website is simply incorrect).

    The running theory is similar to the second meaning you mentioned, i.e. “bosom” or “breast,” a place where “the heart doth hop” but a bit of a different concept altogether. 🙂


    Steve Caruso
    Translator, Aramaic Designs
    Author, The Aramaic Blog

  2. Read the Chaos books, and they are still sinking in. I don’t know what to sat to add to the discussion yet, but I just wanted to check in and say thanks for this book club. The book clubs in my community are focused on other kinds of books and this site really gets my juices going! I am here and reading all of your posts and comments and thinking.

    Thanks again!

  3. Whoops “say” not “sat.”

  4. I noticed some similarity between the plot of this series and the Book of Tobit. I wonder if Patrick Ness based the name “Todd” on Tobias. Both were young men who were sent out into the world by their father. Each set out on his journey with his dog. Todd and Tobias both take great risks to save their beloved. A great fish jumped out of the Tigris river to eat Tobias’s foot. The fish later saved him from the demon Asmodium. In a similar fashion, Todd was finally saved when a fish swallowed his demon (Prentiss).

  5. Just a quick note:

    I finally got around to reading this trilogy (on your recommendation, Mr. Granger), and I keep coming back to the idea that Todd is equal to “Tod”, German for “death” (Evelyn Waugh used a similar ploy in A Handful of Dust with a character named Todd). Taken this way, therefore, we’d have Todd, the “Knife”, as “Death, Hew it”.

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