Leigh Butler’s posts and Brandon Sanderson writing the conclusion of the series led me to reread the Wheel of Time. I hadn’t read it in a very long time, almost twenty years since book one. I was a little concerned that my past enjoyment would not be repeated, but that hasn’t been the case. In fact, it’s a lot more fun this time, because I can better recognize and appreciate the copious folkloric and religious references in it. Jordan, as I understand it, wanted to create a world that was both before and after our own, or more precisely, a cyclical worldview in which before and after are equally true and equally inadequate markers. The first time I read it I really didn’t pick up on that at all.
As a Buddhist, I am particularly drawn to the Asian influences in WOT and focusing my attention in that direction has made for a rewarding and perplexing read. I don’t claim at all that Jordan wrote an intentionally Buddhist fantasy story, or that it should be deconstructed from a Buddhist, or more broadly, Asian, angle alone. All I’m saying is it’s one worthwhile avenue to explore.
WOT does not conform to any religious perspective other than its own, and while that’s part of its richness, it also makes for some interesting paradoxes. In investigating these paradoxes, I hope I don’t sound like I’m saying, “Aha! Gotcha, Jordan!” I’m not trying to out-clever the author. It’s just that there are elements that don’t quite add up to me and I’d like to discuss them with the amazingly knowledgeable tor.com crowd.
Samsara and Apocalypse
On the surface, the WOT seems an almost entirely western fantasy: Abrahamic views mixed with pre-Christian Celtic and Norse. A common starting place for fantasy world-building. The Creator, Shai’tan, messianic prophesy in near-Biblical verbiage, the polarity of light and dark, all point toward an Abrahamic view. Names such as Gawyn, Galad, Birgitte, Morgase and so on lend an obviously Arthurian and Celtic feel.
But there’s a second thread of influence in the WOT, a Taoist/Buddhist/Hindu perspective that flows through the entire story. It’s the intertwining of east and west that I find fascinating and frustrating at once. I will refer to these not-entirely compatible views as the Samsaric (eastern) and the Apocalyptic (western).
What I’m calling the Apocalyptic view is dualistic. It says there is a Creator and the world was created and can be destroyed. Good and evil are forces. Light and dark represent, or are the manifestations of, good and evil. There is creation and destruction; there is birth and death. Phenomena exist by virtue of being created and they can be destroyed.
Samsara is the word in Buddhism and Hinduism for the cycle of death and rebirth. Most schools of Buddhism hold that there is neither creation nor destruction in an absolute sense, but rather forces infinitely interacting, coming together and coming apart. Phenomena, including individual lives, “exist” by virtue of context rather than free-standing self-definition. “There are neither beginnings nor endings,” you could say.
This is the view of most forms of Buddhism and parallels some concepts in Taoism. Hinduism recognizes a cycle of death and rebirth but differs considerably from Buddhism in believing in the existence of the Atman, or absolute soul. Jordan’s view of reincarnation is more closely aligned with the Hindu view than the Buddhist in that a person has a soul, a self-nature that reincarnates. Rand and Lews Therin have the same soul, right?
The most obvious non-western symbol in the books is, of course, the Aes Sedai symbol, a variant on yin and yang. The Wheel of Time itself, as a symbol, falls mostly into the Samsaric side, resembling in no small way another big wheel, the dharmachakra, or Wheel of the Law, which, among other things, can represent the unending cycle of death and rebirth. And then there’s the kalachakra, which literally means the wheel of time. (I’m not well versed in Tibetan Buddhism, so I’ll leave that one to wikipedia.)
Jordan’s mantra-like beginning text is pretty thoroughly Samsaric. “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose…. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of time. But it was a beginning.”
Yet, there’s the Creator. There’s the Dark One. There’s the fact that balefire can, most assuredly, destroy something. There is creation. There is destruction. This leaves me to wonder, if there is definite creation and definite destruction, how then, does it follow that there are “neither beginnings nor endings”? Is this a contradiction, or is there something I’m not seeing? (Also see Leigh’s post here for more on the whole circular time confusion.)
Salvation and Rebirth
What is meant by the oft-repeated oath, “Under the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth”? What, in this sense, does salvation mean? Do salvation and rebirth go hand in hand, as if to say salvation is rebirth? If so, that hardly makes sense, as evil, destructive people are evidently reborn in the WOT. Also, as Leigh pointed out to me, “There are the ghosts that turn up in the later books! What’s up with ghosts in a rebirth context?” Good question.
If you were to look at this from an Abrahamic perspective, salvation would mean being in God’s good graces, pleasing to God and obedient to his will. And rebirth would refer to the afterlife in heaven, would it not? WOT gives no indication that I’ve seen of either paradise or peril after death. Or do I oversimplify?
“Salvation” isn’t a word you often hear in Buddhism. More often the term is moksha, translated as emancipation, generally meaning freedom from being ruled by delusion, liberation from endlessly repeating karma. There’s no discernable concept of karma in the WOT.
It doesn’t seem to me that salvation in the WOT fits neatly into either the Apocalyptic or Samsaric views. So what is salvation, in this context? From what does the Light save you?
Wheel and Will
What is meant by “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills”? Is this a statement of resignation to fate? Insha’Allah, so to speak? Or does it literally mean the Wheel itself has a will? If so, Jordan’s Wheel would differ significantly from the dharmachakra or the Tao. A god has will. A god has volition. Neither the Dharma nor the Tao have “will” per se, any more than gravity does.
Is the Wheel of Time a sentient or insentient force? (I confess that I sometimes get the Wheel and the Pattern confused. Anyone clue me in on a quick way to differentiate?). In The Dragon Reborn, (Chapter 21), Verin and Egwene discuss the Wheel of Time and its relationship to the Pattern, and Verin says the Wheel weaves lives to make a Pattern of Ages. That sounds rather deliberate to me.
And to add to my perplexion (that’s a word, innit? Let’s say it is) consider what Bair tells Egwene. “The pattern does not see jih’e’toh. Only what must and will be Only by surrendering to the Pattern will you begin to have some control over the course of your own life” (The Fires of Heaven, chapter 5). So, Bair’s view of the Pattern, here, is analogous to the Tao.
Jordan said of religion in his books, “This is a world where what might be called the proofs of religion are self-evident all the time. It seemed to me there was no necessity for the trappings of religion which by and large are to reinforce us in our faith and to convince others if your beliefs are made concrete and manifest around you at any given time there is not the need for that.” I assume by this statement that he saw no contradiction between the various philosophical facets of the WOT.
Jordan’s statement that religion isn’t much of a deal in the WOT because the truths are self-evident and beyond questioning doesn’t hold with me. First, doubt remains in the WOT and so does religion. Beliefs are not homogeneous in the books. There is plenty of moral ambiguity, mystery, uncertainty, questions of individual need versus societal need. Are these not the quandaries religion itself seeks to address? Second, even if freedom from teleological doubt existed in the WOT, the evidence manifested in daily life would not equal the absence of religion by any stretch of the imagination. Even if the metaphysical were as obvious and observable as the physical, the presence of incontrovertible information doesn’t, in and of itself, create wisdom. Doesn’t the need for religious interpretation remain?
Couldn’t ji’e’toh and the Way of the Leaf be considered religions, or at least divergent schools of the same religion? What of the Prophet of the Dragon and his followers? Or the Children of the Light? Don’t they all have “the trappings of religion”?
Lastly, in the section of The Dragon Reborn mentioned earlier, when Egwene mentions paradox, Verin says pretty emphatically that paradox and confusion are the tools of the Dark One. I find that a strange comment to make in a word where the proofs of religion are self-evident.
Tell Me What You Think
I would be happy to know what you think, even if you find me entirely off base. I’m perfectly willing to accept that possibility, but I’d like an explanation. I know that in the comments for Leigh’s posts, religion has come up a few times and some people get uncomfortable with the topic in general. But we’re a civil crowd and I see nothing wrong with religious dialogue, or sharing how your real-life religious views inform your reading. That’s what I’ve done here, after all. I think that as long as we stay well away from “my religion can beat up your religion” we can have a lively, respectful and enlightening discussion.
When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.