The Wheel of Time Reread

The Wheel of Time Re-read: A Crown of Swords, Part 17

Hey, kids. Welcome to another Wheel of Time Re-read post.

Today’s entry covers Chapters 28 and 29 of A Crown of Swords, in which A Thing happens, and we Talk About It.

(dun)

Previous re-read entries are here. The Wheel of Time Master Index is here, in which you can find links to news, reviews, and all manner of information regarding the newest release, The Gathering Storm, and for WOT-related stuff in general.

This re-read post contains spoilers for all currently published Wheel of Time novels, up to and including Book 12, The Gathering Storm. If you haven’t read, read at your own risk.

Also, please note: this post is going to be discussing a sensitive and controversial topic which tends to get people riled up and emotional. Given that, I ask that everyone exercise your usual respect and restraint in the comments. There are some subjects I will tolerate people being jerks about; this is not one of them.

So, having been duly warned, click on if you dare. Buckle your seatbelts, kids; it’s going to be a bumpy post.

Chapter 28: Bread and Cheese

 

What Happens
Mat knows he is in trouble from the moment he moves into the Tarasin Palace, but he wanted to know why the dice had stopped; it is not long before he regrets his curiosity. After Nynaeve and Elayne leave his rooms, Mat goes to tell his men the news that they are moving (after he recovers from his hangover). To his disgust, all the others are enthusiastic about the notion, even Vanin, who mutters about nobles but thinks it will be good to see “the Lady Elayne” again; Mat sourly reflects that Elayne had ruined a good man. Vanin asks if Mat wants him to keep watching Carridin, and Mat tells him he might as well. Mistress Anan is gone when Mat goes to settle the bill, but the cook, Enid, warns him darkly about “squeezing too many melons”, lest he find a rotten one; Mat has no idea what she’s talking about, but agrees so she won’t hit him with her spoon. When they all move in, Mat is momentarily distracted by how luxurious his rooms are, but soon goes back to worrying about why the dice had stopped.

Curiosity. He had heard a saying on several women’s lips back home, usually when he had done something that looked fun at the time. “Men teach cats curiosity, but cats keep sense for themselves.”

“I’m no bloody cat,” he muttered, stalking out of the bedchamber into the sitting room. He just had to know; that was all.

“Of course you’re not a cat,” Tylin said. “You’re a succulent little duckling, is what you are.”

Mat jumps, and sweeps her a bow and tries to leave, but she advances on him, pushes him down into a chair, and sits on his lap. Mat tries to fend her off without actually dumping her on the floor, but she just laughs and keeps kissing and groping him until Thom and Juilin knock on the door, whereupon she jumps up and steps away. Thom enters and, seeing Tylin, begins to make excuses to leave, but Mat hurriedly entreats them both to stay; he starts to stand until he realizes that Tylin had somehow undone his breeches. Tylin says she looks forward to having a ta’veren where she can “reach out and touch him at will”, and leaves. Thom is amused, commenting that Mat is lucky to be welcomed “with open arms” by the Queen herself, but then goes on to tell him that Elayne and Nynaeve are still not back. Mat curses that they are already going back on their agreement, and explains about the promises they had made to him; Juilin and Thom in turn explain to him about the Power-wrought disguises the girls have been using, which explains a great deal to Mat. After they leave, Mat goes to check on Olver, who is being fawned over by three serving women (Mat disgustedly notes there are no serving women fawning over him), and worries until Elayne and Nynaeve finally show up. He asks flatly where they’ve been, and they brightly tell him they were visiting with some friends of his former innkeeper’s. Mat thinks this is obviously a complete lie, and informs them that he has his men on a rotating schedule to guard them at all times, expecting them to bargain him down.

“Why, bodyguards are a wonderful idea, Mat,” Elayne exclaimed, her cheek dimpling in a smile. “I suppose you were right about that. It’s very smart of you to have your men already to a schedule.”

“It is a wonderful notion,” Nynaeve said, nodding enthusiastically, “Very smart of you, Mat.”

Thom dropped the knife with a muffled curse and sat sucking on a nicked finger, staring at the women.

Mat sighed. Trouble; he had known it.

They tell him to forget about the Rahad for now, which is how Mat ends up drinking horrible tea with Nalesean, Thom and Juilin in a cheap tavern across from a dilapidated house. Nalesean wants to know why they’re here again, and Mat informs him irritably that he, Mat, is “being ta’veren”. He reflects that Elayne and Nynaeve may have made it sound like they were asking, but he had been ordered here, and wonders aloud why he’s on this side of the river if the “pig-kissing” Bowl is in the Rahad. Thom is more interested in why the women asked so many questions about Setalle Anan, and what she and these women in the house have to do with the Bowl. Mat has noted that quite a lot of women go in and out of the house, some with the red belt of a Wise Woman; he’d considered following some of them, but decided it felt too planned.

He did not know how ta’veren worked—he had never really seen any sign of it in himself—but his luck was always best when everything was random. Like with dice. Most of those little iron tavern puzzles eluded him, however lucky he felt.

He tries going over the garden wall of the house, but nothing happens. At length they return to the palace, where Mat finds a note from Tylin saying that she expects her “little rabbit” for dinner in her apartments. Mat locks his door, and tosses and turns with an empty stomach all night; at one point someone rattles the lock, and laughs before leaving. The next morning, he goes to bribe a manservant into moving Olver’s bed into the outer room of his apartments, and grimaces at the man’s knowing smile, but reflects that at least Elayne and Nynaeve did not seem to know. They entreat him politely to be more gracious toward the Queen (Nynaeve choking down insults to do so), and meekly show him the disguises they intend to use to watch Carridin that day. They make no objection to Vanin coming along, either, and generally make Mat so nervous that he’s glad to see them go. Vanin had noted a white-haired old man watching Carridin’s palace the day before too, and Mat sends Thom and Juilin to find out what they can about him. He spends two more days in the horrible tavern watching the house; to his surprise, Birgitte accompanies them. Even more to his surprise, she is becoming a friend.

Normally, to him, women were to admire and smile at, to dance with and kiss if they would allow, to snuggle with if he was lucky. Deciding which women to chase was almost as much fun as chasing them, if not nearly so much as catching them. Some women were just friends, of course. A few. Egwene, for one, though he was not sure how that friendship would survive her becoming Amyrlin. Nynaeve was sort of a friend, in a way; if she could forget for one hour that she had switched his bottom more than once and remember he was not a boy anymore. But a woman friend was different from a man; you always knew her mind ran along other paths than yours, that she saw the world with different eyes.

[…] By the end of the second day on that bench, he realized he had sat all that time with his hip pressed against Birgitte’s and never once thought of trying to kiss her. He was sure she did not want to be kissed by him—frankly, considering the dog-ugly men she seemed to enjoy looking at, he might have been insulted if she had—and she was a hero out of legend whom he still half-expected to leap over a house and grab a couple of the Forsaken by the neck on the way. But that was not it: He would as soon have thought of kissing Nalesean. The same as the Tairen, just exactly the same as, he liked Birgitte.

Mat tries three times to follow one of the Wise Women at random, but nothing comes of it. Elayne and Nynaeve are not having any more luck with Carridin, and will not tell Mat who it is they are looking for; Mat is puzzled by one incident where Elayne snapped at him, and Aviendha whispered something to her, whereupon Elayne blushed and humbly begged his forgiveness, offering to do so on her knees.

“No need for that,” he said faintly, trying not to goggle. “You’re forgiven; it was nothing.” The oddest thing, though; Elayne looked at Aviendha the whole time she spoke to him and did not twitch an eyelid when he replied, but she heaved a great sigh of relief when Aviendha nodded. Women were just strange.

Matters in the palace are no better. Mat tries on the first night to go down to the kitchens for a meal instead of responding to Tylin’s note, but none of the kitchen staff allows him to get any food, and their knowing smiles drive him back to his rooms, where a second note is slipped under the door:

I have been told it is more sporting to take a pigeon on the wing, to watch it flutter, but sooner or later, a hungry bird will fly to the hand.

On the third night, he buys bread and cheese and olives on the way home and eats in his rooms; no one rattles the lock that night and there are no more notes, and Mat begins to think maybe things are looking up. He wakes the next morning with the dice rolling in his head.

Commentary
As usual, Mat cracks my shit up. Again, if you’re only reading the summaries you’re missing out on some great Mat snarkage. I’m just saying.

Also in that vein, I mostly skipped over the whole “Mat and Co. move their crap into the Palace” stuff in the summary, not because it wasn’t fun to read (it was) but because the details are really not all that important. However, I did want to single out this one bit:

One thing and another, it was a relief when Nerim and Lopin got into a shouting match over whose master’s baggage would be carried over first. Smoothing their feathers required a good half an hour from him and Nalesean both. A manservant with his dander ruffled could make your life miserable.

Mat can protest all he wants that (a) he hasn’t changed as much as the rest of the Emond’s Fielders, and (b) he hates nobles and would never be one, but, um, yeah.

“Pig-kissing”: By far and away my favorite fake obscenity in WOT. I burst out laughing the first time I read it. Pigs make everything funny!

Also, I can’t decide if we’re supposed to think Mat is being genuinely dense in his persistent failure to connect his luck with his ta’veren-hood, or if we are supposed to infer that it’s due to sheer bloody-minded stubbornness. Maybe both.

The Supergirls are kind of featured only in passing in this chapter, but they are hilarious every time they are mentioned. Thom cutting himself in shock at their complaisance about the bodyguards was especially chuckle-worthy. Evidently being attacked on the street can have a beneficial effect, in some ways. Who knew.

Birgitte: Her awesome continues to maintain its steady high since Swovan Night.

I was initially semi-inclined to be irritated at Mat’s shock and amazement that women can be good for something besides smoochies, but I think that might be overly-judgmental on my part. Cross-gender friendships (or “cross-sexual friendships”, maybe, so I’m not overly heteronormative about it) are kind of odd things, and whether they work or even occur seems to vary greatly from person to person. I know people who simply can’t have platonic relationships with people of the gender to which they are attracted, and I know other people who find it difficult to make friends with anyone BUT people of the opposite sex-or-whatever. So there’s that.

That said, it does play a lot into the default so-called wisdom in modern Western society, which is that straight men are inherently always at least a little uncomfortable in the company of any other group besides themselves, and therefore that they can only develop true friendships with other straight men.

I am not a straight man, nor do I play one on TV, so take it for what it’s worth, but I tend to feel that this is more a culturally-reinforced self-fulfilling prophecy than a genuine measure of a rational adult’s capability to make friends with whomever he damn well chooses. When Harry Met Sally was a brilliantly funny movie, but I’ve been amazed (and relieved) at how often my adult life has provided examples of how wrong its central premise was.

Or hey, maybe I’m kidding myself. I’d be sad to think it, if so.

Tylin: At the tone, please turn to the following commentary.

Ding!

Chapter 29: The Festival of Birds

What Happens
Mat considers going back to bed until the dice go away, but gets up and gets Olver ready to go out for the festival, and walks out into the sitting room to find Tylin sitting there, with the door unlocked and open. Mat tries to get out of the room using Olver as a shield, but Tylin calls in a maid named Riselle (who has “ the most spectacular bosom [Mat] had ever seen”) to take Olver out, which Olver accepts ecstatically. He and Riselle leave. Tylin pulls out Mat’s key and another just like it, and comments that no one ever thinks that there might be more than one set of keys for a door, before locking it from the inside.

“Now, lambkin.” She smiled.

It was too much. The woman hounded him, tried to starve him; now she locked them in together like . . . like he did not know what. Lambkin! Those bloody dice were bouncing around in his skull. Besides, he had important business to see to. The dice had never had anything to do with finding something, but . . . He reached her in two long strides, seized her arm, and began fumbling in her belt for the keys. “I don’t have bloody time for—” His breath froze as the sharp point of her dagger beneath his chin shut his mouth and drove him right up onto his toes.

“Remove your hand,” she said coldly. He managed to look down his nose at her face. She was not smiling now. He let go of her arm carefully. She did not lessen the pressure of her blade, though. She shook her head. “Tsk, tsk. I do try to make allowances for you being an outlander, gosling, but since you wish to play roughly . . . Hands at your sides. Move.” The knifepoint gave a direction. He shuffled backward on tiptoe rather than have his neck sliced.

He asks what she intends to do, debating whether or not he’s quick enough to disarm her before she can kill him, but she doesn’t answer, backing him up until he bumps up against something, which he then realizes is the bed.

Why would she bring him . . . ? His face was suddenly as crimson as the bedpost. No. She could not mean to . . . It was not decent! It was not possible!

“You can’t do this to me,” he mumbled at her, and if his voice was a touch breathy and shrill, he surely had cause.

“Watch and learn, my kitten,” Tylin said, and drew her marriage knife.

Much later, Mat smokes in bed, frowning, and Tylin tells him not to pout, and asks what the matter is. She says she knows he enjoyed himself as much as she did, and comments that if that is part of being ta’veren, Mat must be “very popular”. Mat bursts out that it’s unnatural; he’s the one who does the chasing. Tylin is astonished, than laughs and tells him that he is in Ebou Dar now. She says she’s left a present for him in the sitting room and chides him to eat well as he will “need his strength”, and leaves. Mat gets up and hides the sliced up remains of his coat in the wardrobe (half-expecting to find Tylin hiding inside), and goes out to find that she has left him an eagle mask, a purse of coins, and a note addressed to “Piglet”, instructing him to get his ear pierced so she can buy him an earring.

He nearly wept again. He gave women presents. The world was standing on its head! Piglet? Oh, Light! After a minute, he did take the mask; she owed him that much, for his coat alone.

He goes out to the courtyard to join Nalesean and Birgitte, the latter clad in a rather scandalously revealing dress. When he comments, Birgitte grins and tells him that sometimes “it’s nice to be looked at”. Then they are interrupted by Beslan and five of his friends, to Mat’s extreme displeasure, but he concludes that Beslan must not know what had happened, as otherwise he would be trying to kill Mat already. Nalesean and Mat try to convince Beslan of how deadly boring it would be to accompany them, until Beslan starts to get angry, at which point they give up and head out, Beslan and his cronies eyeing Birgitte appreciatively. As they walk, Mat asks Birgitte what’s with all the “twisting around” when Beslan et al looked at her; she answers that just because they’re all “too pretty” doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy that they look.

“Oh, you’ll want to look at her,” she added, pointing to a slender woman who went running by in a blue owl mask and rather fewer feathers than Riselle had worn.

That was one of the things about Birgitte; she would nudge him in the ribs and point out a pretty girl for his eye as readily as any man he had ever known, and expect him to point out in turn what she liked to see, which was generally the ugliest man in sight. Whether or not she chose to go half-naked today—a quarter, anyway—she was . . . well, a friend. A strange world, it was turning out to be. One woman he was beginning to think of as a drinking companion, and another after him as intently as he had ever pursued any pretty woman, in those old memories or his own. More intently; he had never chased any woman who let him know she did not want to be chased. A very strange world.

The festival is in full outrageous swing, and they walk through the streets people-watching and occasionally tossing coins to beggars, until Beslan stops Nalesean from giving to one particular beggar because he has no brass ring on his finger, meaning he’s not “in the guild”. The fake beggar then goes for Mat’s throat; Mat flings him into the crowd and sees Birgitte stab another beggar trying to take Mat from behind; he throws a knife into the throat of a third behind her. It quickly turns into a full-scale melee, and Mat ends up back-to-back with Birgitte, facing two cutthroats. One of them growls “Old Cully won’t like this, Spar,” and they attack, but Mat is suddenly rescued by a second set of beggars attacking the first group. Beslan advises Mat to let “the Fellowship of Alms” take care of their own business from here, and they head to the horrible tavern across from the Wise Women’s house again, where Mat and Birgitte share a silent toast of thanks. At length Beslan’s cronies get bored and leave, but Beslan sticks around, and when Nalesean and Birgitte head off on separate errands, leans over and tells Mat that he thinks Mat will be good for his mother. Mat does a spit-take, and asks hoarsely what Beslan is talking about.

“Why, her choosing you for her pretty, of course. Why is your face so red? Are you angry? Why—?” Suddenly he slapped his forehead and laughed. “You think I will be angry. Forgive me, I forget you’re an outlander. Mat, she’s my mother, not my wife. Father died ten years ago, and she has always claimed to be too busy. I am just glad she chose someone I like. Where are you going?”

He did not realize he was on his feet until Beslan spoke. “I just . . . need to clear my head.”

“But you’re drinking tea, Mat.”

Mat absently notices a woman leaving the house and falls in behind her, still dazed. Nalesean shouts after him to ask where he’s going, and Mat calls back to tell “them” that if he’s not back by tomorrow, they’ll have to find it themselves.

From a window, Reanne watches Solain head off and notes without concern that a fellow in a bronze coat is following her.

Reanne was not sure why the urge had grown so strong today. For days it had come on almost with the morning and faded with the sun, and for days she had fought—by the strict rules they did not quite dare call laws, that order was given at the half moon, still six nights off—but today . . . She had spoken the order before she thought and been unable to make herself retract until the proper time.

She reassures herself that it will be fine; there had been no sign of those “two young fools” Elayne and Nynaeve, and their secrets would be kept safe without resorting to extreme measures. She turns back to twelve other Elders and suggests they consider moving everyone not wearing the belt to “the farm” for a while, even so. She knows they will listen to her because she is the Eldest.

In that, at least, there was no harm in behaving as Aes Sedai did.

Commentary
*stares at blinking cursor on the screen*

*writes “So,”*

*deletes it*

*goes away and gets some tea*

*drinks tea*

*stares at cursor some more*

*goes away and gets some vodka*

*stares at cursor some more*

Crap. Okay, I’m just going to write this and hope it comes out even halfway coherent.

As I’ve said before, I didn’t enter WOT fandom (or, indeed, any kind of fandom) until after I plowed through the seven WOT books available at the time, and realized after finishing ACOS that the eighth one wasn’t coming out for frickin’ months. Which led me to stumble my newbie way into Usenet and the rec.arts Robert Jordan group. I’ve told you all this before.

What I may not have mentioned is the amount of culture shock I experienced as a result of the timing of my entrance into fandom, and one of the major factors in that shock is because of this chapter.

Because here’s my big confession, or admission, or whatever: when I first read ACOS, I thought the Tylin thing was hilarious.

I laughed, I giggled, I thought it was great. Though I was somewhat indignant on Mat’s behalf, seeing that he was at the time my absolute favorite character in the series, in general I reacted exactly the way most of the other characters in the narrative did when they found out, which was that I found it all a very karmically amusing turn of the tables on Mr. Ladies’ Man Mat Cauthon. Which is, I am virtually certain, precisely the way Robert Jordan intended this whole thing to play.

So imagine my astonishment when I subsequently bumbled my way onto Usenet and found the still-flaring remnants of a massive flamewar over whether Tylin had raped Mat.

I was astounded, you guys. The notion had literally never occurred to me.

I wasn’t just astounded, either, I was angry. I mean, what? That was clearly ridiculous! Men can’t be raped by women! And even if they can, the author never even remotely intended to suggest such a thing, you can tell! How dare these mean killjoy Internet people tell me I just laughed at something horrible? Why are you telling me I’m a terrible person? Why are you telling me Robert Jordan is a terrible person? This Cannot Be!

This just goes to show, slamming headfirst into a wall you didn’t even realize was there until you hit it is only slightly more fun to experience intellectually than it is physically, especially the first time it happens. Which is what this was, for me. And by all evidence (i.e. the intensity of the flameage), it was the first time for a bunch of other people as well. It is a truism that while most people are more than willing to believe (and point out, vigorously) that others suffer from culturally induced blindness/privilege/prejudices, no one takes well to the idea that “others” includes, well, you.

I am in no way an exception to this rule. To say that flamewar was an eye-opening experience would be a vast understatement. (For more reasons than just the topic under discussion, too, but that’s a different subject.)

Even so, I resisted the notion that Tylin raped Mat for a very long time. Even in the face of all the evidence presented, the fact that I was sure that this was in no way Jordan’s purpose when he wrote it prevented me from conceding. Because I am a fan, and no fan likes to see the subject of their fandom proven wrong, or lacking, or something. Because as a fan, if I accept the premise that Tylin raped Mat, I have to feel guilty not only on my own behalf, but on that of the author, for failing to realize the distinctly Not Funny implications of a scene intended to be funny.

And that… that sucks.

But here are the facts of the matter: Men can be raped, and they can be (and have been) raped by women. It’s rare, but that does not mean it doesn’t happen, and that does not mean it isn’t a violation. Sexual arousal or even orgasm does not equal consent, for either men or women. “No” means “No”, whether you are a man or a woman.

I will not Google these facts for you, nor will I debate their veracity. Either you’ve gotten beyond this wall already, like I had to, or you haven’t, in which case you’re not ready to accept it anyway, so I might as well save my breath. Or fingers, as the case may be.

So given these facts, and the fact that Tylin forced Mat into bed literally at knifepoint, after he made it more than abundantly obvious that he was not interested in having sex with her, well, it becomes pretty clear. If you do my standard gender-swapping exercise of the scene and replay it, it becomes damn clear.

And the fact that we are going by the modern definition of rape (which, logically, the characters of WOT would not be) unfortunately doesn’t really mitigate anything in my mind. That Tylin did not consider it rape is irrelevant. The fact that Mat doesn’t really consider it in those terms is also not relevant, because it is the 20th/21st century author’s intent that is the problem here. In fact the whole thing would have gotten a pass from me if I could make myself believe that Jordan was making another of his gender-flipped points about this much darker aspect of male-female relations by having a female character rape a male character, and have how all the characters involved write it off be part of that point.

The problem is, I don’t believe that is what happened here. I think Jordan was making a gender-flipped point with the Mat/Tylin thing, yes, but it was, frankly, the wrong one. The jocular, wink-wink-nudge-nudge way the situation is written, here and onwards, leads me to reluctantly conclude that the distinctly unpleasant implications of Tylin’s behavior was something that, for whatever reason, Jordan missed entirely.

But here’s the thing: this does not make Robert Jordan a terrible person and/or author, any more than not initially seeing my own cultural blind spots (and I know I’ve got more out there, lurking) makes me a terrible person. Nor, in my opinion, does the revelation that Jordan’s writing is not in fact perfect in every way negate the value of his work as a whole. If you want absolute perfection in a series, or an author, or anything in this world, well, you’re going to be waiting a while, is all I’m saying. The trick is not to condemn on the basis of non-perfection, but to weigh the good against the bad, and see which one tips the scale.

And I should hope that it is obvious which side of the scale has my personal vote. Others may disagree, and that is perfectly okay. (Though I kind of doubt anyone who does disagree – i.e. thinks the bad outweighs the good in WOT – would actually be reading this, so.)

And you know, even the bad has its value – sometimes more than the good, even. Having this particular wall knocked down in my brain was not exactly fun, but I cannot regret the lessons I learned from having it happen, and I think it made me a better person in the long run – or at least a more thoughtful person. Certainly a much more aware person. As someone once said, all knowledge is worth having. And with that I (and you) shall have to be satisfied on this score.


Okay, there is probably much more I’m not thinking of, but I am Done, and hitting post, because wow. Anything I missed will be covered in the comments, I’m sure, and I’ll probably have to revisit the general topic in the future anyway.

Again I reiterate: Play nice. Debate and argue to your heart’s content, but do it with respect and courtesy. I know I can count on you guys in this respect.

Bye, y’all! See you next week!

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