Welcome back to the Wheel of Time Roundtable! In this weekly mini-series from Tor.com, we’re asking a panel of Wheel of Time experts a number of questions that look at the upcoming final volume in this long-running fantasy series: A Memory of Light.
The questions will range from the specific, to the silly, to the broad, eventually encompassing the Wheel of Time’s legacy itself.
Now we look at the series as a unified whole. In the end, what is The Wheel of Time about?
This week’s question was:
Now that this vast series is one volume away from completion, do you see any dominant themes emerging from The Wheel of Time? A decade from now, what would you say to a new reader who asks you what The Wheel of Time is about?
Leigh Butler: Well, I’m not sure what to make of the phrasing “emerging themes” in the Wheel of Time, because WOT was fraught with thematic portent from the beginning. If anything, the opposite concern should apply: that the themes that dominated the beginning of the series may get lost toward the end in the need to simply finish the story coherently.
But, either way, WOT contains multiple thematic elements, any one of which you could use to describe it to a potential new reader. The most obvious one, of course, is WOT’s own particular twist on the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, which is a theme that is never going to get old no matter how many times it’s used.
Probably my favorite theme of WOT, though, is that of story decay: the way the truth of stories, whether they be ancient legends or idle gossip, inevitably warps and distorts and becomes something different — not just through the passage of time but simply by being told. As in quantum physics, where the very act of observing something changes the thing you’re observing, stories are changed by the act of telling them. Ironically, it rings very true to me, the idea that nothing you hear is actually completely true — that it by definition cannot be completely true. That every new storyteller, every altered phrase, every slight embellishment, every accidentally dropped detail, shifts the truth of the story a little further off the rails until the person it actually happened to would barely recognize the story as her own, or not recognize it at all.
And this is to say nothing of the hysterical exaggerations and personal biases and opposing agendas and outright lies in play, elements which are very much front and center in WOT, and tie into a related secondary theme to story decay, which I’ve usually thought of as the malignancy of misinformation. For want of a nail, and so on. Most times that poem is interpreted as being about the butterfly effect, which it is, but to me it’s also about how information — or the lack of it — is everything in war, and this is certainly something WOT comes back to again and again — that idea, in fact, is the point of the existence of the entirety of Lord of Chaos, just for example.
The theme of the Hero’s Journey informs the plot of WOT, but I would argue that the theme of story decay is what defines the world of WOT. The central concept — that time is a wheel, that old stories warp and fade until they are replaced by new slightly different versions of themselves, over and over in an endless cycle — is what keeps the idea of story decay from being a depressing notion, and instead makes it part of a, well, a cycle — a natural and self-renewing process. It’s the Circle of Life, baby!
Jennifer Liang: I think the greatest theme of the series is duality. There’s the battle between good and evil, for example, as well as the battle between genders. As Linda Taglieri frequently points out on her excellent blog, many of the characters have a “Shadow” counterpart and several have one of the opposite gender as well. Nynaeve, the healer, has Semirhage the healer gone wrong. Additionally, Damer Flinn is able to Heal stilling the way she was able to Heal gentling. Rand had Moridin as his counterpart in the Shadow, as well as Egwene, the leader of the Aes Sedai. Even the two White Towers mirror each other, with both Egwene and Elaida having Keepers sworn to the Shadow.
Aside from duality, the other major theme vying for our attention is the malleability of what we consider “facts.” Rumor and assumption fuel character actions equally with cold hard facts. A good portion of the current conflict between Egwene and Rand stems from her assuming that she understands him and his motivations and being completely wrong. Faile and Perrin have months of marital strife, because both of them assume they know what the other party wants in a partner and acts accordingly.
Jordan spoke on this briefly when he was the Author Guest of Honor at Dragon*Con in 2005.
“Whatever you think you know, some of it is almost certainly wrong.” But you still have to act, regardless, otherwise you spend a lifetime sitting still. For me, this is one of the things Jordan did particularly well with his characters. I can’t recall any other author so willing to make his heroes so grossly misinformed on so many things, but yet in such intelligent and reasonable ways. Egwene is wrong about Rand, not because she’s an idiot who thinks she’s better than everyone else (as opposed to Elaida) but because she’s an intelligent, yet inexperienced young woman thrust into a position that no one can ever be really prepared for. And so she assumes things based on what she knows. She knows Rand as the immature boy she planned to marry one day, and she knows, deep in her bones, that saidin is dangerous and that Rand has been forever changed by its use. It’s not a recipe for those two hugging and sharing a moment, is what I’m saying.
Matt Hatch: I’ve always enjoyed the metaphysical side of the Wheel of Time (surprise), so those kinds of concepts and discussions are the ones that dominate my thematic views of the series as a whole. Jordan’s use of reincarnation, genetic predispositions, unique talents, the Wheel and the Pattern, predictive mechanisms such as Mirror Worlds, Pattern twisting influences such as ta’veren and the destructive influence of the Dark One challenges readers to contemplate the role of fate, free will, nature and nurture in shaping decisions and the future. Into this mix Jordan throws Tel’aran’rhiod, which accentuates this very theme; taking into account every other influence, how much does that space, between the waking world and the dream world, affect them all? What role do dreams play in shaping reality? Thanks to Jordan’s highly structured world, in-depth and meaningful discussions can and will be had well into the foreseeable future.
Oh, and I’d say it’s about the importance of long braids, hot baths, gossip and dicing to the sanity of the human race.
Jason Denzel: The Wheel of Time isn’t about the Dragon Reborn. It isn’t about Rand and his Two Rivers friends. It’s about the struggle of humanity in a time of crisis. It’s about the people who refuse to kneel to the onslaught of darkness. From the farmer who converts his hoe into a polearm, to the ship captain who opens his mind to new ideas, to the society of people who learn the hard hypocritical truth of their culture, to the young Amyrlin who refuses to deny her station no matter how times they beat her... This is the story of the End of the Third Age.
The Creator and the Dark One might play an eternal game throughout the Ages, and the Dragon and Nae’Blis might be key players in that. But at the end of the day, this is the story of a world. Not a person.
Another recurring theme that is becoming more and more apparent to me is that of acceptance. Accepting the fact that times change. That what you need in life isn’t always what you want in life. Rand epitomizes this from the early books and again from atop Dragonmount. Nynaeve overcomes her block by letting go and accepting. Perrin as King. Mat with the Daughter of the Nine Moons. Lan with the flag of Malkier. Acceptance, acceptance.
You cannot prevent the chaos of the Pattern, but you can adapt and face it on your feet.
We’ll close on that note this week. This marks the end of the bulk of the Wheel of Time A Memory of Light Roundtable, but check back next Wednesday as we have one final holiday roundtable surprise for you...
Jennifer Liang work with Dragonmount, is the chair for JordanCon, and the director of Wheel of Time content at DragonCon. She also hosts the Wheel of Time Tor.com Facebook and Twitter portals, both of which aggregate Wheel of Time content across the web.