Happy honorary October 25th, O my peeps! Welcome to a not-at-all obscure Wheel of Time Re-read!
Today’s entry covers Part II of the Prologue of Towers of Midnight, in which I contemplate faith, brotherhood, and why sometimes both of those things kind of suck.
Previous re-read entries are here. The Wheel of Time Master Index is here, which has links to news, reviews, interviews, and all manner of information about the Wheel of Time in general, including the upcoming final volume, A Memory of Light.
This re-read post contains spoilers for all currently published Wheel of Time novels. If you haven’t read, read at your own risk.
And now, the post!
Prologue: Distinctions [Part II]
Galad Damodred leads seven thousand weary and dispirited Children through a miserable swamp near the border of Ghealdan and Altara, and tries to look unaffected by the terrible conditions for his men’s sake. Dain Bornhald joins him and suggests that perhaps they should turn back, but Galad tells him they must continue forward.
“I have thought about this much, Child Bornhald. This sky, the wasting of the land, the way the dead walk… There is no longer time to find allies and fight against the Seanchan. We must march to the Last Battle.”
Bornhald is uneasy about the swamp, which the map had not shown, and Galad thinks that all their maps have become unreliable. He tells Bornhald to gather the Children up so that he may speak to them. He tells the assembled men that these are “the darkest days of men,” but that the light always shines the brightest in the dark, and they are that light. He says their afflictions are their strength, and that he is proud to be in this swamp.
“Proud to live in these days, proud to be part of what is to come. All the lives that came before us in this Age looked forward to our day, the day when men will be tested. Let others bemoan their fate. Let others cry and wail. We will not, for we will face this test with heads held high. And we will let it prove us strong!”
The men’s flagging morale improves in the wake of Galad’s speech. Galad meets with Byar, who fervently praises Galad’s speech, and opines that their numbers will grow, perhaps enough to cast down the witches. Galad tells him that they will need the Aes Sedai to face the Shadow, and Byar reluctantly agrees. Galad then goes to the van, where his scout leader, Child Bartlett, shows him that their path ahead is blocked by a shallow river which had not been there before, cutting through a dead forest and choked with corpses floating downstream from somewhere. Galad insists on going first to ford it; the army crosses the fouled river without incident, but is exhausted by the effort. Galad tells Trom he plans to take them to Andor, to where he has personal lands; he prays that Elayne has gained the throne by now, and not fallen prey to either the Aes Sedai or al’Thor. Trom confesses he was worried Galad would refuse leadership, but Galad replies he had no choice in the matter; it would have been wrong to abandon the Children.
“The Last Battle comes and the Children of the Light will fight. Even if we have to make alliances with the Dragon Reborn himself, we will fight.”
For some time, Galad hadn’t been certain about al’Thor. Certainly the Dragon Reborn would have to fight at the Last Battle. But was that man al’Thor, or was he a puppet of the Tower, and not the true Dragon Reborn? That sky was too dark, the land too broken. Al’Thor must be the Dragon Reborn. That didn’t mean, of course, that he wasn’t also a puppet of the Aes Sedai.
Bartlett reports that the land dries up to the north, and Galad has the company push ahead eagerly, but when he clears the trees, a force of some ten thousand Children and Amadicians provided by the Seanchan crest the rise opposite, led by Asunawa, and Galad realizes Bartlett has led him into a trap. Byar goes to kill Bartlett, but Galad stops him. He orders Trom to have the men form up in ranks, and takes Byar and Bornhald to parley with Asunawa, who brings far more men with him, including five Lords Captain. Asunawa orders Galad to have his men stand down or his will open fire; Galad asks if he will abandon the rules of engagement and honor. Asunawa snaps back that Darkfriends deserve no honor. Galad asks if he really means to accuse all seven thousand Children behind him of being Darkfriends; Asunawa hesitates, and allows that perhaps they are merely misguided, being led by a Darkfriend. Galad refutes the accusation, and orders him to stand down; Asunawa laughs and counters that it is Galad who must surrender.
“Golever,” Galad said, looking at the Lord Captain at Asunawa’s left. Golever was a lanky, bearded man, as hard as they came—but he was also fair. “Tell me, do the Children of the Light surrender?”
Golever shook his head. “We do not. The Light will prove us victorious.”
“And if we face superior odds?” Galad asked.
“We fight on.”
“If we are tired and sore?”
“The Light will protect us,” Golever said. “And if it is our time to die, then so be it. Let us take as many enemies with us as we may.”
Galad turned back to Asunawa. “You see that I am in a predicament. To fight is to let you name us Darkfriends, but to surrender is to deny our oaths. By my honor as the Lord Captain Commander, I can accept neither option.”
Asunawa says Galad is not the Lord Captain Commander, and that he drew on “the Powers of the Shadow” to win his duel with Valda. Galad turns to another Captain with Asunawa, Harnesh, and asks if the Shadow is stronger than the Light. Harnesh replies, of course not.
“If the Lord Captain Commander’s cause had been honorable, would he have fallen to me in a battle under the Light? If I were a Darkfriend, could I have slain the Lord Captain Commander himself?”
Harnesh doesn’t answer, but Asunawa counters that sometimes good men die. Galad says he had every right to challenge Valda for what he did, and Asunawa spits that Darkfriends have no rights. Galad asks what happens if Child fights Child, and suggests that they can reunite. Asunawa rejects this, but hesitates, knowing that even though he would win, the cost of a full-scale battle would be devastating for both sides. Galad tells him he will submit to him, as long as he swears that Asunawa will not harm, question or condemn any of his men, including Byar and Bornhald.
“The Last Battle comes, Asunawa. We haven’t time for squabbling. The Dragon Reborn walks the land.”
“Heresy!” Asunawa said.
“Yes,” Galad said. “And truth as well.”
Bornhald softly begs Galad not to do this, but Galad replies that every Child who dies at another Child’s hand is a blow for the Shadow, and they are “the only true foundation that this world has left”. If his life will buy unity, then so be it. Asunawa is aggravated, but accepts. Galad orders Bornhald to make sure the men stand down and do not try to rescue him. Then the Questioners haul Galad out of his saddle and throw him down roughly, using knives to strip him of his armor and uniform.
“You will not wear the uniform of a Child of the Light, Darkfriend,” a Questioner said in his ear.
“I am not a Darkfriend,” Galad said, face pressed to the grassy earth. “I will never speak that lie. I walk in the Light.”
That earned him a kick to the side, then another, and another. He curled up, grunting. But the blows continued to fall.
Finally, the darkness took him.
The creature that had been Padan Fain/Mordeth walks north into the Blight, away from the corpse of the Worm he had just killed, a familiar mist trailing him. He is cutting himself on the ruby dagger, scattering his blood on the ground, and enjoying the black storm in the sky even though he hated the one who had made it.
Al’Thor would die. By his hand. And perhaps after that, the Dark One. Wonderful…
He thinks he is mad, and that it had set him free. He comes to where a group of Trollocs and a Myrddraal were hiding from the Worm. The Trollocs attack, but the Fade holds back, sensing something is wrong. Fain/Mordeth smiles, and the mist strikes.
The Trollocs screamed, dropping, spasming. Their hair fell out in patches, and their skin began to boil. Blisters and cysts. When those popped, they left craterlike pocks in the Shadowspawn skin, like bubbles on the surface of metal that cooled too quickly.
The creature that had been Padan Fain opened his mouth in glee, closing his eyes to the tumultuous black sky and raising his face, lips parted, enjoying his feast.
He walks on, and the corrupted Trollocs get up and follow him sluggishly, though he knows that when he wants them to they will fight with berserk fury. The Fade does not rise, for his touch is now instant death to its kind. He thinks it is sad that his hunt for al’Thor is over, but that there is no point in continuing a hunt when you know exactly where your prey is going to be.
You merely showed up to meet it.
Like an old friend. A dear, beloved old friend that you were going to stab through the eye, open up at the gut and consume by handfuls while drinking his blood. That was the proper way to treat friends.
It was an honor.
On the border of the Blight in Kandori, Malenarin Rai, the commander of Heeth Tower, goes through supply reports. He finds a reminder from his steward that his son Keemlin’s fourteenth name day is three days hence, and smiles in anticipation of giving his son his first sword and declaring him a man. He goes on his daily rounds, reflecting proudly on the superb defenses of the tower, and meets Jargen, a sergeant of the watch. Jergen reports that there was a single flash from Rena Tower to the Northwest, but no correction for it. Malenarin goes up to the top of the tower with Jargen and waits, but no further message arrives. Malenarin orders a message flashed to Rena inquiring, and another to Farmay Tower to check in, even though Jargen indicates they’ve done that already.
Wind blew across the tower top, creaking the steel of the mirror apparatus as his men sent another series of flashes. That wind was humid. Far too hot. Malenarin glanced upward, toward where that same black storm boiled and rolled. It seemed to have settled down.
That struck him as very discomforting.
He orders a message sent to the inland towers as well, advising them to be ready. He asks who is next on the messenger roster, and Jargen tells him it is his son Keemlin. He tells Jargen that they must send several messengers south, in case the towers are not receiving. He writes the message (“Rena and Farmay not responding to flash messages. Possibly overrun or severely hampered. Be advised. Heeth will stand”). He allows himself to feel relieved that Keemlin will be riding to safety, in case the worst has happened. He watches the storm again, noting the strange shapes of the clouds, and suddenly realizes the leading edge of the cloud is advancing. He orders the tower garrison to prepare for a siege, and turns to find Keemlin behind him. He demands to know why Keemlin is still there, and Keemlin tells him he sent Tian in his place. Keemlin adds that Tian’s mother has already lost four sons to the Blight, and he figured if any of them should have a shot at getting out, it should be Tian. Malenarin gazes at his son, and then sends a soldier to get the sword in the trunk in his office. Keemlin says his nameday isn’t for three days, but Malenarin tells him that the weapon is offered to a boy when he becomes a man, and he sees a man before him. All the soldiers stop to watch.
As Borderlanders, each and every one of them would have been given his sword on his fourteenth nameday. Each one had felt the catch in the chest, the wonderful feeling of coming of age. It had happened to each of them, but that did not make this occasion any less special.
Keemlin went down on one knee.
“Why do you draw your sword?” Malenarin asked, voice loud so that every man atop the tower would hear.
“In defense of my honor, my family, or my homeland,” Keemlin replied.
“How long do you fight?”
“Until my last breath joins the northern winds.”
“When do you stop watching?”
“Never,” Keemlin whispered.
“Speak it louder!”
“Once this sword is drawn, you become a warrior, always with it near you in preparation to fight the Shadow. Will you draw this blade and join us, as a man?”
Keemlin looked up, then took the hilt in a firm grip and pulled the weapon free.
“Rise as a man, my son!” Malenarin declared.
Keemlin stood, holding the weapon aloft, the bright blade reflecting the diffuse sunlight. The men atop the tower cheered.
Malenarin blinks away tears, and knows the men cheer not just for his son, but in defiance of the Shadow. Then one of the archers spots Draghkar in the clouds, and the unnatural clouds are close enough to reveal the massive horde of Trollocs advancing beneath them. Jargen suggests Keemlin should be below, but Malenarin replies that Keemlin is a man now, and stays. Malenarin watches the Trollocs approach, and knows that the tower will not be able to withstand them for long.
But every man atop that tower knew his duty. They’d kill Shadowspawn as long as they could, hoping to buy enough time for the messages to do some good.
Malenarin was a man of the Borderlands, same as his father, same as his son beside him. They knew their task. You held until you were relieved.
That’s all there was to it.
I ain’t gonna lie: the end of the Prologue got me choked up just now.
The nameday ceremony scene might not quite have been on the level of St. Crispin’s Day (which I acknowledge is a wholly unfair comparison to make, because hello, Shakespeare; also, sorry, but Richard Burton’s version of that speech so beats Olivier’s), but the emotions it evokes are much the same, for much the same reasons, and I seem to recall that following ToM’s release, quite a few people picked this scene out as being one of the most moving parts of the novel – for some, of the entire series. I would not go quite so far as the latter group, but I wholeheartedly agree with the former.
The thing is, though, that I don’t think I responded to this scene nearly as strongly when I first read it, over a year and a half ago now, as I did when I re-read it just now. The reasons why are interesting (well, I think they are, anyway), and have to do with factors completely separate from the Wheel of Time or anything associated with it.
For reasons which are many, I’ve been on something of a military fiction kick lately. Mind you, I’m not talking about the overblown, improbable,
Michael Bay handjob bang-bang-shoot-‘em-up co-opting which is Hollywood and pulp fiction’s usual approach to the military and which, in my opinion, often accomplishes the remarkably paradoxical feat of diminishing the armed forces by attributing to them unrealistically superhuman capabilities and purity of purpose – when it’s not turning around and demonizing them in the next breath, of course. I’m not talking about that; I’m talking about the stuff out there that makes a genuine attempt to portray the military, and particularly the people who comprise that body, in a way that is as true to life as can reasonably be expected, with all their believable amounts of heroism and honor and all their just as believable lack thereof.
(In that vein, I must give my obligatory plug for the tragically undersold and overlooked HBO miniseries Generation Kill, which is one of the few mainstream portrayals of the Iraq War yet produced that remotely does it justice, in my opinion, and additionally happens to be one of the best written, directed, and acted pieces of television I’ve ever seen. It’s not easy to watch, but it is so, so worth it.)
Anyway, my point in bringing this up is that no even remotely honest portrayal of any military body can fail to address the subject of the St. Crispin’s Day speech, which can be summed up in its most famous passage:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.
So I have by default been rather immersed lately in the various fictional contemplations of this bond between soldiers, between those who fight and bleed and sometimes die together for a common cause, which has been pondered and expounded upon and romanticized (and sometimes over-romanticized) throughout history, and again right here in the Prologue for ToM. And for me personally, one of the things I find so fascinating and simultaneously so aggravating about it is how thoroughly it seems to exclude me. By virtue of my status as a civilian, of course, but even more completely in that I am female.
And “aggravating” isn’t even really the correct word, I think; it’s more almost a… a wistful feeling, that I am denied even the possibility of entrance to this so-honored group, by the very language it is couched in. It’s a band of brothers; there are no girls allowed. The scene where Keemlin receives his sword is, in fact, very specific in how it emphasizes that this is a ceremony for Borderlander men; it is, literally, how they become men in their culture, and (by all appearances) how they define themselves and their relationship to each other by that common bond, and there is nothing of women in it at all. And even today’s (U.S.) military still draws that distinction, by dictating that women who serve are not allowed in combat – which essentially denies them the most fundamentally honored aspect of serving in the military in the first place.
I’m not interested, at the moment, in debating whether or not that is a good thing; my point is, it’s a thing. It exists, this exclusion, is what I’m saying, and I am therefore unable to avoid acknowledging it.
So I feel the power of that brotherhood, and am moved by it, at the same time that I am saddened by the fact that I am not allowed to even vicariously imagine myself a part of it. And far more, I think, now that I have been made so much more aware of this dichotomy than I was previously. And I honestly can’t be sure which aspect of that affected me more, reading this scene.
Because I’m not a warrior, and I don’t want to be a warrior… but it would have been nice if I’d been allowed to even have the option of wanting it.
Fain: is icky. And cray-cray. And can apparently create zombie Trollocs with his travel-size Mashadar kit, because Trollocs totally needed to be grosser than they already were. And is on his way to
Mount Doom Shayol Ghul to ambush Rand. Huzzah.
Galad: I swear, both of Elayne’s brothers have an almost supernatural ability to make me root for them and yet simultaneously make me want to smack them upside the head. Hard.
Galad less so than Gawyn, of course, because Gawyn is the undisputed champion in the needing-head-smackings arena, but some of what passes for logic in Galad’s brain is positively jaw-dropping. Even as I was cheering him on for out-theologizing Asunawa, I was at the exact same time yelling OH COME ON at some of his “reasoning.”
But this, admittedly, is precisely where I personally have a fundamental disconnect with the religious mindset. I have never understood the belief that God (or the Light, or whatever) protects those who are faithful and pray and follow the rules of that God, in the face of the absolutely overwhelming evidence that ill fortune and disaster makes no distinction whatsoever between the virtuous believer and the godless heathen when it strikes. Hurricane Katrina (just for example) killed a little over 1,800 people when it blew ashore, and I guaran-fucking-tee you there were just as many God-fearing church-going folk among that number as there were sinners and atheists. In fact, statistically, there were probably even more of the first group than the latter two (which are, contrary to what some believe, actually separate categories).
So basing an argument over who was “supposed” to win a sword duel on the participants’ spiritual allegiances (as opposed to, say, which one was a better swordsman) is simply ludicrous to me, just as much as the supposition that believing in God will make you more likely to survive a Category 5 hurricane than someone who doesn’t. Sorry, but it won’t. (You can argue about whether it will affect what happens to you after you die, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)
And to anticipate the obvious counterargument, there is no more evidence that the WOT version of God chooses to intervene in the randomness of the Pattern than the Christian version does, at least not so directly and minutely as to influence the outcome of one non-Messiah-involved sword duel. In fact, in the entire series, the only “direct” action we’ve seen the Creator take was when he showed up in TEOTW to tell Rand that he would take no part in the action!
That said, I certainly concede that for the particular audience Galad was playing to, his choice of argument was the perfect one to make, and I was totally rooting for him to win with it (even if he, well, didn’t, at least not at this point). It just kind of also made me want to beat my head against my desk at the same time.
Sigh. Well, he gets more awesome later, so I’ll just look forward to that, shall I?
And, yeah. So now that I have totally not said anything controversial at all in this post, we out! Have fun, play nice in commentage, and say goodnight, Gracie!