In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past….
These words open every Wheel of Time novel and illustrate the cyclical nature of the world of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series. Those who read deeper into the series eventually find out that the title of the series is eponymous; that the Wheel is comprised of seven Ages in total, and that the events of any one Age eventually repeat when the Wheel makes a full revolution. Jordan’s series chronicles the final years of the Third Age of this world, an age that has been defined by a millennias-long struggle against the Dark One, the literal embodiment of evil.
That struggle has come to an end in the recently published final book of the series, A Memory of Light, and we have been left to wonder how our favorite characters will progress into this new Fourth Age. While we’ve had some fun theorizing on possible futures, a larger anthropological question remains: what happens when you take away the antagonist that has motivated mankind for thousands of years?
SPOILERS for A Memory of Light ahead.
The Ages of the Wheel of Time have always been defined in hindsight by a discovery or conflict that fundamentally changes the way humanity interacts with the world, or even with reality itself. In the text of the series, it is hinted that our own time comprised the First Age, and that this Age ended when humanity discovered how to channel the One Power.
The Second Age is shorthanded as the “Age of Legends” and comprises an era where channeling and scientific advancement have led to a veritable utopia. This age ended when the Dark One was brought into the world, leading to a degradation of that utopia and a series of conflicts that changed the face of the planet itself.
The Third Age, the age depicted in the books, is defined by constant struggles against the forces of the Dark One. During the events of A Memory of Light, the Dark One was sealed away from the world. By definition, this began the Fourth Age, since this event created a world that could no longer be directly affected by the Dark One, a state that the world had not been in for thousands of years.
While we have been given glimpses of the coming Fourth Age, glimpses that include some of the conflicts that are most likely to arise, we don’t know for sure what will end up being the defining identity of the Fourth Age. And we’ll probably never know, but we can have fun speculating! Below are a few ideas as to how the Fourth Age might develop, and how it might progress into the Fifth Age.
Before that, though, we should lay out the few facts about the Ages that we do have:
1.) Ages are at minimum more than one thousand years long, if only to ensure that knowledge becomes obscured. This has been borne out in the three Ages that we know of, and it’s built into the introductory language of each book. Memories will turn to legend and legend will turn to myth, etc... but just getting memories to turn into legend takes time. And considering that some of the characters that come out the other side of A Memory of Light are going to live for hundreds of years, living memory of the events at the end of the Third Age will most likely persist for at least a millennia.
(Consider our own Age, as well. The 11th century is still documented history, not quite legend, and our lifespans are significantly shorter than the channelers in the book series.)
2.) Wars occur in Ages but never quite define them. The Third Age plays host to several world-spanning wars but none of those conflicts, taken out of their context, defines that Age, even if that war involves changing the geography of the entire planet. The outcome of a war can produce an event that starts or ends an Age, which is certainly the case at the end of the Third Age, but otherwise wars tend to be events in a larger Age-spanning history.
3.) The world will be broken or remade again. In the First and Second Ages, the geography of the planet was the one that we’re familiar with. (Barring some unknown but probably technically possible Power-centric adjustments in the Second Age?) In the Third Age that landscape was changed dramatically into something completely unrecognizable. This means that at some point before the First Age comes again, the land will have to be broken, or terraformed, into the continents and oceans that we’re familiar with. This doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the Fourth Age, but it will happen.
4.) The ability to channel will disappear. Like the geography of the planet, the residents of the First Age had no conception of the One Power or channeling. The presence of wilders or channeling sickness was also non-existent, suggesting that at some point between the Fourth and ensuing First Age, the ability to channel is separated from humanity on a genetic and/or metaphysical level. This event is akin to a second Breaking of the World, in that it doesn’t need to happen in the Fourth Age, but definitely happens at some point. (Before A Memory of Light showed up, it was even theorized that this would happen at the end of the Third Age.)
What a cheery bunch of certainties! With these guideposts in mind, we can move forward with speculating (somewhat) anthropologically on how humankind might progress and what change or discovery might ultimately define the Fourth Age.
1.) Unprecedented Peace. Given the possible future we’ve seen regarding the fate of the Aiel people, this seems unlikely. We do know, however, that this future is subject to change and it may be that the dominant political powers at the beginning of the Fourth Age ultimately end up working together, even if they go through a Cold War or two.
Although it wouldn’t be exciting, an Age devoid of war would be unique, and it would really only take the world rediscovering war to change it from a Fourth Age to a Fifth. And from a population standpoint, humanity needs some relatively quiet millennia after the winnowing that occurred throughout the Third Age. After all, it took us 1800 years to grow from a planetary population of 200 million to 1 billion, and we were fighting the entire time!
The Second Age, the Age of Legends, was also notable for being an Age of peace.
2.) A Second Age of Legends. In fact, if peace prevails then the only thing preventing the Fourth Age from being another Age of Legends is the advancement of technology, both Power and non-Power-based.
In this case, let’s give the Fourth Age denizens the benefit of the doubt and conjecture that they race forward from their medieval/Renaissance level of tech and into the info and tech of the modern day and beyond. It only took us about 600 years, after all, and the denizens of the Fourth Age actually have a leg up on us in that regard since their source of information and research on the One Power is already centralized, categorized, and now able to disseminate information instantly across vast distances.
This could happen even if Rand’s schools don’t grow into universities and begin furthering the sciences. Which gives us another option for the Fourth Age.
3.) A Perfect Synthesis of Science and Magic. The Third Age was largely devoid of scientific knowledge and study, thanks to a number of factors. Knowledge and methods were continually lost thanks to a succession of wars in the Third Age that devastated population centers. At the same time, the One Power and Aes Sedai could maintain a number of comforts and advances without having to understand the science behind what they were manipulating. This further inhibited scientific study because, after all, why bother when the One Power could already do it and, in many cases, do it better than centuries of scientific study could achieve?
If Rand’s schools grow then this is bound to change in the Fourth Age, most likely to the point where scientific study and channeling knowledge will be able to work in complementary ways with each other. For example, science could decide how best to build a house and out of what materials, and channeling could provide the energy to craft those materials and assemble the structure in a matter of moments. Or channelers could craft gateways that would take anyone around the world, and mathematicians could use that to create a longitudinal system that could map the globe in precise detail.
If such progress went on for long enough, scientific knowledge and the One Power could even combine to create starships that would travel the galaxy. (Moghedien even hinted at such a thing in Lord of Chaos.) A perfect synthesis of the two approaches combining to achieve something neither could do on its own.
This is, of course, ignoring the fact that in the Third Age, burgeoning scientific methods have been used against Aes Sedai and channelers just as much as they have been used to help them. Forkroot tea numbs the metaphysical mechanism used to channel. Cannons can obliterate a hilltop from a tremendous distance in a way that only a handful of channelers in the world can manage. Extrapolating just these two methods leads to some pretty serious antagonization of channelers, which brings us to a far more likely scenario.
4.) Science and the One Power Struggle For Dominance. As much as we’d like to imagine the world getting to rest after centuries of struggle, that probably would not occur. There will be struggles between powers, and those powers will attempt to utilize any method necessary to gain the upper hand. If Seanchan attacks you with damane and raken? Shoot them with all those cannons you’ve been mass-producing. (Also, good job on discovering mass production!) Are cannons giving you trouble? Warp the metal with a simple weave of Earth. Are gateways wreaking havoc on the battlefield? Develop a device that creates an electromagnetic field that makes the gateways impossible to form. And so on and so on....
Just because there would be more than one way to accomplish something doesn’t mean those accomplishments would be peaceful. At its worst, developing technology and developing One Power usage would turn into an arms race, with zealous supporters of either method elevating it into a lifestyle and actively portraying it as the superior ideology. This would incite further struggles between the two methods, despite the fact that most of the comforts that humanity enjoys were most likely brought about by a combination of the two methods.
The Fourth Age could very well be defined by this kind of conflict and stunted progress, with the Fifth Age coming about when one side dominates decisively or when progress evens out.
Or... things could get really crazy in the Fourth Age.
5.) Everyone Channels. No One Channels. If the world advances like envisioned in scenario #4, then the Fourth Age could ultimately be defined by a single extreme action designed to eliminate the struggle between technology and channeling. At some point, a method could be devised to abolish the very differences between the two methods.
This could be accomplished in two ways. Either you make it impossible for anyone to channel, or you make it possible for everyone to channel.
Perhaps the turn from Fourth Age into Fifth is that straightforward. Maybe a Seanchan-ruled world has exterminated all channelers and wishes there to be no more, so it figures out how to cut the world off from the One Power. Maybe humanity has suffered too many devastating attacks by users of the One Power and discovers it now has the scientific knowledge to sever it from humanity.
Or it could be more complex than that. Perhaps the Empire of the Sun grows into a vast, world-spanning conglomeration of utopian countries and wishes that all of its citizens be granted equal ability. Or maybe everyone is given access to the One Power by complete accident.
It could even be both. Maybe someone develops a genetic procedure that grants everyone the ability to channel, but which unknowingly ensures that humanity will only have offspring with nullified channeling genes. Maybe that’s a turning point into the Fifth Age. Or maybe that turning point is when the final channeler dies.
6.) Anything you want. We know the broad strokes of how the first few hundred years of the Fourth Age are likely to go, but if past Ages are any indication, the Fourth Age will be one that spans thousands of years, containing many, many twists and turns that all build on each other. It would take an entirely new fantasy series just to chronicle it, making an extrapolation of how the Fourth Age ends something wildly conjectural.
But that’s the fun part! In this post I imagine a conflict between proponents of science and the One Power being the struggle that finally cuts humanity off from the Source, ending the Age. But what do you imagine? Now that the end of the Third Age is known, what vision of the Fourth Age occurs to you?
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and knows for sure that the Sixth Age is one with all the roller disco.