Greetings, my peoples! Welcome back to the Wheel of Time Reread Redux!
Today’s Redux post will cover the short story “The Strike at Shayol Ghul.”
All original posts are listed in The Wheel of Time Reread Index here, and all Redux posts will also be archived there as well. (The Wheel of Time Master Index, as always, is here, which has links to news, reviews, interviews, and all manner of information about the Wheel of Time in general on Tor.com.)
The Wheel of Time reread is also now available as an ebook series, except for the portion covering A Memory of Light, which should become available soon.
All Reread Redux posts will contain spoilers for the entire Wheel of Time series, so if you haven’t read, read at your own risk.
And now, the post!
“The Strike at Shayol Ghul”
[Given the brevity of this story, it seems pretty silly for me to summarize it, especially as it is available for free in multiple locations on the Internet. So instead, I suggest you just go read the whole thing, and then come back here.]
And here we have yet more new material in this supposed Redux Reread, haha! But the comments on the last post asking for “The Strike at Shayol Ghul” (henceforth abbreviated TSASG) were entirely right in their opinion that it should be included, and again I felt that this was the most appropriate place to include it. So here we are.
I am not entirely sure when I personally first read this piece, but I know it was not until after I had plowed through all the published books available at the time of my discovery of the series (so, through Book Seven, A Crown of Swords) and then bumbled my clueless way onto Usenet and rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan, which, as all y’all know in probably nauseating detail by now, was my introduction to not only Wheel of Time fandom, but the entire concept of fandom in general, and also the Internet in general. Most likely, ironically perhaps, I found it via a link from the Wheel of Time FAQ, which at the time was run by the lovely and effervescent Pam Korda, and which also at the time I would never have dreamed I’d one day end up maintaining myself. Ah, memories.
I do know for sure that I never read the version of it that was included in An Illustrated Guide to The Wheel of Time, which was a companion… thingy to the Wheel of Time, published by Tor in 1997. I know this because my sole interaction with that book was that I took it down from the shelf in a Barnes and Noble once, flipped through it, goggled in disbelief at the awfulness of the “art” contained within, and then took me and my money and ran the hell away. So, er. Not there. Sorry, TPTB! *waves*
(I have much higher hopes, on the other hand, for the official Wheel of Time Companion book, currently in the works from Team Jordan, which is tentatively scheduled to be published late next year. Yay!)
I would be willing to bet, based on my own recent experiences with such things, that the text for TSASG was lifted more or less verbatim from Jordan’s own world-building notes on the Wheel of Time, which we know from Team Jordan were… extensive, to say the least. I would also be willing to bet that he wrote it this way even before expecting that it would ever see the light of publication, too. Created worlds don’t just have to seem real to the eventual readers, after all—they have to be real to the writer as well, and writing the history of your world as if it really were history is a great way to accomplish that. Gets you in the groove, as it were.
(I have no actual evidence for this speculation, of course, though there might be evidence out there to support or refute it. Or, you know, I probably could just ask. But why have, like, facts and things when I could indulge in wild speculation instead? Whee!)
Annnyway. The thing I particularly like about TSASG is how much it is (in my view) a love letter to one of Jordan’s prevailing fascinations, which is the way history is a fragmented, ephemeral, transitory thing—and how, as a result, it is just as much (or more) of a puzzle to be solved as it is a dry documentation of the past. Jordan was (among other things) a military historian by trade, but his love of the subject obviously reached far beyond that particular niche, and it is things like this story which show this love most clearly.
There is also the point that the ephemeralness of history is kind of an awesome thing when the burden of creating that history is on one person’s shoulders, because that means that not only are you, the author, not obligated to have to nail down every last detail of everything that happened, but that it actually gives your created world more authenticity and verisimilitude if you don’t.
Or maybe I’m not giving him enough credit: it’s perfectly possible that Jordan really did know every last detail of the exact way everything happened ever in the Wheel of Time (and if he did I’ll just be standing over here in awe). But even if so, he was also smart enough never to present it that way, and that’s why it works.
[…] we can only be thankful that the art of printing survived the Breaking of the World when so much else did not, and was indeed practiced to some extent during the Breaking itself, though under severe and restricted conditions.
In that vein, this particular passage struck me as the historian’s most ardent wish: that even when the world is literally ending, there will be those who strive to preserve its history as much as possible—a thing which must strike those of more practical bent as a frivolous and even wasteful effort in a survival situation. And yet, those surviving accounts will be the thing that defines that time to everyone who comes after. (Assuming, of course, that anyone does. But so far we seem to be still achieving that.) So it seems that “things which are important during an apocalypse” is actually a rather relative set of things. Food for thought.
Speaking of which, rereading this story reminded me how much the War of the Shadow and the subsequent Breaking was actually just as much of a nearly-world-ending apocalypse as Tarmon Gai’don was in the Third Age. If not even more so, considering Rand’s ending stroke turned out a hell of a lot better for the world than Lews Therin’s did. Things were sucking a lot for folks in the latter half of the series proper, but it seems pretty clear that they weren’t that much more fabulous for the Second Agers who lived through the time covered in this story either. Presumably there are one or two Ages on the Wheel which don’t have to end in a horrific cataclysmic conflict between good and evil? Maybe? Eek?
As to the actual content of the story (yes, I’m finally just now getting to that, y’all hush), well, that’s a thing. I remember there was a fair amount of debate among fans back in the day (and, probably, nowadays too, but who knows with all these young whippersnappers with their actual websites and shit) about Latra Posae Decume versus Lews Therin Telamon, and the resulting division along gendered lines (and subsequent disastrous events) depicted within it. Because the thing is, it’s pretty easy, reading this story, to cast Latra Posae as its villain, and that is problematic on a number of levels.
Before I get to that, though, I have to take a second to point to this story as absolute proof that anyone who’s ever complained about me focusing “too much” on gender politics in commentating on the Wheel of Time has utterly missed the fact that gender politics is an absolute core attribute of the entire series, and to ignore that is to ignore one of the central themes Jordan was evoking (for better or worse) in his entire construction of the world of the Wheel of Time. In his view, the fallout along gendered lines of the Aes Sedai during the War of the Shadow was what ultimately led to the Breaking and thus the near-destruction of the world. Which makes sense in context, since the very essence of life and magic in his world (the Source) depends on the divided-yet-intertwined male and female components of the One Power working together to drive the whole. And once that symbiotic relationship was broken, according to his system, everything inevitably fell apart.
All of which is all well and good, up to a point, as long as you accept the basic premise of a strict binary gender division being a real thing (which, to be fair, in Jordan’s generation most people did). So, okay, we’ll go with that, even though it’s not really true. But even so, there are some… issues with this, not only in how it actually went down, but in how it was perceived later.
Because it’s kind of hard, in context, to avoid coming to the conclusion that Latra Posae’s opposition to Lews Therin, the “chosen one” of his Age, is ultimately what led to the Breaking, instead of the decisions Lews Therin himself made. The text attempts to qualify that, true, by bringing up the possibility that if Latra Posae had given in and went along with Lews Therin’s plan, that both halves of the Source would have ended up tainted instead of just saidin, but the fact is that the Dark One’s counterstroke was not something that could have been foreseen by anyone on the Light side, so without that foreknowledge it just kind of looks like Latra Posae was being the stupid obstructionist in the overall scenario.
It’s tricky, because it’s all justifiable, but there’s no escaping that the essential story structure itself casts her in the role of villain, because even if he was all wrong-headed and ultimately insufficient to his task, Lews Therin was still symbolically the Messiah of his age, and therefore by default anyone who opposed him was automatically in the wrong. Whether or not Jordan meant to imply that is irrelevant; the nature of the story itself demands it. Plus, the eventual disastrous deployment of the Choedan Kal in Rand’s era also suggests that Latra’s plan would have been even more foolish and world-encrappening than Lews Therin’s was.
Not to mention the rather odd detail that other than this account, all historical details of Latra Posae were apparently lost, despite her supposedly being nearly as famous and influential as Lews Therin himself, which is probably unintentionally reminiscent of how often the achievements of women in history get “lost” in favor of the exploits of their male counterparts. This is especially bemusing here, because supposedly in the Wheel of Time world things are skewed more toward women instead of men, and yet this comes across as a classic case of erasure in favor of a Great Man driving everything.
And, perhaps damnably, this made me think of Rand and Egwene, and how likely it apparently is that future histories will make much of Rand’s contribution to Tarmon Gai’don, but less or none of Egwene’s, even though (as I have argued before) she was just as instrumental in keeping the world from going Boom as Rand was. But, you know, Rand (and Lews Therin) are the Messiahs/protagonist/central figgers, and everyone else is either an obstacle or a sidekick, right? That’s just how it works.
I could be wrong about that, of course. I hope that I would be. Loial had better live up to his historical responsibilities, is what I’m saying. Because History Is Important, dontcha know. All the more so because of how easily it is lost.
And that’s what I got for this one, kids! Hugs to everyone in the comments to the last post welcoming me back. It’s awesome to metaphorically see y’all again too, and welcome to the new readers as well! Have a lovely week, and I’ll see you next Tuesday, when we finally start the actual reread reread part of this thang. Cheers!