Hola, chicos y chicas! Welcome back to the Wheel of Time Reread Redux!
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!
Chapter 5: Winternight
Wow, my original commentary on this chapter was super short.
But then, there is often less to say about action scenes, even though those are often the ones that are most enjoyable. But don’t worry, I’ll remedy that lack of verbosity with extreme prejudice now!
First off, I like how this chapter is set up: the seemingly-extraneous but comfortable domesticity and routine of the first half of the chapter provides a stark contrast to when the Trollocs show up and everything goes pear-shaped, and in addition gives the reader a clear picture of just what that attack is destroying. You have to show what home is to appreciate the full devastating impact of a home invasion, and this is true whether the invaders are garden-variety thugs or supernatural abominations of nature.
I also had some rather hilarious thoughts reading the first half about how pathetically helpless I would be without modern civilization. I mean, forget a full-on wilderness/apocalypse survival situation; even if you plunked me down in a fully-stocked and functioning farm like Rand and Tam’s and said “Go,” I’d still be screwed. Eggs that don’t come in a plastic carton? Meat you have to slaughter yourself? Shearing sheep for wool? Cutting your own firewood? Yeah, no. I’ll just be over here cuddling my microwave and machine-made sweaters from Macy’s, thanks.
Slowly Tam drew the weapon; firelight played along the gleaming length. It was nothing at all like the plain, rough blades Rand had seen in the hands of merchants’ guards. No gems or gold adorned it, but it seemed grand to him, nonetheless. The blade, very slightly curved and sharp on only one edge, bore another heron etched into the steel. Short quillons, worked to look like braid, flanked the hilt. It seemed almost fragile compared with the swords of the merchants’ guards; most of those were double-edged, and thick enough to chop down a tree.
I don’t know that I noticed on earlier readings that the sword being described here is actually a katana blade as opposed to a western-style broadsword like the merchant guards’ obviously are, but of course this was much-discussed in the fandom later on. I remember that there was some contention as to why a katana would be a thing in a (so far) obviously European-based fantasy culture, but then of course Jordan’s world-building very frequently turned out to be mash-ups of various cultural trappings from often wildly divergent sources (e.g. the Cairhienin, who are mostly a cross between grand siècle France and samurai-era Japan), so in context it’s really not that strange at all.
Fun story: back when the covers of the WOT ebooks were being commissioned, the redoubtable Irene Gallo, Art Director and General Badass of Tor Books, asked me and Jason Denzel of Dragonmount to take a look at them for continuity/accuracy reasons, since we had obviously spent a lot more time head-down in WOT minutiae than sane people she had. And that foresight on Irene’s part is why the sword in Donato Giancola’s lovely cover art for the ebook of The Dragon Reborn is properly a katana instead of a European-style blade. And that, boys and girls, is why people committed to doing canon-compliant justice to their material are awesome.
“I got it a long time ago,” Tam said, “a long way from here. And I paid entirely too much; two coppers is too much for one of these. Your mother didn’t approve, but she was always wiser than I. I was young then, and it seemed worth the price at the time. She always wanted me to get rid of it, and more than once I’ve thought she was right, that I should just give it away.”
Reflected fire made the blade seem aflame. Rand started. He had often daydreamed about owning a sword. “Give it away? How could you give a sword like that away?”
Tam snorted. “Not much use in herding sheep, now is it? Can’t plow a field or harvest a crop with it.” For a long minute he stared at the sword as if wondering what he was doing with such a thing. At last he let out a heavy sigh. “But if I am not just taken by a black fancy, if our luck runs sour, maybe in the next few days we’ll be glad I tucked it in that old chest, instead.”
Nice Biblical reference here, specifically to the Book of Isaiah:
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
(Emphasis mine, of course.) This is, naturally, a very large theme running throughout WOT: the contrast between the peaceful utopia of the Age of Legends, where no one even knew how to use a sword before all hell broke (literally) loose, and the Third Age, plagued by constant spates of often decades-long warfare. We’ll see the reference again in TGS, except in reverse, when farmers take their farm tools and repurpose them into weapons in preparation for the Last Battle.
I think I’ve talked about this before, but whatever: As Tam points out, swords are unique weapons in that, unlike daggers or axes or hammers or longbows or even spears, they are completely useless as anything but weapons. You can’t harvest a crop or chop wood or even use them to hunt game – or at least you would be stupid to do so when so many better alternatives are available. The only thing swords are good for, really, is to kill people. So their presence or absence (in a pre-gunpowder weapons world, anyway) is extremely significant for that reason. Tam taking out his sword, when it had so long been hidden away, useless and unneeded, is an unmistakable signal that the peace of the Two Rivers was about to be irrevocably over.
Rand shivered. He did not think he would want to meet anyone a Trolloc was afraid of.
Last but not least, I still find it bemusing that, as I pointed out in the original commentary, this is the only time (as far as I recall) in the entire series where a Trolloc has actual lines of dialogue. I suppose that, being the fantasy equivalent of stormtroopers (faceless, interchangeable, unquestionably evil minions who can be conveniently slaughtered en masse without compunction or remorse), they don’t really need lines, but still.
Chapter 6: The Westwood
Wavering shadows to the east slowly resolved themselves into a horse and rider followed up the road by tall, bulky shapes trotting to keep up with the animal. The pale light of the moon glittered from spearheads and axe blades. Rand never even considered that they might be villagers coming to help. He knew what they were. He could feel it, like grit scraping his bones, even before they drew close enough for moonlight to reveal the hooded cloak swathing the horseman, a cloak that hung undisturbed by the wind.
Besides this scene being (as I noted in the original commentary) a very direct reference/homage to the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where frightened hobbits evade the notice of a scary hooded supernatural entity on the road, this is also a subtle nod to Moiraine’s later assertion that channelers can sense the presence of Shadowspawn, though of course Rand doesn’t recognize it as such at the time.
I also noted the Campbellian elements here of the Hero’s Journey, specifically the Call to Adventure: something has broken up the idyllic tranquility of the hero’s normal boring ordinary world, and now he is faced with the necessity of rising up to deal with the crap that is thus stirred. (Though, uh, Campbell would probably not have phrased it exactly that way. What, shut up, I do what I want!)
Actually, all of TEOTW can be broken down in terms of the Hero’s Journey. I think the entire series can be as well, more or less, but I am less certain of that. Something to keep in mind as we progress, for certain.
At any rate, I have to reiterate here my memory of how much this chapter excited me on first reading. Some things may be clichéd, may be tropetastic, may be even predictable in this kind of story, and yet I don’t care, because sometimes the comforting thrill of that trope is exactly what you are looking for. There are no new stories, they say, only endless variations on various repeated themes, but there’s a reason why we still love stories that do those non-new stories in new and interesting ways, and that is certainly one of the many aspects of WOT that hooked me like a fish on first reading.
So this revelation that Rand’s origins are More Mysterious Than Previously Supposed is something we all maybe totally saw coming, especially the genre savvy among us, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was enthralling and engaging to read about, because look, y’all, this is what it’s all about. If you’re not here for the coolness of Our Hero learning he is More Than What He Seems, then I’m not sure what you’re doing reading fantasy in the first place.
Maybe all the stories were as real as the news the peddlers and merchants brought, all the gleeman’s tales and all the stories told at night in front of the fireplace. Next he might actually meet the Green Man, or an Ogier giant, or a wild, black-veiled Aielman.
Not exactly in that order, but yeah, pretty much, Rand.
And that’s what I got for this one, kids! Have a week, and I’ll see you next Tuesday!