The plot of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is built, appropriately, upon a foundation of causal loops, with the majority of the action propelled by prophecy. What I mean is: Information travels back from the future and the response to that information creates the events that generate that very same future information. An arbitrary man, Rand al’Thor, must fight the universal embodiment of evil not because he wants to, but because he has been seen as doing so in the future. Thus do the personal motivations of millions of people within this fantasy world bend towards this unknown sheepherder.
Considering how inherent the manipulation of time is to the story of The Wheel of Time, it’s interesting that we don’t see any of the characters directly utilize time travel to fulfill their goals. Or do we? Throughout the series we see four, maybe five, types of time manipulation demonstrated by the characters, but can any of them be used to travel through time? And more specifically, can any of them be used to travel back in time and undo a great wrong, like the boring into the Dark One’s prison?
The Wheel of Time takes places in our universe, and that determines a basic answer to the question of whether time travel is possible in Robert Jordan’s fantasy series. In our universe, time travel forward in time is very possible, both on a practical and theoretical level. But time travel backwards in time, while being theoretically possible, is impossible on a practical level.
Our first method of time manipulation from The Wheel of Time demonstrates why.
Before we plunge into examining gateways as a method of time travel, we need a small refresher on the concept of relativity. At its core, the concept of relativity in physics revolves around the speed of light being the fastest possible speed in the universe. From there, you can use relativity to predict how space and time will react to you as you speed up towards the speed of light. This results in a concept known as “time dilation,” which dictates that the faster you go, the slower you experience the flow of time. You can use this method to travel forward in time without aging. And at the most extreme speed possible (the speed of light), time would freeze from your perspective. Theoretically, if you were able to travel faster than light, then time would begin to flow backwards for you. You would arrive at your destination before you even left.
In a practical sense, there’s no way to travel faster than light, as Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence formula states that this would take an infinite amount of energy. However, a channeler in The Wheel of Time doesn’t need an infinite amount of energy, they just need enough to create a gateway.
Gateways are holes in space that reduce great distances to single steps. In essence, this means that a channeler can travel faster than light by weaving a gateway from Earth to our nearest star Alpha Centauri. In less than one minute, a human could travel a distance that light itself–the fastest thing in the universe–would need 4.3 years to traverse. If that traveler looked back at Earth through a telescope, they would see events occurring 4.3 years ago.
However, this does not mean that the channeler has traveled into the past. Rather, they are now subject to the relativity of simultaneity, which states that the same event can be observed at different times depending on the reference frame (position in space, basically) of the observer. This phenomenon is observable right here on Earth, and it only becomes more extreme the further out into space you go, getting to the point where you could theoretically observe the same event over and over if you kept jumping light years away from Earth. Experiencing this simultaneity doesn’t mean you’ve traveled back in time; just that you’ve changed position in space relative to the event itself. The event has happened, and information about it continues to propagate into the surrounding universe. Just because you haven’t encountered that propagation yet doesn’t mean you exist before the event has happened to another observer.
We can demonstrate this more clearly via a thought experiment. Let’s have Androl make a gateway from Randland to the Moon, where we’ve set up a very precise telescope aimed at the spot on Earth that Androl is Traveling from. The Moon is roughly 11 light-seconds away from the Earth, so once Androl gets there via gateway, he would be able to look through the telescope and see himself eventually step through the gateway. This doesn’t mean that a second Androl would appear through the gateway, it just means that Androl has Traveled far enough that he is able to observe the same event from two different points in space. He first observed the opening of the gateway to the Moon by literally opening the gateway to the Moon. Then he observed the event again 11 seconds later when the light from that event reached the Moon.
Even if Androl saw himself through the telescope and wove a lightning bolt to kill himself before he stepped through the gateway, that lightning bolt would only hit empty ground. Androl would see the lightning bolt instantly through his gateway, but it wouldn’t appear in the telescope for 11 seconds, long after he had observed himself walking through the gateway through that same telescope. (If Androl really wanted to get cute, he could step back through the gateway, wave towards the telescope, then go back to the Moon and watch himself waving at himself.)
Gateways allow observation of the past in extreme instances, but it’s akin to watching a video. The event has already occurred and the observer is just seeing it now. Time travel can’t be accomplished via gateway.
Note: Time travel to the future via time dilation could be accomplished by channelers combining the One Power and conventional spacecraft. It’s possible that channelers could achieve speeds that closely approach the speed of light, as well, since a channeler has access to infinite energy in the form of the One Power. It is doubtful that channelers could use the One Power to achieve the speed of light or beyond, however, even with access to this infinite energy source. Although the source is infinite, the transfer of that energy via channeling is not. At the very least, some degradation or leakage of One Power would occur during transfer (akin to transmission of electricity) regardless of amount. This would leave a constant gap, small but significant, between the One Power and the energy needed to achieve light speed.
Balefire, a superweapon that burns a thread from the Pattern, is the only tool available in The Wheel of Time that has been successfully used to change the present by altering a past event. The most notable use of balefire towards this purpose comes during the climax of The Fires of Heaven, when the Forsaken Rahvin obliterates Rand’s party in Caemlyn, killing Mat and many others. The balefiring of Rahvin erases the event that caused these deaths, creating a paradox that the Pattern is capable of absorbing, although not without severing Mat’s link to The Horn of Valere.
Although balefire can be used to alter the past, it cannot be used to send someone to the past, nor can the effects of the changes balefire produces be predicted or controlled. As a method of time travel, it is an emergency measure. And even as an emergency measure, it is doubtful how useful erasing the past in a random manner would be in comparison to dealing with the consequences of the present timeline.
It is repeatedly stated throughout the series that balefire is a forbidden and unnatural use of the One Power, and that its unkempt use risks unraveling reality itself. We see this begin to occur near the end of the series, when Rand obliterates an entire castle, and further onwards in The Last Battle, when the forces of the Dark One use it without regard. Cracks begin to appear in the land into which nothing can be seen, cracks that turn out to be gaps in reality itself. This is a preferred outcome for the forces of the Dark One, since they are instituting (or at least believe they are instituting) a new world order that is not dependent on the Pattern or the Wheel. The Dark One will deconstruct all threads in the Pattern once freed, so the use of balefire just gives that process a bit of a head start.
From this, we can surmise that balefire is a preferred tool of the Dark One, so it’s interesting that the One Power is at all capable of creating a preferred tool of the Dark One! This makes Egwene’s creation of an anti-balefire weave in A Memory of Light all the more appropriate, as until that moment the counter-balance to balefire was missing. In fact, one could say that the entire point of The Wheel of Time is to depict a world struggling to restore the balance of creation versus destruction, and that Egwene’s Flame of Tar Valon weave is the decisive turning point in the struggle to restore balance.
The Dark One and his motivations are important to consider when theorizing how time travel could exist in The Wheel of Time. The nature of the Dark One alone is key to determining how time functions in relation to the existing physical laws of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.
3. The Dark One
The Dark One’s goal is very clear: He (really, “it”) exists in opposition to the Creator and everything that the Creator has, well, created. The Dark One wants to break the Wheel, unravel the Pattern, and let nothingness reign. Although we see the Dark One take joy in the warping of creation during the final battle with Rand in A Memory of Light, and we know that some of the Forsaken think that backing the Dark One means creating a world that they can rule over, Ishamael/Moridin has the right of it. The Dark One’s victory doesn’t mean a dark existence, it means no existence.
The effect that the Dark One has on reality supports this goal. The Wheel of Time opens with dark forces gathering on the margins and an unnaturally long winter having gripped the land. The established patterns of nature are already degrading as the seals on the Dark One’s prison fall apart, and this degradation grows in strength as the series continues. Rand breaks the hold of winter on the land, only for it to be followed by an endless summer. The Dark One’s touch hastens entropy in the northern lands, creating The Blight, and hastens entropy in the minds of male channelers, driving them mad. The Dark One’s touch accelerates time’s effect on matter to an extreme extent.
In addition, the Dark One itself slows time. In A Memory of Light, Rand experiences less than a day when he’s in proximity to the Dark One, while weeks rage on in the world outside of Shayol Ghul. The Dark One’s very touch on the world slows the flow of time in the same relativistic manner that you would experience near the event horizon of a black hole. Rand experiences time dilation even though he’s not moving, living one day as the world lives 20. If Rand had lost and the Dark One had been freed, that same dilation of time would have eventually spread through all of creation. Entropy would have increased, all matter would have fallen apart, and time would have come to a stop.
Stopping time is the same thing as breaking the Wheel, because the Wheel needs forward motion in time to weave the Pattern. Therefore, moving backwards in time would also break the Wheel. Going back in time achieves the same goal that the Dark One is trying to achieve, only to a more extreme extent in that it seeks to halt and reverse the direction of the Wheel instead of just halting it. Both actions stop the Pattern from being woven and stop reality from being created.
Could the Dark One be strong enough to send characters back in time? Possibly. But it has to halt the Wheel first, at which point reality is already lost. This provides an interesting perspective to the concept of backwards time travel within the universe of Jordan’s Wheel of Time. It may not just be physically impossible, it may also be a deeply evil act!
4. Portal Stones, Prophecy, and the Superstructure of Reality
Portal Stones can be used similarly to gateways in that they allow a channeler to hop from position to position within a world, like Rand and company did when they traveled from Tear to Rhuidean in The Shadow Rising. And also like gateways, this method of travel does not allow for any serious manipulation of time.
But Portal Stones can also allow travel between alternate realities, and in The Great Hunt we see Rand visit these alternate realities. The only explanation given for this effect is from Loial, who recalls the following words about Portal Stones:
“From Stone to Stone run the lines of ‘if,’ between the worlds that might be.”
Which isn’t as much an explanation as it is a confirmation of the journeys that Rand and company have taken. Rand’s first trip utilizing a Portal Stone sends him and his party into a seemingly dead world, where grolm roam lands that seem to have large featureless gaps within them. As if the Pattern didn’t bother to fully weave this reality into existence. Rand also experiences irregularities in regards to the distance his party covers in the dead world in comparison to the distance they should have covered in the real world. Further, events that have not yet occurred in the real world have already left an impression on this dead world. Both time and space function differently in the world they visit through the Portal Stone, and Rand and company’s “future” has already occurred in this dead world, so is it possible that a Portal Stone could allow travel to a reality where you could affect previous events in your home reality?
It might be that this is what already happens in The Wheel of Time, and that prophecies, dreams, Min’s viewings, and Aviendha’s “way-forward ter’angreal” trip are the results of certain people being able to “read” the events of an alternate reality that is “ahead” of the main reality, just as Hurin read the smells of Trollocs that had not yet passed in front of them during The Great Hunt. Just as the main reality left an impression on the dead world that Rand visited, so do other realities leave an impression on the main reality in the form of prophecies and visions.
This suggests a superstructure to reality in The Wheel of Time that explains the creation of alternate realities and the interaction between them and the “main” reality. It also suggests that the Pattern often self-corrects, leading to branches of the Pattern that continue as alternate realities, or wither away as dead worlds.
There seem to be three types of “reality” in this superstructure:
Main Reality: This is the world of the series and the most “solid” of the three types of reality. This reality utilizes information from the other two to shape its course, and is a result of the correcting of mistakes made in previous timelines. Rand sees a bundle of these previous timelines during his second trip through the Portal Stone in The Great Hunt, where he is shown realities where he never leaves the Two Rivers, or never channels, or fights the Shadow after it has grown far too strong. In essence, Rand is shown realities that were once the Main Reality, but failed and became…
Sub Reality: This is the kind of dead, gap-filled world that Rand and company visit early on in The Great Hunt. Either the Dark One is free in this world or channelers used too much balefire or, more likely, the weaving of this world was simply abandoned. Either way, the Wheel does not function fully in this world and the entropic effect is the same as if the Dark One were free. The degraded nature of Sub Realities seem to function in the same manner as the Dark One, in that time and space find themselves dilated and compressed. In essence, there is not as much of the Pattern between Shienar and Cairhien in the Sub Reality as there is in the Main Reality, which is why Rand and company don’t need to traverse as much space to reach their destination. The spatial relationship between the two realities could be depicted as follows:
As we see, although the Sub Reality is a reflection of the Main Reality, it must consist of more compressed space since Rand is able to travel across it more quickly without changing his pace. (Although man-made, The Ways function in the same manner, being a compressed Sub Reality with several connections to the Main Reality.) Compressing space dilates time, which would explain why Rand’s second trip through the Portal Stone, to failed timelines and Sub Realities even further degraded, took four months even when it felt to him like moments.
Sub Realities may be quicker to travel through, but they are abandoned realities, dead branches of timelines where someone zigged when they should have zagged. Thus, while visiting them can be extremely informative in regards to knowing what may have been, they are dangerous places to visit.
But they may not be the only places to visit.
Uber Reality: As we’ve determined, Main Reality can become Sub Reality if something occurs that halts the weaving of that Reality, such as the Dark One escaping or another catastrophic event. This means that Main Reality is receiving constant correction in regards to events that must occur for the survival of reality in the form of prophecies, viewings, et al. If these directives from the future are really impressions left on the Main Reality, then that means there’s an Uber Reality “above” the Main one that is farther ahead in time. Like so:
An Uber Reality would be a “true” alternate timeline: One where events occurred differently but where the Dark One stays sealed. Aviendha learned a lot about such a reality when she voyaged through the “way-forward ter’angreal” in Towers of Midnight, and it’s possible that all visions of the future within the series are the result of reading a course of action from an Uber Reality. Since those realities are “successful,” then the actions communicated to the Main Reality would be the correct ones to take in order to preserve the Main Reality. Uber Realities in this regard are really parallel worlds, and some may contain only minute differences from the Main Reality.
To be able to communicate future events to the Main Reality, an Uber Reality would have to be farther along in being woven than the Main Reality. That implies that Uber Realities were actually started first by the Wheel, and that the Main Reality came afterwards, and that there are possibly parallel worlds started after the Main Reality. If this is the superstructure of reality within The Wheel of Time, then that means the Portal Stone is capable of sending characters forward in time to an Uber Reality, or backwards in time to a closely parallel Sub Reality.
This would enable time travel in the Wheel of Time, but not backwards time travel that could change the Main Reality. Just as any travel forward in time through a Portal Stone would result in materializing in a different reality, any travel backwards in time through a Portal Stone would result in the same. In modern physics, we know this as the Many-Worlds Interpretation, which states that any time travel to the past is actually you traveling to a nearly identical parallel world, since your timeline never contained you traveling to the past.
We’ve figured out plenty of ways to travel forward in time in The Wheel of Time, but we’re 0-4 in our quest to travel backwards in time. So let’s go for broke. Let’s travel SO FAR forward in time that we end up going BACK in time!
5. Stasis Boxes / Turning of the Wheel
The Forsaken make use of stasis boxes, relics left over from the Age of Legends that act like watertight boxes where instead of keeping out water they keep out time itself. (I mean, they probably keep out water, too?) Want to travel back to the Age of Legends and stop Mierin-and-the-guy-history-forgot from creating the Bore? Hop into a stasis box and figure out some Rube Goldbergian method that will open the box when the Wheel turns back around to the Second Age. You did it! Now the Third Age is going to be all ice cream and star kisses instead of sniffing and spanking.
But that’s only IF you can figure out a mechanism that will open your box on time. And which can survive the upheaval of an entire turning of the Wheel in which the very face of the planet is broken and re-formed not once but twice. Oh, and you better have a way of calculating how many years are contained in a full turn of the Wheel because not all Ages are the same length of time.
Space travel may actually be the answer to that. In The Shadow Rising, the Forsaken Moghedien mentions humans during her Age being able to travel to other stars. It’s quite possible some Age of Legends spacecraft are still out there, traveling at sublight speeds that would result in them returning tens or hundreds of thousands of years after their departure, having only aged a week.
Although even if that happens, they (and you) wouldn’t actually be traveling to the past. From the WoT wiki: “While the pattern of each Age is fixed by the Great Pattern, the details of a specific Age can vary considerably from the base pattern.” And arguably even the base pattern is eventually altered due to changes accumulated over the course of a few turns of the Wheel. The dinosaurs don’t arise, live for hundreds of millions of years, then get wiped out by an asteroid during every turn of the Wheel, after all. Humanity doesn’t spend only one age learning how to walk upright. There are probably Wheels within Wheels.
So while the Dark One will probably be freed again when the Second Age comes again, it won’t be your past, and as such the circumstances will be different. You could step out of a stasis box in the New Age of Legends and hunt down Mierin and destroy the Collam Daan, only to watch in horror as the-guy-history-forgot (Beidomon) proceeds to bore into the Dark One’s prison from some other institution halfway around the world.
Worse, it could turn out that your assassination of Mierin ends up turning the Main Reality into a failed Sub Reality, since now Lanfear won’t be around to provide Rand with a saidin tutor in The Fires of Heaven. As a result, Rand’s channeling skills would probably never develop to the point where he could cleanse saidin. He would die in the attempt, and the Dark One would win again, Lews Therin.
This is where the thought experiment concludes. We have the answer to our question. Not only is traveling back in time in The Wheel of Time physically impossible, it’s also outright evil, and it would probably scuttle the very Pattern that the channeler was born from/woven into.
That I was able to dig this deeply into the subject is a testament to Jordan’s quiet skill with epic fantasy storytelling. Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding is impressively robust and subtle regarding this topic; demonstrating the limitations of the universe while providing examples of its many, many variations. It’s not often that you get to play in a fantasy world that can sustain theoretical frameworks about time travel!
That’s the Wheel of Time, ladies and gentlemen and wagons-fulla-pancakes. You can go forward, but you can never go back.
Read more about The Wheel of Time Companion here on Tor.com.
Chris Lough is getting rowdy with these theory posts around here, lately. Click the name for more.