Where Do You Belong if You Don’t Fit Anywhere? Cultural Deterioration and The Wheel of Time

Towards the end of Towers of Midnight, the penultimate volume in Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time fantasy series, there are two chapters that are from Aviendha’s perspective: In them, Aviendha has gone to Rhuidean to become a Wise One among her people, the Aiel. To do this, she must walk through ter’angreal, magical constructs that will cause her to see visions; every one of them through the eyes of a different person. At first, she is a young girl, starving and trying to sneak into enemy territory to find some food. They mention carriages that don’t need horses, and light that needs no fire—presumably cars and electricity. Gradually, Aviendha realizes that she’s not seeing the world’s storied hi-tech past, but an unspecified point in the future.

The girl is shot and killed by a Seanchan soldier as she rummages through the trash for food. As she dies, they call her “Bloody Aiel.”

Aviendha is understandably confused. How could that scrawny, hungry girl be of the great warrior race Aiel? At first she refuses the reality of what she sees, but each progressive vision shows her that these are her people fallen and broken, a shadow of what they once were. And in each successive vision, Aviendha inhabits a generation (or three) closer to her own. She sees the whole train of how the Aiel end up becoming next to nothing.

And it was so depressing for me to read. These are not books that usually make me cry—I mean, deaths and all, I don’t think they’ve ever made me even tear up. But this short section of Aviendha’s perspective… I first read it on a train and had to force myself to keep it together.

I don’t know that it was the writing. I think it was more that it took me back to every Jhumpa Lahiri book I’ve ever read.

Jhumpa Lahiri, author of books like The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth, is a beautiful, beautiful wordsmith. I love her and I can’t stand reading her all at the same time because her stories make me feel so bleak. Much of her writing explores the idea that if you’re born of two cultures, you’re not really of either one. You have no place in the world. You are, effectively, without any sort of home or community.

Sidenote: When I told my fellow Wheel of Time reader, Jenn, what I was thinking about, she made this amazing Venn Diagram:

The degradation of the Aiel brought to the surface fears I have about my relationship with my Indian culture, being a first generation born, and living in America. There is a moment in Towers of Midnight where Aviendha hears her great-great granddaughter’s family completely misuse and over-simplify a cultural term. What’s terrifying is the implication that this seemingly innocuous thing can mean, in just a few generations, that a culture will fall. Things my mother intrinsically knows, I have to google. What if in the next generation, there’s too much disconnect to do even that?

While a lot of the cultural deterioration in the Wheel of Time is a direct result of generational gaps and intermarriage between cultures, much of it is accelerated by the invasion of the Seanchan. I had a vague sense of unease while reading about the Seanchan, who are essentially colonizers in Robert Jordan’s epic. For the Seanchan it is better for other countries to be broken and governed by a superior culture—their own—than it is to allow those cultures to govern themselves. Because, in the Seanchan’s eyes, this group of children just doesn’t know any better. This is who the Aiel are fighting against.

Colonization, cultural dilution and in some cases, eradication…these are a part of my past and my present.

Lahiri is a little more dedicated and ruthless with cultural dilution and irrelevancy as a theme, while Jordan and later Brandon Sanderson speak of it more optimistically. All of the races and cultures that are written of in the Wheel of Time series are fiercely loyal to their people. Whether it’s the Aiel or the Sea Folk, they are suspicious of those outside. With Egwene’s proposal of training women in all three, and Rand’s pulling of the Aiel back into society, it seems that Sanderson and Jordan are striving to depict a happy medium of cultural loyalty and progress by demonstrating how those societies collaborate and learn from each other.

I don’t know if Egwene’s proposal will be successful or not, or if it will lead to so much change within each respectful culture that they’ll break and morph into something unrecognizable. This may not be a bad thing. I don’t think that culture and identity are something that should remain stagnant, but there are beautiful parts to these cultures and it’s sad to see them disappear along with the bad. I think of my fears of cultural loss, and I know that most of it stems from not being Indian enough for India and not American enough for America. A diluted culture is more than just acclimating to a new one; it changes your very identity. Where do you belong if you don’t fit anywhere?

After reading Aviendha’s chapters, [my] fear is that you wouldn’t belong anywhere. You (in this admittedly fictional and extreme case) die out. With this in mind, I can only conclude that, like in Lahiri’s writing, maintaining any part of your culture while immersed in another is not a possibility.

In Wheel of Time, after speaking to the Wise Ones, Aviendha asks Rand to include the Aiel in his peace treaty as a way to possibly ensure their survival. We, as readers, don’t know if this ploy works. Will that survival be at the cost of their specific cultural identity? The books don’t have an answer for us. So perhaps the biggest takeaway in all of this is that despite the future she’s seen, Aviendha continues to fight for her people and her culture. And that is the most I can hope to do in my own life.

This article was originally published in March 2013 on BookRiot.

Preeti Chhibber works as a book-slinger. She usually spends her time reading a ridiculous amount of Young Adult (for work, she swears!), binge-watching TV, and playing far too much Zelda. But you can always find her falling into fandoms on the internet. Twitter: @runwithskizzers

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