Welcome to the first installment of The Reading of The Wheel of Time! I’m Kelsey Jefferson Barrett, and despite my lifelong love of high fantasy and the fact that I have fantastic librarian for an aunt who was largely responsible for my education in both science fiction and fantasy, I somehow never managed to pick up any of The Wheel of Time books before now. So rather than a reread, this series is going to be me reading Robert Jordan’s novels [insert dramatic announcer’s voice here] For The Very First Time!
I’m going to try to avoid spoilers in these articles as much as I can, but feel free to talk spoilers in the comments. That way those who already know and love The Wheel of Time can have fun of watching my reactions as I discover the mysteries, the characters, and the magic of these books. This week’s installment covers Chapters 1 through 9.
When I was in undergrad, my favorite writing teacher said something about fiction that has always stuck with me, both as an aspiring writer and as a reader. All stories, she said, start one of two ways: a stranger comes to town, or a boy leaves home.
Now of course, when my teacher said “all stories begin one of two ways” she didn’t literally mean [insert hashtag here] all stories. But I still find the observation to be particularly relevant to high fantasy novels, especially questing tales like The Eye of the World. Whether it’s Bilbo’s departure from the Shire in The Hobbit or Frodo and the gang’s subsequent departure in The Lord of the Rings, Richard’s journey out of the Westlands in Terry Goodkind’s The Wizard’s First Rule, or Tristran’s adventure across the wall in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, the adventure requires that the young protagonist leave the only home they’ve ever known to travel out into the wide, wild world beyond. And whether our hero is leaving out of a desire for adventure or because they have no choice, certain facts remain fairly constant.
Firstly, the hero is young. They’ve been raised on a farm, or in a small village, or in some other relatively backwater part of the world. That home can be idyllic like the Shire or difficult and dangerous, like Katniss’s 12th district in The Hunger Games, but in either case the hero has never left home before, and the outer world is completely new to them. This is a trait shared by fairytales like The Wizard of Oz or Alice and Wonderland and even in the old classics like Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk. In these tales we see a clear correlation between becoming an adult and learning about the larger world; knowledge is gained, and innocence is lost, and the protagonist is transformed into an older, wiser person.
In Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, Rand al’Thor is a young farmer who has lived all his life in the village of Emond’s field, in the Two Rivers, a far-flung backwater part of the world where the people are simple and the more complicated politics of other countries are largely matters of story rather than reality. Rand and his friends, Matrim Cauthon and Perrin Aybara, have no real ambition to ever leave the Two Rivers, but they do enjoy dreaming about adventure in far-off lands, about warriors and the old legends of Ages gone by. Meanwhile Rand’s crush, a young woman named Egwene al’Vere, does dream about going outside of her sleepy little town, telling Rand that she intends to train as a Wisdom, a sort of wise woman and healer, who heads the women’s council and guides village decisions. She suggests that she might move to another village to pursue this goal, and when Rand points out that only strange people do that, she simply responds that perhaps she is strange, too. Where Rand thinks of his longing for adventure only as a daydream, Egwene really believes that she can go see some of the places she has only heard of in tales.
After a long, cruel winter that still hasn’t quite given way to spring, Rand and the people of Emond’s field are terribly excited to have not only a gleeman, or traveling minstrel, come to town for the spring festival of Bel Tine, but to also discover the arrival of two strangers, a lady and soldier who appears to serve her. The Lady Moiraine shows a special interest in Rand and his friends, telling them that she is collecting stories about things that happened in the Two Rivers; she is interested in odd details about people, like how old they are and if they have always lived in the area. To make matters even more strange and exciting, there is the arrival of a peddler bearing news of war in distant lands and talking of a man claiming to be the reincarnation of the Dragon, the ancient and powerful magic user who was responsible, through his struggle with the Dark One, for the male half of magic becoming tainted with darkness and insanity. It has long been prophesied that the Dragon will one day be reborn, but despite the fact that all others who claimed to be the Dragon have always proven to be fakes, the idea of even a false Dragon stirring up war and thoughts of the Dark One and his followers is enough to upset the entire village.
For Rand, Mat, and Perrin, the news is particularly important, as the three boys had all witnessed something odd that same morning; a strange man in black on a black horse, whose cloak didn’t seem to move in the wind, and who appeared to be watching them. With all the talk of wars and false Dragons and with a watch being set around the Two Rivers, the boys decide that they must tell the Mayor what they have seen, even if it sounds ludicrous, and Rand confides the information in his father, Tam.
Rand and Tam’s farm is attacked by Trollocs, creatures that are half man and half animal, and who serve the Dark One. Rand and Tam escape, but Tam is grievously wounded, and when Rand manages to get him to the village, he finds that Emond’s field has been similarly attacked. But there the Trollocs were driven off by Moiraine and her companion, Lan, and Rand learns from witnesses that Moiraine is a wielder of the female half of magic, an Aes Sedai, and that Lan is her Warder. Many are distrustful of the Aes Sedai, believing them to be tricky at best and evil at worst, but when Nynaeve, the Wisdom of Emond’s field, declares that Tam’s injuries are beyond her ability to heal, Rand decides that he must turn to Moiraine for help—he cannot let his father die, no matter what price Moiraine may ask for her assistance. Because as the stories say, the help of an Aes Sedai always comes at a price.
But the price is not at all what he expected. Moiraine tells him that only certain houses were purposefully attacked, that although the village seems to be in chaos, most of the destruction was merely cover for a few deliberate acts. The targets in question? Rand’s home, and those of his friends Perrin and Mat. With some difficulty she convinces Rand that the Trollocs were after the three boys, who are all the same age within a few weeks of each other. Although she claims that she doesn’t know what the Dark One wants with them, she explains that the only way to keep their families, and all of Emond’s field, safe is for the three of them to leave with her and travel to Tar Valon, the city of the Aes Sedai, where they will be protected and the mystery of the situation can be unraveled.
* * *
Thinking back on my teacher’s observations, it occurs to me that the “boy leaves home” narrative usually also has a smattering of “a stranger comes to town” when it comes to questing stories. The quest itself is presented, at least in part, when an outside force thrusts itself into the hero’s little world and drives him to action: Gandalf chooses Bilbo to be the Dwarves’ fourteenth companion; Frodo flees from the evil the one Ring draws to the Shire. And so it is with Rand and Mat and Perrin; they receive both a guiding figure in Moraine and a driving force in the evil of the Trollocs and the dark-cloaked man, who Lan explains is a Fade, another part-human servant of the Dark.
Using events of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings to illustrate my points is, of course, an easy route to take, since Robert Jordan intentionally wrote the first section to evoke the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. We’ll see more of this in later chapters (Okay I admit, I read ahead just a little. You caught me.) when we have a flight to a ferry and Egwene joins the party, giving us four young people from Emond’s field, just like the four young hobbits from the Shire. But for now, let’s talk about what kind of boy leaves home on a quest.
In Stardust, Tristran is propelled into the world beyond the wall by a desire to find the fallen star, but there are other forces at work that he is not at first aware of. Although his father rather cryptically explains his relationship to the faerie who gave him the snowdrop, Tristran doesn’t realize what is actually being told to him about his heritage. And he certainly doesn’t know that his faerie mother was descended from royalty. But as it turns out, there is much more at work than chance, and Tristran is not an ordinary village boy at all, but in fact a half-faerie prince who will one day reclaim the throne of his forebears.
Frodo, on the other hand, is fully aware of the greater influences on his destiny. The Bagginses are a “good family,” basically Hobbiton’s more low-key version of nobility. (Like an English squire or something.) In addition, Frodo is heir to Bilbo by virtue of having a similar temperament; a bit of elvish in him, I believe the narration says at one point. And then finally there is the one Ring itself, his by chance or maybe by fate, but either way he knows that it is his destiny from the beginning, despite the fact that he cannot comprehend the full scope of that destiny until the Council at Rivendell.
Rand does not know why he would be important to the Dark One. He actually has difficulty believing that it could even be true, but Moraine seems certain that all the boys are important to “the pattern” that is spun by the Wheel of Time. In addition, Rand learns while Tam is injured and feverish that he is not from the Two Rivers, or even Tam’s biological child; Tam found him on a battlefield, of all places. And although Rand does his best to dismiss the idea as nonsense, a feverish delusion not based in any real truth, deep down he still wonders if it might be true.
So you have, in these examples, a simple village boy who is really faerie royalty, an innocent from a distant farming country who is still a blue blood and marked by an almost otherworldly grace beyond that of his peers, and a country shepherd who is almost definitely the son of some mysterious lady warrior. Barring some kind of truly epic red herring, the reader can assume right off the bat that Rand, our point-of-view character with the mysterious origin, is the Dragon reborn (and I’m barely resisting the urge to read ahead so NO SPOILERS FRIENDS). In none of these cases is the hero truly a country bumpkin; Frodo is nothing like the Sackville-Bagginses or even like the Gamgees (Sam, of course, being elevated to a more noble stature by the sacred bond of servant and master), and Rand is nothing like the Congars or Coplins, who are held up in the narrative as examples of ignorant, uncultured country folk. This same is true of Richard in The Wizard’s First Rule; he appears to be just an ordinary tracker, but in reality he’s descended from powerful wizards from another land.
And so in Rand (and perhaps in the others, as I imagine I will learn in later chapters) we are presented with an idealized country boy, one who has the innocence of the sheltered farmer, but the strain of destiny and nobility from somewhere more important. It isn’t chance that leads him on his adventure. It is his true identity catching up to him.
This is even true of Egwene (yes again with the reading ahead, I know, I know.) who turns out to have the Power, and is considering following Moraine into the life of an Aes Sedai. Magic elevates one to nobility in the eyes of a story, and so she is not just the a simple peasant girl she appeared to be. Right from the beginning, before the action starts, she is something more.
I guess the question I have after considering all this is; why is this nobility important to the hero’s character? If the Dragon is to be reborn, why could he not be actually born to Tam al’Thor and his wife, Kari? What is it about magic that so often it is an innate, special gift rather than a craft one can learn like blacksmithing or sculpting? Will a mysterious past truly add something to Rand’s character that wouldn’t be there if his origins were truly humble?
I am reminded at this juncture of the evolving origin of story of Robin Hood. In the older tales, Robin is a violent yoeman; he was first gentrified in the Tudor era, and the version of the disenfranchised landowning nobleman is the one that was more commonly embraced in the late nineteenth and through the twentieth century. Robin stands up for the peasants and the everyman against the rich robber barons and greedy churchmen, but the pairing of his moral nobility with a nobility of birth is one that we find difficult to shake, even today. In The Sword of Shanarra, Terry Brook’s hero Shea is also led to a predetermined destiny and a magic sword by virtue of his bloodline. Even in Y.A. novels like Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, the main male character turns out to have his gifts because he is descended from the greatest Grisha who ever lived, the one who was also the villain’s grandfather. Even our peasants, even our simple trackers and grizzled rangers, our innocent sheepherders, all reveal a bloodline that leads them to great deeds, even as their humble upbringing has left them pure and innocent. And I ask you, can one not be a pure and innocent child of a port city? Maybe an innkeeper’s daughter or palace footman? And conversely, cannot one’s nobility be ingrained without being inherited, one’s destiny bright without a mythic history to back it up?
Coming up next Tuesday on Reading The Wheel of Time, we’ll talk about being chased by the agents of the enemy, how there always has to be at least one fool of a Took in any questing party (lookin’ at you, Mat) and what it means for your worldbuilding when you separate the fabric of reality into two parts based on gender. Until then, feel free to discuss my thoughts and yours down below!
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Kelsey Jefferson Barrett is a Brooklyn-based writer and reviewer, who would probably do fine on a epic traveling quest right up until he had to walk a week in the rain. (Wet feet are for suckers.) You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram as inland.sailor.