So there are clearly some old-school gender dynamics going on in the world of The Wheel of Time. High fantasy stories generally tend to; it’s an assumed-inevitability of the ancient European type settings many such tales enjoy. But The Wheel of Time has something a little different than those other Tolkien-esque tales do; a set-up in which the very driving force of creation is made up of two parts, male and a female, which by working in opposition to each other turn the the eponymous Wheel of Time.
What does it mean to have not just societal convention but the very essence of creation dictating the qualities and roles of men and women in this world? I have a few thoughts.
Hello friends! It’s week two of Reading The Wheel of Time, and I’m here to talk about what happens when your magic system (and the very fabric of existence) is broken into distinct male and female halves. I’m guessing this is going to be something I will want to revisit later in the read, but I’d like to get started with some initial impressions and predictions of what might be to come. Those of you who already know how this all plays out can continue to enjoy knowing more than I do, but don’t forget to watch your spoilers!
This week’s installment of Reading The Wheel of Time covers Chapters 9 through 13.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series contains a rather gender-unbalanced magical system, where only men are powerful enough to become true magic users, or wizards, and women’s magic is much weaker. Witches are generally disliked by other people, considered evil or tricky; and as such women are pretty marginalized and are perceived as lesser than men. That isn’t to say that downside of the “male” characteristics aren’t addressed, however. The wizard Ged’s reckless pride and machismo often cause him trouble, and part of his journey through the books is learning the maturity and self understanding to use his magic wisely and effectively.
So far in my read of The Eye of the World, I believe every female character has at some point referred to men as being some combination of arrogant, clumsy, and stupid. The Women’s Council of the Two Rivers is apparently the real power controlling the village, even though there is also a Village Council and a mayor, who are officially in charge. The difference between the characterization of Brandelwyn al’Vere, the mayor, and the Wisdom Nynaeve al’Meara is striking to me. Brand is a solid person in Rand’s eyes; calming, trustworthy, and dependable. The narration makes the reader feel safe with him. Nynaeve, on the other hand, comes off as a bit of a nag. She scolds Rand and his friends rather soundly early in the book, and although the boys are chastened by her words and the power of her position as Wisdom, they don’t particularly heed her or her advice once she’s out of sight. She seems to have a temper and is easily frustrated, too.
Of course, Moiraine has an elegance and a gravitas to rival anyone, and Rand and the boys respect that. But they also fear her, her ties to the Aes Sedai (who all the stories say are dangerous and untrustworthy), and the power of her magic. I find it interesting to see how these women are distrusted for using magic when the very reason magic is considered so untrustworthy is because of the actions of men. I do find it incredibly resonant that the women of this world are simultaneously relied upon for their abilities to heal and help and are considered suspect and dangerous for possessing them.
Starting back at Chapter 9, the departure from Two Rivers doesn’t go quite as smoothly as Moiraine and Lan would wish. First, Rand tells his father all about what is happening. Then Mat and Perrin— despite following Moiraine’s instructions not to tell anyone that they are leaving—manage to attract the attention of Egwene, who shows up in the stables as they are preparing to leave and demands to come along. But despite Rand’s protests and Lan’s reservations, Moiraine surprises everyone by agreeing that Egwene should come with them, overriding Lan’s objections by commenting simply that Egwene’s choice is now “part of the Pattern.” Their party is further augmented by Thom, who has managed to overhear their conversation by hiding out in the loft. Sneaking out in the night proves a bit more tricky with the villagers on guard after the Trolloc attack, but avoiding a group of men with pitchforks and patchwork armor is nothing compared to dodging the creature Rand spots in the night sky.
Moiraine and Lan explain that the creature, which looks to Rand like a giant bat, is a Draghkar, a servant of the Dark One, like Trollocs and Myrddraal, and that if it has not already spotted them, it will soon. They instruct the party to take off, and while the boys are riding fast horses that were bought by Lan just for this, Egwene’s mount is Bela, Rand and Tam’s old farm horse. Rand is worried that she will not be able to keep up, and that Bela and Egwene will be left behind. He silently urges the horse onward, feeling a strange chill in his bones, and somehow the horse quickens, running as fast as the others, even seeming less tired than the other horses when the party finally stops to rest. But the Draghkar soon swoops over them, spooking the horses and letting Moiraine know that it has already reported their location to its superiors. As they race toward the ferry, Rand begins to see a fog appearing, first in scattered spots, and then in a bank that hides them from view. The fog feels unnaturally chilling to the touch, and Rand realizes that it has been created by Moiraine.
They reach the town of Taren Ferry, where the river and ferry (as the name would suggest) are located, and Lan uses a combination of money and intimidation to get the ferry master to take them across, despite the fact that it is not yet dawn. Once on the other side Lan distracts the ferry workers with more gold while Moiraine sinks the ferry by creating a whirlpool. Rand and his friends have many questions about the mist and the sinking of the ferry, but except for explaining that she is shrouding the river as a diversion to make the Draghkar think they are traveling on it, Moiraine isn’t in the mood to be questioned.
Moiraine also uses her magic to strengthen the party as they travel, removing the physical and mental effects of fatigue and aiding them in sleep. She also tells Egwene that, the moment Moiraine first saw her in the village, she knew that Egwene was one of the very few with a strong innate “spark” for the ability to channel the One Power. She explains to Egwene how her “change” will soon come upon her and how she will suffer and could even die without instruction in how to channel. She also explains how the male half of the Power is tainted, describing it as covered by a filth like oil lying on the surface of water; the water is still pure, but unable to be touched without becoming fouled by the contaminant. Egwene is nervous but excited at the prospect of becoming an Aes Sedai, wanting the reassurance that only the male half of the Power is evil, and so then only men can be evil. But Moiraine explains that the men who “broke the world” were not evil but insane, and that the Power is only a tool. The women who now wield it, she says, are as complex and different, good or bad, as any other group of women. She also accidentally mentions that there is another woman with the ability in Two Rivers, but declines to say who.
Rand isn’t sure how he feels about all this Aes Sedai learning, however. He eavesdrops on some of Egwene’s lessons, but like everyone else, including Perrin and Mat, he is still uncertain of Moiraine and her motives, skeptical of the Power in general and of the Aes Sedai. He also seems to resent Egwene’s ambition, and when she decides that she will no longer wear her hair braided, as is the custom of the adult women of the Two Rivers, he gets into an argument with her over it, even going so far as to loudly compare the Aes Sedai to Darkfriends, servants of the Dark One. After that, he and Egwene don’t talk to each other.
Mat talks a lot, on the other hand. Except for Rand and Egwene’s arguments and Lan training the boys in the use of their weapons, their journey post-ferry is quiet, so Mat decides that they’ve outrun the danger and that there is no reason to go all the way to see the Aes Sedai at Tar Valon when instead they could just go and explore the world. But Moiraine assures them, quite firmly, that they are still, and always will be, in danger. She tells them that the Dark One wants them, and that she would kill them herself rather than allow him to have what he wants.
On that sobering note they arrive at Baerlon, where Moiraine and Lan are known under pseudonyms and folks are on edge because of the presence of Whitecloaks, also known as the Children of the Light. A chatty gatekeeper confides that the Children are probably all worked up over the existence of a possible Dragon Reborn, or maybe of a battle involving the Aes Sedai, and Moiraine is clearly concerned, although she keeps her reaction reserved and her thoughts to herself. Lan guides them to an inn called the Stag and Lion while Thom tells Rand a little more about the prophecies about the Dragon Reborn, most of which is somewhat gibberish to Rand.
* * *
Moiraine’s instruction to Egwene on using saidar, the female half of the One Power, give us our first look into how the magical system works. I was intrigued when Egwene complained that it was unfair for men to be stronger in earth and fire while women’s abilities lay more in air and water. When she states that men have the stronger abilities, Moiraine corrects her, pointing out that there is no mountain so strong that it cannot be worn away by water, and no fire so great that a wind cannot blow it out. Thus, the idea of the two sides of the Power seem to operate on a principle like that of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy. The idea here is that the two sides are exact opposites, but that they are equal in strength and in importance in the proper functioning of the universe.
I actually really like this idea. It’s an old one, but it’s a classic for a reason. C.S. Lewis uses it, a little less obviously but I think very intentionally, with the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Jadis is feminine, associated with darkness, cold, and winter, and she possesses the power of transformation. All these are associated with Yin. Aslan is masculine, associated with light and the sun, warmth, youth and renewal, and has the power to provide form to existence. All these are qualities that belong to Yang. Of course, Jadis is evil and Aslan is good, which is where we depart into a more western Christian philosophy, but even in the idea of good vs. evil there is a notion of balance. Jadis’s claim on Edmund’s life and Aslan’s subsequent sacrifice are only possible because the magic of the world demands such a balance, because the good belong to Aslan and his world and the evil belong to Jadis’s.
In Jordan’s universe, water belongs to yin and fire belongs to yang, just as water (and air) are the sides that women channelers are stronger in, and fire (and earth) appeal best to male channelers. It also seems that men have more raw power and strength, while women’s abilities are about technique and skill. Maybe patience, too. Interestingly, the physical descriptions seem to fit with the skill sets, men like Lews Therin Telamon are physically large and powerful, whereas all three channeling women we have encountered so far are described as being very petite, pretty, and big eyed. (Note: I’m making a guess here that Nynaeve is the Two Rivers woman Moiraine alluded to. Ya’ll know the drill; don’t give it away!)
I wonder if this idea of balance and cooperation between the two sides will have any relevance as we learn more about what happened to Lews Therin and the polluting of saidin. Since only men were involved in the Breaking of the World, perhaps it was due to the fact that both sides were apparently not working together during the assault on the Dark One that resulted in the madness that male channelers experience. No balance, and thus the world is broken.
I’m also curious to know whether using the Power feels the same for both male and female channelers. I noticed that cold has been associated with magic use a few times; Rand notices that the fog Moiraine created seeps an unnatural cold into his skin, and when he willed Bela to run faster in what appears to be unconscious channeling, he felt as if “his bones were freezing.” Of course there’s the taint of saidin to worry about, but after that, do the two sides feel different to work with? Is saidar more delicate and precise, while saidin feels more like a blunt weapon? Or is the difference more about the human beings who channel the magic, rather than the magic itself?
I have to admit, I have some serious reservations about sharp personality and purpose divides based on gender. I would like the idea of two equal and opposing sides better if it were more random, like two Hogwarts houses determined by your natural skillset, rather than having your natural skillset predetermined by your gender. As it is, I have a suspicion that despite Moiraine’s assurances to Egwene, the action and the narration are going to lean very heavily into “male” heroism and strength, that this is their story and it’s going to feel like their world. Binary divisions in general are problematic, and as we all know, separate but equal is never really equal. After all, if there are two sides to the One Power, shouldn’t there be two Dragons, one for each side? I feel like part of the theme of the series is going to be about re-achieving balance, but if it’s only Rand responsible for fixing his previous incarnation’s mistakes, I don’t feel like that is true balance at all.
That being said, it is far too early to tell where the series is going to go. But I can tell you know thing I do know, which is that sooner or latter, Mat’s big mouth is going to get him, and the rest of the party, into trouble.
Think I’m right? Already know because you’ve been a loyal fan of these books for years? Either way, I hope you’ll join me next time for talk of inns and innkeepers, bad dreams (or are they memories?) and the fact that no group calling themselves “the Children” of something is ever a good thing. (Chapters 14-17)
Sylas Barrett lives and works in Brooklyn. He’s not a fan of the binary but he is big fan of water magic, and would very much like to make whirlpools.