Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading the Wheel of Time: Black Ravens and Whitecloaks in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World (Part 9)

“Crebain! From Dunland!”

Just kidding, it’s actually ravens, but they’re a lot more frightening than Saruman’s spies were in The Fellowship of The Ring. Ravens have a long history in mythology and fiction and are usually depicted as evil or bad omens, due to their appearance and the fact that they are carrion eaters. But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a story that contained quite such a vicious number of them. Not even in The Birds. (There were ravens in The Birds, right?)

And possibly even worse even than giant clouds of evil ravens who will tear you to pieces on sight, we also have a return this week of the Children of the Light and their creepy way of doing the devil’s work in the name of God. This week we are covering Chapter 29 and 30, and I have a lot to say about the Whitecloaks, so batten down the hatches folks.

Chapter 29 opens with Elyas setting a grueling pace as he leads Perrin and Egwene towards Caemlyn. In addition to pushing them, Elyas is very concerned that they leave no trace of their passing, be it evidence of their campsite or even a branch being broken as the travelers pass. Neither Egwene nor Perrin have any idea what it is that Elyas is worried might see signs of them, although Perrin knows through the wolves that it isn’t Trollocs. The wolves know that there aren’t any Trollocs nearby; but they do not know what it is Elyas is so concerned about, and his behavior is a bit baffling to Egwene and Perrin, especially when the land becomes hillier and Elyas insists on going around every rise and ridge, even though it costs them time and effort.

The soon learn, however, what it is that Elyas fears will spot them. Forced to cross a ridge that is too long for them to go around, Elyas allows Perrin to scout ahead with him before they cross. Perrin is nearly convinced that all this caution is for nothing, knowing that the wolves have already scouted ahead and found nothing dangerous, when a huge flock of birds bursts from the trees below the ridge. A hunt, Elyas calls it, and decides that they must hurry to find a safe place he knows of, but as they are hurrying onward, they witness a fox chased down by a group of ravens and brutally pecked to death. As they rush onward, hoping not to be seen, a single raven flies out of a tree, spotting them and taking off, no doubt to tell its companions. Perrin know he has to take it down before it can get away, but it is Egwene’s sling that knocks the bird from the sky.

They run onwards, always pausing to make sure the flock of ravens stays ahead of them, but Perrin becomes aware that the wolves, circling behind them, have encountered a group of ravens. They fight the birds off, warning Elyas and Perrin of the danger that comes from behind as well as flies before them. Aware that Elyas is waiting for Perrin to admit what he knows, Perrin gasps out that there are ravens behind them, confirming the truth of his ability to understand them for Egwene.

Running in earnest, desperate and tired beyond what he thinks they can endure, Perrin becomes aware of how long it will be until the ravens behind catch them up, and he feels increasing despair that they cannot outrun the creatures to the safe place Elyas says he knows. Knowing that the ravens will catch up to them in about an hour, before the sun sets, Perrin wrestles with the question of whether or not to tell Egwene that there is no hope. He decides to allow her the mercy of ignorance, but also decides that, if he must, he will kill Egwene with his own axe rather than let her die a horrible, agonizing death under hundreds of raven beaks. But just then something changes, he feels a shock like cold run through him and it both takes his breath and refreshes him somehow. Egwene senses something too, saying that she feels like she has lost something. Elyas is just amused, however, laughing at their confusion and telling them that they are safe. They are in a stedding.

Making camp, Egwene and Perrin notice a strange stone that turns out to be part of a statue. Elyas tells them the story of Artur Hawkwing, the High King, and how he united the lands into a single kingdom. He tells them that the statue was erected by Artur Hawkwing’s adoring citizens, with the intention of building a city around it, but Artur Hawkwing died and his children fought for the right to follow him and the united lands fell apart again. Now only the statue remains, for Perrin, Egwene, and Elyas to rest uneasily beside. But it is not Artur Hawkwing’s eye that they fear.

Perrin, also, is struggling with a different kind of fear. He goes to sit a little ways away from the others, to sit and contemplate the horrible truth that he had been close to striking Egwene down with his own axe. Feeling guilty and horrified, he’s prepared to cast the weapon away, but Elyas comes to talk to him. He asks Perrin if he hates Egwene, suggests that Perrin wanted to kill her because she was slowing them down, to which Perrin responds incredulously. Elyas tells Perrin that he is certain Egwene would have preferred the merciful death to the brutal one by the ravens, even as Elyas himself would have. Perrin is convinced that he will never be able to use the axe, but Elyas is sure that he will. He tells Perrin to keep the axe as long as he doesn’t like it or want to use it, and that the time to cast it away will be if those facts are no longer true.

Before the conversation can go any further, Elyas and Perrin are struck with a powerful sending from the wolves, and they both race back to Egwene, hurrying to put out their fire and scatter their campsite. Elyas tells Egwene and Perrin to run and hide, as Egwene demands to know what they are running from.

In the falling dark, Perrin finds a rocky slab to hide them under, rock that turns out to be a hand from the Hawkwing statue. Despite the fact that Perrin seems to be able to see unusually well in the dark, they decide it will be too difficult to try to run in the dark from the men on horseback who the wolves say smells “wrong, the way a rabid dog smells wrong.”

Perrin admits to Egwene that the men saw one of the wolves, Wind, and that they are hunting them with torches. Many of the wolves are already hurt by the ravens, and as he hides with Egwene Perrin’s mind is with the wolves as they try to fight off the men, snatching them from saddles, hamstringing their horses, trying not to defeat them so much as to make the fight not worth their while. But instead of retreating to the safety of a firelit camp, the men continue to hunt them. And then they discover Perrin and Egwene’s hiding place.

Perrin is horrified when he recognizes them as Whitecloaks. Calling up to the sheltering hand, the men demand that if there is anyone there who understands human speech, they should give themselves up. Perrin struggles with the decision, considering running, considering surrender, knowing that Elyas and the wolves are still out there in the dark and could come for them. Egwene suggests surrender, certain that if they run they will be killed. Reluctantly, the two leave the hand and walk down towards the Whitecloaks, and Perrin has just about convinced himself to drop his weapon as ordered when Hopper, coming to the defense of his human brother, attacks. He calls to Perrin to run and kills one of the Whitecloaks before the spears of the others can take him out. Perrin attacks as well, and as pain floods through him, he isn’t certain which of them is dying.

Perrin awakes in a tent beside Egwene, both bound and being carefully watched by an enigmatic older man with an air of authority about him. He has collected all their possessions. When another man comes to report, Perrin and Egwene learn that he is the Lord Captain of this group of Whitecloaks. The man, whom the Captain addresses as Child Byar, estimates that his company had been attacked by “fifty [wolves] or more” and besides Egwene and Perrin, “at least a dozen other men,” who were alerted to the Children of the Light’s presence by, he suspects, spies within their ranks. But the Captain is merely amused. Lord Captain Bornhald however, chides him gently, suggesting that Byar is young and inexperienced such matters, estimating the wolves’ number more correctly and suggesting that the travelers were at the stedding for the water, even as the Children of the Light were.

It is clear to Perrin that Byar holds a deep hatred for him and Egwene, although Perrin cannot quite figure out why. The two Whitecloaks begin to question them, and although Perrin and Egwene protest that they are not Darkfriends and do not deserve such ill treatment, they find Bornhald difficult to convince and Byar quick to hurt them if they do not speak politely or if they are suspected of lying. At first, Perrin and Egwene give too much of themselves away, as Perrin tries to convince the men that wolves are not creatures of the Dark One, and Egwene accidentally gives away too much knowledge of how Trollocs look. Perrin’s coin, too, is suspicious to Borhals, who recognizes it as a mark of Tar Valon. Eventually Perrin manages to offer a story close enough to the truth, passing of their knowledge as gleaned accidentally through chance encounters and misadventures on their travels from the Two Rivers. Although not enough to get them released, the story seems plausible enough that Bornhald has them untied, and all but their weapons returned to them. He suggests that they need a better story, though, and states his belief that Egwene and Perrin might be lead away from the Shadow and brought back to the light. Or Egwene, at least. For Perrin, who killed two of the Children of the Light in his rage over Hopper’s death, he says there can only be one fate; a gibbet.

* * *

Dear readers, oh my gentle friends, I have died a little inside this week. Reading the end of Chapter 30 was like having cavity drilled in my soul. After the dynamic excitement and vivid horror of the raven chase, Bornhald and Byar’s brutal good-cop, bad cop routine really set me back on my heels.

I was a sensitive child growing up, and a lot of scary movies and even literature were a challenge. But I loved fantasy and science fiction, and my tolerance for fantasy violence was much higher than in other aspects of fiction. My mother asked me about it once, and my explanation was simple: it’s not real. There is a certain disconnect from reality that comes with shooting someone with a blaster rather than a gun, or torturing someone with lightning that shoots out of your fingers as you cackle maniacally rather than the way it is actually done to war prisoners. So maybe this disconnect is also why, as perfectly brutal and terrifying as it was when the group of ravens pecked that fox to death, I actually enjoyed the scare. The portrayal of (as I’ve put it before) Evil-with-a-capital-E hits home in a beautiful way, reminding the reader, and Perrin, of what, exactly, the Dark One is; destruction, deformation, chaos, pain, and death. The opposite of creation, I suppose, which is the point of any Devil-figure.

All our traditional supernatural boogeymen—vampires, zombies, ghosts, and other monsters—represent something besides the literal. They are stand-ins for metaphorical fears, and I think the Fades and Trollocs are as well. The are real physical threats to the heroes, but they are also a representation of what the corruption of Ba’alzamon does to people and the other beings of Creation. The rat dream may be horrible to read about, but the reader doesn’t expect to literally encounter such a situation in their real lives. But zealots? Those we very well may. There are few things more frightening than someone who will do something that you see as horribly evil, but they believe to be moral and true. That disconnect in the Children of the Light is far more frightening to me than a shadow man whose cloak doesn’t move in the wind. (Not to say I want to meet a Fade on my way home from work tomorrow, or anything. I’m just fairly certain that I won’t.)

You know what else is chilling? Perrin’s difficult decision about how to spare Egwene, as much as he could, from what appeared to be certain death at the beaks of the ravens. Although made in a rush under circumstances that made it difficult to think anything carefully through, Perrin has to ask himself whether it is kinder, whether it is more moral, to tell Egwene the despairing truth or let her live in hope, even if it is a false hope. His decision that he will kill her himself rather than let her suffer is made with even less time for thought, almost instinctively, and it is interesting he can only consider the meaning of that choice later, when they are safe and there is room for it.

It isn’t surprising that Perrin should feel horrified at the fact that he was ready to kill Egwene. I think, as Elyas does, that his decision was the right one, but you’re never going to feel good about considering killing one of your closest friends, even if it was the right choice, and Perrin is not quite capable of working through the understandably complex feelings he is experiencing. Elyas’s reverse psychology helps a little, but the questions Perrin is grappling with are not just of whether his motives were good. He is, I think, also struggling with the burden of responsibility that comes with being a warrior. His worry over becoming the sort of person who enjoys killing is understandable and wise, but I think he doesn’t consider that he may also be afraid of what he could be asked to do in the future. Carrying that axe doesn’t just mean striking down Evil and feeling righteous and strong about it. It also means making a decision that may be no better than the lesser of two evils. It also means paying a price for your actions, and perhaps now Perrin may start to understand a little bit of what Seeker Raen meant when he said that violence “harms the one who does it as much as the one who receives it.” If they had been attacked by the ravens, Perrin wouldn’t have had to live very long with the pain of having killed his friend, but even killing as an act of mercy would leave a scar on his soul, so to speak. It’s clear that Perrin has a protector’s instincts, which I think showed in his debate with Raen about the Way of the Leaf back in Chapter 25, and this is something that the Tinker’s pacifist way of life does not address, at least as far as we have heard of it so far. Raen says that if a man wanted to hit him, he would ask why, and if the man still wanted to harm him, rob him, or kill him, he would run away. But what if Raen saw that man attack someone else? Would he intervene? What intervention would be appropriate? Talking but not physical restraint? Physical restraint but only if it guaranteed that he wouldn’t harm the aggressor in any way? The line quickly becomes a lot more blurry than one might like. Raen is not a leaf, after all, he is a human person. And a human’s life is a lot more complicated than a plant’s.

But whatever Raen might have chosen in that hypothetical, this is a question that Perrin himself is going to have to grapple with moving forward. Almost immediately, in fact, and since his connection with the wolves has already grown quite a bit, it ends up being more instinctual than anything else. When Hopper attacks the Whitecloaks, Perrin reacts without thinking. He reacts to their aggression, to the killing of Hopper, but also I think to everything that has come before—the persistent hunting of the wolves, the awareness of the danger the Children pose to him and Egwene, even the way that he is beginning to smell the “wrongness” in them as the wolves do. When the time comes, Perrin reacts not as a leaf, but as a wolf.

And he does not seem to regret that choice; if anything he’s ready to back it up by attacking Byar in the tent. Perrin recognizes instantly that this man is an enemy, noting that “a cruel light burned in his sunken eyes, as surely as flames burned in Ba’alzamon’s.”

Here again we have this question of what it truly means to fight your enemy. Perrin and Egwene are inexperienced enough that they don’t seem to realize quite how skillfully they are being played by Captain Bornhald. Even the descriptions of him are deceptive; “a kindly grandfather who knew his grand-children had been up to some mischief,” for example. At one point, when Bornhald stands up for Egwene and Perrin in the face of Byar’s demands for their death, Perrin “almost [feels] affection for the grandfatherly man who stood between them and Byar.” But he doesn’t seem aware of how skillfully he and Egwene are manipulated into talking by Bornhald’s deceptively gentle questioning and apparent logic, and the way it is made to look even more inviting and reasonable in comparison to Byar’s angry violence. And nothing is perhaps more classic good-cop/bad cop than Byar’s threats of violence coupled with Bornhnald’s gentle plea for Egwene and Perrin to be polite “for Child Byar’s sake.” Perrin rightly recognizes, at least, that Bornhald could stop Byar from hurting them, but chooses not to.

It does not seem that Perrin or Egwene recognize Bornhald from Baerlon; they didn’t get up close and personal with him the way Rand and Mat did, but we the readers remember the name, and there was nothing “grandfatherly” about the way the man acted then. That was just jerk cop, really. But I’m not fooled by this grandpa stuff.

There is also something deeply unsettling about the infantilization of Byar’s honorific as “Child,” too. I don’t know if it’s used for all members of the Children of the Light save those of high rank or if it’s some kind of title used for those who are initiates or new recruits, but it makes me think of how many adults don’t consider children to be full people with the ability to figure out right and wrong for themselves, but as vessels of bad instincts that must be told what to do and how to do it, or else they’re guaranteed to grow up into bad people. This kind of bad-faith assumption fits right in with everything else we have seen of the Children of the Light thus far; Bornhald and Byar have already made their decision about Perrin and Egwene and the interrogation is only to gain information that supports their conclusions. They tend to look at everything as being evil and dark until it can be proved otherwise, which is probably part of the reason they tend to assume that anyone who argues with them, obstructs them in any way, or disagrees with any of their methods is a Darkfriend. I mean, Bornhald basically claimed that all of Baerlon was allied with the Shadow because someone knocked some barrels at him. Okay, probably also because of all the obstruction the Whitecloaks were facing from the town and its Governor, but that just speaks to the rest of the evil of the Children; power-lust.

In any case, it is weird to hear Byar being called “Child” when he is a grown man. Even if he doesn’t particularly act like one. The obedience that is clearly demanded of members of their order speaks to a level of discipline that could border on brainwashing, or at least subjugation. I am thinking suddenly of the Trollocs collapsing and tearing themselves apart when Lan beheaded the Myrddraal back in Chapter 18, and the other examples of the way the Trollocs seem to be controlled or directed by the Myrddraal by some kind of mental control or will. The question of free will in The Wheel of Time is one I have talked about before (in Week 4, to be precise) but that was more in the context of fate and the way it plays out in this universe’s world building. Now I am interested to see how the moral question of individual choice verses establishment control plays into the themes of the story and the contrast between Dark and Light. Of course, the question of free will is one that dominates most of Western fiction, and in modern times free will is generally regarded as being incredibly important to the side of Good, while the forces of Evil can often be recognized by either willing submission to, or the forced control of, the head Bad Guy. So far, The Eye of the World seems to be tending towards a similar theme; even the terror of the ravens is enhanced by the way they seem to move as if they have one mind.

I am guessing that the fight between individual and establishment is going to get really interesting when we get to Tar Valon and have to contend with the full order of the Aes Sedai. In the meantime, there’s always the comments section. See you down below!

(Next week I will be covering Chapters 31-33!)

Sylas K Barrett loves wolves very much, and that is just one more reason to HIGHLY DISLIKE the Whitecloaks. RIP Hopper, the wolf with the cutest backstory.

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