Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading the Wheel of Time: Learning Courage in Crushing Darkness in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World (Part 16)

Welcome back to Reading The Wheel of Time, my friends! This week we’re covering Chapters 44 and 45, “The Dark Along the Ways” and “What Follows in Shadow”. It’s been a bit since The Eye of the World heavily reminded me of its The Lord of the Rings homaging (other than all the innkeepers, but that appears to be a continual adventure all on its own). But we definitely get a bit of that “mines of Moria” feeling this week. I compared Shadar Logoth to Moria before, and I think that there is certainly a comparison to be made between Mashadar and the Black Wind, although the Black Wind seems to be at least a somewhat sentient entity, rather than the mindless force of Mashadar, which makes it even more dangerous. Mashadar can’t chase you deliberately, but Machin Shin will, apparently, delight in it.

Chapter 44 opens with Master Gill taking the party out of the inn through the kitchens (the cook and her team are perturbed until Master Gill says something soothing, then they continue on like nothing happened). He leads them out into the dark stableyard, so dark that Rand observes that he has to trust Master Gill’s knowledge of his place, since he literally can’t see where they are going, and Loial complains about not using a lamp.

In the stable, all their horses are waiting, including new ones for Rand and Mat and a giant horse for Loial. Mat and Rand have a whispered conversation about the changes to Perrin; at first Rand is worried that it is the dagger making Mat suspicious, but it’s just an ordinary observation of Perrin’s subdued manner and the change in his eyes. Rand assures Mat that Moiraine knows about whatever it is, and she says that Perrin is fine. Master Gill’s stablemen open a hidden door in the back of the stable which leads them out into a little run between the buildings, and they set off, with Loial leading, following some sense or instinct toward the Waygate.

They travel as quietly as they can, nervous of being noticed by the Whitecloaks watching the inn, and then, as dawn begins to approach, by any morning traveler. One man does get startled by the over-large shape of Loial at the head of the group as they made their way through the streets and alleyways, and Rand begins to think that they must get out of sight soon or be discovered. Just then, Loial stops in front of an inn, still closed for the night, and declares that the Waygate is underneath it.

They find a cellar entrance and are fortunate enough that the doors that open outward are wide enough to allow the horses in. Moiraine taps the lock with her staff and it opens, and everyone is able to disappear into the empty cellar and shut the doors behind them. Inside the mostly empty cellar, they find a wall that is different from the other three, intricately carved stone showing the pattern of leaves and vines, with a center even more beautifully carved than the rest. Moiraine finds a single leaf amongst the design, an avendesora leaf, and although it seems as much a part of the wall as any other bit of carving, she takes it out and puts it back in a slightly lower position, and the stone wall splits and swings open into a doorway, showing a dully reflective surface in between. Loial makes a comment, half frightened, half sad, about how he has heard that the entrances used to shine like a mirror, and that the ways were once bright with the sun and the sky. But Moiraine reminds them again that time is short, and Lan leads his horse in first.

Rand follows after Loial, afraid but forcing himself to walk through, a strange cold sensation sliding over his skin and then suddenly gone, and on the other side he finds total darkness, only the light of the lamps they brought struggling to keep it at bay. Looking back at the others he finds they seem to be moving very slowly, and Loial explains that time moves differently, faster, inside the Ways. They watch as one by one the rest come through, Moraine following last and moving the leaf again so that the doors swing closed behind her.

Rand observes that the darkness seems more oppressive each time they add another light, as though it were pushing back against the intrusion. They all are drawn to huddle together, comforted by each other’s presence in the unfamiliar darkness. They follow a white line running away from the Waygate into the darkness until they come to a slab of stone, which Loial calls the Guiding, and although the stone is pocked and broken in places, he can still read the swirling Ogier script that tells him where to go next. Loial leads them on, over bridges that stretch off into the darkness, and although Rand cannot figure out what holds them up, he’s made nervous by the pitted and broken areas of stone, which look to him like acid rain or like the stone is rotting. The network of bridges and ramps leading in different directions and connected by spaces that Loial calls Islands also seems slightly familiar to Rand, although he decides that it is because his mind is desperate to find something familiar in the intense unfamiliarity of the place.

They eat lunch in the saddle, which improves Rand’s mood enough that he starts to think that maybe the Ways aren’t really that bad. Just then, the bridge they are crossing ends abruptly, broken off in a jagged gap

Rand edges his horse up to the edge to look down; if there is a bottom, he can’t see it, but he can see the other half of the bridge on the other side of the broken gap, and he gets an answer to his question about what holds it up. Nothing. Abruptly, the stone under his horse’s feet feels “as thin as paper.” He backs away carefully, as Nynaeve starts to complain that Moiraine has wasted their time taking them all here, only to have to return to Caemlyn. Loial, meanwhile, is faintly panicking, worried that the Ways might be collapsing around them. Moiraine reassures them both, telling Nynaeve that there is more than one path to get where they need to go and assuring Loial that, while the damage may be unsettling, it is clearly old and that the Ways aren’t collapsing quite so rapidly as that. Loial is reassured, but also suggests that he could lead them more quickly and easily to Tar Valon or to his own Stedding Shangtai, but Moiraine insists again on Fal Dara.

Loial leads them back to the most recent Guiding and finds a new path, although he’s still wistful about taking the bridges to his home. Wanting to comfort him, Rand suggests that when everything is over, he and Loial can show each other their homes, Rand visiting the stedding and Loial coming to see the Two Rivers. But Loial’s answer is a somber one.

“You believe it will ever be over, Rand?”

[Rand] frowned at the Ogier.

“You said it would take two days to reach Fal Dara.”

“Not the Ways, Rand. All the rest.” Loial looked over his shoulder at the Aes Sedai, talking softly with Lan as they rode side-by-side. “What makes you believe it will ever be over?”

They make a camp on one of the Islands, cooking with a small stove that Lan says Warders use in the Blight, and Loial talks about the green grass and fruit trees that used to grow there. Nynaeve asks if Moiraine will set any wards around the camp, but Moiraine explains that the taint is so strong in the Ways that she doesn’t want to use the One Power unless she has to—anything she did would certainly be corrupted. Noticing how gloomy this makes everyone, she offers a piece of good news to cheer them up. Moiraine doesn’t believe that Thom Merrilin is dead, despite the story of what happened to him with the Fade, because the people of Whitebridge would certainly have told her if a gleeman had died in their town. She says that Thom’s fate is bound up with theirs, that he is too important now to be lost so easily.

Rand asks if she knows this because of what Min saw, which Moiraine demures from by explaining how little she, or even Min, understands of Min’s visions, though Moiraine insists that, whether it be a new talent or one brought back from older times, what Min sees is true. Mat comments that Min spent more time seeing Rand than anything, and Egwene asks suspiciously about what that means. Rand tries to get out from under the question, but it is Perrin who deflects, pointing out that Min was “just somebody who worked at the inn in Baerlon.… Not like Aram.” This leads to a short conversation where Perrin prods Egwene about dancing and she abruptly decides to go to sleep. Mat brings up Else Grinwell, the farmer’s daughter, and Rand also is suddenly ready for bed. The rest of the party follows suit, but they find it difficult to drift off with the darkness all around them, thinking about the men who made the Ways and the taint that suffuses it. It is only when Moiraine comes around to whisper in each of their ears that they start to relax.

To Rand she whispers; “Even here, your destiny protects you. Not even the Dark One can change the Pattern completely. You are safe from him, so long as I am close. Your dreams are safe. For a time, yet, they are safe.” And although Rand wonders if it could be that simple, if Moiraine thinks it is that simple, he does relax and fall asleep.

In the “morning” they start off again, eating breakfast in the saddle, but it isn’t long until Lan announces that someone is follow them. He can’t tell if it is a servant of the Dark One or not—others protest that what else but evil could be in the Ways, and Lan points out that they are there, after all. Lan believes that whoever it is possibly isn’t trying to catch them. Because of that, Lan wants to circle around and try to catch their lurker instead, but Loial assures Lan that, even if the Warder can read Ogier script, he could never find his way back to them or through the Ways by himself—no one but an Ogier can. Moiraine urges them on again, deciding not to trouble whoever is behind them as long as the lurker does not trouble the travelers.

They press on, but a new danger rears its head immediately when they encounter the next Island and Guiding. Moiraine and Lan see heavy, chiseled lines purposely cut in the guiding and become instantly alert, ready to attack or be attacked. They circle around the group in ever-widening spirals, looking for something. Moiraine tells the others that the lines are Trolloc runes; they, and perhaps the Fades, have learned how to use the Ways. There is at least one Waygate in the Blight, she explains, and they must have moved through the ways to reach the Two Rivers, as well as to gather their forces near Caemlyn without drawing any attention from the armies of the lands in between. But, she continues, they must not know all the Ways, or they would have gone right into Caemlyn through the gate the party used to sneak out.

Just then Lan calls out that the Trollocs do not use the Ways easily, and they ride over to see that he has discovered a bridge where many Trollocs have brutally died, consumed by stone that seems to have bubbled up and made them a part of it, swallowing them down or leaving them half-consumed and swollen into pitted stone themselves, horrified screams frozen in their faces. Mat throws up, and Egwene and Rand draw close together holding each other. Nynaeve is horrified that the same could happen to the party, but Moraine thinks that it is more likely that the male Aes Sedai laid traps for Trollocs to protect the Ways. In any case, they must hurry on.

Even though Moiraine doesn’t think any of the traps are set for them, she checks each bridge Loial indiates before the party steps onto them. Rand watches for Trollocs to emerge from the darkness, but the journey returns to its earlier monotony, through lunch and beyond, and Rand’s mind begins to drift a little. It is then that he feels the wind. For a moment all he can think about is how nice it is to feel wind again, when suddenly he remembers that there is no wind or rain in the Ways, and asks Loial about it.

Loial pulled his horse up just short of the next Island and cocked his head to listen. Slowly his face paled, and he licked his lips. “Machin Shin,” he whispered hoarsely. “The Black Wind. The Light illumine and protect us. It’s the Black Wind.”

“How many more bridges?” Moiraine asked sharply. “Loial, how many more bridges?”

“Two. I think, two.”

“Quickly, then,” she said, trotting Aldieb onto the Island. “Find it quickly!”

Loial reads the next Guiding quickly and they race ahead, galloping, no longer checking for traps. Two bridges later and they have found the white line that stretches from Guiding to Waygate and they follow it swiftly, but when they reach the vine-carved gate the key, the Avendesora leaf, isn’t there. Loial howls in despair, Mat curses, and Egwene clings to Rand’s arm, but Moiraine raises her staff and uses the flame that flies off of it—not white and pure as it had been before but sickly yellow and giving off a foul smoke—to begin to cut through the stone. The others huddle close, desperate, beginning to feel the wind stirring their cloaks.

Moiraine cuts a crack through the stone, an arch that once broken through will be big enough for them all to pass through, and then Lan and Mandarb knock it down with a shoulder-check move usually used by horses in battle, flying through the hazy doorway and into the morning light on the other side. Rand immediately pushes Bela’s head towards the opening and slaps the horse to get her to move, Moiraine shouting for everyone to follow.

She turns and shoots flame out into the darkness, and Rand can hear voices crying out in pain, in rage, promising horrible things to them as they scramble towards the exit. They plunge through the cold barrier, and Rand wonders, as he hangs suspended for a moment between the Ways and the regular world, if the wind could catch them like that. Then he is through, and though Lan is ready to ride back in for Moiraine, she backs out just behind them, her staff still pointed into the darkness. Darkness and the wind press up against the dull barrier of the Waygate, and they can hear the voices in it, hungry for pain, eager to inflict pain and hear them scream, to tear off their skin and plait it into strips, dark and hungry but unable to reach them, finally dissipating, leaving the mirrored opening as it was before.

They all relax, with even Lan slumping visibly in the saddle, as Moiraine breathes in relief that she had hoped the wind could not pass the gate and throws her staff down in disgust, more than half of it now tainted with black char. Nynaeve asks what it was, not its name (which Loial reminds her of) but what it actually was.

“Something left from the Time of Madness, perhaps,” Moiraine replied. “Or even from the War of the Shadow, the War of Power. Something hiding in the Ways so long it can no longer get out. No one, not even among the Ogier, knows how far the Ways run, or how deep. It could even be something of the Ways themselves. As Loial said, the Ways are living things, and all living things have parasites. Perhaps even a creature of the corruption itself, something born of the decay. Something that hates life and light.”

“Stop!” Egwene cried. “I don’t want to hear any more. I could hear it, saying. . . .” She cut off, shivering.

“There is worse to be faced yet,” Moiraine said softly. Rand did not think she meant it to be heard.

Moiraine observes that the open gate is very dangerous, and that when they reach Fal Dara they must have men sent to wall it up and guard it. And then they turn away, towards the towers rising to the North.

 

The pacing of this section is really beautiful. After the huge amount of information imparted to the party and the reader in the last chapters, it’s nice to take a breath and take in the surroundings again, even if the surroundings are incredibly creepy.

Actually, it’s nice possibly because it’s incredibly creepy. I’ve mentioned before that I find Jordan’s sweeping descriptions of large areas hard to follow, like during Perrin and Egwene’s travels across the hilly lands with Elyas. The description of the layout of the inner city at Caemlyn also didn’t really do it for me, but the way he sets up the look and feel of the Ways was incredibly evocative, and I found my mental image of the action quite vivid. For example, Rand’s observations that there appears to be space behind the Ways as you look back at the gate after stepping through, and Loial’s resulting explanation that you could go behind them and not be able to see them, but that he wouldn’t advise that because he’s pretty sure you could get lost and never find your way out. Or the manner in which the narration describes the darkness as pressing close, that it might as well have been a stone tunnel they traveled through, which gives such a specific feeling of a darkness; very different from the darkness of your bedroom in the wee hours, or a lonely country road on a cloudy night. The darkness feels more like a solid thing, more dark than dark, like a black cloak wrapped around you, closing in as you travel. It’s a great contrast to the blackness of the early morning when the party leaves; where the dark protected them from the eyes of their enemies, instead of threatening them with unseen horrors.

The description of stepping through the Waygate reminded me of the stargate in the movie Stargate and the early seasons of Stargate SG-1, a sort of bubble that you break the surface of, that is cold, and that you travel though in what feels like a single stretched out moment. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that perhaps the Waygates are a kind of portal or wormhole-like transit system leading to another world, or even dimension, that is geographically far away from the one that humanity currently inhabits. It’s even possible they did not create the ways from scratch but found an empty place to lay them out within. No one living knows, not the Aes Sedai nor the Ogier, so anything is really possible, and it’s great fodder for the reader’s imagination.

I did notice a few odd descriptions in this section. The stone is described as being irregularly pitted, as though by acid rain. Why would Rand know what acid rain is? Of course, in a world haunted by Ba’alzamon and the taint, acid rain doesn’t seem like something it couldn’t have, but the reader’s first association with acid rain is of course going to be pollution as it was known from the Industrial Revolution up to the modern day, which Jordan’s world doesn’t match. Also describing the journey is the sentence “The horses might have been walking a treadmill for the change around them.” This struck me at first as possibly anachronistic for the world, but I looked it up and the treadmill, or treadwheel, was actually invented way back in Roman times, and were commonly used in the 1800s to harness human or animal walking power to run machines, usually mills, and sometimes as punishment for prisoners sentenced to hard labor. So I learned something today, thank you Mr. Jordan. And Google.

Rand’s use of the candle and void trick that Tam taught him also caught my attention this week. It’s come up a few times before now, and I definitely expect it to be increasingly important. Perhaps he will use that skill to keep Ba’alzamon out of his mind. Perhaps he will be able to keep himself safe from the taint of saidin somehow. Or perhaps it will be some other danger that I haven’t thought or learned of yet. Who knows? (I mean, you all do, obviously. Now hush.) But it definitely reminds me of the way warrior characters often have some kind of meditation ritual, like the Litany Against Fear in Dune.

My favorite line of all in this section, and possibly in everything I’ve read so far, though, happens when they encounter the mutilated Trollocs on the bridge that leads to Tar Valon. Egwene hangs onto Rand for a while, and when she eventually lets go, Rand wishes she hadn’t “…and not just because it had felt good having her hold onto him that way. It was easier to be brave, he discovered, when someone needed your protection.”

One of my favorite aspects of epic fantasy quest stories is how they engage with the idea of what it means to be a hero, and what it means to be brave. From the fact that only Frodo is naturally selfless and unambitious enough to resist the corruption of the One Ring long enough to get to Mordor, to Taran in The Chronicles of Prydain, whose journey teaches him what a true hero is, that there is more honor in a plowed field than one soaked in blood, and that “every man is a hero if he strives more for others than himself alone” to the myriad of tales that explain how courage is not the absence of fear but perseverance in the face of it, epic fantasy quests often teach their young heroes, and therefore their readers, to dispel the traditional notions of heroism and bravery for a more complex, and ultimately rewarding, narrative.

As someone who is drawn to the protector figures in every story he reads, I was especially moved by this little lesson Rand has learned, and from a thematic point of view it’s probably the most important lesson for the Dragon to understand, since his entire existence is basically about serving the world as he stands against the Dark One on its behalf. (I’ve made the comparison to the bodhisattvas of Buddhism before, and I think it continues to serve well here.) I think this is a lesson Nynaeve also understands to some degree, and perhaps that is one of the reasons she continues to be so harsh with Moiraine, and why she gets a bit whiny when things go wrong; Moiraine and Lan are the leaders, who must be brave for everyone else, and so Nynaeve doesn’t have that need for outward courage spurring her on in the same way. It may also be, in her leadership role as Wisdom, that she’s not accustomed to having other people put on that brave face for her, which is why she is constantly misinterpreting Moiraine’s calm as foolishness or indifference.

So their mysterious follower in the darkness is probably that persistent crazy beggar, who is probably Padan Fain, who is currently playing the role of the Gollum of this book. I don’t know if the power of Mat’s dagger could be felt over the taint and evil of the Ways, but I suppose he could probably stay close enough to follow the lights without being seen, given how closely the darkness presses. But then, how does he see where he’s walking? Now that we know that the Trollocs and Fades got to the Two Rivers by the Waygate that used to be in Manetheren, the only question remains is how they knew to go there, and since Padan Fain is still the only link that I can see, I’m going to stick with that guess. If it was he who led the Dark One’s forces to Rand and Mat and Perrin, then perhaps he already has some knowledge of his own that is helping him navigate the Ways and follow the company?

Despite all that we learned in Chapter 42, there are still a lot of questions to be answered and I hope that Lan catches that beggar soon. I have a feeling even the Black Wind won’t stop him from chasing Rand, although it would not shock me if even the servants of the Dark One might not be immune to whatever that power is. Moiraine’s suggestion that it could come from the taint is an obvious one, and in that case the Machin Shin probably would leave the Dark One’s servants be, but if it comes from somewhere else it might have more of a mind of its own, a new evil changed by or perhaps grown in the ways, unforeseen and unknowable, in which case probably servants of Light and servants of Darkness are equally fair game to it, like they were for Mashadar. Perhaps Machin Shin is even outside the traditional sense of good an evil, in a way; if it is born out of the Ways somehow it may have no concept of the sort of life humans represent, and have no real concept of how they experience what it is doing to them. Perhaps from it’s perspective what is happening is only play, and it is only the human (or Trolloc) perspective that makes it so horrible. Either way, I’m sure Trollocs can scream just as well as humans or Ogier can. 

Brr, I freaked myself out a little just by typing that last sentence! And did enjoy the scare I got from this chapters, particularly the really good one liners, like the bit I quoted at the end of the recap, in which Moraine says there is worse than the Black Wind yet to come. And even more than the relics of bygone Ages that are scattered around this world, I think the Ways are a really fascinating example of how much knowledge has been lost to the Aes Sedai since the Breaking; Moiraine knows something about the Ways, she knows how to open them and can probably make some educated guesses about the manner in which certain things work, like the traps laid for the Trollocs, but she has little idea how the Ways were created or what side-effects could come from them. I did notice that Nynaeve, at least, can also feel the taint of One Power around them, the way Moiraine can, if not as keenly.

I hope you all had as much fun as I did this week! Next week we move on to Chapters 46 and 47, which is another big dump of information as the story coils itself like a spring for the climactic showdown and the reveal of the titular character, The Eye of the freaking World. Brace yourselves for reveals about my Padan Fain theories, more information about Lan and his Aragorn-like badass-ery, and Loial continuing to bemoan the situation he’s gotten himself into, even as he delights in all the new sights and adventures.

And speaking of badass-ery, that war-horse shoulder check was a thing of beauty. Moiraine was great too, fighting off the Black Wind with her lightning staff like Gandalf against the Balrog. I laughed out loud when she left the tainted staff behind; you all told me it was going to go away soon but I thought maybe that just meant that Jordan decided against keeping it as a device. Silly me, not giving our storyweaver enough credit!

Sylas K Barrett would not like to go into the Ways but he would like an Ogier guide. It’s quite clear that the Ogier tell the best stories, as long as you’ve got four or five hours  to spend listening to them. I’m kind of in love with Loial, too, he’s so big and knowledgeable and impressive to Rand, but you know the other Ogier and their Elders think of him like Curious George.

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