Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading the Wheel of Time: Between Desire and Compulsion in Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt (Part 11)

Welcome to week 11 of Reading The Great Hunt. Last time, I made an observation about Rand’s relationship with saidin* that lead to a lot of interesting observations from commenters. I made an observation about how Rand notices that he feels less alive after he stops touching saidin, and took it to mean that channeling is a such an intrinsic part of someone that if they are denied it they feel incomplete in some way, less whole, less their true selves. I’ve been seeing this theme in Jordan’s work since back when Moiraine forced Nynaeve to recognize her abilities back in the early days of The Eye of the World, and the theme of fear and denying one’s true self (or being forced to) shows up with Elyas and Perrin as well. I suspect it will continue to do so, but some of the commenters brought to my attention another interpretation of this moment that I had overlooked; the suggestion that the One Power has an addictive quality for those who use it, and one that can be very dangerous.

Given that this week’s chapters, 19 and 20, deal very prominently with Rand’s relationship to the void and the increasingly persistent call of saidin, this seems like a very important idea to revisit. Stay tuned after the recap for more thoughts on the draw of the One Power, questions of identity, and the difference between a desire and a compulsion.

Chapter 19 opens with Rand trying to sleep in the cold night in the foothills of Kinslayers Dagger. His mind wandering, he resolves that he will only wait one more day for Fain and the Darkfriends before moving on, but he has promised himself that before, and each time Selene has talked him out of it. He thinks about how Egwene would “sheer him” like a sheep if she saw the way Selene touched his arm, but reminds himself that Egwene is going to be an Aes Sedai.

Rand turns over, touching his sword and then finding the bundle of Thom’s things. He thinks about how happy he was in the time he spent on the road with Mat, performing in exchange for supper and shelter. Even running for his life, he was happier in his ignorance of what was truly happening to him. But now it is too late to go back.

Unable to get to sleep, Rand rolls over again, and catches sight of Selene bending over his saddlebags. He asks if she needs something, making her jump, and gets up to come over to where she is, thinking that he was certain he left his saddlebags closer, right next to him. Selene replies that she feels like her dress is dirty, and would like to brush it, and that she was hoping she could borrow one of his shirts to wear while she did it. Rand immediately feels relieved by the explanation; her dress doesn’t look at all dirty to him, but he knows what women are like. He digs out a shirt to give to her and she thanks him, immediately starting to undress. Rand spins around, amusing her with his embarrassment.

He tells Selene that they are going to leave tomorrow for Cairhein, given that it’s possible that they were wrong, and the Darkfriends could have taken a different pass after all. Selene insists that the other trail led them here, and that the Darkfriends will come, then tells Rand he can turn around. He loses track of his argument when he sees her in his shirt, sees her pale thighs in the moonlight. With Rand to flummoxed to speak, Selene continues, touching his back as she paints another picture of the glory he will achieve when he takes possession of the Horn. Just then, Hurin comes running into camp, calling for Rand. He stops dead when he catches sight of Selene, dropping his eyes and apologizing awkwardly. Loial, awakened by the commotion, also sees Selene’s clothes and is visibly shocked

Rather harshly, Rand asks Hurin what he wants, and Hurin explains that he’s noticed a fire in the distance, a few miles away, hidden but not from those ahead and above of the travelers. Rand knows Ingtar wouldn’t have reason to hide his fire, so it must be Fain. He declares that they will track Fain and his followers until Ingtar arrives to help them, responding to Selene’s protest by insisting that they can’t take the Horn from the Darkfriends by themselves. But Selene insists that they don’t know that they can’t, that Rand doesn’t even know how many followers Fain has, or even if the men camped down there do have the Horn. She suggests that Rand go down to get a closer look at the camp, and that he take Loial with him, since the Ogier has better night vision than a human and is strong enough to carry the chest if Rand does decide to take it, or, in Selene’s words makes “the right decision.” With Loial seconding the benefit of his night vision, Rand reluctantly agrees.

Rand gets his sword and, after having Hurin show him where the fire is, Rand and Loial take their horses and ride down towards the Darkfriend camp, Rand caught up by the thought of how Selene would receive him if he did return with the Horn. He asks Loial the meaning of alantin, the title Selene keeps calling the Ogier, and Loial explains that it is a word from the Old Tongue meaning “Brother”, and is short for tia avende alantin which means Brother of the Trees/Tree Brother. It is a very formal type of address, but Loial has heard that the noble houses of Cairhien are very formal, and the reminder of Selene’s status unsettles Rand. He tries not to think about his sudden urge to consider marrying Selene, and the void forms at that wish, without him having to call it at all. Rand resists the call of saidin with an effort, but decides to stay in the void, given how close the Darkfriends must be by this point. He tells himself he doesn’t have to touch saidin just because it is there.

When Rand feels that they must be close, he gets down off of his horse and tells Loial to do the same. His voice betrays some of the strain he is feeling as he resists saidin, and Loial notices, but Rand assures him that he’s fine. They creep closer until they can see the sleeping forms of men and Trollocs, and Rand spots the chest with the ruby-hilted dagger lying across it. He’s wondering why Fain would leave the dagger on top of the chest like that when Loial puts a hand over his mouth and silently indicates a Trolloc standing nearby, scenting the air. Rand stays still, calm and unfeeling inside the void, and after a few moments it settles down and goes to sleep.

Rand considers the chest, thinking of Selene, thinking of Ingtar and how there is no guarantee that he could have followed the trail without his sniffer, and decides that there will never be a better better chance to take the chest than this moment. He crawls forward on his stomach, ignoring Loial’s shocked gasp, ignoring his own distant thoughts about the madness of his choice, and crawls right up to the chest, finding it by touch. He snatches his hand back when it touches the dagger, remembering what it did to Mat, then decides he can risk snatching it as long as he tries to touch it as little as possible. He sticks it in his belt, and although he can feel the unnatural weight of its presence, he’s able to mostly ignore that with the help of the void.

Taking the hand of the Ogier, who has snuck up right behind Rand and looks faintly terrified, Rand places it on the chest and motions for Loial to lift it. The Ogier hesitates, then does, lifting the heavy chest easily by himself. They back out slowly, and just when Rand is sure they’ve gotten away unnoticed, the man sleeping nearest to the chest jumps up, and Rand hears Fain’s voice screaming for the others to wake up, and that “it” is gone.

Fain’s voice rose to a howl. “I know it is you, al’Thor! You’re hiding from me, but I know you are out there! Find him! Find him! Al’Thoooor!” Men and Trollocs scattered in every direction.

Wrapped in emptiness, Rand kept moving. Almost forgotten in entering the camp, saidin pulsed at him.

“He cannot see us,” Loial whispered low. “Once we reach the horses—”

A Trolloc leaped out of the dark at them, cruel eagle’s beak in a man’s face where mouth and nose should have been, scythe-like sword already whistling through the air.

Rand moved without thought. He was one with the blade. Cat Dances on the Wall. The Trolloc screamed as it fell, screamed again as it died.

“Run, Loial!” Rand commanded. Saidin called to him. “Run!”

Rand fights off Trollocs as Loial retreats, running smoothly and easily through the forms Lan taught him, tempted to use saidin to burn them all but restraining himself, thinking that it would be better to be dead than to use the Power. If he were dead, then it would be over. He fights off a group of four Trollocs, killing them all, and then retreats, seeing that there are too many to fight them all, and urged on by Loial’s desperate pleas to run.

With saidin no longer calling to him, Rand releases the void, becoming more aware of where they are and what they are doing, and remarking in his shock that he must be going mad. Loial asks if he could wait to go mad until they are back with Selene and Hurin, and the two hurry off, Rand riding and Loial running beside his horse as it carries the heavy chest. Loial is able to keep pace with the horses easily, and they soon leave the Trollocs and Darkfriends behind in the night.

They return to their campsite and Selene promptly declares that she knew Rand would make the right choice and asks to see the Horn. Rand tells her that he doesn’t know how to open the chest, and neither does Loial, but Selene runs her fingers over the patterns on the chest and it clicks open just as it did for Moiraine. She puts her hand in but Rand reaches over her and pulls it out. It’s beautiful but doesn’t look all that special or even ancient to Rand’s eyes. Selene reads the inscription out loud.

Tia mi aven Moridin isainde vadin,” Selene said. “ ‘The grave is no bar to my call.’ You will be greater than Artur Hawkwing ever was.”

“I am taking it to Shienar, to Lord Agelmar.” It should go to Tar Valon, he thought, but I’m done with Aes Sedai. Let Agelmar or Ingtar take it to them. He set the Horn back in the chest; it cast back the moonlight, pulled the eye.

“That is madness,” Selene said.

Rand flinched at the word. “Mad or not, it is what I’m doing. I told you, Selene, I want no part of greatness. Back there, I thought I did. For a while, I thought I wanted things…” Light, she’s so beautiful. Egwene. Selene. I’m not worthy of either of them. “Something seemed to take hold of me.” Saidin came for me, but I fought it off with a sword. Or is that mad, too? He breathed deeply. “Shienar is where the Horn of Valere belongs. Or if not there, Lord Agelmar will know what to do with it.”

Hurin returns from checking on the Darkfriend camp to let Rand know that the fire has returned and is larger now, and he can hear shouting though it appears that they have not yet come up the mountain. Selene tells Rand that what she met was that the Darkfriends will not stop coming for him now that he has taken the Horn, and unless he plans to kill them all, the only way to go is forward. She suggests that it would be much easier to reach the safety of Cairhien than Shienar, unless the real reason Rand doesn’t want to go that way is because he finds her company onerous.

Rand considers her suggestion; he likes Selene’s company very much, but he is aware that when he is close to her he ends up thinking things he shouldn’t. Still, he knows that her logic is sound, and suspects that Ingtar will also end up in Cairhien eventually, and so he accepts. He is about to close the chest when Selene asks him about the other item he took from the Darkfriends. Rand shows them all the dagger and explains where it came from, and Loial is surprised to learn that it is what has been ailing Mat all this time. He and Hurin look uncomfortable, but Selene is the most horrified, and tells Rand to throw it away or bury it. Despite being told that the dagger is needed for healing Mat, she insists it is too dangerous. Rand puts it in the chest instead, inside of the Horn, thinking that the chest will shield them from the dagger’s influence. Selene agrees that it will, and then declares she’s going back to sleep. Rand tells her that he wants as much distance between them and the Darkfriends as possible, and she angrily follows his orders to get ready to ride.

Down in the Darkfriend camp, Fain is ordering a Trolloc to gather up the rest of the ones that are out searching in the woods. He threatens it, indicating another Trolloc twitching and dying on the ground, which displeased him by bringing the news that Rand couldn’t be found. The Trolloc runs off, and Fain looks up into the mountains where he can feel Rand al’Thor through the “gift” that the Dark One gave him. He hollers into the night that al’Thor will pay, that they will all pay, and laughs maniacally.

At dawn, Rand lets his party stop so that the horses, and Loial, can rest, and Selene asks to see the horn again. Loial starts to take it down for her when she asks, but Rand stops him. He tells them that they should keep the dagger shielded until they can put it back in Mat’s hands, and Selene complains that all he cares about is the dagger. She comes over to him, a sway in her walk, and touches Rand’s hand, asking him to let her see it. She says she won’t even touch it, that he can hold it, and that him holding the Horn of Valere it would be something for her to remember. Rand is struck by the reminder that they will eventually go their separate ways, and compelled by her touch he begins to consider it. But in trying to remember if he ever heard about the Horn in the prophecies about the Dragon, he’s reminded of the Aes Sedai and their manipulation

Aes Sedai trying to make me do what they want. Selene was still gazing intently into his eyes, her face so young and beautiful that he wanted to kiss her despite what he was thinking. He had never seen an Aes Sedai act the way she did, and she looked young, not ageless. A girl my age couldn’t be Aes Sedai. But….

“Selene,” he said softly, “are you an Aes Sedai?”

“Aes Sedai,” she almost spat, flinging his hands away. “Aes Sedai! Always you hurl that at me!” She took a deep breath and smoothed her dress, as if gathering herself. “I am what and who I am. And I am no Aes Sedai!” And she wrapped herself in a silent coldness that made even the morning sun seem chill.

Selene gives him the cold shoulder for the rest of the day and into the next, although she eventually relaxes enough to chat with Hurin and Loial. But on the second day he does catch her smiling at him when she thinks he isn’t looking. By the evening of the second day they have come into farmland, and they can see a village up ahead. Rand, Loial, and Huin are all excited to sleep in beds, but Selene insists that a village inn will be smelly and dirty and says she’d prefer to sleep under the stars. But Rand points out that won’t be so nice if Fain and the Darkfriends catch up to them, and tells her that Fain won’t stop hunting him, or the Horn. But Loial agrees with Selene when she points out that the chest will draw attention. Rand has Loial cover the chest with a blanket, making it appear no more than a regular travel chest, and they start off again.

But Rand is immediately distracted by something on the ground nearby which throws up a bright reflection in the setting sun. He turns his horse, ignoring the others’ questions, and rides up to the edge of a deep pit being excavated. Out of the pit protrudes a large stone hand holding a smooth ball which is reflecting the sunlight. Rand can also see a stone face a little further on. Without Rand summoning it, the void suddenly springs up around him. Selene tells him to come away, warning that it is dangerous to stand so close to the edge, that they might attract the attention of the workers and guards in the pit, but her pleas seem distant and unimportant to Rand, as the light within the sphere seems to dance and pulse in the same rhythm as the call of saidin.

Suddenly—a drifting, distant thought—he realized that the void surrounded him. Saidin sang, and the sphere pulsed—even without looking, he could feel it—and the thought came that if he sang the song saidin sang, that huge stone face would open its mouth and sing with him. With him and with saidin. All one.

“Please, Rand,” Selene said. “I will go to the village with you. I won’t mention the Horn again. Only come away!”

He released the void… and it did not go. Saidin crooned, and the light in the sphere beat like a heart. Like his heart. Loial, Hurin, Selene, they all stared at him, but they seemed oblivious to the glorious blaze from the crystal. He tried to push the void away. It held like granite; he floated in an emptiness as hard as stone. The song of saidin, the song of the sphere, he could feel them quivering along his bones. Grimly, he refused to give in, reached deep inside himself… I will not….

Rand sinks deeper and deeper into the trance of the sphere, hearing someone say his name but unable to even recognize who it was, feeling himself drawn into its depths even as he resists reaching for saidin, and begins to mumble the Aiel oath to himself.

The power was his. The Power was his.

“…to spit in Sightblinder’s eye…”

Power to Break the World.

“…on the last day!” It came out as a shout, and the void was gone.

Red shied at his cry; clay crumbled under the stallion’s hoof, spilling into the pit. The big bay went to his knees. Rand leaned forward, gathering the reins, and Red scrambled to safety, away from the edge.

Rand is unable to remember what just happened; he asks the others, who are all staring at him, and Loial explains that Rand was standing like a statue and muttering himself, but that they couldn’t hear what he was saying until he shouted “day” at the end. Hurin points out that the guards have finally noticed them and suggests they should go; Selene is swift to agree.

They ride into the village, people nodding at them in a friendly way as they pass, not even much bothered by the strange figure of Loial. They stop in front of an inn called “The Nine Rings” and Rand smiles, thinking about how “The Nine Rings” had always been one of his favorite adventure stories. Selene still looks upset when he helps her dismount, and he asks if he frightened her back by the pit.

“You terrified me,” she said in a tight voice, “and I do not frighten easily. You could have killed yourself, killed…” She smoothed her dress. “Ride with me. Tonight. Now. Bring the Horn, and I will stay by your side forever. Think of it. Me by your side, and the Horn of Valere in your hands. And that will only be the beginning, I promise. What more could you ask for?”

Rand shakes his head, reminds her again that he can’t, that the Horn doesn’t belong to him, and she turns sharply away from him.

 

In Chapter 18, as I was reminded by commenters, the Amyrlin warns Nynaeve and Egwene about the danger relying on the One Power for too much, lest one come to like it too much and want to draw upon it more and more, possibly even to the point of burning oneself out or causing other damage. The suggestion that this is another one of Jordan’s chapter-to-chapter parallels is an interesting one (in 18, one character warns of something that is happening to a character in 17) but I hadn’t thought of Rand running into that kind of danger so quickly. After all, he hasn’t been channeling for very long, although I suppose he is using the Power in much greater amounts that Egwene, or even Nynaeve, is; calling lightning or traveling through a Portal Stone has got to use a great deal more of it than making a flame on your fingertips, or even shoving the Amyrlin against the wall. Then too, there are the feats he performed with the Eye of the World back in the previous book. It was unclear to me whether some part of Rand was the will behind those choices or if it was something built into the Eye, and I wasn’t really counting it the same way as I was counting other channeling. But that may be a misstep, and that one experience alone might have been enough crazy amounts of saidin to make him get a little addicted to it. In all honesty, I don’t know very much about addiction, whereas I know a great deal about the struggle for identity and being authentic in one’s life, so I suppose my perspective will always be slanted in a certain direction, but I’m going to keep an eye on this going forward.

One of the interesting things about the “magic system” that Jordan has created is the fact that the “magic” comes from entirely outside those who wield it. Although concepts of nature magic and those of magic that requires spellwork lean in a similar direction, there tends to be at least an implicit suggestion in the world building of most fantasy worlds that part of the magic is a spark that exists within the magic user. For example, Tolkien’s elves have varying levels of power, but the magic comes from something that is inherent to their species, a connection to nature but one that is part of them, rather than something learned soley through study. In Harry Potter, wizards can use items, potions, and creatures that have their own magic force, but the wizards themselves also have magic inside of them. The same is true in Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness, and Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth books, for other examples. But even the terms used to describe wielding the One Power, “channeling,” “weaving” etc, remind us that the Aes Sedai or Dragon in question is merely manipulating something outside of themselves, letting it pass through them to be directed in a specific fashion. When I imagine channeling now, I picture something like the firebenders’ lightning technique from Avatar: The Last Airbender. When Iroh is teaching his nephew the technique of creating lightning, he explains that it is done by separating the energies of yin and yang and then redirecting the force created as the two crash back together. “Remember,” he tells Zuko, “once you separate the energy, you do not command it, you are simply its humble guide.” I can see this description being applied to channeling as well, the idea that you are merely guiding, or channeling, saidin/saidar into the pattern or form you need. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that is as much of a rush for channelers as it is for the firebenders in Avatar; Zuko describes redirecting it as intense, exhilarating, and terrifying; “you know that if you make one false move, you’ll die.”

Or, perhaps, burn yourself out?

One can see, in these chapters, the way Rand is beginning to settle into his own with his abilities and his use of the void. Of course touching saidin is still fraught with the danger of the taint as well as the possible danger of wanting it too much, but he’s dropping in and out of that void like he’s been doing it for years, and that was some very skillful swordsmanship we saw from him against Fain’s Trollocs. The Rand of The Eye of the World couldn’t have pulled it off; even the Rand at the start of The Great Hunt probably couldn’t; he had all the muscle memory from Lan’s teaching but I’m not sure he could have found the focus until very recently. Clearly, having assumed the mantle of leader has already had an effect on Rand’s concentration and determination; after all, when someone else is in charge, be it Lan or Ingtar or Moiraine, there’s lots of time for worry, second-guessing, and letting fear get in your way. When it’s only you, on the other hand… then you have to shut that noise down and get ‘er done.

I know I’m kind of harping on the same things over and over, but Selene is really getting on my nerves. My dress is dirty, can I wear your shirt? Really? Girl, you need to settle down. I am kind of on the fence about whether or not I think her urging was the deciding factor that made Rand decide to try stealing the chest. It’s what she wanted, and he only went that close because of her insistence, but I kind of feel like Rand would have taken the opportunity anyway; he’s been very focused on the dagger, very aware of how little time there is to recover it, and the Horn has a call to everyone who encounters it, no matter what scantily-clad ladies are around. I think Rand’s sense of duty and awareness of what’s at stake would have made him choose the risk either way. He’s not exactly the wait for backup type, he just thinks he is. And I have a feeling that illusion is going to fall pretty fast as soon as he fully accepts his identity as the Dragon.

But whether or not Selene’s desires were affecting Rand’s decision in that moment (and since he was in the void I’m more ready to bet not), Rand is growing more aware of how Selene affects him and his decision making. When she asks him if her company is so onerous that he’d rather risk trying to return to Sheinar rather than ride on with her to Cairhien, Rand thinks privately that he really enjoys her company but also being near her makes him “think things he should not.” Maybe he’s just uncomfortable with how much he’s been feeling physically attracted to her, but it seems like he’s also noticing how that is changing his behavior. Rand is being truthful when he tells her that he has no desire for glory or fame; he unhappily accepted the role of “lord” when they were trapped in the ‘if’ world for Hurin’s sake, because it gave the sniffer comfort and because Rand was aware that someone had to be the leader and hold them all fast. But his continued allowance of letting Selene believe him to be noble is an entirely selfish choice, which he only does because he wants her to think of him a certain way. More than once since he’s met her he has considered that she wouldn’t be interested in him if she knew that he was a shepherd, and although he dislikes how she pushes him to think of glory, he has started to imagine it a little, to imagine how she would look at him and think of him holding the horn. And although he doesn’t seem to have quite put that to words for himself yet, I think Rand is starting to become aware of it, and to be unsettled by it. He’s recognizing it on some level as a manipulation that might be intentional on her part, which is why he asks again if she is Aes Sedai. He hasn’t seemed to notice that he’s asking the wrong question though; every time Selene denies being Aes Sedai it’s all about how the Aes Sedai are weak or wrong, but never that she cannot channel or anything like that. Except for that one moment when Rand wished she could work the Portal Stone instead of him, he hasn’t considered that she might be a channeler, and I’m surprised it hasn’t come back up again.

Selene’s pushing too hard, I think. Her best bet would really be to let up on the Horn business and play a longer game. Maybe she doesn’t have time, or maybe she’s just too one-note to consider it. But even her beauty isn’t going to disguise that level of obsession after a while, and with Rand this suspicious, that moment might be closer than she’d think. Then again, maybe she just has that much faith in her appearance (and possibly in the Power she’s using to enhance its effect on Rand)I am so curious as to what that statue means, though I suspect it will be a long while before we find out. My best guess is that the statue is meant to represent a male Aes Sedai, with the orb symbolizing the use of saidin. Perhaps it has special qualities, or perhaps it merely tapped into a connection Rand has to his past incarnations. The chanting of the Aeil oath is an interesting twist, though–it would seem that in addition to being the Dragon, Rand also has a connection to his Aeil heritage similar to the one that Mat and the others have to Manetheren. But most intriguing of all is the one thought Rand has about having the Power to Break the World. Is that a reference to the current prophecies of the Dragon Reborn, or to the Breaking that was perpetrated by Lews Therin Telamon and the male Aes Sedai responsible for the taint? And what does it mean if Rand can’t even remember what happened?

Moving forward, I’m going to be watching very carefully to see how Rand, Nynaeve, and Egwene engage with the One Power. So far, their reactions have been very different; Egwene is eager to the point of recklessness but hasn’t yet had much success, Nynaeve is talented but tamps down her abilities to the point where she’s actually blocked, and Rand is terrified but drawn to the One Power with a surprising intensity. Then too, Perrin’s struggles are similar, despite not being related to channeling–for him, it’s presented more as a fight between a wolf’s instinct and a human’s desires. But you could say that instinct is a compulsion, it drives one to do things in a way that has little to do with thought, and therefore little to do with choice. How, then, does an addiction to the Power compare to that?

Next week covers Chapters 21 and 22; Rand stays at the most obvious Lord of the Rings reference to date (I love that) and Moiraine finally returns to our story. I have a lot of questions about what Moiraine and Lan have been up to, especially since I can’t think of a single reason Moiraine would have sent Verin after Rand. Why would she do that? Or was Verin lying? She seems like she’s up to something, and her constant tangents seem like a great way to get people to underestimate her. But I guess I have to keep reading to find out!

*Sylas K Barrett would like to thank you, dear readers, for your grace and understanding in the face of his intense difficulty in consistently and correctly spelling the names and words in The Wheel of Time. Truthfully, he struggles enough with spelling in English, and even adding things to spellcheck isn’t foolproof. You are all truly gentlefolk and scholars.

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