Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Building Rand’s Identity through the Heron-Marked Blade

It came as quite a surprise to me when Rand’s heron-marked sword was destroyed during the climactic battle with Ba’alzamon at the end of The Great Hunt. The sword has been something of a talisman for Rand ever since he left Emond’s Field, and in a remarkably complex way. On the one hand, Rand imbued this gift from Tam with his deep desire and need to believe that Tam was his true father—for him, carrying the sword was proof and symbol of their bond as father and son. But the heron-marked blade had a very different significance to those around Rand, drawing often-unwanted attention to him and marking him as a dangerous man and a blade master. The fact that Rand is neither of these things caused a certain level of danger for him, but then again, it’s not so much that he isn’t a blade master—it’s that he isn’t a blade master yet. And as for being dangerous… well, a stranger might be deceived by the looks of a young shepherd (unless they know the Aiel, anyway) but those close to Rand certainly know better.

And then of course there is the verse in the Prophecies of the Dragon, which alludes to a completely different purpose to the mark of the heron, one that will identify Rand as the Dragon Reborn. These, of course, are the two scars burned into Rand’s hand by wielding the sword while channeling.

In this way, the heron imagery, and indeed the sword itself, at one time separate Rand from his true identity as the Dragon Reborn and at the same time irrevocably tie him to it.

When Rand first encounters Tam’s sword, he is struck by its quality but given a very simple story behind Tam’s possession of it. Because Rand doesn’t know the symbolism of the heron-mark, and because Tam talks more of the burden of the weapon and its uselessness to a farmer, the full weight of what the blade means doesn’t become clear to him until later, when Lan notices it and asks how Rand came by it. Rand explains that it belongs to his father, and Lan observes that it is a strange thing for a shepherd to buy.

“He called it useless, did he? He must not always have thought so.” Lan touched the scabbard at Rand’s waist briefly with one finger. “There are places where the heron is a symbol of the master swordsman. That blade must have traveled a strange road to end up with a sheepherder in the Two Rivers.” (TEOTW p. 115)

Even the way Rand begins carrying the sword isn’t very dramatic; he takes the blade as a practical measure, to defend them when Tam is wounded, and is already wearing it when the time comes to leave Emond’s Field.

There was a tap at the door, and Lan stuck his head into the room. “Say your goodbyes quickly, sheepherder, and come. There may be trouble.”

“Trouble?” Rand said, and the Warder growled at him impatiently. “Just hurry!”

Hastily Rand snatched up his cloak. He started to undo the sword belt, but Tam spoke up.

“Keep it. You will probably have more need of it than I, though, the Light willing, neither of us will. Take care, lad. You hear?” (TEOTW, p. 135)

Still, the narration is aware of the significance of the sword and what it portends, and doesn’t neglect to communicate that to the reader. When Rand first puts it on, it makes him “feel odd. Belt and sheath and sword together only weighed a few pounds, but when he sheathed the blade it seemed to drag at him like a great weight.” (TEOTW, p. 94). There is also foreshadowing in the way Mat reacts to seeing Rand with the sword for the first time, jokingly asking if Rand is planning to become a Warder, and remarking that an “honest man’s weapon isn’t good enough” for Rand. Mat goes on to have much the same opinion, if much more vitriolically, when he sees Rand in his fancy heron-embroidered coats in the beginning of The Great Hunt. Already, long before Rand or Mat or anyone (besides maybe Moiraine) sees it coming, the heron has begun to symbolize Rand’s movement away from Rand, son of Tam and shepherd boy of the Two Rivers, towards Lord Rand, the Dragon Reborn.

As Rand travels further and further away from the Two Rivers, he holds onto his determination that Tam will turn out to be his real father through the symbol of the sword. This first comes up in such direct words when Bayle Domon offers to take it in exchange for taking Rand, Mat, and Thom to Whitesbridge. It comes up again shortly later, when Rand and Mat argue on their journey to Caemlyn; Rand suggests selling the dagger so that they might have money for food and transportation, and Mat, already caught up in the infection of Mordeth’s power, responds defensively, suggesting Rand sell his sword instead, prompting Rand to answer that the sword was a gift from his father, and that he would never ask Mat to sells something his father gave him.

Then, at The Dancing Cartman, the consequences of wearing such a weapon start to get more serious for Rand.

He wondered if he had been wise to keep wearing the sword openly. Swords were common enough, but the heron-mark attracted attention and speculation. Not from everybody, but any notice at all made him uncomfortable. He could be leaving a clear trail for the Myrddraal—if Fades needed that kind of trail. They did not seem to. In any case, he was reluctant to stop wearing it. Tam had given it to him. His father. As long as he wore the sword, there was still some connection between Tam and him, a thread that gave him the right to still call Tam father. Too late now, he thought. He was not sure what he meant, but he was sure it was true. Too late. (TEOTW p. 441)

It is interesting to note that by this point Rand is already, in some part of his mind, aware that Tam is not his biological father. It is too late for him to go back to not hearing Tam’s fevered mutterings about finding a baby, too late for him to not know the bits and pieces of information that are beginning to be dropped about his true identity. But he rejects the knowledge, and clings to the symbolism of the passed-down blade and to the hope that he will somehow turn out to be Tam’s son. He doubles down again on this when confronted with the question of his true identity by Queen Morgase.

It is also interesting that the act of clinging to the sword directs Rand’s fate in a particular way while he is in Caemlyn; because he cannot bring himself to part with it, he buys the red wrappings to cover the heron. Rand may buy red instead of white because it is cheaper, but one can’t help but feel as though there is a bit of the Pattern—a bit of Rand’s ta’veren nature, perhaps—directing the course of events, since the red wrappings signify the wearer’s allegiance to the Queen. One can imagine how that tumble into the garden (no doubt Pattern-directed as well) could have gone differently if Rand had purchased white wrappings instead.

But the wrappings are not enough to hide the heron from Elaida Sedai, and Rand’s claims to the Two Rivers and to a simple identity are not enough to stop her from knowing that Rand is dangerous, that he stands in the center of the pain and division that she Foretells will come to the world.

Then, when Rand sees the three figures of himself, Mat, and Perrin in his Ba’alzamon dream in the Queen’s Blessing, he can see that Ba’alzamon does not yet know their faces—he has only the rough images of them coupled with a symbol to denote each: a wolf, a dagger, and a sword with a heron-mark. Mat is foolish enough to put a face to the identifying symbols by picking up the figure of himself, but Rand is more concerned with the fact that Ba’alzamon clearly doesn’t know which of them is “the one.” Still, the blade marks him out, identifies him, and eventually Ba’alzamon is able to bring the two together. Ba’alzamon then shows the images, complete with clear features and faces, to the Darkfriends he assembles in the Prologue of The Great Hunt.

Rand finally begins to learn to use his sword while staying in Fal Dara after the confrontation at the Eye of the World and the finding of the Horn of Valere. It is actually his excuse to delay departing from Fal Dara and leaving his friends behind, and he says as much to Lan when the Warder asks why Rand hasn’t yet acted on his intention to leave.

“I want to learn how to use this. I need to.” It had caused him problems, carrying a heron-marked sword. Not everybody knew what it meant, or even noticed it, but even so a heron-mark blade, especially in the hands of a youth barely old enough to be called a man, still attracted the wrong sort of attention. “I’ve been able to bluff sometimes, when I could not run, and I’ve been lucky, besides. But what happens when I can’t run, and I can’t bluff, and my luck runs out?”

“You could sell it,” Lan said carefully. “That blade is rare even among heron-mark swords. It would fetch a pretty price.”

“No!” It was an idea he had thought of more than once, but he rejected it now for the same reason he always had, and more fiercely for coming from someone else. As long as I keep it, I have the right to call Tam father. He gave it to me, and it gives me the right. (TGH, p. 31)

Again, we can see that Rand knows he is not Tam’s biological son but refuses to accept it, and the blade given to him by Tam continues to hold that bond for him when the truth cannot. Even Lan’s remark that in the Borderlands “if a man has the raising of a child, that child is his, and none can say different,” is rejected by Rand’s mind in favor of the power of the sword’s bond. However, in choosing to keep the sword he also takes his first steps into becoming a true swordsman, which is, again, one more step away from the simple shepherd he still claims to be.

It is at this point that the symbolic power of the heron begins to belong to more than just the the sword, as Moiraine sees fit to have Rand’s wardrobe entirely changed to one more befitting the Dragon she knows him to be. When Lan helps Rand prepare for his meeting with the Amyrlin, he puts him in a red coat with gold herons embroidered on the collar, and the next coat Rand finds himself in is black with silver herons. There’s a cloak, also, embroidered not only with herons but also with the image of a dragon, set over the left breast “where a lord would wear his sign.” In this one garment, Moiraine has effectively tied Rand al’Thor’s heron motif with Lews Therin Telamon’s symbol of the Dragon.

The new clothes mark Rand out as lord, or at least lordly, a fact that the people of Shienar have already accepted as true because of the “al’” at the beginning of his name, as well as because of the sword and the general mystery around his origins and association with Moiraine. When Ingtar is discussing Rand’s assignment as his second in command, he remarks upon all of these, as well as Rand’s Aiel-like appearance, which has been another source of identity crisis for Rand and his need to believe that Tam is his father.

“No matter. I know you deny it. Just as you deny the look of your own face. Moiraine Sedai says you’re a shepherd, but I never saw a shepherd with a heron-mark blade. No matter. I’ll not claim I would have chosen you myself, but I think you have it in you to do what is needed. You will do your duty, if it comes to it.” (TGH p. 195)

When Rand reconnects with the very-not-dead-Thom in Cairhien, the old gleeman quotes a passage from The Karaethon Cycle.

“Twice and twice shall he be marked,

twice to live, and twice to die.

Once the heron, to set his path.

Twice the heron, to name him true.

Once the Dragon, for remembrance lost.

Twice the Dragon, for the price he must pay.”

He reached out and touched the herons embroidered on Rand’s high collar.

For a moment, Rand could only gape at him, and when he could speak, his voice was unsteady. “The sword makes five. Hilt, scabbard, and blade.” He turned his hand down on the table, hiding the brand on his palm. For the first time since Selene’s salve had done its work, he could feel it. Not hurting, but he knew it was there.

The heron has become so bound up in Rand’s image that, even if he were ready to fully embrace all the signs that point to him being the Dragon Reborn, he’d have a hard time picking out which herons mean what. At the time, I assumed that the sword, despite its three images, counted as one heron, and that the burn from the confrontation with Ba’alzamon counted as the second. My reasoning was that it was the sword that marked the beginning of Rand’s journey, and that the recognition from Ba’alzamon that Rand is the reincarnated Lews Therin Telamon was “naming him true.” With the creation of the second brand, however, this time made by Rand’s own choices, we see that the sword is not in-and-of-itself one of the herons, but rather the element that brings this prophecy into fruition.

Rand clings to the sword as an image of who he was, and the sword itself creates the image of who he will be.

In his training with Lan, Rand learned sword forms, including one to teach balance called “Heron Wading in the Rushes.” Lan told him that this form is meant for practice only, not combat, since the pose leaves the swordsman completely open to any opponent’s attack. This critique of the form comes up again when Rand is practicing as they wait to plan their entrance into Falme to retrieve the Horn, and Ingtar critiques its use even for practice, since practice can make habit.

“You will put your sword in the other man with that, if you’re quick, but not before he has his through your ribs. You are practically inviting him. I don’t think I could see a man face me so open and not put my sword in him, even knowing he might strike home at me if I did.” (TGH p. 577)

Of course, there is foreshadowing here. Lan also pointed out that one could strike home from such a position but not before taking a strike oneself—coupling this with his lesson about Sheathing the Sword, the reader is well set up for Rand’s decision to use the moves to defeat Ba’alzamon. Beyond that, however, there is something special in the fact that the move Rand uses to draw Ba’alzamon out has “Heron” in the name. All this time Rand has clung to the heron symbol for his father, had it thrust upon him by Moiraine and strangers alike as proof of a nobility and power he did not feel he possessed, and now has used a practice form with its name to defeat one of the greatest adversaries of all time.

And in the process, Rand has lost that sword. In the last chapters of The Great Hunt, Rand chooses to accept the Dragon Banner and to sacrifice himself in order to defeat Ba’alzamon. In so doing, he loses the main symbol that he was using to deny his identity as the Dragon Reborn. It is significant that he does this all for Egwene’s sake—after all, she ties him to his old identity and the life they shared as children in Emond’s Field—but in the end, the result is the same.

For a moment he stood staring down at the heron-mark sword, what was left of it, lying on the ground. Tam’s sword. My father’s sword. Reluctantly, more reluctantly than he had ever done anything in his life, he let go of the hope that he would discover Tam really was his father. It felt as if he were tearing his heart out. But it did not change the way he felt about Tam, and Emond’s Field was the only home he had ever known. (630)

Before the end of The Great Hunt, I expected the heron-marked blade to stay with Rand for the entirety of the series, to be a totem that always grounded him in his identity as Rand al’Thor of Emond’s Field, son of Tam al’Thor, despite whatever blood turns out to flow in Rand’s veins. It is good to see that Rand has accepted that his love for Tam and Emond’s Field doesn’t have to change just because the facts are different than he supposed, but it is still a heartbreaking moment, and I, too, felt a great sense of loss as Rand let go of the ruined blade and the lost hope that it represented. I wonder if the heron motif will continue now that the blade is gone, or if it will be entirely abandoned now that Rand has declared himself as the Dragon Reborn. After all, we’re still waiting on the rest of that verse, and the other two marks Rand is supposed to receive. Hopefully they will be symbolic rather than literal, but one can never tell with prophecy, now can they?

I will leave my musings on the heron-marked blade with this last thought. The very first time Rand uses it is to kill the single Trolloc, Narg, when Rand returned to the house to fetch supplies to take Tam into town. Rand, having no idea how to use a sword, lures Narg in by opening his guard.

[Rand] had to get away. But if the Trolloc drew that massive blade he would not have a chance. He forced his lips into a shaky smile. “All right.” Grip tightening on the sword, he let both hands drop to his sides. “I’ll talk.”

The wolf-smile became a snarl, and the Trolloc lunged for him. Rand had not thought anything that big could move so fast. Desperately he brought his sword up. The monstrous body crashed into him, slamming him against the wall. Breath left his lungs in one gasp. He fought for air as they fell to the floor together, the Trolloc on top. Frantically he struggled beneath the crushing weight, trying to avoid thick hands groping for him, and snapping jaws.

Abruptly the Trolloc spasmed and was still. Battered and bruised, half suffocated by the bulk on top of him, for a moment Rand could only lie there in disbelief. Quickly he came to his senses, though, enough to writhe out from under the body, at least. And body it was. The bloodied blade of Tam’s sword stood out from the center of the Trolloc’s back. He had gotten it up in time after all. (TEOTW, p. 88)

The first and last time Rand used the sword were ultimately the same: He left himself open to attack and allowed his enemy to come in to his own doom.

I want to take a moment and thank all of you for following me in my journey of discovering The Wheel of Time. Two books in now, I am starting to feel like I have my feet in this world of Jordan’s, and I can’t wait to see what comes next. I can’t wait for next week, when we will begin The Dragon Reborn!

Sylas K Barrett has always loved herons anyway, so the symbolism was always a good fit.


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