Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading the Wheel of Time: Choosing Who You Want to Be in Robert Jordan’s The Dragon Reborn (Part 9)

Hello again, dear friends. I know I told you that we were going to spend this week on Egwene’s Accepted Trials, but as it turns out, I had so much to say that I had to break it down into two different posts! You all seem to enjoy my non chapter-specific ramblings, though, and seems like it was about time for one.

Before I get into that, however, I’d like to thank you all of your insightful comments over the course of this read. I’ve enjoyed interacting with you, and even if I didn’t comment myself, I was reading along and loving all of your thoughts and pointers. You’ve been working so hard to keep those comments spoiler-free while still giving me new angles to ponder. It’s been great fun for me, and I think it also contributed to making the subsequent posts richer.

That being said, as the books get more and more complicated, so does spoiler-free commenting! The Tor Dot Powers that Be and I have decided to change the policy, allowing all commenting to be as spoilery as you like. We do not seem to have any commenters who are reading along with me for the first time. And while I’ll miss your discussions and banter, freeing up the comments section allows you all to spend less time worrying about what counts as a spoiler and dealing with white-outs, and more time getting into the nitty-gritty of the story you love.

Since last week was my last week reading comments, I’ll indulge one last time in responding to a few things that came up after last week’s post.

Several of you have pointed out to me that, while I saw Lanfear’s disdain over the Aes Sedai healing methods as being a technique issue between the Dark methods and the Light, it is actually more about how much learning and knowledge has been lost in the Breaking. Lanfear is both more powerful, and more knowledgeable, than the greatest Aes Sedai of Rand’s time, and probably knows many ways to Heal a person that don’t tax the body so much. So, her comment is really more like when Doctor McCoy gets offended by kidney dialysis and asks if they’re in the Dark Ages in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

I am really looking forward to learning more about modern Aes Sedai, which I imagine will come partly from other Forsaken escaping the prison and running around causing trouble, but may also come from certain characters (Mat? Rand?) connecting with past memories or past selves. It’s also possible that more pieces of lost knowledge might be discovered—they found the Horn, after all, and one assumes Rand will get the Sword that isn’t a Sword eventually. Who’s to say that they won’t discover a trove of hidden Aes Sedai scrolls or something, full of spells that were thought lost forever. It’s also possible, likely, even, that powerful channelers like Rand, Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve might find themselves inventing, or reinventing, ways of doing things that are beyond the abilities of the current set of Aes Sedai.

It’s interesting that so many characters keep reminding us of how much was lost in the Breaking, but I keep glossing over it. I suppose I’m waiting for more concrete information to compare and contrast with, but I’m going to try to keep it a little more in the front of my mind because it is clearly going to become more relevant as Rand discovers the clues and gifts secured for the Dragon’s return, and people like Lanfear keep bringing their own agendas into the plot.

It’s true that I was thinking Lanfear must have to stand out in the Tower due to her power, but of course she’s surrounded by other channelers. Just because she is a follower of the Dark One, and stronger than any of the Aes Sedai around her, doesn’t mean she would “feel” different, so to speak, to those who can sense Power. Not unless she did something really obvious, anyway.

The way Healing is done by the modern Aes Sedai is fascinating to me, however. The details have not yet been explained, except to say that the Healer is using the patient’s own body to heal itself. I understand this to mean that, through the use of saidar, the body’s natural healing process is sped up. The human body already has an incredible natural power in self-healing, and with saidar being used to push that process along, the greatest risks of death—such as blood-loss, infection, and the damage from prolonged exposure or oxygen-starvation—are greatly reduced. But if the body’s natural cell regrowth and turnover is accelerated, that means that the metabolism must be similarly accelerated, in order to accommodate the new cells’ needs. This is how Mat can eat so much more than is natural, and how his body seems to process it so rapidly. It reminds me of how fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe like to imagine that Captain America must always carry snacks in those little pouches on his belt. The guy’s got a metabolism that burns four times as fast as an ordinary person’s, so even with a more efficient use of the food he consumes, he’s gotta need a lot of calories!

(Side note: Technically a rumbling stomach doesn’t mean your stomach is empty. It’s just the sounds of your intestines moving things around. If Mat’s eating that much, that fast, his tummy’s going to be making quite a bit of noise!)

In regards to my reaction towards Mat in his first POV chapters: Yes, I did find him annoying and selfish. However, I fully expect to love him before the story is through. Characters that are initially self-absorbed often have the best character arcs and become fan favorites (I’m thinking of Han Solo here, or some of iterations of Marvel’s Loki, or John Silver in Starz’s Black Sails.) As I observed last week, the other characters have had over two books’ worth of character development, so Mat’s already behind the curve in that respect, through no (well, some, but even sticky-fingered gamblers don’t deserve Mordeth) fault of his own. To make matters more difficult, narratively speaking, giving us a few chapters from him has not yet shown us anything about why Mat is the way he is. I remember mentioning (back in The Eye of the World? I think?) that I was looking forward to finally getting Mat’s point-of-view, but that was specifically because I wanted to know more of why he was the way he was, why he made the choices he did, why he struggled with tendencies to be more self-absorbed and less open-minded than Rand, Perrin, or Egwene.

Nynaeve also tends to be too stubborn and rather self-absorbed, not to mention her intense ability to hold a grudge. She often comes off in the narration as kind of a jerk, the sort of jerk who acts like they’re the smartest, most talented person in the room. (She often is, but that’s not an excuse.) But from the very first chapter we had from Nynaeve’s perspective, her inner monologue told us a lot about why she is the way she is. The reason for her foibles, the fears that cause, or at least reinforce, her faults, began to come clear, which made it easier to be understanding when she acted less than perfectly. It made it easier to relate to her in her pride and stubbornness—especially for me, since I connected so personally with both her fears and some of her faults.

I would very much like to have the same from Mat; the why of his character, the fears and desires that shape him. That’s what I’m craving. But I am sure that will come in time! And I am very much looking forward to getting to know Mat better.

Finally, there is the concept that men who can channel are viewed as evil, and that the Dragon is viewed as evil, even though the ability to be a channeler is not something one can choose, and the Dragon is supposed to be a savior who protects the world from the Dark One. I understand the reasons the people of this world feel this way, of course. The “madness” from the taint on saidin results in terrible, destructive consequences regardless of how much the afflicted man might want to prevent it. The actions of the various false Dragons have led to war, and death, and destruction. And the Dragon may be prophesied to defeat the Dark One in the Last Battle, but he’s also prophesied to break the world again, so that’s not exactly going to inspire people to find confidence and trust in the Dragon, a man who is also super-powerful and just as susceptible to the taint as the next male channeler.

So, I get all that. And narratively, I get how the other characters feel. But as a reader who is following Rand, Egwene, and Nynaeve in their journeys of self-discovery, it’s emotionally difficult not to get angry at everyone for their prejudices, however understandable they are in-world. I don’t have the same fears and prejudices as the non-channeler characters do, and these channelers are presented to me as beloved heroes who I already desperately want to protect from all the pain they are heading into. But even more than that, I have, from the beginning, very much related the ability to channel to questions of identity and of queer experience.

And I see so much of the same prejudices unfolding here. Granted, there are in-world reasons for those prejudices that are somewhat more understandable than those in ours—QUILTBAG folks aren’t actually hurting other people, no matter how much parts of society claim that we are, while male channelers really can end up harming or killing those around them. But gay and trans people have a long history of being accused of being evil, corrupt, and dangerous, simply because our lives are different than accepted societal norms (at least in white western cultures, I can’t speak for those I am not a part of). And the question of whether or not our identity is a choice, and what kinds of choices we should be allowed to make for ourselves, has been and continues to be an incredibly important of our lives and continued existence.

It just so happens to be that the question of having a choice (or not) in who you are and what you want to be is also a central theme in The Wheel of Time. This is true for Perrin, for channelers in general, and, of course, especially for Rand.

I avoid reading anything about The Wheel of Time as much as I possibly can, which is difficult in the age of the internet, especially now that I write about it and Google has taken to suggesting WoT articles every time I open a new browser window. I do know, however, that Jordan has said that one of his driving forces in creating the series is wanting to tackle the idea of what it would be like to discover that you are the Chosen One, and how terrible that revelation would be. Having somehow missed The Wheel of Time as a kid but grown up with The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, I have found myself struck by the subtle and yet profound difference in Harry and Frodo’s Chosen One status as compared to Rand’s.

Of these three examples, Frodo is the person who has the most agency in his status as the one chosen to carry the One Ring to Mordor. He does technically have a choice, after all. No one would ever have forced him to take the thing past Rivendell if he hadn’t volunteered of his own free will, and while Gandalf may have given him pushes in a certain direction, Frodo ultimately still had a fair bit of agency in his choice, and if he hadn’t volunteered, someone else would have been chosen. Indeed, it is the reason for Frodo’s choice, his sacrifice to do something horrible he had no desire to do, that both makes him a hero and makes him capable of resisting the Ring long enough to complete the task. However, it is clear from the narrative—and recognized by knowledgeable characters like Elrond and Gandalf—that Frodo was the only choice that had any real hope of succeeding. That isn’t to say that there was no one else in all of Middle Earth that perhaps could have ended up in Frodo’s position and succeed, but luck or fate conspired to put the Ring in his hands specifically, which set him up to be the only person who could get the job done: He was unlucky enough to get the Ring at the right time to take it to Mordor, and he also was fortunate enough to have the strength of character to do it.

When Harry Potter learns of his status as the Boy Who Lived, he is almost as overwhelmed as Rand is when he first starts to believe that he might actually be the Dragon Reborn. Harry himself did nothing to become the only person with the power to defeat Voldermort: Like Frodo, the actions of his family led him to such a circumstance. And like Frodo, he does technically have a choice in what to do with that status; he could have chosen at any time not to meddle so much with the mysteries in Hogwarts, especially when he was younger, or been unable to bring himself to make the necessary sacrifices required to defeat Voldemort. In the later books, Harry can see even more definitively than Frodo can how he is the only one in a position to do what must be done—but technically he still could have chosen to let Dumbledore and the other adults do the fighting in his stead, and hoped that would be enough.

Rand’s choice is less of a choice. He is the Dragon Reborn, no matter what he does with his life or whether or not he ever actively chooses to engage with that destiny. Even more than that, the Wheel and the Pattern are clear and active agents of Fate in the world of the Wheel of Time, while fate and destiny are more nebulous concepts in Harry and Frodo’s lives. Right now Rand just wants to get being the Dragon over with, so to speak (and the poor lamb is not going to have much luck with that, I’ll bet) but even if he tried to run away to some deserted area, never channel again, and avoid all other people, I don’t think the Pattern would allow it.

I imagine that all iterations of the Dragon must be ta’veren. The Dragon is born into the Pattern during important points, when he is needed, and his fate is interwoven with that of the Dark One’s influence on the world. But Rand is not the only ta’veren person in The Wheel of Time, and it has been stated by more than one character that ta’veren have even less of a choice in where their own lives lead them.

Perrin’s big choice very much appears to be how he will handle being a wolfbrother. That he is one is not something he can choose, and it’s clear that at this point he has accepted the truth of that. He still resists any connection to the wolves, but that is because he is afraid of losing himself, losing his human side, not because he thinks he can pretend it isn’t a part of him. His understanding of, and empathy towards, Noam feels like a significant step in his journey; it may have made him even more frightened of connecting to the wolves, but it also prompted him to finally ask Moiraine what she knows about the condition and to consider a little more closely what this life means—what being a wolf means. At the moment he is most concerned with protecting himself in—and from—his dreams, but in the long run he will have to grapple with the question of how much he wants to lean into his identity, and in what capacity he wants to make it a part of himself.

Like Rand, Egwene and Nynaeve could not choose whether or not to be channelers. They are both wilders, girls who have/would have touched the One Power even without instruction. Egwene had to be trained, or would likely have died. Nynaeve was fortunate to survive on her own. But they do have a choice in their future. Nynaeve could have chosen to return to the Two Rivers instead of following Moiraine and accompanying Egwene to the White Tower. I believe that her ability to channel, her identity as an Aes Sedai, will become very important to Nynaeve in time, but her choice to take Moiraine’s invitation and stay with Egwene came much more from a desire to protect those considered under her charge (not to mention a need for control, and to get revenge on Moiraine) than it did from a desire to learn to wield saidar.

Egwene, on the other hand, has wanted to be Aes Sedai since the moment she learned it was possible. She has had doubts and struggles, of course, but ultimately this part of her has been relatively consistent. While it is true that she would have had to go to the Tower for a while, or risk death, she has always delighted in her ability to channel and the opportunity it provides.

I assume that, while all wilders must spend at least some time in the Tower or risk a very likely and painful death, any other woman who has the potential to channel that is only discovered when she is examined by an Aes Sedai would have the option of never going to the Tower at all, never touching saidar, and continuing life exactly as she chooses.

Unless she’s around someone ta’veren, of course. Or ta’veren herself. I’m still waiting for some ta’veren ladies to show up.

My dream for all these characters, regardless of how much choice they have had in their identities and their fates, is that they will find some happiness in who they are and what they have become.

Queer people in our world are often fighting the idea that our sexualities, our identities, are a “choice,” and that idea is problematic on so many levels. But it is also true that there is a reverse insinuation, a different problem, even when one accepts that it isn’t a choice. The suggestion then becomes that we just “can’t help” who we are, and if we could, we obviously would never choose to be different. That being trans or gay or bi or intersex carries only suffering, only pain, and no one would want to be that way if they could help it.

And that’s not true. Being queer brings a lot of good things too, a lot of beauty, and adventure, and joy. And my hope is that the overarching story of The Wheel of Time will give our protagonists some of that beauty and joy as well.

I want Perrin to love some parts of his connection to wolves, and be fulfilled by them. I want Nynaeve to discover that her connection to saidar and the Aes Sedai gives her the ability to care for people the way she always wanted, but on a much grander scale, to be a healer and a protector and a voice of wisdom. I want the narrative to continue to explore the pleasure of channeling and touching the One Power, and not only in the context of the dangerous desire to draw too much. I want Lan to become Nynaeve’s Warder and for them to share a double-union of being married and of being bonded Warder and Aes Sedai, and to have that be better than either one would be on its own.

The fight ahead of Rand and his friends is a great one, and I know there is deep suffering, deep pain and loss, in their futures. But in between the cracks in Fate, in between the woof and weft of the Wheel’s Weave, I want to see pleasure, and happiness, and connection. Touching the driving force of the universe must be a remarkable experience. Shaping the driving force of the universe must bring wonders as well as danger. And I would like to revel in that.

Sylas K Barrett is a writer himself, and the question of fate vs choice in a story is one that has always fascinated him. And he thinks it would be good for some of our characters to remember that bravery is not the absence of fear, but persistence in the face of it.

citation

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