Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Is it Luck or Ta’veren Power in Robert Jordan’s The Dragon Reborn? (Part 17)

Hello friends and readers and readerfriends! Bit of a heads up, we’re only covering one chapter this week, so we can get back on a better rhythm that matches the thematic sections of The Dragon Reborn. Thus, this week will only cover Chapter 40, and next week will cover all of Perrin’s adventures in chapters 41-44.

Fortunately for us, Chapter 40, A Hero in the Night, is both fun and really interesting. It’s strange that we’re still getting to know Mat for the first time, despite all the history we have from The Eye of The World and The Great Hunt. I was particularly struck this week by Mat’s need to insist that he’s not as kind as he is, and the way he impulsively wants to help other people. If you had asked me before this chapter, I would certainly have said that Mat is the most selfish, or at least the most self-centered, of the Emond’s Field folks, but I hadn’t really expected him to have this view of himself, and I’m a little confused about where this impulse to insist that he doesn’t care is coming from. Self-preservation is my best guess. Or maybe Mat picked up somewhere that generosity is weakness? That doesn’t seem like a lesson he would have learned from his clever Da or any of the other folks of the Two Rivers, though. But perhaps his encounter with Aludra will shine some more light on the question.

Chapter 40 opens with the Gray Gull coming into the docks at Aringill, where Mat and Thom find absolute throngs of people, some bustling about carrying possessions, others sitting or standing alone or in family groups as the children cling, crying, to their parents. Mat can see that many of the ships on the Erinin are not occupied with river trade at all, but rather with ferrying people over to Aringill from another town on the far bank.

Mat tells himself he’s not interested in politics, and just wants people to stop telling him he’s an Andorman “just because of some map.” He also notices that Captain Mallia is watching him from the tiller. The Captain never gave up trying to find out what Mat’s mission was until Mat finally showed him the sealed letter and explained that he was carrying a private message from the Daughter-Heir to Queen Morgase. Privately, Mat had loosened the seal with a heated knife and read the contents, but the letter hadn’t contained any sort of explanation as to why men were coming after Mat. Mat is certain that there is some kind of code or hidden message in the letter, even though Thom, with his experience in the Game of Houses, hadn’t been able to make anything out of it, either. Mat’s determined to get that letter delivered and out of his hands as soon as possible.

Thom meanwhile, is annoyed that no one in this overflowing town cares that a gleeman has just arrived. He observes that half the people look like they are starving, and that it will be difficult to find any room in an inn. He also points out that someone might be tempted to do violence to Mat if he keeps eating the way he ate on the ship, but Mat insists that he hasn’t been eating that much for days now (the hunger had just vanished one day, as though Tar Valon had lost its last bit of hold on him) though he’s been ordering the same amount and throwing it overboard to mess with Mallia.

Captain Mallia, still butting his nose into their business, offers one of his men to clear a path through the “rabble” on the docks, which Mat sees as a ploy to find out which inn they’re staying at. He throws Mallia off by suggesting he might have another meal and a game of dice on the ship before leaving, and the Captain is relieved when Mat decides against that plan. He’s already lost plenty of money to the lucky young man.

Thom asks why Mat has to taunt Mallia like that, and Mat replies that the Captain deserves the taunting, although he admits to himself that the prank of throwing the extra food over the side doesn’t seem so funny now that he can see all these hungry people. One woman, scanning the arrivals as if looking for someone as her three crying children cling to her, catches his attention, and on impulse, he digs a fistful of coins out of his pockets and presses them into her hands, moving away before she can say anything. He insists it’s not a big deal, both to Thom and to himself, and tries to avoid looking anyone else in the face as they continue on.

They learn from a guard on the docks that most people are sleeping under hedges, and they’ll be lucky to find horses haven’t been slaughtered for food. Thom’s disgusted, but the guardsman tells them that it really is that bad; people are arriving faster than food can be brought to feed them all. But it won’t last much longer, because the orders have come down that this is the last day people will be accepted in the crossing. Starting tomorrow, anyone attempting to land refugees at Aringill will be sent back.

Thom doesn’t think that it sounds very like Morgase to cut people off when they are suffering, but Mat, with a dismissive “who else could it be?” is more interested in finding room at an inn. However, they’re laughed out of every place despite Mat’s money and despite Thom playing the gleeman card. Eventually he convinces Mat to try for space in an innkeeper’s stables, and although the innkeeper declares that his stables are only for horses, Mat, spotting dice cups amongst the man’s possessions, challenges him to a game. He wins first the right to stay in the stables, and next, the possession of the innkeepers two horses.

When they go to the stable to check out their “accommodations,” however, Thom is less than enthused, muttering to himself about Mat throwing five sixes to win the toss, and how lately, Mat hasn’t been winning every toss.

I win enough.” Mat was just as relieved not to be winning every throw. Luck was one thing, but remembering that night still sent shivers down his back. Still, for one moment as he shook that dice cup, he had all but known what the pips would be. As he tossed the quarterstaff up into the loft, thunder crashed in the sky. He scrambled up the ladder, calling back to Thom. “This was a good idea. I’d think you would be happy to be in out of the rain tonight.”

They eat a meal of bread and cheese and water—all the innkeeper had to sell them—in the hayloft, and Thom settles back to smoke his pipe. Just then a woman enters the stable with a wagon. She is well-dressed, and able to light a lantern in the dark easily, despite the fact that it’s tricky to use a flint and make sparks in a stable. Mat notices her chewing on a bit of bread from her supplies as though it’s rather hard but she is too hungry to care.

Four big men men, in clothes equally as good as the woman’s, suddenly enter the barn as well, addressing her as Aludra. Their leader, Tammuz, tells her that she would have been left alone if she had been “able to forget the secrets in [her] head” and that she should have known that they would find out that she was making what the Guild alone has the right to make.

When Mat sees them draw daggers with the intent to kill her, he moves, even as he’s calling himself a fool in his head. He grabs one of the doubled ropes suspended from the ceiling and swings down to plow through the group of men, knocking them down. Thom throws Mat his quarterstaff and Mat eventually knocks all the knives away and all the men down.

He tells Aludra that she could have picked a different stable to be murdered in, and she, sheathing a dagger, points out that she would have helped him fight but she didn’t want to get mistaken for one of the men in the fray. As Thom comes down from the loft, Aludra observes that this is like a story, her being rescued by a gleeman and a young hero.

They introduce themselves, and learn that Aludra was an illuminator before Tammuz ruined a performance for the King of Cairhien and almost destroyed a Chapter House. But because Aludra was the Mistress of that Chapter House, she took the blame with the Guild. She also insists that she isn’t telling the secrets of the Guild, as Tammuz claimed, but that she won’t allow herself to starve when she has the ability to make a living creating fireworks.

Aludra declares that she must reward them, but she has no money. Instead she offers a roll of oiled cloth full of different sized fireworks. Thom tells her she mustn’t offer them something so valuable, but she tells him that she has a right to express gratitude as she wishes.

Mat squatted beside her, fascinated. He had seen fireworks twice in his life. Peddlers had brought them to Emond’s Field, at great expense to the Village Council. When he was ten, he had tried to cut one open to see what was inside, and had caused an uproar. Bran al’Vere, the Mayor, had cuffed him; Doral Barran, who had been the Wisdom then, had switched him; and his father had strapped him when he got home. Nobody in the village would talk to him for a month, except for Rand and Perrin, and they mostly told him what a fool he had been. He reached out to touch one of the cylinders. Aludra slapped his hand away.

She explains how the different sizes work—which make a bang, which make a bang and light, which makes sparkles, how the fuses work. Finally, she warns them not to leave the package close to fire or they will explode, and not to cut them open, because exposure to air can often make them explode without fire, and one could lose a finger or even a hand.

Then Aludra prepares to leave, remarking that the men on the floor will expect her to go to Caemlyn so she will maybe head towards Lugard instead. Mat thinks of how long a journey that is, how hungry she had seemed gnawing on that loaf of stale bread, and finds himself offering her a fistful of coins. He can always win more.

She paused with her cloak half around her shoulders, then smiled at Thom as she swept it the rest of the way on. “He is young yet, eh?”

“He is young,” Thom agreed. “And not half so bad as he would like to think himself. Sometimes he is not.”

Mat glowered at both of them and lowered his hand.

As Aludra is leaving, Thom asks how she lit her lantern so quickly in the dark. She isn’t going to tell all her secrets, but she does remark that if she ever perfects them, “sticks” will make her fortune for her.

Then she leaves, out into the rainy night, and Thom remarks that he and Mat should follow, as the men on the floor are starting to stir. They saddle the horses Mat won.

Swinging into his saddle, Mat stared at the rain outside the open door, falling harder than ever. “A bloody hero,” he said. “Thom, if I ever look like acting the hero again, you kick me.”

“And what would you have done differently?”

Mat scowled at him, then pulled up his hood and spread the tail of his cloak over the fat roll tied behind the high cantle of his saddle. Even with oiled cloth, a little more protection from the rain could not hurt. “Just kick me!” He booted his horse in the ribs and galloped into the rainy night.

 

If you were to place Mat on the D&D alignment scale—I don’t play D&D but I do enjoy the internet’s favorite pastime, after sorting characters into Hogwarts Houses—The Eye of the World Mat would fall into Chaotic Neutral, I think. Not a bad person, but he’s ruled by slightly selfish impulses that don’t really take into account considering what effects will result from his actions, for good or for ill. He wanted to find treasure in Shadar Logoth, for example, but when he actually took the dagger it was from an impulse to protect himself from Mordeth, rather than greed, which to me is more of a neutral choice rather than the “evil” of greed. Even Mat in the White Tower is pretty neutral; he’s concerned first and foremost with his own protection and escape from Tar Valon, and while he has no impulse to harm anyone, he also isn’t really motivated by anything except self-interest when he accepts the duty of carrying Elayne’s letter to Morgase. This Mat, however, is finding himself with charitable and kind impulses, and while perhaps he is right that the money means little to him, he was willing to put himself in danger for Aludra and lose the safe haven he had found for him and Thom, something that we know is very important to Mat.

I’m not really surprised that Mat has good-person impulses. What surprises me is that he is so defensive about them. I’m not sure why it is that he needs to prove to himself, in his own mind, that he didn’t give that mother money because he genuinely cared, that he had to tell himself it was only because the children’s crying was annoying.

Maybe he worries that appearing soft will make him vulnerable to others. That makes sense, and he certainly has reasons to fear being vulnerable, given what he’s been through since he left the Two Rivers. Mat’s self-protective streak is strong, so perhaps that feels at odds with his impulse to step into a conflict that isn’t his. I wonder, too, if there isn’t also a generosity that comes with realizing how many advantages he suddenly has. It isn’t as though he gave away his last piece of bread, Aladdin-style; Mat does have plenty of money, and no reason to believe he can’t replenish it at will. Mat has come suddenly, unexpectedly, and mysteriously, into possession of a great stash of money that, for the moment at least, seems to be eternally replenishable. That his first instinct is to pay that good fortune forward isn’t perhaps as unexpected as Mat, who was raised in a small farming community without much wealth, might think it is. And how lovely to see someone rich not be stingy with it.

I like Mat as a force of chaotic good in the world, especially since he is also ta’veren. Captain Mallia is a cruel, xenophobic monster who thinks entire countries of people should be exterminated or enslaved; he deserves every bit of tormenting Mat inflicted on him and more. Not saying that Mat is being cautious or even wise… but I got a lot of satisfaction out of him hazing Mallia and taking his money. Even the innkeeper who loses his horses to Mat’s dice throws is drawn into it by Mat playing on his greed, so there is a certain sense of justice there, too, despite the fact that Mat totally played the man.

I wonder if Mat’s ta’veren nature has something to do with his new luck powers. I remember, when Rand engaged the Whitecloaks at Baerlon, the narrative described his perceptions of things as distant and “wrapped in wool.” While I’m fairly sure that was a reaction from his earlier channeling, I also see some similarities between that scene and what Mat experienced as he gambled in Tar Valon and discovered that he could not lose. Maybe Mat is influencing the Pattern in small, deliberate ways as he focuses on the fall of the dice. I have been wondering whether Mat’s confidence that his luck with gambling will always continue was foolish or warranted: Since he doesn’t know why his luck is so intense, shouldn’t he be worried that it will stop as soon as it started, and be careful to use what he’s gained as thoughtfully as possible? That is, perhaps, not really his nature, but it’s also possible that he is actually influencing the luck in some way, and so on some level is aware that he has control, and therefore that the luck is here to stay.

We’ve seen the way Rand’s extremely powerful ta’veren-ness has shaped the lives of the people around him in very obvious and even extreme ways. In Chapter 32 Rand muses on the weddings at Jarra, and how he played Rose of the Morning at them. The song makes him think of Egwene, who he once thought he would marry, and perhaps the thoughts of Egwene came because of the marriage, but part of me wondered then if Rand’s mood might have shaped how his ta’veren powers manifested, if his thoughts of Egwene hadn’t been the reason for all those people to suddenly want to be married, as Rand had once dreamed of being. We’ve yet to see a suggestion on Perrin’s end that could be read similarly, but I do find this theory interesting, and I’ll be keeping an eye on it going forward.

I was going to bring it up in one of the sections with Nynaeve and co., but reading the physical description of Aludra make me think of it. The narration in The Dragon Reborn has shifted slightly from the first two books in several ways; for example, I observed in an earlier post that the braid-tugging was never so predominant in The Eye of the Word or The Great Hunt as it is in The Dragon Reborn. Similarly, I’ve noticed a focus on breasts, and the word breasts, that wasn’t there in the earlier novels. Rather than, for example, describing a dress as being embroidered along the breast (a slightly old-fashioned word for chest, and a gender-neutral way of describing that area of the body) or even “embroidered along the bodice” or “bosom,” Jordan continually chooses to use the word breasts. Egwene’s ring “hangs down between her breasts,” as does Nynaeve’s. Women always cross their arms “under their breasts,” conjuring an image of them being lifted up and brought into focus. Mat’s sections, meanwhile, focus heavily on the lips of a woman and whether they would be good for kissing. Aludra has “a small, full mouth that seemed on the point of a pout. Or getting ready for a kiss.” It’s not a hugely dramatic or untoward shift, but it is a noticeable one, and it feels to me like it greatly increases the narrative’s intention to remind us constantly of the sexualization of women, their kissability, their breasts, how much Faile may or may not have a nose that’s too big for her face. It’s especially noticeable in the sections from Egwene’s point-of-view, I think; it’s one thing if the narration is trying to tell me that Mat’s obsessed with kissing, but I don’t think Egwene has any real reason to be focusing on anyone’s breasts that much, and it comes off as just being there to—ahem—titillate the reader.

I really do like Aludra’s character, though: her no-nonsense attitude and her status as an elite craftsperson. I had forgotten her and Tammuz’s names, so it was only after she told the story about the Chapter House in Cairhien that I realized we’d encountered them before. Jordan seems to be very adept at weaving (haha) all these threads back together again and again, which in addition to being a fun sort of Easter egg hunt for the reader, reinforces the concept of this world existing as a woven Pattern, where threads are directed by a higher power and nothing is ever really chance. I wonder if we will see Aludra again, or if her gift of fireworks will serve an important role in Mat and his friends’ futures.

The Illuminators Guild and the rules around it are fascinating, and it just occurred to me this week that having the technology for fireworks means that this world also has the technology for early firearms. But the Illuminators don’t seem to have any interest in weapons, and they guard their secrets closely. But now Mister Mischief Mat has got his hands on them, and really anything could come of this. I don’t know if he will keep them or sell them, or if his interest in fireworks will ultimately allow others—perhaps unsavory types—to get their hands on the technology too. But what I do know is that there is a -10% chance that Mat will listen to Aludra and not open one of those fireworks, and I’d guess about a 50% chance he’ll lose a finger or a hand. Then again, his luck has changed since he foolishly picked up some cursed treasure on his first trip outside the Two Rivers, and perhaps I’m not very wise to place any odds against Matrim Cauthon these days.

And whether or not the men chasing Mat have anything to do with Elayne’s letter? Well, that remains to be seen.

Next week we rejoin Moiraine, Lan, Perrin, and his falcon. We’ll see that all is not right in Illian, learn about darkhounds, worry a lot about Lan and Moriane, and do our level best not to make any stupid jokes about an inn called Easing the Badger.

Sylas K Barrett has so many questions about how ta’veren work. Almost as much as it looks like MoiraIne is about to have.

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