Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading the Wheel of Time: A Death Upon the Tree of Life in Robert Jordan’s The Shadow Rising (Part 18)

Good morning everyone! So I’ve now read Chapters 24-26 of The Shadow Rising and well, wow. It’s a lot! There have been enough hints about the Aiel that I had guessed a little of what Rand gets to learn in his journey through the heart of Rhuidean, but I was (perhaps naively) unprepared for the manner in which this information would be imparted to us, not to mention its level of detail and the emotional resonance of having Rand so intimately connecting with the people who experienced it. I’m not sure how to feel, really, because it was so deeply moving watching the Aiel people being slowly rebuilt as Rand stepped further and further back into the past.

However, before I wax too poetic on that subject, that’s not what we are here for this week! Instead, we’re going to cover Mat’s experiences in Rhuidean—all of Chapter 24 and then the end of 26, once he and Rand are reunited and have to fight off some dust monsters. Heads up—I am feeling punchy today, so let’s gooo!

Mat and Rand reach the mist surrounding Rhuidean, completely dehydrated, sunburnt, and faint from the heat. Mat has spied Aviendha running naked, but Rand doesn’t really believe the claim so he lets it go. And as much as Mat doesn’t ever want to contend again with something that has to do with the Power, he also doesn’t particularly relish the idea of hanging out in the Waste after dark.

Still, Rand counters by asking Mat if he’s sure he wants to go through with this, to go into Rhuidean where he might die, or go mad. Mat responds that he has to go, and points out instead that Rand being the Dragon Reborn is enough, without needing to be an Aiel clan chief too. When Rand answers that he, too, must go, Mat suggests that maybe the “snaky people” tell everyone that they have to go to Rhuidean, and that it doesn’t mean anything. But Rhuidean was never mentioned to Rand, and Mat, realizing he’s outed himself, on that front, gives in—though he is already thinking about how those people owe him more answers, somehow.

After stepping through a mist so thick that Mat almost loses his bearings, both of them emerge into an orderly city made up of huge towers and buildings made of marble, glass, and crystal. For all its magnificence, however, it also appears unfinished, and the city is empty and silent. Rand discovers water, however, deep below the earth, and uses saidin to bring it to the surface until it comes bubbling out of one of the huge ornate fountains. They both have a good long drink and wet themselves in the water, even though Mat is uneasy when he realizes that Rand used the One Power. Then they continue on, towards the center of the city.

Mat wonders what he is supposed to do here, if just being in Rhuidean is all he needs to do to avoid the death the snaky people saw for him, and how he will know if there’s something more. He feels an uneasy prickling at his back, and the half-finished stonework almost seems like it could be watching him, or hiding something sinister. He wishes that he had kept some of his knives, but the Wise Ones were too much like Aes Sedai and he didn’t dare lie to them. Again he wishes he could be free of the Aes Sedai forever.

After a mile of walking, they come to a plaza, at the center of which stands a huge tree. Nearby is a series of concentric rings made up of glass columns, while the rest of the square is filled with statues of various sizes as well as many other artifacts—hundreds or maybe thousands of artifacts that Mat realizes must be ter’angreal, or at least something related to the Power. He notices Rand stoop momentarily over two small statues, one of a man, one of a woman, each holding aloft a crystal sphere.

They step closer to the tree, Mat feeling more and more uneasy as they get nearer to the columns. He’s certain they, also, have something to do with the Power. Then Rand stops abruptly, and Mat stops too, and sees that the tree has the trefoil leaves of Avendesora, the Tree of Life. Sitting beneath it, Mat immediately feels at peace, contented, and even in less physical pain.

Rand sat down cross-legged nearby. “I can believe the stories. Ghoetam, sitting beneath Avendesora for forty years to gain wisdom. Right now, I can believe.”

Mat let his head fall back against the trunk. “I don’t know that I’d trust birds to bring me food, though. You’d have to get up sometime.” But an hour or so would not be bad. Even all day. “It doesn’t make sense anyway. What kind of food could birds bring in here? What birds?”

“Maybe Rhuidean wasn’t always like this, Mat. Maybe… I don’t know. Maybe Avendesora was somewhere else, then.”

“Somewhere else,” Mat murmured. “I would not mind being somewhere else.” It feels… good… though.

Rand seems to drag himself back to the task at hand, quoting his “duty is heavier than a mountain” phrase. Mat is ready to follow him into the columns, but Rand stops him, insisting that he must go alone. Entering the “heart” means you come out a clan chief, go mad, or die. There are no other choices. Mat flips a coin to decide, but when it lands on its edge he realizes that Rand is using the Power on it. He agrees to stay behind since Rand wants it so badly. He does insist, however, that he won’t come in and rescue Rand, or wait forever for him.

“I wouldn’t think that of you, Mat,” Rand said.

Mat stared at him suspiciously. What was he grinning at? “So long as you understand I won’t. Aaah, go on and be a bloody Aiel chief. You have the face for it.”

“Don’t come in there, Mat. Whatever happens, don’t.” He waited until Mat nodded before turning away.

He seems to vanish as he steps into the columns, and Mat walks around the area, keeping well clear of the columns themselves as he tries to see where Rand ended up. He continues to try to convince himself that he won’t go after Rand, that he should just leave, and also to ask himself what he is meant to do in Rhuidean until suddenly he catches sight of a twisted redstone doorway, exactly like the one he accessed in the Stone.

Mat walks around it, ascertaining that every detail is the same—or at least, every detail except for the three triangles, which point down. He can’t remember if the other doorway had those markings or not. He decides it must be the same, and while he couldn’t step through that doorway again, perhaps this one would be different. Thinking that he can give himself, and Rand, an hour, he decides he might as well try one more time, and steps through.

He finds himself in a different place than the one he had visited before, a star-shaped chamber of dusty stone. Clearly no one has been there in some time, but as he’s turning back to the doorway he hears a voice.

“A very long time.”

Mat spun back, snatching at his coatsleeve for a knife that was lying back on the mountainside. The man standing among the columns looked nothing at all like the snaky folk. He made Mat regret giving up those last blades to the Wise Ones.

The fellow was tall, taller than an Aiel, and sinewy, but with shoulders too wide for his narrow waist, and skin as white as the finest paper. Pale leather straps studded with silver crisscrossed his arms and bare chest, and a black kilt hung to his knees. His eyes were too big and almost colorless, set deep in a narrow-jawed face. His short-cut, palely reddish hair stood up like a brush, and his ears, lying flat against his head, had a hint of a point at the top. He leaned toward Mat, inhaling, opening his mouth to pull in more air, flashing sharp teeth. The impression he gave was of a fox about to leap on a cornered chicken.

After ascertaining that Mat doesn’t have any iron, instruments of music, or devices for making light, he agrees to take Mat to where he can find what he needs, and Mat, encouraged by the fact that the being asks the same questions and seems to be tasting his experiences the same way the others did, follows. The room he arrived in seems to follow him down all the corridors, much like the spires outside the windows of the other place, and the being keeps giving Mat a toothy grin that makes him vow never again to leave all his knives behind. He bluffs, telling the man not to think that he has “caught a babe in a snare” and that if he tries to cheat, Mat will make a saddlecloth from his hide. This backfires a bit.

The fellow started, pale eyes widening, then shrugged and adjusted the silver-studded straps across his chest; his mocking smile seemed tailored to draw attention to what he was doing. Suddenly Mat found himself wondering where that pale leather came from. Surely not… Oh, Light, I think it is. He managed to stop himself from swallowing, but only just. “Lead, you son of a goat. Your hide is not worth silver studding. Take me where I want to go.”

Mat has no idea how long or far they have walked, but they eventually reach a door, and his escort seems to disappear, leaving the hallway empty. When Mat steps through the door he finds himself in another star-shaped chamber, and he notices that it smells like a wild animal’s lair. Each of the eight points of the star has a pedestal rising from it, but there is no one there. He turns to find the doorway gone, then turns back to find the pedestals occupied.

They look very much like the guide, the women in white blouses with lace necks and ruffles, the men in studded straps, armed with bronze knives. They order him to speak, the agreement to be made according to ancient treaty, but when Mat starts to question them about his predicament, even to demand their answers, he receives only silence. He continues to elaborate.

“I have no intention of marrying. And I have no intention of dying, either, whether I am supposed to live again or not. I walk around with holes in my memory, holes in my life, and you stare at me like idiots. If I had my way, I would want those holes filled, but at least answers to my questions might fill some in my future. You have to answer—!”

One of the men answers him then, with a single word “done” that Mat doesn’t understand. Frustrated, he proclaims them as bad as the Aes Sedai, and declares that he wants to be free of the Aes Sedai and the Power, and to be away from them and back in Rhuidean, for them to open a door.

Again he is interrupted with that single word, “done” and, still not understanding, hurls insults at them. He receives some in return.

“Fool,” a woman said in a whispered growl, and others repeated it. Fool. Fool. Fool.

“Wise to ask leavetaking, when you set no price, no terms.”

“Yet fool not to first agree on price.”

“We will set the price.”

They declare that what was asked will be given, and the price will be paid, and a confused Mat feels darkness close around him, and something around his throat so that he cannot breathe.

Later, after Rand has had his own trip through the looking glass, he finds a shape, a man hanging from from a pole laid across two branches of the Avendesora tree, a rope around his neck.

With a wordless roar, he ran for the tree, grabbing at saidin, the fiery sword coming into his hands as he leaped, slashing at the rope. He and Mat hit the dusty white paving stones with twin thuds. The pole jarred free and clattered down beside them; not a pole, but an odd black-hafted spear with a short sword blade in place of a spearpoint, slightly curved and single-edged. Rand would not have cared if it was made of gold and cuendillar set with sapphires and firedrops.

He lets go of the Power and, finding no heartbeat in Mat’s chest, rips open his shirt, tossing aside a silver medallion he finds there. He works on pounding Mat’s chest and breathing into his mouth, the way he once saw Master Luhhan revive a boy who had been found drowned, back in the Two Rivers. Remembering the girl he had tried to bring back to life with the Power, he doesn’t dare use saidin—he wants Mat to live, not be a puppet like Rand briefly made the girl into.

Suddenly Mat jerks and coughs back to life, and when he’s somewhat regained his breath he gasps out what happened to him, that he’d found another redstone doorway, and the folk on the other side had tried to kill him. Confused but intrigued, Rand asks if they answered questions—he has so many answers that he needs now.

“No answers,” Mat said huskily. “They cheat. And they tried to kill me.” He picked up the medallion, a silver foxhead that almost filled his palm, and after a moment stuffed it into his pocket with a grimace. “I got something out of them, at least.” Pulling the strange spear to him, he ran his fingers along the black shaft. A line of some strange cursive script ran its length, bracketed by a pair of birds inlaid in metal even darker than the wood. Ravens, Rand thought they were. Another pair were engraved on the blade. With a rough wry laugh, Mat levered himself to his feet, half-leaning on the spear, the sword blade beginning just level with his head. He did not bother to lace up his shirt or button his coat. “I’ll keep this, too. Their joke, but I will keep it.”

Rand doesn’t understand, not even when Mat recites the verses written on the shaft of the spear:

Thus is our treaty written; thus is agreement made.

Thought is the arrow of time; memory never fades.

What was asked is given. The price is paid.

Rand cannot read the words himself, and cannot understand why Mat can, but the empty doorways of Rhuidean seem to mock him, to suggest that there are worse secrets hidden there, and he decides that they need to leave, even if it means crossing the valley at night. Mat agrees, as long as he can stop for a drink, first.

They make their way slowly, Mat hobbling and using the spear for a walking staff, and Rand feels so uneasy, so as if there were murderous eyes boring into his back, that he embraces saidin. Everything appears peaceful to the eye, until Rand realizes that there is no wind causing the swirling ripples of dust that are beginning to rise around them. Mat observes that trouble is always what he gets for hanging around with Rand. Rand asks if he can run.

They run, and Rand knows that the dust isn’t just dust, but another one of those bubbles of evil, rising up to seek out ta’veren. He summons his saidin sword, and when a solid, clawed figure coalesces, he cuts through it at once. But more clouds of dust keep coming together to create more solid figures, and as fast as they both fight them off—Rand notes that Mat wields his new weapon as though he’s always used it—more keep coming, and they’re both bleeding and panting before long.

Remembering what Lanfear told him about not knowing his true power, Rand uses saidin to send whirlwinds into the shapes, bursting them apart and showering himself and Mat with dust. Mat asks why Rand didn’t do that in the first place, but before Rand can answer, the dust begins to ripple again. He commands Mat to run.

They race away, striking at or kicking any close shape that seems close to coalescing, until they make it to the mist, passing through, and finding that nothing is following them. Or can follow them.

Mat notices that it is dawn, that they were in there all night, much longer than they thought they were. Rand tells him quietly that they should go back up the mountain, as the Aiel will be waiting for them.

 

Okay, so at this point it’s probably painfully redundant to keep pointing out Mat’s utter recklessness, right? We all know what we’re in for, and I’m sure there are those of you (all of you?) who are shaking your heads at me right now thinking oh, Sylas, you naive little butterfly, you think this is impetuous? Wait until you get another few books under your belt, then you’ll see what kind of mischief Mr. Matrim “Grabby Hands” Cauthon can really get up to. I mean, this is a man who has spent most of the story, especially in the last few books, desperately talking and thinking about what he wouldn’t give to get away from the One Power, only to jump into the very next ter’angreal he saw. I’ve remarked before that Mat protests too much, but honestly, you have to laugh.

Rand, Perrin, and Egwene have all received scoldings at various points about throwing themselves into things they don’t understand, about trying to run before they could crawl, so to speak. Hopper was always telling Perrin that he was too young to be traveling so deeply in the Dream world, and Egwene has had similar warnings from Amys, as well as the more general scoldings she, Nynaeve and Elayne periodically receive from Moiraine for presuming too much upon their authority from the Amyrlin. And Moiraine is constantly accusing Rand of running blindly ahead and making rash or foolhardy decisions, basically every time he so much as moves. And every time he doesn’t. But everyone seems to take it for granted with Mat.

Maybe it’s because no one is particularly concerned with his importance to the world, since he’s not a channeler (Moiraine was only mildly interested in Perrin, after all) or the Dragon Reborn. Mat is the only one who can wield the Horn of Valere, but those who know about that mostly seem to regard it as an annoying accident. And even more than that, I think, Mat’s generally reckless nature and tendency to trust to luck has just been… accepted. By everyone. Mat, the one who is a flight risk. Mat, the one who is careless. Or selfish. Or stupid. Just Mat, who everyone scolds but no one gives enough credit to to expect change.

And yet, if you stop and pay attention—and we the readers have the benefit of perspective here—Mat is just as pushed along by fate as anyone, and just as punished by it. Indeed, perhaps he is more manipulated by the Pattern than anyone else besides Rand.

I think it’s easy to miss Mat’s desperation, and I have overlooked it in the past. I recognized that Mat is a chaos entity, a Loki-like trickster, but there is a difference between being impulsive and trusting to luck and just, you know, blindly running around throwing yourself at things. Or into doorways. Mat demands everything to make sense to him, for reasons I cannot fathom. Why expect that just because the doors look the same, or at least similar, that they should take you to the same place? And once you’ve ascertained that it isn’t the same place, why would you assume that the rules would be the same? Mat spent his trip through the first doorway yelling at the beings on the other side for following the exact rules he was told they would follow. On this trip, he yelled at different beings for not following those same rules, which in this case were never stated or even implied.

It’s not Mat’s impulsiveness that is his true problem, I think. It’s the fact that he so easily lets his frustration get the better of him. His desperation is understandable, especially since he has less direction offered to him than the others do, and the holes in his memory make it harder still. But he gets so upset, so easily, and he doesn’t stop to think. We know that Mat is a very clever fellow, when he wants to be, and when he was trapped in Tar Valon he even made a point of trying to think logically and thoroughly the way his dad does. He is capable of it, if he wants to be.

That being said, Mat’s luck has still held, despite his rashness. It appears that the “foxy” people are somewhat similar to the “snaky” ones, but where the others answer questions, these seem to grant wishes. Mat’s demanding of things may have been foolhardy, but it came out as three wishes, and one was to get back to Rhuidean, which seems to have been the only thing that prevented him from being trapped forever.

If the “price” can be negotiated ahead of time, that suggests that death isn’t the thing these beings actually want, or at least not the only thing. Since it’s suggested that they, too, might feed on experiences or feelings, perhaps strong emotions and sensations—or even negative ones—are more appealing to them. They may have created the circumstances of Mat’s hanging in order to have him experience certain extreme sensations that they could enjoy.

I gotta admit, from the description of these beings, I kept imagining the Kaminoans from Star Wars, only with red horse manes and in fetish gear. It made it a bit harder to take them seriously. Still, they seem more malevolent than their counterparts, to whom they are probably related in some way. At the same time, though, they have power to grant wishes, which seems to be a more intense ability than the “snaky” people—unless of course the snake-like people have such an ability as well and simply chose not to use it.

I don’t always catch, and indeed, am sometimes not particularly interested in, the references to modern times or our own mythology, but it’s impossible to miss all the references to Odin here. And the points become even more relevant since I’ve noticed Mat’s similarities to Loki back in The Dragon Reborn. Here Mat is hanged on Avendesora, the Tree of Life, from a spear, the price he pays for the things he obtained from the people on the other side of the doorway. Odin also sacrificed his life for knowledge and power, throwing himself on his own spear and hanging himself from the tree of life, Yggdrasil. Like Odin, Mat actually died on the tree, before he was brought back to life by Rand’s use of CPR.

And then there is the medallion with the two ravens on it. Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, or “Thought” and “Memory,” and one of Mat’s “wishes” was to have the holes in his memory restored. I suspect, therefore, that the medallion is intended for that purpose.

This makes me suspect that I know the meaning of another part of the answers that Mat got from the snake people. They said he would have to give up “half the light of the world,” which might very well be a reference to losing an eye, another sacrifice Odin made to gain wisdom. I remember all the way back in The Eye of the World, Mat had a dream about his eyes being taken—perhaps that has nothing to do with this, as I believe either Perrin or Rand also dreamed about birds pecking their eyes, but you never know. In any case, I think it’s a pretty good guess.

(Also, I caught another reference here this week, also pertaining to gaining wisdom by way of a tree. Ghoetam sounds like a reference to the Buddha, aka Siddhārtha Gautama, who is said to have meditated under the Bodhi tree for 7 weeks, or 49 days, and gained enlightenment. It’s a nice reference to another way of gaining wisdom, and particularly potent, I think, in a section that also goes back to the pacifistic and peaceful origins of the Aiel.)

I wonder what Mat will be like with his memories intact? I assume it will include the memories of his other life which surfaced during his healing in the White Tower. I also expect that his mastery of the Old Tongue will now be complete—perhaps even to the point where he will know when he is using it and when he isn’t—just as Odin gained the understanding of the Norn runes after his sacrifice on Yggdrasil.

This is quite a level up for our young mischief maker, but lest we think Mat has changed too much, his immediate response to the new bubble of evil is to blame Rand for always bringing trouble, again, as though Mat weren’t the one hurling himself blindly through magic doorways at every turn. Still, Rand seems to recognize most of Mat’s bluster and complaining as just that; we see his amusement when Mat claims he won’t wait for Rand if he takes too long inside the columns, and I don’t think Rand believes for a second that Mat would abandon him. Mat doesn’t run away anymore. He runs forward.

The moment with the coin flip and Rand’s apparently unconscious use of saidin to affect the outcome struck me as incredibly significant. Of course it shows that Rand is protective over his friend, and also that Rand is protective over his own destiny. But more than that, it is a moment where the two men’s different powers are put against each other. Mat is playing his ability with luck and then Rand pits his own instinctive use of saidin against it. And wins.

I mean, I have to assume the coin would have landed against Mat going in anyway, since it was obviously not the right choice for him. Come to think of it, could Mat’s luck have been in play to the point of affecting Rand’s accidental use of his power? Oof. I think I just gave myself a headache. Speaking of headaches, next week we’ll go back to Chapter 25 as well as the parts of 26 that we skipped over this week, and if I’m complaining about analyzing Mat’s experience, it’s going to be twice as bad going through everything Rand learns about the history of the Aiel and of the actions that led to the Breaking. I’m not even sure where to start with that. Good thing I have a whole week to ponder it. I look forward to seeing you all then!

Sylas K Barrett had to call upon some of the wisdom of the Buddha to get this done while there was construction going on right outside his door, but he managed it. Hurray!

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