Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Rand Is a King, Even Without a Nation in Robert Jordan’s The Shadow Rising (Part 26)

Good morning readers! Welcome to this week’s The Shadow Rising musings, which contain no recap section but instead are focused on investigating the idea of Rand as a savior king. The idea of a messianic figure who is meant to rule is common in western-based fantasy (as it is in western religion) and one that I find particularly interesting as I get further into The Wheel of Time and Rand’s path towards Tarmon Gai’don becomes both clearer and more complicated. Where I originally saw parallels to Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, now I begin to relate Rand to Christianity and Jesus, and I find it fascinating to see how Rand compares to other savior figures in fantasy.

Of course, most people’s minds jump to Buddhism as soon as they hear any mention of reincarnation. But the Dragon’s existence as someone who is tied forever to the turnings of the Wheel, Woven into the Pattern again and again, is very alike to the concept of bodhisattvas. These spiritually enlightened beings chose to remain attached to samsara, (the cycle of material suffering), rather than achieve full buddhahood, out of compassion and a desire to help other people. The Dalai Lama, believed to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, functions as the spiritual head of Tibet as well as a political figure, so you can see how the comparisons are apt, although Rand’s role as Dragon doesn’t seem to have any specifically spiritual components.

Well, other than having to literally fight his world’s version of the Devil, anyway. And one could argue that channeling and connection to the One Power are The Wheel of Time’s substitute for a more faith-based spirituality. It walks the same line that Star Wars walks with the Force, or Dune walks with its presentation of things like race memory and the Weirding Way: these things are presented as science rather than magic or religion, but the functional distinction between the three is blurry at best.

Also, the process of finding the Dragon Reborn through Foretelling and prophecy reminds me of the way Tibetan monks have to search for a new Dalai Lama by interpreting signs and dreams.

The concept of being reborn is not limited to Buddhism, however, and in the Judeo-Christian mythos we find another example of a faith with prophecies about the return of the savior. For Christians, this is Jesus, and the influence of the faith can be seen in much western fantasy, from obvious ones like the Chronicles of Narnia, to less exacting references, such as those one sees in The Wheel of Time or in Dune. And somewhere in the middle we see examples like the legend of King Arthur.

Jordan references the King Arthur stories in numerous names within The Wheel of Time, as well as in the character of Artur Hawkwing. But the specific parallels between Lews Therin/Rand and King Arthur are worth noting, since it is Rand, not Hawkwing, who is the Dragon Reborn and savior of the world. Like King Arthur, Lews Therin Telamon was a great political head among his people as well as a military leader, one who helped his world achieve great strength and prosperity. Like Arthur, he was destroyed by what sounds like a combination of his own hubris and the treachery of those close to him (we know Lanfear was an old flame, and Lews Therin was probably close to some other high-ranking Aes Sedai who later ended up joining the Forsaken). And like Arthur, he was prophesied to return one day, at the time of his land’s greatest need.

Of course, King Arthur isn’t expected to Break the world when he returns, but he is expected to rule Britain again, and the Prophecies of the Dragon actually speak as much about how Rand will unite the world and save it as they do about the things he will destroy. (I suppose I can’t blame the people who are to live through this change for focusing more on the latter, though.) I think it is also worth addressing the fact that the poetic nature of Foretelling and prophecy can obfuscate meaning, and that the concept of Rand “breaking” or “destroying” the world may refer more to how much he will change it than to a violent and destructive end such as the Age of Legends experienced. Rand is the leader who will remake the world into a new Age. The Aiel believe that He Who Comes With The Dawn will be the chief of chiefs, uniting all the Aiel clans into one. The Sea Folk prophecies of the Coramoor say that even the Aes Sedai will serve him. The very image of the Dragon “breaking all bonds” may simply mean that allegiances will shift to bring everyone together under the dragon banner, as Rand is fated to lead the armies of Light in the coming Tarmon Gai’don. Which means that other armies, other nations, must surely follow him. Perhaps even the Children of the Light will find their way to him, once they can see that he is their only hope in defeating the Dark One.

Speaking of the Aiel, it’s hard to miss the Christian reference there; “chief of chiefs” rather than “king of kings.” One of the ways that Jesus is supposed to bring peace to Earth in his second coming is by actualizing the idea that all the world is his kingdom, and you can see how that is happening with the nations of Rand’s world, as well. I also caught the reference to the anointing of Jesus in the image of the Aes Sedai serving the Coramoor, washing his feet and drying them with their hair. But that does leave us with the question of what Rand will be after the Last Battle is over. He believes the prophecies predict his death, but if he were to survive, would he remain in charge of the world in the way he had to be during the actual Battle? Or will he relinquish his role as chief of chiefs and leave the world to make sense of its new structure on its own? How will the alliances sworn in his name play out once (if) the Dark One is defeated and a new Age has begun?

The comparison to Jesus as a savior who is meant to return makes sense, but there are also parallels to Moses and the people of Israel within the Aiel. Rand is a savior who was prophesied to come unite them and lead them out of a desert land. A uniter doesn’t have to be a king, as the story of Moses shows, but they often are, and Rand is not meant to unite just one peoples, but many. And Moses was a shepherd.

I find the concept of a savior who is also a king (or possibly a King, capital-K) particularly striking here, given how we began this journey with such a heavy The Lord of the Rings homage. Like Frodo, Rand comes from a small farming community that is quite isolated from the rest of the world, unaware of and uninvolved in things like national politics or war. Both are raised by unusual men who, in their youths, once went out into the wide world, defying the norms of their people. Both have been sheltered from the evil that seeks them by the isolation of their simple, somewhat idyllic country life, and both are eventually driven from their homes when that evil finally comes searching for them.

But Frodo’s importance as the ringbearer is focused on the fact that he is not of great lineage, fighting ability, or magical gift. (Granted he is a wealthy member of the gentry, but this lineage is important only within the Shire.) His journey as a savior is about how the purity of his simple life and un-ambitious desires help him to resist the pull of the One Ring, making him the only one capable of saving Middle Earth. Rand, on the other hand, comes from a distinguished lineage (a ruling house of Andor on the one side, and a long line of Aiel chieftains and leaders on the other) and is given the role of savior because he is literally the reincarnation of the world’s messiah. He may regret the loss of his good, simple life as much as Frodo did, but for him, that life was an illusion—a disguise to keep him safe as he grew up, requiring no adventure or cursed ring to send him on a different path. I suppose Rand really has more in common with Aragorn. Although that distinction belongs also to Lan, the fact that the Dragon is destined to lead and reshape the world into a new age is a marked similarity.

I also have a lot of questions about Rand’s bloodline, as I mentioned briefly in last week’s post. There doesn’t seem to be any reason that the Dragon Reborn needs to come from a particular lineage, but I wonder, then, why the narrative is so distinct around Rand’s mysterious past (rather than, say, just having him be Tam’s actual kid). My best guess is that, while the Dragon doesn’t need any fancy bloodlines, there are material advantages to the connections that the Pattern intended him to have. By possessing Aiel blood, Rand has a better chance of being accepted by the septs. By being connected to the former royal family of Andor, Rand may gain sway there as well. Having Galad as a half brother might even end up being significant to his success in gathering support and facing the Last Battle.

Lineage and prophecy play a big role in another savior narrative, that of Paul Atreides in Dune. The son of Duke Leto on the one side and the Bene Gesserit breeding program on the other, Paul’s origins are somewhat similar to Rand’s (the Aiel blood being concentrated into a small number of descendants due to the multitudes of death experienced during their wanderings after the Breaking) and like Rand, he is prophesied to become the leader of a desert-dwelling warrior people. In addition to that, it is Paul who begins the process of changing Arrakis into a green planet, thereby fundamentally changing who the Fremen were—you could almost say he destroys them. I have a theory that this is what Rand will do to the Aiel: He will “destroy” them by remaking their society so completely that they will seem like a different people, possibly by leading them back to the Way of the Leaf.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, the arrival of the Pevensie children in Narnia is another prophesied event regarding savior kings (and queens.) In this case, their special bloodlines as humans (or sons of Adam) elevated their status above that of the people of Narnia, which in some ways has them having a bit of both worlds—ordinary humans in their own world, where everyone is descended from Adam and Eve, but special rulers in Narnia due to that heritage. Humanity is supposed to have dominion over the earth and everything that “creepeth” upon it.

Even Harry Potter, the orphan boy who discovers he has a special magical power, is revealed to be of a special lineage. Not only is he the son of a prominent wizarding family on his father’s side, but that family is suspected to be descended from a specific mythical brother in the legend of the Deathly Hallows. Like Rand, his “ordinary” life is revealed to be a disguise, a cover to hide him from the Evil that he is prophesied to destroy. Of course, Harry is only able to become the savior of wizardkind because of the sacrifice his mother (an ordinary muggle-born woman) makes for him, but that is what makes the important lineage so odd, as it does for Rand. Thematically I have to wonder what the point is in saying that someone’s special status comes from outside of their bloodlines while at the same time setting them up as nobly born or heroically descended.

Even Jesus, the humble son of a carpenter, was descended from the house of David, and it seems that important bloodlines and nobility are quite caught up in the narrative of our saviors, both in religion and in fiction. But I remain unconvinced as to the point of Rand’s specific background, and curious as to how it will be contextualized going forward. Perhaps the point is to tie Rand more firmly to the world, giving him important connections in different lands and peoples that he wouldn’t have if he really was just a boy born and descended from the Two Rivers people.Then again, perhaps it is splitting hairs to make such a distinction, given the strength of the Old Blood in the Two Rivers, and the remarkable people that lineage produces. Perhaps the connection to the Age of Legends is even more impressive, thematically speaking, than which former almost-ruler one is descended from.

It also tickles me to no end that (justified though it may be) I compared Tam to Bilbo in this piece, as I am currently working on an essay about everyone’s favorite shepherd dad! Next week we return to our regularly structured read-and-response, covering Chapters 36 and 37 of The Shadow Rising, but keep your eyes out for the Tam essay coming later this week!

I wish you all an excellent day. You deserve it.

Sylas K Barrett lives in Brooklyn, and wrote most of this essay with a dog in his lap.


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