However much everything else changed, Mat just never would.”
– Egwene al’Vere, The Shadow Rising, ch. 8
So is it just me, or is it pretty amusing that no one in The Shadow Rising (or any of the previous books in The Wheel of Time ) seems capable of observing how much Mat has changed since he left the Two Rivers? The guy carried a cursed dagger that took over his personality for a while, he’s developed a ta’veren-driven power of making chance literally work in his favor, he’s obtained the ability to speak and understand the Old Tongue, and he’s now the sounder of Horn of Valere. Oh, and he’s also made two trips into another plane of existence, and recently he’s had a bunch of memories from his past lives dumped into his brain.
But sure, Egwene, Mat will never change.
“Oh, burn me! I’ve one life to give away, don’t I? Why not like this?” Mat laughed nervously, and a bit wildly.
“Bloody Portal Stones! Light!”
– Mat, The Shadow Rising, ch. 22
I mean, I get it. Mat keeps his secrets close. He lied and said that he wasn’t able to ask any questions on his first trip through the redstone doorway, he’s only confided about his luck powers to Thom, and he’s constantly claiming that he’s going to run away from his friends and his responsibilities. But the thing is, he never does run away. And it’s not like Rand was particularly forthcoming about his experience beyond the redstone doorway, either. And Perrin has only ever confided his secret power—being a wolfbrother—to Moiraine, and only because he felt he had to have her advice.
Honestly, I think people are a bit prejudiced when it comes to Mat Cauthon. He was a prankster growing up, he’s fond of “frivolous things” like drinking and gambling, and he’s very good at turning on the charm when he wants, which can come off as disingenuous to people who watch him do it. Mat’s also fond of bluster to cover his worry and uncertainty, approaching dangerous situations with a cultivated devil-may-care, we’re-all-going-to die-someday attitude. Mat’s bluster is a cover (sometimes effective, sometimes not) for his fear, but it’s easy enough for other characters to mistake that bluster for Mat not taking things seriously.
Mat would as soon hit himself on the head with a hammer as go back to the Two Rivers. […] The difference between Mat and himself was that he was willing to accept that, even when he did not want to.
– Perrin, The Shadow Rising, ch. 14
And when Mat is being honest, people still don’t see his comments as sincere. When Perrin asks Mat to come back to the Two Rivers, Mat says that he wants to go, explains that he’s being prevented from even saying that he will go, but Perrin doesn’t really believe him. Perrin even acknowledges that he feels something holding him back, as Mat does, but dismisses it as only Rand and his ta’veren pull, as though being swayed by it is unjustified or easy to avoid.
Perrin is making an assumption here that Mat could choose to ignore Rand’s pull if he wanted to, and is using it as an excuse not to go to the Two Rivers. But how does Perrin know that the pull he feels isn’t weaker than the one Mat feels? How does he know that his own ta’veren power isn’t at work, giving him the edge he needs to get onto a different path? I think Perrin views himself as having a greater sense of duty than Mat—which is understandable, since Mat likes to insist that he doesn’t have that sense of obligation to Rand or anyone else—and so doesn’t take his words as being honestly true. But his premise, that Mat is irresponsible and following his own desires rather than what duty and the Pattern are driving him to, is faulty.
And then Perrin escapes out of Tear under Moiraine’s nose, and she misses it because she never considers that Perrin might do something unpredictable. Perrin is supposed to be the staid one, who thinks before he acts, and I think Moiraine misses how Perrin is gearing up to take on more responsibility and leadership in his life. She is instead focused on Mat not changing, assuming that it is only her own watchfulness that keeps him tethered to his duty and to the unfolding events around the Dragon’s return.
So Mat was not trying to run away. That was a pleasant surprise; he had not seemed to believe in responsibility. But there was pain and worry in his voice. Mat never worried, or never let anyone see it if he did.
– Egwene, The Shadow Rising, ch. 8
Egwene’s own opinion on Mat fluctuates wildly within the course of a single encounter. When Mat comes to her in the Stone of Tear to ask her advice, she accuses him of caring more about games than his friends, never considering that there might be a more justified reason for his isolation. Mat is only in Tear because he came to save Egwene (and Elayne, and Nynaeve) after all, a fact that no one seems to want to acknowledge or appreciate. Egwene is also quite ready to assume that Mat’s aversion to Aes Sedai is the same generic prejudice he learned in the Two Rivers rather than a discomfort born out of his specific experiences. Those two things might not look very different to Egwene, but that doesn’t indicate that Mat hasn’t changed or grown.
He was not the only one to have been marked in some way in Rhuidean. Mat […] understood, since Rhuidean, though he did not appear to realize it.
– Rand, The Shadow Rising, ch. 34
Mat’s ability to hide how much he’s changed may be coming to an end, however. Rand, Egwene, Moiraine, and Lan all noticed that his comprehension of the Old Tongue has increased. He may still choose not to talk about his experience through the second redstone doorway, but he has been marked by it, both internally and externally, and he carries a weapon he only knows how to use because of the memories that have been granted to him. Oh and there’s the new hat too. Does anyone know if that wide-brimmed hat is supposed to look more like a gunslinger, or more like a wizard? Either way, it’s a new mark for Mat—perhaps not as distinctive as Rand’s herons and dragons, or Perrin’s yellow eyes, but a mark nonetheless—and however much he may claim he wants to run, he is now well on his journey to the man the Pattern intends him to become.
How much had he changed since leaving home? Himself, and Rand, and Mat? Not his eyes, and the wolves, or Rand’s channeling; he did not mean that. How much of what was inside remained unchanged? Mat was the only one who still seemed to be just himself, only more so.
– Perrin, The Shadow Rising, ch. 28
[Note: the comments below may contain spoilers for The Wheel of Time series as a whole. New readers or those wishing to avoid spoilers, be advised.]
Sylas K Barrett is a big believer of transformations, and knows that people often want to acknowledge the ways in which we all change. Sometimes it’s prejudiced, sometimes it just makes them feel safe. But no one ever stays the same, even when they want to.