Reading The Wheel of Time

The Blacksmith’s Axe, the Aiel’s Spear, and the Tinker’s Sword: When Pacifism is No Longer Enough

Perhaps the most fascinating theme that I have encountered so far as I read my way though The Wheel of Time is Perrin Aybara’s struggle to understand and accept the violence that his life and choices demand of him. Running in parallel to Perrin’s personal struggle have been his encounters with the Tuatha’an, who practice a form of pacifism so profound that it transcends being a way of life and becomes an actual identity. An identity that they themselves have forgotten the full history of but which extends back to the un-Broken world of a bygone Age. An identity that Perrin admires, even envies, but cannot embrace, much as he might wish to.

Perrin and the reader first learn of the Way of the Leaf when he and Egwene meet the Tuatha’an while they are traveling with Elyas. Aram and Raen both explain the Way of the Leaf to them, describing how a leaf never harms others or fights back against its own end, but falls peacefully when its time comes, to nourish new life. This is how all men and women should be, Aram claims, while Raen adds that violence does not only harm the perpetrator but also the one who enacts it, just as an axe is dulled by the tree it chops down. These ideas intrigue Perrin, but he also finds them lacking, as he explains to Raen.

“I don’t mean to offend you, Seeker,” Perrin said slowly, “but… Well, I don’t look for violence. I don’t think I’ve even wrestled anybody in years, except for feastday games. But if somebody hit me, I’d hit him back. If I didn’t, I would just be encouraging him to think he could hit me whenever he wanted to. Some people think they can take advantage of others, and if you don’t let them know they can’t, they’ll just go around bullying anybody weaker than they are.”

In the end, I think, Perrin finds both his own point and Raen’s to be correct. Enacting violence does take a toll on him, both internally and externally. When he kills the Whitecloak who slew Hopper, Perrin suffers emotionally and begins a sequence of events that help mark him out for special attention from the likes of Byar and Dain Bornhald, which has consequences for the Two Rivers. He experiences the personal pain and guilt over the death of his men after the Trolloc ambush, and the knowledge that he has put Emond’s Field and the Two Rivers on a path that will result in other deaths before all is through.

But Perrin also holds to his conviction that someone must take a stand against the Whitecloaks who would dominate his people, and the Darkspawn that would destroy them. And he’s not insensible to the fact that there is not such a very grand difference between the two. He points out in Chapter 33 of The Shadow Rising, that as long as the Two Rivers relies on the Whitecloaks for protection against Trollocs (and spotty protection at that) then the Whitecloaks hold complete power over the people. They can do anything they want, arrest whichever innocent people they want, scrawl the Dragon’s Fang on any door they want, and no one will be able to stop them.

“Even if all it means is having to tug your forelock to every Whitecloak who comes along, do you want to live that way? Your children? You’re at the mercy of the Trollocs, the mercy of the Whitecloaks, and the mercy of anybody with a grudge. As long as one has a hold on you, all three do. You’re hiding in the cellar, hoping one rabid dog will protect you from another, hoping the rats don’t sneak out in the dark and bite you.”

The people of the Two Rivers are farmers and shepherds, not warriors, but Perrin believes with all his heart that unless they are willing to come together and take up arms, they will be destroyed. And he is almost certainly right.

I mean, look what happened to the Da’shain Aiel.

We know from the Rhuidean flashbacks that the Da’shain Aiel were primarily defined as a people by two things. Ten first was the Way of the Leaf—which is apparently so specific and important that it is referred to as a Covenant by Aiel and Aes Sedai in those flashbacks—and the second was their identity as the special servants of the Ancient Aes Sedai, close in their confidences and even beloved by them. We also know that the Way of the Leaf was regarded as a significant commitment even in a time when people had no concept of war, and that there was a lot of respect for the Aiel and their way of life.

Of the two, however, I think the Covenant was the most important. Before departing forever to lead the wagons of the Aiel through the Breaking of the World, Jonai was told by Solinda Sedai that the Covenant, the Way of the Leaf, was the most important thing for the Da’shain to keep and Jonai is shocked that she would feel the need to say such. It is self-evident to Jonai that the Covenant is the Aiel. Later generations would lose some of that certainty, however, as we see when the hardships endured by the Da’shain caravans begin to fracture the group.

Interestingly, the word “Lost” was not used against Lewin and his friends when they chose to fight back to save their sisters and to kill rather than be killed. Adan called them corrupt, but he never officially striped them of the name Aiel. Lewin’s mother told him that she no longer recognized him, that he was no longer her son, just a killer with her son’s face—but she never used the word “Lost” either. However, it is used by Adan when Sulwin and his followers break from the rest of the group. Adan sees them as abandoning their duty to the Aes Sedai when they choose to abandon the objects they are carrying, and he tells them that they are “Lost” and are no longer Aiel—a sharp contrast to the fact that he only tells Lewin and the other boys that they are no longer Da’shain.

But Sulwin holds that as long as his people keep to the Way of the Leaf, they are still Aiel. And although they eventually forget that name and become the Tuatha’an, the dedication to that way of life remains a core part of their identity. Those of their number who abandon the way are called “the Lost.”

And when Aram, weeping about how he could have protected his mother from death at the hands of the Trollocs, is given permission by Perrin to learn to use a sword, that is the word Ila, his grandmother, uses. Lost.

I have observed before that there is strong evidence that the Tuatha’an are closer to the Da’shain Aiel than are the modern Aiel. The Jenn were closest, of course, but they died out. Maybe that’s why Adan’s decision to learn the sword feels more significant, more ominous, than Lewin’s accidental departure from the Covenant, or Morin’s choice to take up the spear to help save her daughter. The significance of the spear over the sword is that a spear is also used in hunting, and therefore is partly a tool and not only dedicated to killing other humans. But the sword only has one purpose, and we have not seen any other descendant of the Da’shain Aiel choose a sword. Even the modern Aiel, who are terribly warlike even among themselves, abhor swords, even they no longer remember why.

A spear can kill a Trolloc. A bow and arrow can kill a Trolloc. An axe can kill a Trolloc. But Aram chose a sword.

Perrin feels it too, observes that there is something unnatural about a Tinker with a sword. Experiences a great sadness over his decision, one that Faile understands more than Perrin himself does. But he still responds, to Ila and to the other women who seem to disapprove, that a man has a right to defend himself. And as I remarked when I covered the chapter, I feel like what Perrin was really saying was that a man had a right to choose to defend others. When Aram picked up that sword, when he begged his grandmother to understand, he spoke of how he could have saved his mother from being killed, and Perrin thought of his own family, of being too late to do anything but sit beside their graves, and could not imagine telling Aram that he must passively accept such a fate.

Remember the first time Perrin was faced with this conflict between his desire to practice peace and his realization that he may need to choose violence? For me, it was perhaps the most affecting moment in The Eye of the World. When Perrin, Elyas, and Egwene are being pursued by the ravens, Perrin decides that, if they are caught, he will kill Egwene quickly and mercifully rather than allow her to die slowly and painfully under the raven’s horrible attack. Once the threat has passed, he finds himself horrified by what he intended to do, by the realization that he might be capable of something as dark as slaughtering his own friend. But Elyas reminds him that such an act would have been a mercy and a kindness. He points out something else, too, that it is good to hate violence, to hate the axe and what he can do with it. The time to worry, he says, is if Perrin ever stops hating it.

We have watched Perrin struggling with this almost since we met him, and his personal journey has often run alongside encounters with the Tuatha’an and discussions about the Way of the Leaf. But while Perrin may despise the violent path he has chosen, maybe even hate part of himself for it, it doesn’t rob him of his core sense of identity. He is still Perrin Aybara of Emond’s Field, even in violence, even in mistakes and the death of companions, and he recognizes that peace is an ideal that he cannot currently achieve. “Every man has a right to defend himself,” he often says, but for Perrin I think it is more than that. He respects the Way of the Leaf, wishes he could make such a choice, but he personally feels responsible to protect people, and he cannot protect people from violence by being peaceful himself.

I mean, I guess he could. He could throw himself physically in between two combatants, or use himself as a human shield to stop an arrow or a sword from striking an innocent person. But that is only a temporary solution, and one that robs him of any ability to help in the future. And there we see the difference between wanting to be peaceful—most people want peace—and having it be an identity, as the Way of the Leaf is for the Tuatha’an, and was for the Da’shain and Jenn Aiel. The difference between practicing pacifism as a philosophy and making (an extreme type) of pacifism a way of life so strong that breaking with that way of life causes one to be “Lost” to one’s own people. One’s own family.

You know, I still get misty-eyed when I think of Solinda’s description of the Aiel facing down a male channeler whose mind had been corrupted by the taint.

“Ten thousand Aiel linking arms and singing, trying to remind a madman of who they were and who he had been, trying to turn him with their bodies and a song. Jaric Mondoran killed them. He stood there, staring as though at a puzzle, killing them, and they kept closing their lines and singing. I am told he listened to the last Aiel for almost an hour before destroying him.”

And Jonai’s response to this story? That the Da’shain bought time for other people to flee to safety. It’s a beautiful moment. It shows the power of peace, not to mention the courage it takes to hold to peace when faced with violence. But despite that courage despite that dedication, in the end we see the Aiel all but destroyed by violence. The chaos and depravity of the Breaking comes at them from outside their ranks, and it slowly drives them from that path. Just as it drove Aram, by showing him that the Way of the Leaf doesn’t just mean a willingness to die in one’s time, but to allow those you love to die too, sometimes in truly horrific ways.

In the end, I don’t think that Perrin’s choice to defend those who need him is in conflict with the Way of the Leaf as much as it would first seem. Of course, one cannot practice both philosophies at once. But Perrin does not tell the Tuatha’an that they must participate in the defense of Emond’s Field in order to be sheltered and protected within it. He does not judge the Way of the Leaf, only finds it wanting for his own life. Perrin was even willing to die when he thought surrendering to the White Cloaks would save his family, which feels like a very Da’shain Aiel move. And it was a choice driven by love.

Love is also the reason Perrin is willing to fight, to accept the pain that such a fight brings to him. He loves the people of the Two Rivers, and going to war is the only way that he can see to protect them. The Way of the Leaf may be an identity, but so is love. And love can take many forms, show itself in many ways.

Perhaps Aram feels the same. In my eyes, whether or not he is lost depends on how he handles the sword he is given. Will he fight out of hate, or love? Will lose his ability to tell the difference between a fight that can be avoided and a fight that cannot, or will he choose to protect those in need, sheltering them when he can, fighting for them when he must?

Like many of you, I often look to the stories I love to guide me through my own life. I have loved Perrin since I first met him, for his gentleness, his love of his craft, for his loyalty. After the weekend that we have had in my country, I look to him now and ask, what lessons can I learn from his choices, from his strength. What Shadowspawn can I face in my own life, and what price will I be willing to pay?

Perrin is brave. We must be too.

Sylas K Barrett loves Perrin very much, and would like to give him a hug.


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