In my very first essay for Reading the Wheel of Time, I referenced something a writing teacher once told me about stories—that they all begin with either a boy leaving home, or with a stranger coming to town. In that first piece I observed that, when it comes to The Lord of the Rings-style questing narratives, these two types of story are actually one type, in which a stranger (usually a wise guide, sometimes an enemy, and often both) comes to town, and it results in a boy (or a girl, or a group of young people) leaving home.
What I find so interesting about this structure is the concept of change, and the catalyst of that change, within a narrative. Of course, all stories are about change. Sometimes this change takes place over a moment or a day, other times over years or even a lifetime. The change can be small or large, external or internal, but it is always there—without change nothing has happened, and there is nothing, as they say, for the gleemen to recount. Thus, when we categorize a story into “a stranger comes to town” and “a boy leaves home,” we are actually considering where the catalyst for change comes from, and we are considering where the change, the arc of the story, takes place. In the first example, the world of the story has change brought into it from some outside force. In the second, the protagonist(s) go out into the world and both are forever altered by the experience.
Obviously this is somewhat of an oversimplification, but I find it useful when discussing questing narratives like The Wheel of Time, because the “quest” of these stories is the catalyst that induces the change. For Frodo, change comes to him when Bilbo departs from the Shire, leaving the ring in Frodo’s care. The arrival, first of Gandalf and then the Black Riders, precipitates Frodo’s own departure from the Shire and the beginning of the quest that will eventually take him to the slopes of Mount Doom. For Richard of the Sword of Truth series, change comes with the murder of his father and the arrival of Kahlan in the Westlands—what he learns from her, along with his naming as the Seeker, propels Richard to leave his home and go with her across the boundary. And in The Wheel of Time… well, you all know what happens there.
In all three of these examples, there is something more than chance at work, and more, even, than the machinations of the stranger. The wise guide’s arrival in the hero’s sleepy countryside home is not the precipitation of events, but rather the first fall of dominoes laid in place by some other—more ethereal and unseen—hand. Fate, chance, the Wheel of Time, these are the true agents of the change that occurs in the world, and in our protagonists.
A wizard is never late, one might say. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when destiny means him to.
Sometimes I feel like I am belaboring the question of fate in The Wheel of Time; it’s a facet I touch on often in the read, but I keep coming back to it because the subject remains endlessly fascinating to me. Take Mat’s last coin toss in The Shadow Rising, for example. Unsure of whether or not he wants to accompany Rand into Alcair Dal, he leaves the decision up to his ta’veren power, trusting that his luck will tell him the right thing to do. But the coin lands on its edge, rolling downhill and falling over only when it’s too far away for Mat to see which side it has landed on. He attributes this strange result to Rand’s superior ta’veren power, which indeed it might be, but whatever the cause, the ultimate result of the coin toss is that Mat has to make his own decision whether to stay or go. Fate, ta’veren power, and even the random direction of chance was denied him, and he had to make a definitive choice.
I feel like this scene taught me something important about free will in The Wheel of Time. Whether it was by Rand’s desire or the Pattern’s, Mat wasn’t just granted the ability to choose for himself—a choice was actually demanded of him. This is significant in a character who doesn’t like to admit to his own investment in events. But it’s also significant because of what it says about the Wheel, and the Pattern it spins of people’s lives, especially that of the ta’veren. When we were first introduced to the concept of ta’veren, it was through Loial, who explained that there “is always room for small changes, but sometimes the Pattern simply won’t accept a big change, no matter how hard you try.” Rand agrees with this, adding that he could choose to live on a farm or in town, but that he couldn’t become a king. If you think about it, though, these choices aren’t something you’re making despite the Pattern, but because of it. The Pattern places you in the world, presents you with options for your life, and asks for you to choose. After all, you can’t avoid making a choice about where to live, and your choice of town or farm will affect other people’s lives, thereby affecting the Pattern.
Now, the differences spun out by that choice may very well be slight, but there is really no way to see how far the ripples of your small stone will spread, to use the common pond metaphor. And of course, if you are someone with more power in life, you ostensibly have more ability to influence the Pattern. A ruler choosing to go to war will affect many lives, for example, and therefore affect a great deal of the Pattern. And a ta’veren will be presented with even greater choices than that, and so their effect on the lives of others will also be that much greater.
But wherever you are situated in the Pattern, and however relatively big or small your sphere of influence is, I think it’s a mistake for Loial to suggest that the Pattern is only accommodating people’s desire to make choices. You can’t unbecome who you are, of course, which is the part of the Pattern that truly is fated, decided for you without your input or consent. But the fate of birth doesn’t mean you don’t have choices in your life. Rather, the Pattern presents you with choices, continually, demands that you make them, and spins on through your decision.
It’s striking to realize that this can be both a very religious and a very secular observation. Whether the Pattern chose where someone’s soul would be born or whether their birth was truly a random occurrence, these facts about their subsequent choices remain true. And unless they are directly part of the fight against the Dark One, the difference has no actual bearing on how they choose to live their life; the consequences are important, not the design by which they come about. There is something oddly comforting for me in that, both as it pertains to the universe of the story as well as just considering a philosophy for living in my own.
Now, there is obviously more to being ta’veren, such as Mat’s manipulation of odds that ensures his survival in a fight, or the way that Rand pulls people to follow him. But as I watch every step of Rand’s journey as the Dragon be about specifically making choices and decisions that others can’t anticipate, his actions feel to me as though they are very much about free will, rather than him believing that he makes choices while the Pattern pushes him along track that has already been laid out.
Perhaps the best way to think about it is Moiraine’s decision to go after the Eye of the World, back in the first novel. After everyone reunites in the Queen’s Blessing and all the various threads are revealed to her and she realizes that there are three ta’veren, not just the one, she makes a startling observation:
“We cannot remain in Caemlyn, but by any road, Myrddraal and Trollocs will be on us before we have gone ten miles. And just at this point we hear of a threat to the Eye of the World, not from one source, but three, each seeming independent of the others. The Pattern is forcing our path. The Pattern still weaves itself around you three, but what hand now sets the warp, and what hand controls the shuttle?”
She worries in that speech that it is the Dark One touching the Pattern and directing their feet, but on the very same page she also has a much more optimistic thought:
“The Pattern presents a crisis, and at the same time a way to surmount it. If I did not know it was impossible, I could almost believe the Creator is taking a hand. There is a way.”
Moiraine could have decided not to act upon her own authority and gone first to the White Tower to deliver this information. Or she could have chosen to break up the group, perhaps only bringing the three boys to find the Eye, or made some other choice based on the information she had at her disposal. The Pattern brought her, brought all of them, to this point together so that they could choose what to do next, and not only Moiraine but every one of them made a choice to go to the Eye. And when Moiraine says she almost sees the hand of the Creator in how events have unfolded, I think she’s right. The Creator isn’t directly interfering in what’s happening, but by creating the Pattern to work the way it does, the Creator is part of events.
The Pattern is a mysterious entity, and I think I can often forget how little the “experts” we encounter actually understand about it. Modern Aes Sedai are working with so little information, the remnants of knowledge from the Age of Legends is like a single candle in a dark tunnel.
Take Verin’s explanation of the World of Dreams that she gives to Egwene in The Dragon Reborn. She is explaining what she knows about parallel worlds, how in the Age of Legends they believed that there were more worlds, almost a whole other layer, outside of those reachable by the Portal Stones, that perhaps the Wheel weaves an even greater pattern from the many worlds than it does from the lives it spins into the Age Lace. She doesn’t know, of course—no one does. But she does explain to Egwene that there are variations in how different the worlds are from each other, and that the only constant is that the Dark One is imprisoned in all of them.
Egwene takes this to mean that there is a Dark One for every world, and has to be corrected.
“No, child. There is one Creator, who exists everywhere at once for all of these worlds. In the same way, there is only one Dark One, who also exists in all of these worlds at once. If he is freed from the prison the Creator made in one world, he is freed on all. So long as he is kept prisoner in one, he remains imprisoned on all.”
I glossed over this passage the first time I read it, not really understanding anything of what Verin was talking about, but came back to it recently when I was considering all the new information we’ve since learned from Amys and the Wise Ones about how Tel’aran’rhiod actually works. The existence of a Creator and a Dark One who are in every world at once seems like a pretty clear metaphysical concept, and explaining Tel’aran’rhiod as a third constant between worlds is also fairly understandable. But Verin’s assertion that, as long as the Dark One remains imprisoned in one world, he remains imprisoned in all of them gave me pause.
If there is no real free will in the world of The Wheel of Time, then the possible escape of the Dark One is outside anyone’s control—whether or not he will eventually break free is preordained. But if free will is possible, if it is a series of choices in the manner I have outlined in this essay, then one wonders how this logic plays out.
If one person, one iteration of the Dragon or his allies, actually allows the Dark One to break free, allowing the Dark one to touch and remake the Pattern, does this suggest that every other world will suddenly be unmade even though there is no logical reason for the Dark One to break free in their reality? Does the threat of suddenly winking from existence hang over every person and every universe in The Wheel of Time? Or are all these choices so inexorably linked that all events must unfold in harmony with each other in order for the Dark One to break free on all planes?
“That does not seem to make sense,” Egwene protested.
“Paradox, child. The Dark One is the embodiment of paradox and chaos, the destroyer of reason and logic, the breaker of balance, the unmaker of order.”
But until the Dark One touches the Pattern, his powers of paradox cannot effect the outcome. So, if what Verin is saying is true (to be fair, we have no way of knowing if she is correct here) then that means that the Dark One has never, in any world on any plane, for all the history of Time, broken completely free of his prison. And this is interesting to me because it changes the odds, puts them more in the favor of our heroes. All this time the Dark One has seemed this impossible, unrelenting force, a tidal wave against which our heroes have only the slimmest of chances. But this makes it seem very different, I think; surely the stakes have been this dire before, worse even. And yet the Light has always prevailed.
This is a bit of a tangential observation, I suppose, but one I am going to hold onto as I begin The Fires of Heaven and step into the next chapter of Rand’s story. Tarmon Gai’don they call the confrontation that is coming, but it can’t be the Last Battle. Unless the Dark One breaks free and undoes Creation, there will always be another Last Battle, and another, and another, as the Wheel continues to turn and nothing ever ends.
Questing narratives are about leaving home. They are about a hero or heroes who step out into the wider world for the first time, and are changed by the experience. Rand struggles with the weight of responsibility as the Dragon Reborn. Mat learns that he is a part of the world, part of events, and cannot deny that fact, at least when it comes to his actions. Perrin has to learn that making the right choice does not mean there will not be consequences, often painful and difficult ones. Nynaeve struggles with her fear of herself, and must learn to take control of her own choices rather than let that deliberate lack of self-awareness direct her actions. Egwene must learn patience so that her actions and their consequences are not out of control. And Elayne grapples with the knowledge that the weight of her choices will change when she becomes Queen.
There is a reason questing tales usually feature young people—they are coming of age narratives told on a grand stage, across the whole map of a world and through the mythic devices of Good vs Evil and fighting for the fate of the world. Sure, a stranger came to town, but it is the leaving, and the stepping into one’s destiny, that makes the true tale. And it is the choosing that shapes our destiny, as well as the destiny of those around us. Pattern or no, Creator or no, learning this is the true growing up, I think.
Sylas K Barrett is also really into The Umbrella Academy right now, and can’t stop thinking about something Diego Hargreeves says in season two. Everyone changes the world…. Everyone. And it’s scary but that’s kinda the deal.