Beyond Excalibur: Swords as the Great Leveler in The Wheel of Time

Swords in fantasy are as old as time itself. From Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying the demi-god Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven (spoiler: doesn’t end great for Enkidu as it turns out) to Susanno, a kami (a spirit possessing holy powers) who slays Yamata no Orochi, an 8-headed serpent (hiding a few swords within its coils) to Beowulf, swords have been there from the beginning. While some of those swords were named, in the Arthurian mythos we begin to see swords choosing their owners, and in that choice, granting “Chosen One” status upon them.

Tolkien really ate that up in his own works, with Narsil not content to be just the Sauron-killer, but waiting for Isildur’s heir to reforge it (bigger and brighter) as Anduril so Aragorn could be recognized as the King of Gondor. Tolkien, being the sometime (but not the ALL) father of fantasy, heralded in a golden era of magic swords. They often function as the blazing “Chosen One” symbol, from Gonturan choosing Harry in The Blue Sword to By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey and beyond.

The Wheel of Time has its own Chosen One (several, in fact) plucked from another fantasy favorite: prophecy. But swords serve a different function in the world Robert Jordan created: they are the Great Leveler. They don’t choose their owner (despite what Callandor would have you believe, that was about a sa’angreal not a sword), they don’t convey special powers, and they don’t make someone a badass the instant they touch the hilt of one of Jordan’s characteristic, long-hilted, single-edged, katana-like blades.

Don’t believe me? Look no further than Mr. Dragon Reborn himself. Rand picks up his father’s blade in the opening sequence of The Eye of the World but has no idea how to use the damned thing, as we see time and again. He clumsily uses it in life and death situations; his ta’avern abilities step in where his skills with a blade fails him. In fact, despite having the world’s greatest swordsman, al’Lan “Lan” Mandragoran for a teacher, an incredible work ethic, and fate of the world as incentive to get better yesterday, Rand doesn’t really begin to be able to hold his own among competent swordsfolk until the end of The Great Hunt (where the opening sequence is Lan putting him through his sword paces and giving him grief for even attempting to learn something that takes years to get better at). It’s really only in later books that Rand becomes worthy of wielding a heron-mark blade—a mark indicating the bearer is a blademaster.

Blademasters aren’t invincible, though. Time and again throughout The Wheel of Time we see the truth of that. Rand kills a Seanchan noble who bears a heron-mark blade, but he only does so by the skin of his teeth and is wounded in the process. We’ve already talked about Lan’s badassness, but Lan isn’t invincible either. Far from it. In New Spring he is nearly killed several times over and even meets a swordsman better than himself. Lan is marked for death… until Moiraine steps in with her magic to save the day. He’s not a Chosen One, but Lan has powerful friends and luck at just the right time. Even with those friends and his skill, he is wounded many times over throughout the series and we’re never quite sure if perhaps this fight won’t be the time he Sheathes the Blade—sacrificing himself to ensure the Light triumphs over the Dark One.

Another example of the deadliness of swordplay comes through in the pivotal scene when Galad Damodred becomes Lord Commander of the Whitecloaks by challenging the current Lord Commander in a trial by combat. Only Valda, the Lord Commander, is a blademaster and Galad—who we’ve previously seen effortlessly break an entire mob single-handed with just his sword—has to rely on luck and subterfuge to win… because in an out-and-out skill-based fight, he was outclassed. Despite those disadvantages, Galad eviscerates Valda, proving the sword doesn’t care about status, nor always skill—merely who has won and who has lost.

Everyone I’ve just mentioned is either a Lord or King or becomes a Lord or King, and swords in The Wheel of Time are very much a noble person’s weapon… until they aren’t. Aram is a Tinker—a group of people who follow The Way of the Leaf, a belief that the principle of nonviolence is absolute. Because of this, they’re very naturally a target for those who believe violence and power entitle them to do as they wish and this has forced them into a nomadic life where they never tarry long in one place for fear of violence. The Tinkers aren’t cowards though, and Robert Jordan shows us several times where they show incredible bravery to save children and others from everything ranging from Whitecloaks to brigands (are those different from Whitecloaks?) to Trollocs.

When Aram’s family is murdered he snaps and takes up arms to fight those who would harm others. Specifically, he takes up a sword, and in so doing reveals another way in which swords are used as levelers within The Wheel of Time: they allow social mobility in ways that aren’t possible through other methods. In taking up the sword and fanatically devoting himself to becoming proficient with it, Aram transforms from an itinerant young man into something more. A bodyguard, a soldier of fortune or an outright soldier: the options are many. Aram the Tinker had a societal ceiling placed upon him that Aram the Swordsman does not.

It’s Tam, Rand’s father, who supplies Rand with his own sword and here again is another example of how that sword changed Tam’s place in society. Tam of Emond’s field is a simple farmer, but Tam who picked up a sword and went away to learn its art became Second Captain of The Companions in the Illian Army. The Companions were an elite unit and the personal guard of Illian royalty. Tam is the same man in both instances, but with a sword in his hand his place in society is much more fluid than a simple backwoods farmer’s is. It would be remiss of me not to note that swords don’t grow on trees in Randland… there are many reasons why of the three farm boys who set off in The Great Hunt only one of them has a sword (inherited from Tam). That is something that becomes more available as war(s) begin to break out and that seems to be how Tam got his originally, but there are definitely financial prohibitions in place.

Alright, I’ve just spent loads of time talking about swords as the Great Leveler with all manner of dudes… but what about genders other than men? Gender in The Wheel of Time is a whole article unto itself. A whole series of articles. Some folks love the way Robert Jordan sets up his societies and the roles gender plays and others hate it, but what seems to be true at the start of the series is that generally the main cultures at play have women in political and mercantile leadership roles, but leave swordplay (but not all combat: see Min, Maidens, Birgitte, etc.) to the men, with one giant exception: the Seanchan Empire.

Gender roles seem much more fluid within the Empire and a few prime examples of this are Tylee Khirgan and Egeanin Tamarth. Tylee is a Banner General in the Ever Victorious Army. Each time she appears, she plays a minor, but often pivotal role and each time there is blood involved. First, partnering with Perrin to destroy rebel Aile which earns her a promotion to Lieutenant General, and then fighting Trollocs which grants her a title of nobility in the Low Blood. While she’s a general, she has scars on her face, and when the Trollocs ambush her, killing her second in command, she draws her sword and leads the charge. It’s by both her brains and her blade that Tylee carves her own path through society. Egeanin Tamarth is another such woman. Captain of a Seanchan ship and a swordswoman, she captures several key vessels which gain her promotion along the lines of Tylee to the Seanchan Captain of the Green, which is analogous to Banner-General, and is also raised to the Low Blood.

One of the themes in The Wheel of Time is progression: the wheel of history constantly grinding as it turns in a circle and civilization with it, rising and falling as it traverses the circular path set before it. As the series progresses, we begin to see that change in gender roles as well. Both with magic, suddenly available to men, and with the sword. Faile creates her own personal bodyguard and spy network known as Cha Faile, led by Selande Darengil, a would-be Maiden of the Sword who oversees the women (and a few men) who make up the group. Interestingly, many of these are former high-ranking nobles and taking up a sword here is actually lowering their place in society. When Elayne Trakand takes the throne of Andor she creates a personal bodyguard of all women, several of whom carry the sword. Yurith, who teaches the sword to her compatriots in particular is commended by several warders, masters of the sword in their own right, on her skills.

The blade as an engine of change, conferring both a measure of status and opportunity regardless of birth or gender is yet another way in which The Wheel of Time stands out in epic fantasy and a reminder of the myriad layers Robert Jordan created within the world. In a series where magic can literally shatter the world into pieces, the introduction of swords as an equalizer is a deft touch.

Ryan Van Loan is a debut Fantasy author who served six years as a Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry (PA National Guard) where he served on the front lines of Afghanistan. His forthcoming novel, The Sin in the Steel was purchased by Tor Books publication as a series.

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