Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Birgitte Is in the Limelight in Robert Jordan’s The Fires of Heaven (Part 21)

This week on Reading The Wheel of Time, I’m going to do one of my little tweaks with the chapter coverage: We’ll be doing Chapters 35 and 36 and then tacking on the first part of 37, up through Nynaeve and Birgitte’s little confrontation. It feels like that completes the “Birgitte is thrown from Tel’aran’rhiod” arc (and what an arc it is!) after which we start into the menagerie performances and meeting up with Masema.

In an amusing aside, sometimes I mistype Nynaeve’s name and my spellchecker tries to suggest I meant to type “vengeance.” That feels somewhat appropriate today; at least, I think Nynaeve would approve.

Chapter 35 opens on a bored Elayne, who is struggling to stay awake and watch Nynaeve after two hours of nothing to do, not needlework or a book to read. She’s even practiced Healing on Nynaeve, who would never have consented to it awake but no longer sports the black eye she received from Cerandin.

In truth, that was the most complicated Healing Elayne had ever done, and it really had exhausted her skill. Nothing to do. If she had some silver, she might have tried making an a’dam; silver was not the only metal, but she would have to melt coins to get enough. The other woman would be less pleased at that than at finding a second a’dam. If Nynaeve had been willing to tell Thom and Juilin about this, at least she could have invited Thom in for conversation.

She considers how much Thom has taught her about how the Game of Houses is played in Andor, like a father passing knowledge on to her daughter. She feels embarrassed as she remembers her earlier attitude towards Thom, but consoles herself thinking that, although she makes many mistakes, she rarely makes the same one twice.

Suddenly, Elayne notices that tears are leaking from Nynaeve’s eyes, and that she’s even whimpering faintly. She’s not sure if she should try to wake Nynaeve, knowing how difficult it can be to draw someone from Tel’aran’rhiod, but she suddenly realizes that Nynaeve might be held against her will in the Dream. Egwene has mentioned that it is possible to do that, and Elayne can’t think of anyone who would be holding Nynaeve besides Moghedien. Suddenly Nynaeve’s eyes fly open, and she begins to cry and exclaim that she “killed her.” Before Elayne can ascertain who has been killed, there’s a knock and she rises to let in Thom, who is carrying a woman wrapped in his cloak. Juilin follows, explaining in a dumb-founded tone that “she” just suddenly appeared, naked and collapsing “like a cut net.”

Elayne pushes the hood back and is shocked to see Birgitte’s face; Nynaeve is on her feet at once and no longer crying, exclaiming that she is alive. She has Elayne shoo Thom and Juilin out, then tries to Heal Birgitte, stoking her anger by cursing Moghedien and promising revenge. Elayne is struck by the complexity of the weaves Nynaeve is employing and by the sheer amount of saidar that she is channeling, but although Nynaeve’s oaths become more ferocious, nothing seems to be helping, and although she doesn’t stop trying she exclaims to Elayne that there is nothing there to Heal, that Birgitte is as perfect as anyone can be, and yet is slipping away.

Cautiously, Elayne suggests that there is something she could try. It is something that is only supposed to be done with permission, although she knows it was once done as often without permission as with it. And although she has only heard of it being done on men, she can’t see a reason it can’t be done on a woman. Nynaeve thinks that she means linking, but steps aside as Elayne urges her not to keep trying something that isn’t working. She asks what Elayne means to try.

Instead of answering, Elayne put one hand on Birgitte’s forehead. Physical contact was as necessary for this as for Healing, and the two times she had watched it done in the Tower, the Aes Sedai had touched the man’s forehead. The flows of Spirit she wove were complex, if not so intricate as Nynaeve’s of a moment before. She barely understood some of what she was doing, and none at all of other parts, yet she had paid close attention, from her hiding place, to how the weave was shaped. Watched closely because she had built up a stock of stories in her head, made silly romances where there so seldom were any. After a moment, she sat down on the other bed and let saidar go.

Nynaeve examines Birgitte, and sees that she isn’t fading anymore. She’s not sure Birgitte will live, but Elayne can see her letting go of the Power as well. Reluctantly, she admits to Nynaeve that she Bonded Birgitte as her Warder, knowing that one of the gifts a Warder receives from their Aes Sedai is increased strength and energy, the ability to keep going when anyone else would collapse, and to survive wounds that would ordinarily be fatal.

After a moment Nynaeve admits that if any woman could be a Warder, Birgitte could. She also points out that Elayne will have to keep this a secret; an Accepted bonding a Warder isn’t quite a stilling offence, but it is a very grave one. Elayne asks what happened and Nynaeve tells her, telling the tale starkly until she gets to Moghedien’s attack, and then she describes everything in painful detail.

“I should be welted from the neck down,” she said bitterly at last, touching a smooth, unmarked arm. Unmarked or not, she flinched. “I don’t understand why I am not. I feel it, but I deserve the welts, for stupid, foolish pride. For being too afraid to do what I should. I deserved being hung up like a ham in a smokehouse. If there was any justice, I would still be dangling there, and Birgitte would not be lying on that bed, with us wondering whether she’ll live or not. If only I knew more. If only I could have Moghedien’s knowledge for five minutes, I could Heal her. I am sure of it.”

Elayne points out that if Nynaeve were still in Moghedien’s power, she’d be waking up and shielding Elayne before she even knew what was happening, and that she’s quite happy that she isn’t about to be carted off to be given to the Forsaken. She observes that the torture Nynaeve experienced must have been carried out through a link, like with the a’dam. When Nynaeve refuses to look at her, she points out that Birgitte is alive, that Nynaeve did all she could for her, and that Elayne and Nynaeve are soldiers in a battle—a soldier does not take blame for a fallen comrade. She tells Nynaeve to stop behaving like a fool, but Nynaeve responds that Elayne doesn’t understand.

Her voice sank almost to a whisper. “She… was… one of the heroes bound to the Wheel of Time, destined to be born again and again to make legends. She wasn’t born this time, Elayne. She was ripped out of Tel’aran’rhiod as she stood. Is she still bound to the Wheel? Or has she been ripped away from that, too? Ripped away from what her own courage earned her, because I was so proud, so man-stubborn stupid, that I made her hunt for Moghedien?”

Elayne had been hoping that Nynaeve hadn’t thought of this point yet. She asks if Nynaeve believes that Moghedien is dead, but Nynaeve doesn’t think so—the arrow missed her heart and she must have someone with her who can Heal. She’s afraid Moghedien could come after them at any moment, but Elayne is certain that it will take Moghedien days to recover from being Healed, and points out that there are eleven other menageries in Samara and three waiting to enter it. It will take Moghedien or her agents some time to track them down. She asks if Nynaeve has anything to dye her hair with.

“Whitecloaks everywhere,” Nynaeve sighed. “Galad. The Prophet. No boats. It is as if everything is conspiring to hold us here for Moghedien. I am so tired, Elayne. Tired of being afraid of who might be around the next corner. Tired of being afraid of Moghedien. I cannot seem to think of what to do next. My hair? Nothing that would make it any color I’d have.”

Elayne instructs her to sleep, and even demands she hand over the ter’angreal ring, but Nynaeve says that she can’t sleep, that she needs to go for a walk. She puts her cloak on over her shift and tells Elayne, bleakly, that she doesn’t think she could bring her to stop Birgitte if the archer wanted to kill her. She steps out into the night, barefoot and dejected. And Elayne can only hope that Nynaeve’s natural resilience will eventually establish itself.

She watches over Birgitte as she sleeps, at one point stirring and calling out for Gaidal to wait for her. After about an hour Nynaeve returns, her face newly streaked with tears, and says that she needs to watch her. Elayne doesn’t think she could sleep either, so decides to take her turn at walking. Outside, she finds Thom and Julin also awake, smoking around the fire. She joins them, and Juilin gives Thom a questioning look before turning over a silver arrow, explaining that he found it lying on the ground, as if it had dropped from “her” hand.

“Distinctive,” Thom said conversationally around his pipe. “And added to the braid… Every story mentions the braid for some reason. Though I’ve found some I think might be her under other names, without it. And some under other names with.”

Juilin asks if it’s her and what kind of trouble they’ve gotten him and Thom into. Elayne finds that she feels guilty for the secrets they’ve been keeping. But she is bound by her promise to Birgitte, so she answers only that she is a friend, one who is not Aes Sedai but who has been helping them. The men exchange glances but don’t press her as she asks why they didn’t give the arrow to Nynaeve.

Juilin only offers that she seemed upset, but Thom explains that she cried on Thom’s shoulders, and apologized for every cross word she ever said to him, calling herself a coward and a stubborn fool. He doesn’t know what’s wrong but he can see that she is very far from being herself.

Juilin compares it to a woman he once knew who accidentally murdered her husband, mistaking him for a burglar. Afterwards she walked around like Nynaeve is, and then eventually killed herself. Thom suggests that Elayne is the only one who can help her. He knows how to take a man out of his miseries, with a swift kick or else by getting him drunk and laid, but he has no idea how to help Nynaeve.

Elayne promises to do her best, and turns the arrow over in her hands as she considers how she doesn’t like lying to Thom and Juilin.

So she told them. About Tel’aran’rhiod and the Forsaken being loose, about Moghedien. Not quite everything, of course. Some events in Tanchico had been too shaming for her to want to think of them. Her promise held her concerning Birgitte’s identity, and there was certainly no need to go into detail about what Moghedien had done to Nynaeve. It made explaining this night’s happenings a little difficult, yet she managed.

She makes sure they know everything they need to, about the Black Ajah and the fact that one of the Forsaken was almost definitely hunting her and Nynaeve, and that they are planning to hunt Moghedien as well. She tells them that they have the choice to stay or go as they wish, and Thom responds that he hasn’t taught her nearly enough of the things that she must know in order to be a good queen, and that she will not get rid of him this easily.

Juilin remarks that Rand will have his hide if he doesn’t return Elayne in one piece, prompting an irked response from Elayne that he should stay only if he wants to. She reminds them that they are not released from their promise to do as they are told either, and bids them to get some sleep. They obediently start putting out the fire and Elayne thinks that they might finally understand who is in charge—although as she’s going back inside she overhears Thom telling Juilin that she sounds like her mother sometimes.

Inside she finds Nynaeve struggling to stay awake as she watches Birgitte. Elayne has to shepherd her through washing her feet, but Nynaeve resists Elayne’s urging to sleep, insisting that she must watch over Birgitte, and Elayne decides she needs to give Nynaeve that swift kick Thom mentioned. She tells Nynaeve firmly that she’s had enough sulking and self pity, that Nynaeve is going to go to sleep and behave better in the morning, or Elayne will ask Cerandin to give her two black eyes in place of the one Elayne took away. Nynaeve gives her an indignant look but when Elayne physically closes Nynaeve’s eyes, the woman falls almost instantly asleep. Elayne soon falls asleep herself, despite trying to stay awake and watch.

The dream was a pleasant one, if odd. Rand knelt before her, and she put a hand on his head and bonded him as her Warder. One of her Warders; she would have to choose Green now, with Birgitte. There were other women there, faces changing between one glance and the next. Nynaeve, Min, Moiraine, Aviendha, Berelain, Amathera, Liandrin, others she did not know. Whoever they were, she knew that she had to share him with them, because in the dream she was certain that that was what Min had viewed. She was not sure how she felt about that—some of those faces she wanted to claw to shreds—but if it was fated by the Pattern, it would have to be. Yet she would have one thing of him the others could never have, the bond between Warder and Aes Sedai.

The sound of a voice drifts into her dreams and wakes her, and she finds Birgitte, weak and pale but alert, gripping her arm and exclaiming that this isn’t Tel’aran’rhiod. When Elayne nods to confirm, Birgitte sits back, saying that she remembers everything, that out there somewhere Gaidal is an infant or a small boy, and that even if she finds him what will he think of a woman old enough to be his mother. She insists that she never cries as she fights back tears, telling Elayne that Gaidal will need her and she won’t be there, that it is always her job to bring a sense of caution to their adventures. She says that he will search for her, not knowing what he’s doing, and that they are always meant to be together, two halves of a whole.

Elayne holds her as she breaks down into sobbing, thinking of how she might feel if she were separated from Rand in such a way, until at last Birgitte cries herself out and straightens up. She looks to Nynaeve, still asleep, and asks if Moghedien hurt her. Elayne says no, but mentions that Nynaeve blames herself for what happened. Birgitte answers that she is a free woman, and that if Nynaeve claims responsibility for the consequences then she also claims responsibility for Birgitte’s actions.

Elayne remarks that Birgitte is taking this better than she would, and Birgitte makes a quip about gallows humor, and how perhaps she may still surprise Moghedien. Then she grows serious again, saying that she can feel Elayne somehow.

“I can… feel you. I think I could close my eyes and point to you a mile away.”

Elayne explains that Birgitte was dying, and that she bonded her as a Warder to save her life. Birgitte remarks that she believes she may have heard of a female Warder once before, though she can’t remember more. Elayne continues on to guiltily explain that she is not a full Aes Sedai, but only an Accepted. Birgitte is a bit amazed by this reveal, and recalls an Accepted she once knew who bonded a Warder one day before she was due to be raised, and how she was forced to move the bond on to someone else, then put in the kitchens to work for three years. Once she was finally raised, the Amyrlin herself decided on her Warder.

It’s not a pleasant thought, such punishment, although Egwene recognizes the names—Barashelle and Anselan—from an old tale about a woman having to endure long service in order to earn a man’s love, and marvels how much times have changed the story. Birgitte makes a joke about Elayne not riding her Warder too hard lest she reveal the secret, but when Elayne reacts sternly she apologizes, thanking Elayne for saving her life and promising sincerely that she will serve as her Warder—and Elayne’s friend, if she will have it.

Her first act in the role of Warder is to tell Elayne that she is tired and must rest—a Warder’s place is to tell her Aes Sedai when she is pushing herself too hard, and “to provide a dose of caution when she thinks she can walk into the Pit of Doom.” She promises to do her duty and keep her Aes Sedai alive, so she can do what she must.

Elayne manages to make sure Birgitte keeps the bed for the night, however, and falls asleep altering one of her dresses for Birgitte. She dreams of bonding Rand again, sometimes with his consent and sometimes without. She wakes when Nynaeve steps on her.

Birgitte claims to be fully recovered, but although Nynaeve doesn’t say anything about her feelings of guilt, she basically waits on Birgitte all morning, making her breakfast and trying to donate all her own clothes and washing Birgitte’s hair in henpepper to blacken it—she even wants to hem the dress, despite her sub-par skill at sewing.

They emerge into a beautiful morning, and Luca comes striding up, full of energy and chiding them for sleeping in as he shouts orders to everyone. Nynaeve tells him off, sounding a bit more like her usual self, but Luca is concerned about attracting attention and starts listing all the acts in the other menageries. He even tries to enlist Birgitte as a fool, but she informs him tersely that she is an archer. This sparks derision from him, and he supposes that she must be one of the Hunters of the Horn and probably calls herself Birgitte. She in turn offers to outshoot anyone there for a wager of a hundred gold crowns to his one. Luca isn’t interested, but she goads him into it, calling him “pretty man” and asking if he’s scared.

By the time Luca has returned with his bow, everyone in the menagerie has stopped preparations and gathered to watch. Luca puts a mark on a tree to shoot at and walks fifty paces, bragging about his own skill and how he’ll shoot first.

Birgitte plucked the bow from his hand and walked off another fifty as he stared after her. She shook her head over the bow, but braced it on her slippered foot and strung it in one smooth motion before Luca joined her and Elayne and Nynaeve. Birgitte pulled an arrow from the quiver he held, examined it a moment, then tossed it aside like rubbish. Luca frowned and opened his mouth, but she was already discarding a second shaft. The next three went to the leaf-covered ground as well before she stuck one point-down in the soil beside her. Of twenty-one, she kept only four.

Nynaeve looks impossibly bleak, and Elayne whispers that she knows Birgitte can do it while secretly praying she’s right—if Birgitte loses, they’ll have to come up with the money. But Birgitte shoots easily, landing two arrows right beside each other on the target and then splitting each one with a fresh shot. Luca stares, wide-eyed, then with a shout of joy declares “Not knives! Arrows! From a hundred paces!” Nynaeve sags against Elayne as Luca explains, and Thom and Juilin collect money from the crowd, and Elayne realizes they’d been placing bets on Birgitte’s skill. There’s a brief moment of fear when Luca suggests they paint the bow silver—presenting a lady archer as “Birgitte” would be like putting up a sign for Moghedien—but she declares that paint would ruin an already poor bow and tells them to call her Maerion. She asks if she can have a red dress, too, and Nynaeve looks sick.

Nynaeve didn’t mind having to stay in the wagon on the trip through the streets of Samara, but she sighs looking at the brassy red color of her newly-dyed hair. She’s wearing the red dress too, and covers herself with a gray shawl before realizing with a start that Birgitte is standing in the doorway, wearing a matching red dress of her own. Nynaeve pulls her shawl tighter just looking at how revealing the neckline is… but that’s not actually what makes her feel sick looking at Birgitte.

“If you are going to wear the dress, why cover up?” Birgitte came inside and closed the door behind her. “You are a woman. Why not be proud of it?”

“If you think I shouldn’t,” Nynaeve replied hesitantly, and slowly let the shawl slide down to her elbows, revealing the twin of the other woman’s garment. She felt all but naked. “I only thought… I thought…” Gripping her silk skirts hard to keep her hands at her sides, she held her gaze on the other woman. Even knowing she wore exactly the same herself, it was easier that way.

Birgitte grimaces and asks what Nynaeve would do if she asked her to lower it another inch, then gets up into her face, asking what Nynaeve would do if Birgitte wanted to strip her naked and paint her from head to toe. When Nynaeve can’t summon up an answer she declares that this behavior must stop, and they argue about Nynaeve’s fawning and who is responsible for what happened.

“You take responsibility for my actions,” Birgitte broke in fiercely. “I chose to speak to you in Tel’aran’rhiod. I chose to help you. I chose to track Moghedien. And I chose to take you to see her. Me! Not you, Nynaeve, me! I was not your puppet, your pack hound, then, and I will not be now.”

She tells Nynaeve that only men and foolish girls take blame where there isn’t any, and is incredulous when Nynaeve claims that her cowardice stopped her from being able to react in time. Birgitte thought that Nynaeve knew the difference between fear and cowardice, and points out that she doesn’t blame herself for the fact that she couldn’t come to Nynaeve’s aid. They both did what they could, and there is no shame in that.

Nynaeve continues to hold the line, insisting that it was her fault that Birgitte was there, and adding that if Birgitte misses her shot during the performance and kills Nynaeve, she will understand.

Birgitte answers that she always hits what she aims at, and she will not be aiming at Nynaeve. Sitting down to work on the arrows she’s making—she’s planning to make a new bow eventually, as well—she complains that she liked Nynaeve before, even with her thorns and warts, but that she doesn’t like her like this. She can’t accept someone acting so out of character. She has heard about what happened with Cerandin and so she knows what she needs to do the next time Nynaeve claims Birgitte’s actions as her own.

Nynaeve makes herself say that Birgitte has a right to do whatever she wishes, but she has trouble holding herself to her earlier meekness.

“A touch of temper showing? Just at the edges?” Birgitte grinned at her, at once amused and startlingly feral. “How long before it bursts into flame? I am willing to wear out any number of switches, if need be.” The grin faded into seriousness. “I will make you see the right of this, or I will drive you away. There is no other course. I cannot—will not—leave Elayne. That bond honors me, and I will honor it, and her. And I will not allow you to think that you make my decisions, or made them. I am myself, not an appendage to you. Now go away. I must finish these arrows if I am to have even a few shafts that will fly true. I do not mean to kill you, and I would not have it happen by accident.” Unstopping the glue pot, she bent over the table. “Do not forget to curtsy like a good girl on your way out.”

Nynaeve leaves, but she’s fuming, thinking that she only said Birgitte could kill her, not humiliate her.

 

Okay, I’ll just come out and say it… these chapters are so incredibly gay. I’m sure it’s too much to hope for, but I am desperate for Elayne and Birgitte to end up together, and if I wasn’t avoiding spoilers I’d be googling fanfic for them right this very second. They have more chemistry together than Elayne and Rand do anyway—the only thing interesting about that relationship is Rand learning about ruling from her (the bit where he wished he could ask her what taxes are for was so cute) but that just turns really quickly into a woman doing a lot of one-sided emotional labor for her partner. And no one wants that.

Hmm, maybe that’s why the Pattern thinks that Rand needs not one but three ladies in his life.

I think we can all acknowledge how kinky the Warder/Aes Sedai bond is. It’s not inherently sexual of course, but even the platonic relationships are terribly intimate, connecting the Aes Sedai and Warder so deeply that most Warders can’t survive losing the woman they are bonded to. And if one were to have a sexual relationship, or to fall in love, while so bonded, there is a distinctly dom/sub flavor to the connection that is wonderfully fun as long as complete consent exists. And terribly problematic the second it doesn’t.

When Birgitte challenges Luca to the archery contest, Elayne wonders if obedience is part of the bond, which means that she would at least consider compelling Birgitte against her will—using a bond she made without Birgitte’s permission in the first place. And we know that Warders can be compelled against their will, at least sometimes, because when Moiraine bonded Lan she promised not to do it. (And then broke that promise, but that’s for his own good, so I guess it doesn’t count?)

Now, I’m not here to be a moral arbitrator of every decision made by a main character in The Wheel of Time. Honestly, most of them are just doing the best they can under impossible circumstances. It would not be realistic, or interesting, to have protagonists who didn’t make such mistakes, who weren’t imperfect in their judgments or their desires. But I do think it’s important to keep in mind what the larger narrative of the series is saying about consent, especially when it comes to women.

Much of Rand’s journey (and Mat and Perrin’s too, for that matter) has been a struggle to assert his own authority in the face of powerful women who wish to control him and dictate his choices. The fact that the Aes Sedai are all women is a circumstance of the world that they didn’t choose and cannot control, but we are still presented with a narrative in which men are constantly and desperately trying to defend their own autonomy in the face of women who do not value it. Warders (who are nearly always men even in earlier Ages) can be bonded without permission, and can be compelled and controlled in a variety of ways. Men who can channel are caught and stilled by the Red Ajah, who are presented as little more than man-hating baddies. And even just in general society, women regard men as stubborn idiots who need to be manipulated from the shadows, allowed to think they’re in charge but never given much real control.

Jordan has created a world where the gendered balance of power is supposedly different, because only women can be Aes Sedai, and because the “original sin,” as it were, of this Age belongs to men. And thus we see someone like Rand, the prophesied hero and savior of the world, being viewed not only as a threat but as someone who needs to be controlled and guided, who can’t possibly make his own decisions. It’s a really interesting idea, and in some moments it plays out very well. But if you consider the WoT world at large, this theme doesn’t carry through as well as it might.

Whether or not the Aes Sedai appear justified in their use of power and authority tends to depend on which POV we’re in. The female characters view the Aes Sedai demands and manipulation, as well as those of women in general, as a good and necessary state of affairs—men have their uses but they are mostly stubborn idiots, who need constant direction and also a lot of coddling. Then we have the male POV, in which women are, at best, unknowable but desirable contradictions and at worst are people who just want to turn you into a mindless puppet.

I don’t want to get sidetracked her into a discussion of gendered relations as a whole in The Wheel of Time, but rather to focus on a specific dynamic of consent and autonomy, and the Aes Sedai seem completely content to violate both whenever it suits them. And it isn’t just against men—in fact, women turn this attitude against each other constantly, freely perpetuating abuse and outright sexual harassment against other women.

Elayne is a particular offender lately. She violates Nynaeve’s bodily autonomy by Healing her eye when she knows Nynaeve would object if she was aware at the time, then threatens her with physical violence and humiliation to get her to do as Elayne says. She also bonds Birgitte without permission and then expects obedience. Now, there are decent arguments for her behavior—Nynaeve’s depression and stubbornness prevent her from accepting help when she needs it, and Birgitte was dying—but it sticks out as part of the larger pattern, especially when both women have just experienced violation at the hands of Moghedien.

On the other hand, we also see Elayne’s honesty and kindness coming out a lot in these chapters. I really appreciated her desire to be more truthful with her companions. She recognizes the complicated nature of what she has done to Birgitte, and offers her the truth of Elayne’s status as Accepted. She realizes that she has asked Thom and Juilin to put themselves in a great deal of danger and that it’s unjust not to give them more information. I think she will have more trust from them in the future (she thinks of it as obedience, but I think of it as their having justified faith in her leadership). Nynaeve and Elayne have been passing themselves off as Aes Sedai, and Elayne wants to be Aes Sedai some day, so it makes sense that they are acting exactly like Aes Sedai. But they are a new generation, one that will live through the Breaking of the World and Tarmon Gai’don, so it makes sense that they would eventually start changing how they do things, as the new generation of Aes Sedai. Especially Nynaeve, who hates the Aes Sedai and everything they stand for, and thus should want to handle things very differently from the way they do.

The reason she doesn’t is because the Aes Sedai function in society basically the same way that women in the Two Rivers do. There’s little difference between the way the Aes Sedai handle the nations’ monarchs and the way the Women’s Circle handles the Mayor and the Village Council. I mean, Thom and Juilin have spent their whole journey with Elayne and Nynaeve being told to stay in their lane and that they don’t eat their veggies, while providing vital service, including rescuing the girls whenever they get in over their heads. I’m hoping that Elayne (and eventually Nynaeve too) is going to be less patronizing to them now, but I’m not sure I have reason to hope that anything will really change in the dynamic.

All that being said, I am still really excited about Elayne and Birgitte. I like the way they play off each other, and they seem to share the same adventurous spirit. Birgitte also has a lot in common with Mat, I must say: She likes to gamble and carouse, and she also has a head full of memories of her past lives. She might be the only one who can really understand what he’s going through, and they’d get along to boot. They should hang out.

The archery contest was beautiful. It was so very Robin Hood, and I got very excited when Birgitte admitted to once being called Maerion—I’m not always that interested when Jordan slips in references to our history but Robin Hood is like, my whole jam. I love the suggestion that Marion was an excellent archer too, or even the origin of the myth of Robin Hood’s prowess with a bow. Was Gaidal Robin Hood then? I mean, he feels more like a Little John than anything, but I guess he’s never born tall enough for that.

I didn’t really understand Birgitte’s speech about how Gaidal is the impulsive one and needs her to rein him in. Everything we have seen suggests that she is the one who leaps in with both feet and that he is more reserved. I can’t decide if this is Jordan’s gender essentialism getting in his own way again, or if perhaps this intensity from Birgitte is a bit out of character for her. Maybe that is why Gaidal seemed to wash his hands of the whole affair, even before he disappeared. I’m a sucker for a soulmate story though, and I was as moved as Elayne was by Birgitte’s grief over losing Gaidal. The suggestion that he will be drawn to search for her without knowing why or what he’s looking for was a tragedy right out of a King Arthur story, really. It’s that kind of beautifully tragic fairytale we romantics all love to have a good cry over.

And then there’s Nynaeve. My heart is breaking for her, really, and I agree with Birgitte wholeheartedly that I love her as a character “warts, thorns and all.” In a lot of ways, what Nynaeve is going through here is the same thing that Perrin went through in The Shadow Rising when he had to face the reality of leading soldiers and feeling responsible for their deaths. Elayne recognizes this when she explains to Nynaeve that soldiers in a battle don’t claim responsibility for the fall of their companions. And Nynaeve’s protective instincts are strong; she and Perrin are the two main characters who are perhaps most defined by their protective nature. Nynaeve is only here at all because of her sense of duty towards Rand, Perrin, Mat, and Egwene, four people she’s not even that much older than. It makes sense that she would take it as hard as Perrin did. It makes sense that, like Perrin, she has difficulty admitting that she can’t fight alone, can’t be the sole responsibility and the sole authority in this battle she is leading.

But there are also ways that Nynaeve’s situation differs from Perrin’s. She points out one when she reminds Elayne that Birgitte may have lost her connection to the Hero’s cycle of rebirth, perhaps even her bond to Gaidal. They hadn’t even known it was possible to throw a currently unborn Hero out of Tel’aran’rhiod like that; this is a new and terrifying consequence far beyond the (still frightening but mostly understood) concept of death in battle. But there is an even more significant reason that she experiences this part of her journey differently from Perrin. And that is because Nynaeve is depressed.

One of the things that I love about Nynaeve is that she doesn’t conform to a lot of the gender essentialism that creeps into The Wheel of Time. Nynaeve’s primary refuge is anger: When she feels outmaneuvered, or embarrassed, or frightened, or sad, it expresses itself in caustic insults, shouting, and even physical violence. Normally this is a trait assigned to men, and I love to see it here in a female character. But it also means that her sadness and despair is easy to miss, both for the people around her and for Nynaeve herself. She’s dejected and crying in this chapter, but it was there when she was standing for Thom to throw his knives, and it was there when she was using the fern stem to hit other plants, and it was there when she lied to herself and said that she wasn’t avoiding meeting up with Egwene and the Wise Ones.

And I get it. Because I’ve been there. One of the interesting things about depression is that, for all that is debilitating and miserable, you often don’t notice you’re depressed for a long time. You might make it through months or even years, functioning enough to get by but completely wilted inside, and not even realize it. For all that everyone’s pissed at Nynaeve for how she’s acting in these chapters (more on that in a minute) it’s actually a good thing that she’s starting to admit it, that it’s come out into the open. She can’t get better until she realizes what’s going on with her, and no one can help her unless they can see what she’s going through.

The most important line in the whole section is probably this one:

“Whitecloaks everywhere,” Nynaeve sighed. “Galad. The Prophet. No boats. It is as if everything is conspiring to hold us here for Moghedien. I am so tired, Elayne. Tired of being afraid of who might be around the next corner. Tired of being afraid of Moghedien. I cannot seem to think of what to do next.”

None of this is about what happened with Birgitte, really. Nynaeve was tired before. She was trapped before, unable to think of what to do next. This breakdown was coming even if Birgitte had never been harmed, never gone near Moghedien as well. And I think that a lot of how she’s interpreting her actions in retrospect is colored by that depression and fatigue. Pride may have played a part in Nynaeve making the decision to search for Moghedien, but fear and necessity were motivating factors just as large, if not larger. And as we see in the encounter itself, Nynaeve didn’t underestimate her ability to beat Moghedien in a fight—Moghedien got the drop on them, just as they feared she would if she found them first. Yes, they led her right to them, but they also had every reason to believe she might have found them without help, and that surprise attack could have been just as bad as, or worse than, the one they helped court for themselves.

They were doing the best they could, and Nynaeve only thinks it was 100% hubris because it turned out badly. Oh, and because she’s depressed.

The tough love that everyone wants to use is a mistake, I think. Nynaeve’s main problem is her isolation, the way she can’t let people in, can’t let them see her as less than perfect, can’t bring herself to ever rely on other people. Telling her she’s being childish, telling her she’s stupid and needs to buck up, is hardly going to get her to trust others or admit that she doesn’t have to do everything herself. At best, it’s going to rally her enough to keep pretending, which might be nice for everyone else, but which puts Nynaeve right back in the very position that got her to this point.

I do think that having something to do, some new task or purpose, would help Nynaeve. Part of what helped Perrin was the fact that he didn’t have time to wallow in guilt—he still had plans to make and battles to fight. Nynaeve has a dress that she hates to wear.

But Birgitte’s stance does make sense, and I think that in time it will get through to Nynaeve. Not the part where she’s going to take a page out of Cerandin’s book, but the part where she tells Nynaeve that if she is going to take responsibility for Birgitte getting hurt, then she is also claiming responsibility for all Birgitte’s choices, taking credit for her accomplishments and denying her own autonomy. I think in time this truth will sink in for Nynaeve and help heal her guilt—the problem now is that she can’t even hear what Birgitte is saying.

Okay, I take it back. The most important line is this one:

“If she wants to kill me,” she said bleakly, “I do not know that I could make myself stop her.”

That’s not just guilt. That’s shame, and hopelessness too. That’s depression.

The other thing that I think Nynaeve’s friends are missing is that her reaction isn’t just about grief over Birgitte’s circumstances. It’s about the fact that Nynaeve and Birgitte did everything in their power, tried to be smart, tried to plan, tried to fight, and things still went badly. The last time Nynaeve faced Moghedien she was terrified, but she came out of the encounter with the knowledge that she is stronger than one of the Forsaken. This time she came away with the knowledge that her strength won’t always save her, that her planning and cunning might not be enough, that terrible things can still happen to her and the people she cares about no matter how hard she fights. For all that her current approach—it’s my fault, if only I’d been less stubborn, or less stupid, or less afraid it would have turned out differently—seems silly and self-flagellating, the truth is that it must feel safer to Nynaeve to think she made a stupid mistake. Because the other answer, the one Birgitte gives her, is that sometimes you do your best and failure comes anyway, through no fault of your own. And that is a terrifying concept, especially to a control freak like Nynaeve. Even now, with her barriers of anger at last broken down, she’s still holding on to a certain amount of self-delusion.

I have some more to say about Nynaeve and what she’s been through lately, but I’m going to save that for a related essay. For now I’ll just mention that Nynaeve’s struggles are exacerbated by how much her bodily safety and security are violated by the people around her, including her friends. I think it’s relevant to consider that she’s thrust unwillingly into being the “damsel in distress” for the knife/arrow performance, and into a physically close flirtatious encounter with Luca, and into the red dress, on two days that bracket the night she’s stripped naked and tortured by Moghedien.

Thom’s little aside that men just need to get drunk and laid to get over their grief was pretty silly, I thought. It’s not a surprising opinion for someone in his position, but I don’t think Rand or Perrin would respond well to that as they try to get used to the idea of leading men into battle. Rand isn’t going to stop dwelling on that dead little girl just because he and Aviendha had a roll in the hay… er, snow. Then again, perhaps if he had friends who could actually just sit and enjoy an evening with him, a chance to be Rand and shake off his responsibilities for a night, perhaps that would do it.

Also, can we talk about Elayne spying on Aes Sedai in the Tower while they were bonding Warders? That is a pretty big transgression—perhaps not as bad as spying on someone being raised and going through the three arched ter’angreal but close. It’s worked out conveniently well, but it’s an interesting piece of context to how Elayne passed her time in the Tower. And I’m reminded of all that Siuan and Leane admitted to doing in their time as novices and Accepted, back when they were having their true identity tested by Sheriam and the others. The Aes Sedai are all about that discipline and perfect obedience from those underneath them, but I’m starting to see that it might not exist at all—it’s only feigned obedience, nursing grudges and trying to get what you want.

And finally, let me just say HECK YES FEMALE WARDERS. I hope this is the start of a trend. Also, why aren’t there female Warders in history. Everything in this world is about the balance of the two genders, so it makes sense to say that lady Aes Sedai usually take male Warders. I had even considered the possibility that Warders were an invention of this age, a way to try to compensate a little for the lack of male Aes Sedai. But now we know from Birgitte that there were Warders in other ages, so I’m left with a lot of questions. Did the male Aes Sedai of past Ages bond Warders, or is this something to do with the way that only saidar can be used to establish links? Can a male Aes Sedai be bonded as well, as Elayne dreams of doing to Rand? I guess if the male Aes Sedai did have Warders, they would have been all men, which is boring but at least it’s a bit homoerotic.

Here’s hoping Elayne has started an awesome new tradition that Warders can be any gender.

 

Next week we’ll finish Chapter 37 as well as Chapters 38 and 39. There’s a lot of action in these chapters, but some really good reveals too. And keep an eye out for a bonus Nynaeve essay, hopefully coming later this week. Until then I wish you all a pleasant week and many good nights’ sleep.

Sylas K Barrett is still chuckling over the irony of Luca assuming Birgitte is a hunter for the Horn, when she is a Hero of the Horn. That’s brilliant, tbh.

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