“We are alike in many ways, you and I. There is a darkness in us. Darkness, pain, death. They radiate from us.”—Lan to Rand, The Fires of Heaven (ch. 53)
Throughout Reading the Wheel of Time, I have been very hard on al’Lan “I have nothing to offer but widow’s clothes” Mandragoran. The genre trope in which a hero has to spurn the woman he loves because being a hero is just so terrible and dangerous is one that I particularly dislike. It is very overused in fiction in general, and the trope is often employed as an easy way to show how heavy the hero’s burden is, while reducing the love interest to little more than a set piece whose function is to illustrate another aspect of the hero’s Great Pain.
But while this is often a problem in fiction, there is much that is different, and more interesting, about Lan and Nynaeve. She is certainly not set dressing in his story; in fact Nynaeve is much more a main character in The Wheel of Time novels than Lan is. And I think that my desire to address issues of gendered tropes and authorial intent have led me to not be entirely fair to Lan. Now, as I pick up New Spring in preparation for the next installment of Reading the Wheel of Time, I find myself eager to put myself into Lan’s mind. To walk a mile in his boots, so to speak. And in doing so, I have found a new empathy and connection with the Last King of the Malkieri.
“I am not a king, Nynaeve. Just a man. A man without as much to his name as even the meanest farmer’s croft.”—Lan to Nynaeve, The Eye of the World (ch. 48)
I remember a time when I, too, thought that I had nothing at all to give to the person I loved. In the spring of 2015 I fell into a deep depression. It took me a long time to realize what was happening to me, and even longer to figure why it was happening and how to drag myself out of that hole. I eventually did, and am doing much better now, but I will never forget the feeling I had during that time. The feeling of uselessness, and of pointlessness. The belief that nothing would ever get better, and that nothing I did would ever have any value to anyone, not even my spouse. I truly believed that the world would have been infinitely better off without me. And I think Lan believes much the same.
Lan was born to be king of a nation that died when he was still an infant. He also was raised with the stories of his heritage, including the knowledge that his parents named him Dai Shan and “consecrated him as the next King of the Malkieri,” swearing the oaths for him in his name. Agelmar tells the Emond’s Fielders that “the oath sworn over his cradle is graven in his mind,” and that even though Lan denies his title, an army would flock to Lan if ever he raised the banner of Malkier. Agelmar also tells them that “in the Blight he courts death as a suitor courts a maiden.”
It is not hard to imagine how impotent Lan must feel, unable to protect an already-fallen nation, unable even to avenge it, since it fell to the Shadow itself. And you can imagine how desperate and useless Lan might have felt, growing up—it’s wonderful that he had people to educate him about his heritage and to teach him about Malkieri culture and customs, but it must have been bewildering too. What is the point of being a king when that kingdom is gone? What is the point of being able to call an army to the banner of your forebears when you know that army will be destroyed? And although revenge may be desirable, nothing can bring back Malkier. Even if the Shadow were defeated and the Blight driven back or destroyed, Lan’s kingdom would still be gone. And then he wouldn’t even have that duty of revenge to give his life purpose.
I will not allow you to die in a useless attempt to avenge me. And I will not allow you to return to your equally useless private war in the Blight. The war we fight is the same war, if you could only see it so, and I will see that you fight it to some purpose. Neither vengeance nor an unburied death in the Blight will do.—Moiraine to Lan, The Great Hunt (ch 22)
Lan clearly threw himself into fighting the Shadow wherever he could find it, especially in the Blight. And he clearly expected to die. Driven by duty placed upon him when he was a baby, sustained by his training and skill, and without direction or hope. He expected to die that way. As Agelmar said, he was even seeking death, in a strange sort of suicide ideation that involved taking as many of the Dark One’s creatures with him as he could.
And then he met Moiraine.
It makes sense that someone in Lan’s position would want to be a Warder. Moiraine’s fight against the Shadow is not aimless but focused, and if anyone can succeed in defeating the Shadow, it must be the Aes Sedai. In tying himself to her, Lan found a cause and a direction. What’s more, he also removes some of the responsibility riding on his shoulders. He is now her blade, to be directed when and as she sees fit. He does not have to decide, and yet he can find solace and value in the knowledge, strength, and protection he provides for her. Plus, he gets even more effective at slaughtering Shadowspawn, which has to be pretty satisfying for him.
For most of my life, I have only seen value in myself in what I could do for other people, and to other people’s expectations. One of the factors that led to my depression was burnout from never pausing or allowing myself to just be me. I truly believed that my purpose in life was to fulfill an exact role prescribed to me by family, by teachers and employers, and by society as a whole. And that was not sustainable, because no one can ever be everything that the world asks them to be. And when I failed, I had no internal sense of self to fall back on.
Lan’s sense of purpose also doesn’t come from an internal place, and is similarly dependent upon someone else supplying it. When Moiraine tells Lan that she has arranged for his bond to pass to Myrelle in the event of her death, I don’t imagine that Lan believes any sense of purpose will transfer as well. It isn’t just that he is being exchanged like “a parcel” without his consent. He’s being denied the fight he has chosen for himself, denied the sense of stability that the choice gave him.
And Moiraine knows it, too. She doesn’t even tell him her whole plan—which seems terribly cruel—apparently under the belief that he’s not yet prepared to handle it. She has decided that he is too valuable to her cause to lose, no matter his wishes, and she knows that only by the compulsion the bond provides can he be kept on the path of her choosing. She hopes that he will find happiness in the end, but that’s not what she tells him. Instead she taunts him about where he might end up, knowing that he must fear such a fate. Knowing too that no such fate is intended for him.
What she doesn’t seem to realize, or perhaps just doesn’t have room to consider, is that Lan’s kingship is a failed one, and they are now discussing the fact that Moiraine is assuming that he will fail in his current duty as well. Of course the fall of Malkier had nothing to do with him, but the burden is there all the same. And now, in one swift moment, she is telling him that she expects him to fail again. And just as he cannot avenge Malkier, he will not be given the opportunity to avenge her.
Lan must have felt so lost, so destabilized. And then the worst came to pass, and Moiraine fell through the redstone doorway. Their bond was gone, and the new bond to Myrelle took its place.
Rand knows only a little about Warders’ bonds, but senses the change in Lan when they bid each other farewell after Moiraine’s death. He even catches himself whispering part of the Borderland funeral service. The bond with Myrelle may prevent Lan from making suicidal decisions, but not from wanting them. No wonder he decides that Nynaeve should be told that he is in love with someone else. It’s the wrong decision, but any small hope he had for them must have died when Moiraine fell through that doorway. He is coming from a place of despair.
My circumstances were never as dramatic as that. But I remember what it feels like not to have hope for the future. What does it matter if the choice is fair, or your actions are morally perfect, when you believe that everything is lost?
“Some women don’t ask for land, or gold. Just the man.”
“And the man who would ask her to accept so little would not be worthy of her.—Nynaeve and Lan, The Fires of Heaven (ch. 48)
When I was depressed, I kept it from my spouse as much as I could. It wasn’t a malicious decision—in some ways I hardly knew I was doing it. I was only trying to keep my negative feelings from harming them. I didn’t want to make them sad or spoil their day. And my depressed mind told me that my very existence was a drain on them, a poison that made their life worse whether they realized it or not. As a result, I was simultaneously trying to protect them from me, while also believing that if they could only see the truth, could only understand how bad I was, that they would know to leave.
Writing it out now, it almost seems silly. It’s both contradictory and selfish, and it’s a mindset that put my feelings and interpretations of our relationship above theirs. By deciding how they should feel about me and what they should want, I robbed them of the agency to make their own choices in the matter, and treated them like they weren’t smart enough to evaluate our relationship on their own.
Lan is doing this too. No matter what Nynaeve tells him, he knows better. He knows that she deserves something other than what she wants. He knows he is not worthy of her no matter what she says. As I mentioned above, at one point he goes so far as to ask Rand to lie to Nynaeve in an attempt to force her to stop loving him. It’s tremendously disrespectful.
But Lan doesn’t mean it to be. Depression blinds you to seeing the bigger picture, it drowns you in your own feelings. Lan sees only beauty and good when he looks at Nynaeve, and only darkness and death when he looks at himself. And I can see my past in the words he says to her, in the way he tells himself that she’s better off without him, if only she could understand what he is. And what he is not.
In the above quote, Lan isn’t actually talking about the fact that he can’t give her a home or a brideprice or the stability of a career not based in war. He is saying, without saying it outright, that he himself is worth nothing.
[…] that young woman had put cracks in Lan’s walls and seeded the cracks with creepers. Lan thought he was secure, imprisoned in his fortress by fate and his own wishes, but slowly, patiently, the creepers were tearing down the walls to bare the man within.—Moiraine (about Nynaeve and Lan) in The Great Hunt (ch. 22)
My partner was very patient with me when I was struggling, but they had their own feelings that were being ignored, and their own needs that weren’t being met. And one day things came to a head and we fought. They called me out for my behavior, for hiding and lying to them. They even kicked me out of the apartment (for a few hours). It was a horrible day, but after that, we were talking again. They had to force me to acknowledge it, to realize what was happening and that it wasn’t okay. Things didn’t get better over night, of course. But they had chipped into the walls around me, and the cracks in my fortress slowly brought it down. I told them the truth of how I was feeling. They showed me that hiding things wasn’t protecting them but harming them. I learned to trust their judgement over the voice of depression, slowly, over time.
But even when things were at their worst, I knew I loved them. Some part of me, even on the darkest day, remembered that feeling. Remembered that they needed me and that I needed them to. I just needed the strength to see it, and they, along with friends, and a good therapist, gave that to me.
I think if anyone has enough stubborn strength to reach Lan and make him see his world differently, it’s Nynaeve. And that gives me hope.
Sylas K Barrett is still blissfully married to Tor.com‘s own Emmet Asher-Perrin. Lan and Nynaeve should be so lucky. (And hopefully they will!)