Reading The Wheel of Time

The Mystery of Aes Sedai Agelessness

I have now read the first five books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, as well as about half of the prequel novel New Spring, and it’s been fascinating to watch the complexities of the story, and the world, unfold. There are quite a few mysteries that it may take a long time to get any resolution on—there are still nine more books to go, after all—but one thing in particular has caught my attention lately. There is something about Aes Sedai agelessness that just doesn’t add up. So I decided this week to go back through my reading and see if I could puzzle out the mystery of Aes Sedai agelessness, and how the Power really does—or does not—affect the age and appearance of a channeler.

I am never quite sure how to imagine the ageless look of the Aes Sedai. When Perrin observes Moiraine in Chapter 3 of The Great Hunt, he can’t “put any age at all to her, with her face too smooth for many years and her dark eyes too wise for youth.” And when Moiraine observes Gitara in Chapter 2 of New Spring, she considers that Gitara’s “smooth, ageless face was the mark of Aes Sedai, to those who knew. To those who did not know, and many did not, her [white] hair would have added to the confusion.”

We learn from these quotes, and many others, that the ageless look of the Aes Sedai is unmistakable if one knows to look for it. The look is obvious enough that the Aes Sedai in Canluum can be instantly picked out, causing a whole crowd of people to move out of their way despite the fact that few could be staring that closely into their faces in such a situation, and that there is no suggestion that they are wearing their shawls as they move about the streets. On the other hand, it is generally suggested everywhere that those who do not have experience with Aes Sedai would not necessarily realize that there was anything odd about a woman’s visage at all, except in the case that she has gray or white hair. The glossary at the end of The Dragon Reborn also tells us that gray hairs are the only sign of age that will show on an Aes Sedai.

It is curious to me that the effect of long use of the Power could be so striking and yet so subtle at the same time. It also appears to be different in Aes Sedai than it is in other female channelers, as is best seen with the descriptions of Amys.

Amys’s youthfully smooth features beneath that white hair leaped out at her for what they were, something very close to Aes Sedai agelessness. (The Shadow Rising, Chapter 23)

Even Amys, long white hair only emphasizing the not quite Aes Sedai agelessness of her face, looked amazed at the flood.” (The Fires of Heaven, Chapter 49)

We know that use of the One Power slows aging and gives long life, and it appears to be that the stronger the channeler, the longer they live, at least roughly speaking. Hence, Amys has the same youthful look and white hair that Gitara has… almost. There is something different about the look of the Aes Sedai that has not been made entirely clear by the narrative, and seemingly is not entirely clear even to those who observe it. There is no mention of Jorin, the Windfinder Elayne meets onboard the Wavedancer, having an ageless look, although this might be because she is young.

Adding to the complexity of the puzzle is the change that happens in Aes Sedai who have been stilled. This is first observed by Aviendha and Egwene while questioning Amico, who was stilled in her confrontation with Egwene, and then explored in more depth when Siuan and Leane are stilled by Elaida and her cohorts. They have lost the agelessness of the Aes Sedai, but more than that, their features have actually changed, to the point where it is difficult for those who know them to recognize them. Siuan considers the change more specifically while in Lugard.

She did not really look as she had as a young woman; the changes maturity had made were still there, but softened into youth. (The Fires of Heaven, Chapter 11)

So what is the difference between Aes Sedai agelessness and the youthful look that other channelers obtain in the series? Why does being stilled make one look younger and yet different than one looked in youth? And for goodness’s sake, what does Aes Sedai agelessness even look like?

Let’s tackle these questions in order.

From what we’ve seen so far, the Aes Sedai do approach channeling differently than other cultures. Windfinders, for example, seem to focus only on channeling Water and Air—Jorin, at least, has almost no ability with Earth and Fire until she and Elayne start teaching each other. The Wise Ones seem more interdisciplinary, but they also appear to have specific needs for their channeling, mostly cultural and survival-based. So it is possible that there is something about the nature of the way the Aes Sedai study and employ saidar that produces an effect on their features that’s different from  what other channelers experience. Maybe they employ the five elements more completely, or in a more complex manner, than others. They also seem, anecdotally, to use channeling more frequently for casual purposes—moving furniture, heating water, cleaning, etc.—so it’s possible that they are just exposed to saidar more regularly and consistently than even strong channelers amongst the Sea Folk or the Aiel.

But if that were the case, one would assume that the Forsaken would also have the same ageless look as modern Aes Sedai. Perhaps they do and are merely disguising that look, which they would have to do in order to pass as ordinary modern people as they establish themselves around the world in preparation for Tarmon Gai’don. However, there have been moments when they have been observed without their knowledge, such as when Birgitte and Nynaeve go to spy on Moghedien spying on the others, and there has still been no mention of any kind of ageless channeler look, even among the women.

There is also the vision Rand sees of the ancient Aes Sedai while he is living through his ancestors’ lives in Rhuidean to consider.

Women with hair so white it almost seemed transparent. Ageless faces with skin that looked as if the wind might tear it. He had heard the years did not touch Aes Sedai. How old must these two be? (The Shadow Rising, Chapter 25)

Although the word “ageless” is used here, it also doesn’t seem to be the same kind of effect that the modern Aes Sedai experience. Cadsuane is the oldest living Aes Sedai of the modern age, and she is not described as being worn down by age the way the women in Rand’s vision are. Similarly, when Tamra dies, Moiraine observes that Aes Sedai don’t “grow feeble” with the years and that death from age still comes “in apparent full good health.” (New Spring, Chapter 14). These Aes Sedai have grown feeble; they are worn down by their long lives, and even appear to need blankets while in the Waste. Perhaps these Aes Sedai—who were ostensibly born in the Age of Legends and lived through the Breaking—are simply so much more powerful than modern Aes Sedai that their lives were that much longer, to the point where age shows itself in other ways than graying hair. However if we operate on the assumption that a longer lifespan is not enough to explain the discrepancy, I find that there is only one clear difference between the modern Aes Sedai of the White Tower and all the other channelers we have encountered thus far in the series.

And that is the Oath Rod.

Perhaps this is a leap, but the Oath Rod is such a powerful ter’angreal that an oath sworn upon it is physically and immutably binding. Stilling, however, removes the oaths somehow, presumably because the ter’angreal that is the Oath Rod is designed specifically to be used by channelers—or should I say, on channelers. So when Siuan and Leane lose their ability to channel, they also lose their saidar-reliant connection to the oaths. They also lose their ageless look at the same time.

Coincidence? Maybe. Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation. But it’s a plausible theory. After all, the effects of stilling aren’t that well known amongst the Aes Sedai. It is a harsh punishment, reserved for only the worst crimes, and it is difficult for women to find the will to live after their connection to saidar has been taken from them. Most are sent away from the Tower as well, so even if they hang on, there are no Aes Sedai around to observe them. A woman punished by stilling certainly isn’t going to be sending back reports to the White Tower that she’s lost her Aes Sedai look, or that she has discovered that she can lie. And while burning out can happen occasionally to women who wear the shawl and have taken the Three Oaths, it’s far more likely to happen to wilders or younger women who are less experienced in handling the power. As we see in The Shadow Rising, Sheriam and the other Salidar Aes Sedai are confused by the change in Siuan and Leane’s appearances, though Myrelle mentions that she has read accounts of such effects. It is also suggested that the changes in Siuan and Leane happened more quickly because of the treatment they received at Elaida’s hands, so it may be that, under normal circumstances, the ageless look would fade slowly, just as it doesn’t come on the same moment a woman touches the Oath Rod.

And we must also remember that many ter’angreal are not used by the modern Aes Sedai the way they were used in the Age of Legends. The Aes Sedai aren’t even sure what many of their original uses were. Perhaps the ageless effect has some purpose they, and we, don’t understand. Or perhaps it is an understandable side-effect of the Rod’s intended use.

The only evidence I can find that really goes against my theory is Egwene’s third trip through the three-arched ter’angreal during her Accepted Trials.  She experiences herself as the Amyrlin Seat, and sees the ageless look on her own features. And yet she is also aware that she never held the Oath Rod and is not bound by the Three Oaths. This would seem to suggest that there is no correlation between the ageless look and the Oath Rod. However, while the future vision of the ter’angreal does seem to hold some truths, I don’t think they are all literal and the experience may be a blend of possible futures or even include the user’s own interpretation and expectation of events. So it’s a point against my theory, but I’m not ready to abandon it just yet.

Only time will tell if I am on the right track here, and all the long-standing fans of the series may be chuckling at me right now. But I’ll finish up my musings for now, and circle back to the question of what the agelessness looks like. And I’m sorry, but the whole idea of “mature eyes” is just too nebulous for me. It sounds beautiful and poetic, and is often used in fiction when describing a character who has been through a lot, but I don’t really know what that looks like in a face that is both youthful and serene.

There is no mention of the ageless Aes Sedai look in The Eye of the World as far as I could find or remember. This may be because we don’t spend enough time with anyone who has enough knowledge of the Aes Sedai to spot it. Or, it may be because Jordan hadn’t conceived the idea yet. But the initial mention of the phenomenon we encounter in The Great Hunt gives perhaps the clearest description of the effect.

Yet they, too, had a sameness, one that was only obvious when they stood together like this. To a woman, they seemed ageless. From this distance he would have called them all young, but closer he knew they would be like Moiraine. Young-seeming yet not, smooth-skinned but with faces too mature for youth, eyes too knowing. (Chapter 2)

That mention of maturity seems relevant, especially when put alongside Siuan’s observation that the changes maturity had made in her had been softened to youth. For a while I imagined the look as being akin to early/mid 2000s CGI de-aging, like we saw on Xavier and Magneto in the flashback scene of X-Men: The Last Stand. Pretty good, but also terribly uncanny. But upon reflection, I think the effect might even be subtler than that. To me, ageless Aes Sedai faces look like they’ve been put through a beauty filter; just a bit blurred, a bit unnatural compared to what skin and eyes actually look like. The thing about beauty filters is that many people can be fooled by them, but if you know what they are and what to look for, they become obvious. They also remove some of the uniqueness of human features, resulting in the sort of sameness that Rand is talking about.

So that’s it, my conclusions on the mystery of Aes Sedai agelessness, and the long-term effects of channeling. Those who have finished the series will know how close I’ve gotten. In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading. After all, the mystery is half the fun.

Join us back here next week for Chapters 21 and 22 of New Spring, in which I will try to remember how to spell Malkier/Malkieri. If I mastered Myrddraal, I can master this, right?

Sylas K Barrett is a liar, he totally had to look up how to spell Myrddraal again. But he’s added Malkier and Malkieri to his spellcheck, so here’s to living in hope.

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