Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Evil Smiles Abound in Robert Jordan’s Lord of Chaos (Part 3)

This week’s Reading The Wheel of Time is a little bit short, but there are some really interesting things in the last section of the Prologue. There are lots of great bits of world building, like more information about how the Trollocs were created, or the reference to the old duel from which the Dark One pulls the names Osan’gar and Aran’gar. There’s also some details I kind of hate, but we’ll get to those after the recap.

Pedron Niall leaves his meeting with Morgase feeling satisfied with the way things went. In his audience he finds Jaichim Carridin, Inquisitor of the Hand of the Light, waiting for him. Carridin speculates that Niall summoned him to wipe out the Aes Sedai in Salidar. Niall is convinced that the divide in the Tower is a deception, so that the “rebel” group can come out for the Dragon—who Niall believes to be their puppet—without the Tower openly doing so. Niall is working to counter Rand’s influence and success, spreading the right rumors in the right ears that the Dragonsworn—and the White Tower—are the root of all their troubles.

Mesaana is building a tower of dominos while Semirhage sits nearby doing needlework. Mesaana isn’t sure why she always feels so uncomfortable in Semirhage’s presence. Demandred arrives through a gateway, and Mesaana speculates to herself about Demandred’s old rivalry with Lews Therin until Graendal arrives. She reports that Sammael isn’t coming—he doesn’t trust any of them and is busy marshaling his forces in Illian and searching for angreal and sa’angreal. Any of the Forsaken would give almost anything for a angreal or sa’angreal of suitable power, despite the fact that the modern Aes Sedai seem like little more than untrained children to them.

Automatically Mesaana dropped into a lecturing tone. “The White Tower now has guards and wards on their strongrooms, inside and out, plus they count everything four times each day. The Great Hold in the Stone of Tear is also warded, with a nasty thing that would have held me fast had I tried to pass through or untie it. I don’t think it can be untied except by whoever wove it, and until then it is a trap for any other woman who can channel.”

Demandred dismisses the contents of Tear as useless, dusty rubbish, but Mesaana is confident that there must be a ward against men around the Great Hold too. Semirhage steers the conversation back to Demandred’s news from the Great Lord. Demandred studies Semirhage and Mesaana for a moment, remarking that, given where they have placed themselves, he wonders how much of what has already happened has actually been part of the Great Lord’s plans. He also tells them that only the people in this room are allowed to know his information. He tells them that the Great Lord commanded that they “Let the Lord of Chaos rule,” and then explains the rest. Mesaana is uneasy hearing the plan—it could work, but it requires luck and she doesn’t like gambling the way Demandred does. Lews Therin always seemed to generate his own luck, and Rand seems to have inherited that ability.

Unless… Unless the Great Lord had a plan beyond the one he had revealed. And that frightened her more than any other possibility.

A man stands in a windowless room, considering his strange new face and the horrified expression of the woman beside him.

A name had been given to him during this second, far more horrific sleep, before he woke to this face and body. Osan’gar. A name given by a voice he knew and dared not disobey. His old name, given in scorn and adopted in pride, was gone forever. The voice of his master had spoken and made it so. The woman was Aran’gar; who she had been, was no more.

Shaidar Haran appears in the room. Aran’gar demands to know why she has been given this body, and the Myrddraal tells them that they’ve both been given the best bodies that were taken in the Borderlands. Both Osan’gar and Aran’gar discover that they can’t touch saidin and Aran’gar attacks the Myrddraal. Holding her by the throat, it tells them that they have not been severed but that they must wait to be allowed to channel.

Osan’gar tried to swallow, but his mouth was dust. Surely the creature had nothing to do with whatever had been done to him. Myrddraal had powers of a sort, but not that. Yet it knew. He had never liked Halfmen. He had helped make the Trollocs, blending human and animal stock—he was proud of that, of the skill involved, the difficulty—but these occasional throwback offspring made him uneasy at the best of times.

Shaidar Haran tells Aran’gar that she will adapt, and that “The body bends to the soul, but the mind bends to the body.” Aran’gar agrees that she will submit to the will of the Great Lord and Shaidar Haran releases her. He tells them to be grateful—they were dead and are now alive, unlike Rahvin, whose soul was beyond saving for even the Dark Lord  to save. Osan’gar wonders what happened to Rahvin, but also knows that one fewer Forsaken means less competition for him. Shaidar Haran tells them that no one else knows that they are alive, and that if they succeed, they will live forever and be raised above all the others.

“If you fail… But you will not fail, will you?” The Halfman did smile then. It was like seeing death smile.

 

“The world [is] full of fools who cannot think,” says Pedron Niall, a man who is making a lot of very strong decisions based on the belief that he’s figured out the whole truth mostly on his own, and it’s everyone else who is wrong. I suppose I can see why one might believe that there’s no way a “mere man” could face and defeat the Dark One himself—I remember feeling like that power balance was a bit off when I first read about it. We’ve even seen similar thinking from the Forsaken and other Darkfriends, who regard the Dark One’s power as unstoppable, his eventual escape and conquering of the world inevitable. This is clearly one of the weapons the Dark One has against the human world. After all, if even Moiraine sees the odds of success as slight, one for whom hope and need are tools as powerful as determination, your average person is going to have a hard time not crumpling in the face of what must seem like certain doom. After all, the best case scenario for the battle between the Dark One and the Dragon Reborn is a second Breaking.

But where some people seem to be giving into despair and becoming Darkfriends in an effort to save themselves as best they can, and others are just doing their best to continue about their lives and hope the Last Battle never comes, Pedron Niall has taken a slightly different approach and just made up his own facts. Facts such as “every prophecy ever is wrong” and “the Creator has abandoned the World” and ”Tarmon Gai’don is real, but it’s just going to be another Trolloc Wars.” I feel like if I asked him to back up this claim he’d just say a lot of nothing about “logic” and “not giving in to fear” and “Aes Sedai manipulation,” without actually proving anything. It almost feels like the concept of the Last Battle being what they say it is, is too frightening, too challenging to his world-view of the Whitecloaks as the true champions of the Light, for Niall to face. He’s definitely one of those dudes who claims to be the most logically thinking man in the world while being so out of touch with his own emotions that he doesn’t realize that they are almost entirely what drives him.

The Children are all about order, after all, so the Dragon upending one nation after another is pretty distasteful for them. And it’s a challenge to their power and control as well—if Niall had it his way, he’d be in control of everything. We’ve seen similar thinking from Elaida too. Then there’s his hatred of channelers and belief that the Aes Sedai are Darkfriends meddling with forces mankind isn’t meant to have.

I think it’s interesting that he believes that the White Tower coup was just staged to give some Aes Sedai the ability to act in secret without anyone knowing that it’s actually the Tower the whole time. I suppose I can see why the thought occurred, and I can imagine Niall employing that kind of strategy himself, for all that he claims he doesn’t like lying. But it seems pretty ludicrous from where I’m sitting, because the one thing the White Tower has always tried to avoid, at any cost, is appearing weak. I mean, they let everyone think they abandoned Malkier to the Shadow rather than admit that they are bound by the constraints of earthly travel. They’re all in a panic over the White Tower being divided and looking weak. But Niall doesn’t know that, of course. I wonder what he’ll make of both the Salidar Aes Sedai and the White Tower sending a delegation to meet with Rand.

I actually really enjoyed the section with Mesaana and the others meeting up with Demandred. I usually find the Forsaken a little boring, to be honest, but something about the way we met Mesaana here makes her feel much more human and interesting. I liked the little details about how she takes pride in making her tower without using the Power, and how she was like “Semirhage makes me uncomfortable, we’re evenly matched and I don’t care that she likes torturing people so why do I always feel so weird around her.” So many people in this series are 1,000% convinced they know everything, even when they don’t, and Mesaana’s over here just like, being a person. I, too, sometimes don’t know why I feel weird around someone.

The Prologue has also been great for learning more about how the Shadow works, both for the Dark One and his minions. I was fascinated by the pleasure/anguish Demandred experienced when the Dark One was allcaps-ing in his head, and by the observations about what the Dark One seemed to know, and what he didn’t. The reminder from Mesaana that the Forsaken are often frightened by the Dark One’s demands is interesting too; it’s not just the danger the Dark One poses to them that the Forsaken have to worry about, or the sheer power of him. Even the most evil Darkfriend is still sometimes shocked and horrified by the terrible things that are done in their Great Lord’s name. Remember Demandred hesitating when asked if he would use balefire if the Dark One commanded him to? There is still a huge chasm between being the worst human being possible and being a literal entity of Darkness.

Also, I feel like we’ve heard about the Dark One’s ability to control souls and even reincarnate them, but this is the first time we’ve seen it done. Way back in The Eye of the World, Ba’alzamon showed Rand the soul of Kari al’Thor, who confessed to having been a Darkfriend and begged Rand to free her. I was never sure if that was an illusion or real—after all, it wasn’t even actually the Dark One—but even if it was real, the caveat was that Ba’alzamon had her because she gave her soul to him. And now we see the souls of two Forsaken put into two new bodies, but they aren’t bodies the Dark One made. The Dark One clearly can’t make life. The forgers are animated by some power of the Shadow, but they aren’t alive, while the Trollocs and the Myrddraal were bred, apparently, by the Forsaken. And now these two souls sworn to the Dark have been put into new bodies.

I wonder what happened to the souls of the people to whom those bodies actually belonged. Do the Dark One or his minions have the ability to kill a soul without killing a body? Did they extract the soul somehow? I have so many questions, just like I have so many questions about Shaidar Haran. Is he really the one who blocks Aran’gar and Osan’gar from reaching the True Source? Osan’gar is clearly baffled by, and frightened of, this Myrddraal who doesn’t seem to quite be a Myrddraal.

Anyway, we’ve heard that the Dark One is the Lord of the Grave and can resurrect people, or at least those who swore their souls to him. Since Be’lal and Rahvin both died by balefire it can’t be them. Asmodean is dead, so one of them might be him. Ishamael is also a possibility, though I feel like Ishamael would get special treatment. Like maybe he’s in Shaidar Haran or something. If Lanfear is really dead, one could be her, but given the context clues about Aran’gar, I don’t think that’s her—and anyway I don’t really believe Lanfear and Moiraine are gone. So that just leaves the two creepy dudes from The Eye of the World, Aginor and Balthamel. Since they died together it feels fitting for them to be reincarnated together, I guess.

But we have to talk about Aran’gar because there is some weirdness happening here. The narrative is working very hard here to insist that people are who their bodies are, more or less. Osan’gar reflects that his “old name, given in scorn and adopted in pride, was gone forever,” and that “The woman was Aran’gar; who she had been, was no more.” Later, Shaidar Haran tells Aran’gar that she will adapt to her: “You will adapt. The body bends to the soul, but the mind bends to the body. You are adapting already. Soon it will be as if you had never had any other.”

I’m not sure how to even go about unpacking that one. But I’m going to try. You all know how I feel about the binary gender rules of The Wheel of Time. It’s a problematic choice at best, and one that actively hampers Jordan’s otherwise very impressive storytelling and complex character work. Even here you can see the narration twisting itself into knots trying to make the concept of a gendered soul make sense. Shaidar Haran basically tells Aran’gar that it’s okay that her male soul is in a female body, because her mind will follow her body’s lead, rather than her soul’s, and this will feel normal eventually. Her soul will still be male but her mind will become female because it’s stuck in a female body.

Like what in the biological essentialism is even happening here? I don’t even need to get into the fact that bodies don’t have a gender to point out that Jordan can’t have it both ways—you can’t claim that the soul dictates the gender but then claim that the body also dictates the gender. I guess according to The Wheel of Time, when a person is conceived the body develops in the womb to have sex characteristics that “correspond” to the soul’s gender, and then the mind of the child is… affected by their body to develop differently than if they had different parts? And it’s fine that things work this way because the body and soul are only going to be in conflict if you sold your soul to the Dark One and he thought it would be funny to mess with you.

I’m not very pleased to be reminded that transgender people can’t exist in The Wheel of Time, while simultaneously having a sort of nominally trans character created as joke—and it’s always a male stuck in a female body, isn’t it? There’s something really gross in the way the fact that the body is beautiful and sexy is dwelt on, as well. It’s unclear if the ability to channel comes from the soul or the body, and I’m curious about whether or not Aran’gar can still channel saidin. Since both she (I’m going to keep using the pronoun “she” as long as the narrative does, because anything else is going to get too confusing, but I feel weird about it.) and Osan’gar are being blocked somehow by Shaidar Haran, we can’t really tell. It’s an interesting question—does the ability to channel come from the soul or the body? Or does it come from both, with the body dictating whether one has the ability to touch the True Source and the soul dictating which half of the Power you’ll come away with? Did the Dark One have to find a woman who had the ability to channel? I feel like that would have been difficult, but there are women who wash out of novice training, and there are also wilders who never go to the Tower at all. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how Aran’gar fares.

That’s all for the Prologue. Next week, after about a hundred pages, we finally get to Chapter One and Chapter Two. And after listening to everyone else muse over who Rand really is and what he is up to, we’ll finally get to see how he’s faring. I can’t wait!

Don’t forget to check out Sylas K Barrett’s reviews for The Wheel of Time on TV, here on Tor.com. You can also find an essay on the show’s approach to gender over on Polygon.

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