Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Pure Mat Cauthon and Unusual Sammael in Robert Jordan’s Lord of Chaos (Part 15)

Welcome back to week 15 of Reading The Wheel of Time. We have a really fun chapter this week (although I feel bad calling it that given how a whole bunch of Tua’tha’an get brutally murdered) in which Mat does some juggling and some generaling, then officially unofficially adopts a son. Also there’s a curious meeting between Graendal and an uncharacteristically self-composed Sammael. It’s Chapters 22 and 23—let’s ride!

Chapter 22 opens with Mat musing about whether Thom has survived looking after Elayne and Nynaeve as he practices his juggling. He’s interrupted by Nalesean asking if he’s ever thought about being a Warder, a topic that apparently came up because of all the Aes Sedai that have been traveling up and down the Erinin lately. Talmanes brings up the rumor that the Tower was pulling Logain’s strings, as well as the rumor that the Dragonsworn destroyed a village in Murandy, killing everyone who would not swear to the Dragon Reborn, even women and children. Mat says that it’s Rand’s problem, but thinks privately of all the burned villages they themselves have seen on their march, and how there are sure to see more.

Chel Vanin, one of the former thieves that Mat has carefully recruited to be a scout, rides up and tells Mat there is something he should see. Mat leaves the company behind and follows Vanin over the crest of some hills to find a horrifying scene, the bodies of Tuatha’an men, women and children lying slaughtered everywhere, wagons overturned and vultures feasting on the bodies. Beside one half-burned wagon, Mat sees that a dying man has written the words “Tell the Dragon Reborn.” Unsure of what the message is supposed to be—perhaps the man didn’t get to finish his writing—Mat orders Vanin to make sure the wagon is completely burned, then rides back to tell his men that they’re stopping for the night and that they must organize a burial detail.

Word of the killing spreads, and the camp is unusually quiet as Mat picks at his food and retires early to his tent. Kept awake by memories of the dead Tinkers, and by older memories of other dead, Mat leaves the tent and lies down on a blanket in the grass where there is a slight breeze. He’s looking up at the stars and picking out constellations when he hears a sudden sound that he can’t quite identify.

Looking back at his tent he is shocked to see the forms of veiled Aiel in the darkness. They slice through the tent and slip inside, basically silently, then emerge just as quickly. Mat crouches carefully, thinking that he can probably slip away in the darkness, but then Talmanes, clearly drunk, calls up the hillside yelling for Mat to try some brandy. The Aiel go to ground and Mat stays quiet, but Talmanes keeps coming closer, shouting that he knows Mat isn’t asleep and that brandy will help stop the dreams. Mat realizes that the man is about to blunder right into the Aiel and leaps to his feet, crying out to rouse and rally his men.

The men surge out of their tents with drawn swords and drums beating assembly, but the Aiel are closer to Mat and by some instinct or his luck he turns just in time to block a stabbing spear. He defends himself wildly, shocked that he isn’t already dead, then realizes that other soldiers have joined the fight.

Mat slipped back and left them to it. The general who leads in the front of battle is a fool. That came from one of those old memories, a quote from somebody whose name was not part of the memory. A man could get killed in there. That was pure Mat Cauthon.

Through sheer numbers the Band manages to overwhelm and take down all the Aiel. Mat limps over to where Daerid is putting a tourniquet on Talmanes. They both note that Mat seemed to be the one they wanted, and he agrees, though he can’t think of why Aiel would be after him. Daerid suggests that in the morning they try to make contact with one of the Aes Sedai passing along the river, and Mat agrees readily—he won’t let any Aes Sedai channel at him, but he won’t condemn other men to suffering or death over it.

He gives orders for new precautions to be taken around making and guarding camp, then dismisses the men and goes to examine his tent. He finds two ropes sliced in half for no apparent reason, and then part of a bush with one side neatly shorn off. He realizes that a gateway has been opened at this spot—whoever sent the Aiel was able to make them, and could just as easily send a hundred Trollocs through next time, or even one of the Forsaken, if they decide he’s important enough.

Mat nearly takes off Olver’s head when the boy comes up behind him. Mat didn’t know that Olver was riding with them, and learns that Olver is working for Master Burdin, looking after his horses. Nerim, Talmanes’s body servant, arrives to look after Mat’s wounds, so they go into the tent and Mat tries to distract himself while he’s being sewn up by asking Olver about the bag he is carrying.

Olver is initially defensive, claiming he didn’t steal anything, then enthusiastically empties out his belongings to show them off. He doesn’t care much about the spare clothing he’s carrying, but the rest get held up and shown to Mat for approval. A redhawk’s feather, a stone the color of the sun, some coppers and a silver penny.

A rolled cloth tied with a string and a small wooden box. “My game of Snakes and Foxes; my father made it for me; he drew the board.” For a moment his face crumpled, then he went on. “And see, this stone has a fish head in it. I do not know how it got there. And this is my turtle shell. A blue-back turtle. See the stripes?”

Mat realizes he knows how to play snakes and foxes but has no memory of ever playing it. He tells Olver about a green basker turtle shell he once had, then offers the boy two gold crowns to add to his bag. When Olver is offended at being treated like a beggar, Mat quickly comes up with the excuse that he needs someone to carry messages. Olver perks up when Mat mentions that he would have his own horse to ride, and to take care of.

Now he had saddled himself with a boy, and had done the lad no favor—not if he was nearby the next time the Forsaken tried to reduce the number of ta’veren in the world. Well, if Rand’s plan worked, there would be one less Forsaken. If Mat Cauthon had his way, he intended to stay out of trouble and out of danger until there were no Forsaken.

Meanwhile, Graendal arrives in “Lord Brend’s” apartments, and finds it full of items from the previous Age—glowbulbs, a music box, and even some artwork she recognizes. She tries to keep the admiration out of her voice, but Sammael picks up on it as he informs her that he found a stasis box. Graendal notes that he has a zara board in the collection, which makes her wonder what else was in the box.

Of course, a zara board meant his stasis box had been filled by someone who followed the Great Lord; possession of a single once-human playing piece had meant imprisonment at the least on the other side.

She admits that she has also found one, but other than the streith her gown is made of, it didn’t contain anything interesting. Sammael’s smile tells her that there was definitely something more in the box than toys and artwork. Sammael also admits that he’s close to getting his hands on a cache of angreal, and magnanimously promises to share after he’s had first pick. He also claims to have made a truce with Rand, brushing aside Graendal’s observations about the death of the messenger and the army that still seems to be massing in Tear. When she brings up the death of the Maidens he seems particularly perplexed, asking why it would matter if some soldiers died in battle. Graendal tries to explain.

“You really never have looked at these people. They have changed as much as the land, Sammael. Not just the Aiel. In some ways, the rest have changed much more. Those soldiers were women, and to Rand al’Thor, that makes a difference.”

Still skeptical, she tells him they will see if this new Lews Therin fails to chase him out of Illian, and he interrupts, telling her that might be waiting too long. Graendal is flummoxed and alarmed to see Sammael so calm, and more so when he declares that this truce most likely means that he will be the only Forsaken remaining to face al’Thor on the Day of Return. He presses her for information on the locations of the rest of the Forsaken, and although Graendal tries to bait him, she finds his confidence and calm uncharacteristic and unshakable. Worse, he references becoming Nae’blis, and she can’t imagine he would claim that unless he’s actually had the promise.

Shaken, she tells Sammael that Mesaana is in the White Tower, and promises to try to locate the rest of the Forsaken, then departs.

When Graendal was gone, the gateway back to her palace in Arad Doman closed, Sammael let the smile dissolve on his face. His jaws ached from holding it. Graendal thought too much; she was so used to making others act for her that she failed to think of acting for herself. He wondered what she would say if she ever discovered that he had manipulated her as deftly as she had manipulated so many fools in her time.

Now Sammael knows that Mesaana is in the White Tower and that Graendal is in Arad Doman. He reflects that Graendal would experience real fear if she could see his face now, and that whatever happens, he intends to be the one still standing on the Day of Return, to be named Nae’blis, and to defeat the Dragon Reborn.

 

Am I… impressed with Sammael right now?

I think I might be. I’ve remarked before upon my delight over the ridiculous flaw that Darkfriends in general and the Forsaken in particular all seem to have, which is no matter how powerful or clever they are, no matter how sure they are of their perfect foolproof plan, their self-centered hunger for ultimate power and immortality blinds them to the most obvious of details. They know every Darkfriend is just using everyone else, and that all of them would eagerly destroy each other in order to be the only one left standing on the Day of Return, and somehow everybody thinks it’s going to be them. And nobody thinks that maybe the Dark One is, I don’t know, lying to them and will happily destroy and enslave them all once he’s free and doesn’t need human agents to carry out his ends. I mean, if the Dark One gets free he’s going to remake all of creation, why the heck would he need a Nae’blis to rule the world for him? Also, Nae’blis is a funny word.

Sorry, I guess it’s an italics day today.

Generally speaking, Jordan has given the strongest iterations of this flaw to his male Forsaken. Ishamael was completely confident in himself, just swanning around in people’s dreams and being the Lord of the Forsaken or whatever, letting people think he was the Dark One himself—which, come to think of it, you’d imagine the Dark One would be mad about, wouldn’t you? Asmodean was a pretty average channeler by the standards of the Age of Legends but somehow thought he was going to make it to the endgame not to be Nae’blis but just to hang around composing his music. Rahvin thought himself secure in Andor and never imagined Rand might come for him before he was ready. Sammael is a hothead who thinks he’s Lews Therin’s special enemy somehow when everyone knows it’s obviously Ishamael.

The women, in comparison, seem to be more cautious. Moghedien is made fun of for it even by the other Forsaken ladies, but Graendal, Lanfear, and Semirhage have all had POV moments when they reflected on the need for caution and calculation, rather than barreling full-steam ahead into Rand’s surprisingly adept defenses. The last time Graendal and Sammael spoke, she pointed out to him how skilled Rand has become at killing Forsaken. While that was intended to bait Sammael and sting at his pride, one wonders if her point that they need to take Rand seriously and stand together against him—which she really does believe—didn’t sink in after all. Sammael certainly seems to have changed tactics, and rather than being incensed by Rand’s refusal to accept his terms, he seems to have found a clever ploy in it to manipulate Graendal, turning the master manipulator’s own game against her.

Graendal is probably right that Sammael found something in the stasis box that is giving him some confidence, and/or that he’s already found that cache of angreal. I wonder if he is also behind the attack on Mat—it’s certainly possible that he’s scheming in several directions at once, since we know that Rand isn’t going to redirect that army at all and that it is therefore still a threat to Sammael. It would make sense that Sammael would be looking for ways to slow or cripple that army even as he pretends to Graendal that it’s no longer intended to fight him. One wonders where he got in touch with Aiel though, and whether they are Shaido or simply Darkfriends.

While they’re talking, the narrative mentions Aginor’s creations; cafar, jumara (which are apparently giant worms of some kind) and something called gholam. I know that Jordan’s work is a mishmash of different cultural references and mythology, which sometimes really works and sometimes really doesn’t, but I’m leary of him using a Jewish folklore in this way, turning something that is a supposed to be a helper, companion, and protector of the Jewish community into something that even Graendal thinks would only be made by a madman. Odds are that the gholam will only very superficially resemble the golems of Jewish faith and folklore, but since golem are specifically symbols of protection for a persecuted people, using even a derivative of the name feels a bit iffy to me.

Speaking of iffy, I was interested in Graendal’s assessment of Rand’s thing about women getting killed in his service. She tells Sammael that he has “really never have looked at these people” and that they “ have changed as much as the land,” which is really interesting because it implies that during the Age of Legends there was a very different attitude towards women soldiers. I am curious to know if that time had more gender equality, and in what way, especially knowing that my idea of a gender equal society and Jordan’s are probably fairly different. As much as I may quibble with some of his attitudes towards gender and world building, I’d be fascinated to see more of what he envisioned for an idyllic, pre-Bore society of the Age of Legends, especially since we only get to see the baddies from that time judging Rand and co. for their backwater ways. Were female soldiers and leaders just as common as male ones in the Age of Legends (once they rediscovered war, anyway)? How did they navigate the inherent differences in gender that are built into Jordan’s world building?

Also, as a child of the 90s who owned more than one mood ring, I am kind of obsessed with streith. I am curious to know, given that these books were written in the 90s, if Jordan came up with the idea of streith because of mood rings. I guess Graendal likes it because it was trendy (and probably expensive) back in her day, but it really doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a Forsaken would want to wear, given how closely they have to guard themselves and their secrets. Graendal struggles to maintain the color of her gown here, and you’d think that she’d have been worried about that liability beforehand. Maybe it’s that famous Forsaken self-assurance getting the better of her; she’s so used to being the one playing games that she didn’t think she’d ever have reason to worry about controlling herself?

Anyone have a decoder so we can figure out the corresponding moods for each color? Black is probably either surprise or envy, though Graendal might also have been feeling longing or homesickness or even pleasure. We know the red is for the anger she’s feeling, so maybe the colors correspond closer to the way we identify colors, but they certainly wouldn’t have to!

Another thing I loved about this section was Mat and Olver. I figured from the moment we met the kid that Mat would end up adopting him, but the way it played out was way cuter than I expected. To be perfectly honest, I thought Mat’s collection of rocks and feathers was adorable and also very relatable—I may be a bit of a collector myself. And it’s nice to see this playful side of Mat again. Collector Mat reminds me of the Mat who took the dagger from Shadar Logoth, but also reminds me that he isn’t actually a greedy person, or even that foolish, really. He’s just a bit of a magpie.

Mat is also very generous with his money. As much as he likes having good things, he doesn’t hoard his wealth or think that he should have more than other people, which I really like about his character. Of course, one might suggest that because of his luck he knows he could get more coin easily, but I do think this is part of Mat’s character. It’s part of Rand’s too, this genuine sense of wanting to make sure other people have what they need in terms of money, food, housing, etc. All the Two Rivers folk have it, but we see the impulse for unfettered generosity most strongly in Mat, I think. With Rand and Perrin there is usually an accompanying sense of responsibility driving their actions. Egwene and Nynaeve sometimes worry about spoiling people by giving more than they deserve, and Nynaeve in particular is also very aware that her money is a finite resource and that she must think of her own needs first and foremost.

Anyway, I found Mat’s collection adorable even before Olver turned out to have one too. The bonding they do over collecting rocks and turtle shells really cements the fact that the two are very alike. Both seem drawn to trouble, are curious and clever, and both love horses. And both have a sense of pride, as well—I really admired the way Mat was careful not to offend Olver with his offer of gold, and the way he pretended that giving Olver his own horse was a burden and responsibility rather than acknowledging that he was giving the boy exactly what Mat knew Olver wanted.

It’s particularly fun reading Lord of Chaos for the first time and seeing Mat become a reluctant dad since we are in an era of the TV reluctant dad right now, alongside the ranks of Geralt and Din Djarin, etc. And I am just tickled pink that Jordan wasn’t subtle in evoking the specter of possibly the most famous orphan in all of western literature.

There are a lot of other details in Chapter 22 that I really enjoyed. The way Mat’s men are responding to his command and developing a shared sense of identity is one—in an early chapter we saw how Mat has been encouraging them to think of the entire group as one unit, rather than defining their identity entirely by their regiment and individual noble commanders, and it seems to be working. Mat himself is surprised by how fast they’ve been moving in their march towards Illian, and I thought the fact that the soldiers are all inspired by Aiel speed and stamina to march harder and longer was a nice touch. The parallel between Mat and Rand both having memories that are and aren’t their own, that are both distressing at times but also helpful, continues to be fascinating to me, especially in the ways that Mat identifies which thoughts are his and which aren’t. He’s not in danger of taint-induced madness or having a personality attached to those memories that might overwhelm him, so he’s more clear-eyed about when he’s quoting those memories and when he’s being entirely himself, where Rand at times can’t tell if it’s him or Lews Therin having certain thoughts or feelings. Also they both have some fun symbolic spear action going on, and I love that.

Mat’s strategy of recruiting horse thieves and poachers to be scouts is a really clever idea, especially in the way he went about it. Vanin seems like a pretty bad person, but his attitude towards the murder of the Tuatha’an is a useful reminder of how people view the Tinkers: Vanin is pretty prejudiced against them, believes the superstition that they steal children and has no problem throwing in a kick or two when chasing them off, but he’s still shocked by the brutality of the scene. Mat reflects that brigands wouldn’t need to harm the Tinkers to take everything they wanted, and his exact thoughts in the narrative are that “[n]obody killed the Traveling People.”

And yet, someone did. It seems likely that “tell the Dragon Reborn” was only part of the message—that guy should have used a little more brevity in his writing—but it could have been anything from who the culprits were to some message that the Tuatha’an were carrying. Mat considers this option. Of course, Trollocs will murder anyone, but there’s something organized about the attack that suggests it was more than a chance encounter with a fist on its way somewhere else.

I suppose it could have been Whitecloaks. After all, Pedron Niall has his men out burning and destroying in Rand’s name, pretending to be Dragonsworn in order to turn people against the Dragon Reborn. But whoever it is, the thing I am most reminded of after reading this scene is the violence and horror that the Da’shain Aiel experienced after the breaking. In the Age of Legends no one would ever visit harm upon an Aiel, symbolic as they were of peaceful existence and service to others. Similarly, although the Tuatha’an are generally treated with derision and suspicion, and sometimes even violence, it’s shocking even to people like Vanin that anyone would murder them in such a fashion. Perhaps there is an important plot point here, but in many ways I wonder if this scene isn’t included in the chapter mostly to create that parallel between the changing times brought on by Rand’s birth and the changing times that occurred during and after the Breaking of the World.

Rand has wondered if he is destined to bring about a new Age, and I suspect that he probably is. He has been prophesied to bring about a new Breaking, in any case. It would be symbolically fitting, then, that as he faces and rectifies (hopefully) the mistakes the former Dragon made, the end of the Age mirrors its beginning, as brought on by said mistakes.

What can I say? I really like thematic parallels, and Jordan employs them a lot, so we are quite simpatico in that area. Next week we’ll be rejoining Egwene, who is getting closer to being allowed back into Tel’aran’rhiod and who is also about to reunite with a certain someone. I’ll see you soon for Chapters 24 and 25!

Sylas K Barrett would totally like someone to invent streith in our world, and would definitely wear it. But please never invent a zara board. Not sure exactly what that is but it is definitely creepy and bad.

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