Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: The Whitecloaks Scheme in Robert Jordan’s Lord of Chaos (Part 20)

Welcome friends to this week’s episode of Reading The Wheel of Time. Today we are tackling only Chapter 31, because it turns out I have a lot of things to say about it. And I’ll start with this; before I began this chapter, I never would have imagined I’d enjoy reading a chapter that’s mostly about what the Whitecloaks are up to! Never mind actually be invested in their politics. But this might have been one of my favorite chapters so far.

You all know I’m obsessed with Jordan’s execution of dramatic irony. He just uses it so well, and as a reader I find it either incredibly vexing, incredibly enjoyable, or both. What happens with Morgase in this chapter is one of the enjoyable moments, and I really loved how complex the sequence of events was. If Rand was in the same city, I’d be tempted to think it was his ta’veren power at work. Makes you wonder what paths the Wheel is spinning out for everyone, and if coincidence really exists in this world.

In any case, as an aspiring author myself, I am taking notes right now. If I could pull off a plot moment like this one day, I would be incredibly pleased with myself. In the meantime, standby for the recap, and then we’ll get back to talking about how Morgase’s seeming bad luck is actually good luck, and how every time I think we’ve met the worst Whitecloak, someone else shows up to make that guy seem kind of okay after all.

Eamon Valda rides through the streets of the Fortress of the Light, in a foul mood despite being back in the impregnable “bastion of truth and right.” He is angry at being called home just when he felt so close to being able to topple the White Tower for good. And bad news keeps coming, news about al’Thor being in Caemlyn, the Dragonsworn in Altara, and the Prophet “and his scum” in Amadicia. Valda consoles himself a little that at least he has found a way to deal with some of that last group. Fighting the Prophet’s followers is hard because they always retreat and melt away into the ranks of ordinary citizens, hiding amongst the refugees or the aimless wanderers uprooted by the arrival of the Dragon Reborn and the breaking of all ties. So Valda has begun slaughtering all of them.

The roads behind his legion were littered now, and the ravens fed to bursting. If it was not possible to tell the Prophet’s trash from refugee trash, well then, kill whoever clogged the way. The innocent should have remained in their homes where they belonged; the Creator would shelter them anyway. As far as he was concerned, the wanderers were added plums on the cake.”

He’s met by Dain Bornhald, and is annoyed to note that the man appears to be drunk. He’s also shocked to learn that the rumors of Morgase being in the city are true. For him, this is another sign of Niall’s weakness, and that he has grown soft in his old age. Valda thinks Niall should have moved on Tear at the first word of al’Thor, back when the nations would have rallied to the Children against a False Dragon. He believes he would have had Morgase signing the treaty the first day, and if she were to resist returning to Andor with the Children, he would “lash her to a staff by her wrists” as a banner.

He invites Bornhald to dinner in his camp, and tells him that he expects him to be sober. As Bornhald leaves, Valda wonders what is going on with him—the man has always been a good officer, and less weak that his father. And officers drinking in the Fortress of the Light is more proof of Niall’s weakness.

He passes a Questioner in the hallway, who murmurs in passing that “My Lord Captain might wish to visit the Dome of Truth.” Valda doesn’t like Questioners—he respects the work they do but always suspects that they chose their jobs so they could avoid battle. Still, a simple Child, even a Questioner, wouldn’t speak idly to him, a Lord Captain, so he makes his way down to the Dome of Truth.

The domed room is where the Children have their most important meetings and most serious ceremonies, all gold and white marble and alcoves filled with frescos of important moments in the history of the order. He spots Rhadam Asunawa, the High Inquisitor, studying one of the images and moves over to him. The painting is of the the hanging of Serenia Latar, the only Amyrlin the Children have ever managed to hang, already dead since Aes Sedai are pretty hard to hang while still alive.

Valda is insulted when Asunawa addresses him as “my son,” but is aware that Questioners can be dangerous even to Lord Captains, so he keeps his expression neutral as Asunawa goes on about troubled times, and that the “Fortress of the Light harbors a witch,” and how Niall cannot be allowed to destroy the Children. He tells Asunawa that he is willing to listen, and the High Inquisitor tells him that they will talk later when there are fewer eyes and ears around. Then he leaves, and some of the Children bow deeply as he passes out of the Dome.

From a window, Niall watches Valda arrive and speak with Bornhald. He thinks that if there had been a way to recall the Children from Tar Valon while leaving Valda behind, he would have jumped at the chance. He goes down to his audience chamber where Balwer turns over some messages from Omerna, including one of those bone cylinders intended for Niall’s eyes only.

It’s another message from Varadin in Tanchico. Niall’s just as dismissive of this apparently insane message as he was of the last, until he reads that Varadin is helping Asidim Faisar. Faisar was sent into Tarabon by Niall to see if anything could be salvaged, but the two had no knowledge of each other. Thoughtful, he considers a line about how “the Forerunners kept such a guard that a whisper could not pass the walls without permission.”

Finally, he decides to send a courier into Tanchico, instructing Balwer to make the arrangements but that Niall will speak to the courier himself, alone. He burns the message thoughtfully, remembering one other time that he acted on a hunch, a feeling that didn’t correspond to the strict, logical rules he usually sets for himself and all his doings. That “feeling” had saved his army from being destroyed. And this one feels the same.

In another part of the fortress, Morgase and her people are going over the plan for her escape. Tallanvor doesn’t trust Paitr, and Morgase is surprised when Lini agrees with him, but nothing can spoil her good mood knowing that she’ll soon be free of Niall and the Children. She starts talking through the plan for the twentieth time, but then they are interrupted by the arrival of a Questioner named Einor Saren, who tells her that she is summoned to the Lord Captain Commander. Morgase is immediately apprehensive—Niall often summons her but never using a Questioner, and she knows that if she is given over to them she won’t be able to hide anything. When she asks why a Questioner was sent to bring her, the man answers in a bored tone that he happened to be at hand and going in the same direction.

Saren takes her on a strange route, not the usual one she’s traveled to get to Niall’s office, that takes them through kitchens and back ways. Saren tells her this is the fastest way and he doesn’t intend to waste time with her. But when they pass into a yard with a long scaffold and a group of people about to be hanged, Morgase knows something else is going on. Paitr and his uncle are on that scaffold, and as she watches, a Whitecloak pulls the lever and all the people drop, some dying instantly, others kicking as they’re slowly strangled.

She is aware of Saren looking at her and composes herself with an effort, casually asking about the proceedings.

“We hang Darkfriends every day,” Saren answered dryly. “Perhaps in Andor you release them with a lecture. We do not.”

Morgase met his gaze. The shortest way? So this was Niall’s new tactic. It did not surprise her that no mention had been made of her planned escape. Niall was too subtle for that. She was an honored guest, and Paitr and his uncle had been hanged by chance, for some crime that had nothing to do with her. Who would be the next to mount the gallows? Lamgwin or Basel? Lini or Tallanvor?

She also notices Asunawa watching from a window, and wonders if this isn’t his tactic instead of Niall’s. Keeping her voice light, she insinuates that Saren is dawdling because the sight has “unhinged [his] knees” and the Questioner leads her on, scowling.

They reach Niall’s audience chamber, but he seems distracted by something else, even though he has won. She forces herself to tell him that she’s ready to sign the treaty.

Niall hardly appeared to hear at first. Then he blinked, and suddenly laughed wryly and shook his head. That irritated her, too. Pretending surprise. She had not tried to escape. She was a guest. She wished she could see him on a gallows.

Niall has the treaty brought out quickly, however, and Morgase signs it after making a show of reading all the terms. She thinks that it will take all of her lifetime, and possibly all of Elayne’s as well, to undo the conditions she’s agreed to, such as quartering Whitecloaks in the city and giving them the ability to govern independently. But it is better than leaving Rand al’Thor to hold the Lion Throne as a trophy, and possibly put some other woman on it as his puppet. She briefly considers that the Tower would make sure Elayne had what was hers, but she trusts the Tower even less.

When Morgase asks how soon they’ll be able to march, Niall tells her that he can’t move quite as quickly as he hoped, because there are issues in other areas that he has to attend to. Morgase is shocked, and even Balwer, in the room to assist with the signing, seems surprised. Morgase can’t understand why he would press her so hard only to be busy now, but she isn’t about to waste the unexpected gift of time. Her people are safe, and she begins to turn her mind towards how she can begin recovering some of what she gave away in the signing. She offers to play stones with him, ready to put her training in the Game of Houses to work.

In another area, Asunawa is perplexed by Morgase’s reaction to the hanging. Saren explains that the Darkfriends were found chanting some catechism to the Shadow and rounded up, but no one thought to ask if they had any connection to her. Asunawa doesn’t suspect any, nor is he interested in Saren’s complaints about being sent to fetch her by Niall. He’s preoccupied with his plans for Morgase, and hopes that she will continue to be strong in the face of Niall’s pressure—if she is weak it will ruin all his plans for an elaborate trial.

 

In the same way that Jordan used Jaret Byar to make Bornhald Sr. look like a good and reasonable guy, spending time with Eamon Valda’s narration has given me a new appreciation for Niall. I’m not saying I like the guy or anything, but his actions and even his prejudices seem pretty reasonable in comparison to people like Valda and Asunawa. And Jordan writes Niall’s POV in a very interesting and complex way, showing how intelligent the man is. Valda acknowledges that about him as well—he sees Niall as intelligent and a great general, but gone soft with age.

In some ways, Niall reminds me a little of Ingtar. Ingtar did some terrible things, even signed his soul over to the Dark One, but he did it because he believed it was the only way to save his city and his people. Niall’s is a more complicated situation: He has more power to do more damage, and he has more prejudices and blind spots than Ingtar—but it’s also true that the man is desperate to prepare the world for the coming of Tarmon Gai’don. Just as the Aes Sedai are. Just as Rand himself is. This doesn’t excuse the beliefs Niall has, and of course he also has intense blind spots about what Tarmon Gai’don will actually look like. But I do think motivation counts for something, and I could even imagine a scenario in which he ended up reluctantly allying with Rand so that they could provide a unified front against the forces of Darkness. I only think that would happen if Niall really felt like Rand had won their battle for control over the nations, and maybe if he could be finally convinced that there is an actual danger of the Dark One breaking free. But Rand does have his ta’veren powers to give him a bit of an edge if they were ever to sit down to negotiate.

But that’s not a guarantee by any means. There’s still Padan Fain’s influence on Niall to be considered, not to mention Rand’s promise to hang Niall for the lives lost in his assassination attempt. Maybe Rand is the one who would refuse any kind of truce. Also, I wouldn’t be very shocked if Valda and Asunawa managed to instigate some kind of coup, or maybe even have Niall assassinated at some point.

Their little confab did remind me a lot of Elaida’s first overtures to Alviarin. Both Asunawa and Elaida couched their arguments in terms that agreed with the laws and rules by which they lived, but at the end of the day both are only interested in their own goals and advancement. Even Valda, who does not strike me as someone who is particularly good at reading people, is aware that Asunawa is dreaming of being the first High Inquisitor to hang a Queen. Meanwhile, Valda himself just wants the ability to ride roughshod over whomever he personally deems as unworthy, paying the barest lip service to his order’s stated duty of protecting the Light.

The one thing that I find interesting about the Children of the Light, and have to remind myself about when I’m analyzing their part of the story, is that in this world the battle against the Dark One is a real, physical thing. There’s really not as much of a metaphysical component to walking in the Light as I expected there to be when I read The Eye of the World. In that book, there was so much focus on the idea that naming the Dark One could draw his attention to you, that he could visit you and tempt you in your dreams, that he spied using ravens and rats and other creatures that might actually hunt you down and kill you. Now that the Forsaken are free, all of the eerie, gross, and frightening aspects of the Dark are mostly outsourced to them, and that doesn’t feel supernatural the way the Ba’alzamon of The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt did. I almost wish we could see someone being tempted to the Dark in real time, rather than only longstanding Darkfriends, to be reminded that this danger exists.

But as it stands, walking in the Light really just means not being a Darkfriend. It doesn’t necessarily mean being a good person in any larger sense, or being dedicated to some higher calling—unless, that is, it means being a soldier. Whether you’re Aes Sedai, or a Borderlander, or a Child of the Light, standing against the Dark means fighting and killing. Mostly killing Shadowspawn, but also killing Darkfriends. Human people. In the case of the Aes Sedai it also means gentling men who can channel. Innocent men who will eventually die from what has been done to them.

It’s a pretty bleak reality, and it’s not surprising that these organizations are so broken, and that so much of what the Whitecloaks do is so immoral.

In Eamon Valda we have a perfect example of the culmination of the dysfunctional morality that comes when you attempt to do good primarily through war and killing. Plenty of people in this world are cruel to the Tinkers, but it’s basically unheard of to slaughter them. Until now we’ve only seen Trollocs do it. And yet Valda is not only willing to kill them, he’s grateful for the excuse to do so. That line I quoted in the recap was absolutely arresting to me, in which he thinks about “the Prophet trash” and “the refugee trash,” and considers “the wanderers” to be the plums on the cake. And then there’s this bit:

The innocent should have remained in their homes where they belonged; the Creator would shelter them anyway.

More than any other moment in the series thus far, I think this shows the difference between being a horrible person and being a Darkfriend. Valda is not sworn to the Dark, and I do believe he would oppose servants of the Dark at every turn. However, a person who would think that innocent people are the ones at fault for their death just because they were in the wrong place, or who would say those deaths don’t matter because those people will go to Heaven anyway, pretty much has a Darkfriend mindset, just minus an oath or two.

Given where we are in our world right now (almost two decades after this book was published) with the current refugee crisis, this hits pretty close to home. I’ve read and heard people make statements very close to what Valda is saying here about migrant workers and immigrants, not to mention the homeless and impoverished. I think Jordan really hit the nail on the head here with this one, and it’s pretty chilling.

It kind of makes me wish Rand could see into the minds of some of these people. He spends so much time hating himself for having to make the hard decisions leaders have to make, being strict when he wishes he could be merciful, thinking of the greater good even when it comes at the expense of the few, etc. If he could really see what it looks like to be hard, to be cold and closed off to human emotion, he might be able to give himself a little bit of a break. Compared to Valda, he’s an absolute marshmallow.

I wonder if they have marshmallows in Rand’s world. Not the confection, obviously, but maybe the root. I could see Nynaeve having it in her satchel of herbs, though it probably has a different name.

The fact that none of the Whitecloaks are very good or likable people means that it’s much more enjoyable to watch them scheme against each other (both purposefully and accidentally) instead of being frustrated or worried while the good guys do it. We spend so much time watching our various heroes misunderstand or refuse to talk to each other, so much time watching mostly well-meaning Aes Sedai stumble around, unable to adapt to the new circumstances Rand has brought to the world while a few main characters try to steer them in some kind of useful direction. But here with Niall and Asunawa and Paitr and his uncle, everyone’s schemes around Morgase have foiled everyone else’s, and it’s just so perfectly beautiful watching the bad guys kick out each other’s ankles. I mean, from the moment we learned that Morgase was going to let Paitr and Barshaw smuggle her out of the city, I was freaking out. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire! The Whitecloaks are terrible, but they’re not sworn to the Dark One, at least (other than the Darkfriends in their ranks, of course).

An aside: I thought Paitr said his uncle’s name was Jen, but it’s given here as Torwyn Barshaw. Is this a clue, or did Jordan make a mistake?

The whole section was really well executed. We start with the dramatic irony (I know I know, I’m talking about it again. Tell Jordan to stop being so great at it!) of knowing that Paitr and his uncle are Darkfriends scheming to get at Morgase. I can’t imagine where she would have ended up if they’d actually managed a successful escape, but I think it’s pretty likely that none of Morgase’s friends would have ended up in the same place, and Paitr at least seems to think that Morgase is valuable enough to the Dark that his capture of her will redeem the time he had Rand right there in front of him and lost him again. I don’t know if any Darkfriends or even the Forsaken are aware of how important Elayne is to Rand, but if they know they could probably use Morgase as leverage or bait, or they could use her the way Valda and Niall want to, as a way of getting Andor to rise against Rand.

But of course, Morgase doesn’t know they’re Darkfriends. It’s especially interesting to note that even their execution casts no suspicion on them for her, which makes sense. The Whitecloaks will call basically anyone a Darkfriend if it suits their purpose, or if those people don’t show the right deference, or if those people do anything the Whitecloaks regard as suspicious or unlawful, which is most things. Of course they’re going to get it right sometimes, but why should Morgase suspect that this is one of those times and that their connection to her is coincidental? I’m glad Jordan gave us the little scene with Asunawa and Saren so that we know for sure that the Whitecloaks actually caught real Darkfriends doing actual Darkfriend things.

We already knew that Asunawa considers Morgase to be an Aes Sedai (no doubt because of her time spent studying in the White Tower) and that Valda could tell that Asunawa would love to be the High Inquisitor who hanged a queen. So when the Questioner arrived to escort Morgase, I figured it was some kind of kidnapping, orchestrated by Asunawa and unknown to Niall. Then when he took her by the scaffolding, I briefly thought he might try to hang Morgase right then and there! But of course that’s not how the Questioners work; everything is about law and custom and order, albeit laws and customs that are established to fit their particular, narrow worldview.

Instead, the schemes of Asunawa’s, of Niall, and of Paitr and the uncle of the confusing name, Morgase’s witnessing of the hanging is actually completely coincidental. Niall really did send Saren to fetch Morgase. He really did take a shortcut to bring her to the audience chamber as quickly as possible. Asunawa believes she is a Darkfriend but doesn’t suspect any personal connection between her and any of the hanged men, even after seeing her reaction to the sight. And to top it all off, this series of coincidences has led not only to the foiling of a Darkfriend plot to capture Morgase, but to Asunawa’s plans being thwarted as well—he didn’t want Morgase to give in to Niall. And while Morgase feels that she has lost this battle, she might be better off now than she could have been—she’s not in the hands of the Dark, and she’s protected for the time being from the Questioners. She may even be seeing some hope for exercising leverage in her new position.

This is a really dynamic section of Morgase. Despite her position as prisoner and the feeling that she’s lost to Niall, we actually see a lot of action from her here. She pivots mentally several times, navigating the unexpected arrival of a Questioner, the horrible loss of her one hope of escape, the fact that she has to choose between the lives of her followers and signing the treaty. She bears it all with such strength and intelligence, and I think this is the most queenly she has seemed to me since the first time we met her, when Rand accidentally fell into the Palace.

I was really moved when she considered whether it would be better to fight and die that sign the treaty.

If she told Tallanvor and Lamgwin and Basel to carve a path for her, they would try. They would die, and so would she; she had never held a sword, but if she gave that command, she would take one up. She would die, and Elayne would ascend the Lion Throne.

It’s clear that she actually considers her death preferable to giving the Whitecloaks such power in Andor. Despite everything that has happened to her, she has never forgotten her duty to her nation. But she doesn’t trust that the White Tower would secure the throne for Elayne, and so decides that it’s better to make a horrible deal with Whitecloaks than it is to let Rand keep control of Andor.

Fortunately, Rand has already secured the Lion Throne for Elayne. I think she’s made the right choice—I don’t believe the Whitecloaks will ever be able to take Andor from Rand, and with the way things are going they might not even get a chance to try. Morgase held out long enough to achieve her purpose; unfortunately, she doesn’t know that.

She’s still ready to fight, though, and now she’ll be on the offensive instead of just resisting and hoping for a way out. I loved her confidence at the end of the section, how she’s well-trained in the Game of Houses, and how people always underestimate a foe that they believe defeated. Go get ‘em, Morgase.

The other thing I find really wonderful about this is that ultimately, Morgase’s decision to capitulate to Niall is one that was made out of love and compassion, not the cold and hard logic that all the rulers and leaders of this world are touting. Based on what she knows, an argument could be made that she’s sacrificing part of Andor for only a handful of lives. The treaty gives the Whitecloaks their own courts of law outside of Andoran law, which means that innocent people will be tried and executed by the Children and Morgase will be powerless to stop it. She thinks it will take two lifetimes to undo the damage caused by her signing, never mind what damage might be done in the actual fighting to retake Caemlyn. But Morgase cannot let her followers be hanged, and the fact that there isn’t actually any danger to them doesn’t make that sacrifice any less beautiful. A colder decision might have resulted in all their deaths, which would have been in vain since the danger Morgase perceives in Rand doesn’t exist.

And yeah, a lot of it is about Tallanvor, I guess. I’m not really sold on that relationship but we’ll see if Jordan can win me over.

 

Next week we’ll get on to chapter 32 and 33, which are mostly Egwene chapters. Some big things are about to happen for her, and I’m pretty excited about them. I feel like Jordan’s really hitting his stride with Lord of Chaos now—something about the writing style has just bumped up a notch. I’m looking forward to writing about it.

As always, have a lovely week, and remember that not all choices made based on emotion are bad. Especially if that emotion is love.

Sylas K Barrett was so impressed with Morgase’s composure in the face of Saren and Niall’s attitude. And her one-liners.

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