Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Conversations About Intent in Robert Jordan’s Lord of Chaos (Part 24)

Welcome back to this week’s edition of Reading The Wheel of Time! After a short delay we have returned for Chapters 39 and 40, in which Egwene makes some plans and Elayne has some good conversations with her warrior lady friends. Also, Thom tries to teach Mat about how to support and care for women who won’t let him make their choices for them. Let’s get to recapping!

Egwene studies Mat, pushing aside all her questions about how Rand found out about Salidar and what he thinks he is doing. She thinks that Rand may have just handed her a gift in the form of Mat and his Band of the Red Hand.

She has to repeat her request for him to vacate her chair before he seems to finally hear her. But when she tries to speak he immediately cuts her off, telling them that they will all end up with their heads cut off and insisting that Egwene find some excuse to come out with him so that they can escape. Nynaeve kicks him in the backside.

He rounds on her with a dangerous glint in his eye. Nynaeve steps back, looking worried, but Egwene forestalls a confrontation by telling Mat that he is in quite a predicament, but that, if he listens to her, she should be able to get him out of it. She explains that people in these parts do not take kindly to Dragonsworn—Mat goes where Rand orders, so what is he if not Dragonsworn—but that she can probably keep them from putting his head on a pike. Again, Mat tries to tell her that Rand would welcome her in Caemlyn, that he’d be overjoyed if she brought all these Aes Sedai with her. He even suggests that with Rand, they can work out their problems with Elaida without bloodshed.

Egwene replies cooly that Elaida is her concern, not his, and that whatever she does she certainly won’t be leading the Aes Sedai to swear fealty to Rand, or any man.

“If you have any sense at all, Mat, you will keep your mouth shut as long as you are in Salidar and walk small. You start telling other Aes Sedai what Rand is going to do just as soon they kneel to him, and you might not like the answers you get. Talk about carrying me off, or Nynaeve or Elayne, and you will be very lucky not to get a sword through you.”

Mat tells her that he will talk to her again when she is ready to listen to reason. Elayne politely warns Mat not to try to leave Salidar, and he responds that he will take her back to Rand, tied up if necessary, and that he will go where he chooses.

Nynaeve and Elayne complain about Mat and his manners for a moment, and Egwene reminds Nynaeve that as a full sister she cannot go around kicking people, or boxing their ears, or thumping them with sticks. Then she lays her stole aside, her signal to the others that they are speaking now as friends, not as the Amyrlin and her daughters. She outlines her plan. It hinges on the fact that Egwene believes Mat made Rand a promise to bring Elayne to Caemlyn—however irresponsible Mat might be, he always keeps his promises, and Egwene intends to withhold access to Elayne unless Mat does as they want. Elayne thinks the idea is brilliant, but Nynaeve takes some convincing.

Eager to try to get a look at the ter’angreal that Mat wears, Elayne suggests taking him along to Ebou Dar. Egwene agrees that a few soldiers might be a helpful addition to Thom, Juilin, and Birgitte.

The mention of Birgitte unsettles Nynaeve and Elayne—Egwene has recognized the blond archer who follows Elayne about, but is reluctantly keeping her promise to pretend not to know anything. She doesn’t really think it’s a problem, but it irks her not to know how the dead hero of legends who once resided in tel’aran’rhiod is now somehow in the waking world, in the flesh.

Elayne and Egwene are finally overcoming Nynaeve’s grumpy objections and insistence that Mat will never follow orders and probably mess things up for them on purpose, just to be contrary, when Sheriam arrives. She gives Elayne and Nynaeve a look—Elayne leaves quickly and Nynaeve leaves as well after Egwene puts the stole back on.

Sheriam asks if Mat was sent by whoever commands the Dragonsworn, and expresses her hope that Egwene didn’t say anything that could be construed as a promise. Egwene deflects, asking Sheriam to have someone bring tea. Once that is done, Egwene explains that Mat is actually the commander of the army, and that Rand wants them all to come to Caemlyn and swear oaths of fealty. This prompts barely-hidden alarm in Sheriam. Egwene then eases that worry by saying that she, of course, told Mat that such a thing was out of the question. Playing at being worried and uncertain, she slowly leads Sheriam to the conclusion that this army on their doorstep is going to force their hand—they cannot stay in Salidar and risk a confrontation between Bryne and the Dragonsworn army, or Rand arriving to join Mat and his forces.

For a moment Sheriam busied herself smoothing her skirts while she regained her composure. “Perhaps,” she said finally, reluctantly, “it might be necessary for us to leave Salidar after all. Sooner than I could wish.”

“But the only way left is north.” Egwene widened her eyes. Light, but she hated this! “It will seem we’re moving toward Tar Valon.”

Sheriam snaps that she is aware of this, then apologizes, explaining that she doesn’t like being forced into things, and that she fears Rand al’Thor has forced their hand before they are ready.

“I will speak quite severely when I see him,” Egwene said. “I can hardly think what I would do without your advice.” Perhaps she could find a way to send Sheriam to study with the Wise Ones as an apprentice. The thought of Sheriam after, say, half a year with Sorilea made her smile so that Sheriam actually smiled back.

Meanwhile, Mat is in an alley, smoking with Thom. He asks Thom to help him talk sense into the girls, and Thom reluctantly tucks the letter away before telling Mat a story about a time when he was young and tried to rescue a woman from her abusive husband. But when he offered she grew angry with him, and he later learned that she had her own way of dealing with the man. Mat doesn’t understand what this has to do with anything, but Thom tells him that he shouldn’t assume he has heard the whole story.

He tells Mat about how he and Juilin will be accompanying Nynaeve and Elayne to Ebou Dar, which only makes Mat more determined to convince them to come with him. Thom asks if Mat has ever considered helping Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne do what they want to do, instead of convincing them to do what he wants. Mat answers that what they wants seems to be to hand their heads to Elaida.

“You aren’t a fool, Mat,” Thom said quietly. “You know better. Egwene… It’s hard to think of that child as Amyrlin…” Mat grunted sourly in agreement; Thom paid him no mind. “…yet I believe she has the backbone for it. It’s too early to say whether a few things are just happenstance, but I’m beginning to believe she may have the brains as well. The question is, is she tough enough? If she lacks that, they will eat her alive—backbone, brains and all.

He tells Mat that the Aes Sedai don’t seem to view Egwene as full Aes Sedai, even though she is the Amyrlin. And that there are at least three factions in Salidar that might turn on Egwene, if she puts a foot wrong. He asks Mat to stop thinking he can make the girls do anything, and instead to focus on helping Thom keep them alive. This request upsets Mat, the image of Melindhra coming to his mind as he angrily asks Thom if the letter is from another woman he rescued, or one he left to get her head cut off.

“I left her,” Thom said softly. Rising, he walked away without another word.

Mat puts out his pipe, telling himself he needs to get his information “from a better source than a gleeman who had delusions of grandeur from running around with that stuck-up chit of a Daughter-Heir.” He spots Nynaeve coming out of a building and starts towards her, but she sees him coming and turns, hurrying away from him while throwing glances over her shoulder.

He finds Vanin, the bannermen, and the two previously-captured scouts outside a stable. Pretending to be inspecting his horse, he begins a conversation with Vanin, asking if the man could reach the Band without getting caught. Vanin answers that he may be able to, and Mat instructs him to inform Talmanes that Mat may be in the village for several days, and that he is to stay put. Adding that Vanin should try to return without being seen, he watches the man stroll off down the street before assuring one of the bannermen that everything is going to plan.

“Right to the plan, Verdin,” Mat said, patting Pips. He was headfirst in a sack, and the strings tied tight. He had promised Rand to see Elayne safe to Caemlyn, and he could not leave without her. And he could not go off and let Egwene stretch her neck on the chopping block, either. It might be—Light, how it rankled!—it might be that he was going to have to take Thom’s advice.

Elayne goes to find Aviendha in the waiting room, only to discover she isn’t there. Most of the Aes Sedai, not to mention the Accepted and novices, and even the servants, are all talking either about Mat and the rumors around him or about the Aiel wilder who has arrived with him. The Aes Sedai are confident she will be a novice by the end of the day.

Finding out where Aviendha is being held—not in name, but certainly in intention—Elayne heads outside. Birgitte hurries up to her to tell Elayne that Vandene and Adeleas are going to be sent to Ebou Dar with them. Again, Elayne tries to convince Birgitte to let her speak about her to Egwene, but Birgitte cuts her off forcefully. Egwene asks her to explain why, and promises to drop the subject if Birgitte can give her a good reason. Reluctantly, Birgitte explains that every time the wheel has spun her out, she has had no memory of who she had been before or awareness that she was bound to the Wheel. Although she may have become famous in those lives, she was never anything more than Maerion, or Joana, or whomever. Now she doesn’t know if she can live up to the legend of who she is.

“This time I was ripped out, not spun out. For the first time wearing flesh, I know who I am. For the first time, other people can know too. Thom and Juilin do; they say nothing, but I am sure. They don’t look at me the way they do other people. If I said I was going to climb a glass mountain and kill a giant with my bare hands, they’d just ask if I needed any help on the way, and they would not expect me to.”

Elayne assures her that she doesn’t expect Birgitte to kill any giants, and neither does Egwene. She also points out that Egwene already knows who she is. When that doesn’t work, she points out that Egwene is the Amyrlin, and deserves and needs the trust of a Warder. Reluctantly, Birgitte agrees to think on it, and goes off with Areina, who has been hovering nearby and complaining about promised archery lessons.

Elayne finds Aviendha sipping tea while surrounded by Aes Sedai. She jerks to her feet when she sees Elayne, dropping her cup, and Elayne is surprised at the pain in Aviendha’s face. She apologizes to the other Aes Sedai for having to take Aviendha, and because she is by far the strongest in the room, except for Aviendha, no one contradicts her, though she sees some sour faces around the room.

Leading Aviendha away, Elayne promises to make sure she isn’t cornered like that again, then offers to take Aviendha somewhere shady to talk. Aviendha asks to go to Elayne’s room, and as they pass a cart of firewood she plucks a branch out of the back of it and begins stripping it with her knife. Elayne eyes her sideways—she hadn’t believed Mat’s claim that Aviendha was here to kill her, but something about the Aiel woman’s manner is beginning to shake that certainty.

When they reach her room she decides to bring it up first. She faces Aviendha, deliberately not embracing saidar and tells her what Mat said. Aviendha replies that “Wetlanders always put everything backwards” and then sets the knife and the switch she just carved on the bed. Bearing herself to her waist, she explains that she promised Egwene that she would look after Rand for Elayne, and now she has toh towards both of them, but greater to Elayne. She confesses that she loves Rand, and once allowed herself to lie with him. She asks Elayne to help her meet her toh, and tells her that she can use the knife or the switch, and she accepts whatever choice Elayne makes.

Elayne is overcome with shock and anger—she thinks that Min did say the third woman would be dangerous—but she restrains herself, telling Aviendha that she has no toh towards Elayne, and that she doesn’t care that Aviendha loves Rand too. This is a lie, and she’s still reeling from the revelation that Aviendha actually slept with Rand. Aviendha asks if Elayne means to share him, and points out that to do so they must be first sisters, and it will take time to know if they can be that close. Elayne agrees bemusedly, then tells Aviendha that things are even more complicated than she realizes, because there is also another woman who loves Rand.

Aviendha was on her feet so fast she simply seemed to be one place then the other. “What is her name?” Her green eyes blazed, and she had the knife in her hand.

Elayne almost laughed. One moment talking about sharing, the next as fierce as… as… As fierce as me, she finished, not at all pleased with the thought. This could have been worse, much worse. It could have been Berelain. Since it had to be somebody, it might as well be Aviendha.

It takes some explaining, but eventually Elayne convinces Aviendha that they shouldn’t team up to kill Min. Instead, Aviendha reiterates that she won’t share Rand with anyone she can’t love as a first sister and that she must get to know Min. Elayne is still baffled by the fact that both Min and Aviendha have declared themselves ready to share, and wonders if she is the only one of the three who is normal.

She asks if anything in life is ever simple, and Aviendha answers “not when men are involved” making them both laugh.

 

I can’t decide if it’s funny or annoying the way Egwene and Mat speak to each other in this section, each insisting that the other has no idea what they have gotten themselves into, and that they must listen and do exactly as they are told to be rescued from themselves. They are both right, in a way. Even after seeing their full numbers, Mat is underestimating the determination and organization of the Salidar Aes Sedai, not to mention Egwene’s ability to lead them. And Egwene in turn is still seeing him as the troublesome, duty-shirking young man she knew in their youth. But in the same way, they are both wrong. Egwene is in a very dangerous, precarious position, but she does know what she’s doing, and she is a lot more capable of doing it than most people realize. Mat, meanwhile, is the leader of the Band on merit, not just as some kind of statement from Rand. He is an accomplished general now, and capable of thought and strategies Egwene and Nynaeve would never credit to him. His use of Vanin is a perfect example—Elayne warned him that leaving Salidar is a lot harder than entering it, and Mat himself is trapped. But he has an ace up his sleeve in the form of a former horse thief turned tracker, a man who can apparently elude even the Warders on guard around Salidar.

I guess it makes sense, given how little Egwene and Nynaeve have seen of Mat lately. All three of them have changed so much since they left home, but Rand is the only one in whom the changes are obvious at first glance—not to mention that everyone is looking for those changes so hard that sometimes they see more than are even there. But as always, we are also dealing with the inherent opinion that all the  characters—and the narrative itself—hold. That men and women are fundamentally different, and basically unfathomable to each other. The discord and separation this creates amongst the cast of The Wheel of Time is intentional on Jordan’s part—one of the major themes of the series is miscommunication and distrust between allies and how it must be overcome in order to defeat the Dark. The fracturing of the Aes Sedai because of the taint on saidin is perhaps an even more significant event than the physical destruction wrought in the Breaking, because one half of the Power cannot accomplish what channeling saidin and saidar can accomplish when men and women work together. The Aes Sedai are effectively hobbled by having only saidar to work with, even before the average strength of those female channelers begins to lessen.

It’s very interesting to watch the many permutations of this theme of secrets and mistrust that Jordan spins throughout The Wheel of Time—the various ways the Dark One and his minions attempt to fracture and sow discord amongst the ranks of the light, the ways in which people feel the need to pledge loyalties (or to avoid them), the complications of external political forces, and humanity’s own inner fears and desires. However, the continual insistence that men and women are alien to each other is beginning to wear a bit thin for me.

This won’t surprise anyone who’s been following along with Reading The Wheel of Time. Since I started The Wheel of Time, I’ve been pretty clear about my stance that building such a binary division into the very fabric of a fictional world really limits storytelling options, not to mention alienates trans and non-binary readers. Our world does not function on binaries, and while it is true that Jordan began writing these books in the 90s, it is still a limited way of thinking of the world and creation. Nature does not function on a binary, and neither does humanity, no matter how often and how fiercely we try to shove things into labels and boxes. Jordan’s own characters often refuse to fit the binary that he himself has set for them.

And when they don’t, it shows. This scene between Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, and Mat features the two “sides” talking past each other rather than to each other, and it makes for a very unsatisfactory read. Jordan sometimes uses moments like this to good effect, but many more are just moments in which we are reminded how men and women can’t understand each other. The use of physical violence is also rampant between the two sexes—usually some kind of spanking, striking, kicking, or pinching buttocks—and other than letting us know he has a kink I’m not sure what Jordan is going for there.

The scene between Thom and Mat walks a fascinating line between being really thoughtful and falling flat. Ultimately, I really like what Thom is trying to teach Mat, especially the part about assuming you know the whole story when you don’t. As I mentioned above, Mat is still thinking of Egwene and Nynaeve as being the same girls he left the Two Rivers with—he has no idea how much they have grown and changed, in power, in experience, in learning. And more than that, whether or not he thinks their plans are smart or even possible, the Salidar Aes Sedai need to be led in the direction Egwene wants to take them in. She is the best chance they have of forming a proper alliance between Rand and the Aes Sedai—whether Rand and Mat recognize that or not. And Mat assuming that he understands better than Egwene or Nynaeve what’s going on in Salidar or what chance these Aes Sedai have in overthrowing Elaida is pretty ridiculous.

Still, Thom’s bootmaker story is a weirdly sexist way of communicating the idea that women are people and must be allowed to make their own choices. The implication—I mean, it’s not really an implication so much as an overt statement—is that the things women want are usually crazy and probably bad, definitely too dangerous for them, and obviously not what the men in their lives want for them. But you will never win the battle of convincing them of that, so you should pick the next best option and do what you can to help them succeed in the thing you don’t want to be doing. So it’s what Mat needs to hear, but it’s just… so terribly condescending.

Still, I mostly enjoyed the section, and I also enjoyed Mat and Vanin’s little exchange while they pretended to be worried about Pips’s eye for some reason. That must be a horse thing? I don’t know about horses. I do enjoy that Mat always has more ideas and more clever options out of a corner than people give him credit for.

The question of the Dragonsworn and what to do about them has been floating around for a while now. Some people seem to believe that Rand is directing and commanding them, while others see them as leaderless rabble. I think this is the first time we have seen the title applied to someone who is actually in contact with Rand, and used in a way that is at least not entirely derogatory. Generally, it seems to be a name applied to, and a mantle taken up by, people who have never actually met or served Rand, mostly peasants and farmers and the like who everyone else views as rioters and rabble rousers. We see Mat bristle at the title, perhaps because he feels like he had no choice in ending up as one of Rand’s generals, but probably mostly because of the bad associations that come with the term Dragonsworn.

One wonders if it would be as easy as Rand guessed for an army carrying his banner to collect all the random Dragonsworn scattered across the country. Actually becoming a cohesive unit commanded by a real figure is very different from becoming a loose collective driven by the idea of the Dragon and what he represents in the minds of men. I have more faith that the followers of the Prophet could be brought under Rand’s control, because although Masema has some pretty intense and out there ideas, I think he genuinely believes in following Rand and would take any orders that Rand gave, even if they conflicted with what Masema himself had previously dictated.

The Dragonsworn are a bit like the random wanderers who keep abandoning their homes because the Dragon is supposed to break all ties of fealty. These people are driven by a power that is controlling them in some way—perhaps the Pattern itself—and they don’t really understand what is happening to them or what they are trying to accomplish by leaving everything and becoming wanderers. At best they are drawn towards Caemlyn or Cairhien, but they don’t know what they will do when they get there, and have no real ideas of what the Dragon will actually mean to them, or to the world.

I really loved the scene between Egwene and Sheriam. Last week we got some sense of the way Egwene and her allies are going to play the Hall and Sheriam against each other, but we haven’t really seen Egwene at work yet. The way she just effortlessly and ruthlessly led Sheriam around to the conclusions Egwene wanted her to come to with a combination of scaring her and playing clueless was great, even though it irks Egwene to have to play the role of uncertain girl. I was a little surprised that Sheriam didn’t see what was happening, especially given how many times Egwene had to contradict her and present new obstacles before Sheriam came to the conclusion that they will have to leave Salidar and go north. Egwene’s wide-eyed “but that will seem like we’re moving towards Tar Valon!” just seemed so obvious. I can’t tell if Sheriam only missed it because she underestimates Egwene so much, or if I’m also overestimating how obvious it is because I know what’s really going on.

I also loved the exchange between Elayne and Birgitte. It’s not related to the main plot which somehow makes it that much more poignant, and I feel like the revelation of how Birgitte really feels about her situation has been a long time in coming. She’s a tough, stoic person, so she has seemed to handle being thrown out of tel’aran’rhiod fairly easily, considering. But she is not supposed to be here, not like this, and it makes sense that the weight of her legendary past would be weighing on her. I feel like she needs to go hang out with Rand, you know? Really bond about how they can’t be actual people when they’re too busy being legends. Of course, Birgitte may be able to keep it quiet for the most part, hence her reluctance to let Elayne admit her real identity out loud to Egwene, even though Egwene obviously already knows the truth. It is so relatable that Birgitte feels as though she can pretend Egwene doesn’t know as long as she doesn’t admit it outright is so human and relatable.

And finally, there’s Aviendha. I enjoyed her exchange with Elayne very much, and the way that everyone involved in the Min/Aviendha/Elayne love triangle with Rand is trying to behave as maturely as possible given their rather unique, not to mention vexing, circumstances. Aviendha’s desire to go after Min was also pretty funny, as was Elayne’s confusion over the fact that both Aviendha and Min were open to some kind of sharing arrangement. I suppose having it foretold that you’re all going to be in love with him takes a little of the competition out of things, but Min, Elayne, and Aviendha are all pretty logical, staid people. I hope Aviendha will come to feel like she really cares for them the way Elayne and Min care for each other, and vice versa.

We’ll get more Min next week as she finally makes it to Rand, and then it’s off to the farm to visit the male channelers, where Rand will deliver a few surprises and receive a few of his own. Apologies for the erratic scheduling lately—as always, your continued support and enjoyment of the read is much appreciated. See you next week for Chapters 41 and 42!

Sylas K Barrett isn’t sure what was in that letter to Thom, but the oblique reference to Moiraine’s death and Thom’s reaction to Mat’s question definitely gave him some feelings.

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