By Sam Keyes
Robert Jordan’s sprawling 14-volume fantasy series, The Wheel of Time (WOT), has gained a new following with the start of Amazon Prime’s new television series of the same. It has also inspired old fans like yours truly to revisit the series.
I started reading WOT in high school after having devoured everything I could from Tolkien, Lewis, and Le Guin. Once I caught up with the published books (roughly books 1-8) I acquired the remaining books as they were published in the early 2000s in college. Somehow the books kept coming. It is rare for a single series to span such a wide range of one’s life situations: high school, college, teaching in Europe, going to multiple graduate schools, going through the ordination process, getting engaged and married. The Harry Potter books (1997-2007) come close, but compared to WOT (1990-2013) they are a mere blip in the radar.
I confess that I have a mixed relationship with Jordan. I was hooked by the first few books. The first is rather derivative (young man discovers he’s secretly a hero who needs to save the world from evil; plus orcs called “Trollocs”), and the writing was never very good. At times the characters can get very annoying indeed. By the end of Jordan’s life (after his death in 2007 from blood amyloidosis, the series was taken over by fellow fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson), the books reach a kind of literary and narrative low point in Book 10, The Crossroads of Twilight (2003). I remember having the book on my lap and doing other things while occasionally flipping pages. Six hundred pages and barely anything happens. It wasn’t until Sanderson took over for the final three volumes that the narrative picked up and reading became not just bearable but actually enjoyable again.
Why did I stick with it for so long? And why go through the apparent tedium of rereading (or listening to, at times) fourteen giant volumes in the space of a few months? Because Jordan’s world simply is one of the most vivid and interesting fantasy worlds ever made. Its mythology, its form of profanity (“Burn me! Blood and bloody ashes!”), its magic, its humongous and complex story arcs, twists and turns, remained compelling to me. It was just one of those stories that I had to see through. I cared about the characters (even the super annoying and whiny ones); I loathed the villains. And for a serious story about the epic battle between Light and Dark, it was chock full of humor.
What follows is far from an analysis or interpretation of the series, or for that matter a critique of the new Amazon series — there are things I liked about it, and more things that I didn’t like. When I first started reading WOT, I was a freshman in high school. Now, rereading them, I’m a married Catholic priest with five kids and a doctorate in historical theology. So, I found myself thinking about these stories in new ways. Here are some of them.
N.B. there will be spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing (I think there are good reasons not to).
The mythic battle between the forces of the Light and the forces of the Dark gets increasingly nuanced as the books go on. When it starts, we’re given something that looks like a very simple Good vs. Evil (or Creator vs. the Dark One). But this gradually transforms into a much more morally messy fight about the existence of time itself. The Dark One’s stated goal is to break free of his prison and destroy the Wheel of Time. This seems like a Bad Thing, but many of the characters start wondering: what’s the point of living if everyone simply keeps being reborn endlessly age without end? The Wheel starts to feel like a trap.
Various Darkfriends, in fact, start to speak about this quite explicitly. It’s the Wheel that’s the true evil. The Dark One promises freedom, which is to say oblivion. One positive note about the new Amazon show is that it highlights this thought early on, suggesting that Darkfriends aren’t merely people who like wickedness but in many cases are simply people who are tired of living their sad and miserable lives over and over again. They want release.
The sense that breaking the Wheel might mean “release” into some kind of oblivion has obvious resonances with South Asian religious traditions (especially Buddhism). Of course, Buddhism has no Dark One (nor really gods or a single Creator), but it does view suffering as ultimately centered on attachment. “Salvation,” if we can use that word, is enlightenment that allows us to transcend the self, to leave the burden of individuality and particular historical existence.
This is, obviously, no Christian description of reality. Yet Christianity would, like Buddhism, find the idea of the endless cosmic wheel somewhat disturbing. We long for closure, for an end point to the story.
Further, Christianity understands that suffering is, as the Buddhist description has it, tied to temporality. To suffer is to change; to change is to suffer. We suffer because everything that we have and do passes away.
Of course, in the Christian description, the goal is not to remove all attachment and remove the self from the equation, but rather to become attached to something eternal (God) that can, by a gracious act of the deity, be found even in temporal and material life.
Dualism suffuses the whole WOT world. Light and dark, man and woman (more on that below). The Source, which contains the One Power (the power of creation itself which turns the Wheel), has a male and female half, saidin and saidar, respectively. They are equal and opposed to one another even while they comprise a single Power. The symbol of the Aes Sedai, the ancient order of power channelers, closely resembles the yinyang symbol — black and white, the Dragon’s Fang and the Flame of Tar Valon.
It would seem then that the Dark One and the Creator are eternal opposites, one equal to the other. No wonder that, in the end, Rand’s plan to kill the Dark One is seen as foolish and ultimately no better than allowing the Dark One to destroy the Wheel.
Yet it is not entirely clear that the Creator and the Dark One are actually equal.
There is, in fact, a huge narrative discrepancy. We hear the voice of the Dark One. He has representatives (his followers refer to him as the Great Lord). He is able to touch the world, though that touch is limited by his imprisonment. The Creator, though, simply does not appear as a major influence in the WOT story. Prayers are said throughout, but it is not clear who, if anyone, hears them. One fan theory suggests that the Creator does in fact have a secret avatar present in the last couple of books, but this is unclear. If the Creator is in fact the Dark One’s opposite, it seems pretty clear that he takes a completely hands-off approach to Creation.
One possible reason that the Dark One is an active personal force in this history is that it is the Dark One’s prison which is ruptured (the Bore). But no one entirely understands what the “prison” is. The Dark One is “outside of creation.” Presumably, then the Creator is likewise outside creation. Would not a “Bore” then simply be a break in the “walls” of creation itself, an attempt to forge a crack in eternity? In this case, the divine force is “Dark” not so much in its opposition to Light but in its opposition to creation.
Near the end of the final volume, in the showdown with the Dark One at Shayol Ghul, Rand sees the Dark One as being small. He is almost nothing — a shadow.
For a moment there is here an almost Augustinian conception of evil as privation and a slide to nothingness. And Rand realizes that trying to “kill” such an enemy is an absurdity.
The most crucial metaphysical revelation takes place at the end of Book 12, The Gathering Storm. Rand finally confronts his demons in preparation for the Last Battle. It seems that he is about to give in to either madness or darkness, for he looks at the Wheel as a whole and despairs. Why continue when there is so much suffering?
The answer he comes to is strikingly Christian: love. We keep going because more lives mean more time to love. There’s a secondary aspect of “making up” for time — correcting the mistakes of past lives. But ultimately this is the weaker argument (is perfection possible? What then?). The primary answer is a personal answer for Rand: more time with those he loves. How can the value of that be calculated? Love is worth fighting for.
Again, it’s a strikingly Christian description of human meaning. So, in a way we have this Greek/Judeo-Christian ontology superimposed on a vaguely Buddhist cosmos. I’m not sure that it works, but it’s interesting.
There’s a very strong sense of fate. “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” is the pithy description of the machinations of fate. People are threads in the Pattern to be woven by the Wheel.
Rand and others routinely question the extent to which anyone has free will. It seems that they do, but more or less so depending on how strong they are in relation to the Pattern.
Like the Source and its dual forces, gender dualism in the series is deeply woven. Jordan is notorious for his simplistic characterizations of women. But there’s also a kind of battle of the sexes that consciously reverses some of our contemporary stereotypes — e.g. women are often complaining about how “irrational” and “emotional” the men are.
As the Amazon series seems to relish, this is a world of female power. Because the male half of the Source was tainted by the Dark One’s touch, the strongest forces in the world are women. This is, in fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the series.
But the world is also, pace what I can only describe as pandering to the woke age in the Amazon series, insistently binary. Even the exceptions, like the Forsaken Aran’gar — a female reincarnation of the male Forsaken Aginor — prove the rule. The soul is male and so it can channel only the male half of the Power.
Perhaps the most unchristian dualism in WOT is, in the end, the dualism of body and soul. Bodies, in this world, are mere shells, husks to be discarded and replaced at need. The real identity is the soul — and like the Power of creation itself, souls participate in the binary of the Source. There are even individuals (Luc/Isam, Perrin/Young Bull) who are referred to obliquely as “two-souled.” They inhabit different bodies in different worlds. This cryptic.
And so I suppose WOT is woke in certain gnostic way: it sees not just a hierarchy but a true inferiority to the physical realm. The world isn’t real in the way that the soul is real. (Perhaps the Dream world, tel’aran’rhiod is something not unlike the Cognitive Realm that Sanderson himself uses in some of his other work.)
The morality of the WOT world is, again pace the Amazon series, not full of blanket wokeness, but a true hodgepodge, not unlike our world. There are self-righteous Whitecloaks, who think all uses of the Power are evil. There are cities where men serve women almost like slaves; there are cities where everyone is a prude; there are cities where all the jokes are dirty; there are societies obsessed with honor and societies obsessed with money. Further, there is a whole continent and civilization built on the making channelers into chattel.
One of the WOT’s charms is its accuracy in regard to scope. It’s a huge world, and hugely varied. Those wishing to see a kind of gnostic enlightenment and freedom from prudery will have to look elsewhere. Even the most questionable moral practice on display — the collaring of Seanchan chanellers and making them into damane — is, in the final book, relativized. What if someone wants to be collared and made chattel? Who are you to tell them they can’t?
Jordan’s world both wrestles with that question and pushes back. The world is big and complex and incomprehensible, but it is possible to find meaning, and hence some kind of morality. But the morality is fleeting, like life itself, and though we’re left with some big ideas (it’s all about love), the universe lacks the resources to give those ideas any stable and lasting substance.
If Tolkien’s fantasy is a narrative re-presentation of Catholic metaphysics, Jordan’s world is a narrative wrestling with secular post-modernity with both its promises and pathologies.