With the release of The Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime this month, I thought I’d explore what drew me into the books many years ago, and why I keep going back to them.
I grew up reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time throughout my teenage years. It’s the only book series I’ve re-read, and I must have re-read it five or six times by now.
From its intricate world building to its grand spiritualism, its moral philosophy of truth, honor and duty to its reversal of gender hierarchies, The Wheel of Time is unlike any other fantasy series ever written.
The late Robert Jordan was a master of foreshadowing and intricate plotting, with hundreds of characters and dozens of viewpoints, to the point that, even after so long, I still discover something new whenever I read the books. He was a spiritual predecessor to George R. R. Martin and his Game of Thrones series.
This is the World According to Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.
The Wheel of Time begins with Rand al’Thor, a shepherd from Emonds Field, a remote and isolated village in the Two Rivers. The opening scene shows him traveling with his father to the Bel Tine, the local spring festival. Despite it being a spring festival, the weather is still in the depths of winter.
Winter isn’t coming; it simply never left:
Scattered white patches of snow still dotted the ground where tight clumps of trees kept deep shade. Where sunlight did reach, it held neither strength nor warmth. The pale sun sat above the trees to the east, but its light was crisply dark, as if mixed with shadow. It was an awkward morning, made for unpleasant thoughts.
On the night of the festival, Emonds Field is attacked by a hoard of vicious trollocs, half beast, half men. The village is saved by Moraine Sedai; a magical user, also known as an Aes Sedai.
The Aes Sedai
The Aes Sedai are the book’s matriarchal organization that tends to dominate world politics, warfare and diplomacy. Roughly speaking, they are a hybrid of the United Nations, Parliament and Hogwarts.
In Robert Jordan’s world, women who wield magic are the most powerful people on earth. Men who try to wield magic are cursed to go insane from a form of corruption, caused by an inverted original sin.
Unlike the biblical version, in Jordan’s telling, men are the ones banished from salvation after women give in to the temptation for knowledge and power. Accessing too much “Power” literally drives men insane, in a subtle nod to world history, where power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
After the attack on the village, Moraine whisks Rand and his friends into hiding, revealing that one of them is the prophesied Dragon Reborn, a user of magic who will either destroy or save the world. In his previous life, this dragon character went mad and killed his loved ones. This time around, he could go either way.
The core philosophy of The Wheel of Time is the wheel itself. Like the Tibetan Buddhist wheel of life, Jordan imagines a world where time is circular and cyclical. In Jordan’s telling, events repeat themselves in variations over several ages. People are reborn in each age, to live different lives in new bodies. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.
With its cyclical spiritualism, The Wheel of Time begs various questions in numerous schools of philosophical thought. It is, on one hand, reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. The eternal recurrence is a thought experiment, imagining a life lived an infinite number of times.
Nietzsche explains it in his article “The Greatest Weight” as follows:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness, and say to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.
To live an infinite number of times is therefore seen as simultaneously a form of heaven and hell, making each choice either infinitely heavy, or light as a feather, depending on your point of view.
In The Wheel of Time, the antagonists confront Rand with this idea of having fought the same battle an infinite number of times previously, and an infinite number of times to come. The main antagonist of the first book shows Rand how he has lost the fight, in innumerable past lives as the dragon, Lews Therin, each life ending with the phrase:
I have won again, Lews Therin.
This raises even more questions.
- If the characters are destined to be reborn, are their choices predetermined?
- Do they possess free will or do things merely happen to them?
Why not both, Robert Jordan suggests.
The three main characters are considered ta’varen, meaning they are forced down a certain path by fate. The metaphor used is lace – the wheel of time spins the lace of time, and each person follows their own thread, and all people create the pattern. If the ta’varen divert from this pattern however, they are compelled back onto the right path. The three main characters therefore live by a form of determinism – or a somewhat limited free will.
Allegory for War
Robert Jordan wrote the books as a veteran of the Vietnam War, and so they also act as a form of moral philosophical exploration of what it means to have done both good and evil, and how to deal with the good and evil inside of us.
After returning from the war, Jordan wrote of his personal experience:
I had two nicknames in ‘Nam. First up was Ganesha, after the Hindu god called the Remover of Obstacles. He’s the one with the elephant head. That one stuck with me, but I gained another that I didn’t like so much. The Iceman. One day, we had what the Aussies called a bit of a brass-up. Just our ship alone, but we caught an NVA battalion crossing a river, and wonder of wonders, we got permission to fire before they finished.
The gunner had a round explode in the chamber, jamming his 60, and the fool had left his barrel bag, with spares, back in the revetment. So while he was frantically rummaging under my seat for my barrel bag, it was over to me, young and crazy, standing on the skid, singing something by the Stones at the of my lungs with the mike keyed so the others could listen in, and Lord, Lord, I rode that 60. 3000 rounds, an empty ammo box, and a smoking barrel that I had burned out because I didn’t want to take the time to change.
We got ordered out right after I went dry, so the artillery could open up, and of course, the arty took credit for every body recovered, but we could count how many bodies were floating in the river when we pulled out. The next day in the orderly room an officer with a literary bent announced my entrance with “Behold, the Iceman cometh.” For those of you unfamiliar with Eugene O’Neil, the Iceman was Death. I hated that name, but I couldn’t shake it. And, to tell you the truth, by that time maybe it fit.
I have, or used to have, a photo of a young man sitting on a log eating C-rations with a pair of chopsticks. There are three dead NVA laid out in a line just beside him. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t choose to sit there because of the bodies. It was just the most convenient place to sit. The bodies don’t bother him. He doesn’t care. They’re just part of the landscape. The young man is glancing at the camera, and you know in one look that you aren’t going to take this guy home to meet your parents.
Back in the world, you wouldn’t want him in your neighborhood, because he is cold, cold, cold. I strangled that SOB, drove a stake through his heart, and buried him face down under a crossroad outside Saigon before coming home, because I knew that guy wasn’t made to survive in a civilian environment. I think he’s gone. All of him. I hope so. I much prefer being remembered as Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.
Rand undergoes his own similarly dark journey in the latter Wheel of Time books, committing acts of atrocity and war crimes, killing civilians and using the magical equivalent of nuclear weapons. His spiritual healing comes not from victory in battle or ‘winning,’ but in the form of integration. Rand learns several lessons here.
There is a quote about duty being heavier than a mountain and death being light as a feather, which is about coming to terms with life as a struggle worth doing. There’s also a lot about truth and honor which really resonates with me. And an idea of masculinity, which rejects the idea of being tough as steal, and instead being an integration of strength, laughter, love and compassion.
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