[Trigger Warning when I start talking about Compulsion]
I first thought about writing this blog some months ago when I read two (excessively) laudatory articles about Robert Jordan and his series. Since I’ve waited this long to put my thoughts in ones and zeros, I’m going to digress first.
My wife sometimes says that I’m more of a feminist than she is. What she means is that since I am not a woman, and therefore not used to dealing with entrenched societal sexism, I tend to react more strongly to hearing about it. This may or may not be true, if you have known me for any length of time at all, you’re aware of how easily I get bent out of shape about various forms of oppression. I am capable of getting just as angry about, say, the massacre at Glencoe as I get about redlining. This is compounded when it comes to sexism, because hey- I’m still kind of sexist. I’m getting better about it, but realizing that I acted in a certain way, or (more germane to this post) uncritically enjoyed a piece of media that was sexist tends to push all of my available guilt/anger buttons. (A brief aside to this digression- I’m somewhat culturally Jewish so at least a quarter of my available guilt buttons have been activated at any given time. In fact, I’m feeling a little guilty for writing this when I could be putting my new desk together.) When I approach a work that I previously loved with fresh eyes and see some of its uglier flaws, I experience a sense of betrayal, which then ramps up that guilt/anger process.
That being said, let’s discuss The Wheel of Time.
The main flaws I can see in this series are lazy writing, male gaze, and Jordan’s complicated relationship with world-building. I’ll work backwards.
Some of Jordan’s world-building is fantastic. The hints of the civilization that precedes the Breaking of the World are pretty cool. Occasional references to Earth history (although probably an alternate version in which a Nuclear War was fought) added a bit of depth to the story. I appreciate that he thought out a detailed three-thousand-year history for the area of the world in which the main action takes place. But he clearly, CLEARLY, went too deep down his own rabbit hole. He was giving minor characters multiple page backstories as late as book eight. He basically introduced a new nation of people to be a villainous army in the last book, unless that was Sanderson, but I doubt it. He threw in bits and tags of forgotten cultures and references, and never bothered to define them. It’s one thing to have an anachronistic character make a reference that no one else understands, it’s another thing entirely not to know what it means yourself. What is “the Can Breat”, or “Spinning Earthfire”, or “Milking Tears”? The Companion doesn’t explain those any further than did the books.
Somewhere in the middle of the series, he started kitchen-sinking it. Everything he could think of, no matter how small or undeveloped, was thrown into the series. Forward action and even characterization fell by the wayside in an attempt to shoehorn every last thing Robert Jordan thought of into the Wheel of Time. Eventually, reading the books was like eating a poorly-made stew- it was a jumble of ingredients, all of which, regardless of origin, tasted largely the same.
Actually… he did show some tendencies in that direction from the start, as all of the major characters are linked to the Arthurian cycle by name, if nothing else (Rand Al’Thor does take the sword from the Stone after all). Rand, Perrin, and Mat have the added bonus of divine heritage, as they are loosely based on Thor, Perun (he’s Russian, look him up), and Odin, respectively. In retrospect, the power-creep shouldn’t have been a surprise in a series that had two Thunder God analogues as main characters. This was meant to add layers, but works out to be a mess, much as the alternate realities did (they show up in book two, I think, and were largely dropped after that). Oddly, or maybe not, none of the main female characters seems to have the same mythological ancestry.
Which I suppose is a good enough segue to the male-gaze section of this entry/rant. The women in the book are largely two-dimensional characters who largely exist for the benefit of the male characters. Even the most powerful women in the book sigh and melt to some degree when the object of their affections is near, because nothing, not personal survival or the fate of the world, is more important than getting that man.
Jordan is actually a little bit worse than Eddings about pairing people off (Thom and Moiraine. Really? SHE SPENDS EIGHT OR NINE BOOKS IN FUCKING FAIRYLAND! When, exactly, did she and Thom develop a relationship. I should be fair… those eight or nine books covered what, two, perhaps three, weeks in series chronology? “Winter’s Heart” took place over 24 hours, if I remember correctly.) and when no man is available, then his female characters turn to each other. This is not an exaggeration, or at least, not much of one. The entry under “pillow friends” in the Companion flat-out says that women in the White Tower who are romantically involved with each other pretty much stop after becoming full Aes Sedai. So, great. They’re all lesbians until graduation. Except for some of the minor evil characters.
And I would be remiss not to mention Rand’s groundbreaking polyamorous relationship in which he has sex with three women,two of whom bear six of his children, all of whom are OK with the arrangement and have no desire for anything more, and all of whom appear to be fine when he leaves at the end of the series, not sure that he’ll ever see them again. I thought the “Three Queens” prophecy was a coded reference to the women who brought Arthur to Avalon, and even a mid-twenties me was disappointed to learn that no such Arthurian connection existed; Rand would just have a lot of foursomes.
I have mentioned Jordan’s obsession with bosoms ad infinitum, ad nauseam on Facebook, so let me just say that very few women in these books are not evaluated in terms of their sex appeal at some point or another. Mat, in particular, likes to speculate about damn near every woman he encounters (e.g [somewhat paraphrased] “She may be an Aes Sedai and I don’t trust or like them, but I bet she’d make some man a pleasant armful.”) Do men think this way? Undoubtedly. Does it serve any purpose to have men in these books explicitly and continuously express themselves this way? Not that I can see.
I’m going to move on to discuss lazy writing by taking a quick look at creepy mind control. In this 14 book series, Jordan devotes more pages to the “breaking” of women by both magical and non-magical means than John Norman did in “Gor”. I am definitely exaggerating because I’ve never read “Gor”. Probably definitely exaggerating.
It seems that the one thing that all of the various channeling societies (except one) have in common is a period of servitude for the initiates. The Wise Ones, Aes Sedai, and Windfinders all impose various humiliating punishments on members of their orders. Many of these punishments involve nudity and/or some kind of spanking. And I should say that it’s not limited to the channelers. Faile gets hit with some of this as Gai’shain and even has some Stockholm-Syndrome-induced butterflies for one of her captors (side note- in how many of these books is Perrin in the process of rescuing Faile? Half? More than half? How many times do Egwene or Elayne find themselves in need of rescue? How about Min? Is any woman in this megillah not in need of rescue by a man at some point? Are they all female versions of Robin, the Boy Hostage? Have I asked too many rhetorical questions in a row?).
All of that kind of pales in comparison to the a’dam used by the Seanchan to control female channelers. Many of the extremely proud/arrogant/powerful Aes Sedai last as much as a couple of months before turning into spineless lapdogs. Sevanna uses torture and an oath rod to do much the same thing to Galina (just look them up, I don’t have time) with the added bonus that Therava is explicitly sexually interested in Galina. I will say that Jordan did a somewhat better job (only somewhat) of disguising his interests than did Terry Goodkind who may as well have subtitled the back third of “Wizard’s First Rule” as “A Young Nerd’s Introduction to BDSM”. Mind you that whole series should have been called “An Unimaginative, Extremely Repetitive, Introduction to Being Awesome Special Libertarians. No Really, You’re Better Than Everyone Else, White Dudes”. I suspect that wouldn’t have sold as well.
But wait, there’s more! That’s right, I haven’t mentioned Compulsion! Compulsion is something that channelers, especially the evil channelers, use to control people. Graendal does it with the primary purpose of taking sex toys, and mind control from the bad guys frequently has some kind of sexual dimension to it- up to and including rape-as-punishment.
I found myself wondering why the Forsaken didn’t simply start Compelling everyone they could to join the Dark One’s side of the conflict. Or at least Compelling all of the channelers they could find to come get turned to the Dark, which is a thing that could magically happen. Sure, strong-willed people could eventually break out of it (maybe), but probably not before it was too late. Graendal could turn people, even other channelers, into mindless husks. So why bother with the fighting and the plots and the whatnot? Why not just Killgrave the whole situation?
Which brings me to another point. When someone makes a Faustian bargain in our literature, the rewards are immediate and the payment is delayed; the bargainer can even delude him or herself that payment can be indefinitely delayed. In the world of WoT, the rewards are sometimes immediate (for the powerful) and sometimes hard to discern (for the not so powerful). The payment is also immediate as, once a character makes a bargain with Shai’tan, he or she can be killed, changed, resurrected, reincarnated into another adult body, tortured, sliced, diced, and julianned at whim. It is also difficult to tell why immortality is a benefit when the Dark One’s more-or-less stated goal is to break free from his prison and make things terrible for everyone everywhere. I can only imagine the conversation.
“Now that I have accepted your power, I can be everything I truly deserve to be! I can live forever! I can have everything I want! I can be better than Lews Therin Telamon!”
“INDEED. UNTIL I DESTROY THE PATTERN.”
“…I’m sorry, what?”
“I WILL REND THE VERY AGE LACE! I WILL BREAK THE ARCH OF TIME- er NO, THAT WAS LORD FOUL, BUT YOU GET THE IDEA.”
“So the retirement plan is…”
“ETERNAL TORMENT IN A SADISTIC SUMMER CAMP WHEREIN I AM THE ONLY COUNSELOR.”
“Welp! Too late to turn back now!”
None of the Forsaken, Black Ajah, or Darkfriends seems to have considered this. Although it seems like turning male channelers to the Dark should have been a slam dunk.
“I HAVE TAINTED SAIDIN. YOU CAN EITHER JOIN ME OR GO SLOWLY INSANE, KILL YOUR LOVED ONES, OR WASTE AWAY AS THOUGH YOU HAD EXTREME SYPHILIS.”
“Is killing myself an option?”
“I HAVE ILL-DEFINED POWERS WHICH MIGHT MAKE YOU MY PLAYTHING IN THE AFTERLIFE”
Let’s return to reincarnation. Guess what? Old Forsaken never die, they just get endlessly reincarnated to draw out the series. The Dark One seems to be big on second chances. Though not third chances! He’d never give anyone a third chance! Also, is there a reason that he didn’t just resurrect all of the dead Trollocs? It never seemed as though he had a defined limit, even a poorly-defined limit, as most of the channelers had. Why didn’t he make more Isam/Luc type hybrids? Why not more Grey Men? Why didn’t he task Aginor with making more gholam instead of sending him out to be pals with Mazrim Taim (or making him a hot chick. I get Aginor and Balthamel mixed up in my head)?
And what about Shai’tan? Who the Devil is he, really? He’s a little Lord Foul, a little the Crimson King (who is also a little Lord Foul). He’s the manifestation of the dark side of humanity and, though possessed of seemingly infinite power, keeps getting his ass eventually handed to him because he’s just a terrible idea. No really. That’s more or less it. I remember thinking that he wasn’t a very compelling villain once we saw the being behind the curtain. I also thought that it was incredibly dumb to let him continue to exist because “humanity needs evil as well as good”. Bullshit. Moorcock was the only one who did Balance well because his poles are Law and Chaos, and too much of either is bad. You can’t really have too much good. Here’s a thought. How about Rand can’t destroy the Dark One because, as the embodiment of humanity’s ickyness, the Dark One will continue to exist until we get over ourselves? It’s not great, but I find it somewhat more satisfying than low-grade metaphysical handwaving.
I have been picking on the bad guys a bit. Let’s flip that, shall we? In a world where alternate universes exist, why didn’t the good guys find one where any given atrocity had never happened/been prevented, and figured out how to stop it from happening?
And, my god, the power creep. How many sa’angreal (please compare to sang real or san graal) that give Rand the power to destroy the world does he get his hands on? How about the other channelers? And what of Mat and Perrin? One has thousands of years of military experience in his head, a magic spear, unending luck, and anti-magic get-out-of-channeling free card. The other one has a magic hammer, the ability to talk to wolves (ok, I’d still like this), and the ability to cross into and out of the dreamworld at will.
Oh yeah, Tel’aran’rhiod. Best not to get started. Best also not to mention the Ways.
I suppose the bottom line is that the series became less about telling a story and more about showcasing Robert Jordan’s ideas. Which isn’t necessarily bad. A 14 volume series might not be the best medium, and those ideas might not all have been good, and the framework necessary to display them might have irrevocably bogged down plot resolution, but aside from those quibbles, it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea.
I suspect I should have stopped several hundred words ago, but I’ll say that any unnecessary length is intentional on my part, and a bit of postmodern commentary on the series itself. My advice is this: if you haven’t read it, don’t start. You can do without. If you have read it… my heart bleeds for you.