Friday, November 6, 2015

Rereading with Love: The Wheel of Time, Ten Years Later (Part II)

Welcome back to the Wheel of Time. This is a 14-book (+1 field guide + 1/3 prequel) that runs to about a zillion words and was a high school favorite of mine. I just reread the fourth one and am sharing stuff about how I now find it. If you want the first half, click here. If you simply wanna get into it, read on. Here’s a glossary.

Quick Glossary

Rand: The basically messiah, super-magic user, and central character. Is also ta’veren, meaning he has plot powers.
Mat: His buddy. Also ta’veren.
Perrin: His other buddy. Also ta’veren. Dating Faile.
Faile: Noblewoman in secret searching for adventure. Dating Perrin.
Berelain: Queen of tiny country. Pursuing Perrin.
Moiraine: A magic user who found Rand before he was known to be the messiah.
Aviendha: an Aiel (basically super-Bedouin) who tutors/hates/will eventually love Rand.
Elayne: Future queen, current magic user, has the hots for Rand.
Egwene: Magic user, has dreaming superpowers, used to be with Rand but now ain’t.
Nynaeve: Magic user.
Min: Also in love with Rand.
Thom: Rand’s advisor.
Siuan Sanche: Head of the female magic users.
Lanfear: Rand’s evil ex from a past life. Shut up.

MAJOR SECTION II: How the Characters Work
The Stranger at the Door

Everyone in the series is constantly in the position of being introduced to new things. Rand, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are from a tiny backwater farming town and are totally unsophisticated. We see things from their perspective, and we see a lot of new things; in Shadow alone, Rand is introduced to the extremely complicated culture of the Aiel, and there’s even a whole subplot about how ignorant he is. Perrin constantly reminds everyone that he’s an unsophisticated blacksmith that doesn’t know jack, even as he’s transforming into a leader of men (and refusing to admit it, which is more annoying than I remember it being). Mat’s entire plotline in Shadow is about finding answers related to things that have happened to him in previous books, Nynaeve and Elayne are trainee Aes Sedai who spend much of their time trying to learn new things, and Egwene is being taught by her own bunch of strict taskmistresses.

We rarely see things from the perspective of an authority figure who knows what’s going on unless that authority figure is in the process of wondering what someone else is doing; examples include Moiraine waiting impatiently on Rand in the Stone of Tear, Thom being jerked around by Moiraine in the Stone, and Siuan Sanche being suddenly upended by a rebellion. Moreover, not only are characters constantly learning new things, but the way the world works continually shifts underneath them. Look at the Aiel; the test for becoming a leader of the Aiel is a very intense version of “This is what you thought your people’s history was. Here’s what it actually is, and it cuts to the heart of everything you believe. Now adapt to the new reality, or else kill yourself”. There is a constant sense of shock at meeting people who do things differently, from Aiel in a water-rich country to Seanchan shocked at the mainlanders’ squabbling, and people get over it only very slowly and sometimes not at all.

Eventually the series will begin to shift its tone. The core group doesn’t stop learning new things, but they do gain experience in positions of power and authority, stop being so wide-eyed at the world, and start making decisions that impact the lives of others. However, although the core group and many other characters get a lot more experienced and adept at manipulating people over time, it hasn’t happened in Shadow. You can sort of categorize the Wheel of Time books that way. Books 1-3 show these characters as people who are essentially on an adventure story, traveling unobtrusively and affecting events with deeds of heroism. Books 4-7 move to the level of nations; although there’s plenty of adventure-story individual missions, characters start leading and affecting events on a wider scale, maneuvering with other powerful players. Rand in particular stops being a refugee and begins to affect the destiny of whole nations; this is the last of the table-setting. Books 8, 9 and 10 feel sort of scattered, with new plotlines being introduced and old plotlines stagnating, before the rolling-boulder downhill plunge that begins with Book 11 and carries past Jordan’s death all the way to A Memory of LightShadow, Book 4, is a transitional one; everyone’s still learning, but Rand and Perrin begin to lead, and others will follow them.

Emotional Intelligence/Communication/Theory of Mind

“Why did you let her go in that way?” [says Egwene].

Puzzled, [Rand] stared at her. “She wanted to go. I’d have had to tie her up to stop her. Besides, she’ll be safer in Tanchico than near me—or Mat…”

“That isn’t what I mean at all. Of course she wanted to go. And you had no right to stop her. But why didn’t you tell her you wished she would stay?”

“She wanted to go,” he repeated, and grew more confused when she rolled her eyes as if he were speaking gibberish. If he had no right to stop Elayne, and she wanted to go, why was he supposed to try to talk her out of it? Especially when she was safer gone.

How hard is it to understand that Elayne wanted to be wanted here? But Rand doesn’t get it, and what’s more, he doesn’t think it over and understand later on. He just chalks that up as one of the unknowable mysteries and moves on with his day. This is something that everyone does, particularly as it relates to gender. Everyone in this entire series has the emotional intelligence of a dog.

And long-running plot threads depend on it, which is really frustrating! Perrin plans to go home and give himself up to the Whitecloaks (who will kill him) so they’ll leave the Two Rivers, which is stupid, but, whatever. So he tries to drive his girlfriend-later-wife Faile away by feigning interest in another woman named Berelain. A) that doesn’t work, B) that fight with Faile lingers for another 250 pages, and C) the subsequent Faile-Berelain-Perrin triangle persists for another SEVEN BOOKS. It could have been resolved with two or three adult conversations early in Shadow, but it wasn’t, was it?!

Oh, does Jordan love his conflicts that are created or exacerbated by a lack of communication and an inability to get inside other people’s heads. The Wheel of Time is peppered with characters observing other characters and saying “oddly”, “puzzled”, “peculiar”, or “for some reason” because they can’t suss out why the other person did something, when the why is glaringly obvious to the reader. What moves it from frustrating to maddening is that characters will muse internally about why someone else is acting that way, hit upon the right answer, and then think to themselves ‘No, that’s crazy, that couldn’t possibly be it’ and abandon the idea completely. It used to make me crazy—it still makes me crazy! Important plot threads that last four or five books are founded entirely on these miscommunications and misinterpretations. When Jordan died and Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time, one of the first things he did was to extinguish most of these slow-burning threads, putting feuding characters in the same locations and essentially writing “And then they hashed it out” half a dozen times.
 Gender Roles

Hoo boy.

In some ways, the Wheel of Time is pretty modern-looking for a series that began in the ‘90s and was written by an old white guy in the pre-Game of Thrones era. Female characters such as Elayne, Egwene, Nynaeve, Siuan Sanche, Moiraine, and plenty of others have political, magical, and personal power of varying degrees. Women lead armies, nations and peoples. When women are not formally in charge, they tend to have soft power that equals the hard power of the men: examples include the Women’s Circle in Emond’s Field or the wives and Wise One advisors of male Aiel clan chiefs, both of whom hold degrees of power over the men who nominally lead. Women pursue dangerous missions, advance within their professions, fight in battles magical and physical, and generally display bravery, spunk, and the desire to be just as much a part of the story as any man.

However, Shadow is still very old-school. Modern feminism, as I understand it, is very much about equal opportunity: women can and should be able to work on oil rigs, in law offices, hold political office, and so on without consideration of their gender. But although both sexes can hold power, Shadow and the rest of Wheel are all about specific gender roles. Sure, women can be powerful Wise Ones, but a Wise One is not a clan chief; that’s a man’s role. Aiel women fight in the warrior society Far Dareis Mai, Maidens of the Spear, but there are twelve warrior societies and the rest are exclusively male. The source of magic, the One Power, is divided in half; men can use the half called saidin, and women the half called saidar, and neither can use the other one’s half without help. Men and women are equal, says Jordan, but very definitely separate.  

The One Ain’t The Other

Saidar and saidin are illustrative in another way, too. To use saidin, a man has to wrestle it into submission; it’s often compared to riding an avalanche. To use saidar, a woman has to surrender to it and open herself to be filled by it; Aes Sedai in training imagine themselves as a slowly opening rosebud. Ignore the uncomfortable sexual resonance for a second. The point is that men are fundamentally wired differently than women; when Elayne and Egwene try to teach him the Power, Rand compares it to a bird trying to teach a fish to fly. And the Power is far from the only area where this is voiced. On practically every other page, a character throws their hands up and declares that they’ll never understand the opposite sex, and they never will. Hey, look, it’s the emotional intelligence thing again! Nobody can cross the gender barrier and figure out the other side because they’re just so freaking different from us. Women are mysterious and desirable in their femininity, say the men; they’re dumb, say women, but we love ‘em anyway. And that’s all.

But, of course, it isn’t all. In some ways women have plenty of power, but in other ways they fall into the kind of norms or male-gaze-ness that would make several of my exes tear their hair out. Heteronormativity is almost absolute, minus some talk about “pillow-friends” that appears in later books, but a) it seems to be only women (remember this) and b) I don’t remember any openly gay or lesbian characters, much less trans ones. Everyone is set in their sexual and gender identity. More to the point, in traditional fantasy style, nobody is single or casually dating; everyone has a Love Of Their Life that they wind up with. Women (Elayne and Min, probably Aviendha, Egwene, Nynaeve, and several others) fall in love with their men immediately upon meeting them. And, well, this happens.

Bechdel Dies

“Perrin Aybara belongs to me,” [Faile] snapped. “You keep your hands and your smiles away from him!” She flushed to her hairline when she heard what she had said. She had promised herself she would never do this, never fight over a man like a farmgirl rolling in the dirt at harvest.

Berelain arched a cool eyebrow. “Belongs to you? Strange, I saw no collar on him. You serving girls—or are you a farmer’s daughter?—you have the most peculiar ideas.”

[Faile fumes internally about being raised at Court in Saldaea]

She was surprised to see the knife in her hand; she had been taught not to draw a knife unless she meant to use it. “Farm girls in Saldaea have a way of dealing with women who poach others’ men. If you do not swear to forget Perrin Aybara, I will shave your head bald as an egg. Perhaps the boys who tend the chickens will pant after you then!”

It goes on like that. You see? These are two strong-willed women. One of them runs a country, the other will be revealed as a noblewoman who’s had all sorts of battle training. But they’re in this conflict because of a man. Berelain’s trying to hook a member of Rand’s entourage so he will think well of her country, and Faile is old-fashioned-ly in love with Perrin. If this was Jordan’s idea of strong female characters, he misses the modern idea so hard it’d make Bechdel barf.

Most female activity in Shadow fits this pattern on a macro level. Nynaeve and Elayne are ostensibly on an independent mission, but they’re acting to remove a danger to Rand. Moiraine is presented as this wise and unknowable figure who wields immense power (and boy, do they talk about avoiding her manipulations A LOT), but almost all she does in Shadow is bitch at Rand and follow him around. Ditto Aviendha, who is made to act as his tutor; ditto Lanfear, who holds off on killing him because she is still in love with him. He is the basically messiah, and part of his power is that all sorts of people are pulled towards him without knowing why, but… man. There are women doing things for their own sake—Egwene studying Dreaming with the Aiel Wise Ones, for example—but they are far outnumbered by the ones doing what they do for men.

Male Gaze

I mentioned the male gaze up above. Jordan was kind of a dirty old man, and there aren’t many circumstances where men are told to get naked in his books, but women?  In Shadow alone, we see topless Sea Folk women, naked Aiel women plus Moiraine, Aviendha and Egwene, naked Moiraine and Aviendha going to Rhuidean (an Aiel holy place), naked Seanchan servants (men and women), Egwene in her bath (and Aviendha naked again in the same scene), Nynaeve and Elayne and their friend Egeanin in revealing nightclothes (multiple times), Elayne falling out of her dress to impress Rand, and I’m sure there are plenty of others I’m forgetting. It’s delicately done and never explicit—Jordan will say “She wore not a stitch” and leave it at that—but it’s also damn near omnipresent.

Even as a teenager I noticed this (I mean, of course I did). Often in-book it’s at a female-only ceremony, like the Aiel sweat tent that Egwene visits, but the overwhelming sense is that it’s for straight male readers to be titillated by—remember the female-only pillow-friends? And of course there’s sex. I think the first sex scene comes in Book 5, and many others follow. Mind you, Jordan usually cuts away from the action, but will describe the afterglow in fairly rapturous detail. It’s hard not to conclude that these books are written precisely for the sort of teenage me that found them, blending sword-and-sorcery stuff with naked this and naked that while throwing in enough strong (ish) female-ness and sanctimonious cutting away to maintain some respectability.

Anti-Conclusion Conclusion

I didn’t write this to render a judgment or draw a grand conclusion on Shadow or on the Wheel. Sometimes you go back and read a thing from childhood, or see a TV show or watch a movie, and think Man, I can’t get into this now. I tried watching Jackie Chan Adventures, which used to be my favorite Saturday morning cartoon, when they put the whole series on YouTube. No dice. It’s paced too slow, the jokes fall flat on adult ears, and Jade is somehow right about everything because preteen girls always are. Even in a movie like Mulan that’s still enjoyable, the jokes tend to be just a little slower, telegraphed a bit more so that young eyes will catch them. And it’s depressing because you know you’ll never again like it as much as you did; it'll never have that special magic that once caught your eye. “By the time I got back to music, the season had passed,” says Daniel Baker in Collateral.

The Shadow Rising doesn’t hit me like that. Sure, I probably wouldn’t be into it today. Somewhere along the line I lost my taste for epic fantasy; I couldn’t finish even the third book in Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series, and while I enjoyed A Song of Ice and Fire, I didn’t get into it in the same way that I did the Wheel of Time. I have friends who know every name of every minor House, get into all the fan theories, have instant memory recall of every half-glimpsed prophecy. Nope. When I was 16 I spent hours on arguing with chat room denizens about who killed Asmodean or whatever; it was my first experience in an online community. Even though Reddit exists now, I haven't come close to doing that today.

My point is that Shadow makes me think. Reading it over again makes me think about the me that read it nine or ten years ago, and the me that’s reading it now, and how I’ve changed. A book is like a time capsule that way, or maybe a mirror. The words in the book stay the same no matter which you is reading them. And if it’s a good book, you’re going to get a different meaning from it every time you try. If you’re reading it like I did with Shadow, you end up reading yourself, too. This is what I used to value. I missed this, but I caught that. This is what the book meant to me then, and this is what it means now. It’s like the old saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

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