Thursday, June 28, 2007

Wheel of Time

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is a giant work of fiction. The guy has already written thirteen books and intends to write till he dies. Since he has recently recovered from cancer, luck seems to be in his favor is he is not going to leave us anytime soon.

This giant fantasy world can be described as jhelable at best and gloriously uninspiring at worst. Still it does have some peculiar properties when compared to other giant works of fantasy.

Here I will compare it to two works that I’m most familiar with (I wish to read more fantasy but they usually are so long that it takes a lifetime to get through one) – The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. And people should please pardon me for writing those two titles in the same sentence which itself is enough of an insult to LOTR.

Anyhow, getting down to business.

The Wise Old Man

The Wise Old Man, the staple archetype of every fantasy novel, is conspicuously missing in Wheel of Time. In LOTR we have good old Gandalf, in Harry Potter we have Dumbledore but there is no like character in Wheel of Time. In fact, there are no old men at all. Neither are there any old women. Most characters, at least the major ones, are very young and they are very much on their own. There is no one to guide them. No one who knows more than them. No one they can trust and turn for counsel and no one who has any idea what is going on.

The archetype of the Wise Old Man represents, to a certain degree, the tendency of people to hold on to tradition and stereotype when faced with uncertainty. With such an archetype missing in Wheel of Time, it becomes a more contemporary fantasy where the world is changing so fast and things are so uncertain that one cannot rely on any Wise Old Men any longer. It is each man and each Aes Sedai to himself and herself and thus (fortunately) we have faces that are devoid of hair longer than a few micrometers.

The Gender Dichotomy

Both LOTR and HP are stories about men. The chief characters are all men and all action is centered around men. Yes, there are some women here and there but they are not really important. In LOTR they are chiefly elvish females who are there to inspire awe and wonder at their beauty and purity and in Harry Potter they are just the usual next door neighbor type women who are either school teachers or mean aunts.

Not so in the Wheel of time. Over here, not only are the chief protagonists female, the One Power is also held in the strict monopoly of women. It is only women who can channel after the Breaking of the World and men who can channel either go mad or are caught and stilled by these women. The most powerful city in Jordan’s world is The Tower where the Amyrlin Seat resides and she is perhaps the most powerful person in the world. The men on the other hand are mostly young and naïve and don’t know much about anything.

This kind of strict gender dichotomy, apart from being unusual in fantasy, also creates and unusual effect within the story. Let me relate, as an exempli gratia, a scene that I have been recently reading (in the fourth book, The Shadow Rising). What happens here is that a princess first tries to seduce the Dragon Reborn for her own dark purposes. The seduction fails when disturbances (bubbles) in the One Power occur around the Dragon Reborn and he has to fight his own images leaping from the mirrors (of which there seems to be an uncanny abundance in the room). Once he has vanquished the enemies, a scantily clad princess leaves in an embarrassed and frightened state. Soon thereafter, two Aes Sedai, who are friends of the Dragon come to meet him. One tells him that she does not love him and the other tells him that she does.

Things like this happen again and again and the effect is multiplied by the fact that the power that the Aes Sedai have is rather girly. The Aes Sedai specialize in healing and not hurting. Hurting is chiefly the job of men. Thus, in putting such female morality in a position of power, the readers mind is constantly forced away from physical violence to a more subtle emotional violence. In this case, it is women playing with the Dragon’s romantic feelings.

It is in this sense also that the story becomes more contemporary. In the modern world people have developed some aversion for physical violence and it is shunned and avoided at all places. However, emotional violence is replete with the corporate and the government flinging subtle propaganda at us day and night. No wonder that most people in today world feel as foolish are the male protagonists in the Wheel of Time with regards to dealing with the day to day vagaries of the world.

PS: If you suddenly got inspired and want to read the work let me tell you. It is VERY LONG. Thirteen books each more than six hundred pages is no small feat. Second, I lied in my first paragraph. The books are only excruciatingly boring at best.

1 comment:

  1. Very well done. Your explanation was very clear.

    I read Jordan's book up to 10th, skipping about 60% of the last few book or two. Never read 11th. This was more than a few years ago, past 9/11 even.

    I would always get an intense feeling of frustration and feeling of helplessness when I finish one of his books. At first I thought it was because of the lack of plotlines, but it was always more subtle than that. I didn't even know how to explain it until I learned some new things in other unrelated fields.

    The chief problem was always that the Old Wise guy was already by the Dragon and accessible. Often times I wanted and wished very hard for someone, anyone, to ask the Ancient Guy for secrets and advice. Except, as you well know, the Old Wise guy was the Old Ancient Insane Guy.

    What was left of the olden age seemed to be all enemies, villains, and traitors. No hero, no one that believed in anything like duty to the greater world or humanity.

    There was little good and little true evil in Jordan's world, just petty power struggles, hatreds, and prejudices. No true challenge that would have made the humans of his universe better, safer, more prosperous.

    Seems very similar to the 60s. A turning away from the guidance of the Old in the belief that the Old had gone insane over Vietnam. A total lack of challenge, of things to do that could have made a difference in the world due to the Nuclear Sword hanging over everybody's head. The Cold War mantra was "maintain status quo" rather than De Oppresso Liber, to liberate the oppressed.

    The Deathstalker series was a very breath of fresh air.

    There was true evil there, true heroes, and true challenges that would affect the fate and destiny of the entire universe.

    The villains were bigger than life and so were the heroes, even long after both had died.

    In our world, if humanity's heroes like Jesus, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Washington, Lincoln, Luther, etc came back we would have everybody and anybody going to them asking for the mysteries of the universe. In Jordan's world, the ancients that came back are either mad or enemies.