I’d like to start this part of the readthrough by musing about the misfortune that is World only being syllable. Think how many parody lyrics you could have got out of this book if it was “The Eye of the [two-syllable word]”? I guess you could stretch it out. “It’s the eye of the wor-rrld, it’s the thrill of the flight, rising up to the challenge of the Myrddraal…”
Now that I’ve had my obligatory swing at making my content unreadable, let’s get to the book. I left Rand and gang in a state of abject fear due to the imminent entry of the one person who might frighten them more than Trollocs, Myrddraal, et al –
I talked in the last installment about how knowing what Mat grows into helps me like him more in his early days. It’s the same with Nyneave. I want to wait a little to get into that though, keep my observations mainly chronological. The main point of Rand talking to Nyneave here is to show his growth and how already he views the world in a different place. The scary village Wisdom is someone he can talk to as a more or less equal – even if he freezes up when dancing with her and Moiraine. Which brings us to one of the big things of The Wheel of Time. Gender roles. I mean, it’s already been on page, but it’s about to get real loud and here is one of the subtler indications of what it means. Rand is alright with treating Nyneave and Moiraine as equals – nay, figures of authority – in a formal environment. In a non-formal, slightly sexualised environment, he struggles with being with them.
Anyway, things go wrong and they must all flee Baerleon in a hurry. And then keep hurrying. This part of the book feels almost horror-esque. There is no respite. There is no hope in turning and fighting. The situation wears and wears at them. This reaches it’s peak in Shadar Logoth, and the encounter with Mordeth that feels like a straight horror scenario. It’s pretty good. Jordan makes the emotions feel alive. One particular place where this comes through is an exchange between Egwene and Rand where they’re having a go at each other, and Rand decides to back off and say he’s not thinking straight. He notes that Egwene looks less afraid after that; the sharing of the fear lessens it. It’s one of those little moments that sell it.
Two other moments worth noting are:
Moiraine and Nyneave arguing over whether to help out at the burning inn after leaving Baerleon. Nyneave’s impulse to run straight to the trouble is heroic; it’s the sort of thing we salute paramedics and Arthurian knights alike for. Moiraine’s actions show equal compassion but it’s through a cold calculation. She cannot make the situation better; that’s outside her power. All she can do is help afterwards. Besides, there’s the boys. Moiraine’s learned she can’t save everyone; she saves the most important first.
There’s also Mat’s first unprompted use of the Old Tongue. I have to admit that I never really feel Jordan made as much as he could have out of this (as opposed to the later memory hole fills), but it’s a very obvious illustration of how Jordan wanted his series to be about bringing the past back to life and fixing its mistakes. Also, all these years later, it’s still really cool. I’m a little leery of fantasies of bloodlines considering some things we see in this world, but I also do love them when done well and that just felt cool as hell.
After Shadar Logoth we get a peek at what was to come when Jordan decides to split the party in three. Screw elegant narratives, tell everything in detail! At this point I’m mostly on board with it but can’t help but wonder if it could have been a little more to the point. Are there any scenes I’d out and out delete? No, but there’s probably scenes I’d not have missed if I never knew about them.
No on that list is Thom shouting “Ride, you fools!” I’d missed that shout out before.
One good thing about this is it allows us to get a better view at previously underfleshed characters in Nyneave and Perrin.
I really enjoyed Nyneave’s first signs of awkward attraction at Lan. It’s so much fun when you know what’s coming. What’s more, in a way you can see how very well suited they are, for they both understand the world as conflict. When you see the way she seethes at Lan for treating her emotions respectfully rather than making a fight of it, you understand just how deeply it runs for Nyneave. It’s part of what helps me like her here. I get who she is – something who’s always had to fight expectations and as such, grown used to fighting (and probably someone who enjoys fighting and has picked roads that lead to fighting). I look forwards to her journey; her attitude, which in other characters would annoy me, slides by as entertaining.
It’s a little harder to get who Perrin is at this point despite the long internal monologue in which he tells you. This, I would hazard, is because characters’ character shines through brightest when they’re making decisions that aren’t in line with their obvious best interests. That’s a theory I came up with while reading this bit. But it seems to hold true. Nyneave’s and Mat’s characters shine bright for me, and that’s because they’re being a bit mental at times. Rand and Perrin are doing what most people would do and therefore feel like most people.
I do appreciate how Jordan’s setting up the axe vs the hammer thing early; look at Perrin swimming the river, thinking about giving up the axe but knowing he needs it. It’s practically the first thing in his PoV! The internal tension between Perrin, a gentle boy who has spent his life creating, and Perrin, a no-nonsense man who will protect those looking to him with destruction, is on display. He’s very easy and confident about it when with the Travellers. But take him away from that, have him wonder whether he should kill Egwene before she’s pecked to death by ravens, and the tension is there and it’s good reading. That thought is maybe the most interesting he’s been so far, which is saying something when he’s starting to talk to wolves.
Speaking of Perrin, there’s this bit from his PoV:
“Ila was giving me advice on being a woman,” Egwene replied absently. He began laughing, and she gave him a hooded, dangerous look that he failed to see.
“Advice! Nobody tells us how to be men. We just are.”
“That,” Egwene said, “is probably why you make such a bad job of it.” Up ahead, Elyas cackled loudly.
Gender! The Wheel of Time is so gender-centric. I think you’ve got to really embrace that as a feature, not a bug, to get the most out of it. And not just a “celebrating my culture which had strong gender roles” feature (although I think that is there in part), but also in a “wow we do so much stupid stuff with this, let’s talk about this” way. Which I also see as being there, and without contradiction to the above. How many of us will praise and criticise our own culture in the same breath? I totally understand why someone wouldn’t want to read that (particularly someone who doesn’t fit into men are men, women are women models), but I think there’s some interesting stuff there beyond the sniping for those who are okay with it. Take the snipe above.
Nobody tells men how to be men. Or at least, not explicitly. For how long has the model of a man been someone who acts exactly as they are? We don’t wear make-up, we don’t think too hard about grooming or clothes. We don’t lie, we keep our word. We are ronseal – exactly what it says on the tin. Obviously the world’s changed and it’s never been entirely that way, but I think most of us recognise it and indeed see aspects of it continuing. And, well, part of that is we don’t need to be taught who we are, obviously. That would be antithetical to who we are. It is probably not a mistake this conversation features the boy undergoing the awakening of a magic that will make him more animalistic – more unvarnished. Perrin’s being stripped back to being an animal in part. Egwene thinks it’s stupid. And Elyas, the mentor figure at this point, has only laughter. Because he agrees? Because he’s heard discussions like this too many times? Because he thinks it’s funny how snappy Egwene’s riposte is? At the very least there is a reading that Elyas agrees, and that Jordan does. That trying to hold this ideal of us being exactly as we are without artifice lies behind some of man’s more self-destructive decisions. That education and active mentoring (which Elyas is offering in a form here) make us better. Let’s not forget either that Perrin is busy trying to deny who he is while saying he doesn’t need to learn who he is. It’s hypocritical.
Incidentally, go back to that quote and you’ll see what feels like a very casual approach to PoV. We’re in Perrin’s, but there’s a hint of omniscient there to say the least. It’s little clumsy moments like this are counted against Jordan’s reputation. So too is the big scene earlier where Perrin talks about who he is. It’s a Tell, rather than a Show – in some ways. But, in another way, I like it. For one thing, we’ve been Shown Perrin for a while now. A Tell to bring it together isn’t the worst thing to me. For another, while Jordan is Telling us things through Perrin in a way that feels clumsy, from another angle Jordan is showing Perrin needing to reaffirm who he is and gather his strength before moving on through his ordeal. Why does Jordan show us that other than convenience? Is it so we can work out how unsuited to this Perrin feels, how he lacks the impulsive temerity of his friends? I think there’s an interesting reading there, and in many other of Jordan’s Tells.
This leaves Rand, Mat, and Thom. Their arc here feels the flabbiest of three. How much do we learn of the three for Rand and Mat learning how to act as apprentice gleemen and earning a way to Caemlyn? Yes, there’s symbolism in Rand learning to play a flute (a shepherd’s instrument, akin to the pipe of a pied piper) and Mat juggling (suitable for a strategist and fool alike). There’s good scenes. The slightly uneasy relationship between the two boys and Thom is fun, and maybe makes for a good contrast to Perrin and Elyas. Thom’s trying to make sure the two can survive in his very civilised world. They learn other lessons too, from the Grinwells and the innkeeper in Four Kings. Rand and Mat are walking into the myth of the undercover ruler/god, the same way Perrin is walking into a different myth. But for all the interesting stuff there, it’s a little lengthy as story. Jordan’s already trying to bite off too much.
But that ambition is a core part of the story. I’m a big believer in that you’ve got to choose the mistake you’re willing to live with, and not be too upset if the mistake happens. I’d rather a writer have moments that don’t quite work in search of big moments than competent all round. Jordan’s the former and there’s enough good moments to make up for flab for me.
(This is part of a series: