Discussion of the Wheel of Time, a 14 book epic fantasy series which now has a high budget TV show (which changes the plot a ton and is quite bad).
Some comments on The Wheel of Time, books 1 through 4.
The books reveal things about the author’s view of life. There are ongoing themes and choices about what themes to bring up and write about. It’s not just magic spells killing monsters. A lot of it is more directly applicable to society.
For context: The author is a male from the U.S. South who was born in 1948. He was in the military and was in combat in Vietnam.
Relationships and marriage are a major theme. Girls are supposed to be pretty. How pretty they are is commented on repeatedly, and the prettiness of different girls is compared. People fall in love with little reason, and it can be pretty much at first sight or after spending time around someone a while. There’s no clear reason for falling in love with one person instead of another. It’s just kinda arbitrary or a thing that happens to you. The books don’t say most of this outright; they show it by examples and telling stories.
Men vs. women is a major theme. it’s seen as an ongoing power struggle between the two groups generally and between individual members of the two groups including friends or spouses. People in each group give advice about how to get the best of the other group.
Punishment is a major theme. It’s often chores (e.g. scrubbing pots) or violence (e.g. being whipped repeatedly with a strap). Punishments are done by older or higher status people to younger or lower status people. Punishments are generally allegedly for disobedience, unreasonableness or not doing good enough. Punishers are often mentors or teachers, as well as parents, village elders, and other authority figures.
People repeatedly need to find an older, wiser person to learn from, rather than figuring things out on their own. A lot of other fantasy books have characters discover more stuff for themselves, particularly about magic. That does happen too. Sometimes people try to do stuff pretty recklessly, that is too advanced for them, and it generally works out well for them.
Some people are born with more magic power than others. Most are born with none. It’s just innate/genetic destiny/talent. How strong people are at magic is often commented on and compared. Readers are supposed to be impressed by people who are born into a higher place in the hierarchy of magical strength, and think they’re cool. It’s basically a social status hierarchy with no upward mobility.
Prophecies, fate and destiny are major themes that get a lot of attention. A few characters are born special which gives them a larger role in fate. It’s unclear if they get more free will or just are main characters in fate’s plot/story/script (fate is called the Pattern, and men’s lives are threads woven in or by the pattern. the pattern has no start or end – it’s woven cyclicly, forever, by the “wheel of time” – unless the dark one wins and breaks the wheel).
There’s a strong focus on the main characters, who feel like your social circle, and what happens to other characters is deemphasized. You aren’t meant to care that much when lots of them are harmed or killed.
There’s a lot of admiration for people being very hard, living with little wealth in harsh natural conditions, and being kinda ascetic and kinda embracing hardship and becoming very tough.
There’s a lot of emphasis on honor, oaths, and following customs. There’s also a fair amount of (non-religious) ritual that people observe.
There’s a lot of emphasis on traditions that have lasted a thousand years or more, and what nationality or “blood” someone is born into. People are believed to have many traits of their ancestors and put effort into trying to live up to the expectations for people from their region.
For the social climbing battles between the elites, I’ll quote the glossary:
Daes Dae’mar (DAH-ess day-MAR): The Great Game, also known as the Game of Houses. Name given the scheming, plots, and manipulations for advantage by the noble Houses. Great value is given to subtlety, to aiming at one thing while seeming to aim at another, and to achieving ends with the least visible effort.
There’s also a bunch of interest in pacifism.
And dreams. They’re related to portents and there is a whole magic world of dreams.
You’re supposed to learn things the first time and not need a second explanation, not talk back or ask questions, not speak until spoken to around higher status people, and try really hard even for unimportant things if a high status person request them.
There’s a lot of stuff normalizing and talking about emotions like anger.
I like this.
I first read the ~5 first books some 15-20 years ago. I listened to book 1-6 last winter, as audio books, and have been listening to them this winter as well. Mainly when I’m out on a walk. I’m at book 8 currently.
I read all of them in the past. I read 9 to 11 of them initially; I’m not sure exactly. After a long break, I finished the rest after Sanderson published the last book (14). I’ve also read a large amount of other fantasy.
I liked them long ago, but less when finishing the series. Now I think they’re kinda mediocre. But I like reading and I have trouble finding enough books to read that I think are actually very good. I also sometimes like to review things from my past and see how my perspective has changed.
What is your favourite fantasy series / which fantasy series would you recommend?
Apart from WoT I’ve read / listened to the first ~two books of Mistborn. I read some Lord of the Rings too but didn’t enjoy it. Maybe I’ve read some more fantasy books but if I have I can’t recall it now.
I too liked WoT better the first time (although I didn’t read that far that time). I’m not sure why. Your analysis was helpful - it helped me see clearer some parts that I am not a fan of that occur in the books.
There’s lots of ageism. There are comments about whether someone is acting like an adult (often comments about oneself).
There’s lots of attention to clothes, particularly how modest or immodest female clothes are.
Decision making is often viewed in terms of stubbornness.
People bicker a lot and are mean to each other.
Here’s a scene from WoT book 5 that’s heavy on the author’s sense of life regarding issues like punishment, social status, saving face, foolishness, and meanness. I cut out a bunch of text from to keep it focused on these themes and to avoid any major spoilers. I present it for people to analyze.
What Can Be Learned in Dreams
Carefully Nynaeve formed an image in her mind of the Amyrlin’s study, just as she had envisioned the Heart of the Stone on going to sleep. Nothing happened, and she frowned. She should have been taken to the White Tower, to the room she had visualized. Trying again, she imagined a room there that she had visited much more often, if more unhappily.
In the magical dream world, they can teleport places by thinking about them. But it’s unreliable. Places they’re more familiar with are easier to go to.
The Heart of the Stone became the study of the Mistress of Novices, a compact, dark-paneled room full of plain, sturdy furnishings that had been used by generations of women who had held that office. When a novice’s transgressions were such that extra hours of scrubbing floors or raking paths would not atone, it was here that she was sent. For an Accepted to receive that summons took a greater transgression, but still she went, on leaden feet, knowing the outcome would be just as painful, perhaps more so.
Nynaeve did not want to look at the room—Sheriam had called her willfully stubborn on her numerous visits—but found herself staring into the mirror on the wall, where novices and Accepted had to look at their own weeping faces while listening to Sheriam lecture about obeying the rules or showing proper respect or whatever. Obeying others’ rules and showing required respect had always tripped up Nynaeve.
Completing her disguise, she gripped her suddenly red-gold braid and grimaced at Melaine’s face in the mirror. Now, there was a woman she would like to hand over to Sheriam.
… “I am the Amyrlin Seat, girl! Do you not know how to show respect? I will have yo—” In midword, she was gone.
This is basically a short snippet of another character’s regular dream. The rest of the sentence would have been some sort of punishment.
“You nearly frightened ten years out of me,” Nynaeve muttered. “So the Wise Ones have finally decided to let you come and go as you please? Or is Melaine behind—”
“You should be frightened,” Egwene snapped, color rising in her cheeks. “You are a fool, Nynaeve. A child playing in the barn with a candle.”
Nynaeve gaped. Egwene berating her? “You listen to me, Egwene al’Vere. I’ll not take that from Melaine, and I won’t take it—”
“You had best take it from someone, before you get yourself killed.”
“I ought to take that stone ring away from you. I should have given it to Elayne and told her not to let you use it at all.”
“Told her not—!”
“Do you think Melaine was exaggerating?” Egwene said sternly, shaking her finger almost exactly like Melaine. “She was not, Nynaeve. The Wise Ones have told you the simple truth about Tel’aran’rhiod time and again, but you seem to think they’re fools whistling in a high wind. You are supposed to be a grown woman, not a silly little child. I vow, whatever sense you once had in your head seems to have vanished like a puff of smoke. Well, find it, Nynaeve!” She sniffed loudly, rearranging the shawl on her shoulders. “Right now you are trying to play with the pretty flames in the fireplace, too foolish to realize you might fall in.”
Nynaeve stared in amazement. They argued often enough, but Egwene had never ever tried to dress her down like a girl caught with her fingers in the honey jar. Never! The dress. It was the Accepted’s dress she was wearing, and someone else’s face. She changed herself back to herself, in a good blue wool that she had often worn for Circle meetings and to put the Council straight. She felt robed in all her old authority as Wisdom. “I am well aware of how much I don’t know,” she said levelly, “but those Aiel—”
“Do you realize you could dream yourself into something you could not get out of? Dreams are real here. If you let yourself drift into a fond dream, it could trap you. You’d trap yourself. Until you died.”
“There are nightmares walking Tel’aran’rhiod, Nynaeve.”
“Will you let me speak?” Nyaneve barked. Or rather, she tried to bark it; there was rather too much frustrated pleading in there to suit her. Any at all would have been too much.
“No, I will not,” Egwene said firmly. “Not until you want to say something worth listening to. I said nightmares, and I meant nightmares, Nynaeve. When someone has a nightmare while in Tel’aran’rhiod, it is real, too. And sometimes it survives after the dreamer has gone. You just don’t realize, do you?”
Suddenly rough hands enveloped Nynaeve’s arms. Her head whipped from side to side, eyes bulging. Two huge, ragged men lifted her into the air, faces half-melted ruins of coarse flesh, drooling mouths full of sharp, yellowed teeth. She tried to make them vanish—if a Wise One dreamwalker could, so could she—and one of them ripped her dress open down the front like parchment. The other seized her chin in a horny, callused hand and twisted her face toward him; his head bent toward her, mouth opening. Whether to kiss or bite, she did not know, but she would rather die than allow either. She flailed for saidar and found nothing; it was horror filling her, not anger. Thick fingernails dug into her cheeks, holding her head steady. Egwene had done this, somehow. Egwene. “Please, Egwene!” It was a squeal, and she was too terrified to care. “Please!”
The men—creatures—vanished, and her feet thudded to the floor. For a moment all she could do was shudder and weep. Hastily she repaired the damage to her dress, but the scratches from long fingernails remained on her neck and chest. Clothing could be mended easily in Tel’aran’rhiod, but whatever happened to a human . . . Her knees shook so badly that it was all she could do to stay upright.
She half-expected Egwene to comfort her, and for once she would have accepted it gladly. But the other woman only said, “There are worse things here, but nightmares are bad enough. I made these, and unmade them, but even I have trouble with those I just find. And I did not try to hold them, Nynaeve. If you knew how to unmake them, you could have.”
Nynaeve tossed her head angrily, refusing to scrub the tears from her cheeks. “I could have dreamed myself away. To Sheriam’s study, or back to my bed.” She did not sound sulky. Of course she did not.
“If you had not been too scared spitless to think of it,” Egwene said dryly. “Oh, take that sullen look off your face. It looks silly on you.”
Egwene said thoughtfully. “You never did listen to the lectures as you should. It is a triptych.”
Nynaeve stared indignantly at Egwene’s back as she left. You search in here, indeed! Egwene had no right to give her orders. She ought to march right after her and tell her so in no uncertain terms. Then why are you standing here like a lump? she asked herself angrily. Searching the papers was a good idea, and she might as well do so in here as out there. In fact, the Amyrlin’s desk was more likely to hold something important. Grumbling to herself about what she would do to set Egwene straight, she stalked to the thickly carved table, kicking her skirts with every step.
The third box did hold documents. The stick vanished, and she gingerly lifted out the top sheet of parchment. Formally signed “Joline Aes Sedai,” it was a humble request to serve a set of penances that made Nynaeve wince just scanning them rapidly.
“Don’t be a goose,” Nynaeve scoffed. … “You’re imagining things. You must be.”
“I had a parchment in my hands, Nynaeve, …
Nynaeve’s stomach tried to flutter up into her chest. “But how? …
“Try, Nynaeve. Try very hard.”
“I am, Egwene, but it will not come. I am trying.”
What she was doing hit Nynaeve like a sudden hammer between the eyes. Excusing herself. To Egwene, a girl whose bottom she had switched for throwing a tantrum not more than two years ago. And a moment earlier she had been proud as a hen with a new egg because Egwene was pleased with her. She remembered quite clearly the day when the balance between them had shifted, when they ceased being the Wisdom and the girl who fetched when the Wisdom said fetch, becoming instead just two women far from home. It seemed that balance had shifted further, and she did not like it. She was going to have to do something to move it back where it belonged.
The lie. She had deliberately lied to Egwene for the first time ever today. That was why her moral authority had vanished, why she was floundering around, unable to assert herself properly. [Nyneave then confesses about a lie.] Taking a deep breath, she tried for a tone of righteous firmness, but it was difficult when you had just confessed to having been an utter fool. What came out sounded much more tentative than she liked. “If you tell the Wise Ones about this—especially that Melaine—I’ll box your ears.”
Something in that should have sparked Egwene’s ire. It seemed odd to want to start a row—usually their quarrels were over Egwene refusing to see reason, and they seldom ended pleasantly, since the girl had formed the habit of continuing to refuse—but that was certainly better than this. Yet Egwene only smiled at her. An amused smile. A condescending amused smile.
“I more than suspected as much, Nynaeve. … You’ve always tried to put the best face on things. If you fell head first into a pigsty, you’d try to convince everybody you did it on purpose. Now, what we have to decide—”
“I do no such thing,” Nynaeve spluttered.
“You certainly do. Facts are facts. You might as well stop whining about it and help me decide—”
Whining! This was not going at all the way she wanted.
And you lie to yourself. Do you remember what you made me drink the last time I lied to you?” Suddenly a cup was in her hand, full of viscous sickly green liquid; it looked as if it had been scooped from a scummy stagnant pond. “The only time I ever lied to you. The memory of that taste was an effective discouragement. If you cannot tell the truth even to yourself . . . [ellipsis in original]”
“I am not a fool,” Nynaeve said stiffly, and felt a slow burn when Egwene quirked that eyebrow at her again. …
“I know you are not,” Egwene said. “Unless you let your temper get the better of you. You need to hold your temper and keep your wits about you …
… She struggled to take the defensive note out of her voice. Light, I confessed everything, made a fool of myself, and it’s only made things worse! “I will keep trying.”
… Do not go rushing off like a bear in spring …
“I am not a fool, Egwene,” Nynaeve said carefully. It was frustrating having to hold her temper, but if all Egwene would do was ignore it or scold her, there was nothing to be gained beyond looking a bigger ninny-head than she did already.
I think, before, I read stuff (like berating, harsh punishments, calling people fools, being prideful and trying to gain the social power/upper hand with others) as more unrealistic and more part of the fantasy setting than I do now.
I’ve maybe lost interest in reading WoT. I stopped for now. I got bored mid book 6. Partly it’s because I stopped doing RSVP for now because I got too tired, and I already reached my VDR speedreading goals. Without a speedreading related goal, all that’s left is the story itself, which is not great. Also I think I read enough to get the idea of what it is, and also to compare how I see it now to how I did in the past. And to compare the books to the TV show.
And the books have a lot of bad content and propaganda. It has such bad sense of life with the social power struggles involving punishments like berating, pot scrubbing or spanking. I think Robert Jordan sees berating the same as spanking just milder – they’re both punishments, they’re both things that higher status people do to lower status people to make them “listen” or “see reason” … to deal with disobedience, foolishness, unreasonableness, etc. His characters tend to all assume that they are right and the solution to every situation is they get their way, and then they do social power struggles and try to punish and bully others. He goes out of his way to bring this kind of stuff up all the time, including multiple times having a character smack another character on the butt using magic. Who rules/lectures/punishes who gets so much emphasis in his way of looking at life. It’s a particular type of social power/status contest which I think is much more emphasized in the South than in the Bay Area so it never resonated with me well even before I knew a bunch of philosophy that explains why it’s super awful.
The scene I posted has a lot of the social/punishment/berating stuff. It’s particularly dense in that scene, but there’s similar stuff throughout the books.