[This is part of a series analyzing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels. Previous installments can be found under the tag. Comments on old posts are welcome.]
Next month I’m going to dive into the final stretch of the Wheel of Time analysis. But before I do that, I’d like to talk about prophecy.
I thought about waiting a while longer. See, the major example I want to use for illustration is a plot that hasn’t actually paid off yet, as of the books I’ve read. This means that, while I can talk about where I think it’s going to go, I don’t actually know yet if I’m right. (Possibly some of you do, as I suspect the resolution is in The Towers of Midnight. But I dunno; maybe it’s in A Memory of Light. If it’s in ToM, though, don’t give any spoilers in the comments. I want to find out on my own how much of this is accurate.) In some ways, though, I think it’s more interesting to do it like this: to say what I think right now, without the hindsight warping it. So here we go.
The reason I wanted to discuss prophecy is that I think it’s one of the things Jordan does really, really well. In fact, if there’s one thing I would point at as the reason for my fannishness in high school — the thing that made me engage so enthusiastically with this series — prophecy would probably be it. On a metaphysical level, I’m not so fond of the trope: it puts the characters on a railroad track, taking away their agency and making their choices less meaningful. And that’s kind of true here, too, though Jordan sometimes goes the additional step required to make that interesting, which is to have the characters grapple with what it means to have their actions predestined. On the whole, though, it isn’t the existence of prophecy that I like.
It’s the way Jordan handles it. He strikes, I think, a very good (and delicate) balance of foreshadowing, giving enough information to be interesting, not so much as to spoil the entire plot. More to the point, he does this the right way: not through vagueness (which is what way too many fantasy authors try), but through breaking the information up and scattering it in a dozen different places.
It isn’t just the official Prophecies of the Dragon, with their pompous, pseudo-epic verse. It’s Egwene’s dreams, and those of the other Dreamers. It’s Elaida’s Foretellings, and Nicola’s, and Gitara Moroso’s. Min’s viewings. Aelfinn and Eelfinn tricks. Aiel prophecies and Sea Folk prophecies and things that aren’t even prophecy of any sort; they’re just little details of culture and history, stray lines characters speak here and there, tiny pieces you have to glue together to see that they have any significance at all.
Sure, some of it is vague. (Hi, Karaethon Cycle; how ya doin’?) But some of it is very specific, very clear . . . so long as you put it together right. And that’s why I think it works: if you’re the sort of reader who doesn’t want to know where the story is going, you don’t have to. Just read along, notice the obvious stuff, and let the rest surprise you when it comes. If, however, you’re the sort of person who likes to put together narrative jigsaw puzzles — which I am — then you can have a great deal of fun playing chase-the-clue through the books.
Having made the general statement, we’ll now go behind the spoiler cut for a specific example to show what I mean.
She “died” — or rather, disappeared — at the end of the fifth book, fighting Lanfear. (I had kind of a hilarious conversation with a friend when she hit that point in the series. We were in high school, and when she walked into English class the morning after she finished The Fires of Heaven, we had this exchange: “No way.” “Of course not.” “Good. I didn’t think so.” “Like he would really do that.” “Okay.” Utterly incomprehensible to everybody around us, but we both knew what we meant.)
It was obvious to us, even before we cracked Lord of Chaos, that Moiraine wasn’t really dead. The interesting part wasn’t the (total lack of) suspense about whether she was coming back. It was the jigsaw puzzle of how.
The answer, of course, is Mat. That became explicit in Knife of Dreams, six bloody books later. But if you wanted to look for it, you knew that way sooner — and you know more than that, too.
There’s no good, linear way for me to approach this, because the information isn’t given in a linear fashion. It’s a web, so I’m just going to wander through it.
The Aelfinn told Mat, in the beginning of The Shadow Rising (book 4), that he was destined to “give up half the light of the world to save the world.” During The Eye of the World (book 1), Min saw an image around Mat, of an eye on a balance scale. Put that together with Mat’s generalized Odin imagery and Egwene’s book 5 dream of Mat dicing with his eyes hidden and blood running down his face, and it becomes clear that “half the light of the world” means one of his eyes. (Kind of a nice phrasing for it — concrete but not instantly obvious.)
“To save the world” is less immediately concrete. A Crown of Swords (book 7) has Min thinking about how Rand is almost certainly doomed to fail at his task without the help of a woman who’s dead. This person is, presumably, Moiraine. Good new for him: he isn’t doomed! Rand needs Moraine to save the world; Mat will save Moiraine; he will give up one eye to do so. (We’ll come back in a minute to the question of why we can be sure that’s what Mat’s prophecy refers to.)
Min also has a comment in ACoS about how she only ever had one viewing that didn’t come true. Exceptions like that are suspicious; they make us wonder if they maybe aren’t exceptions after all. She says outright that the viewing in question had to do with Moiraine, so clearly it will come true later, after Moiraine comes back. It could be the one that makes Min say Rand needs her to win, but I don’t think it is; there’s a line elsewhere in the series about how Min’s viewings sometimes take the shape of “either/or,” and they’re always dire when they do. I suspect that particular viewing was of that sort. What else could it be?
Well, there’s a bit in the beginning of The Shadow Rising where the girls are being girly, talking about boys, and Moiraine says — kind of out of nowhere — that she knows the face of the man she will marry better than any of them do. I’m not sure I buy that line, really; Nynaeve knows Lan’s face pretty well by then. But it suggests Moiraine knows, prophetically. What would her source be? Unless her marriage is important enough to make it into one of the official prophecy texts (which I doubt), or somebody had a Foretelling (which I also doubt), it’s probably one of Min’s viewings. And that would be the one that hasn’t come true.
So who’s Moiraine going to marry, anyway? My guess is Thom Merrilin. It isn’t Lan (unless Nynaeve’s marriage is going to get a hell of a lot weirder), but it needs to be somebody Moiraine knows well. Thom is the most likely candidate, based on his known involvement in royal-level politics, aka the social circles Moiraine was born into. I don’t remember anymore what hints indicate the two of them have a history, but I seem to recall that they do, and my money’s on the two of them marrying.
Especially since Thom’s going to be part of the rescue. We know that from the same dream that had Mat dicing with blood on his face: “while” that was happening (an important conjunction), Thom pulled Moiraine’s blue crystal out of a fire. Pretty obvious rescue imagery, there. But there are more reasons than that to believe they’ll both be involved. The Eelfinn, the fox-people, have Moiraine, and they’re somehow akin to the Aelfinn, the snake-people. There’s a children’s game in Randland called Snakes and Foxes — which, if I recall correctly, one can’t win without cheating. (Certainly one can’t win; I seem to remember Mat saying something about cheating.) Each game starts with a rhyme: “Courage to strengthen, fire to blind, music to dazzle, iron to bind.” Any time one visits the *finn, they’re asked whether they have brought with them sources of light, iron, or musical instruments. Thom, of course, is a gleeman — Mr. Music himself.
I wonder, but don’t know, whether there will be four people in the rescue party, to match the four things in the rhyme. (Or at least three, for the three things forbidden by treaty.) If Thom is music, Mat is . . . light? Courage? If others are going to be involved, Perrin is the next most likely candidate. He’s obvious for iron, and besides, he’s probably their way into the *finn realm. Mat’s already been through both doorways, which means he can’t go through them again. The only other known way in is through the Tower of Ghenjei, which exists in the real world — and Mat may be on his way toward that — but also in Tel’aran’rhiod, where, if memory serves, Perrin saw it in the wolf dream. (I actually can’t remember where the hell either of them is right now, but I think they’re both somewhere in the south-ish — possibly not too far from Whitebridge and the physical tower.) The fourth . . . I want it to be Aludra for light, with Mat for courage, but I’d be surprised if it was. Possibly there will only be three, and Mat will be toting a firework. Or a cannon.
[Edited to add: Having re-read the part where they discuss this in Knife of Dreams, it is clear that there are only supposed to be three. Mat and Thom are two; the third is unclear, though Noal has volunteered, and I have (spoiler-based) reasons to think he’s a likely candidate. According to TGS, Olver wants to go, which I’m against, since I don’t like him. But I still think it would be cool for the third to be somebody else. Me, I’m rooting at this point for Birgitte.]
Regardless, they’re going to cheat. They’re going to bring the things they shouldn’t, and Mat’s luck will probably be involved (though the dream of him dicing might just indicate him taking a risk), and he’ll lose an eye, but they’ll come out the other side with Moiraine, and she will possibly marry Thom.
Some amount of this has been coming ever since book 1, when we saw that eye on a balance scale. Other bits probably got added along the way. But it’s been coming for a long time, and it’s been there for the readers to see — but only if they did the work to see it all. If you didn’t pay attention, all you would know is the broad outlines, not the details. And even with the details, we don’t know everything. Why the eye? Why is that going to be a part of Moiraine’s rescue? I don’t know; but I’m eager to find out.
Apart from the textual fun of playing with this stuff — seriously, I’m not kidding when I say that arguing this kind of thing on CompuServe’s Wheel of Time forum is how I learned close reading, and to hell with my English classes — it’s kind of a neat trick to use when your readers are having to wait years between books. Just as the fans of Lost entertained themselves from episode to episode by trying to guess where the metaplot was going, Wheel of Time fans could (and did) spend endless amounts of time combing the books for hints about future plot. (What else could we do? If Jordan wouldn’t deliver, we would, by way of endless speculation.)
I also think it helps the author have his cake and eat it, too, when it comes to the role this trope plays in fantasy. Yes, the path is laid out for Our Heroes, in a fashion compatible with the notion that they are all important enough to be Destined. But by fragmenting it and disguising it, he adds a layer of mystery that helps make their actions and choices seem less wholly pre-determined. And, as I said, Jordan at least sometimes goes the extra step of considering what that pre-determination means, at least from the perspective of the characters. Mat is told he’s destined to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons, and so the interesting part isn’t the surprise that it happens, but rather the question of how he reacts when he meets her. Egwene gets hints from her dreams, and faces the choice of what to say and do as a result. Rand has known since the second book that he has to fight the Dark One, and he thinks he knows what the price of that will be . . . and so the driving issue for him has been what freedom he has within that constraint. Can he choose how that moment comes? Can he avoid dying? Can he make sure there will be something left that’s worth preserving?
I’d like to read a fantasy series that hits those questions head-on. Like it or not, prophecy is part of the basic furniture of the fantasy genre, and for all its flaws we aren’t just going to chuck it out the window. The interesting question, both inside of the story and out, is what you do with it.