Note: Fantasy and Liminality is a new series of reflections that looks at liminal themes in fantasy. This inaugural piece looks at the first book of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. For these series of reflections, my goal isn’t to recap, review, or retell each book. I will explore themes I found important for liminality, philosophy, and/or theology. Obviously minor spoilers throughout, but I’ve done my best to avoid any major spoilers for Book 1.
I’ve always loved fantasy stories. There’s something about immersing yourself in another world that I find calming and relaxing. It’s also fun to think about different lands and realms, explore worlds full of magic and wonder, and consider thoughts and ideas birthed from the human imagination. Fantasy settings also offer a great way to explore profoundly deep philosophical themes. These themes can be easy to miss as one ventures into worlds populated with magical creatures, epic quests, and mysterious characters. And these same features can cause others to not take fantasy as seriously as other forms of literature. I think this is unfortunate, because if you look deeper into it, you’ll find important moral and ethical dilemmas, questions regarding the nature of good and evil, and explorations of identity and personal development. Fantasy is an amazingly rich form of storytelling, one that I think reflects some of the best stories and mythologies found in human history.
Recently, I began immersing myself in The Wheel of Time (WoT) series by Robert Jordan (1948-2007). The Wheel of Time is one of the largest and most expansive works of fantasy, comprising 14 volumes and 1 prequel novel. Written over the span of more than two decades (1990-2013), Jordan died before he could complete the series. Brandon Sanderson (1975-), completed the final three books using Jordan’s own detailed notes and directions. WoT ranks as one of the grandest and most well-renowned works of fantasy ever produced, expanding upon and rivaling J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Probably because of its vast size, WoT has never received a true screen adaptation like many other series have (most notably Game of Thrones). This November, Amazon is releasing a television adaptation of the WoT. It’s too early to predict the success of that adaptation, but WoT is already an immense success with over 80 million copies sold.
I had known of the series for years, but I finally decided to take the plunge into this deep series following the recommendation of a friend. After reading The Eye of the World (Book 1) I’m thrilled to say that I’m hooked! I really enjoyed the characters, world building, and high fantasy elements. In the best way possible, it is reminiscent of Tolkien’s world with plenty of improvements. Jordan creates an engaging and immersive world, one that feels alive with history and activity. I’ve never finished a book of fiction so quickly, especially one so large (over 800 pages). I found it full of liminal themes related to journey, personal identity and purpose, and encountering the unknown. Few fictional works have ever inspired me to write about them, so I consider The Eye of the World (EotW) one of the most important (and fun) books I’ve read in quite a while.
WoT revolves around a group of people who are unexpectedly thrown into a journey full of hardships, wonder, and terror. EotW, primarily revolves around the theme of journey and the personal developments that come from being thrown into the unknown. For the characters of EotW this is especially true. The main protagonists of the story dwell in a very sheltered region simply known as the “Two Rivers.” Largely unaware of the comings and goings of the larger world, the people of Two Rivers live in blissful ignorance of the evils that lurk beyond their borders. Most who live in Two Rivers never encounter the wider world except in the stories told by traders and “gleemen,” professional storytellers. Still, most outside stories are considered fictional or exaggerations. The world of Two Rivers is very small, one full of stubbornness and unacceptance of anything that challenges their preconceived conceptions of what life is supposed to look like.
EotW’s protagonists include shepherd Rand, blacksmith apprentice Perrin, prankster Mat, the mayor’s daughter Egwene, and town healer (called a “Wisdom”) Nynaeve. For the most part, the protagonists of EotW share in the blissful unawareness and often downright mistrust of the outside world. But within them all is a glimmer of curiosity of the places beyond their home. Young and eager, the book’s main characters carry within them an uneasy mix of adventure and fear, which often manifests in conflicting desires to venture onward and a desire for home. They’re led ever onward by Moiraine, a magic wielder from a group known as the “Aes Sedai,” and her protector Lan. The group’s last companion, Thom Merrilin, is a gleeman who inexplicably finds himself caught up in the mess.
Their journey begins largely not by choice, as Trollocs (a beast like creature with animal and human features) raid Two Rivers to the shock of all as most had considered these creatures to be simply part of stories to tell children. Worse still is the realization that these creatures came to Two Rivers to capture Rand, Perrin, and Mat. Thus begins a chaotic and hasty escape out of Two Rivers toward the city “Tar Valon,” the home of the powerful Aes Sedai who act as defenders of the Light and guard the world against the mysterious “Dark One.” Decisions are made quickly and goodbyes are forgone as the group ventures out in the dead of night to avoid capture. For most, family and friends are left behind without much word of where they’re going or if they’ll ever be back.
Moiraine, the Aes Sedai tasked with rescuing Rand, Perrin, and Mat, functions as the group’s liminal guide of sorts. She is their guide for the strange lands and people they encounter. Assisted by her “Warder” Lan (his task is the physical safety of her and the group), Moiraine offers wisdom, history, and protection for the group. Though she is their guide and protector, the group doesn’t always trust her. Much of this is due to centuries of mistrust Two Rivers people have toward the Aes Sedai, who are considered only slightly better than the Dark One. Some of this is due to the magic they wield, which is blamed for the “Breaking of the World,” a cataclysmic event that reshaped the world and destroyed much of what was known thousands of years before. Magic, or the “One Power,” is dangerous to both its users and those around them. In fact, it’s so dangerous that males are no longer able to wield it without going disastrously mad. Therefore, to be journeying with an Aes Sedai is not only strange, it’s dangerous. I think that in many ways Moiraine represents the greatest challenge the group from Two Rivers have to overcome. They must deal with hundreds of years of prejudice in order to trust and follow her. Their liminal guide isn’t one they would’ve chosen, but she is in fact what they need in order to learn, grow, and survive.
Liminal themes abound throughout EotW, particularly so in the character’s journeys. Rand, Perrin, Mat, Egwene, and Nynaeve are continually pushed out of their comfort zones, which grow even less comfortable the further away they get from Two Rivers. Indeed, new customs and stories challenge their own convictions about magic, belief, and the nature of good and evil. The journey is therefore both literally and figuratively liminal as they cross unknown lands toward an unknown destination. It’s a journey that they seemingly have very little control over, and even worse, they don’t know what the outcome will be. Moreover, the further they get away from Two Rivers the less likely it seems that they’ll ever find the safety they seek. In fact, the end of their journey seems almost as scary as what they’re running from. Thus, there is a sense of perpetual liminality here.
It’s the personal changes they undergo that most clearly demonstrate liminality in my opinion. For each character endures personal liminalities of transformation, which provokes in each of them questions and doubts about who they are, their place in the world, and their ultimate destiny. This is evident when the party splits and their journey diverges. For me, Jordan’s EotW helpfully reinterprets and expands upon Campbell’s hero’s journey, making it less about a singular journey and more about how a group of people react and respond to their own struggles, questions, and doubts along their various paths. Two Rivers marks their point of departure, but they all take remarkably different paths during the middle part or “initiation” phase of their journey. Each character faces unique challenges, ones that highlight things within themselves they would like to change or hide. And the reshuffle of characters midway through the book reshapes some characters into leaders and guides, while others must learn to depend upon their companions when things are at their bleakest.
Separated from one another, each character must forge ahead toward their shared destination. For Rand and Mat, their journey reveals how they handle hardship and suffering, including the loss of a friend. Perrin encounters a new guide who unearths strange new talents that he finds terrifying. Nynaeve finds the courage to accept her own connection to the One Power once it’s revealed to her by Moiraine (who Nynaeve detests). Egwene too gains a new sense of independence when she learns of her connection to the One Power. For her, it’s the discovery that the life she thought she would have will never be. Egwene, along with Nynaeve, must become Aes Sedai. Nynaeve comes to resist this path while Egwene eagerly embraces it. But though both react differently to their destiny, their shared journey bonds them closely to one another.
These different paths help to cultivate each character’s personal traits and strengths, as well revealing their weaknesses, making their eventual reunion one that’s both happy and unexpected. For they’re no longer the same people they were before their division. Each has undergone a unique liminal journey. And though there are some shared commonalities, it’s the differences they notice the most. Once reunited, their different liminal journeys also strengthened their bonds to one another. So much so, that they’re willing to venture through darkness and death together. They traverse through “The Ways,” a dark series of pathways created by Aes Sedai long ago that cover vast distances over a short span of time. Surviving that, they then plunge into the heart of the “Blight,” a diseased covered land twisted by the Dark One’s evil and hate. In all of these adventures they must rely on their guides, Moiraine and Lan, and on one another. But they manage to survive because of the key strengths each has acquired over their journey. They are no longer the same people they were at the start, doing things they would never have dreamed of doing only a few months prior.
Beyond the characters are references to the much talked about, but often misunderstood, “Wheel of Time.” The Wheel of Time looms as an overarching metaphysical concept, which supposedly turns and “weaves” the course of history and time. Time turns on the Wheel, and on each spoke of this wheel is an age (seven in total). At each turn, the Wheel of Time weaves the “Pattern of the Age.” Ages come and go, each time being remade in a slightly different way. Over time, these changes continually grow larger, but the ages remain the same. At this point in the story, the Wheel is not yet fully understood. What’s happening seems destined to be, which raises questions regarding fate and free choice. Such questions will undoubtedly be wrestled with later, but at this point the Wheel of Time is distant and mysterious, as is the “Creator” (so far the only godlike entity we know of) who created the universe. As far as liminality goes, it does suggest interesting things to consider later on about the liminal journeys, perpetual liminality, and the question of free choice. I’m also interested in the religious/theological aspects regarding the Wheel of Time and the Creator. However, I hesitate to speculate more until I’m a little further into the series.
EotW presents interesting ideas and characters in a format that’s fun, engaging, and detailed. After completing Book 1, and now midway through Book 2 (The Great Hunt), I can see why so many cherish and love this series. As I continue, I look forward to exploring the great ideas from the series, especially the liminal ones, which I’m sure will be many. I hope to write reflections for all the books, though I might condense these reflections across multiple books in the future given the size of the series.
Image Credit: Darrell K. Sweet/Tor