This LitStack Rec not only examines character building but also some of the challenging aspects of gender portrayal in the female characters who populate Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series.
Table of Contents
Ready for Something Epic
In my younger years, I gobbled up every fantasy book I coveted. In 1991, I bought the first two paperbacks of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt. I was primed for some epic fantasy. Although I loved the bucolic setting of Emond’s Field and terrified by its destruction by trollocs, and excited by the promise of monumental challenges and adventures in the appearance of the mysterious Moiraine and her even more mysterious warder, Lan, something in the reading of these books felt amiss.
What felt amiss was Jordan’s construction of his female characters. While he gave them huge ranges—powerful women, important in both rural and municipal society, unparalleled influence in the magical world—his actual portrayal of the female characters was full of rote tendencies. (Some may say this is true of all of Jordan’s characters, but we’ll put that away for this Rec.)
Enough With the Braid
For instance, there is the braid, and lack of character braiding. I simply couldn’t get beyond how one of the book’s main female characters, Nynaeve, constantly pulls at her long hair braid. Angry, pull the braid. Uncertain, pull the braid. Need comfort, pull the braid. She always pulls on that damned braid.
As a woman with long hair—even acknowledging that I am not all women—this character tic seemed ridiculous, if only for its constant repetition. It felt like a character tic used by a writer who failed to explore beyond a first, hackneyed, choice. This was a harbinger of more laziness to come—unfortunately constructed, flat female characters whose actions are not character motivated, but take place solely to move the action from point a to point b, regardless of the validity of the action. The character construction lacked emotional braiding and depth.
To hell with its staggering status in the realm of epic fantasy. To hell with the braid, and lack of character braiding. I stopped reading after the second book. I had no desire to return to the series.
A New Perspective
Nearly 30 years later, I had a new life, a new job, and a new boss. This new boss—decades my junior—was also a fan of fantasy literature. His absolute favorite was the Wheel of Time. He adored the books and was incredibly excited and worried about the upcoming television series; his own character braiding was cute, turning on a whim like a puppy’s. When he learned I had dropped the series after the first two books, he implored me to give them another try. “It starts slowly, but gets better,” he insisted.
Thus began his relentless campaign. When I couldn’t find my copy of the first book (it had been 30 years, after all), he said he would find his old copy at his mother’s house and lend it to me. When he couldn’t find it there, he promised he would buy me a copy. I balked, but he insisted. And in a mistake that probably saved the day for him, the book he ordered for me was not an e-book. It was the audio version of The Eye of the World. So, because I love puppies and I’m willing to believe that minds are braided and can change perspective, I started the series again. This time listening.
I listened to the entire Wheel of Time series. Fourteen books. Five hundred sixty-three + hours.
The Love and the Hate
My verdict? It’s complex. I can only partially recommend the series to a discerning enthusiast of fantasy literature, especially given the time involved in following the entire series—and you must read the entire thing to appreciate the sum of its parts. Especially since a few of those parts—even major ones—are not as well wrought as other parts.
The Wheel of Time series excels in the breadth and depth of its world building. Not just its creatures and locations, but the core of its focus on the world itself: the spirituality—the turning of time, how each person is part of an endless cycle of life and death and rebirth. How the worlds of the characters turn, and how each of them fits into that turning, either implicitly or by force of nature. This is such a strong foundation that the stories that blow across it are wonderfully varied and complex, colorful, spanning hundreds, thousands of years and yet able to focus on a single person and the cast of characters who surround the iconic character—the Dragon Reborn.
On to the Truth…and the Spoilers
If you haven’t figured it out by now, past this point are major spoilers for the series—if you’re looking for pristine insight, please look elsewhere. You’ve been warned about spoilers.
To be honest, I have no problem with the iconic central character—the Dragon Reborn—being male. I mean, does anyone within the first 50 pages expect the Dragon Reborn to be someone other than Rand, the strapping, fair-complexioned, flaxen-haired, motherless sweetheart, as expert with a bow and arrow as he is flummoxed around the fairer sex? Rand’s development from sheepherder to savior is grand but would be more interesting if the character whined less. Still, the character becomes something familiar to rally around for the long haul.
Believe me, there were many other things in these books that drove me crazy. Things such as how the evil in the books—and there is incredible evil—exists solely for the sake of evil. The main evil characters are understandable—all the standards exist, the vanity, the power, the greed. But their followers? Not the slobbering, mindless, monstrous followers, mind you, but the human followers. How did they come into this fold of trenchant evil?
There is so much pain, so much punishment, so much horror, and so little chance of beating evil’s game. Why do so many followers flock there? If there is no promise of a better world, only darkness and despair, would any creature, monstrous or human, except for the most despairing among them, sign on to be a minion of such a future? I can understand how fear can drive desperate actions, but why sign up to put yourself in the crosshairs of despair and fear? Well, they have to revel in evil because they’re the bad guys. Jordan’s laziness pokes at you despite the grandeur of the series.
And what of the Aes Sedai, a powerful sect of women trained from birth to channel the One Power? The Aes Sedai, advisors to kings and queens, are the most politically revered faction in all the nations. The common folk fear them and believe the women are akin to witches (despite unknowingly being protected by those same sorceresses from forces that, were it known how tentatively those forces were held at bay, would curdle the blood). A powerful group of women. Yet when we actually come to see the Aes Sedai in their seat of power in the White Tower of Tar Valon, they are peevish, scheming, tyrannical—and oddly fond of spanking as punishment. There is no way they could hold on to such power as petty as they are, with their infighting and undermining of each other.
Speaking of spanking—me thinks Robert Jordan doth spank too much. He has an embarrassingly clear fetish for spanking. It appears constantly throughout his books—thank heavens Brandon Sanderson abandoned spanking, of this sort anyway, in the Wheel of Time volumes he penned. The spanking would be laughable if it wasn’t so cringe inducing.
Jordan induces cringe in other ways throughout the books. Especially in the construction of his female characters. In a description of a male character, Jordan may offer an examination of their clothes, the tangled or mangled or combed state of their facial hair, their overpowering or impish physical demeanor. Jordan’s female characters—the ones not relegated to the faceless masses—don’t fare as well.
Jordan examines their looks, how pretty they are, how pretty they are not, and, unfortunately, the size of their breasts. No joke. Jordan defines virtually every single female character by the size of their breasts. In the battle between prettiness and big breasts, prettiness seems to win. If the woman is ugly, she is evil, even if she has big breasts. Every female character who crosses her arms in front of her always crosses them “under her breasts.” Most women cross their arms in front of themselves over their breasts, not under. We’re not trying to push up our assets. Jordan’s depiction of female characters is mammary-driven, focusing way too much on their oft-crossing arms under pendulous, protruding breasts.
Spoiler! I won’t get into how an important development in the later books involves females who channel being collared and treated as pets that lash out as weapons on command.
This treatment of female characters is flashy window dressing disguising something far worse. Every one of Jordan’s female characters seems like a caricature of womanly tropes, jumbled together and brought out on a whim. There is supposedly a cadre of close female friends surrounding Rand, the Dragon Reborn, some of whom grew up in Emond’s Field with him. Three of the women are part of a romantic quadrangular relationship with him (which I had little problem with). One minute, these women are fawning over each other as if they were the closest of sisters, the next minute they are plotting to slap and paddle and pull each other’s hair (not braided) out. The women employ heroic measures to protect Rand and each other, but they also protect singular secrets that threaten ruin on everyone. These women without exception, treat men (even Rand) rudely, often cruelly so, even though they have been to hell and back for these men, and have sometimes been rescued by men from the brink of destruction at great cost (and yes, the men often rescue the women—not always, but often).
Each one of these women bears Jordan’s moniker “the most powerful.” How can they all be the most powerful? Is it the size of their breasts, the alluring shadows of cheekbones? Jordan provides no reason for the power of these women, other than the capriciousness of a writer who needs one character to have a prescribed effect on another character, Rand. There is no development, no continuity, no growth that isn’t immediately hacked away and packed away into Jordan’s flimsy wrapping—pretty paper dolls, virtually no substance, flapping at whatever whim grabs them, crossing their arms under amply sized breasts. I get it. Some guys like breasts a lot. That’s great. But Jordan needed to move beyond breasts, and by not doing so cheats the reader. At least the readers not focused on female appendages.
So Where’s the Shine?
So why keep reading? Because amongst all the dross, there is considerable shine in The Wheel of Time.
Not all of Jordan’s male characters are cookie-cutter creatures like his women are. But they aren’t stereotypes, either. They struggle with complexities of emotion and decision, they fail, they despair, and yes, they triumph. They don’t emerge unscathed.
Take Perrin, one of Rand’s closest friends who inexplicably can commune with, and even in certain shadow realms, become one with wolves. This ability is complex, and for most of the series, it is one that is very uncomfortable for Perrin. It’s more than give-and-take, it’s a struggle. Perrin is unwilling to give in to the wolf, afraid that side of him makes him less a man, afraid how people will perceive of him if they know. That Perrin is a large, strong, methodical character who is not slow but deliberate makes the development (see? development!) even more tortured.
And to be honest, as disingenuously drawn as Jordan’s female characters are, sometimes he manages to make his women shine. Perrin’s eventual spouse has her fine moments. The head of the Aes Sedai is intriguing when we first meet her, even though the character depiction disappoints later. Moiraine, who enters at the start of the story, is consistently and enticingly mysterious until she disappears and becomes a mere rallying point. I was particularly impressed with the later struggles of Egwene. She accepts the mantle of leader of the Aes Sedai. She beats the odds stacked against her through cunning and strength, bravery, and a singular commitment to her vision. Later, Jordan flip-flops on her and the character flattens, but she is a character to revel in while she is vital.
And then there is that world. The world shines! That huge, sprawling, diverse world. What happens on its fields, often overburdened or oversimplified, provides a scope and sprawl that, in all honesty, was quite the writerly feat.
A key character that kept me reading (listening to) the entire series was Matrim—Mat—Cauthon. Another one of Rand’s friends from Emond’s Field, Mat is the screwup, hailing from a poor family where parental failures forced him to take endearing responsibility for his younger sisters, even though his other moral bearings are out of whack. He is the irritating friend, rubbing everyone the wrong way, short-tempered, a gambler, a shameless flirt, careless and often uncaring. Yet he is always there when you need him, and his devil-may-care attitude camouflages more depth than he ever lets on.
Mat was the one genuine character I found in the entire series, who stayed consistent from beginning to end. His development occurs due to what happens to him, rather than from a forced progression of scripted internal growth, and he never stops being Mat Cauthon, even though the situations he finds himself in grow exponentially convoluted. And although the best of him comes to the fore, it draws strength from what was—and is—the worst of him. His character is both simple and complex. He’s poorly treated by the women surrounding Rand—ridiculously poorly treated—but still would lay down his life for them. He treats women glancingly until he unwittingly meets those who challenge him. He’s marvelous. He has my favorite quote from all the books:
“Almost dead yesterday, maybe dead tomorrow, but alive, gloriously alive, today.”
The Wheel of Time, a Series That Resonates
So while I can only partially recommend the series to a discerning enthusiast of fantasy literature, I can say there are aspects of this series that resonate and make the journey worthwhile. It’s worth your time if you have the time (say, for example, if you listen to the audiobooks while doing housework, playing puzzle games on your phone, or while doing any mindless chore where listening to an epic story, even as flawed as it is, would be better than silence).
Does the Wheel of Time stand up to the test of time? Yes, but tenuously. Is it the best of the genre? No.
Am I glad I read (listened to) it? Yes, yes, I am. Not all 563+ hours kept me enthralled, but enough did that the trip was worth the ride.
So, I owe my (once) new boss a thank you. He was right. The series gets better and stays that way almost throughout for most of the rest of the way.
Read other reviews and OpEds by Sharon Browning here.
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