or, why The Wheel of Time owns.
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If anyone was following me on Twitter last week, they would have seen me yelling about The Wheel of Time TV show finally getting a trailer. Now, I spent a little bit of time embarrassed at my excitement, because it’s 2021 and no one’s allowed to like things (there’s also the horror of the show being produced by Amazon Studios, which obviously feels bad but also Annette was produced by Amazon too and I loved Annette so sometimes I’m just going to have to pick my hecking battles, I guess!). I stopped feeling bad about feeling good because it was such a sudden rush of good feeling, the likes of which I genuinely hadn’t felt about a piece of media since Peter Capaldi was still The Doctor. This is how I put it on Twitter:
it’s hard for me to be so openly excited about a piece of media these days. the world is falling apart, and it’s hard to stay hopeful about anything. but a little piece of art that excites me? if i actually feel that spark, i have to jump on it, and i can’t be sorry about that!
But then, why was it, of all things, The Wheel of Time that finally broke my bitter consumer’s soul? Let me tell you, with full-on spoilers, because I’m assuming you have only heard jokes about it, and do not want to actually read it yourself (but you should, or at least watch the show, which honestly does look like it understands the assignment).
For most people, The Wheel of Time is a punchline. It’s the punching bag of modern fantasy series. It’s fourteen books long (plus a prequel novella), most of which average nearly a thousand pages in paperback, totaling 4.4 million words. It’s such a long series author Robert Jordan literally died before finishing it — it was finished by Brandon Sanderson, going off of the copious notes and outlines Robert Jordan left behind (it also took so long the man who painted all the series’ book covers also died before finishing the final book cover). It’s a series that even the most ardent fans agree that there’s a stretch in the back third that goes on forever. The tenth book in the series, right as all the plot points seem to be at a climax, takes place over one single day and mostly has characters complaining about tea while in the bathtub.
Yet buddy? It owns.
And while it owns in the terms of a fantasy series — it’s got a great magic system, it has cool maps, etc., I’m more interested in the more granular ways the series has moved me. I mean that — The Wheel of Time has brought me to tears on multiple occasions; it made me a tangibly better person. There’s a lot going on under the hood of this hilariously long series of High Nerd Tomes. I think the ways it works under the surface are absolutely fascinating and worth exploring.
So sure, it’s long, and stands in as an easy metaphor for an author not knowing when to stop. But honestly, I think that length is a strength. The Wheel of Time takes place in a huge world that’s clearly fully realized from the get-go. The main point-of-view characters start off as thinly-veiled Frodo stand-ins, a group of wide-eyed bumpkins who’re seeing the wider world for the first time. This is fantasy 101, but it’s the way that the series luxuriates in this wider world that makes it so rich. Since we get to spend so much time with these people — spending time in first-person viewpoint chapters — that by the end you’re real good buddies with over a dozen people. Through this, you learn about how these buddies of yours think about the world they’re living in; through them, you know how you think about the world they’re living in.
Halfway through the series, you intimately know the difference between the people of the world’s different nations, how they dress, how they think and plot, their prejudices and loves. By book six, if an Illianer walks into a room of Tairens, you know exactly what kind of trouble is about to go down. Because it isn’t just “Cairhein is made of wood” and “Caemlyn is made of Ogier Stone,” it’s down to the passions and conflicts; high drama and petty squabbles, between both nobles and commoners. Time is given, in every nation, to understanding what it’s like to live below the people in power and to be in power. You’re given this working knowledge of the heart of the people of this world more ardently than if they were just the trappings around battle scenes. It’s the Silmarillion baked into the actual novel.
What this also means is that you gain an intimate reason to care about every corner of the world. The Wheel of Time is technically (and initially explicitly) about the cosmic struggle against Good and Evil, so it’s a given that this beautiful, intricate, bickering, honest world is going to get royally hecked over by the time the story ends. The Prophecy that initially moves the story forward is that “The Dragon Reborn” will save the world, but destroy it in the process. The deeper into the story you get, the more heartbreaking that latter part becomes. You spend half the series learning about a world, and the other half knowing it will end.
I think about the world ending a lot recently, and I’m often thinking of the slow burn way the end of the world bubbles up in The Wheel of Time. One of the ways that evil shows its face is by creating an unnaturally endless summer, a rising heat that swelters the world. Oops, we’re kinda living in that now! Evil isn’t really just the work of One Bad Dude stirring up shit in the series. It’s more just the influence seeping out through the cracks of the world. His servants are just a bunch of idiots scrabbling for an unreachable, ill-defined power, more and more, riches beyond dreams, power over the people. Oops, we’re kinda living in that now, too — being a Darkfriend is just Capitalism, kinda!
I mean, sure, that’s a little extreme. But while The Wheel of Time absolutely has Big Magic and Big Beasts, it’s also about humanity banding together to defeat the slow entropy of the human race. It’s technically post-apocalyptic — the actual Wheel of Time in the series is a metaphor for the cyclical nature of the universe — this is a world that takes place after an extinction event that occurred at the hands of men. It’s a world that remembers its own end, and the books are the story of that world deciding to actually come together and stop it. That’s such a hopeful thing these days! The idea that people could actually come together in the face of the eschaton and say “no.”
To me, the most important aspect of The Wheel of Time is how it deals with the male psyche. Much is made (though even more should be made, honestly!) of how it’s actually kind of wild how much at the forefront of the series women are, and that is a huge boon to the series (some of the depictions of women get a little cringe, but nine times out of ten it actually does not read like an old southern dude is writing the dialogue). The show seemingly changing the series’ focus to foreground the women in the story even more is a perfect change that the books back up.
But at the end of the day, the thing that originally resonated most on my first read-through was the journey through masculinity that Rand, the series’ central character, goes through. He starts out as the most bumpkin of the bumpkins, a teenage boy who fawns over his farmyard crush and distrusts the wider world that he doesn’t understand.
Over the course of the series, the world dumps a sodden heap of bad news over Rand’s head. It turns out he’s “The Dragon Reborn,” the classic Chosen One, born to save the world and blow it up. But the way this manifests is mostly just people deferring to him, people telling him he’s hot shit, people putting the weight of responsibility and perfection on him. The world around Rand is training him to be a Great Man of History, building a Glass Ceiling beneath his feet. They make him into a politician.
He takes it terribly, living in his own head and refusing the counsel of everyone around him. He starts to develop an infantilizing view of women, valuing their safety above their humanity. Every time a woman dies, he adds her name to a list he calls “The Dragon’s Litany,” which he recites over and over again to stamp down his emotions, to beat himself with guilt into an emotionless stone.
Obviously, this makes him lose his marbles — lashing out at his friends, at the world, getting angry and despondent all at once. Sure, cue your “men will literally stand on a volcano and try to blow up the world instead of going to therapy” jokes, but it’s important to realize that never, at any point, is Rand’s behavior glorified. He’s never in the right when he clams up and freaks out. His friends start to recoil in horror at how he behaves, even as the rest of the world doubles down on treating him like a King — it’s a world celebrating the Powerful Bro, even as that kind of identity is actively poisonous. If Rand is the King of Anything, it’s the King of Toxic Masculinity. Masculinity is his Mordor.
And the series can only start to come to a close when Rand realizes this, and says “no.” He chooses a different path, to embrace his emotions, his softer side, his human side. He’s about to punch the wall of the world when it hits him, the other choice.
Why? Rand thought with wonder. Because each time we live, we get to love again.
That was the answer. It all swept over him, lives lived, mistakes made, love changing everything. He saw the entire world in his mind’s eye, lit by the glow in his hand. He remembered lives, hundreds of them, thousands of them, stretching to infinity. He remembered love, and peace, and joy, and hope.
He regarded the world beneath him. The clouds above had finally broken, if only just above him. The gloom dispersed, allowing him to see the sun hanging just above.
Rand looked up at it. Then he smiled. Finally, he let out a deep-throated laugh, true and pure.
It had been far too long.
From Book 12, The Gathering Storm.
He gives up on his whole “hardening himself into steel” act, and stops acting like a stupid baby man who shuts out the people who love him. He can laugh again. As soon as he does this, he’s ready to save the world.
That was an incredibly powerful thing for me to read the first time through. It was 2012, and I was a pre-transition dirtbag. The way I came around to coming out was through a journey of pushing the negativity inherent to what I was experiencing as masculinity through my skull. I was becoming Rand, shutting down my feelings and bottling shit up until I developed a disgusting habit of punching trees. The breakthrough for me was realizing I didn’t actually have to be that way — I didn’t have to be a Man. Shrugging off those expectations set me free in more ways than I could have possibly expected.
Sure, I didn’t wind up “saving the world” or anything, but I set a boundary for myself that’s kept me alive and safe (it’s called womanhood). Rand al’Thor isn’t trans, of course, but he’s still an important character — Rand al’Thor is the biggest Fantasy of all: a Man who Does Better. Reading that, when I still didn’t see a way out of the masculine prison I was in, was revolutionary.
This is a personal story here, in no way do I expect this to be a shared experience. But I think it speaks to an emotional depth that most people don’t expect a long-winded fantasy epic like The Wheel of Time to have. If the TV show is successful enough to finish this story, seeing a man learn how to be better in a world full of powerful women could be absolutely transformative. It’s a story that genuinely needed to be told, and a story that genuinely needs to be seen.