Quest for Tel'aran'rhiod

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A Quest for the Real Tel’aran’rhiod

By Catt Heckathorne


The dreamworld of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is as complex as the fantasy series in which it appears. Called Tel'aran'rhiod by the Aiel dreamwalkers, it seems to encompass a wide range of beliefs concerning dreams from our own world.

I have previously written articles that discuss two main aspects of the Talent known as dreamwalking; in those articles I traced dreamwalking not only to lucid dreaming, our world’s version of dreamwalking, but also to cultures like the Canadian Dene peoples of northwestern Alberta and to the dream yogis of Tibet. At this point, I thought my quest to find the real Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams, had ended, but in reality it had only just begun. As I delved deep into the anthropology sections of the local libraries, I began to discover just how complex Tel’aran’rhiod truly was.

Tel’aran’rhiod and the Age of Legends

Jordan used Tel’aran’rhiod as a sort of resting place for heroic figures, like Birgitte Silverbow, who were from an era called the Age of Legends. In an article titled simply “The Dreaming,” by W.E.H. Stanner, a discussion of the Australian Aboriginal dream time revealed the following: “A central meaning of The Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time long long ago when man and nature came to be as they are …” (1972:270). Additionally, Stanner asserts, “although … The Dreaming conjures up the notion of a sacred, heroic time of the indefinitely remote past, such a time is also, in a sense, still part of the present. One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen. We should be very wrong to read into it the idea of a Golden Age, or a Garden of Eden, though it was an Age of Heroes, when the ancestors did marvelous things that men can no longer do” (1972:270). Incidentally, part of this description concerning the Age of Heroes is very nearly a word-for-word definition of Jordan’s Age of Legends!

Communicating Across the Distances

A skill utilized by the Aiel dreamwalkers is that of communicating with other individuals across the distances. This is also a skill claimed by the Dene peoples. In addition, “in the African view, dreams above all else serve as a channel of communication from the ancestors to the living” (Shafton 2002:18). Shafton indicates that “Africans believe that the dead return to offer advice to the living …” (2002:18). Jordan makes use of these ideas through the World of Dreams: Individuals who die in the waking world, such as seen with Birgitte Silverbow and other heroes, may reside in Tel’aran’rhiod until they are called back to the waking world via the Horn of Valere.

The Cultural Influence of Dreams

Lee Irwin, author of The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains, says that “dreams interact meaningfully to pattern social behavior … the intent of the dreamer is shaped by both the dream experience and its social correlates” (1994:4). Again, a version of this is seen in Perrin’s wolf dream, and these ideas are also present in both how Egwene al'Vere first experiences the World of Dreams and in how the Aes Sedai in Salidar learn to control Tel’aran’rhiod for themselves. The wolves have their own way with dreams, and what Egwene learns from the Aiel is very different from how the sisters in Salidar learn about dreamwalking. Each case is cultural-specific; it takes place within a context the dreamer is familiar with. For the wolves would not dream as humans do, in human cognitive processes, and for the most part (with at least one exception in the wolfbrothers), humans do not dream in terms the wolves are familiar with. Similarly, the same is true for humans cross-culturally. The sisters in Salidar always begin their dreams in Salidar, and the Aiel dreamwalkers apparently rarely venture outside the Aiel Waste in their own dreams unless they are required to do so.

These ideas, it seems, are based upon an approach to the anthropological study of dreams as discussed by Irwin: “[One] approach to dreams, developed by a number of anthropologists … saw dreams and visions as reflecting various cultural traits and ‘patterns’” (1994:12). Additionally, Shafton says What we think, feel, and do while we’re awake influences our dreams. So our waking-life beliefs about dreams can influence what we dream at night, which in turn reinforces what we believe. While the dreaming process is humanly universal, people can learn to be sensitive—or insensitive—to various dimensions of the dream life. Cultural groups develop their own distinct ways with dreams, seen in how they talk about dreams, in what they expect from dreams, and also to some extent in the context of their dreams (2002:3-4).

Therefore, it appears that those who know how to manipulate Tel’aran’rhiod—that is, “[learning] to be sensitive—or insensitive—to various dimensions of the dream life”—utilize distinct cultural ways with dreams.

I have learned much about the dreamworlds of our own modern cultures in the process of following in Robert Jordan’s footsteps, but I know that thus far the quest to find the real Tel’aran’rhiod of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series has only just begun.


Irwin, Lee. The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoman Press, 1994).

Shafton, Anthony. Dream-Singers: The African American Way with Dreams (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002).

Stanner, W.E.H. “The Dreaming,” in Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, 3rd ed., ed. by William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1972).