Suffering and Theodicy in "The Wheel of Time"
Author: Atarah al'Norahn
Note: This was a term paper written for one of my classes, "Suffering and Religion", entitled "The Wheel of Destiny: Suffering and Theodicy in 'The Wheel of Time'".
Robert Jordan's "The Wheel of Time" is an epic fantasy series that currently spans ten books. Within this series, all of the characters experience suffering to some extent, but none more so than the main character and savior of the world, Rand al'Thor. Through Rand's suffering, Robert Jordan paints a story in which destiny, through the Wheel of Time itself, is the root of all suffering.
While there is no set religion within "The Wheel of Time," there is acknowledgement of the Creator and the Dark One, of good and evil, and of the need for balance between the two. In "Crossroads of Twilight," book ten of the series, Rand ponders on the nature of the Creator. "Did he think the Creator had decided to stretch out a merciful hand after three thousand years of suffering? The Creator had made the world and then left humankind to make of it what they would, a heaven or the Pit of Doom by their choosing. The Creator had made many worlds, watched each flower or die, and gone on to make endless worlds beyond. A gardener did not weep for each blossom that fell". Instead, the Creator set the Wheel of Time in motion. The Wheel of Time is what weaves the fate of each individual life, using those individual lives to weave the fate of the world. Whenever the balance between good and evil strays too far to either side, it creates a person whose very presence can affect chance and has the ability to slowly pull the Wheel of Time back onto the right course. Because there must be a balance between good and evil, there must be a balance between pleasure and suffering. Because the Wheel of Time is responsible for maintaining that balance, it is therefore responsible for causing pleasure and suffering.
Rand al'Thor, as ta'veren, one of the people who can affect chance, is the Dragon Reborn; he is the reincarnation of the man who, many years ago, sealed the Dark One away so that the world would not be remade in the Dark One's image. Now, with the threat of the Dark One emerging once again, this man has been reborn into a young man upon whose shoulders fall the responsibility of saving the world. Most of the first book, "The Eye of the World", follows Rand's journey as he begins to learn who he is and what he must do. Because of this, Rand is the foremost example of suffering within this book, and indeed, within the series.
The theodicy within "The Wheel of Time" is that the Creator is not evil; he is in fact all-good, and his joy is in creation. But just because a gardener lets one flower die does not mean that the gardener is evil. The Creator simply understands that balance is needed.
Suffering and Theodicy within "The Wheel of Time"
The first major example of suffering within "The Eye of the World" occurs near the beginning of the book when Rand and his father, Tam, are fleeing from the monster-like Trollocs that have attacked their farm. Not only does Rand lose his home, but on the way to the village to get aid for his injured father, Rand hears Tam speaking in a fever-dream.
It is here that Rand first begins to learn that Tam is not his real father. Jordan writes, "suddenly, Rand's legs lost the little strength they had. Stumbling, he fell to his knees" (The Eye of the World, Chapter 6). When Tam first reveals that Rand is not his biological son, Rand is physically struck by the news. He says to himself, almost like a mantra, "he's my father. It was just a fever-dream. He's my father. It was just a fever-dream. Light, who am I?" (The Eye of the World, Chapter 6). Throughout the book, Rand clings to the possibility that Tam was simply delirious, but the thought that Tam might not be his real father haunts him to no end. Everything that he had thought he was has been challenged. Later, in "The Dragon Reborn," book three of the series, we learn that Rand's lineage and parenting were prophesied many, many years before he was born. "Blood of our blood mixed with the old blood, raised by an ancient blood not ours" (The Dragon Reborn, Chapter 39). This prophecy speaks of how he was born to a woman of the Aiel, a secretive people who live removed from the other people of the world. The Wheel of Time called for the Dragon Reborn to be Aiel, and yet not to be raised by the Aiel.
As the book progresses, Rand leaves his home village with the Aes Sedai Moiraine, a woman with the ability to use magic, and her protector, Lan. With him are his two friends, Mat and Perrin, also important figures as far as the Wheel of Time goes. They are told that they must leave or more horrific creatures will descend upon their village, and that the only way to save their families is to leave them. Along the way, the group is separated, and Rand and Mat, along with a bard named Thom, are left to find their own way to safety. When the three of them are attacked by a Myrddraal/Fade, another creature of the Dark One, Thom tells the boys to run and sacrifices himself in order to save them. Rand and Mat are certain that he is dead, and Rand especially suffers because of this. As they run, he thinks to himself, "Thom. Oh, Light save me, Thom!" (The Eye of the World, Chapter 26). He continues to run only because Mat urges him on, and because he does not want Thom's sacrifice to go to waste. Once they are safe, Rand is completely overcome by guilt and sadness. "The road behind them was still empty. He had been halfway expecting - hoping, at least - to see Thom appear, striding along, blowing out his mustaches to tell them how much trouble they were" (The Eye of the World, Chapter 26).
The memory of Thom continues to plague Rand throughout the book; Thom is Rand's first "death", although we learn later that Thom lived. Because Rand considers himself the cause of Thom's death, he cannot get over it. "Rand's stomach lurched and the good feeling of having friends around him dimmed. "Thom's dead. I think he's dead. There was a fade..." he could not say any more." (The Eye of the World, Chapter 41). This quote is from later in the book when Rand and Mat are reunited with Moiraine, and Rand is telling Moiraine of Thom's "death". As with the knowledge of his parents, the pain here is almost physical for Rand.
Although the connection isn't immediately obvious, I believe that this event is also connected to the Wheel of Time, and that Thom's "death" was supposed to occur as it did. We find out later in the series that the reason Thom wants to help Rand and Mat is because he does not trust Aes Sedai. Years ago, his nephew was inadvertently killed by the Aes Sedai. Because he feels that he failed his nephew, he tries to aid Rand and Mat in escaping Moiraine's influence. On their journey together, he becomes rather attached to the two boys. I believe that the true purpose behind the death of Thom's nephew was so that Thom would become attached to Rand and Mat and thus would be able to save their lives.
Throughout the entire series, the cause of the most suffering for Rand is the fact that he can channel saidin. Saidin is the male half of the source of magic that a select few can wield within "The Wheel of Time". The catch is that, when the Dark One was sealed away many years ago, he retaliated by tainting saidin. While the female half of the power remains safe, any man who channels saidin will eventually go insane and begin to physically waste and rot away. Because of this, when the female wielders of the power, called Aes Sedai, find a male who can channel saidin, they cut him off from the source of magic; even then, he will soon die because saidin is like a drug, and to be cut off from it is akin to losing everything that matters to you. However, because Rand is the Dragon Reborn, the man destined to save the world even if he destroys parts of it in doing so, he is also somewhat protected. Moiraine Aes Sedai helps to guide him and protect him from those who want to kill him.
Because of the taint, it is physically sickening to reach out to saidin, although once you have gotten through the taint, it is akin to bliss. But it is the fact that Rand can wield saidin that creates nearly all of his suffering. He knows that he will eventually go insane, and that he will likely end up killing everyone he loves. People fear him, because they know that while he is their only salvation, he might end up destroying them. The prophecies state, "Yet one shall be born to face the Shadow, born once more as he was born before and shall be born again, time without end. The Dragon shall be Reborn, and there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth at his rebirth. In sackcloth and ashes shall he clothe the people, and he shall break the world again by his coming, tearing apart all ties that bind. Like the unfettered dawn shall he blind us, and burn us, yet shall the Dragon Reborn confront the Shadow at the Last Battle, and his blood shall give us the Light. Let tears flow, O ye people of the world. Weep for your salvation" (The Great Hunt, Prologue). This knowledge and this fear cause Rand great agony throughout the series. He begins to distance himself from all of those he loves, and this only serves to create more suffering for him.
When Rand learns that he can wield saidin in "The Eye of the World," he is astonished and alarmed. He tells his friends, "Oh, I won't ever touch it again. Not if I have to cut my hand off, first." (The Eye of the World, Chapter 52). However, despite this, he can't help but think, "what if I can't stop? I never tried to wield it, not even at the Eye of the world. What if I can't stop?" (The Eye of the World, Chapter 532).
Rand's ability to channel saidin is directly linked to the Wheel of Time. His life is spun out and reincarnated by the Wheel of Time. Because Rand is the rebirth of the man named the Dragon, and since the Dragon was able to channel, it is therefore because of the Wheel that Rand suffers through saidin.
Similarities to Religious Traditions and Practices
While reading "The Wheel of Time", I found that there were several similarities between the "religion" in the books and religions that we studied in class.
The similarity that first occurred to me was between the Wheel of Time and the Hindu belief in Karma. In the world of "The Wheel of Time", it is your actions in life that determine whether or not you will be reborn. There are certain people and heroes that are reborn time and time again, being reborn into the world when the Wheel requires them. This reminded me of how Hindus believe that they live many, many lives. However, there is one glaring difference. In Hinduism, the goal is to reach liberation so that you won't be reborn any more. In "The Wheel of Time", the goal is to become a renowned hero so that the Wheel will deem you worthy of being reborn again.
By far the most interesting similarity that I found was the connection to the Christian notion of pre-ordination. Because the Creator has created so many worlds, he does not pay any attention to the world in which "The Wheel of Time" is set. So no matter how much his people pray, and no matter what they do, it does not guarantee them another life unless it has already been preordained by the Wheel of Time. There is one big difference, and that is that occasionally, although it is very, very rare, you can do enough good and become important enough to the Wheel of Time that you will be added to the group of people who are reborn time and again. With the exception of this rare occurrence, everything is already pre-determined.
The religion that the theodicy of "The Wheel of Time" is most similar to, although we did not discuss it in class, is that of the Ancient Greeks. The Ancient Greeks believed in the Golden Mean - everything in balance, and nothing in excess. Good and evil must balance each other. Very similar to this, also, is the Daoist notion of yin and yang. Once again, the idea is that there must be a balance, because imbalance, even on the side of good, is bad.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Theodicy
One of the weaknesses with the Theodicy in "The Wheel of Time" is that many people believe that good can exist without evil, and that there is therefore no balance needed; if the Creator was truly good, he would realize this and eradicate all evil within all of his worlds. Because of this, we come back to the age-old debate: God, or in this instance the Creator, is obviously one of two things: not all good, or not all powerful as he is portrayed to be.
In "Unjustifiable Suffering," Robert Gibbs reflects on the justification of suffering. It is this that reveals the biggest weakness with the theodicy in "The Wheel of Time". Gibbs writes, "[t]he task is theodicy, justifying God's ways to humanity, but the presumption is that another's pain can be made meaningful. The drama that has its end in a world beyond justifies not God, but rather another's pain" (pg. 23).
By saying that there must be a balance between good and evil, this is justifying the fact that Rand must suffer. While he is suffering to save other people from suffering, it is not anyone's right to justify this; that right belongs solely to him. In his essay, Gibbs quotes Levinas by writing that "the justification of the neighbor's pain is certainly the source of all immorality" (pg. 24). The idea is that, because people in "The Wheel of Time" use the balance of the Wheel to justify the fact that Rand must suffer, they are thus immoral.
On the other-hand, there are definitely strengths with this theodicy. It is easy to believe in a balance; to believe in a balance means that you can, on some level, accept what you are suffering and deal with it in some way. Because you know that there must be a balance, you know that eventually, something good has to come of your suffering.
In conclusion, my position on the issue of theodicy in "The Wheel of Time" is that it does indeed provide an adequate explanation for the evil and suffering portrayed. I believe that balance is needed in everything; it is often worth suffering a little bit, or even a lot, if the reward is equal to the suffering.
This, however, is not necessarily true in all cases. While I think that sometimes the end justifies the means, I do not believe this in all cases. It is up to the sufferer to decide whether this is true, and when. So while I believe that this theodicy provides an adequate explanation, I do not think that it provides adequate justification.