Breaking the Rules to Do the Right Thing
September 4, 2019
Breaking the Rules to Do the Right Thing
The third chapter of New Spring deals with Siuan and Moiraine in the immediate aftermath of hearing the foretelling about the Dragon Reborn. As such, it deals a lot with their reaction to the news—Siuan is excited and Moiraine is terrified—as well as their relationship. It sets up a scene coming up with Elaida and introduces several ancillary characters we see later in the series.
I’m not talking about any of that.
The Dragon in the Room
The Dragon Reborn is a man who can channel. Tower Law says Men who can channel must be brought to the Tower and gentled lest they go insane and do immense damage to the world. The prophecies are iron-clad law and say that the Dragon Reborn is the only one who can defeat the Dark One AND that he’ll do immense damage in the process.
The Right Thing to Do™ is to ignore Tower Law and do what’s necessary to save the world from the Dark One. I think we understand this instinctually. When all the options are terrible, you take the least terrible and do your best to live with it. See also the Trolley Problem.
This wouldn’t be a problem if we could all agree on the Right Thing to Do™ but we can’t. We can’t even agree on what’s real.
It still wouldn’t be a problem if breaking the rules didn’t come with dire consequences so often. When breaking the rules to do the right thing fails, you don’t get a traffic ticket; you get authoritarianism. Sure, not always, but often enough.
Take the Vileness. The Black Ajah were able to convince the Red Ajah to ignore the same Tower Law that Moiraine and Siuan ignored, but instead of letting a male channeler walk free, the Reds essentially murdered these men without a trial.
Eliminating an entire class of people because they’re painted as a thread is stereotypical authoritarianism.
So was the election of Elaida as Amyrlin. They may have followed the letter of the law, but they certainly violated its spirit and flaunted norms by cherry-picking the barest minimum quorum in the Hall of the Tower.
And how did that turn out?
The Tower of Ghenjei
The Aelfinn and the Eelfinn have rules. You enter through the right doorways, you get questions answered blah blah blah, but their whole deal is that they will use the rules to screw everyone they deal with as thoroughly as finnly possible.
The only way to not get screwed is to break the rules. We learn about this explicitly fairly early on. In The Shadow Rising, the night Perrin and Faile get through the Ways, Perrin goes into the World of Dreams and encounters Birgitte—though he doesn’t know it yet—at the Tower of Ghenjei.
She tells him about the Snakes and Foxes, and when Perrin says that people stop playing as soon as they realize there’s no way to win, Birgitte interrupts him to say “Except to break the rules.”
Rand and Egwene
Rand and Egwene are thematically linked throughout the series, and they both do some exciting things when they decide to do what’s right instead of what’s required.
Rand, of course, follows a higher law when he obeys assorted prophecies while running roughshod over traditions, traditional morality, and international law. He reveals Aiel secrets to the masses that are supposed to be known to just a few, marches an army into Cairhien, conquers Illian just for fun, and completely restructures society in Tear because it sucks.
And let’s not forget that right before the last battle, he gathers as many nations as possible together to rewrite international law altogether.
He’s always breaking the rule to do what is right even when he’s completely wrong about what’s right.
Egwene does the same thing right from the get-go. Everyone’s afraid of Aes Sedai and the whole channeling thing, but as soon as they leave Emond’s Field, Egwene’s all for it. While a Wise One apprentice, she promises to stay out of Tel’aran’rhiod but doesn’t. She has a good reason—staying in contact with Elayne and Nynaeve—but she incurs great toh in the process.
That she acknowledges this toh is fascinating. Remember, ji’e’toh translates as “honor and obligation.” It’s more a set of guiding principles than laws, and it’s the person who incurs toh who decides what it takes to regain their honor. The entire Aiel society is built on every individual making conscious decisions about their responsibilities to each other. They never break the rules because there are none. They’re always doing the right thing—even when they’re wrong about what the right thing is.
Egwene takes this into all her White Tower doings. While she’s a prisoner trying to undermine Elaida, how many times does she point out that the Aes Sedai are playing petty politics instead of doing what’s right? She’s invariably told that what the Tower Aes Sedai are doing is legal while what the Rebels did was not and she goes right back to the notion of what’s right.
Honor and duty are common themes in fantasy literature, but I’m not sure there are many stories that so explicitly contrast honor and duty with obedience to the rules as the Wheel of Time. As someone with a strong moral center and a congenital inability to do what I’m told, this fascinates me so I’ll be looking at it more deeply throughout the series.