The Wheel of Time as Humanist Fiction
I’ve had a couple unfinished ideas banging around in my head for a while now. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how I wanted to say it, and every time I tried, it came out resembling the kind of pretentious word salad you find in papers from Freshman philosophy majors.
The other day they banged into each other, and if this post ever sees the light of day, you’ll find that together they solved their separate problems. I wanted to explain what I mean when I talk about Humanist Fiction, and I wanted to explain how the Wheel of Time is explicitly about social justice.
The solution was to explain how the Wheel of Time is Humanist Fiction, and it only took about seven months for me to figure that out.
First, a caveat: I tend to think of Humanist Fiction in terms of science fiction and fantasy because that’s what I read and write, but I don’t think that’s a requirement. That said, let’s dig in.
It Was About Them All
When the official Twitter account for the upcoming WoT TV show introduced the Emond’s Field Five, they did so using quotes from the thirty-ninth chapter of A Memory of Light: Those Who Fight.
As the chapter begins, Rand is talking to the Dark One, and he has a bit of a revelation that he shoves—metaphorically—in the Dark One’s face.
Here is your flaw, Shai’tan—Lord of the Dark, Lord of Envy! Lord of Nothing! Here is why you fail! It was not about me. It’s never been about me!
I have wavered on what I think is the essential aspect of Humanist Fiction. In my mind, it’s going to favor social justice, and it’s going to feature just plain folks. It wasn’t until recently that I realized featuring just plain folks is favoring social justice.
It’s not just the privileged and powerful who make a difference. It’s not just the channelers, ta’veren, lords, and ladies who make a difference in the fight against the Dark One.
It’s the Accepted and Novices who contribute their power to help the Yellow sisters heal folks in Mayenne. It’s the residents of Hinderstap who use their unique form of immortality to turn the tide at a crucial moment. It’s a young Ogier who stands at the Great Stump and speaks against opening the Book of Translation. It’s about wolves who care nothing for the two-legs but rally for the Last Hunt regardless.
It’s about a boy, cornered and alone, who stared the Shadow in the face and raised a golden horn to his lips.
The Question of the Chosen One
I can hear y’all objecting. The Wheel of Time is an epic fantasy, and it has a Chosen One who is fated to win the Big Battle at the End™.
Well, yes…and no, but mostly no.
I would remind everyone that it is explicitly stated many times that while the Dragon Reborn has to fight The Last Battle, there’s no guarantee that he’ll win and—in contrast to many epic fantasies—a victory will not repair all the damage done by the Dark One. It’s explicitly stated that the Dragon will do a whole mess of damage in the process.
Further, this Chosen One has a real choice. In other epic fantasies, the Chosen One has a false choice—fight the Big Bad, or everyone you know will die. Rand al’Thor has this false choice too, and he makes it fairly early on.
His acceptance that he is the Dragon Reborn is the START of his character arc in many ways. He spends several books preparing himself for The Last Battle, and it’s pretty clear that he resents that he has to do it.
How many times is his only argument for doing things his way that he’s the Dragon Reborn? And how many times does he remind the women who love him that he’s going to die? Day after day, minute after minute, he’s focused on accomplishing a single task with neither hope nor expectation that there will be anything beyond that.
It drives him to become emotionally stunted and hard. He destroys an entire fortress because he thinks killing innocents is acceptable collateral damage when getting rid of one of the Forsaken. He is cold to the people who were part of his pre-Dragon life because he’s afraid that showing them affection will make them targets.
None of it works. The Whitecloaks and trollocs ravaged the Two Rivers regardless, and Graendal escaped Natrin’s Barrow.
His choice isn’t whether to fight, or even how to fight, but why to fight.
I Want to do it Right This Time
In Veins of Gold, the last chapter of The Gathering Storm, Rand holds himself a bit of a pity party on the top of Dragonmount:
He had been here for hours. And yet, he did not feel tired. He stared at the ter’angreal. Thinking.
What was he? What was the Dragon Reborn? A symbol? A sacrifice? A sword, meant to destroy? A sheltering hand, meant to protect?
A puppet, playing a part over and over again?
He was angry. Angry at the world. Angry at the Pattern, angry at the Creator for leaving humans to fight against the Dark One with no direction. What right did any of them have to demand Rand’s life of him?
Most of us spend our entire lives trying to figure out who and what we are; along the way, most of us get angry that we can’t be something that we want or that we have to be something we don’t. Rand is faced with imminent death and is angry that he can’t figure out why. He’s angry and bitter and on the verge of destroying the entire world to end the pain. His pain. Everyone else’s pain.
Then he has that epiphany:
Maybe…Lews Therin said, shockingly lucid, not a hint of madness to him. He spoke softly, reverently. Why? Could it be…Maybe it’s so that we can have a second chance.
He goes through a lot of meandering about hope and love and the idea that if he lives again, maybe Ileyna will too. Ultimately he realizes that he’s not just there to fight because he has to. He’s not a sacrifice. He’s not just a symbol. He’s there to fight so he can make it better.
It is the pivotal moment in the entire series. Had dark and bitter Rand faced the Dark One, he’d have lost, the wheel would have stopped turning, and 2020 would never have ended.
Social justice, and by extension Humanist Fiction, are about collective action to make the world a better place. The Wheel of Time is not the perfect reflection of Humanist Fiction, but it’s the thing I know best. If you’re looking for something that takes the notion a little farther, I’d suggest Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker Series, where the protagonist—a dragon, BTW—doesn’t just want to win, but wants to win the right way.
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