Why You’re Wrong About Egwene al’Vere
There are people out there who think Egwene al’Vere is both a bad person and a bad character. I’m convinced it’s because these people don’t understand Egwene or the role she plays in The Wheel of Time.
She’s a Foil for Rand
There was a tradition in my high school. Junior year, all the English classes would read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, watch Apocalypse Now, and do a compare and contrast essay.
My English teacher felt like being different, so instead of watching a cool movie and reading the book it was based on, we read Joseph Conrad’s Secret Sharer and spent a week talking about foil characters. I wasn’t bitter or anything.
A foil character is used to highlight certain attributes of another, usually the protagonist. Writers do this by making the foil character very similar to the protagonist, but different in some key ways. Then they stress those differences so we can’t miss a certain characteristic of the protagonist.
If you have thought about these characters at all, you’ve probably noticed that Rand and Egwene have parallel lives. They experience some of the same traumas, come to power unexpectedly, and have an enormous impact on the Last Battle. I will not go through it all because it’s been done before and would be tedious as fuck.
Instead, I’m going to focus on a few key areas to show why Egwene has to be the way she is.
Where They Come From
Emond’s Field is such an isolated town, they’re the only people in the universe that don’t recognize Aes Sedai rings and Warder Cloaks. Not every part of a dipshit town is the same.
Rand and Tam live in the Westwoods, a place so inhospitable that only the hardiest of men farm there. In the first chapter of The Eye of the World, Jordan mentions that the trip to deliver cider for Bel Tine is the first time they’ve been to town in weeks. Rand and Tam probably don’t see anyone but each other for weeks at a time regularly.
Egwene, lives in the social, political, and economic heart of the town. When peddlers, wool buyers, and tabac merchants come to town, they stay at the Winespring Inn. The Village Council and Women’s Circle meet there. When villagers want to socialize over a mug of cider and a game of stones, they come to the Winespring Inn.
We Are Where We Came From
It’s the first big difference in their backstories. Rand comes from the most isolate part of town, and Egwene lives in the building villagers, and visitors all visit.
Because she sees people who come from other places, Egwene thinks leaving is a more realistic possibility. To Rand, going into town is an event. To Egwene, it’s daily life and seeing outsiders, while not routine, is much more common.
This is reflected in their willingness to leave Emond’s Field. Remember, back in the early chapters of The Eye of the World, they have a minor argument about leaving. Egwene accepts that she might have to leave to be a wisdom somewhere while Rand can’t even imagine leaving. When they leave, Rand agrees reluctantly, and Egwene jumps at the chance.
The willingness to do things is perhaps the greatest difference between the two. Rand doesn’t accept that he can channel until the end of the second book. Egwene seeks lessons as soon as she leaves Emond’s Field. Rand scours the library in Tear, reading multiple versions of the Prophecies of the Dragon, and agonizing for days over what the hell he’s going to do before deciding to go to Rhuidean. Egwene sees one Wise One in a dream and says, “Fuck it, I’m going to the waste.”
On and on and on, it’s the same story. Egwene embraces the authority she is given, while Rand doesn’t. Egwene actively wants to fight the Dark One, while Rand—even after he accepts his destiny—acts like a petulant child told to get a damn vaccine so he doesn’t kill his neighbors.
They have vastly different attitudes going into things so even when they’re experiencing many of the same things—being collared, being locked in a box, being given authority and responsibility they neither asked for nor deserved—their reactions to what happen could not be less similar.
Rand Goes Insane
It’s part and parcel of being a male channeler pre-cleansing, but Rand gets increasingly irrational. As his foil, Egwene has to be uber-rational, and that causes some storytelling problems.
Foremost, it’s hard to depict rationality. It would be unutterably boring to have a character list pros and cons every time they had to make a decision. That leads authors to portray rational characters as smart, but it’s hard to portray characters of high intelligence.
The author might not be as intelligent as the character, and for another, most of the readers won’t be. The net result of it all is that most authors end up portraying other characters as remarkably unintelligent to make the “smart” character look intelligent.
That causes problems for Egwene because her opponents are supposed to be intelligent, experienced women in exactly the areas she’s supposed to be smarter than them.
Romanda and Lelaine aren’t unversed in politics. They wouldn’t be in positions of leadership if they were. And yet, Jordan portrays them as ineffectual to make Egwene look smart. When Egwene is in the Tower, undermining Elaida, it’s the same thing. Aes Sedai—Sitters even—constantly neglect to observe the obvious or think of the obvious steps to take to fix the situation.
I say this not to criticize the way Egwene is portrayed, but to suggest that the flaws of the writing should not be held against the character. It’s not Egwene’s fault that intelligence and rationality are hard to portray. She is smarter and more rational than almost everyone she deals with, even if it’s portrayed clunkily.
It’s important to note, however, that those aren’t the only ways in which Egwene is portrayed as both intelligent and rational.
Before leaving Emond’s Field, Egwene sees Perrin skulking around with the axe, and hears that Lan bought a horse. She concludes from this that Lan and Moiraine are leaving and taking some Emond’s Fielders with them. Taking disparate oddities and tying them together into a coherent, plausible narrative is what day-to-day intelligence looks like.
Perhaps my favorite example of rationality comes much later in the series when Egwene is trying to convince Nynaeve to be less familiar, at least while in public. I love this scene because it wraps up important plot lines for both Egwene and Nynaeve in one scene. In the beginning, Nynaeve is clearly the authority figure. That changes over the course of a few million words, and this scene is the final acknowledgement of the change.
It’s how Egwene does it that matters. She appeals to Nynaeve’s history as a young Wisdom. How would Nynaeve have felt if someone in the village had implicitly questioned her authority by being too familiar?
We all know how Nynaeve would have reacted—with a thumping stick upside the head. It’s evidence of how much Nynaeve has grown that she can react rationally, see that Egwene’s right, and agree.
Rand would have approached that situation much differently. If someone questioned his authority—implicitly, explicitly, or completely by accident—Rand would react with violence. He thinks people should just do what they’re told, because that’s what he’s doing, however reluctantly.
There are a lot of reasons to not like a character, but the one that chaps my ass the most is when characters are criticized for behaving in ways that are thematically necessary. Rand is a straight up asshole throughout much of the series, but gets a pass because he’s both insane and male. Egwene gets a lot of shit—even called a ta’veren—because she doesn’t win by overpowering people, or asserting prophecy-given authority, but by convincing people she’s right.