Thursday, October 30, 2014

Virtue of the Dragon

UPDATE 2014.10.31: I have added a bit of detail here and there and edited some typos.
The boy confuses them, [...]. He needs to be strong, and makes himself harder. Too hard, already, and he will not stop until he is stopped. He has forgotten how to laugh except in bitterness; there are no tears left in him. Unless he finds laughter and tears again, the world faces disaster. He must learn that even the Dragon Reborn is flesh. If he goes to Tarmon Gai’don as he is, even his victory may be as dark as his defeat. ~Cadsuane Melaidhrin
Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (completed by Brandon Sanderson) presents an excellent study in contrast of the pagan versus the Christian virtues, as well as a lesson in the balance of the virtues. I will assume FULL SPOILER knowledge of the Wheel of Time. This is regrettable, but the series is about 10 000 pages too long to facilitate easy summary, and the subject matter of the essay requires details up until at least the penultimate volume. This reduces the audience even more drastically than does the venue, but we march onward ...

Given the FULL SPOILER nature of this essay, the reader is aware that Rand al'Thor is the Dragon Reborn, the soul of Lews Therin Telamon recast into a shepherd boy's body in the twilight of the Third Age, when the seals of the Dark One's prison are weakening. The shepherd business is an early signal that Rand's story will at least partially parallel that of the Christian Jesus. But I am more concerned here with the so-called Christian virtues (which I will also refer to as the sentimental virtues), rather than the Christian story per se. 

The Christian virtues of Love, Faith, and Hope are a complement to the so-called pagan virtues of Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence. This particular catalog of virtues isn't the one and only rendering. There's inevitably some arbitrariness, and I will be liberal with my interpretation of what these virtues comprise, especially Faith. My thesis is that our protagonist admirably embodies the pagan virtues, and his critical defect is his failure to attend to the Christian virtues.This imbalance of virtues corrodes his character--abetted of course by the taint on saidin--until it nearly culminates in the destruction of the world. This unhappy eschaton is only narrowly avoided by a redemptive moment when Rand opens himself to the full spectrum of virtues.

Courage is the easiest virtue to drape over the Dragon Reborn. Rand displays Courage throughout the series, from that first frightful flight to town with his wounded father in tow after the Trolloc attack. Courage doesn't lack in any of his early exploits, when the series reads more like an adventure than the drama it eventually grows into. The early days out on the road with Mat, out from under Moiraine's protective wing; befriending an Ogier--that requires courage as well. In the third book he sets out on his own to seek his destiny at the Stone of Tear, where the most conspicuous prophecies about the Dragon Reborn must either come true or not. And of course he knows that worldwide devastation at his hands and his own early death will result if he does turn out to be the Dragon Reborn. He ventures into the mysterious and deadly desert of the Aiel and enters their ter'angreal-assisted trial of worth. Most obviously, he spends the entire series hunting down the Forsaken, super-powered war criminals the tales of whom are regaled to frighten children--all as a prelude to facing the Dark One himself.

Rand's sense of Justice was in evidence especially in the middle to later books, after he has become a ruler by various conquests. One of the first things he does as de facto ruler of Tear, apparently an especially stratified society, is force the Tairen nobility to see to the needs of the commoners. Relief for the poor and those scattered by conflict would be a recurring concern for him throughout the story. In addition to the Prudential reasoning that he would need every channeler he could get, his creation of the Asha'man at least partially reflects his sense that no man should be persecuted or gentled just because of a condition he was born with. We see his sense of Justice in his agonizing over every woman that died due to his decisions (his flavor of Justice included a curiously chivalrous--sexist--element). And of course, Rand is rightly horrified by the Seanchan enslavement of women who can channel.

Feats of moderation don't often feature heavily in epic fantasy, but at the very least Rand's Temperance fulfills the basic requirements of not giving in to excess. He isn't a drunk; he certainly doesn't have the gambling and womanizing tendencies of Mat Cauthon. But his Temperance also manifests in his dedication to physical training. After beginning sword lessons early on with Lan, Rand sticks with this art form long after he has armies and loyal Aes Sedai and Maidens of the Spear surrounding him for protection. He adds to this hand-to-hand combat training after falling in with the Aiel, and carries this forward through the series. Rand resists using his political power abusively, or even frivolously. Rand's Temperance keeps him in control not only of the One Power, but power more generally. Early in the series, he obtains Callandor and the access keys to the Choedan Kal, items potentially giving him godlike power. But he resists the temptation to use them, knowing he isn't ready for them (file this under Prudence as well). And he resists this temptation to heavenly power even when it comes coupled with Lanfear's more earthly efforts at seduction. One counter-example to this is Rand's persistent problem with a very intemperate anger.

We see Rand's Prudence in his military campaigns as well as his political maneuvering, most of which are fairly successful. Much of this success comes of course from his gifted advisers, but here again his practical sense shines through in his choice of counsel. He knows too when to keep his own counsel. There were solid strategic reasons--laid out by Moiraine--why Ilium should have been his next destination after Tear, but he wisely chooses instead to seek out the Aiel, informed by his own readings of the Prophecies of the Dragon. In another example of shrewdness Rand, with the "help" of the creatures beyond the doorway ter'angreal, figures out how to cleanse saidin, a thorny problem left unsolved even by the luminaries of the Age of Legends. In doing so he cleverly manages to destroy Shadar Logoth. We will see later that Rand's Prudence and Courage labor also for the Dark Side.

Before moving on to Rand's experience with the sentimental virtues, I want to note that the lack of Christian virtue is surely not his only problem. I have already mentioned anger. Rand's biggest vice, though, is Pride. Certainly for much of the story Lews Therin holds forth in the back of Rand's head about his dangerous Pride. This is seen in his attitudes toward Moiraine, Cadsuane, and essentially every Aes Sedai who tries to guide him, or merely even help him. We've already encountered Rand's obsession with mentally punishing himself with every woman who dies either for him or at his order. This too is a species of Pride: he cannot keep everyone safe in his cosmic battle, and other individuals in the struggle for the Light deserve respect for their choices and sacrifices; it's not all about Rand all the time. Rand even believes he can kill the Dark One (at the end of Book One, he believes he did kill the Dark One).

Pride is one major weakness, but it is by no means the main event. His Pride is almost comic relief next to the way his sacrifice of Faith and Love on the altars of Courage and Prudence corrode his character and jeopardize the Pattern itself. This is what Cadsuane's epigraph at the beginning of this essay is all about. Rand believes that defeating the Dark One at Shayol Ghul is the only thing that matters, and it must be accomplished at any cost. This is the warped view of Prudence as ends-justify-the-means, where other virtues that normally soften Prudence are disregarded. Rand believes his struggle is to rid himself of the human weakness and attachment that might cause him to falter from his ultimate goal of defeating the Dark One. This is the Dark Side of his Courage.

Cadsuane Sedai. Source
Rand the young villager of Emond's Field has the full complement of virtues, but his Faith in people is first weakened when the seed of doubt about his origin is planted during Tam al'Thor's fever dream. He and Mat are hounded by their pursuers after they lose touch with Moiraine, and they are lost in a world of strangers of evil intent. As he takes on the mantle of the Dragon Reborn, Rand suspects more and more that Moiraine is just manipulating him for her own Aes Sedai ends. Thus the person the reader knows he probably should trust more than anyone is relegated to the status of just another schemer out for her own good. By the time he has reached his stride mid-series, Rand is a paranoid wreck, seeing darkfriends, the Forsaken, and Aes Sedai machinations everywhere. He only truly trusts the small band of friends he left his village with and his three lovers. In his bleakest paranoia, he nearly murders his own father, suspecting he was in thrall to Cadsuane. Cadsuane herself is a good example of a companion whose trustworthiness had been demonstrated (she rescues him from Padan Fain outside of Cairhien, protects him during the cleansing of saidin, and again rescues him from Far Madding where he can't channel his way out of his difficulties).

There is a delicate balance of Faith and Prudence that must be maintained lest one or the other slip into vice. Faith without Prudence is gullibility. Rand really is in danger of hidden darkfriends and the plots of the White Tower. But his loss of the ability to trust warps his relation to humanity. He only halfway trusts Aes Sedai when they have sworn fealty to him, and are literally compelled by the Oath Rod to serve him. He believes the only way the world can work together to fend off the Dark is if he reigns over them. He purposefully abuses his ta'veren tendency to distort the Pattern to compel adversary negotiators to bend to his will. Part of Faith is trusting one's fellow human beings enough to relate to them as free and equal beings, but Rand increasingly can only "trust" others if they are bound and subordinate to him.

Love lingers longer in Rand than Faith. He certainly never loses the Love he bears Elayne, Aviendha, and Min. But he also considers this a failure owing to his weakness and he struggles against these feelings, believing that the only thing he has to offer any woman is pain. He forces himself to forget his village. He briefly rekindles his roots when he meets girls from his village in Caemlyn, on their way to Tar Valon to become novices. This reunion is cut short when their Aes Sedai chaperones appear and Rand resumes his emotionless persona. At least, he tries to restrain his emotions, but he shouts at the girls that he is no longer the boy from their village and leaves them cowering with a demonstration of saidin, an instance of his intemperate facility to anger. He destroys the bonds of affection and common experience he had with these girls and resolves that this is all for the best.

I admit to some shoehorning here. I lump in the ideas of human connection under Love in addition to the traditional compassion/charity interpretation of that virtue. Love on this view is the virtue that sustains human relationships and connections of all kinds, and includes romantic love and friendship, the bonds of affection and obligation that make family and village life possible, and the compassion and solidarity that operate at longer distances and across frontiers.

Perhaps the one person Rand really treats as a true friend rather than merely an instrument is Lan, perhaps because both characters have a similar obsession with the idea that their deaths have already been purchased (Lan's lone war against the Shadow has only been postponed by his service to Moiraine as warder). But in the end Rand sacrifices even this friendship to his misguided single-mindedness; he cannot be distracted from his own efforts and anyway Lan has his own duty to discharge. Lan, having finally freed himself of other obligations and warder bonds, launches himself at the Blight in a certain--and certainly futile--suicide mission. Rand's duty as a friend here is clear: he should either talk Lan out of his foolishness or at least send him reinforcements. It is left instead to Nynaeve to rally the Borderlands around their living legend in his quest.

Rand's terrible Prudence leads him to break any social norm as long as it serves his purpose. This is the degradation of Faith in humanity required to sustain social morality as well as Love (compassion) for those impacted. He grows increasingly comfortable with the use of forbidden balefire as he progresses, literally unraveling the Pattern even as his single-minded purpose is to save it at all costs. In one horrific scene late in the series, Rand sends a human pawn to Graendal, knowing the victim will undergo Compulsion; the disappearance of the Compulsion weave will confirm Graendal is dead as Rand erases the entire Palace and all its inhabitants from the Pattern with balefire. This is Rand at his most inhumane. He has achieved the "hardness" he believes is required to do whatever it takes to defeat the Dark One, and it has made him capable of committing clear war crimes where innocent lives are treated as so much cannon fodder.

Hope is in some ways the hardest virtue for my argument to accommodate. Apart from a spell of depression following the assassination of Herid Fel, Rand admirably maintains Hope quite far into the story. He creates the Asha'man primarily to be his weapons for Tarmon Gaidon, but he also intends for the Black Tower to persist and provide a home for men who can channel. Rand establishes schools throughout the nations under his rule, betraying his optimism about the outcome of the Last Battle and what might come after. Perhaps his greatest article of Hope is the effort he puts into the Dragon's Peace, which promises a legacy of world peace following the Last Battle. Hope in his success against the Dark One is inherent even in his terrible Prudence; it is its purpose.

But Hope is just the last of the sentimental virtues to go. Rand finally loses Hope at the summit of Dragonmount, having transported himself there after nearly blasting the Seanchan territories out of the Pattern with balefire. Rand is suddenly gripped by nihilism, entertains the idea that there is no point to his rebirth, the renewal of the Wheel, really anything, and that perhaps the Dark One is right to will the destruction of the Pattern.
The Dragon is troubled. Source
“What if he is right?” Rand bellowed. “What if it's better for this all to end? What if the Light was a lie all along, and this is all just a punishment? We live again and again, growing feeble, dying, trapped forever. We are to be tortured for all time!” 
With this final dismissal of Hope he prepares to obliterate the Pattern itself with the power of the Choedan Kal. But, of course, something stays his hand, his humanity resurfacing.
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.
In the end Rand thus does choose to hold on to Hope, and to abandon his internal war on the sentimental virtues. But we glimpse that with Love, Faith, and finally Hope all gone, there was nothing left but destructive nihilism, and Rand's heroic expression of the pagan virtues was all for naught. All the bravery, self-control, and cleverness of the Dragon was not enough, especially when the ruthless maximization of those virtues came at the cost of the humane virtues. Choosing to re-embrace his humanity, Love returns: "Because each time we live, we get to love again." And "He remembered love, and peace, and joy, and hope."

After this epiphany, the character of our protagonist radically changes for the rest of the series. Rand casually strolls into Tar Valon to visit the Amyrlin Seat, even submitting to shielding without a struggle, something quite remarkable after his abduction and torture at the hands of Elaida's Aes Sedai mid-series. One could sympathize if Rand was overcome with uncontrollable tremors at the mere sight of an ageless face after such an ordeal. Rand again puts himself in a vulnerable position when he meets with the Borderlander armies stationed in Far Madding, where channeling is impossible. And where before Rand struggled to remain cold and emotionless at the many deaths caused in his wars, now he allows himself to feel the losses, and dreads the loss of Hope among his people, and it makes him angry. Rand Travels in to break the siege of Maradon and, in a move unthinkable for the pre-epiphany Dragon, he sets Prudence to the side and exhausts himself by single-handedly destroying the horde of Trollocs poised to overwhelm the city. And he puts himself at risk both because he was inspired by the bravery and skill of the city's defenders and to show them that their Hope and Courage and sacrifice were not in vain. He has tamed his Prudence with the sentimental virtues.

In the end, Rand needs Christian virtue just to survive to reach the showdown with the Dark One. But he also needs Faith to succeed in that confrontation. He places his Faith in Egwene to, well, place her Faith in him and his frankly crazy-sounding plan to destroy the last seal on the Dark One's prison, as well as to know when the time is right to do so. And he needs to surrender control to Moiraine and Nynaeve in order to use Callandor for its ultimate purpose. And in the contest of dueling realities played by Rand and the Dark One, Faith and Hope are needed to finally understand that he cannot just kill the Dark One; human beings must grapple with evil in order to be fully human.

This last point reflects another major theme of the books, that evil exists intrinsically within the human soul, and it must be combated there. The Dark One is only a demonic embodiment of the evil within. This is seen with Shadar Logoth and Padan Fain, evils born of the same paranoid distrust that afflicts Rand and is actually antagonistic to the Dark One's brand of evil. And we have every reason to believe the banal, institutional evil of the Seanchan enslavement of channelers will persist well into the Fourth Age, long after the Dark One is sealed away; the a'dam is an invention of human weakness, not of the Shadow. It is significant that the greatest conflict in the story is internal, one of Rand struggling with his inner demons. I have labored to portray this long conflict in terms of the virtues of Courage and especially Prudence manifesting in the protagonist to a disproportionate--even vicious--degree, and their overwhelming what I have called the sentimental or Christian virtues of Hope, Faith, and Love. The most dangerous evil depicted in the story then is that evil which arises from disharmonies within the human soul, all too realistic, and not the fantastical evil of a dark deity.

Other stories could have been written to explore the harmony of virtue. Our Dragon could have been a sappy figure, in touch with sentimental virtues but lacking the Courage to march down the path ending with his blood spilt on the rocks of Shayol Ghul. Or he might have struggled instead with playing the cold-blooded utilitarian gambits that really were required of our hero from time to time. Much more might have been made of the allure of Berelain and Lanfear, and the temptations of world domination.

Mileage may vary of course, but I'm glad Jordan chose the particular imbalance he did. I began reading the series as a young teenage male, and I remember loving Rand's cold ruthlessness and talent for violence. I mean, what a badass! For the elderly harpy Cadsuane, of course, I had little to no patience, nor for his other moderating influences. In this I'm sure I was unexceptional among my fellow teenage male fans. I took a hiatus from the books around the time our Dragon nearly slaughtered his own armies in beating back the Seanchan from Ilium, and I returned with the publication of a Memory of Light, arguably an adult. I now see the macho virtues of our hardened hero I so appreciated before as maniacal vices in their obsessively amplified expression. I get the importance of Love, Hope, and Faith now in a way I never could while under the spell of youthful ideas of toughness, bravado, and above all immunity to sentiment.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very interesting piece, thanks for writing it.

    I love seeing other peoples views on the WoT and its clear you have considered the series as a whole (both major & minor scenes) when discussing the points.

    Thanks again!