[This is part of a series analyzing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time novels. Previous installments can be found under the tag
. Comments on old posts are welcome.]
Next month I'm going to dive into the final stretch of the Wheel of Time analysis. But before I do that, I'd like to talk about prophecy.
I thought about waiting a while longer. See, the major example I want to use for illustration is a plot that hasn't actually paid off yet, as of the books I've read. This means that, while I can talk about where I think
it's going to go, I don't actually know yet if I'm right. (Possibly some of you do, as I suspect the resolution is in The Towers of Midnight
. But I dunno; maybe it's in A Memory of Light
. If it's in ToM, though, don't give any spoilers in the comments. I want to find out on my own how much of this is accurate.) In some ways, though, I think it's more interesting to do it like this: to say what I think right now, without the hindsight warping it. So here we go.
The reason I wanted to discuss prophecy is that I think it's one of the things Jordan does really, really well. In fact, if there's one thing I would point at as the reason for my fannishness in high school -- the thing that made me engage so enthusiastically with this series -- prophecy would probably be it. On a metaphysical level, I'm not so fond of the trope: it puts the characters on a railroad track, taking away their agency and making their choices less meaningful. And that's kind of true here, too, though Jordan sometimes goes the additional step required to make that interesting, which is to have the characters grapple with what it means to have their actions predestined. On the whole, though, it isn't the existence
of prophecy that I like.
It's the way Jordan handles it. He strikes, I think, a very good (and delicate) balance of foreshadowing, giving enough information to be interesting, not so much as to spoil the entire plot. More to the point, he does this the right way
: not through vagueness (which is what way too many fantasy authors try), but through breaking the information up and scattering it in a dozen different places.
It isn't just the official Prophecies of the Dragon, with their pompous, pseudo-epic verse. It's Egwene's dreams, and those of the other Dreamers. It's Elaida's Foretellings, and Nicola's, and Gitara Moroso's. Min's viewings. Aelfinn and Eelfinn tricks. Aiel prophecies and Sea Folk prophecies and things that aren't even prophecy of any sort; they're just little details of culture and history, stray lines characters speak here and there, tiny pieces you have to glue together to see that they have any significance at all.
Sure, some of it is vague. (Hi, Karaethon Cycle
; how ya doin'?) But some of it is very specific, very clear . . . so long as you put it together right. And that's why I think it works: if you're the sort of reader who doesn't want to know where the story is going, you don't have to. Just read along, notice the obvious stuff, and let the rest surprise you when it comes. If, however, you're the sort of person who likes to put together narrative jigsaw puzzles -- which I am -- then you can have a great deal of fun playing chase-the-clue through the books.
Having made the general statement, we'll now go behind the spoiler cut for a specific example to show what I mean.( Read more... )
Apart from the textual fun of playing with this stuff -- seriously, I'm not kidding when I say that arguing this kind of thing on CompuServe's Wheel of Time forum is how I learned close reading, and to hell with my English classes -- it's kind of a neat trick to use when your readers are having to wait years between books. Just as the fans of Lost
entertained themselves from episode to episode by trying to guess where the metaplot was going, Wheel of Time fans could (and did) spend endless amounts of time combing the books for hints about future plot. (What else could we do? If Jordan wouldn't deliver, we would, by way of endless speculation.)
I also think it helps the author have his cake and eat it, too, when it comes to the role this trope plays in fantasy. Yes, the path is laid out for Our Heroes, in a fashion compatible with the notion that they are all important enough to be Destined. But by fragmenting it and disguising it, he adds a layer of mystery that helps make their actions and choices seem less wholly pre-determined. And, as I said, Jordan at least sometimes goes the extra step of considering what that pre-determination means, at least from the perspective of the characters. Mat is told he's destined to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons, and so the interesting part isn't the surprise that it happens, but rather the question of how he reacts when he meets her. Egwene gets hints from her dreams, and faces the choice of what to say and do as a result. Rand has known since the second book that he has to fight the Dark One, and he thinks he knows what the price of that will be . . . and so the driving issue for him has been what freedom he has within that constraint. Can he choose how that moment comes? Can he avoid dying? Can he make sure there will be something left that's worth preserving?
I'd like to read a fantasy series that hits those questions head-on. Like it or not, prophecy is part of the basic furniture of the fantasy genre, and for all its flaws we aren't just going to chuck it out the window. The interesting question, both inside of the story and out, is what you do