African Immortals, Part 4

 

Here’s why this combination of faith and love and control and abuse is so fascinating to me: because I do not know if David will be, or should be, saved.

The theological universe of My Soul to Keep is a Christian one, more overt than in Connie Willis but not hammering-obvious like the Left Behind novels.

Jessica is a church-going Christian.  She flashes back to bargains with God while pregnant with Kira, she thinks hard about what it means that David isn’t a Christian, and whether that means they will be separated in eternity. When Alex learns what David is, she says perhaps God meant for Jessica to learn this. (And Alex is the most skeptical and scientific of the family save for Dawit.)

Khaldun, Dawit’s blood-giver, was told that the blood is the same as Jesus’s blood shed on the cross…but that could easily be a lie, either from Khaldun or from the man who told him. The rumor is not believable, yet it would make sense in this universe, because God is definitely active here.

We know this because there are supernatural elements in addition to Dawit and his brothers: ghosts in the trees and the benevolent presence of Jessica’s father haunting the nearby cave. Alex, Jessica’s sister, has a vision of the future possibly given by God.

Ultimately, when Jessica has the opportunity to possibly save Kira by injecting her with Dawit’s blood, she chooses not to. Out of hope for Kira’s soul? Out of doubt of the miracle? Out of anger at Dawit? Maybe all of these? Given what the reader knows at this point, we know Jessica made the right call: Kira’s grandfather has been watching over her from beyond the grave, and maybe even preparing her for this death.

So this could mean that there is a forgiveness narrative building – that this is ultimately, really, a love story, where Jessica will find a way to bring Dawit and his brothers into the light? Is he forgivable?

On one hand, there seems to be a pretty clear message of no – that David cannot enter heaven. Jessica’s grandfather tells Kira stories about a boy who could return to see his parents, but his parents could never join him…and then says that boy is actually her.

Jessica’s grandfather and her dreams also have a message that seems to deny David any redemption: there are no good monsters. David is a monster; he is not, cannot be good. How would that work in this story, now that Jessica is also barred from heaven?

On the other hand, forgiveness and redemption are so deeply woven into Christianity that I can also see an ending where David ultimately redeems himself.

And I can imagine it being done poorly: cheap grace, quick forgiveness, a kind of placid love-conquers-all that conveniently forgets murdered friends and family and children. Wiping away the horrors in order to get a happy ending for Jessica and David, or in order to whack at a crude “real Christians forgive their abusers” moral.

But I can also imagine it being done beautifully: acknowledging the atrocities he’s committed, real atonement, real understanding. Maybe a message that even the most monstrous of us is not beyond the reach of God. Not cheap grace but grace.

And finally, I don’t know what I’d want to see. (Definitely not the cheap grace.) But would I be happier if there was a version that said, some things are not forgivable, some abuses can’t be washed away? Or would I be happier if there was a deep wrestling with what forgiveness can mean in the face of monstrous crimes?

Either way, I’m looking forward to finishing the series!

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African Immortals, part 3

The two themes of abuse and faith are so tightly connected that I’ve barely been able to split this into two posts. In fact, they’re the reason why I’m holding off on finishing the series until I’ve written more.

First, despite the love scenes and erotic moments, this is not a romance novel. We get the love story of Dawit and Jessica, but there are wrong notes, subtle but present throughout. Due manages to show us a relationship that definitely has love – but that also teeters on the edge of abuse.

Possibly I’ve been oversensitized by the comparisons between Twilight and stalker / DV situations, but there are so many threads that made my ears perk up as the story went on. Things in Jessica’s narrative that, if a friend had told me, would cause me to worry. Ways that Dawit has of describing matters that seem just barely dangerous.

Here’s a few:

  • Jessica thinks about how much of the house is full of David and David’s personality; the space she has made for herself is small.
  • Jessica is uneasy about advancing her career because of what David will think; he doesn’t get angry, but she’s aware that he doesn’t really approve. He regards her career with bemusement rather than respect.
  • David is constantly suggesting they pack up and move away – go traveling and get away from Florida. He frames this as embracing pleasure and limited time, but there’s also the clear sense that she would then be dependent on him, without an easy escape.
  • David literally kills the person who gets Jessica a book contract that would take her away from home. His motive is more about protecting himself from Peter’s investigation, but removing his “rival” factors into it as well.
  • Dawit, when he thinks of Jessica, rarely uses her name. He calls her “the woman” several times in the first chapter from his POV. She’s his hope and love, but at the same time she barely registers as Jessica. She’s an object for him. Cherished but not a person.
  • Dawit doesn’t like her family much, and would prefer that she rely on him alone.
  • Dawit wants her to be with him always (dependent on him, together forever with him), yet regards her career as a distraction and her faith as a childish indulgence. His love is tied up with condescension and control.

These don’t add up to a violent relationship, but a borderline one. A relationship laced with control and isolation issues, like a dusting of arsenic on a feast.

During the lead-up to Dawit’s reveal of his immortality, I became more and more tense – because he takes her to an island with no outside access – no way out – no connectivity – and it felt like Jessica was walking into a trap. When Jessica’s older sister is calling her with information about David’s blood, she has to use a code phrase on the phone because David might be listening. The escape in the night is a flight from a violent spouse; Jessica even uses that to her advantage when they are nearly out of gas and the station attendant sees their situation.

Combine this with the emphasis on Jessica’s faith, and the theological universe of the books, and…I don’t know. I don’t know what to expect. It could be awesome. It could be disappointing. It could be a twist or a thud, and I am enjoying this delicious ambiguity…but it won’t keep me from reading the rest. Not for long, anyway.

African Immortals, part 2

This entry is tougher, because there’s already a lot of good and interesting writing about the role that race plays in SF.

[There’s also a lot of yelling about race in SF from the more awful parts of fandom. I won’t characterize it as a “debate,” because it’s not. It’s one group of good people saying “this field is big enough for everyone, it has awesome writers of color and it needs more, SF gets better, cooler, and more realistic if we don’t exclude the diversity that already exists in the world” and this other group of jerks screaming racist bullshit and generally being horrible people. That’s not a “debate about race.”]

There are a lot of people who’ve already said cool, insightful stuff about how SF used to be an almost-all-white genre, about its roots in racism (Lovecraft anyone?), and the (small but significant) changes that have happened in the last 30-40 years.

So I’m reading Due as a white SF fan, a white scholar, who grew up reading largely white authors, in a racist country.

And reading her work is a fascinating experience in decentering. Because I’m not who the story is for.

By saying “it’s not for me”, I’m not politely declining the story, like you’d say “Oh, that lemon pie is nice, but it’s not for me.” Instead, I’m saying that I’m not the audience presumed by the story.

Buckle up, I’m going to need a bit of literary criticism for this.

In Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, one of the concepts he develops is the circle of prefiguration, configuration, and reconfiguration (mimesis1, mimesis2, mimesis3). Broadly speaking, mimesis2/configuration is the stage of plot, of composing a story – of making narrative sense out of sheer happening, of putting frames and reasons around events or ordering a series of moments into a full story. Mimesis3/reconfiguration is the stage where the reader brings something from the world of the plot back into the world they know. (Sort of. There’s a lot going on and I’m horribly oversimplifying here.)

Mimesis1 / prefiguration is what happens before a person reads or otherwise encounters a narrative. Things like being able to ask who, how, why; like the use of symbols, or the symbolic languages available to us. These make composition possible – they also make comprehension possible for the reader. Without being able to understand a causal chain of events, a reader couldn’t make sense of a story. The reader comes pre-figured, not contextless, to the narrative. Prefiguration is also the content and context around us – historical circumstances, social norms, awareness of custom, affect and reaction, theories of mind, etc. And those are strongly shaped by our race, gender, sexuality, etc.

Judith Fetterley, in The Resisting Reader, argued that women readers become im-masculated – in order to successfully read works from the male-dominated canon, women would have to set aside their femaleness and read as-if-men, thus internalizing the “male view” and im-masculating themselves. This is a kind of prefiguration too – the ability to read as if you were from the dominant culture, to assume the context that a male reader would have.

If you’re a female reader – do you remember the first time you read a book that didn’t “expect” a male audience – how it asked different things, assumed different things about what you already knew? (And what would it be like to have a book that didn’t expect a binary-gendered audience? Maybe the Radch series?)

I believe the same phenomenon occurs for readers of color. A reader of color would need to to assume the context of a white reader and thus internalize the “white view.” The reason why I think this happens is that Due subverts it and reverses it. Due’s not writing for a reader whose prefiguration is white. She’s not assuming a white reader; in fact, it feels like the book is addressed to a Black reader.

And race shapes every aspect of the story. It shapes Dawit’s history. He’s not a European Count (or Comte) or a peasant raised from Carolingian serfdom: he’s an African caravan leader, acquainted with both Islam and Christianity before he becomes immortal. His brothers aren’t angstful predators who lurk outside French ballrooms and seduce the young women of the aristocracy – they are learned scholars and warriors in Ethiopia. The men who live forever are Black.

It shapes how Dawit perceives his own immortality – after being refused service in the South upon his first visit to the US, after being captured and sold as a slave, after beatings and escape and a lynching that leaves his love Adele dead and him embracing death in grief three times before cutting himself down from the lynching tree. After serving on the Union side during the Civil War, in order to take vengeance.

It shapes Jessica – her awareness of being a young, attractive black woman in a demanding career, of where she can and can’t trust people, of her narrowed options during the last desperate flight with Kira. And her faith, which in turn is bound up with her tight networks of churchgoing family, her lost father and widowed mother, her sister and her uncle. (All of whom Dawit tries to isolate her from.)

One review described this book as an elegy for the Florida African-American community, tight bonds and traditions and support mixed with teasing. I agree; it’s portrayed as simply natural, as if I, the reader, should already know all this, should expect all this, should already be inside these conversations.

I am the book’s audience when it comes to “people who love well-written sf with compelling storylines and deep characters”, but I’m not the audience who has the prefigured history context for those conversations. That I’m not inside those conversations and context is where the decentering comes from. Due creates a world that makes me aware of just how much I take for granted in reading, but doesn’t exclude me.

And she does it with a damn good story too.

 

Immortality and faith – Due, part 1

First of all: It feels so nice to be reading for joy again. New books, new ideas, new characters…some familiar notes and some new intrigues. I’m trying to decide if I’ve got the fortitude for the Southern Reach trilogy or the dedication for the Three Body Problem or the emotional equilibrium for The Fifth Season. Maybe all of them? And maybe some entries on Sanderson’s constant threads about humans-become-gods-ish, or maybe some tangents on other media – anime, comics, etc. Or even a few comparative posts, either deep-theme comparisons or something lighter like “five versions of Loki.” (which, actually, sounds like a fun thing to write after seeing Thor: Ragnarok.)

But anyway! With that initial warm-up meta-commentary aside, I want to jump straight into the not-a-vampire not-a-romance I finished yesterday: Tananarive Due’s My Soul to Keep. I’ll spend this post introducing it and noting the things that are catching my attention most, then go in-depth on them in the next few entries.

My Soul to Keep is the first in Due’s African Immortals series. I have not yet read the next few, and – as I’ll explain in later entries – I’m really curious to see whether the later books totally upend my initial readings.

The book is set in modern-day, 1990s Florida, with a few flashbacks. The thumbnail plot sketch could make it sound a lot like Twilight or other vampire novels: a young woman is romanced by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be hundreds of years old; he has seen centuries of change, and is so overcome with love for her that he is willing to defy the rules of secrecy that surround him and his brethren, just to ensure she is with him forever.

That’s the setup – with a few slight catches. The mildest one is that Jessica and David/Dawit are already married and have a child by the time the book begins. She doesn’t know his secret, but the rest of the setup holds true.

Another important difference is that Dawit does not need to feed on blood to survive. He became immortal through a ceremony involving blood, and his blood is magical/powerful, but he’s not required to kill to survive. That takes away the sexy-predator-hunter-moral quandary aspect.

The three biggest differences are what fascinate me most, and what I’ll be spending the next few entries talking about.

First, Jessica and David/Dawit are both Black. Dawit doesn’t have Anne-Rice-esque adventures in Europe and louche memories of New Orleans – his history involves caravans all over Africa, seductions in India, arguments in Cordoba…and violent enslavement and escape in America. He’s also the only one of his brethren (I think, so far) to have had that experience of American slavery, and it has changed him.

The race of the central lovers affects everything, especially in contrast to the very white / Euro vampire canon: who is presented as allies, what family means, what history means, what faith means.

That leads to the second part that fascinates me. Jessica is a deeply committed Christian, and so is her family – except for Dawit, who is angered by religion and has decided it all must be a sham. Even the meditative practices of his own kind frustrate him. I don’t know how many other immortal / vampire novels really wrestle with religion, or settle for easy answers. I’ll go into much greater depth later; this really intrigues me.

Finally, I called this a “not-vampire not-romance”. Here’s why:

David and Jessica’s relationship is clearly erotic, clearly loving, clearly devoted…and just as clearly tipping into abuse.

David wants to isolate her, pulls her apart from her family. Even in the first chapters, there are red flags in her hesitation to move ahead in her career because it might upset him. David is willing to kill anyone who might take Jessica away from him – not because they risk the covenant of silence, though he tries to justify that. But because they might make sure she leaves.

He is utterly devoted to her, to the point where he is willing to murder her and their child Kira so they can be together always. Yes, he’s planning to bring them back. Yes, he’s sorry about having to do it, and wants to find a way to do it without pain. He’s still willing to do it.

All those reactions to Twilight about how Edward was stalker-obsessive-controlling-boyfriend, not good relationship models? Here it’s explicit. The love is real. So is the abuse. And I want to see where Due goes with that in the next few books.

Wheel of Time 6 and last: evil imprisoned

This last bit isn’t so much about the plot of all 13 books in the Wheel of Time, but about a detail in its setting. Why is the Dark One present? Because the Wheel – the world, time, all that exists here – was created as a prison for it.

Existence as a prison for evil. Partly, this works to explain why the Dark One isn’t the equal to the Creator, while still being a gigantic threat: he’s bound by constraints of time and space (somewhat), he’s weak enough to be subjected to the Creator’s will but strong enough to almost get out. It also works to deliver a sense of urgency and obligation to the characters: this escape will have consequences for the universe, not just for a moment in time.

But it also has the odd feeling of sacrificing humanity to the Dark One – like sticking a bunny colony in a cage with a hyena. Why does a prison need to be inhabited? Why couldn’t the Creator put the Dark One elsewhere?

Maybe humans are needed to keep him there? But it’s never stated that it’s humanity’s duty to keep the Dark One imprisoned, only that they ought to do it out of enlightened self-interest. Nor is this a punishment for a long-ago fall; people aren’t atoning by sharing the world with an evil cellmate.

I think I fixate on this point because it seems so oddly unjust to throw the humans in there with the Dark One – and because it shows up in another series I read around the same time, the Thomas Covenant trilogies. In those, Lord Foul the Despiser is also imprisoned in Time by the Creator, and strives to escape by destroying Time. The Creator can’t intervene directly without breaking the Arch of Time, so flawed and struggling humans must do their best.

I have a lot of issues with the Covenant series and a lot of love for it. (Okay, maybe only for the middle trilogy.) But the shared theme here catches my eye.

I can see the functional uses of this cosmology, but I can’t see the sense of it. It works to provide explanations for why evil is close, why it must be fought, what the stakes are, perhaps why the Creator can’t intervene, etc. So it’s a cosmology that does a lot of work. But I’m not sure how well it works with a good Creator, or with a theoretically just world.

Maybe this is just me saying “I don’t get this theodicy and find it wanting.” Possibly; I think there may be more to it, more about the concept of existence as a prison and humanity as part of that prison. But I’m not quite sure where to take it from there.

Wheel of Time 5: free will

It’s been a couple of weeks, and I’ve lost a bit of steam on the WoT series.

(Mostly, that’s because I’ve been reading a lot of other good stuff – The Ballad of Black Tom, Calamity (re-read), Lovecraft Country, My Soul to Keep…all of which are engaging enough that I just want to keep reading instead!)

Still, there are two themes I want to poke at briefly before I move on. I’ll hit the first one here and save the next for a quick post next week.

The first is the idea of free will in the Wheel of Time. There’s a lot of destiny and prophecy and fate – but the books also stress the importance of free will. This isn’t especially new for fantasy series, and the ongoing question of whether $Hero is free to choose, or if everything is just meant-to-be, should be familiar to most sf readers.

The potential futures that Rand sees as he fights the Dark One are a direct spinoff of the free-will question. In one, Rand forces a world without the Dark One’s presence at all, and the result is an empty-eyed Stepford-esque world – one that the Dark One considers, and says he would accept defeat if this were the outcome. Rand realizes this is horrifying, and that removing the possibility to choose badly is removing humanity.

That depiction of free will is important to make, but it’s not terribly new. What’s more relevant, or interesting, or innovative, is how that plays out in practical ways during the Last Battle. The potential futures for the world, sure, we can think of those as Bad Endings or Dystopian Futures, and they serve as foils.

But when Rand is faced with the potential for someone that he loves to be lost as a result of her own choices, he has to face the outcome of free will in a much more direct situation.

Spoilers, of course:

It’s not a matter of allowing a friend to choose to serve the Dark One, but of letting a friend choose her own fate. Egwene’s death, and her spirit’s exasperated question to Rand – can’t she, too, be a hero? – is part of what propels him to his final stand. Choosing free will doesn’t just mean avoiding the dead-eyed Bad Ending. It means risking that others will die as a result of their choices, even the good choices.

That moment is far more powerful to me than the face-off with the Dark One’s alternate futures. Let us choose, and risk, our lives for the things we love and the causes we believe in. Even if that means losing us.

That’s something that I don’t think I’ve encountered in other free-will explorations, and I love Jordan and Sanderson for it.

 

Wheel of Time 4: agreement

A few more notes on declension vs. routinization before I move on to religions in Randland…

While declension has a moral value to it (a “fall from grace”), routinization is supposedly more descriptive than nostalgic. But the two narratives often get squished together: “the reason why things are bad now is that we’ve put all these rituals and organizations in place, when back in the old days we could (walk with God / become enlightened just from hearing the Four Noble Truths / hear Jesus’ words from his own lips). Conflating declension and routinization is kind of the heart of Protestantism: we must go back to a time without priest or sacraments, a time that’s supposed to have more direct access to God (via reading the Bible).

In WoT, the meaningful histories and wonders of the past are diminished into rituals where the meaning is lost – the true powers of the Oath Rod, or the tradition of gai’shain, or the prophecies of the Dragon. But there are hints that without these rituals, even more would have been lost. Routinization makes charisma weaker, but it also preserves things. To get on my soapbox for a bit, if we are constantly seeking the really-authentic-unmediated experiences of the divine…we lose the ability to make that experience communicable beyond our own heads, and we lose the ability to practice reaching that experience. To view routinization as an evil, even a necessary evil, is to ignore the good that it does.

 

Anyway. On to religious diversity in Randland.

Which, surprisingly, is pretty small. There just isn’t a vast religious universe: there’s the Creator, the Dark One, and a whole world that recognizes both. As far as I can tell, there’s no stealth cult that says the Dark One is actually the good being – the Forsaken are pretty clear that they’re doing evil and they *like* it – so there’s no subversive religion. There’s no other gods, no pantheon. And there’s very little diversity in how people interact with the Creator and the Dark One:

– Most people regard the Creator as a distant, vaguely benevolent Light. If it’s active in their lives, it’s in subtle ways, not through massive miracles or divine saviors. They work to do good and avoid evil, but there’s very little in the way of actual teachings of the Light.

– The Forsaken and other Darkfriends have a much stronger allegiance to the Dark One, and receive direct communications, powers, and assistance (not pleasant, but powerful) from him.

– The Children of the Light are fanatics who strive for a much more direct relationship to the Creator, partially by purging evil (or suspected evil). Stricter moral code, plus a doctrine that states the Light actively works to support its champions. Still no divine powers or saviors.

That’s about it. The Prophet of the Dragon raises another army of fanatics, who have very similar beliefs about how the Creator intervenes in life – but see Rand (and the Prophet, Masema) as bearers of the divine power. The Seanchan have a detailed system of omens and interpretations, but that’s not about the Creator either.

So why is this even interesting to me? Because I am so used to massive religious diversity – in real life, as well as in several other epic-hero-quest books like WoT. People are just so creative that ways of thinking about and talking about divinity tend to proliferate like mad. The sheer scale of the general agreement in Randland is kind of astounding: everyone agrees on the general nature of reality. Everyone. People may doubt how much influence the Creator or Dark One has, but there’s general agreement – and there’s no clear system for maintaining that agreement. No church or temple or wandering monks; no doctrines, no eightfold path or ten commandments, none worth mentioning.

Maybe that’s one reason why the world eventually bored me? Or maybe it’s a sign that this just wasn’t an issue for Jordan: he assumed that left on their own, people tend to create decent societies where people maintain a rough, but stable, agreement on the general terms of good and bad. Is that why WoT can feel naive next to Game of Thrones?

Next time I’ll take up one thread from the agreed-on ideas about Creator and Dark One: that the Wheel, and everything in it, is essentially a prison for evil.

 

Wheel of Time 3: decline

In WoT, the cyclical ages also incorporate the rise and fall of civilizations. The present day of the books is a quasi-medieval agrarian feudalism. Rand’s previous incarnation, Lews Therin, lived during the Age of Wonders – a time with vast One-Power-derived advances, massive civilizations, and other characteristics of a Golden Age. After Lews Therin and friends ended up freeing the Dark One, who tainted the male half of the One Power, the golden era ended in terrible destruction.

There is a sense throughout the earlier books that the current way of life is pleasant but notably less  than the ages of wonders and legends that preceded it. That once there were better, more effective ways to travel or learn or see. Only a few know of them now, and fewer can do them (such as traveling through the Waygates). Knowledge has been lost – consistently, across all the nations. The Aiel have lost the knowledge of their pacifist forebears. The Two Rivers has forgotten it was the kingdom of Manetheren. And so on.

This doesn’t stay throughout the books. As secrets are revealed, and discoveries are made, some of the lost arts come back into the world (sometimes via the Forsaken, who knew them back in the Age of Wonders). It stops feeling like a world that’s doomed to forget – it feels like a world that’s beginning to make the climb back up.

That’s the narrative of decline in the WoT. So what does this have to do with religion?

Well, there are two rough religious models that could map here. One has moral connotations; the other aims to be more descriptive.

The first is recognizable from the narrative of the Fall, as well as the Kali Yuga or the Mappo. Once, things were good/perfect, and now – present day – things are awful. So there must be an increase in sin, or humans have just gotten worse over time. This is is declension, the story of decline.

Despite being such an easily-disprovable narrative, it’s a very robust one. It explains why things seem different today than when you were a child, why the heroes of the past aren’t around anymore, why the miracles in the sacred texts aren’t all over the place in the same way: because things have gotten worse. It relies on nostalgia and pessimism.

This is often a religious narrative, because the “getting worse” is frequently tied to ideas of sin, or divine distance, or some cosmological issue that lets the world run down. But it’s not necessarily religious; it can be nationalistic (e.g. the “again” part of “Make America Great Again”) or generational.

The narrative of routinization is different and has less of a moral value. This is a key element in Max Weber’s theories of religion, particularly the transformation of Protestantism. Instead of positing a golden age of religiosity, Weber states that founders of religion have charisma, which becomes routinized over time.

Charisma is a little different than your standard D&D stat here. It’s power – attention – compelling interest – fascination – a bolt from the otherworld in the everyday.  It’s the magnetic personality of a guru or teacher. It can be communicated and shared; people who are close to the original teacher or founder share in that founding charisma. But it can’t be shared forever in that way.

Instead, systems develop to extend this charisma past its spontaneous reach. Not everyone can speak with Jesus, or with one of his disciples, or his disciples’ disciples. But a church can be created where his teachings can be communicated, and the specialness of his message preserved. Not everyone can have the spontaneous enlightenment of the Buddha’s first disciples – but there are practices and systems and ideas that can make that enlightenment more proximate to the everyday person.

These systems help extend charisma, but they also make it routine. The passionate, fascinating personality of the teacher is gone, and has to be replaced with a set of teachings or rituals that can communicate what he taught.  Now everyone can hear his teachings far beyond his original reach, but they’re rote and static, without the same power. Eventually, the meaning and spirituality of those teachings and rituals end up draining out of them, like water out of a leaky bag. The rituals remain but the charisma is much less present; the routinization has set it.

Weber didn’t think this was bad, at least not in the same way that declension and Fall are bad. But he did think it was inevitable and that it was a loss.

What makes the WoT especially interesting in this model of decline is the way that Jordan / Sanderson choose to revise it at the end. Rand decides to do things better this time around – not by being Super Manly Stoic Guy, but by getting allies, letting them be people rather than pawns to protect, and by conceiving of repetition as improvement, not decline. We repeat our lives, he says, to do better next time. It’s not that things will be perfect from here on out – the Ages will still come and go, and history will become myth – but Rand refuses to see this as a painful circle. To add my own pagan-spin on it: the wheel is a spiral, as each time through offers the chance to build upon the previous ones. Not repetition but iteration.

Wheel of Time 2: cyclical and linear time

In the last post, I mentioned that I’d want to talk about how time functioned in the Wheel of Time series. Not the specific day-to-day of time within the books’ actions themselves – although that’s interesting, especially the way that time partially slows during the Last Battle. But the way that time functions on a large scale, as part of the worldbuilding.

As the “wheel” part of WoT implies, time here is cyclical. Ages come and go, souls are reincarnated, time repeats. Part of Rand’s angst is his fear that he’s going to repeat the atrocities committed in the past. And despite its name, the Last Battle is also part of this cycle – and so not “last” in any ultimately-forever sense. The Heroes of the Horn of Valere have done this before, and will do it again.

At the same time, Rand’s status as Dragon Reborn implies an apocalypse – a potential end to time, which would halt the cycle entirely. If that comes to pass, time won’t be a series of infinite repetitions, it’ll be a single line – from the Creator’s creating the world to the Last Battle and the end of the world.

Permeating both models is a sense of decline: that actions have faded into history, history into myth, ultimately forgotten. The Forsaken and Lews Therin come from the Age of Legends, and the secrets of that age are forgotten by the time Rand comes along – back to rural semi-medievalism. The wonders are gone; there’s a sense of things slowing down, eroding away, being lost to time that permeates the first few books (but not the last half!)

Why is this relevant to religion? Well, anyone who’s taken a 101 course should be vaguely reminded of a couple of major theory texts they probably had to read.  Eliade’s Sacred and the Profane was one place for this. Cyclical time versus linear time is often used as a simple contrast between “eastern” and “western” religions. Eternal wheel of reincarnation versus creation-temptation-fall-apocalypse.

Naturally, that oversimplification doesn’t last long compared to actual lived religion – ask any Christian about the cyclical patterns of the liturgical year, for example. What’s interesting about how Jordan uses these models of time is that he pulls really strongly on both, and ends up with double-strength apocalypse tropes.

The linear time, for example, fits neatly with every Rand-as-Messiah trope. The End of Days is approaching, and he has to wrap up a few prophecies before the apocalypse. Great! Toss in the book of Revelation from the Christian Bible, with the conquering Messiah returning.  Add any number of other end of the world tropes.

Cyclical time, meanwhile, has its own idea of decline. (After all, every generation can clearly see the world is getting worse, right? So they have to accommodate that sensation somehow…/sarcasm) Here the world keeps going downhill, but it’s not permanent. This is the concept of the Kali Yuga, the age of blindness or debauchery, during which civilization crumbles. (compare also the Mappo or Mo Fa, during which Buddhism’s teachings fail to be effective for a dull populace…)

So this is less about using religion specifically, and more about major religious tropes: the messiah, the apocalypse, circular and linear time, etc. As I’ll talk about in a few more entries, Jordan’s world isn’t really religious, despite being all about a messiah standing against the Devil.

Decline, however, has a different connection to religion and religious studies. I’ll talk more about that next week, with Max Weber, charisma, and routinization.

 

 

 

Wheel of Time 1: nostalgia

First, thank you to the reader who submitted some suggestions – I have one of them queued up in my Overdrive library account now, and I read Who Fears Death while on hiatus and never added it to the blog! I’ll remedy that in a few weeks.
Second, I thought more about the Jordan series and decided to separate out the story of reading the Wheel of Time from my commentary on the Wheel of Time. So I’m giving the abbreviated version of the former here, in this entry.

In 1994 I was mid-highschool, hoovering up fantasy series left and right. I hadn’t yet hit graphic novels (though Sandman was around the corner), and the writing I liked most was quick, witty, and transparent – where the style of the writing was barely noticeable, just as long as it moved the story along. I hadn’t encountered unreliable narrators (or I’d mistaken them for transparency), but I was starting to feel a little unsatisfied by the plots of what I was reading.

I wasn’t champing at the bit to give Jordan a try, but I wasn’t ready to put it off either. What got me hooked was the “first one’s free, kid” model of booksales.

No, really. At the local college bookstore, they were giving away free paperback copies of the first third of the first book. By itself this first third was about the size of a regular novel. Completely free, and stuffed full of tropes and promise and prophecy of what was to come, and ending on a cliffhanger. So why not? What a great bait for a reader: just sample this story and see if you want more. Just try walking away from an unfinished arc.

So I barreled through the first two or three, then slowed as I hit four, five…it didn’t seem to progress, and I wasn’t as enchanted with it as I’d been with other series. (This may be around the time that I started thinking I had “grown up” out of SF entirely. Wooooo was I wrong on so many levels with that.)

I set the series aside, as the years went on. I tried revisiting it a few times but it felt more and more repetitive and slow. (There is an argument that this was on purpose – the Pattern, expressed through the story itself – but in practice it just meant feeling like nothing new would ever happen).

I didn’t plan to finish it. But after reading Mistborn and admiring Sanderson’s ability to end storylines in a successful and satisfying manner, and hearing that Sanderson had been tapped to finish the series after Jordan’s death – that gave me confidence and curiosity. Endings are hard, and Sanderson is one of the few authors who’ve wrapped up Mega Huge Doorstop Series in a really satisfying yet surprising and rich way. (Current other contenders of the top of my head: NK Jemisin and Patricia McKillip)

I was not disappointed. Sanderson and Jordan combined well, and the endings made sense and were fitting.

But reading it also felt like reaching back twenty years – to the me who wanted these characters to both be simpler and more complex, who wanted to be distracted and escape but didn’t connect the escape with the return.

I suppose I’m saying: brace yourself for more nostalgia, readers. I’ll put new stuff in the queue, but I wanted to walk down the slightly conflicted memory lanes of WoT first. It’s been good to remember.

 

Finally, I wanted to set the stage by noting the two big elements that define the WoT religious universe: decline and consistency.

Decline is the idea that all cultures, customs, and heritage has declined from what they once were – from the Age of Wonders, or from the beginnings of the Aiel, or simply in the transformation of history into legend into myth. It’s in tension with the cyclical nature of the wheel of time itself, and it’s a a great excuse to talk about Max Weber and the routinization of charisma. Here comes more sociology!

Consistency is a major mark of the whole religious universe for Randland. As diverse as the nations are, they aren’t religiously diverse. Everyone agrees: there was the Creator, who built the world and the wheel of time and the Pattern as a prison for the Dark One. That’s it. There’s different names for the Dark One and different ideas about what the Light is or does (more on that later) but there are no competing cosmologies that have any weight in that world. Creator and Dark One and that’s it. Which could also be why there are very few religions in Randland, either…

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