WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A MEMORY OF LIGHT
With the prominence and intrigue of the various forms of prophecy in the Wheel of Time world, it is easy to see only the workings of destiny in the characters’ lives as though they have little free will and are wholly beholden to follow the Pattern. However, fate is not more powerful than free will; as with the other complementary forces in the series, there is a balance between the two. This essay explores the issue of fate, free will and their interplay.
In Jordan’s world history and fate are broadly determined but each individual has the choice to work towards fulfilling their role in the Pattern or to reject this. The series explores the perennial philosophical question of destiny versus free will, or, in scientific thought, a person’s basic characteristics (genetics) versus how they live (environment). As Loial discusses with Rand in The Eye of the World, The Web of the Pattern, both are important; the broad outline of the Pattern has been set by the Creator, but people’s individual choices can change their place in it.
Fate and Pattern
The cycles of Ages are never identical:
The Pattern of an Age is slightly different each time an Age comes, and each time it is subject to greater change, but each time it is the same Age.In a simple way, the Pattern could be likened to a game of cards. Each Age would have its set pattern of cards dealt to the players. In every Third Age, the same cards may be dealt to the players but the order in which the cards are played – the choice of the players – would make a difference to the game, the events of the Age. With skilful play a player can make the most of what they have been dealt, but they cannot change what they were dealt. (They can, of course, throw their lot in with the Shadow or throw their hand in altogether.)
- The Eye of the World Glossary
As Loial discusses with Rand:
You see, the Wheel of Time weaves the Pattern of the Ages, and the threads it uses are lives. It is not fixed, the Pattern, not always. If a man tries to change the direction of his life and the Pattern has room for it, the Wheel just weaves on and takes it in. There is always room for small changes, but sometimes the Pattern simply won't accept a big change, no matter how hard you try. You understand?" Rand nodded. "I could live on the farm or in Emond's Field, and that would be a small change. If I wanted to be a king, though . . . ."Ironically, Rand staying on the farm would not have been a small change to the Pattern.
- The Eye of the World,Web of the Pattern
Rand is one character who has been dealt a problematic hand. Ishamael suggested to Rand that he could avoid his fate, reject his role of world saviour, presumably by joining the Shadow:
“There are ways to change things, boy. Ways to avoid even fate. Sit and we will talk of them.”Any character’s choice to join the Shadow changes their role or place in the Pattern. The Dragon’s most of all.
-The Dragon Reborn, Saidin
Whenever Jordan spoke of the Forsaken at booksignings or on his blog, he made it plain that they chose to join up; circumstances didn't force them to at all. No one is fated to be evil – not even the Forsaken were originally. They choose to be so. Many shrug this off as not important, but really – especially in Jordan’s world – it is the most important choice. Some, such as the Tuatha’an, would rather die than commit any action against their philosophy, others cave in and do wrong at the slightest pressure, the slightest temptation.
While a person should not be prepared to do almost anything to avoid their fate, they should not blindly accept their fate and do nothing either. They need to participate in their fate, ride with destiny; not fight it, but not be lazy either.
“You must learn to ride fate.”Wise words, as Min knows only too well.
- The Fires of Heaven, Among the Wise Ones
“Those who move with too much knowledge of the future inevitably find disaster, whether from complacency at what they think must come or in their efforts to change it.”
- The Shadow Rising, Beyond the Stone
Free Will and Choice
Is fate set in stone? According to Moiraine, perhaps not even for ta’veren and not even the important events:
"Sometimes being ta'veren means the Pattern is forced to bend to you, and sometimes it means the Pattern forces you to the needed path. The Web can still be woven many ways, and some of those designs would be disastrous. For you, for the world.”The Pattern is not fixed. Perhaps the choices each person is prompted to make are as important as the events of the Age. This would also explain why the Creator made not only all the worlds, but also variations of those worlds where the souls made different choices. Rand’s trip in the Portal Stone showed how different his life would have been if different choices were made by himself and by others. The great Age Lace of all worlds is designed therefore to show the effects of free will, with the same souls living different lives due to the different choices they made (The Great Hunt, What Might Be).
- The Eye of the World, Remembrance of Dreams
Each Age has a unique pattern which can be partially changed by those lives which are the threads of the weave. As a thread of the Pattern, the integrity of an individual’s life makes a difference. With the Shadow gaining in power every day, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to maintain integrity and order, though crucial they do so, because the Shadow feeds on chaos. Just because the Dark One is touching the world does not mean that the characters should give in to the Shadow. Danger is not an excuse.
”You three did not choose; you were chosen by the Pattern. And you are here, where the danger is known. You can step aside, and perhaps doom the world. Running, hiding, will not save you from the weaving of the Pattern [the consequences of their choice]. Or you can try. You can go to the Eye of the World, three ta'veren, three centerpoints of the Web, placed where the danger lies. Let the Pattern be woven around you there, and you may save the world from the Shadow. The choice is yours."We are reminded regularly by Jordan that characters can refuse to do their duty and the Wheel turns elsewhere. For instance, there are four chapters actually named Choice/s, and a few other chapter titles about choosing.
- The Eye of the World, Decisions and Apparitions
Characters can choose to do evil or they can refuse to do good. There will always be those who turn aside, but which ones is up to individual choice, not the Pattern. Individual lives don’t matter to the Pattern - who does what – it is the what that counts to the Pattern and the choices that a soul makes that counts to the Creator.
The abundance of prophecy – seeing pieces of the Pattern that will or probably will come true – is a bonus and a temptation as Bair says. Rand looks to prophecy to guide his actions. However, what questions he chose to ask of the Aelfinn and what prophecy he uses to guide his actions are his choices. For instance, in Tear he read several versions of the Karaethon Cycle (to minimise the problem of translation from the Old Tongue) and chose to act on one verse.
Wise Ones’ apprentices use a ter’angreal in Rhuidean to learn the general outline of their lives and to see their future in all its variations resulting from their choices to give them a sense of the repercussions of their actions and thus a full sense of responsibility and culpability. This is true adulthood.
After her experiences in the rings, Moiraine could have chosen not to attack Lanfear, or could have chosen to seduce Rand in an effort to control him, which were reasonable paths but far from the best. But she chose not to.
“It is the mercy of the rings that the memories fade,” Amys said. “A woman knows some things - a few - that will happen; others she will not recognize until the decision is upon her, if then. Life is uncertainty and struggle, choice [italics mine] and change.”When Elayne and Aviendha felt the Choedan Kal being used, they had the choice to go to Rand or not. Aviendha had a warning memory from the rings that choosing to go to Rand would be dangerous (Crossroads of Twilight, A Blazing Beacon). She did not remember until she was in the situation and the choice was upon her, and she chose to heed the warning.
- The Shadow Rising Beyond the Stone
Aviendha had reservations about what has been prophecied as fated for her, especially Min’s viewings, thinking they reduced her capacity for choice:
Regardless, the viewing was a comfort. But it was also bothersome. Aviendha loved Rand al'Thor because she chose to, not because she was destined to.but she reminded herself:
- The Gathering Storm, The Ways of Honour
Of course, Min's viewing didn't guarantee that Aviendha would actually be able to marry Rand, so perhaps she had misspoken to Amys. Yes, he would love three women and three women would love him, but would Aviendha find a way to marry him? No, the future was not certain, and for some reason that brought her comfort.She doesn’t want self-fulfilling prophecies.
- The Gathering Storm, The Ways of Honour
Aviendha and the other Wise Ones were determined to prevent what she saw of the Aiel’s future in the glass columns in Rhuidean from coming true. Is this futile? It is unknown if the future events Aviendha saw are fated as Foretellings are, or whether they are likely probabilities as precognitive Dreams are. On advice from Bair, Aviendha has resolved to change the names of one of her children, thus changing the future from what she saw.
Gareth Bryne focussed on the paradox of prophecy:
“You'll have to thank Min next time you see her, Bryne. She just saved both of our lives."Whereas Siuan accepted prophecy without reservation. As it turned out, Siuan misinterpreted what Min said and when she discovered that both their lives still depended on staying together, she could have fled to him immediately, but chose to stay and saved Mat.
"But I wouldn't have been poisoned if I hadn't come!"
"Don't try to apply logic to a viewing or Foretelling like this," Siuan said, grimacing. "You're alive. I'm alive. I suggest we leave it at that.
-The Gathering Storm, A Fount of Power
Rand believes that prophecy only indicates the conditions necessary for certain things to happen:
He had lived too many prophecies to believe any of them meant exactly what they said. Or even that they ensured anything. In his opinion, prophecy set the conditions that had to be met for a thing to happen; only, meeting them did not mean the thing would happen, just that it could.and he reproached the Borderlander rulers for taking extreme risks through their faith in Prophecy:
- Lord of Chaos, A New Arrival
"You came to murder him, then," Cadsuane said.He is wary of how choice can change the Pattern; the visit to the If worlds in The Great Hunt, What Might Be ensured that. Rand's experience in the Portal Stone was supposed to illustrate how the Pattern is affected by choice and the chanciness of him having got this far, but surely a far more powerful example would be his choice not to destroy the world at the end of The Gathering Storm. Hopper assured Perrin that Rand’s decision could have gone either way (Towers of Midnight, Men Dream Here). Another would be when Rand decided at the last minute not to kill the Dark One.
"To test him," Tenobia said. "Or so we decided, once Paitar told us of the prophecy."
"You don't know how close you came to doom," Rand said softly. "If I had come to you but a short time earlier, I'd have returned those slaps with balefire."
"Inside the Guardian?" Tenobia sniffed disdainfully.
"The Guardian blocks the One Power," Rand whispered. "The One Power only."
What does he mean by that? Cadsuane thought, frowning.
"We knew well the risk," Ethenielle said proudly. "I demanded the right to slap you first. Our armies had orders to attack if we fell."
"My family has analyzed the words of the prophecy a hundred times over," Paitar said. "The meaning seemed clear. It was our task to test the Dragon Reborn. To see if he could be trusted to go to the Last Battle."
"Only a month earlier," Rand said. "I wouldn't have had the memories to answer you. This was a foolish gambit. If you had killed me, then all would have been lost."
"A gamble," Paitar said evenly. "Perhaps another would have risen in your stead."
"No," Rand said. "This prophecy was like the others. A declaration of what might happen, not advice."
"I see it differently, Rand al'Thor," Paitar said. "And the others agreed with me."
- Towers of Midnight, A Testing
Prophecy and Divining
We have seen prophecy come true in the Wheel of Time world, showing part of the Pattern and helping to guide people through the change from one Age to another, or at least let them know what to expect and reconcile them to it to a degree. The prophesiers in the books are all seers, although they use different media: visions or aura reading (Min), dreams or oneiromancy (Egwene, Perrin and Aiel Dreamwalkers), and clairvoyance or oracular soothsaying (Elaida, Nicola, Gitara, Aelfinn and Foretellings of the Prophecies of the Dragon). These are all types of spontaneous divination.
The reading of omens is another kind of divination that occurs in the Wheel of Time world:
- people equate (correctly) a rise in the number of unnatural happenings, abnormal animal births and abnormal weather conditions as a sign of evil times or the advent of the Dragon Reborn (The Path of Daggers, Into Andor);
- Rand’s presence in an area can be divined by his ‘miracles’ – his ta’veren twistings of the Pattern; and
- Tuon’s and Seleucia’s use of apatomancy (divination by chance meeting with things, especially animals), arachnomancy (divination by spiders), entomomancy (divination by actions of insects), ornithomancy (divination by studying the flight of birds, augury), and theromancy (divination by movements of wild animals). Tuon constantly uses omens to guide her actions.
We do not see anyone using cleromancy – divination by casting objects and studying the patterns (except in the simplest of ways when Mat flips a coin). However, the Aiel game Thousand Flowers, that involves laying out patterns of flat bits of stone carved with many different symbols (The Fires of Heaven, Twilight) may be an example.
What is often overlooked is that in all kinds of divination, the diviner participates in the divination:
- by their interpretation
- by whether they tell anybody of it and who they tell
- by how they tell of it and
- by their actions.
The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe…We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.Any prophecy is filtered through the prophesier’s perceptions. Confirmation of this is that the Foretellers each have a style of prophecy appropriate to their personalities: Gitara open and strongly emotional; Elaida, direct, but misleading and self-deceiving; and Nicola, poetic, but untrustworthy and hidden even from herself. This is no accident.
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Clairvoyance is regarded by some as a form of divination. This is perhaps even more obvious among the Seanchan, who have confused Foretelling with fortune-telling. Their damane sometimes genuinely Foretell when asked, and sometimes fake it. Since damane are slaves, it must be a temptation for them to tell what the questioner wants to hear to avoid possible punishment. Lidya was accurately described by Tuon as a good damane since she did ‘tell it true’ to Tuon even though her prediction was unlikely to please (Winter’s Heart, What A Veil Hides).
The exact wording of the Foretelling is important, since the Foretelling will come true to the letter of the Foretelling, not the ‘spirit’; the literal and not the implied meaning.
We see Foretellers participate in their divination through misinterpretation, through who they choose to tell and by their subsequent actions. Elaida is a classic example of a seer who closely participates in her divinations. She is certain that her interpretation of her Foretellings is correct, although they could be interpreted in other ways. She is also notorious for keeping her Foretellings to herself (thus losing the chance for objective discussion) and for using them for personal advantage. Nicola suffers from the difficulty of not being believed due to her unreliable character and tendency to lie. She tries to use her talent to raise her status and allows Areina to be on hand to hear and remember her Foretellings and help her interpret them (Crossroads of Twilight, Secrets). With such obvious potential for alteration and misinterpretation, it is no wonder the Aes Sedai are sceptical. Both Nicola and Elaida participate in their Foretellings in an untrustworthy manner, just in different ways, and Elaida has hidden her deceit by omission from the other characters. It would be interesting to know if the sul’dam has discovered Elaida’s Foretelling Talent yet and she is being used as a fortune teller.
Rand and Moiraine needed an Aelfinn translator to translate from the Old Tongue when they questioned the Aelfinn. Translated or not, Aelfinn answers are often obscure. At least two of Rand’s answers included riddles which he had to solve (see The Aelfinn's Answers article) resulting in a time delay. This may have been by prior knowledge and choice of the Aelfinn, in which case it would be evidence of their participation in the divination process. They are not human, and may have trouble putting what they see into words humans can understand.
Due to the obscurity of their answers, Rand had to actively participate by solving the riddles to fulfil the Aelfinn’s reading of the future. Of the two questions Rand asked that we know of: how to cleanse saidin, and how to win and survive the Last Battle, the first came true when Rand used their riddle answer to work out how to do it. Likewise, he actively used their answer to the first part of his other question:
“The north and east must be as one. The west and south must be as one. The two must be as one...”to make a treaty with the Seanchan to unite the Light’s forces for the Last Battle. The aim of his treaty was to avoid breaking the world again, even though it was prophesied.
- Knife of Dreams, News For the Dragon
Mat could have chosen to ignore the answers he was given. The second, third and fourth questions weren’t even those he was planning to ask. More choices, and not little ones either. Life and death choices. He complains that their answer was designed to lure him into their world again so they could take him:
"Us," Mat replied. "Look, they can see what's going to happen. They did it to me, they did it to Moiraine, if that letter is any clue. They knew she would leave a letter for you, Thom. They knew it. And they still answered her questions."Or at least feed off him again. If Mat is correct this is an example of manipulation through prophecy. However, it was Mat’s choice to go anyway.
"Maybe they had to," Thom said.
"Yes, but they don't have to answer straightforwardly," Mat said. "They didn't with me. They answered knowing she would come back to them. And they gave me what they did knowing I'd get pulled back, too. They want me. They want us."
- Towers of Midnight, The End of A Legend
Dreamers certainly participate in the Dreaming process. The Wise Ones taught Egwene that a Dreamer must interpret her own prophetic dreams and that understanding must come from within (The Fires of Heaven, What Can Be Learned in Dreams). Dreams use symbols common to humanity, but also the Dreamer’s personal symbols, which is why the Dreamer must be the one to interpret their dreams. Determining the meaning of the symbols is not easy, especially since they come from the unconscious. Understanding a dream during the dreaming process (as Egwene did in Crossroads of Twilight, In the Night) results in a far more detailed dream prophecy.
Egwene interprets which of her dreams are prophetic, and which are not:
Not all had any bearing on the future…. Those she [Egwene] discarded: the rest she tucked away to be prodded and poked later in the hope she might understand what they meant.Since the Dreamer has normal dreams in addition to prophetic Dreams it is sometimes difficult to tell which one is which. Egwene was mistaken in dismissing her dream of her father’s hands being bound by Whitecloaks (The Dragon Reborn, Questions). She has also dismissed at least one dream involving the Seanchan as not possibly true.
-A Crown of Swords, Unseen Eyes
A Dreamer’s dreams only show what may happen, not what will. The advantage over Foretelling is that Dreams show more detail and:
foretell future events in more specific fashion than Foretelling does.As a sign that the Dreamer is not merely a passive receiver but participates in the process, Egwene’s dream changes when she understands it while she is dreaming it (Crossroads of Twilight, In The Night). For a long while she refused to think about her early dreams involving the Seanchan (The Dragon Reborn, Fires in Cairhien) and consequently never learned anything from them. Choosing to do nothing is still a form of participation, as Moiraine said once to Rand (The Great Hunt, What Was Meant To Be).
-The Shadow Rising, Glossary
Min, with her heart ruling her head, sometimes sees and feels things around people. These “feelings” help her decipher the meaning of a viewing and almost always accompany visions of coloured auras – to make up for the lack of symbols? The symbols are generally a little easier to work out. A little. Neither the seeing nor the knowing are consciously controllable by Min.
Since Min’s viewings are based on her interpretation it is possible that she could make the wrong interpretation. For instance, Min was often hostile to Alivia because she had a viewing that Alivia “will help Rand die” which Min interpreted as “Alivia will harm Rand in some way” or “Alivia will be responsible for Rand’s death”. She told this to Cadsuane and Nynaeve, with the consequences that neither would teach Alivia. However the fulfilment was far more mundane:
RJ left specific notes that Min's Alivia viewing was supposed to be incidental, and an example of unreliable narrator even in the case of Min's viewings.
A Memory of Light booksigning
By informing Rand in a panic of her viewing that Aes Sedai would harm Rand, she spurred him to flee to Cairhien, and thus actually brought this event about. These are just two examples of Min participating in her own divination. Conscious of the deficiencies inherent in interpretation, and also of a person’s capacity for choice, Min strongly objected to Fortuona executing someone based on a viewing. She chose how Fortuona is to receive her viewings and how she is to act upon them (A Memory of Light, A Yellow Flower Spider).
The omen reading practised by Tuon and Seleucia is often dismissed as superstition, since the Seanchan have a different culture to the more familiar Westlands and are a later arrival. (Not helped by the Seanchan dismissing concepts such as ta’veren as superstition which the reader “knows’ to be valid.) However, omens have proved to be as reliable as any of the other forms of divination. Reading omens is no more strange than Mat going to another world and having some aliens telling his fortune. And then believing what they said and acting accordingly.
The Seanchan aren’t the only ones who read omens. Those Wisdoms in the Two Rivers who can't Listen to the Wind (a mild form of short-term precognition, see Weaves and Talents article) make their short to medium term weather forecasts based on the actions of animals and insects (Lord of Chaos, Prologue). Characters with some knowledge of reading the Pattern can quickly determine whether Rand is in the area by the presence of his ‘miracles’ – his ta’veren twistings of the Pattern.
Tuon speaks of how complex omen reading is:
"Obviously, what the birds told us was modified by the ants. It is never simple”and of course, her omen readings depend on what occurrences she recognises as an omen, what omens she actually chooses to notice or consider significant and when she decides to look for an omen. She also allows for the possibility of unconsciously perceiving omens (Winter’s Heart, What A Veil Hides). Despite acknowledging the difficulties of omen reading, she chooses to constantly use them to guide her actions, and thus her decisions of state. These are now greatly augments by Min’s viewings.
- Knife of Dreams, Dragon’s Eggs
A major theme of the series is the necessity of balance between complementary forces in the world: between good and evil, males and females, and fate and free will. This provides stability in the Pattern, and as Herid Fel said: belief and order give strength to the Pattern and the Light. The Dark One thrives on chaos, despair and destruction and is inimical to the Pattern; all prophecies made since the Dark One began to alter reality are less likely to come true:
The viewings and prophecies that occurred before the loosening of the pattern are very valid. But those that occurred at, or after, the loosening have a higher chance of not coming true.technically this includes the visions Aviendha saw in the glass columns ter’angreal.
- Robert Jordan at a Knife of Dreams booksigning
This is a logical strategy for the Dark One because he wants to disrupt the Pattern and prevent the fulfilment of prophecy that Rand will have the victory. Moreover by keeping people as ignorant as possible he removes hope and misleads them about what will occur. If belief and order give strength; chaos and despair surely weaken.
Did Rand’s epiphany reduce the Dark One’s loosening of the Pattern? It is possible that in the local area around Rand this is the case, and therefore Min’s viewings when he is present will come true. However, as Min says, if the Dark One had won, all bets are off, since the Pattern would be destroyed (The Gathering Storm, Scents Unknown).
There must be both Light and Shadow in the Pattern and thus the Pattern expects that some souls will choose to turn to the Shadow to form the “threads woven of Shadow”, but which souls are up to the individual’s choice. Verin, for instance, was aware that her choice to join the Shadow was made for the self-interest of staying alive; her next choice, to make the best of it and record the Shadow’s doings with the hope she could betray the Shadow, does not make up for that first, sinful, choice (The Gathering Storm, A Visit From Verin Sedai).
Even for parts of the Pattern that have been divined, there can be uncertainty due to choices: the Aiel Dreamwalkers were not definite even in whether Rand would go to the Waste, let alone Lan. Lan's probability of going to the Waste was only fifty percent, an even chance.
Min couldn't tell Gawyn's fate or Siuan's and Gareth's. They were not settled in the Pattern, and depended on their own, and probably other people's, choices. If the choices are so fated why is there so much uncertainty? This is probably the best example of choices outweighing the Pattern.
In answer as to whether the Wheel of Time world was a future earth, Jordan said that one can look both ways along a wheel (see Plots, Characters, and the Wheel of Time article). Thus one can see the past or the future in either direction and, with one leaking into the other, everything in the Pattern influences everything else in complex ways. It’s never simple, as Tuon says and Jordan himself has also said:
It isn't as simple as [the Dragon] being born to fight The Dark One. It's never simple.The chapter title Patterns Within Patterns pretty much sums it up. Looking forward, prophecy can warn, looking back, it can explain or reconcile. It issues no guarantees, however; a fact of which Rand, at least, is aware. The individual choices of each character are the deciding factor.
Written by Linda, February 2008 and updated June 2013