There Are No Beginnings or Endings... Unless the Dark One Ends Time
Between The Shadow Rising and The Fires of Heaven seems an appropriate time to look at the theology and philosophy of the Wheel of Time world. The Shadow rising across the world to a final confrontation with Good is an apocalyptic (originally Zoroastrian) concept, while the Fires of Heaven which purge the earth could be an Old Testament reference or the final cleansing fire that purges evil from the earth in Zoroastrian end times.
Many belief systems make up the concepts underlying the Wheel of Time theology and philosophy. Jordan’s original basic idea was to explore what it would be like to be told you were the messiah, whose sacrifice would save the world. The series is set at the potential end of Time, certainly the end of an Age, and contains ideas about end-times, eschatologies, of various cultures.
In 2005 I wrote an essay "There Are No Beginnings or Endings... The Paradox of WOT's Eschatology" for the Wotmania FAQ and it is now re-published here. Paradox is right. Much of this paradox stems from the nature of the Dark One. As Verin said, the Dark One is sealed away on all worlds and remains so unless he is freed on one of them. While ever he is imprisoned in one world, he is imprisoned in all (The Dragon Reborn, A World of Dreams).
Paradox confounds, but then so does chaos and the Dark One thrives on that. People who think they’ve lost their grip on events are more likely to despair. Order and belief give strength as Herid Fel wrote (Lord of Chaos, Thorns), and this may, nay will, be a key factor in defeating the Dark One. The Dark One didn’t order chaos unleashed for nothing.
So what do we have? Two equally powerful gods, one locked away, but able to interfere with the world; the other won’t, or perhaps can’t, interfere. We don’t know why. Has the Creator invested so much of himself in Creation that he is effectively part of the Pattern as some have speculated? Would it put too much strain on the Pattern or on Time if the Creator interfered? Whatever the reason, the Creator wants humanity to fix what they messed rather than come begging for help. We know very little about the most important things in WOT, and I am sure that the theology is much more important than the identity of Demandred or who killed Asmodean. The climax of the Last Battle and the solution to defeating the Dark One is likely to be theological and not a simple ‘Who Would Win In A Fight?’ between Rand and the Dark One: the symbolism pervading the series, and especially in The Eye of the World (as discussed in this read-through post) assures us of that.
RJ described his dualistic theology as ‘a bit Manichean’. He was right. It is only a bit. It is a lot more Zoroastrian with its emphasis on end-times, apocalypses and the contention between two equal and opposite gods. There is also the cyclic time and wheel of Hinduism/Buddhism/Jainism and the opposing forces, balance and change of Taoism. Another very strong influence is the Book of Revelation of New Testament and some of the apocryphal writings between the Old and New Testaments.
We are assured at the start of every book in the series that there are no beginnings or endings in the Wheel of Time. Taking this at face value, this would mean that the Ages have turned endlessly and will continue to do so. However, since we know the Wheel was created in some very distant past, there was a beginning. Correspondingly, the Wheel may come to an end in an impossibly distant future, or may follow a cycle of creation and destruction in the Indian mode. It may even exist eternally. Thanks to the Dark One, it is at risk of ending in the next three books.
Eschatology is the study of the end times of the world. Special forms of eschatology are: apocalypticism (belief in the world’s progress to a prophesied cataclysmic appointed end), messianism (belief in a future salvation figure) and millenarianism (belief in a periodisation of history into multiples of a thousand years and in the idea of a return to conditions of peace and happiness; it is the broad definition of millenarianism that is meant here, not the specific evangelical Christian term for the period of one thousand years of Christ’s rule on earth). These types of eschatology are not always all present in the end times of a theology. However, in the Wheel of Time series, all three are present to about equal degrees. This is one of the more remarkable features of the series, as is the lack of an organised religion.
Religion itself is abundantly present because “this is a world where what might be called the proofs of religion are self-evident all the time” (Robert Jordan at a book-signing in the Wotmania Plots, Characters and the Wheel of Time FAQ). A summary of the tenets of the general millenarianism of the series would be:
- Prior to the beginning of the next Age, human society will have declined – morally, socially or technologically. This will culminate in a global trauma (eg the Breaking of the World, Tarmon Gai’don) which is man-made, natural, divine (Dark One) or a combination of these three.
- Appropriate evidence is sought and found to justify such theories of decline and global trauma (eg the Prophecies of the Dragon).
- The coming Age will potentially be a distinct improvement on the present one, although decline eventually returns as the next Age nears. (An Age where the Dark One doesn’t touch the world would be an improvement although there is the risk that the coming age will be that of the Shadow and therefore much worse.)
- The end of some Ages is heralded by the appearance of the world saviour, the Dragon, his death ending the Age. (Some Ages don’t have a Dragon according to Jordan).
- The entire historical process moves forward according to a plan that is in outline preordained (the Wheel of Time spins the Age Lace to make the Web of Ages according to the Pattern).
- It is the duty of every citizen to actively prepare for the next phase of history, to further the Pattern with integrity, since their lives are the threads from which the Pattern is woven, although not all choose to follow this path.
- The Transformation is imminent, since the Dragon has been reborn…
The Dark One wants to end the world as it currently is and the Light’s forces want to retain the current Pattern and Wheel. The Last Battle between the two forces will be cataclysmic, apocalyptic even. The Last Battle is only the last if the Dark One wins and ends time. Otherwise the cycle of time will continue.
The Wheel of Time world does have Golden Ages: the Age of Legends was one. (This is probably the Pattern for the Second Age). After the Last Battle, will the Fourth Age be one? Not necessarily. At a book-signing, Jordan described the end of the Age of Legends as a "long drawn-out apocalypse". With so much at stake - the chance of total victory – the end of the Third Age may be even worse. The place is probably going to be a mess after all the battles – the world shattered as the Prophecies of the Dragon say – and there might be an unpleasant price for humanity for sealing up the Bore again. However, it will be far better compared to what the world would be like remade in the Dark One’s image as he intends.
The biggest paradox of all is that a world with a cyclic time frame shouldn’t have a Last Battle, since the Last Battle should be final. (Herid Fel pointed this out to Rand in a conversation in Lord of Chaos, A Taste of Solitude.) Moreover, the Last battle is occurring at the end of an age named the Third. By some, according to the Story. The middle of the great cycle of Ages. Yet no one thinks of this Age as the Seventh Age and to me, Tarmon Gai'don would be more convincing at the end of the Seventh Age. I guess it is a strong hint that the Light will win – probably the strongest possible hint. But the Pattern is for it to occur now. Even if this is the Dark One’s idea, going against the Pattern, the Wheel seems prepared. A paradox as I said. Presumably attempts have been made before, although whether they occur at random times or at the same Age, we don’t know. Not every Age has a Dragon so there are Ages when the Dark One doesn’t get near freedom.
If the Shadow wins, the Dark One intends to break the wheel and remake the world in his own image – resulting in the end of the world as it is currently known. The Dark One won’t care about the imbalance in the Pattern since he wants to change the Pattern anyway. Judging by his nature, he would be quite content if the Creator were extinguished, or at the very least, sealed in the prison the Dark One so recently vacated. With this outcome the Last Battle would truly be last.
If the Light wins, would the Pattern (and therefore the Creator) allow itself to become unbalanced to this extent by extinguishing the Dark One? If the losing deity is extinguished, there will be an imbalance in Creation and changes to the Pattern of Ages; therefore this should not happen. Perhaps this is where Jordan’s dualistic theology and cyclic view of time really takes effect. It is more likely that the Dark One will not be destroyed if the Light wins, but resealed in his prison so he cannot touch the world, thus restoring the Creator’s Pattern. The downside is that the Dark One could be contacted in a future Age. And so it goes.
We were warned that there were no beginnings or endings to the Story.