WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT
The Nature of Pain marks huge changes in Egwene’s understanding as well as her tactics. Before, she was still influenced by the beliefs and attitudes of her mentor Siuan. Now she begins to rise above the divisions in the Tower, and decides not to break it further; and will ultimately unify it against the real enemy: the Shadow. Serving at Elaida’s dinner underlined that Egwene will be the Servant of All in truth – as Aes Sedai should be. Egwene has moved away from Siuan's Machiavellian politics and desire for revenge. Seeing the Tower from the underside, among the servants and novices, has made her realise the bad side to the divisions, rivalries, secrets and the arrogant games the privileged play. They make an easy breeding ground for the Shadow, as she will soon discover.
At the beginning of the chapter Egwene thinks Aiel laugh during torture because they are hard enough to accept pain to the point of not feeling it much, at the end she realises they laugh because they don’t let physical pain affect their spirit:
“My thoughts are well,” Egwene said. “I don’t laugh because I’ve been broken, Silviana. I laugh because it is absurd to beat me.” The woman’s expression darkened. “Can’t you see it?” Egwene asked. “Don’t you feel the pain, the agony of watching the Tower crumble around you? Could any beating compare to that?” Silviana did not respond.(This is why Aiel usually use shame as punishment, especially severe punishment. Egwene's shame in bowing to Elaida can be compared to that of the warrior Sulin's when she was temporarily a servant to work off her toh to gai'shain.)
I understand, Egwene thought. I didn’t realize what the Aiel did. I assumed that I just had to be harder, and that was what would teach me to laugh at pain. But it’s not hardness at all. It’s not strength that makes me laugh. It’s understanding.
The Gathering Storm, The Nature of Pain
Egwene is slightly mistaken here in confusing strength and hardness. Understanding is what gives Egwene strength. Strong, rather than hard, is what the Wise Ones want Rand to be, but he refused to listen and so very nearly broke at the end of The Gathering Storm.
Egwene’s and Rand’s story lines run in parallel and yet contrast beautifully in this book. Being hard isn't the answer, one must understand what is important and make it one's duty to right wrongs, keep the people together, and fight back. Rand will finally realise this in his existential crisis at the end of the book. Egwene will soon discover the Shadow in Tower - that the Tower’s disintegration is not all Elaida's doing and that the Shadow is much more dangerous and insidious than Elaida.
Egwene cries a little, but remains strong and sane. Rand has no tears, but is mad and brittle. Egwene is the willow as Cadsuane described it to Rand, brushed by the tempest of events, but able to spring back and remain firmly in the ground; Rand is the rigid oak which will crack. Yet Rand has potentially a much stronger position than Egwene with more supporters (in both senses of the word). He suffers more though – post-traumatic stress as well as insidious poisoning of the spirit. It is the latter that Egwene has thankfully been free of. With Moridin so closely linked to Rand, surrounding Rand within and without, how could Rand not become almost another Betrayer of Hope? The only good thing is that there is a price for Moridin too: he is becoming as wounded as Rand the Fisher King.
Influenced by the Shadow, Rand is often as tyrannical as Elaida and with the same motives. Egwene was all set to point out Rand’s despotism when they met in Towers of Midnight, but he had already moved on from that.
In this chapter Egwene compares very well with Cadsuane too – in strength of character and resolve and in respect for others whether they are weaker or stronger than herself - especially for those weaker than herself. Cadsuane is considerate of those who are making an effort and doing their best, and merciless on those who are not. The fact that the Wise Ones respected Cadsuane almost from the first is telling. Elaida has no respect for anyone's rights, no decency. In her dealings with other Tower initiates, Elaida is arrogant and cruel and with poor judgment, whereas Egwene gave reassurance and showed understanding, resolve and strategy.
Egwene isn't perfect. She speaks of Rand needing guidance – the sort the Tower likes to give - and assumes that the Seanchan would overrun Andor before they reached the Tower. These are errors of judgment, although the one about the Seanchan is far more understandable than the one about Rand. In the previous chapter, Rand, following classic attitudes to Aes Sedai, assumed Egwene would gentle him.
Egwene is beginning from a position of weakness and working to one of strength, as only the really great Amyrlins have done (see Aes Sedai History: New Era article). And this is her second time doing this. She did well among the rebels, but now she is even lower, but looks to achieve even greater things and earn even greater respect.
Romanda had begun to give her begrudging regard, while Lelaine just wanted her position! The other rebel Sitters felt manipulated. All of them could convince themselves that somebody else actually guided Egwene. In the Tower, no one can do that. She is proving her worth to them. At Elaida’s dinner she seized the opportunity to make the first steps in speaking with Meidani and ultimately the Tower Sitters.
It was apt that Egwene convinced Elaida that Silviana has been doing her job well, even though it wasn't Egwene's intention to do so. Silviana is reading up on the Lives of Amyrlins to perhaps look for precedents or parallels to Elaida and Egwene. Egwene realises Elaida isn't important, it's the Tower that is important. So now she's leaving behind Elaida to tackle Mesaana's schemes head-on. It is at this point that she becomes truly worthy of her (potential) position.
Elaida’s unfitness for her high position is emphasised by her rooms being tasteless as well as ostentatious, due to them containing every extravagant example of every style, with more to come. It mirrors Elaida's personality at the moment - her desire for extreme power and to impose extreme punishments. As early as A Crown of Swords Elaida showed she believed her position was an absolute monarchy and, as can happen, it has developed into tyranny.
Elaida’s meal was served elaborately with the formality of a multicourse meal as the phrase “they began their soup” shows. This is the first such meal we have seen onscreen. Egwene the servant ate more than Elaida (whose meal was destroyed) and with more genuine enjoyment and then considerately cleaned up after herself to spare the kitchen staff.
Egwene ate what Elaida ate. Elaida's food was infested with vermin, Egwene's is not mentioned as being so. The Tower is offering to sustain them equally, but the trappings are different, and moreover Egwene obtained more benefit and appreciation from her meal than Elaida did.
It's the potential fate of every false Amyrlin to become a servant, as Red Amyrlin Bonwhin’s fate reminds us. The fact that Egwene accepts her tasks and does them without being forced is going to show that, like corporal punishment the Aes Sedai dread and overuse, it's not that big a deal for one of great spirit and resolve. Like Bonwhin, Elaida nearly destroyed the Tower, and like Deane Aryman, Egwene, who has “Salidar connections”, will rebuild it.
In Knife of Dreams Egwene, the servant of the Servants, endured three of the four traditional forms of Aes Sedai punishment: Labour, Deprivation and Mortification of the Flesh. In this chapter comes Mortification of the Spirit. The greater pain of Mortification of the Spirit leads Egwene to realise the absurdity of corporal punishment and also that overuse of Mortification of the Spirit is wrong. She showed much disgust at Elaida's (mis)treatment of Meidani and Shemerin.
Elaida threatens to send Egwene to a windowless cell if she makes any further infractions and this is what happens at the next meal Egwene serves. Back when we had a preview of this chapter before the full book was published, I predicted that when the Seanchan struck Egwene would be in the cells, or on trial, or even about to be executed and Elaida would be reigning supreme. The closeness of Elaida's rooms to the Tower roof where the Seanchan land from the air would ensure that Elaida will be one of the first to be captured...
Egwene is appalled at Elaida's dismissive attitude and also thinks it just if Elaida ended up collared, but when she heard it had actually happened she pitied her. The Seanchan aim to bring justice to the Aes Sedai for their manipulations against Artur Hawkwing.
The Tower’s disunity will cost them dearly - and the world, too. The Shadow has deliberately wasted the Aes Sedai in this fashion. Like the Brown Sitters say, whenever the Tower was divided in history, disaster struck the world; this time more than any other. And I bet some of those old disasters were covered up to a degree!
Throughout its history the Tower has consistently hidden all its mistakes and failures, real and perceived, never accounting for them. Consequently they have never learned from them and are doomed to repeat them, which is how the division has succeeded. In contrast the Aiel admit their errors, pay for them fully, and then move on, growing stronger and wiser for the experience.
A major theme of the Aes Sedai sub-plot is knowledge; knowledge and its misuse and suppression. No wonder the Aes Sedai have declined when they think they know everything already, keep so much secret and deny their mistakes. They don't even truly know themselves, let alone anything else.
The rebels have had a renaissance in learning due to sharing new weaves and being more inclusive in their recruiting. If all these weaves are in the open, even those the Shadow may misuse, there is the opportunity to work out a way to counter them. We saw this in Towers of Midnight, when Sitters explored the Oath Rod’s weaknesses.
The existence of the Thirteenth Depository is still suppressed even in the Ajah which is its caretaker, let alone from the rest of the Tower. (I thought this would be exposed and dealt with in The Gathering Storm but it was not.) Other secret knowledge is the Reds’ culpability in the vileness after the Aiel War (see here), the knowledge of what the Oath Rod does, Siuan’s and Leane’s lies about the Reds setting up false Dragons…
The Wise Ones made it plain to Egwene that the Aes Sedai nowadays are a paltry lot with little ethics and loyalty for all their oaths. Egwene is now seeing this proved before her very eyes. The Oaths are only good if you follow the spirit of them and not just the letter; and if you are doing so, then you don't need them. You are already trustworthy and will be trusted. The Aes Sedai bind themselves like criminals; which most of them aren't, but they sure are crooked.
It is Egwene’s task to reunify the Aes Sedai and restore them to a group worthy of the Wise One’s respect. And we are back to how the Aes Sedai were in the Age of Legends, when the Aiel were proud to serve them.
On the down side, in the Age of Legends Latra Posae led the female Aes Sedai into denying Lews Therin their support and Egwene is perilously close to reprising this role as of Towers of Midnight due to her lack of understanding and contact with Rand. The division in the Age of Legends was along gender lines, whereas in the late Third Age it is more by Ajah. (Although gender division remains.) While Elaida has caused and increased division, the Blues also played their part. There are two sides to every separation after all. Siuan in her own way has done a great deal to split the Ajahs. Not just the Red versus the Blue, she also disregarded the Blues’ long-time allies, the Green, over the advent of the Dragon Reborn. She hasn’t admitted her culpability though, so it is just that post-unification she is no longer influencing Aes Sedai leadership.
The Red Ajah came close to pulling down Elaida after Egwene pointed out to some Red sisters the damage Elaida was doing to the Reds’ reputation.
The Shadow’s presence in this chapter is denoted by Alviarin, who hurries to her appointed beating, and the portentous alteration and translocation of the mural of Caraighan Maconar. Alviarin was late for her punishment because she was either looking for Talene, or passing out orders to do so and collecting replies. Alviarin has to go around all her message drop off points to find out what is going on. More and more this absence of Talene would seem an emergency to her.
Her lateness and hurrying emphasises her subjection – a full Aes Sedai, head of the Black Ajah, yet more fearful than Egwene. But with Shaidar Haran and Mesaana breathing down her neck or the headsman's block on the horizon I think Alviarin has reason to give her Black Ajah tasks priority and risk more pain and humiliation in Silviana’s study.
Caraighan’s portrait was formerly in the library and did not have blood on Caraighan’s face or bodies of the slain around her. The Pattern has been twisted by the Dark One and mural reflects that – or was caused by it. Two Reds were taking a 'Green' novice/Amyrlin to a Red Amyrlin along red and green tiles when a picture of a legendary Green Amyrlin warns them off.
The painting’s corruption could refer to both Elaida and Egwene. Both want to “guide” the Dragon Reborn and monarchs and bring the Tower back to its old glory and strength, just by different methods. Caraighan performed such actions. The warning is that this would be disastrous whether done by Egwene or Elaida.
The painting also has similarities to real world medieval and renaissance apocalyptic paintings such as by Durer or Bosch, and warns of Aes Sedai plans or inactions bringing disaster to the world.
I noticed a few anomalies in the writing in this chapter: Egwene referring to loyalists to mean those Aes Sedai who supported Elaida, the usage of despot, and of bust rather than bosom when describing Meidani’s chest. They number fewer than in Tears From Steel, though. There are no time markers in The Nature of Pain, however, such as whether the Reds have left for the Black Tower yet, and if so, how long ago.