Thursday, February 28, 2002

Writings for Armchair Travellers in The Wheel of Time

By Linda

This essay describes the real-world parallels for the travel literature in The Wheel of Time series.

Tales of travel to exotic lands are as popular in The Wheel of Time world as they are in our own in both the past and the present.

The most famous traveller and author in the series is Jain Farstrider:

a hero of the northern lands who journeyed to many lands and had many adventures; the author of several books, as well as being the subject of books and stories.

- The Eye of the World Glossary

His most popular book is The Travels of Jain Farstrider:

a very well-known book of travel stories and observations by a noted Malkieri writer and traveller.

- The Dragon Reborn, Glossary

It contains stories of adventures among the Sea Folk and journeys to the lands beyond the Aiel Waste, where silk comes from (The Great Hunt, On the Scent).

An apt parallel for Jain Farstrider would be Marco Polo:

the Venetian merchant and adventurer, who traveled from Europe to Asia in 1271–95, remaining in China for 17 of those years, and whose ‘Il milione’ (“The Million”), known in English as ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, is a classic of travel literature.

- Encyclopaedia Britannica

Little is known about Marco's early years except that he probably grew up in Venice. When Marco Polo was 17 or 18, he went with his father and uncle along the Silk Road to the Mongol court in China. Jain Farstrider was likewise a renowned traveller who ventured east to Shara along the silk trading route. It is worth looking at the parallels in detail.

The Polos travelled east through the Middle East and northern Iran,

crossing inhospitable deserts infested with brigands before reaching Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. There the Polos decided not to risk a sea passage to India and beyond but to proceed overland to the Mongol capital.

They next traveled through deserts of “surpassing aridity” toward the Khorasan region in what is now eastern Iran. Turning gradually to the northeast, they reached more hospitable lands.

- Encyclopaedia Britannica

From Iran, the Polos then followed the main Silk Road until they eventually reached the Mongol summer capital of Shangdu in 1275, where they presented sacred oil from Jerusalem and papal letters to Kublai Khan. They stayed in China for 16 to 17 years. Marco Polo made trips to various parts of Kublai Khan’s empire to gather information for the Emperor.

Their stay in China ended in 1292 when they offered to accompany a Mongol princess who was being sent to Iran to become the consort of Arghun Khan. The princess, the Polos and a vast entourage of courtiers and sailors sailed from China through South East Asia, around India to Iran. Here they left the princess and continued on overland to Constantinople and finally arrived in Venice in 1295.

The story of their dramatic recognition by relatives and neighbours who had thought them long since dead is a part of Polo lore that is well known [and is also a parallel for Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien's The Hobbit ;)].

- Encyclopaedia Britannica

Soon after his return to Venice, Polo was taken prisoner by the Genoese, great rivals of the Venetians at sea, and when freed returned to Venice. He was inspired by a fellow prisoner to write his book. A famous story relates how Polo was asked on his deathbed to retract the “fables” he had invented in his book; his answer was that he barely told half of what he actually saw. Polo lived a quiet life and died at the age of 70.

The book was not intended to be a collection of personal recollections, which leaves Polo's own personality somewhat elusive, but Divisament dou Monde (“Description of the World”), as it was originally titled, was to be the book to end all books on Asia. In ‘Il milione’ Polo often branches off into descriptions of places probably visited not by himself but by his relatives or people he knew. It is generally recognized that he reported faithfully what he saw and heard, but that much of what he heard was fabulous or distorted.

- Encyclopaedia Britannica

Shara has features in common with medieval China—silk, secrecy and isolation—although in China it was royal women who were cloistered, not men. In River of Souls Shara was linked with Shangri La, the mysterious Buddhist valley in central Asia:

In front of the trees, the ground fell away into the deep chasm, the strata of rock making stripes on the walls. A stream ran down below. Angarai'la, the River of Souls.

- River of Souls

And also to fabled Xanadu, also known as Shangdu, the summer capital of the Mongols, which Coleridge described as having a sacred river. Demandred, not Ishamael, is the dark analogue of the great Khans Genghis and Kublai (see Demandred essay) and Rand is the Light’s analogue (see Rand essay).

When travelling east to Shara, Jain Farstrider may have decided to avoid the extremely arid Aiel Waste infested with aggressive Aiel, since Aiel attack all but Tinkers, peddlers and gleemen, and taken a passage with the Sea Folk. Alternatively, Farstrider may have taken a leaf out of the merchant Marco Polo’s book and joined a caravan of peddlers travelling through the Waste.

Farstrider’s travels, while as extensive as Marco Polo’s, were nowhere near as lengthy. He published his book fairly early, and included his voyages with the Sea Folk. He may have travelled with them to or from Shara and/or to other lands and islands. This parallel’s the Polo’s return trip from China by sea. Farstrider also spent time in captivity; he was caught by Ishamael, who apparently sent him to the Ogier.

We don’t know what happened to Farstrider between when he left the Ogier and appeared in Ebou Dar. We do know that readers are sceptical of The Travels of Jain Farstrider, since Rand, for one, thinks:

they were probably too fanciful to be true.

- Lord of Chaos, The Wheel of a Life.

This is just the reaction that The Travels of Marco Polo also evokes.

A traveller to the Middle East and India who wrote more accurate accounts of his travels is the Frenchman Jean Chardin (1643–1713) (see illustration, right). His name probably strongly influenced that of Jain Charin. He made two long journeys to Persian and India and published an account of the coronation of the Turkish ruler Suleyman and also a complete record of his travels (Journal of the Travels of the Cavalier Chardin). Much of his travelling was out of a desire to avoid persecution in his home country.

His books are an important and reliable source of historic information on these areas. An example page is shown below.

Jain Fastrider made a journey east to Shara and published the account of his travels. Unlike the books of Jean Chardin, they are generally not believed by their readers.

The Voyages of Sindbad (also spelt Sinbad) the Sailor may be a parallel with both the book Voyages with the Sea Folk and also Jain Farstrider, who wrote of travelling with the Sea Folk.

Sindbad's travails were based on the experiences of merchants from Basra (Iraq) trading under great risk with the East Indies and China, probably in the early Abbâsid period (750–c. 850). A strong infusion of the miraculous in the stories has, of course, exaggerated the dangers encountered.

In the frame story Sindbad is marooned or shipwrecked after he sets sail from Basra with merchandise. He is able to survive the terrible dangers he encounters by a combination of resourcefulness and luck and returns home with a fortune.

The finer details of the stories of the voyages shed considerable light on seafaring and trade in the East. For instance, though Sindbad does not specify the goods that he takes from Basra, it is stated that he obtains diamonds and other precious stones, sandalwood, camphor, coconuts, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, aloes, ambergris, and ivory during his voyages.

- Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Sea Folk also trade in expensive goods from the east such as silk and ivory.

Such medieval travel literature as The Travels of Marco Polo and Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor contained invented races, giants (such as those with faces on their bellies which also occur in tales about Shara) and creatures along with genuine descriptions and history.

According to Harnan, he [Noal] told stories before going to sleep, stories that Harnan and the other Redarms seemed to swallow whole, even the one about some place called Shibouya, supposedly beyond the Aiel Waste, where women who could channel had tattooed faces, over three hundred crimes carried a penalty of death, and giants lived under the mountains, men taller than Ogier, with their faces on their bellies. He claimed to have been there.

- Winter’s Heart, News in a Cloth Sack

As everyone discovered in the Last Battle, the tattooed women channellers were definitely real. The giant with face on its belly that lived under a mountain may be a distorted report of the Nym that became a foliate head, which guarded the cup section of the sa’angreal Sakarnen (River of Souls).

These tales were, and still are, popular with sceptical and credulous alike in our world and in The Wheel of Time world. Many of the travellers obtained or drew maps of the land they traversed—some realistic, some not. In the Tower of Ghenjei, Noal/Jain Farstrider suggested that they map their route through the *Finns’ corridors because he had learned the value of maps on his travels:

"It's all a matter of keeping a good map. A good map can mean life or death; you can trust me on that."

- Towers of Midnight, Gateways

Maps were extremely valuable IP in medieval and early modern times, and still are. Marco Polo was said to have brought back a world map from Cathay that influenced European maps from the 15th century.


Written by Linda, January 2005 and updated February 2014

1 comment:

BSJ said...

There is reference of Jain Farstrider, in fact you meet the man and eventually learn who he is and "witness" his sacrificial death in Towers Of Midnight.