Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Dragon Reborn Read-Through #2 - Looking back on books 1-2-3 and at back and forth at Rand al'Thor

Looking back on books 1-2-3 and at back and forth at Rand al'Thor

by Dominic


In The Dragon Reborn, a bit ironically considering the title of the book (perhaps the most generic of the series, as far as titles go), the focus of the action shifts a lot from the central protagonist of books 1 and 2, the Dragon Reborn, to the rest of the main cast. However, helping Rand, hunting Rand remain a major aspect of the book and this first post will focus on Rand in this book, after a look back on the initial 'trilogy'

The structure of the first three books works as acts 1, 2 and 3 of what was once planned as a single 'first book', before Jim Rigney realised it would need to be split then expanded as three full novels (reminds you of something?) has left strong marks on The Dragon Reborn.

A lot of things come full circle in this book, mirroring themes/events from The Eye of the World, creating storyline 'patterns', a technique of story building Jordan seemed very fond of. The change from the original plan may have come at a price. Opinions among readers of The Wheel vary a lot on how succesful Jordan was with this, and the first three books in general. For many, these three more linear books were and are still the best. For others, the first three books aren't in some way the 'real' Wheel of Time yet, the really good stuff begins with The Shadow Rising, while books 1-2-3 feels a bit like a slightly overstretched prologue (I feel about the first three myself quite a bit like many feel about Crossroads of Twilight, curiously enough).

By expanding each act into a full book of its own, Jordan slowed down the main story development to the profit of 'adventuring'. Books 1-2-3 are certainly eventful and action-packed in an episodic kind of way, which many fans love (and many miss in the later books), but in other ways they merely set the stage, while character and theme developments advance at a fairly slow pace - Mat's 'journey' doesn't even really begin before book 3, for example. They are also a tad repetitive, as if (it is my theory on how Jordan expanded his original plan) RJ decided that since he had to split the original outline to make three full books, he would mirror in each the original ending, the confrontation and defeat of Ishamael at the Stone, by having two variations of the same as climax for books 1-2. Another repetive aspect, which might have come out more natural and flowing in a single three-acts novel, is that the basis of the three books revolve around a hunter and prey/chase story: the whole group is hunted in The Eye of the World, in The Great Hunt the tables are turned and the heroes hunt after the Shadow, and in The Dragon Reborn we get many variations of both.

For many readers, the excitement of events, the episodic nature of the first books, is a great strength of these books. To me, I'm afraid it became a bit tedious after a while, though it makes the masterpiece that is The Shadow Rising, the book with which I really fell in love with Jordan's series, shine in comparison. In all fairness, the quality of books 4 and up forcibly must owe a very great deal to the fact that with writing the beginning as a trilogy instead of a long single book, Jordan got the time and book space to really get into each of the main characters and their voice, got very good at handling each of them, before getting to the 'good stuff'. It may well be that the big 'explosion' of the series, with the numerous story lines and the multiplications of POVs that to many of us are the real Wheel of Time would not have been the success it has become had Jordan attempted it with TSR as his second book in 1991, not as book 4.

My personal opinion is that Jordan succeeded remarkably well at expanding his act one into what became The Eye of the World, with the exception of the weirdness of the Rand/Ishamael confrontation at the end. I didn't think that way on the few first reads. I hated book 1 and found it way to derivative of Tolkien at first - what Jordan intended, to give the readers something familiar before going elsewhere - actually put me off a lot. It's a little miracle I not only finished it after three failed attemps over a year but went on with book 2. But the book grew on me over time, and though I would hardly call it captivating even now, I see a different richness in it that wasn't apparent on the first complete re reads of the series I did.

I think Jordan did a fairly good job with The Dragon Reborn too, though the book feel stretched in places and it is, IMO, undermined a bit by the opacity of its 'mysteries', that RJ never returned later to solve. It worked well enough on first read, it created the impression of possibly competing schemes and a greater picture that we would only understand later, that not everything that went on could be understood. But this becomes an handicap for me on re reads, when the reader is fully aware the Forsaken are competing, and all too aware the mysteries aren't solved later on. Incomplete and/or corrupted information is a big theme of the story, but in my opinion it's only mid-series, with The Shadow Rising, that Jordan found his balance between keeping elements open ended/unresolved and satisfying the readers by giving enough clues or straight revelations.

I think the interest of the plot of The Dragon Reborn would have benefited a very great deal in the long run from having, for example, Lanfear explain what really went on in the first two books through reminescences in TFOH or TSR, when it was no longer a mystery the different Chosen were competing. As it turned out, what's been solved has been so in the books themselves (with rare exceptions, like Isam's solving part of the 'Grey Men in the Tower' mystery in Winter's Heart) but through Q&A, which I found most disappointing and a bit lazy on Jordan's part - certainly a flaw in his storytelling not to have planned better to give bits of resolution to the reader along the way, bits he didn't mind revealing in Q&A.

Of course, books 12-13-14 will reveal how many of these old loose threads he actually intended to tie up by the end, but with his revelations in Q&A and on his blog I fear it doesn't bode well for him having planned ways to resolve early stuff with no incidence on the plot anymore (and exception is of course the murder of Asmodean, which he didn't plan to resolve but decide to, because the mystery has become a phenomenon among the fans). One of my other gripes with The Dragon Reborn is the weakness of Be'lal as a character. After offering us a very good (if in placea unoriginal) twist on the satanic clich├ęs with Ishamael, and a even better Moon Goddess/Lilith with Lanfear, Jordan fell way short of that in The Dragon Reborn with Be'lal, almost just sketched and underused not to spoil the opaque if fairly thin main plot. Be'lal, uncharacterically for Jordan, is barely characterized, barely present in a few scenes and is in the end but a sideshow to the plots of Ishamael and Lanfear, little more than a guard dog Rand needs to bypass to get Callandor, and as a 'Shadow's General, former companion of LTT' a thematic prelude to the far more interesting Sammael, and in a lesser measure to the elusive Demandred. Jordan would repeat this device by turning Moghedien into a prelude to Semirhage, very succesfully, but with Be'lal he largely failed. Even his mythological parallels are fairly boring and incidental (the most of all the Forsaken's), forcibly so because the character isn't developped enough for them to have much resonance.

The Great Hunt, the middle act (and the first WOT novel Jordan completed, before writing The Eye of the World), is the one I think most suffered from being expanded, and remains the only weaker book of the series for me. The plot, a long chase with episodes, is thin, and he didn't master the world building yet. In The Eye of the World, he had cleverly used the familiar, early modern England and America, with a solid dose of Charleston. In The Great Hunt he has introduced his first 'exotic mix' with Cairhien, a schizophrenic and often illogical wedding of the extravagance and grandeur of Louis XIV and XV's France and the Zen influenced Tokugawa Bakufu Japan, a very strange cocktail that resulted in the weakest culture of the series, despite some efforts to soften the rough edges and recenter it in The Fire of Heavens and Lord of Chaos.

The Dragon Reborn corrects this with the Tairen culture, a return for Jordan to the familiar, having strong overtones of Vietnam and South East Asia he knew well, with the Spain of the conquistadors and the Inquisition. And that time, he made sure to discard cultural elements that clashed - and it worked.

The expansion of the three acts into a trilogy, on the other hand, no doubt let Jordan set the stage with tons of preparatory details that made the greatest books of the series, like The Shadow Rising and The Fire of Heavens, possible.

And with this let's now return to The Dragon Reborn and the more positive stuff, to all the foreshadowing and 'repeating patterns' the expansion of books 1-2-3 allowed RJ to create, and in this second part of the post I will look at Rand with one example among a few present in the book:

In The Dragon Reborn, Rand is forced to go off the 'main road' alone, hunted by bad dreams, giving the reader the impression he's beginning to struggle with madness (an effect Robert Jordan sought to create intentionally, as he mentionned in a Q&A). He has a wound in his side that might kill him, he seeks a Sword, kept in The Heart of the Stone, with Lanfear still shadowing him and inducing him to come to the 'monster's lair' (here Ishamael in truth, Be'lal being a very secondary element - part guard dog, part spider in his web), her goal still to seduce him to the Shadow and her side. And there's still 'the stranger', the one whose real name isn't ever mentionned (a parallel to Shai'tan. Jordan frequently link Ishamael, Myrddraal and the Dark One, a triad that persists even now, with Moridin, Myrddraal and Shai'tan) hunting for him, who in this book is finally revealed as an unknown Forsaken.

All this story line go back to elements evoked first in the early chapters of The Eye of the World, with some symbolic parallels and some mirroring (inversion). In The Eye of the World, Rand doesn't escape from the Mountains of Mist, it's evil that comes from the Mountains (the Waygate near Manetheren). With Tam, he takes the Quarry Road (the road to the Quarry, to the stones) and he gets his first sword, which had been hidden for many years - since the death of Tam's wife, in a chest that Tam hides under his bed and that Rand mentions Tam has never touched in his memory. As Tam gets wounded, Rand is forced to pick this sword from him, and to kill the monster with it. In the end, Rand is given the sword by Tam, the sword that will 'set his path' and 'make him true'.

We have seen some elements resurface in The Great Hunt: the wound on Tam's side Rand gets from Ishamael, and it becomes his path to become The Fisher of Moridin's game of sha'rah, a parallel to Orpheus the Fisher, to Christ the Fisher and far more directly to the Arthurian Fisher-King and his unhealable wound. Rand lost his first sword (and got his wound) by driving it into the Heart of the Dark - literally the meaning of the name Ba'alzamon.

In the Dragon Reborn, we get the rest of the paralleling/mirroring: Dreams of the Sword set Rand's path from the mountains to Tear. Like he did in the Eye of the World avoiding the main road seeking to escape the Myddraal, in The Dragon Reborn he went cross-country, trying to avoid his pursuers. He doesn't have a rambling 'madman' at his side, rambling about sins, the horrors of war and his death wife (the delirious Tam in EOTW). Later on, this rambling madman will become Lews Therin's voice, but in The Dragon Reborn it is Rand struggling with himself, becoming paranoid, and fearing the Power will kill him. He discovers a new weapon, balefire, which risks destroying the pattern as surely as the Breaking did. It is notable that on this road, he not only kills the woman that will haunt him more and more and lead to the infamous 'list', but he also his haunted by fake/TAR-created women of his life that he has to kill (attempts by Ishamael), alluding to the Kinslaying, and he nearly kills Egwene in a bout of paranoia.

At the end, Rand has to take up the Sword. He doesn't pick it up from Lews Therin, as he did from Tam, but the symbolism is the same: he needs to pick the sword because he's the only one who can, and because it is his turn, neither Tam (who symbolized LTT) nor Lews Therin. The Sword is from Lews Therin's Age (we do not know if it was ever meant for him - probably, but we do not know), and had been put away, hidden after the War of Shadow - as Tam has put the away the sword after returning to the Two Rivers.

Callandor that is to mark Rand as the true Dragon to the world after going for it set his path to Tear (completing the symbolic link to the prophecies about the markings with the first sword), and Rand had to use it to kill the monster again, driving the sword of light into the heart/chest of the Heart of the Dark. In The Eye of the World, these scenes happened with the full moon like "about to fall on their heads", with several mentions of moon shadows hiding Rand and moon beams threatening to expose him - the role the "moon goddess" of the series, Lanfear, plays in this book. Lanfear managed to lure 'the rising sun', the Prince of Dawn/Lord of the Morning to the Stone of Tear, the 'fortress of the Moon', with his moon crescents banner.

The name 'Callandor' itself is interesting. A 'Old Tongue-ified' variation on Calandbog and Excalibur, Robert Jordan never gave us the keys to fully decipher the Old Tongue meaning. We do know that 'Cal' can mean red (perhaps with the connotation of "the red of the flame/fire"), as in The Red Eagle, 'Caldazar' of Manetheren, in a few ways a kind of Fire Eagle/Phoenix. We do not know for sure the meaning of Andor/Ande. There are some clues, however. Andor is the Realm of the Rose Crown, and Ellisande means 'the rose of the sun'. The actual meaning of Callandor could be the Red Sun, or perhaps more interestingly, The Red Rose. Not only Rand found the Sword in the Heart of the Stone, but he also found Elayne of Andor's Heart - future wearer of the Rose Crown in the Stone.

I will look in a similar fashion at the travels of Perrin and Mat in The Dragon Reborn in upcoming posts, a kind of unplanned (and somewhat ironic) homage to RJ's splitting the original outline of book 1 into three books. :P


- You're welcome to leave comments about this post below, or to use The Dragon Reborn Round-Table open thread to leave a commentary of your own about any aspect of the book.

- Got any nagging question about a topic from The Dragon Reborn? Send them to 'Ask Zemaille' and the librarians will do their best to answer it.


Animeeyez said...

I had not made the connection between Tam (& his fever rambling) and what later becomes the mad voice of LTT. I find that interesting especially within the context of the ongoing debate of whether LTT's voice is actually really in Rand's head or Rand's need to siphon off his crazy/emotions as outlined in this theory here ( ). I would be interested to know what your thoughts on LTT's voice are though you may be saving this for later.

The fourth book in the series also marks for me "when things got really good". I found the first half of The Eye of the World semi painful to get thru the first time around but can appreciate it on rereads for nostalgic reasons.

Anyways, I find all these essays fascinating/insightful . Keep up all the good work!

Unknown said...

Just wanted to say nice work Dom....a good read as usual. Sometimes I question whether or not the connections you make are indeed intended by RJ, or rather simple coincidence. Either way you present a good argument for, and I'm willing to roll with that. Keep it up.

Manetheren said...

Good discussion. I'd never known or thought about the first three books in this light before though I found TGH to be the better of the three. It took me 8 months to read EoTW, a month to read TGH and 5 days to read TDR. TGH had me so stoked that I didn't realize the weakness of TDR until I was done. Though I still love them all.

Agreed that TSR was when the story really got good though I would rank LoC, TSR and TFoH as the best three in the series (until book 12 and 13) in that order. TFoH only ranks the 3rd because of the painful 100 to 150 pages the women spend with Lucas' Circus. Lots of character building and Intro to Birgitte (sp?), even on re-reads my reading slows to a crawl during this period because its so dull with the women just getting on each others nerves the whole time.

Anonymous said...

Dominic, your observations are learned and enjoyable to read. The one about THE GREAT HUNT being completed before THE EYE OF THE WORLD stayed with me. When I met Harriet years later I asked her if this was true. She said no, the books were published in the order Jim wrote them.