Monday, August 17, 2009

The Fires of Heaven Read-through #5: Fires from Heaven

Fires of Salvation and of Destruction

by Dominic

The Fires of Heaven

The titles of the Wheel of Time books are perhaps not the most original or poetic around, but Jim and Harriet always have the knack to nail a title that is interesting not only for the various ways in which it can be interpreted but also for the way they all reflect, often with some depth, the themes of the book.

I mentionned Harriet because according to Brandon Sanderson, she's responsible for the final choice of the title for most of the books of the series. Which ones in particular (beside The Gathering Storm, which Brandon confirmed was ultimately her choice) and how she proceeded to find the titles would be questions to ask her directly. A great many of them are obviously taken either from verses of the Prophecies of the Dragon, often the one opening a specific book, or other metaphors and sayings, for instance The Path of Daggers, which came from a previously quoted Seanchan saying about the perils/dangers facing those at or near the top of the politcal hierarchy. In this respect, it seems probable Harriet's contribution and talent is to pick the little phrase in Jordan's universe that seems to encapsulate the book the best rather than creating those titles herself. Of course, it's also possible she created the titles and Jim added the verse to fit them, but that'd be surprising. Harriet's talent for titles (and understanding of her late husband's work) is undebatable, however – as many probably knows already, she's the one who found titles for most of the chapters, so often witty, amusing or with double-meanings and hidden depth.

The Fires of Heaven is one of the more interesting titles and is, thematically, linked with the previous book, The Shadow Rising, and the next one, Lord of Chaos.

The early series dealt, notably, with the attempts from the Shadow to subvert Rand to their side before he truly could become the Dragon Reborn, and toward the end to eliminate him when it proves impossible to turn him. The moment when this attempt to kill him failed came about is also the moment in which he was 'officially' recognized by the world as the true Dragon Reborn, Callandor in his hands.

For Rand, the first 'trilogy' was a struggle about own his identity and his destiny: accepting that he is the Dragon Reborn while trying to be seen not as 'Lews Therin Kinslayer' reborn but as Rand al'Thor, something even himself struggled with at times, fearing to be a monster and dangerous.

The title of the first book referred not only to the devic itself, the well found in the book's climax, but was also a metaphor about Rand which became fully intelligible through the dedication at the opening of The Great Hunt, where RJ called a hurricane that hit Charleston the closest thing to the EOTW in the real world.

Not only did Rand became The Eye of the World, this world storm, as a powerful ta'veren and the man of prophecies around which the world would revolve for a time, but he also found himself at the eye, the center of that storm that would shake the whole world, a storm that spirals out of his own thread in the pattern. A version of this motif was used in book 1 for Elaida's Foretelling of Rand's destiny.

The Great Hunt was not only a hunt to recuperate the stolen Horn, but also the great hunt for Rand, and a metaphor for the struggle between Light and Shadow.

The Dragon Reborn, the most 'generic' title of the series, caps the book in which Rand finally accepts his destiny.

The three following books mark a turn. First, these are the books in which the ambiguity between the Dragon as saviour and the Dragon as destroyer really arises, in the sense that this theme present in the earlier books finally gets developped as the Dragon begins to rule. It is also the books in which Shai'tan and his minions begin to try to usurp and twist Rand's powers, place and destiny. We have Lanfear, who wants Rand submissive to her, so she can be the most powerful human being – a quest for ultimate power which for her predates even the Bore, brought the Bore experiment about probably. Then we have Shai'tan who uses 'Solar powers", ie: the Light itself, to destroy.

The first book of this "trilogy" had an interesting twist related to this attempt to usurp Rand's powers. The expression the reader would expect was '"The Sun Rising" – all the more since Rand in this book becomes He Who Comes With the Dawn, ie: the rising sun, and it's the book in which his 'solar powers' grow. The title twists this around, to mark the fact Lanfear was pushing Rand toward his destiny in order to use him, to usurp his powers. Lanfear, like at a whole other level her master, was planning to leash the Sun to augment the powers of the night, the powers of the Moon. The title of the book reflected this ambiguity, that as his solar powers grew, Rand was becoming a more and more formidable weapon for Lanfear to wield, a weapon with which she could destroy her colleagues and set herself as the uncontested Queen, with her hubristic dreams of perhaps even challenging both of the world's Gods. While Ishamael is totally dedicated to destruction of everything and Shai'tan's side, for Lanfear the Shadow appears to be a means to an end: she is on nobody's side but her own, she dreams of setting herself even above the two Gods – another path to complete destruction of everything, but unlike Ishamael it would be a consequence of her hubris, not her goal.

The third book pushes the ambiguity to its end: even for the reader it is a bit unclear if the Lord of Chaos is meant to be Rand as the Shadow's fool, or Shai'tan as the Dark Lord who uses Chaos to destroy the Pattern. I'll look into this one and the sources behind the name 'Lord of Chaos' in more details in the next read-through, however.

The middle book's title is taken from a verse of the Karaethon Cycle which gives us most of the meaning behind it:

"With his coming are the dread fires born again. The hills burn, and the land turns sere. The tides of men run out, and the hours dwindle. The wall is pierced, and the veil of parting raised. Storms rumble beyond the horizon, and the fires of heaven purge the earth. There is no salvation without destruction, no hope this side of death."

The Shadow Rising initiated this very important theme in the series (through the prophecized destruction of the Aiel, through the transformation of Emond's Field in order to fight the Shadow etc.), but The Fires of Heaven really develops it: there is no hope of salvation without accepting destruction and death.

The origin of this theme are found in the natural cycles themselves. First, there is the metaphor of the seasons, an eternal cycle of birth in spring, life in summer, the reapings of life in autumn followed by a decline toward death, death and rest in prevision of rebirth during winter, and finally the barren earth of spring again on which rebirth takes place. Infinitely. So goes the light and the dark, the sun and the moon : awakening at dawn, working by day, resting and feasting in the evening and rest and dreams at night. This, of course, is also the normal course for souls: birth, life, decline and finally death and rest, before rebirth with a blank slate. That is the normal order of the pattern: every Age has to die, peacefully or violently, so a new Age can be born. This is the natural order Shai'tan seeks to escape, so death isn't a reward or a rest, but becomes the immuable, permanent state for souls.

Much like the seasonal cycle becomes a metaphor for the order of things for souls, Jordan had it become a direct target for Shai'tan's ravages, and it is rife with symbolism. In The Eye of the World, Shai'tan attempted to keep the world in an eternal winter, in death, to prevent the rebirth of spring from coming. Symbolically, it was Rand's rebirth the Shadow feared, the Shadow sought to prevent, much as Ishamael was trying to manipulate Rand so he became the Shadow's servant before he even got proclaimed the Light's champion. This was a failure.

By the Fire of Heavens, Lanfear has Rand, so she believes anyway (the ending will prove her very wrong), in training to become her weapon, her path to absolute power as she embarks three other Forsaken in a scheme that would likely bring their death at the end (Lanfear never intended for Rand to go after Sammael - not only she warned him against that, but in Rhuidean she directs him toward Rhavin and Andor...). Shai'tan, on his part, is no longer trying to keep the world in permanent death (winter), he is now trying to use the solar powers, symbolically Rand's/the Light's against the world, to burn the world with the sun which energy should bring the warmth and light that makes life thrives in summer, but that now seers, scorches and burns (okay, enough synonyms. The fact I write this on a scorching day when it's 36 celcius in my appartment is influencing me about 'the fires' of heaven :P).

Symbolically, Shai'tan is no longer just using his own domain, death, he's now invaded the Light's domain, trying to pervert it to destruction. This is one theme of the book. The other is Rand's discovery in this book that part of his role as Dragon is to bring the Age to its end, of making the old order collapse, of re-arranging the Pattern. In a way not all dissimilar to Shai'tan, thus the ambiguity, he is to purge the world first so it can be reborn. He ended The Shadow Rising as the "Rising Sun". With The Fires of Heaven, the Sun begins to scorch, to burn what needs to die. Rand now brings war and destruction, brings the Fires of Heaven, the fires of the Sun, to the world. There is no hope this side of death: to get salvation, the world has to go through the maelstrom of the apocalypse that will transform it, that will ultimately bring it rebirth – just like the Finns tell Rand that 'To Live he must Die'. Whether this will happen literally or not, the motif is clear: to be reborn, you first have to die. For the Fourth Age to be born, Rand has to bring the Old One to its death, to destroy, to 'clear out the rumble' (another metaphor used by Jordan, this one from Herid Fel) so the cycle can go on. For the Lightsiders, salvation comes from the acceptance of the natural cycle, the acceptance of death as the normal 'ending', but like the Wheel's turnings, it is not The Ending, but an ending, the necessary ending so a new beginning can arrive.

In the first three books, Rand feared the past of LTT and what it meant to be the Dragon. In the next three he begins to experience it for himself, his path now sown with wars and destruction, to save the world. This part of the Dragon's mission is the most difficult. Accepting death for himself, taking the path to self-sacrifice on his own, is heroic enough – but this path is blocked to the Dragon. He needs not only accept his own death to defeat Shai'tan, he needs to bring the whole world into it, and take on his shoulders this burden to cause death, even indirectly – and to witness the effects of his 'salvation'. By the Fires of Heaven, it is even worse as Lews Therin becomes conscious in Rand's mind and adds his own terrible burden to Rand's.

I would expect this theme of destroyer and saviour initiated in The Fires of Heaven to play a major part in the next book(s). Through the series, Rand has grown into a capable leader, even to the point of excess (tyranical behaviour, falling in love with the trappings of power etc.) but rathet than being alleviated, his burden as destroyer has become heavier and heavier. Rand is sick of it, literally and metaphorically. He can barely cope with more at this point, but there are terrible information floating around that might reach him eventually, the worse by far would be to learn that his great heroic deed at the Cleansing also brought about the suicides of a whole people, the slaughter of women, the murder of their children.

I suspect this theme was one of the central ones for Jim Rigney. My personal intuition is that it probably comes from his own demons as a soldier and veteran, that he translated into a Hero's Journey and Fantasy his own personal struggle with his role as soldier. Soldier for a cause and country he believed in, but still a traumatic experience he spoke this way of in his blog:

"I had two nicknames in ‘Nam. First up was Ganesha, after the Hindu god called the Remover of Obstacles. He’s the one with the elephant head. That one stuck with me, but I gained another that I didn’t like so much. The Iceman. One day, we had what the Aussies called a bit of a brass-up. Just our ship alone, but we caught an NVA battalion crossing a river, and wonder of wonders, we got permission to fire before they finished. The gunner had a round explode in the chamber, jamming his 60, and the fool had left his barrel bag, with spares, back in the revetment. So while he was frantically rummaging under my seat for my barrel bag, it was over to me, young and crazy, standing on the skid, singing something by the Stones at the of my lungs with the mike keyed so the others could listen in, and Lord, Lord, I rode that 60. 3000 rounds, an empty ammo box, and a smoking barrel that I had burned out because I didn’t want to take the time to change. We got ordered out right after I went dry, so the artillery could open up, and of course, the arty took credit for every body recovered, but we could count how many bodies were floating in the river when we pulled out. The next day in the orderly room an officer with a literary bent announced my entrance with “Behold, the Iceman cometh.” For those of you unfamiliar with Eugene O’Neil, the Iceman was Death. I hated that name, but I couldn’t shake it. And, to tell you the truth, by that time maybe it fit. I have, or used to have, a photo of a young man sitting on a log eating C-rations with a pair of chopsticks. There are three dead NVA laid out in a line just beside him. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t chose to sit there because of the bodies. It was just the most convenient place to sit. The bodies don’t bother him. He doesn’t care. They’re just part of the landscape. The young man is glancing at the camera, and you know in one look that you aren’t going to take this guy home to meet your parents. Back in the world, you wouldn’t want him in your neighborhood, because he is cold, cold, cold. I strangled that SOB, drove a stake through his heart, and buried him face down under a crossroad outside Saigon before coming home, because I knew that guy wasn’t made to survive in a civilian environment. I think he’s gone. All of him. I hope so. I much prefer being remembered as Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles."

Rand, his hardness and his loss of what Sorilea calls 'laughters and tears', his burden to be Death when he wants to be the Remover of Obstacles is all there, and it's as the real war began, in The Fires of Heaven, that this theme truly started.

In conclusion, it's noteworthy that in Jordan's typical way, this main theme of the book is echoed in all the story lines. Elaida's rise to power came by destroying the 'old Tower' and none of her attempts will succeed at uniting the sisters behind her. For the rebels too, there won't be a reunification without waging war to remove Elaida. For Siuan's group, the path to Salidar will be marked by woes and fights. To save Elayne and Nynaeve, Galad will have to start a war. Etc.

Also typical of Jordan's style, notice how the book is full of allusions to fire and the sun. and how it alternates between the benevolent, like giving aspects of both and the destructive aspect of both – and this is rendered even in details of some scenes. I'll give one example: in the attempt to escape, Logain sets the barn they sought shelter in for the night on fire. In this book, most of the weaves used are references to 'The Fires of Heaven': lightings, fireballs, balefire dominate.

There are three colours that Jordan associated to the sun: Gold is the colour associated to the Rising Sun/The Golden Dawn (and the first city Rand conquers – Tear fell to him and his taking of Callandor - is indeed 'The Hills of the Golden Dawn'. It is the healing sun, the life-giving sun: He Who Comes with the Dawn, The Lord of the Morning, the Prince of Dawn. It is a colour of health and life, the colour adopted by the Yellow Ajah. Red is the colour of fire, the sun that eradicates the Shadow – a belligerant sun, a threatening sun dangerous if it gets out of hands – the colour of the threat the Red Ajah sought to protect the world from. And finally there is white, which I already discussed a lot during the previous read-through as a colour associated to winter and death, but a death that herald rebirth, not the same symbolism as black, the colour of the void, of the final death. In respect to solar symbolism, white is the hottest light, the light that obliterates, that blinds, that kills – but also can purge. This symbolism is largely carried out by the blinding white light of balefire, the ultimate weapon, the last resort one that kills the enemy surely, but might also destroy the Pattern itself.


Linda said...

38, eh? That’s not that surprising in summer. It was 26 here on Sun-day in winter. Now that’s the Fires of Heaven. :)

The Fires of Heaven could also refer to the final purging of the earth by fire at the end of time in Zoroastrian religion.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff as always. I think "The Fires of Heaven" is definitely one of the strongest titles of all the books (although my personal favorite is the wonderfully ruminative "Crossroads of Twilight"). Unlike the titles of the first three books, this one really emphasizes the idea that Rand's rise to power and subsequent final showdown with the shadow is a path rife with destruction and even a bit of despair both on a personal level and the larger pertaining to the "good" society he is to lead. I think it's a common misconception for many readers who haven't actually read much of the Wheel of Time beyond the first book or so that the series is easily reduced to the "farmboy fantasy" caricture about a youth who endlessly "levels up" in power as a means of physically vanquishing the external threat without having to pay any real price. This assumption fails to consider that a major point to the series is that Rand may have to break the world, as opposed to simply saving it. As a title, "The Fires of Heaven" is a great expression of the ambiguity that the series often doesn't get credit for exhibiting even though it has its aspects that are more subversive than many assume.

- Zach H.

Dominic said...

Great comment Zach, thanks.

I agree with all your observations.

"Crossroads" is also one of my favourite WOT titles. I also like especially Winter's Heart and Lord of Chaos (for reasons I'll explain later along the way).

You touch on the particularities of Rand's "archetype" as hero and it's a topic I also want to return to later.

What RJ has done may not (probably isn't) unique, but it's still fairly original. The more classic way of dealing with this in mythology is to have a separate slayer and redeemer. On his path, the Hero is confronted with the slayer (often a failed father, mentor, protector or even idol) and has to face the reality he could also fail and become like him. (Interestingly, prof. Joseph Campbell used to call this slayer figure the King Dragon or Tyrant-Dragon). The best known rendition of that mythologic plot in pop culture is the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker duo.

Jordan's originality is to have combined as one character (in a fashion) the slayer and the redeemer, and not only that but also departing from the traditional pattern that the slayer fell to evil. Jordan's slayer is a far more ambiguous, far more interesting figure.

Molly said...

Actually, RJ kind of does include a separate slayer- Luc, Rand's half-borther, has become half of the entity Perrin and the wolves call Slayer. Rand could become like Luc; swallowed by Darkness, killing the innocent for kicks and becoming a tool to destroy the afterlife( after all, when SLayer kills wolves in Tel'aran'rhiod they die forever)

Jack said...

As has been pointed out previously on this blog, Jordan was very big on creating mirrors and shadows of his themes, repeating patterns throughout the storyline. For instance, the Winespring Inn being a small-scale representation of the White Tower, and Tar Valon itself being a small-scale representation of the Wheel of Time.

I think Slayer is another one of these shadows, a could-have-been to compare other characters to. But I see him most as a reflection of Perrin and Lan. Perrin likely because they spend so much screen time together, and he serves as an anti-wolf to Perrin's wolf.

I see Lan not just because of the blood relationship, but also because of their nature. They both exist to kill and nothing else. The difference is in their reason - Lan kills to protect Moiraine and achieve a greater good; Slayer kills to serve the Shadow and for fun. It's very much where Lan could have been, had Moiraine not altered his path early in life.

Linda said...

Good points Jack and I agree with them. I've written about the Perrin/Slayer pairing elsewhere on the blog.

Lan and Isam were both orphaned and brought up only to fight.

Fain/Mat is another pairing - the two wild cards/fools. I've got a whole essay on them.