Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lord of Chaos Read-through #1: A Storm Gathering at Shayol Ghul

A Storm Gathering at Shayol Ghul

by Dominic

Lord of Chaos is a book of major developments: new themes, new characters, new concepts, new creatures - and major new starts for characters like Min, Egwene, Perrin etc. - also a great expansion of the One Power mechanics. Three Forsaken make their first entrance on the stage, and Aes Sedai politics virtually explode, with two large Embassies sent to Rand, and the characters from the newly formed Rebel Hall emerging. Many of the players on the center stage and periphery in book 6 are the ones who will keep playing important secondary roles all the way to the late series, and presumably the finale.

This book is some way closes what I like to call the 'Solar trilogy', and in others it is the book that truly sets up the late series.

Lord of Chaos is one mammoth book - in length and in content. We could easily spend a month or more exploring it. As our goal is to survey the first eleven books before the release of The Gathering Storm - and spend the last month on the three last ones, we're gonna have to proceed a bit faster than this through the mid-series, selecting some of our favourite topics. Don't worry though, we'll return to the mid-series' books more extensively eventually, during the wait for book 13.

The prologue of Lord of Chaos introduces us to Shaidar Hairan, the strange Myrddraal on which some of Shai'tan's will and mind is impressed. Shaidar Haran is an interesting puzzle, not so much for the mechanics, but for the insight it gives us into Shai'tan's plans, and the new mysteries about them it introduces. The Chosen are not the only ones wondering about the implications of Shaidar Haran's arrival on the scene. The signs are there from the start (like the unusual favour of giving Shaidar Haran extra room to move in the cavern) that the pecking order may have changed in the Shadow - while the scene with the first transmigrated Chosen, Aran'gar and Osan'gar, confirms it at the end of the prologue. The whole issue of Shai'tan's true intent about his promises to the Chosen arises in this book - does he even intend to have a world for them to rule? Is there any difference for him between Myrddraal and Chosen, except their respective usefulness as tools? That's the real conundrum for the Chosen, with the exception of Moridin who embraces his master's goals in full and advocate the destruction of everything - the rest of them are starting to wonder.

Along Shaidar Haran's comes Demandred's introduction in the series - mentioned before but never met until then. I must confess he's a character that always held limited fascination for me. Jordan certainly managed to shroud him in mystery... but in little else so far. He fascinates a lot of readers - he is even many's favourite villain. Personally, I more than a little suspect this has a lot to do with the fact Jordan has kept him in the shadows so much and unlike most of the other Forsaken who played a more active part in the plot of the series, Demandred has not got the chance yet to show his flaws, to be brought down a few notches again. The Chosen have entered the series through their legends, and progressively Jordan has deconstructed these myths and revealed that these 'demons' are in truth terribly human, terribly flawed humans, often even terribly petty and weak humans. Some of them have great gifts, but all of them didn't live up to those gifts: Moghedien was always a swindler - and so was Balthamel, Mesaana turn her talent for teaching into a tool of destruction, Aginor used his mastery of the principles of life to create beings focused on annihilation of all life; Graendal and Semirhage rejected service and put their skills to personal gratification, torture and enslavement etc. I can't really shake off the feeling that Demandred is not so much the kind to show his worth through his actions (for instance proving with them he is better and greater man than Lews Therin) but rather someone who has the genius of avoiding the spotlight whenever he runs the risk of harming his reputation or be cast in bad light - the kind to remain in the shadow where he can criticize those in the spotlight. I never really cared for his "potential" - he never realised it and in the end threw it all away and joined the Shadow.

Another major development (very unexpected for me on first read, I remember) was the direct presence of The Great Lord OF SPEAKING IN CAPITALS. By the time of Lord of Chaos, I was more and more expecting Jordan to keep his Dark Lord forever confined to a part in the tradition of Tolkien's Sauron. Having a direct exchange between Shai'tan and a Forsaken was a pleasant surprise. Such things are always a bit risky - godly beings have a tendency to lose some of their aura of power when too directly involved - but Jordan has so far dealt with that risk masterfully. Shai'tan is ominous. I've wondered since if he had plans to take the much greater risk of a Shai'tan POV in the finale. Given all he's told us about his inhuman logic this would be most interesting, but it might also ruin everything. We'll see.

The First Message also offers us a first good look at Shayol Ghul and the Pit of Doom. We had been around there before, in Rand's Dreams and all - but here we get enough at last for a little more detailed analysis and insight in the symbolism Jordan was developing for the Shadow. The first five books, especially books 4 and 5, were a lot more generous in this respect to the Light, especially to the Dragon. Books 1-5 introduced a lot of the elements of what is natural, what belongs in the Pattern - the first scene at Shayol Ghul offers us a stark contrast, which is quite interesting as this mirror is one of the thing that helped me 'unlock' many of details of the symbolism RJ was using for the light.

One of the first things worth observing is the great similarity between Dragonmount and Shayol Ghul - two impossibly high volcanoes. The Dragon created a volcano committing suicide - a geographic extension of the mythical dragon. Dragons have long be associated to volcanoes - many mythologists have even suggested this association as the origin of the ability to breath fire given to in folklore and myth. Dragonmount remained to cast its shadow on Tar Valon. Long before there was a Black Tower, Dragonmount as stood symbolically for it. Not a thing of Air and Water, as the lofty island in the middle of the Erinin that can only be reached by aerial bridges and harbours - with its delicate aerial walkways and high buildings, but a thing of raw Earth and Fire, representing male channelers, asleep near their sisters, casting a shadow on the Island, like a symbol that the sisters can never escape for very long thoughts and worries about male channelers. Dragonmount is both a reminder of the past and a threat, of male channelers's madness and the Breaking of the World - and a symbol of hope of salvation in the future, but a constant reminder that salvation will have to come amidst all the woes and destruction the fulfillment of the Karaethon Cycle will bring: the place the world saviour will be born, and with him the return of Shai'tan's touch on the world. Symbolically Dragonmount has been the Dragon Soul's prison for 3,000 years - a prison he would only escape as a newborn babe (probably not in truth - the evidence so far is that eathbound souls like Mordeth's are kept out of the normal birth-death-rebirth cycle, and beside RJ's concept is that soul enter the physical realm and is tied to 'a body' at the moment of conception - which happened ... somewhere in Cairhien - the realm of the 'Golden Dawn', presumably).

Shayol Ghul proceeds from the same symbolism: another volcano (or its equivalent anyway - the Pit below SG is said to be 'roofless'), it is more a representation/perception in reality of the Bore, which we are told is not physically at SG but everywhere. The Pit of Doom itself is down a deep cavern, a lake of molten black and red lava, in which the dark spirit of Shai'tan 'resides'. What was only symbolic for the 'Dragon's prison' is thus for Shai'tan the literal truth, interestingly. Here we have the origin of Moridin's adopted colours: the red and the black of the Pit of Doom - of destruction and the great void. Those forced to wear it will be literally owned by the Great Lord himself, and put in Moridin's care.

The symbolism attached to Shayol Ghul, the Pit of Doom and the valley of Thakan'dar proceeds a great deal through inversions. Inversion of the natural order and of the series's symbols. This is a major theme of the series that is especially developed in this book and to which we will return in a post centered on the title itself.

Shayol is in a valley, but it is a dead and barren valley. Commenting on the fact he had to let go of saidin and lost the keener sensual perception he gained from it, Demandred added no one wants to smell the air around too much anyway. As we have observed in previous posts, water and rivers in particular are associated to the True Source and to Life in the series. In this valley, only a rivulet flows and to touch it is to die, however Demandred reveals that this location (before the mountain arose, before the drilling of the Bore created it - connecting this event with the symbolism of LTT's death), used to be a temperate resort island - a virginal land enjoyed by those who loved the rustic (a kind of Eden is the intention behind this description), completing the association to Dragonmount and Tar Valon; notice the inversion: LTT created Tar Valon in a remote pristine area by twisting the land, the creation of the Bore/SG destroyed a pristine, beautiful island.

Nothing lives there now (though Death aka Moridin has his palace nearby), even those creatures Demandred calls Forgers, the new type of Shadowspawn (and we'll leave to others the usual rhetorical debate whether the forgers should even be called such) are said not to be truly alive. We are left to understand they are like automatons made of inanimate matter (stone, all other creatures are tied to live things, from animals to trees), semblance of lifeforms moved by Shai'tan's will - like fingers of stone which he moves and grabs souls with then place them in Myrddraal's blades (a cut from which is almost certain death, we were told by Moiraine and Lan in TEOTW). Shayol Ghul is mostly a world of greys and blacks, the other colours barely perceivable in the murky light. It is the black that mutes and absorbs and level everything, the black of the void, of un-creation.

Jordan made here with the Forgers a very clever allusion to the motifs he associated to the Blacksmiths - and has Demandred emphasized it by musing over whether the creatures can even properly be called smiths. The Blacksmiths in the series is portrayed as a Maker/Unifier, who bring together the 'male' forces of earth (metals/coal) and fire to design and create a variety of tools, from the ornamental to necessities of life - and occasionally they need to make weapons, or transform tools like scythes into weapons. A lot of Perrin's storyarc, a builder/creator forced to also embrace his darker destructive side in order to fight evil, is tied to to this dual symbolism (the axe and the hammer in myth and symbolism are both tools of death/resurrection - many gods including Tor have hammers with both functions, one side to kill, one side to resurrect. This is tied to their duality - both are used to create new things, both can be used to kill. Departing a bit from this, Jordan made his choice to associate the death to the Axe and life/creation to the Hammer, by clearly making the Axe a war axe and the Hammer a blacksmith hammer. While both can be used a weapon, and theoretically Perrin could use the war axe to fell trees and build something, Jordan has clearly split the dual functions of Tor's Hammer (or the Dagda's cauldron in Celtic myth) between each object, one associated to destruction, one to creation) Those unnatural stone giants can make only one thing - Myrddraal's blade - and they make it through destruction and perversion of what is alive, a person. Unlike Aginor's Shadowspawn, these things are not truly alive, they are purely dead matter moving at Shai'tan's will. All the motifs surrounding Shai'tan's role are in them: Shai'tan doesn't create the same way the creator can create; what he can do is only destroy, twist and pervert elements already within Creation. The Lord of Death, he is incapable of giving anything the spark of life - even his immortality proceeds from a trick of taking a soul and stealing another living being's body to place it in. This symbolism teach us that if Shai'tan ever ran out of living beings, he would be unable to give anything the spark of life. We have also seen this symbolism used in TGH, in the empty Portal World.

To further increase the feeling of inversion, Jordan used various tricks. There are literal ones, like the lightnings which strike from the ground and into the clouds. He used literary tricks too, like this choice of metaphor: "Above, roiling gray clouds hid the sky, an inverted sea of sluggish ashen waves crashing around the mountain’s hidden peak." (Loc, The First Message), giving the strange feeling there is a roiling sea instead of a sky above. He also used metaphor to emphasize the environment of Shayol eats up 'creation': "mist marked his breath, barely visible before the air drank it. Eat up, drank, swallowed up are words very present in Shayol Ghul chapters.

In this episode, Jordan also reinforces the symbolism of the colour white as the blank slate (associated to pure spirit too) and the colour associated to death, but to death with the promise of a new beginning. The colour of winter, of snow that let everything under it rest before the great rebirth of spring. In these scenes, white is the colour of the blank blade of the Myrddraal being made - but when a soul is put into it (or so we can presume, anyway) and it is dipped in the deadly water (which by inversion of the usual symbolism for water is forcibly a symbol for the True Power), it takes the black of the final death. Winter's association to death is also greatly reinforced: first, Demandred tells us that far above this realm of death is eternal winter and ice, then goes on to tell us Thakan'dar itself lives in eternal winter - but notice that here it's a winter of eternal death, without any snow nor rain - a land of greys and blacks, a realm of death, with no promise of any spring to come.

Another motif introduced at Shayol Ghul (we have seen it before in scenes at Ishamael's palace) is that of the unnatural Gathering Storm, striated and roiling with black, silver and lightnings above the Pit of Doom and around the mountain. We have already seen this unnatural storm again in KOD, early on above Caemlyn, and at the end giving a very ominous tone to the meeting at which Elayne gained the Lion Throne. As I'll mention the first scene from TGS (as we heard of from reports about the tape played at JordanCon, I'll use the spoiler tag.

Minor TGS prologue spoiler - click to expand

Keep an eye out for this motif/element to become prominent in the finale, as those who've read the report from JordanCon's panel when Harriet played a tape of Jordan narrating the first scene of the prologue already know. This unnatural storm seems about to travel all over the place - Shai'tan's realm is expanding."

Another little thing to attract your attention to: notice as you reread how often Jordan refers to fools in Lord of Chaos. Demandred uses the word multiple times - and the rest of the prologue continues the trend. The multiplication of references to 'fools' idiocy, insanity and madness plays the same role through Lord of Chaos the piling up of mentions of fire and everything related to fire or the sun played in The Fires of Heaven. I'll leave the exploration of this to the post about the title and main themes of the book.

Finally, it's interesting to see Demandred notice the presence of a few human prisoners who he assumes are victims of raids in the Borderlands - but in much smaller numbers than usual - and this despite pointing out that those have been curtailed. This solved the mystery of the 'strangely quiet Blight' mentioned in reports to Elaida in The Fires of Heaven. And since raids have been curtailed, those are very likely 'collateral victims' from raids that were ordered to find suitable bodies for the transmigrated Forsaken - relatives or neighbours of the people whose bodies were used for Aran'gar, Osan'gar, Moridin or Cyndane, quite possibly.

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