WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT
by MJJ Sedai
This is the first of two essays on the extensive Arthurian parallels in The Wheel of Time series and it discusses the common themes and symbols. The second essay contains some of the more significant individual character parallels between Arthurian myth and The Wheel of Time.
The Matter of Britain, the Arthurian tradition as we know it today, developed in a very cumulative way over a period of many centuries, beginning with its most primal origins in Celtic mythology and folklore first introduced and passed down through the oral tradition by bards and “taliesins” (preeminent storytellers); to the first texts purporting to be historical records by Gildas in the 6th century and Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century; to the first known written manuscripts of the Welsh triads and the first continental “romances” by Chrétien de Troyes and various other authors in the 12th and 13th centuries; to Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century; and to more modern and contemporary authors’ interpretations and novelizations which draw upon the whole, from the likes of Tennyson, White, Steinbeck, Stewart, Zimmer-Bradley, and many others.
While Robert Jordan has used as his source material many and various real world stories, myths and legends in constructing his Wheel of Time world, one of the most significant of these source materials is, without a doubt, the body of work known as the Arthurian legend. In fact, Jordan’s development of his own Wheel of Time legend is something of a modern day fantasy epic mirror of the real world historical development of the Arthurian “fantasy epic”. The epigrams found at the beginning of each book in The Wheel of Time and at the end of most of them are variously referred to as excerpts of cycles, translations, poems, or fragments thereof, and attributed to various authors known and sometimes unknown from various time periods and ages. This and more can be said of the Arthurian legend as well, made up as it is of cycles, poems, translations, compilations, and reworkings and reinterpretations of earlier works, some of which are fragmentary and attributable to both known and unknown authors from various time periods and ages, all culminating in what we know today as the Arthurian tradition. Where the two differ in all this is that with Jordan’s Wheel of Time, we are the eye witnesses to the story, given a glimpse through the epigrams of how that story will be viewed and interpreted in the future, as well as given a glimpse of how those in the past of The Wheel of Time world predicted that the “present” events would unfold as we read about them now. With Arthurian myth, we are at the other end of the time scale, having to rely upon those views and interpretations as they have evolved from the past and present to how they stand in our future today.
Add to this the very compelling idea that in Jordan’s Wheel of Time world, our Arthurian stories are actually a part of their mythology, and their stories actually contain the seeds of our Arthurian legend, and we can gain a greater appreciation for Jordan’s accomplishment thus far in bringing to “reality” his statement that:
”The characters in the books are the source of many of our myths and legends and we are the source of many of theirs. You can look two ways along a wheel.”With that said, we shall endeavour to identify and explain herein what we believe to be the most significant Arthurian elements that Jordan has drawn upon and interwoven into his Wheel of Time world, beginning with an overview of a few of the more all-encompassing concepts, sub-textual and otherwise, and continuing with more specific and overt character parallels, all of whom embody and exemplify in some way these underlying concepts. Specific character parallels will be confined of necessity, due to time and length, to the most significant characters, although more minor and less significant character parallels will be alluded to where appropriate. For more information on minor character parallels, as well as a little additional and complementary information on those that are more significant, please reference the Character names articles, as well as the Names of the Shadow article.
And as always, it’s important to keep in mind that these parallels are not exact or precise, and that Jordan never intended them to be so. His intention has always been to take concepts and character ideas from a variety of sources and make them his own - change them, mix them up, adapt them - and yet still leave them recognizable to us on some level, a recognition that is more specific and runs deeper than just a simple identification with common or universal archetypes. This is, in fact, a primary way in which Jordan illustrates one of the main underlying themes of his Wheel of Time: The mutability of truth and knowledge through time, distance, and perception. The whole of Arthurian tradition itself can be looked upon as a testament to this theme as well.
The Goddess, her Champions and the Struggle for Balance
In order to identify Arthurian themes in The Wheel of Time, we must begin by looking at what is universally regarded as the Arthurian legend’s root source in Celtic mythology, as specifically found in the interrelated Irish, Welsh and Breton traditions. One of the most basic elements, one of the most intrinsic parts of this Celtic mythology – something which springs from an even more primal and universal tradition - is the concept of the Mother Goddess, also known as the Goddess of the Land or the Goddess of Sovereignty.
The Mother Goddess, the Goddess of the Land, is the divine feminine symbol for the earth from which all life springs. Through her, life is conceived, born, nourished, grows, declines and dies, inevitably returning to her again to begin the cycle anew. She is only one-half of the whole of life’s equation, however. She must have a masculine partner, a consort, with whom she joins in physical union in order to spark the life within her, and thus ensure the continued fertility and health of the Land. This consort of necessity must be a worthy partner who is not only able to provide a viable essence, this life spark, but who must also be able to act as a viable champion and protector. In return, the Goddess bestows upon her consort not only the right to join with her, but the right to rule the Land, the right to sovereignty. The Goddess’s chosen consort and champion is, therefore, inextricably tied to the fertility and health of the Land, and the Land is inextricably tied to the fertility and health of its chosen caretaker and champion.
This partnership, this exchange of power, this balance of the feminine and masculine, is an underlying theme that recurs time and again in stories from Celtic tradition, including those which are clearly precursors to the Arthurian legend, and those specifically involving Arthur and his people, both of which are most profoundly evidenced in The Mabinogion, a collection of eleven Celtic prose tales first transcribed in the 12th century, and whose bases are derived from a much earlier Celtic oral tradition. While The Mabinogion begins to tell a tale of Christian influence, the underlying theme of the Goddess remains and continues to underlie the Arthurian stories, even as they are further transformed and absorbed into Christian tradition by the medieval continental romancers of the 12th and 13th centuries. The challenges and quests taken up by Arthur and his companions, the trials and tests and deadly competitions they must enter into to prove themselves, all have their genesis, in one way or another, with a woman or with a combination of women. Whether it be the struggles and hardships involved to literally rescue, avenge, or champion a woman, or whether it be the struggles and hardships involved to attain political sovereignty through the rescue, requitement, or championship of the land and its people, the divine feminine as representative of the Land and ultimate bestower of its sovereignty underlies it all. It is with this constant and eternal struggle, this vying for the attainment of union and balance to ensure the continued fertility and health of the land that the Arthurian world and The Wheel of Time world share some of their most significant parallels.
In The Wheel of Time world, particularly and most significantly in its present Third Age, the Celto-Arthurian goddess of land and sovereignty can be found everywhere. She permeates everything, and every significant female character acts in one way or another as her representative through one or more of her various but equally important aspects, or guises, both in The Wheel of Time’s “real” world and in its “other” worlds (Tel’aran’rhiod, the mirror worlds, the world of the Aelfinn and Eelfinn), which in Celtic terms are known variously as the Otherworld, Underworld, Land of Faerie, Land of Women, and other names symbolic of this realm.
The aforementioned aspects of the Goddess, the guises or forms that she takes on both literally and figuratively, each have a particular purpose and are traditionally named as follows: Maiden, also known as Spring Maiden or Flower Bride; Mother, also known as Queen or Sovereignty herself; and Crone, Hag or Loathly Lady, also known as Dark Woman of Knowledge. The Goddess’s aspects are not necessarily confined to just these three however. She has transitional aspects as well, and the same woman may carry more than one aspect or guise at different times. Many of The Wheel of Time and Arthurian women carry these aspects in parallel, and we shall identify and discuss them as we look at specific characters.
In the present Third Age of The Wheel of Time, the scales are tipped towards women generally playing a more dominant role, although some balance and sharing of power with men does still exist. For the most part though, women are likely to hold the reins of power, to be the final decision makers, to be the possessors rather than the bestowers of sovereignty, and to act on their own as the guardians and protectors of the land, often allowing only limited participation and support from men. This is particularly evident in those women with the ability to channel the One Power, to wield Saidar, the female half of the True Source. There is a glaring imbalance in all this, and it is wholly attributable to the War of the Shadow and the subsequent Armageddon-like Breaking of the World which ended the Age of Legends (see The Age of Legends essay). In the utopian-like Age of Legends, a balance existed between the feminine and masculine, an equal partnership involving the equal exchange and sharing of power and sovereignty. A perfect union which resulted in a perfectly harmonious and healthy world. This balance was destroyed, however, when the Dark One’s prison outside of time was unwittingly breached, precipitating the War of the Shadow and ultimately leading to the Dark One’s tainting of Saidin - the male half of the True Source - which caused an non-healable madness in male channellers and led them to literally break the world.
In Celto-Arthurian terms, this horrendous Dolorous Stroke not only severely crippled the Goddess’s preeminent champion of that Age, Lews Therin Telamon known as the Dragon, it uniformly crippled all of his male companions, causing the Goddess to lose all of her worthy consorts, champions and protectors in one fell swoop, literally transforming the land into a Wasteland.
The Goddess’s representatives, the female Aes Sedai, of necessity took on her darkest aspects, most significantly the transitional aspect of Dark Maiden or Warrior Woman, in order to ward the land and its people from those males who unwillingly inherited and continued to carry this destructive taint. The taint’s legacy continued even into the present Age, and its onus has been placed on all males by extension, a further manifestation of continuing imbalance and lingering ill health in the Land.
By comparison, the Arthurian legend ends, seemingly, when King Arthur the Pendragon suffers a horrendous Dolorous Stroke at the hands of his son Mordred (who battles with him for the right to sovereignty). Arthur is thereafter taken to Avalon, understood to be the Otherworld, by three women, all representatives of the Goddess, to be cared for and healed and hopefully made whole and healthy again. The Arthurian legend’s Breton Hope, therefore, is that Arthur will someday return hale and hearty at a time of the Land’s greatest need, to take back his rightful place beside the Goddess, and to act once again as her worthy champion and regenerative consort, thus bringing back balance to the Land and ushering in a new Golden Age.
In The Wheel of Time, prophecy and legend says that the Dragon, Lews Therin Telamon, will be born again at the world’s greatest hour of need. In the present Third Age, we bear witness to the fact that the Dragon has indeed been reborn, in the person of Rand al’Thor, and very clearly at a time of the Land’s greatest need. The Dark One is touching the world again, tainting and sickening it, and Tarmon Gai’don – Armageddon – that Last Battle prophesied to be fought for the ultimate right of sovereignty over the Land, looms large on the horizon. If the Dark One wins, wholly unworthy consort and unacceptable champion that he is, the Land will become an unhealable Wasteland for all time. The Goddess’s chosen champion, the Dragon Reborn, is The Wheel of Time world’s Breton Hope, its undying Pendragon king returned to do battle and gain victory over the evil destructive forces of the Shadow, restoring balance, health and fertility to the Land once again.
Good, Evil, and That Indefinable Grey Area
While within the Celtic tradition we see fortunate and unfortunate things happen, joys and sorrows experienced, victories and defeats celebrated and endured, life and death given and taken, we are never meant to be given any real sense of the existence of inherent good and evil, at least not with regards to matters involving the Goddess. The Goddess has her darker, more contrary, at times strife-inducing and at times downright destructive aspects – as do some of her male champions and guardians who have their own particular aspects or guises that act in parallel or counterbalance to the Goddess’s - but the purpose of these darker agents is always to set into motion events and activities that will ultimately lead to healing and balance, even to the point of these agents sacrificing their own lives to that end.
The character of Herid Fel in The Wheel of Time gives us a further explanation of this, albeit a rather cryptic one, in his scribbled note to Rand:
Belief and order give strength. Have to clear rubble before you can build.
- Lord of Chaos, Thorns
The Goddess must sometimes purge and destroy in order to clear the way for renewal and growth. Herid Fel was murdered as a result of planting the seeds of such ideas in Rand, and although Fel cannot be seen as a representative of one of the Goddess’s darker champion/guardians, he does make the Ultimate Sacrifice in order to play out the very significant role of the Seer/Poet, an archetype found in Celtic and Arthurian tradition and clearly paralleled in The Wheel of Time as well. Min Farshaw also holds this role as Seer/Poet by virtue of her inborn Viewing abilities, and she appears to be augmenting it through an inheritance from Herid Fel by continuing on with his scholarly studies. The Seer/Poet role is in fact one that is shared by both males and females, and we can see a number of characters in The Wheel of Time who hold it to one extent or another. As well, the Seer/Poet traditionally holds a neutral stance and usually exhibits a balance of earthly and otherworldly aspects and skills, and we also see these exhibited in our Wheel of Time Seer/Poets along with Min.
In the Arthurian Legend, the Preeminent Seer/Poet is of course Merlin. In The Wheel of Time, the character that holds the most overt Arthurian parallel to Merlin is Thom Merrilin. But particular aspects of Merlin are evoked in other characters as well, most notably in the advisor/guide Moiraine Damodred (who seems destined to “merge” with the character of Thom), the traditional Foretellers Gitara Morosa, Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan and Nicola Treehill; the shape shifting Wolfbrothers Perrin Aybara and Elyas Machara; and the Dreamers and Dreamwalking Egwene al’Vere and Aiel Wise Ones. Some of these characters also hold other significant Arthurian parallels, and we shall explore them in subsequent sections.
In returning to those darker representatives and guardians of the Goddess, those instigators of change, those seemingly (at first blush anyway) hurtful and unmerciful movers and shakers of the heroes so near and dear to our hearts, we see them manifested time and again in many of the Light-side characters in The Wheel of Time, just as they are manifested and paralleled in Arthurian tradition. We need only look as far as that ubiquitous “grey” area to find them, wherein many of The Wheel of Time and Arthurian characters fall at one time or another as they take on those darker but essential aspects of the Goddess.
But unlike with the purely Celtic Goddess tradition, there exists within The Wheel of Time a very clearly defined line between good and evil. While that ubiquitous grey area butts up against this line on either side, if you step over it there is no doubt which side you’ve planted your feet on. This evil is not, however, just represented by one side of a clearly defined symbolic fault line wrought in the bedrock of the Land, it is wholly incarnated in that Otherworldly, outside of time being known as the Dark One, whose true name Shai’tan is never invoked without consequences, and whose followers are known as Darkfriends and proponents of the Shadow.
In Arthurian myth, this sense of inherent good and evil, of clearly defined right and wrong, was brought into the tradition through basic Christian principles which were infused into Arthurian stories particularly during the medieval period, wherein wickedness and sinfulness and temptation by the Devil were often seen as the cause of misfortune and failure. In Christian terms, wickedness and sinfulness is seen as the cause of Arthur’s ultimate downfall, not only because of Arthur’s own sinfulness, but because of the sinfulness of those he is intimately connected with and quite literally answerable for as king, liege lord, and paternal family head.
The very real hope and very real possibility for redemption, both in a personal sense and for the Land and its people, always remains, however, for Arthur and for all those brothers and sisters in Christ with him. The Christian medieval treatment of the Arthurian stories shows the very human struggle for the attainment of this redemption very well indeed.
The Goddess of Celtic tradition continues nevertheless to underlay these later Arthurian stories, both in the reworkings of the Celtic originals and in the newer medieval Christianized additions to them. She is never wholly supplanted by Christianity - no matter how obscure or confused her presence may become - but is instead fused within it, forming a Celto-Christian tradition within the Arthurian myth that we can see in The Wheel of Time as well. The Arthurian tradition is in fact a good representative example of the conversion of Celtic pagan peoples in Europe to Christianity, wherein some of the most familiar and beloved elements in Celtic religion are incorporated and subsumed within it rather than supplanted and utterly lost as a result of it, thus manifesting a particular balance of its own, which is again echoed by Jordan in his Wheel of Time.
In the next section we shall take a look at the Christianized elements of Arthurian tradition, along with their underlying Celtic origins, how they fit in and where they are paralleled in The Wheel of Time.
The Holy Grail, The Fisher King and the Struggle for Redemption
One of the more pervasive concepts in Celtic mythology is that of a magical vessel that can miraculously feed and heal. As with the Goddess tradition, this is a concept that springs from an even more primal and universal source. These life giving and life sustaining otherworldly vessels may be cups, crocks, cauldrons, dishes, hampers, or horns. They are always very difficult to attain, often at great cost, and are usually won by or bestowed upon only those proven and deemed most worthy to wield them. They are examples of empowering, sovereignty bestowing objects, or hallows, given by the Goddess to her chosen champions to aide them in their endeavours on her behalf.
Through Christian medieval reassessments of the Arthurian stories, we are most familiar with this concept as it is embodied in the vessel of the Holy Grail, or Sangreal, said to be the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper and in which some of his blood and water were caught during the crucifixion, thus imbuing the cup with miraculous life giving and life sustaining qualities, both corporeally and spiritually. Within this mystical, apocryphal Grail tradition we also find the figure of the Grail King, or Fisher King, who acts as the Guardian of the Grail on earth. The Fisher King has been wounded by a Dolorous Stroke, or Dolorous Blow, and as a result his lands are correspondingly wounded and wasted. This clearly harkens back to the Goddess of Sovereignty tradition wherein her chosen male champion is inextricably tied to the land and the land is inextricably tied to him.
The wounded king is said to have been smote through both thighs, the suggestion being that the wounds are of a sexual nature, thus demonstrating a direct connection between the fertility of the land and the fertility of its king. The king and the land can only be restored to full health and fertility with the advent of a chosen Grail knight/champion who is thusly empowered with the divine and otherworldly ability to heal the king and his land. The Grail knight/champion is then given personal salvation and redemption through actual achievement of the Holy Grail. With this achievement he is taken up by God, along with the Grail, to succeed as eternal Grail King in the blessed spiritual realm of Heaven.
The specific Celtic prototype for the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend can be found among those ancient sacred objects known as the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, which include not only a crock, cauldron, dish, hamper and horn, but also a sword, chariot, halter, knife, whetstone, coat, mantle, and gwyddbwll board (for more on the game of gwyddbwll and how Jordan associates it with the Fisher King in The Wheel of Time, see the article Sha'rah, the Fisher King and Their Equivalents).
In one of the earliest stories in which the figure of Arthur appears, the Preiddeu Annwfn (Spoils of Annwfn, as recounted by the 6th century historical figure Taliesin Pen Beirdd, or Primary Chief Bard of the Island of Britain, and recorded in the The Book of Taliesin dating from the 14th century), Arthur journeys to Annwfn (the Underworld) in his ship Prydwen in a dangerous quest to obtain these empowering hallows treasures, which include the magical cauldron of Diwrnach the Giant, clearly one of the Grail’s prototypes. Arthur makes a similar journey in order to obtain some of these same empowering hallows, including this same cauldron, in Culhwch and Olwen, one of the Four Independent Native Tales recounted in The Mabinogion.
Ireland has its own tradition of sacred objects in the Hallows of Ireland, which include the stone of Fal (upon which kings were inaugurated), the spear of Lugh (or Llew), the sword of Nuadu, and the cauldron of Dagda. The Hallows tradition continues in Britain to this day through the regalia of the British monarchy, which includes The Sceptre of Equity and Mercy; the Swords of State; the Ampulla of Holy Oil; and the British Crown itself, which is representative of the ancient inaugural stone.
The Spear of Longinus, one of the other Grail Hallows, and the weapon with which the Grail King is wounded, is said to be the same spear with which the Roman centurion Longinus pierced Christ’s side on the cross, and has its prototype for Arthurian legend in the spear of Lugh, as well as the poisoned spear with which Bendigeifran (Bran the Blessed) was mortally wounded in the foot in the tale of Branwen Daughter of Llyr, one of the tales in The Four Branches of the Mabinogi in The Mabinogion. The cauldron of Dagda also plays a significant role in this tale of Branwen. Thus we have a magical healing vessel, a wounding spear, and one of our first known Fisher Kings appearing in the same story, all precursors to elements in the Grail legend as they are later presented in Arthurian tradition.
In The Wheel of Time, hallows objects in various forms - including vessels, spears, rods and wands, swords, a horn, a crown, and one stone in particular - all play significant roles. Rand al’Thor is certainly our most significant Fisher King representative; but as mentioned earlier in this essay, all male channellers are representative of chosen knight/champions whose health and effectiveness have been compromised, along with that of the land’s, as a result of the Dark One’s Dolorous counterstroke on Saidin. Grail questing knight/champions abound in The Wheel of Time as they do in Arthurian legend as well, and we shall take a look at some of the more significant of these individual characters later on.
The first significant hallows object we encounter in The Wheel of Time is that of the Eye of the World, an ancient sacred vessel holding a very large amount of pure, untainted Saidin, an object of truly profound and incalculable value. Our main protagonists embark on a dangerous Grail quest to achieve the Eye of the World, which also happens to be warded by a Grail guardian, the Green Man (who may also be a nod to that Green Knight with whom Sir Gawain has dealings in the famous tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see Nym and Green Man essay)). As with the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend, The Eye resides in a specific place but yet may appear anywhere, and is only truly obtainable at great need and only by those deemed worthy enough to find it. Rand al’Thor the Dragon Reborn, the Creator’s chosen champion, must do battle with one of the Dark One’s chosen champions, Aginor, over possession of this empowering object, a type of testing for worthiness which we see time and again in both Celtic and Arthurian tradition. Rand triumphs and achieves the Saidin, which in turn empowers him and provides him with a foretaste of his future redemption through its untainted purity. Corresponding to all this, the Dark One has caused the season of Winter to last far longer than natural, threatening the health and fertility of the land. But with Rand’s achievement of the Eye, the Dark One’s hold over the seasons is loosed and Spring finally takes hold. Thus Rand not only achieves his first hallows object, but is able to heal the land through its empowerment of him (The Eye of the World, Against the Shadow).
Another significant Grail vessel found in The Wheel of Time is The Bowl of the Winds. The Dark One is once again reaching out through his ever weakening prison to touch the world by affecting the weather and the seasons, more strongly this time, causing a very hot, dry Summer to linger well into Winter leaving the land withered and drought stricken. Once again a Grail quest is embarked upon, and once again the object of the quest is obtainable only through great need and only by those most worthy. The guardians of this Grail are the Kin, (note that the leader of the Kin in Ebou Dar, wanted to be Green Ajah, a nod to the Green Knight) and the primary questers for it are Nynaeve al’Meara and Elayne Trakand, who may be seen as both empowered representatives of the Goddess in Celtic tradition, and as empowered Grail Maiden representatives in Christian tradition. They are, however, invaluably aided by several knight/champions, the foremost of whom is Matrim Cauthon. Because Mat is the only one in the questing group sufficiently empowered to actually locate The Bowl (by virtue of his otherworldly gift of luck), he becomes the actual Grail achiever. Once again, however, our chosen champions must undergo a traditional testing by doing battle with the Dark One’s minions, with the requisite amount of sacrifice and loss, before they are finally triumphant in achieving this coveted hallows object (A Crown of Swords, Six Stories). The Bowl of the Winds is then used by a circle of thirteen “Grail Maidens” to correct the weather, bringing the land back into balance again, albeit more slowly this time (The Path of Daggers, The Breaking Storm).
In Arthurian tradition, a Grail Maiden is often seen accompanying the Holy Grail whenever it makes itself manifest, usually appearing as the bearer of the vessel. In the Preiddeu Annwfn of Celtic tradition, the cauldron of Diwrnach the Giant (also known as the Cauldron of Rebirth) is attended in Annwfn by nine maidens (or muses) who “kindle the cauldron by their breathing”. In The Dragon Reborn, Healing, Matrim Cauthon’s life is saved by another circle of empowered maidens, ten this time, who restore his physical health and redeem him spiritually from the evil of Shadar Logoth by performing something akin to an exorcism with the aide of a very powerful, very rare and sacred object known as a sa’angreal, a very obvious parallel for the Sangreal of Arthurian tradition. We are given a description of how the use of this object appears as follows:
Slowly the lights spread, until that which seemed to emanate from one woman touched that which came from the woman beside her, merged with it, till there was only one light, a light that, to Egwene’s eyes, diminished the lamps to nothing. And in that brightness was a stronger light still. A bar of bone-white fire. The sa’angreal.
- The Dragon Reborn, Healing
Compare this to a description of a manifestation of the Sangreal as seen through Sir Lancelot’s eyes:
And with that he saw the chamber door open, and there came out a great clearness, that the house was as bright as all the torches of the world had been there…Then looked he up in the midst of the chamber, and saw a table of silver, and the Holy Vessel…
- Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, Book XVII, Chapter XV
In The Wheel of Time, prior to Mat’s healing, we, along with Rand al’Thor, are given our first glimpse of one of the two most powerful sa’angreal ever conceived, the male Choedan Kal (the other being its consort the female Choedan Kal):
The huge ball seemed to glow white with the light of the sinking sun. It seemed to him that in the depths of the crystal, light swirled and danced in time to the song of saidin…He released the void … and it did not go. Saidin crooned, and the light in the sphere beat like a heart. Like his heart…the glorious blaze from the crystal.
- The Great Hunt, Saidin
As with so many Grail questers, Rand is given a tantalizing glimpse of this sought-after hallows object long before he is allowed to achieve it. When he finally does, his testing involves a battle with Asmodean, another of the Dark One’s “Chosen” champions, over the male Choedan Kal’s access key (The Shadow Rising, The Traps of Rhuidean). The battle takes place within the mysterious otherworldly city of Rhuidean (which we might imagine as the Castle Corbenic, or Carbonek in Malory, where the Holy Grail resided on earth and was guarded by the Fisher King; or perhaps with the city of Sarras where Sir Galahad actually achieves the Grail). The Celtic sovereignty theme of feminine and masculine partnership and balance comes into play when Rand is empowered by both the male and female Choedan Kal sa’angreal through a link with Nynaeve al’Meara. The female-attuned Choedan Kal is the Saidar vessel, along with Nynaeve, through which Rand channels Saidin, thus cleansing the male half of the True Source of the Dark One’s taint and providing all male channellers with the redemption they have longed for and sought after for three thousand years (Winter’s Heart, With the Choedan Kal). With the purification of Saidin, the stage is now set for male channellers to once again take their places as the preeminent guardian/champions of the Land in full partnership with their female counterparts.
In The Gathering Storm, Rand misuses this immensely powerful hallowed object while insane from the corruption from the evils in his side wound, and from his link to Moridin, and his use of the True Power and balefire. Finally he realises that the sa'angreal is too dangerous for mortals and destroys it.
One other vessel-type hallows object that we encounter in The Wheel of Time is the Horn of Valere, Matrim Cauthon’s first Grail achievement. Horns of plenty abound in mythology, but when they appear as actual sounding instruments, their blowing often initiates an event - such as the dispelling of the mists of enchantment in Gereint Son of Erbin, one of the Three Romances in The Mabinogion - or initiates a call to action as they do a time or two in the Arthurian stories and as they do in The Wheel of Time. When Mat blows the Horn of Valere, the legendary Heroes of the Horn come to its call, not dispelling a mist in this case but forming one with their coming (The Great Hunt, The Grave is no Bar to my Call). The Horn of Valere will most likely be blown again to call the Heroes of the Horn to battle, and the hornblower will again most likely be Mat, who is said to be tied to it himself now as its original achiever.
As for spears or lances, there are three such significant hallows objects which have so far appeared in The Wheel of Time. The foremost of these is Ishamael’s (Ba’alzamon’s) “long, black-charred staff”:
He struck with the staff, as with a spear. Rand screamed as he felt it pierce his side, burning like a white-hot poker. The void trembled, but he held on with the last of his strength, and drove the heron-mark blade into Ba’alzamon’s heart. Ba’alzamon screamed, and the dark behind him screamed. The world exploded in fire.
- The Great Hunt, The Grave is no Bar to my Call
This is clearly evocative of Arthur and Mordred’s final deadly encounter at the end of the Battle of Camlann (in Malory this battle takes places on Salisbury Plain), but we can also compare it with Sir Balin’s Dolorous Stroke of King Pellam:
And when Balin saw that spear, he gat it in his hand and turned him to King Pellam, and smote him passingly sore with that spear, that King Pellam fell down in a swoon, and therewith the castle roof and walls brake and fell to the earth, and Balin fell down so that he might not stir foot nor hand. And so the most part of the castle, that was fallen down through that dolorous stroke, lay upon Pellam and Balin three days.
- Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, Book II, Chapter XV
The side wound that Ishamael gives Rand, a wound that never fully heals, is also evocative of the side wound Christ received while on the cross. In fact, all too soon Rand receives another wound in the same place from yet another Mordred figure, Padan Fain. King Pellam’s (or Pellas’ ) unhealable wounds are given through the thighs (as attested to by Malory later on) but rendered according to Grail tradition by the same spear (that Spear of Longinus) that pierced Christ’s side. When Rand’s side wound breaks open, it drips blood, just as the Spear of Longinus is said to have dripped Christ’s blood, drops of which Sir Galahad takes on his fingers to anoint King Pellam’s wounds and thereby miraculously heal him (in some of the first Grail stories before Malory, Sir Perceval is the primary Grail quester; in Malory Sir Perceval is a secondary Grail quester along with Sir Bors, both of whom accompany Sir Galahad on the final stages of his Grail achievement). And of course we all know about that famous Wheel of Time prophecy regarding the Dragon shedding his blood on the rocks of Shayol Ghul. Thus Jordan not only characterizes Rand as a Fisher King, but also as a redemptive Christ-like figure who will act as the instrument of his own salvation and that of the world’s.
The second spear/lance hallows object we find in The Wheel of Time is Mat’s ashandarei. While the ashandarei has not played any real significant role yet, it is clearly an empowering otherworldly hallows object, bestowed upon our knight/champion Mat by those otherworldly beings known as the Eelfinn. It is a mysterious and intriguing object to say the least, particularly to Tuon Athaem Kore Paendrag, Daughter of the Nine Moons and designated empress-heir to the Seanchan throne, who herself is another of our Wheel of Time Goddess of Sovereignty representatives.
The third spear is Rand’s broken Seanchan spear, cut in two when Aviendha’s gateway to Seanchan snaps shut (The Fires of Heaven, A Short Spear). Rand carries it with him, almost like a sceptre at times, as a reminder of the Seanchan. Its parallel, as with Ishamael’s staff, is with the Grail Lance, said to have been broken in two and made whole again by Galahad (Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XVII, Chapter XIX).
As for hallows objects in the form of swords, in Arthurian tradition the two most prominent are the Grail sword (another of the Grail Hallows) and of course the legendary sword Excalibur.
The sword that Arthur draws from the stone, which he naïvely intends to give to his foster brother Sir Kay as a substitute for Sir Kay’s own sword, and the mighty sword Excalibur which the Lady of the Lake bestows upon Arthur are often conflated with each other in Arthurian stories. The sword that Arthur drew from the stone is in fact broken during a one-on-one battle with King Pellinore (Le Morte D’Arthur, Book I, Chapter XXIII). Merlin then takes Arthur to a lake (presumably the lake surrounding Avalon) where the unnamed Lady of the Lake bestows the sword Excalibur upon him, along with its magical empowering scabbard (which will prevent Arthur’s bleeding to death so long as he possesses it) in exchange for any gift that the Lady may ask of Arthur at some later time:
That is the Lady of the Lake, said Merlin; and within that lake is a rock, and therein is as fair a place as any on earth, and richly beseen; and this damosel will come to you anon, and then speak ye fair to her that she will give you that sword.
- Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, Book I, Chapter XXV
In The Wheel of Time, the crystal sword Callandor is clearly Excalibur’s parallel, derived from the Irish sword Caladbolg, which Geoffrey of Monmouth refers to as Caliburn. And just as Merlin urged Arthur towards Excalibur, so too does Moiraine, as both Merlin and Lady of the Lake, urge Rand towards Callandor:
You must take Callandor…it is your birthright. Better by far that you knew more before your hand held that hilt, yet you have come to the point now, and there is no further time for learning. Take it, Rand.”
- The Dragon Reborn, What is Written in Prophecy
Callandor is referred to in the Prophecies as the "blade of ruin" (Towers of Midnight, A Storm of Light) because of its flaws and is thus also linked with the blade of Sir Balin by which he delivered the Dolorous Stroke of Arthurian myth and laid waste to the Land. Its very value may lie not just in the strength of the Power it offers, but in its flaws which may assist Rand to defeat the Dark One and die doing so: it is both valuable and valueless at the same time. Similarly, Excalibur is less valuable than its scabbard, which protected Arthur from injury.
Callandor resides within the Stone of Tear at its heart, just as the sword which Arthur first draws resides within the heart of a stone, and just as Excalibur resides within a lake which surrounds the heartstone of Avalon. But as with Arthur, Callandor is not Rand’s first sword. The Wheel of Time parallel for Arthur’s first sword is the heron-marked blade of Tam al’Thor, Rand’s foster father:
He looked at the hoe handle, then dropped it. Instead he drew Tam’s sword. The blade gleamed duly in the pale moonlight. The long hilt felt odd in his hand; the weight and heft were strange. He slashed at the air a few times before stopping with a sigh. Slashing at air was easy.
- The Eye of the World, Winternight
Just as Arthur’s first sword was broken during his battle with King Pellinore, so is Rand’s first sword broken during his battle with Ishamael (The Eye of the World, What was Meant to be).
There is also another possible parallel to Excalibur in The Wheel of Time: King Laman’s sword. Aviendha is our Lady of the Lake figure here - or perhaps more appropriately our Lady of the Waste figure, or Queen of the Waste Lands in the Arthurian stories - who gifts Rand with this particular sword. But rather than expecting a gift in return for it, she is repaying a debt she believes exists between them:
Well, it is very beautiful…but I cannot let you….” He trailed off as he bared a few inches of the blade, out of habit, to examine the edge. Etched into the shining steel stood a heron, symbol of a blademaster. He had carried a sword marked like that once. Suddenly he was ready to bet that this blade was like it, like the raven-marked blade on Mat’s spear, metal made with Power that would never break and never need sharpening….Pulling the scabbard off, he leaned across the firepit to place it in front of her. “I will take the blade to cancel the debt, Aviendha.” It was long and slightly curved with a single edge. “Just the blade. You can have the hilt back, too.” He could have a new hilt and scabbard made in Cairhien.
- The Fires of Heaven, The Gift of a Blade
In the Arthurian stories, it is Excalibur’s scabbard that has the greater value, being an empowering object that will keep Arthur safe from mortal harm. Arthur at first values Excalibur’s blade more than its scabbard, until Merlin explains to him how much more precious the scabbard itself is. Even though the scabbard of Laman’s sword is so encrusted with precious gems that the gold beneath them is almost hidden, Rand immediately sees the greater empowering value in the Power-wrought blade and gives the scabbard back to Aviendha. In the medieval Arthurian stories, Morgan Le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, devises a scheme to take Excalibur and its scabbard from Arthur. Arthur recovers them, but Morgan manages to abscond with the empowering scabbard again, leaving Arthur vulnerable and thus creating the means by which Arthur eventually receives his mortal wound at the hands of Mordred (Le Morte D’Arthur, Book IV, Chapters VIII-XIV). Morgan is the Dark Woman or Loathly Lady here, the representative through which the Goddess sometimes destroys in order to clear the way for renewal and rebuilding.
In The Gathering Storm Rand was subjected to a period of great vulnerability as well, as evidenced by Perrin’s Wolf Dream wherein he sees Rand wearing rags and a rough cloak with a bandage covering his eyes (The Shadow Rising, To the Tower of Ghenjei). Also in The Eye of The World, Strangers and Friends, Min has a viewing of Rand involving a beggar’s staff. Rand was not bereft of power, but was bereft of any insight of how to use it wisely, and of his purpose in the Pattern. And as mentioned in an earlier section, there is Herid Fel’s cryptic note regarding belief and order giving strength, and the clearing of rubble to rebuild, with its corollary in Celtic tradition being the Goddess of Sovereignty who is both maker and breaker. Rand and the whole world with him were laid very low indeed before they were given the re-empowerment to rise again.
The final two hallows objects of particular significance in The Wheel of Time are the crown and the stone. These two are easy enough to identify. The crown is undoubtedly the Illian laurel crown, or crown of swords, the only crown that Rand ever deigns to wear. The stone is the Stone of Tear, a representation of the ancient inaugural stone, of which the crown itself is a symbol. As with Arthur when he pulls the sword from the stone, Rand’s taking of Callandor from the Stone of Tear empowers him with the right of sovereignty. Arthur spends a period of time after this doing battle with his naysayers in an effort to unite all of Britain under him. Rand does the same in an effort to unite the Westlands behind him. Rand further cements his right to sovereignty when he wins the crown of Illian after a traditional battle testing with Sammael, another of the Dark One’s chosen champions.
The Pendragon Men
Shortly before we end this essay and move into Part 2, where we’ll take a closer look at individual Arthurian character parallels, we’ll discuss, in their “historical” order, the Wheel of Time characters who exhibit aspects of the Pendragon men.
Artur Paendrag Tanreall
Arthur Pendragon has two aspects that are often treated separately in discussions of Arthurian tradition: That of the actual historical man; and that of the legendary mythical figure. Jordan has taken these two aspects and separated them into two distinct characters: Artur Paendrag Tanreall and Rand al’Thor (see Character Names A article).
While Artur Paendrag is a legendary figure in his own right in the present age of The Wheel of Time, he actually has more in common with the historical Arthur than he does the mythical one. The real Arthur (and debate continues over who he really was and if he actually existed) was most likely a 5th-6th century British-Romano chieftain or warlord who managed to unite some of the British tribes and little kingdoms under him in an effort to push back Pictish, Scottish and Saxon encroachments into the heart and westlands of the Island. He was apparently successful at this for a time, as there are written references to a period at the end of the 5th century during which the Britons won several battles and the Saxon advance was stopped.
The Wheel of Time world’s Artur Paendrag was also successful in pushing back (and eventually completely defeating) the ever encroaching forces of the Children of the Dragon (followers of the false dragon Guaire Amalasan), and thereafter in uniting the entirety of the Westlands under him as High King, a title also attributed to Arthur. In both cases, however, their kingdoms lasted only as long as their lives did. After their deaths, the kingdoms they had created went into decline and eventually collapsed.
Interestingly, Artur Paendrag’s father’s first name is given as Myrdin (The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, Chapter 11). Myrdin is almost identical to Myrrdin, which is the Welsh name for Merlin. In Arthurian tradition, Merlin was the Seer/Poet advisor to Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, and in turn became Arthur’s Seer/Poet advisor. Myrrdin/Merlin may also be where Jordan partially derived the name Moridin. Moridin certainly possesses the otherworldly-like aspects and skills of a powerful wizard like Merlin, albeit a very dark one. Further, it is strongly implied that Moridin (who was then known as Ishamael) may have in fact been Jalwin Moerad, closest advisor to Artur Paendrag during the last twenty years of his life (The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, Chapter 12). Artur’s son Luthair may also have been significantly influenced by Moerad/Moridin. At the very least, Moerad/Moridin was almost certainly the behind-the-scenes instigator of the massive overseas expedition to Seanchan led by Luthair (which Ishamael/Moridin hints at to Rand in The Eye of the World, The Stag and Lion).
Luthair Paendrag Mondwin
As mentioned above, in The Wheel of Time world, Luthair was Artur’s son. In Arthurian tradition, Uther was Arthur’s father and High King before him. Interestingly enough, Uther falls ill “of a great malady” and suffers from it for many days before he finally dies (Le Morte D’Arthur, Book I, Chapter IV). In The Wheel of Time, Luthair’s father Artur dies under similar circumstances (The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, Chapter 12). Luthair had embarked on the Seanchan expedition two years prior to this and was already engaged in building his own empire in Seanchan when his father died.
While The Wheel of Time world’s Seanchan empire has its most significant real world parallels in imperial China and to a lesser extent imperial Rome (the Seanchan invasion of the Westlands carries similar aspects to the Roman invasion of Britain for instance), the Seanchan carry some aspects in parallel with the Saxon invader-settlers of Britain as well. As Arthur came to understand with the Saxons, so Rand understands with the Seanchan that it is no longer possible to completely throw them back into the sea from whence they came. Thus Rand seeks a truce and peace with them in the hopes that they will be content, at least for a time, with their newly defined “Seanchan coast”, just as Arthur did with the Saxons and their Saxon coast. Rand also clearly hopes to ally the Seanchan with the other Westlands nations in a combined effort to fight against their real common enemy, the Shadow.
We have already discussed at some length the character of Rand al’Thor as The Wheel of Time world’s embodiment of the Arthurian’s Breton Hope, so in this section let’s take a look at a few of the more straightforward parallels between Rand and Arthur, as well as tie up a couple of conceptual loose ends.
Rand’s begetting and birth, just like Arthur’s, occurred under somewhat unusual and extraordinary circumstances (a traditional earmark of an archetypal hero by the way). Arthur’s father Uther conceived him under the guise of the Duke Gorlois, who was slain only hours before Uther lay with his wife Igraine (also spelled Igerna or Ygerna), Arthur’s mother and mother to his half-sisters (by Gorlois) Morgause, Elaine, and Morgan (Le Morte D’Arthur, Book I, Chapter 2). Rand’s mother Tigraine conceived Rand under the guise of a Maiden of the Spear after abandoning her life with her husband Taringail and young son Galadedrid. In both cases these guises were either created or brought about by Seer/Poet figures who had already prophesied their outcomes: In Arthur’s case the Seer/Poet Merlin; in Tigraine’s case the Seer/Poet Gitara Moroso. Both Rand and Arthur were taken for fostering almost literally at birth – in Rand’s case by the good graces of a passing soldier, Tam al’Thor; in Arthur’s case by the good graces of a soldier, Sir Ector, at the behest of Merlin. They were both raised in something akin to ignorant bucolic bliss, only learning their true identities shortly after entering manhood.
The significant women in Arthur’s life are also strongly paralleled in Rand’s, and we’ll take a look at them individually later on. As for Rand having three lady loves simultaneously, Jordan has stated that this was inspired by a life experience of his own (in his younger years, he had two lady loves simultaneously). But it seems that Rand’s threesome may also have been inspired by the belief that Arthur may actually have had three wives (although not concurrently), a tradition apparently stemming from The Welsh Triads, or Trioedd Ynys Prydein (a collection of sayings, structured in triadic form as a mnemonic aide to bards in their oral storytellings). In Triad 56 we have the following:
Arthur’s Three Great Queens:
Gwenhwyfar daughter of (Cywrd) Gwent,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of (Gwythyr) son of Greidiawl.
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran the Giant.
Of some interest also is Triad 57:
And the Three Mistresses were these:
Indeg daughter of Garwy the Tall,
and Garwen (“Fair Leg” ) daughter of Henin the Old,
and Gwyl (“Modest” ) daughter of Gendawd (“Big Chin” )
Triad 56 may simply be a mnemonic expression of the traditional triadic nature of the single Goddess of Sovereignty, whom Guinevere clearly represents, rather than any reality regarding Arthur actually having three different wives, all named Guinevere. The same is probably true for Triad 57. But nonetheless, we can’t help but wonder at Jordan’s inspiration for Rand’s triadic love interests. In The Wheel of Time, Guinevere herself is split into more than one character, most notably Egwene al’Vere and Elayne Trakand, and we’ll take a look at them a little later on in the second essay.
We’ve already discussed the significant hallows objects that Rand and Arthur hold in parallel, but there is also one particularly significant totemic symbol that is associated with both of them as well: The totemic symbol of the serpent, or dragon. Both Rand and Arthur’s great banners display an image of this “family” sigil in gold and scarlet. And Rand himself carries twin gold and scarlet dragons on his own person, indelibly tattooed in otherworldly fashion on his forearms, part of the inspiration for which may have come from The Dream of Rhonabwy, one of The Four Independent Native Tales in The Mabinogion:
Lo, he arising, and Arthur’s sword in his hand, and the image of two serpents on the sword in gold; and when the sword was drawn from its sheath as it were two flames of fire might be seen from the mouths of the serpents, and so exceeding dreadful was it that it was not easy for any to look thereon.
Dragons are spoken of again in another of The Four Independent Native Tales of The Mabinogion, Lludd and Llefelys. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain also speaks of dragons, specifically the red dragon as symbol of Britain’s sovereignty (which remains the national emblem of Wales to this day). Indeed Geoffrey of Monmouth believed that the name ‘Pendragon’ meant ‘a dragon’s head’, but ‘head dragon’ (chief warrior) is another possibility. (At right is a painting of two dragons, one red, one white, fighting while Arthur and Merlin look on). Both red and white dragons are spoken of by Taliesin and Merlin, and in fact the dragon, or serpent, is the sacred totemic beast of the Goddess of Sovereignty herself. And the colours red and white themselves are considered sacred. They are not only the sacred colours of Christ, representing his blood, water and body, but they are the sacred colours, along with black, of the Goddess of Sovereignty, corresponding roughly to her three aspects as Maiden, Mother and Crone.
It does not seem insignificant, therefore, that the second great sigil banner associated with Rand, The Banner of the Light, contains all three of these sacred colours, in the ancient black and white symbol of the Aes Sedai, cantered on a field of blood-red crimson. So in its totality, the banner becomes a sacred representation for the attainment of perfect balance and eternal redemption in The Wheel of Time tradition.
One last very significant parallel, alluded to in a previous section but not yet discussed, involves Nicola Treehill’s foretelling:
The lion sword, the dedicated spear, she who sees beyond. Three on the boat, and he who is dead yet lives. The great battle done, but the world not done with battle. The land divided by the return, and the guardians balance the servants. The future teeters on the edge of a blade.
- Lord of Chaos, Dreams and Nightmares
Compare this with Sir Bedivere, as he bears witness to Arthur’s departure from this world after the Battle of Camlann:
Now put me into the barge, said the king. And so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning; and so they set them down, and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And then the queen said: Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold. And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all those ladies go from him. Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst….thus was he led away in a ship wherein were three queens; that one was King Arthur’s sister, Queen Morgan le Fay; the other was the Queen of Northgalis; the third was the Queen of the Waste Lands. Also there was Nimue, the chief lady of the lake…
Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, Book XXI, Chapters V and VI
The “great battle” spoken of in Nicola’s foretelling may be an allusion to the Battle of Camlann. “The world not done with battle” is most probably an allusion to the continuing and escalating strife that occurs after Arthur’s passing. Bedivere’s cry to Arthur about leaving him alone among his enemies and Arthur’s reply that he must do as best he can echoes the division in the land and the need for balance in Nicola’s foretelling. The three queens do not seem to be precisely paralleled by Jordan - as is fitting - but are most likely Rand’s three lady loves: Aviendha (the dedicated spear, Queen of the Waste Lands), Elayne (the lion sword, Queen of Northgalis, or perhaps Gore) and Min (she who sees beyond, Queen of Gore, or perhaps Northgalis). Another contender for the third queen is the Aes Sedai queen Egwene, a seeress through the medium of dreams.
As for “he who is dead yet lives”, Sir Bedivere witnesses what appears to be Arthur’s transportation into the otherworldly realm of Avalon, an obvious parallel to Tar Valon in The Wheel of Time. However on the following day, Sir Bedivere goes to a hermitage and within a chapel there finds a hermit lamenting over a newly made tomb. The hermit says that at midnight “here came a number of ladies, and brought hither a dead corpse, and prayed me to bury him; and here they offered an hundred tapers, and they gave me an hundred besants” (Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI, Chapter VI). Bedivere then believes that the ladies must have been the queens he saw the day before, bringing King Arthur here, even though, significantly, the hermit cannot identify the corpse as Arthur’s. Min has a Viewing of three women standing over a funeral bier with Rand on it (The Eye of the World, Strangers and Friends). Malory indicates that Nimue (The Wheel of Time’s Nynaeve) was also among the women on the funeral barge. There are a couple of particularly significant foreshadowings involving Nynaeve, namely those indicating that she will bring back someone from the dead – or at least someone perceived to be dead.
So, with both Rand and Arthur, the question remains…
Written by MJJ Sedai, June 2005