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The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time
By Robert Jordan, Teresa Patterson
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1997 Bill Fawcett & Associates
All rights reserved.
The Wheel and the Pattern
"The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again." So begins each saga within the World of the Wheel, a universe in which the major controlling factor is the Wheel of Time and the Great Pattern it spins. A pattern in which light and dark, good and evil, male and female, and life and death struggle for balance within the weave of destiny.
What is the Wheel of Time? Imagine a great cosmic loom in the shape of a seven-spoked wheel, slowly spinning through eternity, weaving the fabric of the universe. The Wheel, put in place by the Creator, is time itself, ever turning and returning. The fabric it weaves is constructed from the threads of lives and events, interlaced into a design, the Great Pattern, which is the whole of existence and reality, past, present, and future.
Within the influence of this Lace of Ages are not only the earth and stone of the physical world, but other worlds and universes, other dimensions, other possibilities. The Wheel touches what might be, what might have been, and what is. It touches the world of dreams as well as the world of waking.
In this world there is no one beginning or one end, for each spoke of the great Wheel represents one of the seven Ages, receding into the past and returning in the future as the Wheel spins, the fabric of each age changing only its weave and pattern with each passing. With every pass the changes vary to an increasingly greater degree. For each Age there is a separate and unique pattern, the Pattern of the Age, which forms the substance of reality for that age. This design is predetermined by the Wheel and can only partially be changed by those lives which make up the threads within the weave.
No one knows the length of time it takes for a full turning of the Wheel, nor is there a set time for each Age. There is only the certainty that all will come around again, though surely long past the span encompassed by human memory, or even legend. Yet that knowledge provides the basis for the philosophy and history of the known world. No ending, even death, is necessarily final within the turning of the Wheel. Reincarnation is a part of the way of the world. Prophecies are believed and heeded, since they tell as much of what was as of what will be. The only questions are when and in what manner the prophecies will unfold.
In such a world change is simply a predetermined part of the mechanism. Only a few individuals, special souls known as ta'veren, can cause the fabric of the pattern to bend around them, changing the weave. These ta'veren are spun out as key threads around which all surrounding life-threads, perhaps in some cases all life-threads, weave to create change. These key threads often produce major variations in the Pattern of an Age. Such major changes are called, in the old tongue, ta'maral'ailen, or the "Web of Destiny."
Even the ta'veren and the Web of Destiny woven around them are bound by the Wheel and the Great Pattern; it is believed that the Wheel spins out ta'veren whenever the weave begins to drift away from the Pattern. The changes around them, while often drastic and unsettling for those who must live in the Age, are thought to be part of the Wheel's own correcting mechanism. The more change needed to bring the Great Pattern into balance, the more ta'veren spun out into the world.
The Great Wheel is the very heart of all time. But even the Wheel requires energy to maintain itself and its pattern. This energy comes from the True Source, from which the One Power may be drawn. Both the True Source and the One Power are made up of two conflicting yet complementary parts: saidin, the male half, and saidar, the female half. Working both together and against one another within the True Source, it is saidin and saidar which provide the driving force that turns the Wheel of Time.
The only known forces outside the Wheel and the Pattern are the Creator, who shaped the Wheel, the One Power that drives it — as well as the plan for the Great Pattern — and the Dark One, who was imprisoned outside the pattern by the Creator at the moment of creation. No one inside and of the Pattern can destroy the Wheel or change the destiny of the Great Pattern. Even those who are ta'veren can only alter, but not completely change, the weave. It is believed that if he escapes his prison, the Dark One, being a creature or force beyond creation, has the ability to remake the Wheel and all of creation in his own dark image. Thus each person, especially each of those born ta'veren, must struggle to achieve his or her own best destiny to assure the balance and continuation of the Great Pattern.
The One Power and the True Source
The True Source is made up of two complementary parts: saidin, the male half, and saidar, the female half. Each has separate properties and affinities, working at the same time with and against the other. Only women can touch saidar, and only men saidin. Each is completely unable to sense the other half of the Source, except as an absence or negativity. Even the methodologies by which men and women utilize the One Power that emanates from the True Source are so completely different that no woman can teach a man to use the power, and no man a woman.
In some Ages, such as that called the Age of Legends, men and women used the complementary and conflicting halves of the Power together to perform feats that neither could accomplish separately. In the present Age, part of the Power, the male half, has been tainted, causing any man who channels saidin to go mad eventually and cause Power-wrought havoc unless he is killed or gentled.
Most people cannot sense or touch the True Source, even though its energy may be manifested all around them. Only a tiny portion of the population, about two or three percent, actually have the ability, once taught, to touch and draw on the One Power, and today many of those cannot utilize its power in any effective manner. The act of drawing and controlling the flow of the One Power from the True Source is known as channeling.
Channeling draws on threads of the One Power and uses them singly or in combination in a weave designed to accomplish the particular task at hand. There are five different threads to the One Power, known as the Five Powers. They are named according to the elements their energies manipulate: Earth, Air (sometimes called Wind), Fire, Water, and Spirit. In many cases only one of the Powers is required to accomplish a task. A weave of Fire alone will light a candle or control a fire. But certain tasks necessitate the weaving of flows in more than one of the Five Powers. For instance, one who wishes to affect the weather must weave a flow combining Air, Water, and Spirit.
Anyone who can channel usually has a greater degree of strength with at least one or two of the Powers, yet they may lack any particular ability at all with some of the others. For example, someone strong in Wind may be all but unable to weave Fire, or may be weak in Earth but equally strong in Spirit and Air. Some few rare individuals have been found to be very strong in as many as three, or in very rare cases four, of the Powers. But since the Age of Legends no one has had great strength in all five. Even then, such individuals were very rare.
Levels of comparative strength also vary greatly from one individual wielder of the Power to another, and from men to women. Using records gathered from the Age of Legends (current data have little usable information concerning the use of saidin), it is possible to state certain facts about the strength and distribution of the ability in those men and women who could channel. In general, men were stronger in the use of the Power than women — that is, in the sheer volume of the Power they could handle — though there were certainly individual women who had great strength and individual men who were comparatively weak. By the same token, though some men had great dexterity in the weaving, in general women outstripped men in this regard. Men usually exhibited greater ability with Earth and Fire while women more often excelled in the use of Water and/or Air. Equal numbers of men and women were strong in the use of Spirit. There were, of course, exceptions, but they were rare enough that Earth and Fire came to be regarded as male powers, while Air and Water were considered female powers. Even today women usually exhibit their greatest strength in Air or Water, or both. This probably prompted the popular saying among female channelers: "There is no rock so strong that water and wind cannot wear it away, no fire so fierce that water cannot quench it or wind snuff it out." Any equivalent witticism among male channelers has been lost.
Of the tiny percentage of the population who have the potential to channel at all, only a small number have the ability inborn. It usually manifests itself in adolescence or early adulthood, though in general women show the ability at a younger age than men, often much younger. These few talented individuals will eventually channel the Power with or without guidance, whether or not they wish to do so. In many cases they are not even aware of what they are doing. For such people, touching and drawing on the True Source is completely natural, and potentially deadly.
As far as is known, the One Power is not alive, but is a force of natural energy limited only by the strength of the channeler and the extent of his/her control. One warning must be emphasized: its use is extremely addictive. One unwary of the danger inherent in channeling can easily be seduced into drawing more than he or she can handle, or drawing on it too often. Such mishandling of this power usually exacts a terrible price on the body and mind.
Drawing saidar and channeling it without benefit of guidance or training results in death for four out of five women born with the ability. This death often takes the form of a lingering sickness that saps the individual of her life energy. Those who first touch the power unintentionally generally feel nothing unusual at the time, but suffer a violent reaction as much as ten days later. This reaction seldom lasts for more than a few hours. Headaches, chills, fever, exhilaration, numbness, dizziness, and lack of coordination are only a few of the most usual symptoms, often occurring simultaneously or in quick succession. These effects return after each incident of touching the Source. Each time, reaction comes closer to the actual act of touching, until the two happen almost simultaneously. At this stage the visible reactions stop, but unless some sort of control has been learned, death becomes a certainty. Some women die within the year, some survive as long as five years, yet without the control that is almost impossible to learn without guidance, all die. Their final days are usually marked by violent convulsions and screams of agony. Once the last stages are entered, there is no known cure, even with the use of the One Power.
Those women, often called wilders, who do manage to survive and train themselves in the use of the Power usually develop a mental barrier, probably as a survival mechanism, that makes it difficult for them to reach their full potential. Some think that these blocks are partially caused by the social stigma often associated with the use of the Power, and by the unwillingness of the individual to consider or acknowledge the fact that she can channel. Such blocks can sometimes be broken, though not easily, with assistance from those who have proper training. If the barriers are broken, wilders are often among the most powerful of channelers. Many of those who have undergone the training in what is considered the proper sequence look down on the self-taught, using "wilder" as a derogatory term indicating the unpredictability of a wild talent and the savagery of a wild animal.
Even those with training risk much every time they channel. If a woman draws too much saidar, or draws saidar too often, she can be burned out or overloaded, losing her ability to channel, or, at worst, killing herself. If she weaves powers she cannot adequately control, she may cause her own death and damage those around her.
Before the time of the Breaking of the World, men faced much the same risks as women when born with the ability to channel. After the Bore was sealed, that changed. The Dark One, in the last moments of the battle, managed a final counterstroke that tainted the male half of the One Power. Since the Time of Madness that followed, no man has been able to channel saidin without eventually going completely and horribly insane. Even those who do manage to learn some control die from a slow wasting sickness that causes the sufferer to rot alive. In either case, the danger to those around the male channeler is great. Those men who manage to live long enough to go mad usually end up wielding the power of tainted saidin in horrible ways, often destroying everyone and everything around them. During the Breaking of the World it was such men who completely destroyed the world and known civilization. It is because of this danger that men are not only not encouraged to learn how to channel; those who do learn, or even try to, are hunted down and rendered harmless or killed.
In the Age of Legends, the process by which a man or woman was rendered incapable of channeling was called "severing," as in "being severed from the True Source." In the present day, the process is given a different name depending on whether it is done to a man or a woman.
The severing of a man from the True Source is now known as "gentling." He can still sense the Power, but is unable to touch saidin in any way. He is therefore harmless to those around him, or "gentled." If he is gentled soon enough, the madness and the wasting sickness are also arrested, though not cured, and death by insanity or rot is averted. Unfortunately most who are gentled lose the will to live when their connection to the True Source is severed. They fall into a deep depression and often commit suicide soon after if not forcibly prevented. Those who do not kill themselves usually die within a year or two anyway, for without the will to live the body eventually fails.
For women, the intentional removal of the ability to channel is called "stilling." If the ability is lost by accident the process is called being "burned out," though the term "stilling" is sometimes used for this also, a deplorable loss of precision in speech since the Old Tongue fell out of use. In any case, the results of being stilled or burned out are much the same. The stilled woman, like the man who has been gentled, is cut off from the True Source, always tantalized by the sense of saidar, yet unable to touch or channel it. The woman who is burned out can neither channel nor sense the Power. Stilling is usually done as punishment for a crime, while burnout occurs through overload or misuse of the power, or is the result of losing to an attack by a greater power while channeling. It is assumed that men are susceptible to burnout as well.
Like the men who have been gentled, women who have been stilled lose the will to survive. In fact, less is known about them than about gentled men, who are held prisoner until they die. Women who have been stilled or burned out usually flee as far as they can from women who retain the ability they have lost. Women who can channel rarely make any effort to find stilled or burned-out women; the claim is that they should not be taunted in their misery by the presence of women who remain whole, but it should be noted that women who can channel often become queasy, or even physically ill, at the mere thought of the fate suffered by those others, a fate they themselves could also face. It is believed that stilled women live only if they succeed in finding something to fill the void left by the absence of the One Power. Few manage to find a focus that powerful. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, Teresa Patterson. Copyright © 1997 Bill Fawcett & Associates. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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