If you’ve never heard of The Wheel of Time, you better prepare yourself. It’s regarded as one of the foundational fantasy series, written by Robert Jordan and later Brandon Sanderson (after Jordan’s death). There are fourteen books and a prequel, and most of them are mammoth-sized reads. The entire series racks up over four MILLION words. It’s also been picked up by Amazon as a show…sometime soon?
For those who don’t know, the books are about a group of people from a small village who are swept up into adventure and prophecy of either restoration or destruction of the world (it’s a toss-up really). This is High Fantasy with dozens of different societies of people, including magic users such as the Aes Sedai, who are a major focus in this article. Lost yet? Don’t worry.
If you’re wondering if you should read the books, yes. But I understand that they’re a lot and many people won’t have time. Instead, it’s the internet’s job to help you fill in the blanks. Which leads me to why I’m writing this.
This post is a response to the article “Four Sexist Themes In the Wheel of Time” by Oren Ashkenazi. When I first read his article, I was so frustrated at his explanations. Not only is he misinterpreting several aspects, but he also fails to look at the whole picture. In this post, I’ll examine each of his claims and explain why The Wheel of Time is absolutely relevant to today’s movements.
Also no spoilers past Book Four, promise!
While the magic in the books has its variations and complexities, it can be boiled down like this. There are two halves, a female half and a male half, where the female half is known to have better control over air and water and the male half is known to have better control over earth and fire.
The unique part about this system — and why this splitting of genders is so important — is that the system is broken. Years before the story starts, the balance between the two magics is broken by a powerful male magic user. The Breaking of the World makes male magic almost obsolete and out of control, while female magic becomes rigid and restrained. The entire series is about bringing back the balance of the world with another male magic user (Rand) backed by the female Aes Sedai. What? They want equality and unity? Crazy, right?
The magic of the Aes Sedai is split into genders because the system is based off the Chinese Philosophy of Yin Yang. You might notice the similarity between the two symbols. In this school of thought, neither light nor dark is male or female, but both have attributes of each other. They work together as complementary, contrary forces. Interdependent forces working in the world. When they are in balance, they work perfectly together.
But the system in the Wheel of Time is not in balance. While thousands of years ago men and women magic users worked together, now they are separated, fear each other, and hunt each other down. The separated rolls emphasize this.
As for the elemental separation, main characters such as Moiraine and Egwene constantly break this stereotype. Even when they think their magic won’t be as strong if they use the “male” elements, it always is. Interesting.
Which leads into my theory, what if they only think that their magic isn’t as strong in certain elements because that’s what they’ve been led to believe? Jordan writes from a limited character perspective that switches from chapter to chapter. We only know what the characters know, and they only know what their society has taught them.
If they live in a society where men and women are separated in some way, that’s what they’ll believe. The important aspect of this societal idea is that Jordan doesn’t write this separation as if it’s right or true. Instead he writes as if there’s hope on the horizon for change as all of his female characters break social constructs and prove that they aren’t limited by anything.
Women in The Wheel of Time are not less important. They are not weaker. The magic of the Aes Sedai may appear weaker than man magic only because it has been controlled through training. Men who have magic at this point in the books are often gentled (their magic is taken away) because of fear of the prophecy of the end of the world. They aren’t trained, and they have to hide their magic. But their magic becomes wild and uncontrolled, often driving them insane or killing them.
Wild magic will always be stronger, but strength doesn’t equal control.
The same thing would have happened to the women if they had not been trained, as Moiraine tells Egwene and Nynaeve at the beginning of the series. Because society’s balance has been broken, the men’s magic has become a wild force of nature rather than a scholarly source of magic. Think of it (crudely, I know) like two horses. One has been trained and tamed, the other is wild. Which one will be stronger and faster? The wild one, always.
However, Jordan breaks this “stereotype” again and again with characters like Nynaeve. She refuses to be trained, and therefore her magic is more powerful than almost everyone — including the main antagonists, the Forsaken.
Another point to make is that magic is driven by emotion. Both Nynaeve and Rand allow their emotions to drive their magic. While the traditional thought is that women must submit to their magic and men must take hold of it, that doesn’t seem to be the case for these two. Instead, Rand has to give in to his magic instead of fighting it off, and it almost feels like it’s poisoning him. Nynaeve has to seize her emotions to grab ahold of her magic, but it feels right to use it.
It’s almost as if what they’ve been taught isn’t their actual reality. It’s almost like they choose their reality. Each person’s experience is unique.
Women are not less important. They are the dominant force in this world. From the monarchy to the magic users, women are in control. What a concept right? It’s a concept that we can hardly understand in our own world. From the queen to the head of the Aes Sedai, Jordan shows how women in power are strong, level-headed people with amazing powers that rival any man.
Though the Aes Sedai are well known throughout the different cities in The Wheel of Time, they are often shrouded with mystery and fantasy. Much like the Trollocs, people only believe the stories they want to believe about the women. In many cases that means they think the Aes Sedai are dangerous or strange. A lot of people, both men and women, don’t trust the Aes Sedai because they are so secretive and mystical.
It’s not just the men who are afraid of the power of the Aes Sedai — it’s everyone. And it make sense. Wouldn’t you be afraid of someone who could shoot fire from their hands? I would. A lot of people are afraid of the Aes Sedai because of the ones who have hurt people (Red Sisters *cough cough*). Just like any powerful group, people see the Aes Sedai for the worst of their kind.
In a way, this is a powerful statement when Moiraine comes and shows that she is both powerful and kind. She helps and heals and still kicks butt on a daily basis. How’s that for breaking stereotypes?
There are plenty of other women in the book that have completely normal relationships with men. Most cities have a Wisdom, or healer, who is often a woman with a bit of magic in her blood. Everyone trusts her and goes to her for advice and healing.
There are also women councils in certain towns who help decide what’s best for their village. Together they work with the mayor (a male in Two Rivers) and lead their town together. It’s almost like…a small reflection of what the Aes Sedai could be if the balance was restored.
Oh boy. Here we go. In the article, Ashkenazi seems to be suggesting that the Aes Sedai don’t get married because all the men in the world are too intimidated by them and because a majority of them are Lesbians. What my friend here fails to see is that one, that’s a generalization. And two, there are whole sects of Aes Sedai who love men and have relationships with them.
Let’s look at the different Aes Sedai. There are many, and they all feel different ways about their magic and men. For the most part, they group in different colors that are similar to their way of thinking. For example, you have the Reds, who generally believe that men are evil or shouldn’t be trusted. And you also have the Greens who have multiple Warders (male) and often marry their Warders. It’s almost like the colors are different because…people are different.
Another point about the Reds is that most of them — if not all of them — are evil and trying to find the male magic user (the Dragon Reborn) who threatens to destroy or reunite them all. Or both. They act out against men because they are the bad guys. We shouldn’t like them or trust them. Jordan isn’t making it seem like the Reds are the ideal Aes Sedai. In fact, his main characters Egwene and Elayne talk about wanting to be Green because they want to still have relationships with men.
The Aes Sedai live in a world where they are secluded from most of society and people in that society generally don’t trust them. At what point are they supposed to have time to date anyways? There’s a war going on!
Jordan’s main cast of men are also not afraid to have relationships with powerful women. Perrin is both intimidated and absolutely in love with Faile, a strong and able-bodied fighter. Rand loves the princess Elayne, even though she’s training to be an Aes Sedai, and he’s not sure if it will work out. All of the main characters choose to love each other over fearing what powers may try to separate them.
While this article primarily focuses on Aes Sedai, there are so many other groups of people and individual characters who break these generalized sexist themes. Faile, a female of royalty, is both feminine and kicks butt in a fight. The Aiel women are completely equal to the males, and they fight alongside them in battles. The Sea Folk women have kept their magic a secret, and it’s more powerful than some of the Aes Sedai had ever seen.
Jordan’s world is complex and vast. Of course some of the societies of people will have stereotypes embedded in their culture, otherwise it wouldn’t be a realistic world. It would be a Utopia. The important thing is that the main characters tear through each expectation and standard. They continue to prove that men can be emotional (Perrin, Rand, even stoic Lan!) and that women can be warriors (uh…all of them?).
Jordan’s books show that just because a society is broken, doesn’t mean we have to stand by or believe what others think. We each choose our own destiny.
As a woman, I love reading these books. I feel empowered to have such strong female and male characters to read about, and I hope that others can feel that way too.
What do you think? Is Jordan’s series sexist? Which characters are your favorites or least favorites?