Spoilers for The Wheel of Time (books series and upcoming television series) and Dune (pan-media franchise).
N.B. In this article, I will be using various potentially contentious words, including sexism and sexist, in a general, even colloquial, sense, rather than the highly technical and narrow senses used in certain academic disciplines.
That should probably give you a good indicator of what to expect below.
Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (TWoT) is described either as a fantasy epic or as a bit of a mess, and sometimes both at once. Set in another universe, which at at least one point was supposed to be a version of Earth, a complex system of reincarnation and recapitulation keeps cosmic forces locked in an eternal and repeating struggle. The first book begins the story as something of a love-letter to The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkein’s influence on Jordan’s imagination is felt throughout the series. Although he does not have the same level of literary skill as Tolkein – the Christological imagery is clumsy to the point of excruciating cringiness at times, and several sections stretch out into painful tedium – there are still some very effective devices scattered throughout the books, including moving scenes, amusing moments, startling revelations, and all that. It has been a long time since I read the series, and although I cannot remember the details, I remember thinking that certain points were being set up to be deconstructed in the finale, and then they were not, but I still finished the series. So, in what follows, allow me to make it clear that my criticism is not that Jordan was lacking in either imagination or skill. That said…
The problems with the world-building in TWoT are well-known and acknowledged by fans and critics alike. The unrealistic geographic and linguistic spread in the unnamed continent which hosts most of the action – called Randland after the chief protagonist by fans – are just two of the issues discussed at length on the Web. Personally, I do not think there is a great problem with these as such, given that they often assume that the physics and social forces of TWoT must correspond to our own which, as we discussed recently, need not be the case in fantasy. However, it would have been good to have had some sort of in-universe explanation. Ideally one beyond ‘a wizard did it’.
The Children of the Light are another example of a fantasy religion which actually does not seem to have any religious beliefs and exists solely to oppress a magic-working class, although how they are able to get away with it in this universe, if not their philosophy or mass appeal, is at least somewhat justified (the wizards are few in number, weak, and the largest groups have taboos or prohibitions against using their powers to harm). This contrasts with the Ajahs, which have at least a veneer of differing schools of philosophy about them which even managed to be compelling at times.
All that said, the problem at the core of TWoT is not the geography or linguistic weirdness, or even the mono-dimensional attempt at fantasy religion, but strangely something tied to the series’ biggest draw. The flaw is the magic behind the magic system.
On the surface of it, the magic system is quite eye-catching: the four Classical elements of air, earth, fire, and water, along with the element of spirit, are the constituent parts of the One Power, the metaphysical force which keeps the eponymous Wheel of Time turning. There are some other, less important magical systems involved, but they are neither especially fleshed out, not especially important, so I will not go into further detail except to say that having competing magical systems whose interactions are insufficiently explained is counter-productive to a series which devotes so much time and energy to discussing the mechanics of an otherwise moderately hard magical system.
All of this leads me to the point that TWoT is sexist, and it justifies its sexism with magic.
The metaphysics of TWoT are essentialist. That is, things simply are certain ways, or are comprised of intrinsic qualities. Men are predisposed towards certain things and women towards others because of supernatural forces. Likewise, these same supernatural forces are by turns more easily manipulated by men – in the case of fire and earth – or women – in the case of water and air. This is an underlying property of the universe, which is always present, if not entirely deterministic. There are women with a a gift for manipulating earth or fire, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Insofar as it goes, this is not necessarily a problem, although some readers may disagree. Similar ideas can be found in most real-world religions, some philosophies, and generally held cultural beliefs: in much of Western Europe, for example, it is fairly typical for a person to maintain simultaneously that an action cannot be considered morally wrong as long as said action does not hurt anyone other than the actor (e.g. drug use), and also that certain actions are simply and always (i.e. essentially) morally wrong, regardless of circumstance (e.g. the secret taking of certain kinds of photographs for sexual gratification, even if no-one ever discovers the deed). Likewise, even those who have strong ideological objections to an essentialist understanding will employ a form of essentialist language upon occasion to make a rhetorical point.
Whether formalized or not – and whether true or justified or not – essentialism is a large part of humanity’s understanding of the universe.
The problem with the essentialist nature of TWoT, however, is that it describes as essential to men and women deeply unpleasant and stereotypical behaviours. It is, for example, not only a universal truth in TWoT that all women are manipulative, flighty, irrational, sharp-tongued, moody and unable to make up their minds, but also that is just how they are because that is how the Creator made them. To add insult to injury, some of the more prominent vices of men – inattentiveness, insensitivity and the like – are framed as much more innocent and affable and, to top it all off, male Aes’Sedai (wizards) are, as a rule, just stronger than their female counterparts. So, even if I wanted to argue that TWoT is sexist in its attitudes to both men and women, it is clear that the essential nature of womanhood as portrayed in TWoT is much more problematic,* not only in its conception to the writer, but for the odious subtext which would be apparent to any but the most
innocent male inattentive readers.
*Yes, men who channel eventually rot and go mad, but that is the action of Shai’tan (i.e. Satan
in all but name) and so is not intrinsic to creation, so said insanity is not comparable with the sexist tropes at play.
The result is that much of the relationship “drama” that comes about is a metaphysically-enforced inability for anyone to spit out or think about what they really mean; mind-bogglingly juvenile behaviour of almost everyone towards everyone and everything else; much female nudity; a constant dynamic of people trying to control, rather than equitably relate to, their peers; and a bizarre and ritualized dynamic to all relationships in which men run almost everything BUT! the book is quick to point out WOMEN HAVE LOTS OF POWER REALLY, LOOK AT HOW THEY PULL THE STRINGS BEHIND THE SCENES, THOSE TREACHEROUS WENCHES! SEE? NOT SEXIST! AND ANYWAY THEY LIKE BEING TOUCHED BY STRANGERS WHILST AT WORK!. This dynamic extends into romantic relationships, in which the resolution of disputes often resolves around men spanking women to teach them how to behave – except for those occasions when a man is raped by his female captors – and as a stereotypically repressed Briton, I really do not want to think about what that says about the author.
Actually, come to think of it, despite how hormonal all the male protagonists and female
set-dressing minor characters seem to be, there is, in many ways, a mysterious lack of sex, magical foursomes aside.
It all becomes extra-confusing later in the series, when the male Forsaken Balthamel is reincarnated as a woman. His soul is still clearly metaphysically male, for he still channels the male side of the One Power, yet he unconsciously (that is, without intention) acquires behaviours associated with women, which seems to suggest that these differences are at least partly socialized or embodied (i.e. biological), even though every opportunity is taken to suggest otherwise, often with much tugging of braids/staring awkwardly into space and uttering ‘Men!’/’Women!’ (delete as appropriate).
This is one of the two twists that I was expecting: that in the finale, the barrier between the male and female sides of the One Power would be shattered, and the metaphysical shackles causing people to act in such stupid ways would be undone, thus vindicating Jordan’s narrative. The other was some exciting revelation about Shai’tan and the Creator being one and the same. Again, I was disappointed.
Turning the Tables
Could this have worked, then, if my expected twist had come to pass? Could an author less interested in braid-tugging and spanking have made this theme work?
Maybe. Probably not in the current climate, though. Wizards of the Coast recently announced that it was largely doing away with “evil races” as an idea. Laudable in theory, perhaps, but rather clumsily executed, given that over five editions the writers have repeatedly demonstrated that they are not entirely sure what evil is. Nevertheless, a growing awareness that, in the real world, people’s behaviours cannot be encapsulated by clumsy essentialist characterizations make a more nuanced take on TWoT‘s themes an unlikely and difficult prospect. Even if the sum of humanity’s virtues and vices were somehow evenly parceled out between men and women like the elements they channel, it would still look suspiciously like the old men are logical, women are emotional chestnut with extra steps.
The would-be world-builder, therefore, has many pitfalls to beware. Firstly, if creating an essentialist universe, the themes which are going to be covered must be considered very carefully indeed. It is one thing to say ‘only women can use this kind of magic’; it is quite another thing to say ‘because of this magic, women are incapable of the following behaviours’. The former could well be interesting, regardless of what themes are developed, if any; the latter is probably destined to be perceived as insulting and degrading unless it is very cleverly subverted.
Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, vests quasi-magical powers in the Bene Gesserit, an all-female order which both works towards and fears the time when a male Bene Gesserit will exist. Working on a theory of genetic memory, the powers of the Kwisatz Haderach are in some sense essentialist, yes, but chromosomal in origin and do not in themselves determine his behaviour. Thus, Paul Atreides does not behave a certain way because he is magically compelled to by the boundary conditions of the universe: rather, he is raised in a certain way – and encouraged to exhibit specific virtues – which allow him to fulfill his potential. The problems of prescience aside, no-one in the Dune series is compelled to act in a certain way simply because of what one is: characters retain agency, or lose it to social forces, and the questions of determinism are explicitly addressed in the text as Paul contemplates the powerless onward trudge through time which his prescience forbids him to escape.
Readers may note that Dune‘s “magic” is rather less metaphysical than TWoT‘s, and that is true. As far as I can see, a metaphysically imposed set of behaviours is rather harder to justify than many other sources of behaviour, but there is a good example which we can set before us.
Tolkein’s orcs are always evil. Their evil is not one conflated with the racist tropes with which Wizards of the Coast has associated them (although Tolkein’s (alleged) racism emerged in other ways in his treatment of them). They exist as a constant threat to harry the heroes, faceless and nameless monsters. Their behaviours have been metaphysically determined. So why am I arguing that Tolkein’s essentialism is good but Jordan’s is bad?
It comes down to legwork, in the end. For Tolkein, good and evil are real forces with real consequences for the world. The fate of the orcs – once elves, or the creations of profane sorcery – is a tragedy, not played for laughs or melodrama. Depending upon which set of orcs and which of the various ætiologies one might be considering, the orcs of Frodo’s journey can be compared to children whose parents were victims of a chemical attack; the victims of prolonged psychological torture; or fleshy automata with limited, if any, free will. For Jordan, the boundary conditions of the universe lead inevitably to insultingly stereotyped behaviour. For Tolkein, an act of deliberate malice leads inexorably to a proliferation of that same malice.** For Jordan, psychological abusiveness is intrinsic to womanhood, and clueless insensitivity is intrinsic to manhood: for Tolkein, how orcs are is not how they ever had to be, and even this great evil can be put right.
Jordan’s epic tale is a love letter to Tolkein that does not manage to articulate what was so great about Tolkein. It is in places ham-fisted, tone-deaf, and extraordinarily patronizing, especially to women (as far as I can tell, as a man, reading the reactions of other people). Yet, the powerful description of alien landscapes, the unusual take on glory faded as a framing device, and the distinctive magic system show what kind of imagination is required to establish and write engagingly about a mythic cycle. The Wheel of Time is far from the quality of The Lord of the Rings, but, thanks to Jordan – and the wealth of feeling (positive and negative) which his work has generated – with the next turn of the wheel, what golden age of epic fantasy may yet come again?
** This is a very quick gloss on a complex argument amongst Tolkein scholars. I may go into more depth another time.