The Wheel of Time series is a vast and detailed world, based not on your traditional medieval European setting but rather drawing from a multitude of sources to make each country, even those most resembling the expected medieval England-esque setting, feel very much distinct. As a result, it would be impossible to do a single post on Wheel of Time.
The purpose of today’s post is to compare some of the less traditional governmental structures of the series to showcase avenues of creativity that an author can take as they begin to develop their own stories.
The blog post will not be discussing any plot developments, but if you consider in-depth setting information a spoiler and you have not yet finished the series, you may want to wait to read this post.
Leaving Medieval Europe Behind
The Wheel of Time is a series with a macro setting; that is, it is not relegated to a single part of the world, but rather to virtually the entirety of the known world. (One could even argue, a multiverse.) The nations involved each have their own way of ruling. There are monarchies, certainly, and quite a few of them, but because monarchal societies are considered overabundant in the fantasy genre, I’m going to take a look at three of the more interesting societies within the series that do not feature kings and queens.
I decided to compare the Atha’an Miere and the Aiel for this particular study, as neither of them are ruled as a monarchy (at least, not in the traditional sense). Additionally, both cultures are isolated from the rest of the world, one on water, one on sand, and this isolation allows them to remain separate and distinct from the other cultures of the series.
The Atha’an Miere: A Country of the Sea
As with many of the countries within the series, the Sea Folk are a matriarchal society; the women lead, and although the men are also given certain positions of rank, they are a step below the woman’s ranks. The Sea Folk live on the various islands of the Aryth Ocean and Sea of Storms, but as traders and sea-farers, they spend little time on land. Their command structure, as a result, mirrors that of the chain of command on a ship, even when it comes to the governmental structure.
It begins at the ground level with the many ships of the Sea Folk’s fleets. Each ship has a Sailmistress that serves as its captain, deciding where the ship travels and who can come aboard. With her is a Windfinder, also a woman, though it’s quite possible that the position has only fallen to women because Windfinders are channelers (people who can wield the WoT’s magic system) and male channelers are not trusted because they always go mad. The Windfinder is, in a way, the first mate, serving as the ship’s navigator. Lastly, there is the position of the Cargomaster, who is responsible for the ship’s trade and defense. They are often married to the Sailmistress, though the position is not gained through marriage but rather presumably chosen for the position as a captain might choose a member for his crew.
The Sailmistresses of a clan are the ones responsible for choosing their Wavemistress, who serves the same function as a lord over a region or a chieftain. Except, instead of being a head of a specific section of land, the Wavemistress is in charge of all Sailmistresses and all ships in her clan. Each clan has its own dry dock, of which the Wavemistress takes charge. Generally, when a Wavemistress is promoted, she takes her crew along with her; her Windfinder becomes her Windfinder advisor, her Cargomaster becomes her Swordmaster, and the other members of her crew take on whatever jobs are needed as well. It makes sense that, when one finds teammates that work well with one another, one would want to keep that tight-knit team together as they ascend into this new position.
The same principle applies for the “queen,” again not chosen by lineage but rather selected and promoted by the rest of the Wavemistresses. She brings with her the Swordmaster, who takes the title of Master of the Blades, and takes on the title of Mistress of the Ships. Her Windfinder holds the same title, but gains power over all other Windfinders by being the advisor to the Mistress of the Ships.
With how tightly-knit this makes each ship, it does leave the question of how well each crew is able to work with one another. If the Wavemistress is in charge of the welfare of all Sailmistresses in her clan, but she only hears her own Windfinder advisor, one might wonder how she ensures that she is taking care of all members of her clan. The same applies for the Mistress of the Ships, and whether it might be beneficial for a leader to have a few different advisors from a few different ships or a few different clans. Of course, even if something makes sense, it doesn’t mean that your fictional culture has to do that sensible thing. There’s certainly plenty of real-world examples where people and cultures do not do the smart thing, usually out of some sense of tradition or misinformation.
Aiel: People of the Waste
The Aiel have a complex societal structure that shares only a few elements of the Sea Folk structure of governance. Like the Sea Folk, there are multiple societies that make up the entire Aiel people. There are twelve clans. And, similar to the Atha’an Miere, there are even subdivisions to the clans. But whereas Sea Folk divide their clans into the number of ships that sail under that clan’s name, the Aiel have a limited (though unknown) number of “septs” that undoubtedly have more people populating them.
There are both clan and sept leaders. Neither position is hereditary. When a clan chief dies, any male member of the clan may request to go to Rhuidean, but it is the Wise Ones who must give permission. Within Rhuidean are several angreal, sa’angreal, and ter’angreal, but one specifically lays out the treacherous history of the Aiel, a history that many candidates do not survive once they learn of it. If they do, the ter’angreal marks them with the tattoo of a dragon on one arm, and they return as clan chief.
It seems unlikely that a sept chief also makes the journey to Rhuidean, but how they are chosen is never stated. Presumably, the Wise Ones either have direct say over it, or, if the clan chief makes the appointment, the Wise Ones at least lend their advice on who is best for the position. Wise Ones cannot command a clan chief, but they do hold a large amount of power, and it’s generally considered a very bad idea for a clan chief to disregard the advice of a Wise One.
To make things even more tangled, the Aiel warriors are also divided into twelve warrior societies, and they are not dependent on clan or sept. The Wheel of Time companion novel says that the warrior societies are instead organized by the tasks they excel at. Because any clan or sept can join any warrior society, when there is a blood feud between clans, the warrior societies of those clans often stay out of the conflict. Presumably, there are leaders of the warrior societies as well–Sulin commands the Far Dareis Mai–but whether they are chosen by ji, honor, or whether they are chosen by a person remains unclear. The warrior societies will find themselves housed at certain holds (settlements of the Aiel), and presumably their allegiance is to whoever leads that hold. As a result, although it is not made abundantly clear in the books, one must assume that the clan chief makes the battle plans and the warrior society leader takes control of the individual men and women in their ranks to see the job done.
Comparison: Dividing a Nation
Most fantasy countries take the traditional medieval European (as in, English or perhaps French) styles of governance. There is a king and lords and minor noble families, and everyone listens to the king’s commands while ruling their own section of land underneath those ordinances. Certainly, there are several examples of such countries within Wheel of Time itself; it is not above the monarchy regimes for its work.
However, what makes a fantasy setting vibrant is its culture, what connects the people to the setting. When the culture affects things such as how the very people are governed, it validates the rules of the world by establishing and strengthening those connections. That is why, even when the Aiel and Atha’an Miere cultures are not the most easy to explain, their very foundations lend credence and understanding for the reader.
That’s not to say both are perfect examples. Of the two, the Aiel’s governing structure makes the most sense for its people. There are several septs within each clan, likely to make it easier for the Aiel to tend to the needs of its people. Additionally, both the Aiel’s history and it roles in the prophecy encourage the warring nature, and that could even account for some of the cultural groupings that we see. The magic system plays a small role in choosing leaders, but in the case of the Wise Ones, not nearly as big a role as with the Aes Sedai. Most importantly, however, is the feel that every element (or at the very least, most) is bred from a reaction to their current situation and the harsh land they must survive upon.
The Sea Folk are on slightly more shaky ground. They are well-known to be sea-farers and traders, and as such, it makes sense that the life upon their ship should play such a central role. Yet when one sketches up an entire society based on one fundamental fact, it leaves certain logistics behind. They have their own land where they dock their ships, yet even the Mistress of the Ships is most likely found aboard her ship rather than in some settlement on land, and those who lose rank are said to begin again at the smallest, dingiest boat before working their way back up again. Who, then, works the fields and provides food for the sailors when they reach their docks? Who takes care of the young and old, and where do they live, if not the ships? I imagine fishing boats serve to feed some of the population, but it seems unlikely that they can survive on fish and fish alone. The Mistress of Ships supposedly rules all lands and ships that belongs to the Sea Folk, but who is in command if duty takes the Mistress of Ships away from port?
One does not necessarily need to determine every aspect of a culture for it to feel realistic to the reader. I think this goes without saying. And although this post isn’t meant to discuss culture specifically, it is intertwined with the way a collection of people are governed, enough so that you can’t really talk about one without the other. And you shouldn’t, either, as a story succeeds if and only if it is able to properly weave together the many elements of a narrative.
An individual needs three things to survive: food, water, and shelter. Society is the same, but on a major scale. The exact nature of keeping the Aiel people fed and hydrated in a land as unforgiving as the Waste is not made abundantly clear, but Jordan gives enough information to supply the reader–they live in holds, are insanely careful with their water, and also know what desert creatures are safe for consumption, on top of whatever livestock and desert-grown foods they already care for.
Lacking the information for these fundamentals may be what detracts from the flavor of the Sea Folk culture. The locations of power are determined by a single concept, life aboard ships, and thus cannot take into consideration other important aspects of livelihood. The Atha’an Miere do not play a pivotal role in the story; they are nowhere near as important as the Aiel. Still, they are a present force, most especially with books 7 & 8 (Crown of Swords, Path of Daggers).
Interacting with other climates besides the traditional forest and farmland often comes as a welcome relief, but to deviate from the expected requires a little more explanation for the reader. Whether it’s smaller settlements atop mountains or nomadic people in the deserts or ship-bound people sailing the oceans, if the basic understanding of farmwork and water gathering clashes with the setting, it would do well to consider how the fundamental needs might interact with a population. Once that is decided, one can then use that information to better decide how that might shift or dictate where power resides and how that power interacts with those beneath them.