Well it’s been over a month since I did one of these. I think we’re due for another while I finish up Rage of Dragons. Today we’re going to inspect the history infused into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series to see what lessons might be learned.
Considering we will be discussing historical figures and events with some implications on how they affect the plot, and the narrative as a whole, I will issue our usual warning: spoilers abound.
Eras and the Turning of the Wheel
At the center of the series is the concept that time is circular. Time is broken into Ages, and these Ages come and go so that history essentially is always repeating itself in some form or another.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.WoT book openings.
The history of WoT is set primarily on what happens in the last years of the Age of Legends, the time of the Breaking, and what follows the Breaking. Because it is not chronicled in extensive detail, the books alone do not provide a lot of information on most of the big events, but I will go through some of the most-covered ones below.
The Age of Legends
Little is chronicled in-world for the main characters to know. There are only a few characters who had been alive to see it, and through magical means, are now free to roam and wreak havoc again. The Age of Legends was a time of prosperity and world-peace. Impressive technological advancements, ones that seem to outdo even the real world’s, make for good living for everyone.
The Age of Legends encouraged scientific research, and in its last years, pursuing power has terrible hubris, because it allows the Dark One to once again have his influence on the world. He puts a taint in the men’s half of magical power (see: Building a Magic System (WoT Setting Study #2)), and as male channelers go mad, their madness wreaks devastation on the world. Continents disappear, new ones resurface. The human race very nearly doesn’t survive.
The Fall of Manetheren
Manetheren was one nation forged and founded just after the Breaking of the World, and they were a powerhouse against the forces of the Dark One. Manetheren had the strongest military of its time, and got the reputation for being a thorn in the Dark One’s foot. But when an overwhelming force was sent against Manetheren, they lost. They brought down the entire army with them in a legendary battle, but the nation did not recover.
Artur Hawkwing’s Empire
Artur Hawkwing was a legendary ruler from the recent past, his monuments broken but still visible. He is known for uniting the entire continent under his banner, and even pressing outward to the lands beyond what is known as the Westlands where most of the series takes place. Following his death, his Empire disintegrates, and the continent begins to look like what the readers are familiar with.
The Aiel War
The Aiel are a people who moved to the desert during the Breaking of the World. They do not fight in the traditional battle formations, but rather are well-known for guerilla fighting. The Aiel War began when King Laman of Cairhien destroys a gift the Aiel people had given the country a long time ago. The Aiel leave the desert Waste for en masse for the first time in a long time. The other kingdoms considered it an invasion, and many countries responded by sending troops to help repel them, but to no avail. The fighting only ended when King Laman paid the price for his error as he fell in battle.
Drawing Inspiration From Real Events
If you’re at a loss on what kinds of historical events to give your world, it’s not uncommon to draw from real history. George Martin is famous for incorporating the War of the Roses into the plot of A Song of Ice and Fire. Wheel of Time is no exception, either. The Breaking is reminiscent, conceptually, of Pangea, although of course the reshaping of the world happened much, much faster in the Breaking. And certainly Artur Hawkwing’s story mirrored that of Rome, or perhaps more accurately, Alexander the Great.
And, certainly, the farther back in time it was, the more unbelievable it can be. Time has a habit of distorting the truth. Manetheren seemingly lived up to its hype, but it’s impossible to know how universal its golden years were, whether the people actually living in the country at the time felt proud or simply weary. Since it’s not their story, the reader doesn’t really need to know. An author can make the likes of Manetheren into more than it might have ever been, and if it seems impossible given the story’s current climate, well, the reader will either chalk it up to time distortion or will believe the country had been in better times, then, more capable of the impossible.
Connecting Past to Present
One of the more impressive feats Jordan pulled in regards to today’s topic is that so many of the major events mentioned above seem like they should be isolated and separate from current events, but instead are tied inexplicably and deftly to the characters of the present. It’s not just about relevance, which is paramount when it comes to deciding what historical elements to include in the narrative.
Rand is Lews Therin reborn, and has access to his memories, if at a hefty cost. Thanks to that connection, he knows what happened just before the Breaking. He knows the Forsaken (the Dark One’s most powerful followers) the way Lews Therin did; that is to say, very well. Rand’s birth was at the tail end of the Aiel War, on the slopes of Dragonmount. His friend, Matrim, leads the Band of the Red Hand, borrowing the name from Manetheren’s history and beating odds that perhaps even Manetheren might have lost. In fact, thanks to his bargains, Mat knows firsthand a few of those key battles and can learn from the mistakes of Manetheren’s fallen generals.
Brevity and Longevity
As with all world-building, one of the fundamental questions is how deep one must dive for it to feel realistic without wasting time on information you’ll never end up using. Robert Jordan chose to go very deep, as deep as logistics and common sense would allow.
History holds a unique position in fantasy in that it is more complicated than creating a single nation or even a single language. An event that affects the entire world is not just the event. It is different things to different people that experienced it. And while Wheel of Time is a story about a boy whose destiny is to fight the Dark One, the narrative encompasses the complexities of a narrative with multiple viewpoints. Cultural misunderstandings, the wild nature of rumors, and so forth all contribute to a multi-faceted narrative. It’s only natural that there is some depth, some layers, to the history as well.
But to follow in Jordan’s footsteps is to make not only one history, but several, and most narratives won’t require knowing the many sides of the story. Instead, the lesson here should not be to consider the many facets of history in your setting. Rather, it should be to determine what kind of people will be telling the story, who they will interact with, and what access to information they all have. If the setting is a Roman-esque empire, then perhaps the history will be consolidated into one patriotic narrative. If the plot is a local narrative, then they might not know much history to begin with, except perhaps local history.
The reader is given access to so much of the past because Wheel of Time is not just a book about a boy fated to fight the Dark One. It is about an entire world faced with a possible end-all catastrophe, a world whose fate is tied to a madman trying his best to save the world. And for a while, Rand cares about different customs of different lands, cultures who have a different history than he, and advisors who have more access to the past than he could have ever hoped to know back home.
Why Tell About the Now?
It can be very easy to get swept away in your history, to find legendary figures that seem far more compelling than your current protagonist. It would have been a simple thing to make Wheel of Time about Lews Therin Telamon or Artur Hawkwing. If you’re excited to tell the reader about some legendary figure, it will probably rub off on them too, and from there, it is only a short step to them asking, “Why do I care about the protagonist? Why am I not reading about those people instead?”
Having a solid grasp on the question “why now?”–as in, why are the events of the plot taking place at this current moment, with these specific characters–will solidify the importance of the narrative in the world’s overall story arc. The reader will be watching some sort of history unfold, even if it’s not end-of-the-world type history. Above all, it’s imperative to remember that history is an element of world-building, not plot. However fun and interesting the history might be, take care that the past does not overshadow the present.