The Eye of the World Review (6)

This is the sixth installment of my review of the late Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, book 1 of the Wheel of Time series. I’d like to draw your attention to the important caveats I made in part one discussing my perspective, bias and limitations and also my respect for the author.

Catch up on the previous installments: the prologue (part 1), looked at the hook, characters and world-building (part 2), describing characters and authentic in-world dialogue (part 3,), an addendum, character perspectives and how to teach reader’s about the fantasy-world (part 4) and the role and character of Thom Merrilin (part 5).

In this sixth installment we look at the Origin Story of the main character Rand, as it unfolds in chapter 5.

As a brief recap the story so far is that there are a mysterious, ominous visitor hanging around town – a black cloaked man riding a horse who has all the young lads on edge. Tam takes Rand back to the farm, unwilling to let the farm remain unprotected with strangers lurking about.

The Hidden Dangers of Living Alone

Jordan writes that Tam and Rand were considered unusual because the two of them lived alone, instead of the social norm of a house filled with wider relatives. It could be because they had no other relatives, but I imagine Jordan’s foresight is at work in this.

Later in the series we see Rand becoming increasingly isolated; keeping his own council, bearing the fate of the world on his own shoulders, alone. His friends and companions are all trying to get him to open up, but he is firmly resisting. Could it be that Rand is more inclined to be independent because of his isolated upbringing, more so than someone else who grew up with a ‘wider team’ mentality? Did those early years of ‘getting by’ build a foundation of self-determination, independence and mental isolation?

How Relaxing to Farm the Land

The way Jordan describes the farm chores lend authenticity to his writing, and experience to Rand. Rand takes care of the pony, checks in on the sheep, cow and chickens, hoes the vegetable garden and splits a veritable mountain of wood. It is a significant chunk of text, but it shows the passage of time and reinforces Rand’s work ethic and competency that we saw earlier in the book. The reader is left with the picture that this is a life in which he is comfortable: queue the dramatic change. In fact, in all of Rand’s ‘farming’ and the ideal setting of preparing a meal before bed we almost lose sight of the danger lurking beyond the horizon.

Here, it was possible to forget the chill beyond the walls. There was no false Dragon here. No wars or Aes Sedai. No men in black cloaks.

(I actually think the dramatic impact unfolding would have been greater without that line, drawing the reader back to the danger).

Tam al’Thor, A Mystery

We also see that there is more to Tam al’Thor than a simple sheep herder. Not only does he have weird ‘envision the void’ tricks that enable him to win archery contests, but he also has some skills and wisdom beyond that of shearing sheep.

When he [Tam] had made a complete circuit of the house, he did the same around the barn and the sheep pen, still studying the ground. He even checked the smokehouse and the curing shed. Drawing a bucket of water from the well, he filled a cupped hand, sniffed the water, and gingerly touched it with the tip of his tongue. Abruptly he barked a laugh, then drank it down in a quick gulp.

How does Tam know to do this? What does he know or suspect more than the reader? Why is Tam later extravagant with the use of numerous candles? Why does he uncharacteristically (and against the social norm) bolt the doors? Why does he pull out a sword from storage? Why does he have a sword?

Throughout the chapter Tam is acting stranger, the sense of doom is escalating in the reader. Note the order in which he does these things, all are escalations. Had Tam immediately retrieved the sword upon getting home, we would not had the slower buildup of tension. Tam fetching the sword is the climax of anticipation.

Rand nodded and got the tea canister, but he wanted to know everything. Why would Tam have bought a sword? He could not imagine. And where had Tam come by it? How far away? No one ever left the Two Rivers; or very few, at least. He had always vaguely supposed his father must have gone outside—his mother had been an outlander—but a sword … ? He had a lot of questions to ask once they had settled at the table.

Note that Rand was filled with questions to ask Tam… and before a single question could be asked BOOM! they are attacked. These questions that the reader now wants answered have to be delayed until the action subsides. ‘You want the answers…read on’ I envision Jordan laughing with maniacal enthusiasm.

When Monsters Come Knocking

The intruders break in to the small house and we discover they are Trollocs, a corrupt human-animal blend, a twisted creation. Reading it, I realise that violence against monsters is more palatable than if it had been men at the other end of Tam’s sword. Perhaps this reaches back to childhood fears that monsters should be slain, or abstracts out the nature of violence and death.

Note how Rand performs in the ensuing attack: he flees when told to do so (feeling guilty), he manages to yell a warning to Tam, he grappled (mistakenly, in the dark) with a hoe handle, yelled another warning (but nearly giving away his position), he fled and hid (as told to do), scared. And when he later was confronted by a Trolloc, the Trolloc virtually jumped onto Tam’s sword. Rand killed him, but more by fluke than skill.

Rand was neither brave nor craven, competent nor incompetent. He did what he was told to do, but recognised his own mistakes along the way. He behaved exactly like we would expect a responsible teenager to act. If Jordan hadn’t been as skillful he could have made him appear either ridiculously heroic or pathetically weak. Instead Jordan achieved a masterful balance.

Some Trollocs can hear like a dog. Maybe better. […] A Trolloc can see better than a man in the dark, but bright lights blind them, for a time at least. Some can track by scent or sound…

So how do you defeat such as enemy when your outnumbered, lacking weaponry and armour and your enemy is stronger, with more innate abilities?

but they’re said to be lazy.

This is a good reminder to me as a writer. Often I feel as though I impose “hard” limits on the capabilities of characters. In the magic system in When Nightmares Wake it uses a manna like system where spells cost energy, and at the other end of the realism spectrum in The Captive the character is limited by their understanding. These are limits which are beyond the control of the character. However something like laziness is an excellent self-imposed weakness. Certainly it’s something most reader’s can relate to.

Further, Trollocs are described as,

they cannot be trusted unless they’re afraid of you, and then not far.

Again, what a brilliant archetype for henchmen. Again, the boring version of henchmen is an underling who is loyal due to love, ideology or because of a third-party hostage. (Guilty as charged on that one too, I’m afraid). By making the henchmen untrustworthy, it’s a 50/50 bet if they’ll follow an order or eat their commander. Delicious! 🙂

Summary

Jordan does a marvelous job in painting an idealistic picture of Rand’s life. He continues to build on the solid character of Rand, without compromising his adolescent characteristics. It turns up the tension with the attack and the unanswered questions about Tam.

Writing Gems:

  • [Name] shameless borrower that he was, was still not likely to leave his house by dark
  • As careful as a mouse exploring a hawk’s nest
  • As silently as another shadow, he slid into the darkness
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