(Spoiler Alert: For those who care.)
In fantasy literature, the writer’s definition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ can often make or break a story. Just as a plot needs compelling characters and setting, a writer needs a philosophy that resonates with the reader, and provides a greater truth about the world. “Good” requires more than white robes and harpsichords; radical ‘evil’ needs a greater purpose than simply to destroy.
A while ago I reviewed Robert Jordan’s (and Brandon Sanderson’s*) A Memory Of Light, the last book in the legendary and lengthy The Wheel Of Time series. It is the book which encompasses the last battle (a standard trope in fantasy) and the protagonist’s final confrontation with ‘Shiatan’ (the name of Satan in the Quran). It is the book which finally brings together all the disparate threads of Jordan’s plot into one convoluted tangle of conclusions, a tangle that presumes much about the philosophy of the reader.
Frankly, A Memory Of Light rang hollow to me. Now there are a number of reasons for my disappointment and I’m not going to reiterate all of them. Instead I’m going to discuss one of the central ideas of the series and compare it to (surprise) a similar discussion of evil in The Silmarillion. Perhaps it’s just my Judeo-Christian worldview, but Tolkien’s description of evil speaks to me in a way which Jordan’s never has.
Jordan is, first and foremost, an advocate of dualism. The first chapter of every book begins with a poetic description of the Wheel that spins time in eternal cycles, of which there is no ultimate ‘Beginning’ and no ‘End’. From his constant references to the Wheel (eg. The title of the series.) to his incorporation of the Yin-Yang symbol in the heraldry of the Aes-Sedai, Jordan constructs a clearly dualistic world for his characters to inhabit. Evil wishes to corrupt and destroy the pattern of events woven by the Wheel and therefore is a deserving villain, but the absence of a cosmogony or “Fall” account implies a world in which “Evil” is a necessary component.
“There are neither beginnings or endings, to the turning of the Wheel of Time.” Jordan repeats in the first chapter of every book in the series, “But it was a beginning.” (75)
Evil, or Sightblinder, Heartsbane, Shai’tan, or Lighteater, thus inhabits a curious dichotomy within Jordan’s work. On one hand, the Dark One is the ultimate antagonist of the series, for whom victory would mean the permanent destruction of the Wheel. On the other hand, evil is a necessary part of the Wheel. Destroying Shai’tan also destroys the Wheel, as Jordan’s protagonist (Rand Al’Thor) suddenly ‘discovers’ in the final pages of A Memory Of Light.
In the depths of the mountain of Shayol Ghul (Jordan’s Orodruin), Rand does battle with the Dark One in a metaphysical realm consisting only of the creative constructions of the two combatants. The Dark One shows Rand a world without light, Rand shows Shai’tan a world without dark. Both constructions are profoundly flawed.
In an epiphany that is perhaps the most disappointing moment in the series, Rand realizes “the vision [he] himself had created—the one without the Dark One—was truth. If he did as he wished, he would leave men no better than the Dark one himself….He understood finally, that the Dark One was not the enemy. It never had been.” (890-891)
In some ways, this passage is Jordan’s version of a bait-and-switch, although it is also a necessary (and obvious) conclusion to the series considering the dualistic structure of Jordan’s world. If time is a Wheel, and each and every action must be repeated endlessly, then the Dark One must never be truly destroyed. And yet the way Jordan refers to Shai’tan (as one outside of time, untouched by the Pattern), constantly suggests that evil is an alien encroachment into the Pattern, and needs to be eradicated.
By comparison Tolkien’s The Silmarillion includes a very clear cosmogony that begins with an eternal and righteous God (Eru). Evil is a later addition to creation, and one that is not codependent with God, nor essential to reality. Melkor (later Morgoth) is a ‘fallen’ being capable only of imitation and mockery of the divine; he does not inhabit an equal place with Eru in the supernatural hierarchy.
In my opinion, there are two archetypal evils in The Silmarillion**: the originator of the ‘fall’, Melkor, and the embodiment of lust, Ungoliant.
Of Melkor’s ‘fall’ Tolkien says the following: “From splendor he fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless. Understanding he turned to subtlety in perverting to his own will all that he would use, until he became a liar without shame. He began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness.”(31).
Here we see that the same titles could be applied to Melkor that are given by Jordan to Shai’tan. Father of Lies, Lord of the Dark, Leafblighter, Shepherd of the Night, Soulburner, that are all perfect descriptions of Melkor, and yet Melkor is a fundamentally different being. In Tolkien’s cosmogony, the dark lord was created, began with “desire of the Light,” and “descended…down into Darkness.” He is not a true adversary of Eru in an equal sense, he is not even capable of the act which delineates Eru from all else (the act of true Creation as opposed to sub-creation). Melkor’s opposition to Eru is not the balance upon which the fabric of reality (and individual autonomy) rests, but instead an impermanent stain marring a perfect creation.
Shai’tan is integral to the Pattern. Melkor is ultimately dispensable.
This is probably best shown in the creature which best defines Shai’tan’s label of Lighteater in Tolkien’s universe. Readers often comment on the horror of the Mirkwood arachnids in The Hobbit, or Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, but few outside of the Tolkien fanatics know of Ungoliant, the oldest and most evil of the breed. She was a spirit seduced by Melkor in the most ancient wars of the Valar, and she plays an important role in the theft of the Silmarils from Valinor in the days of the First Age.
Ungoliant shows most clearly the consumptive and destructive (rather than productive and creative) nature of Tolkien’s evil. She is described as a beast so corrupted she has forsaken even Melkor himself, the master of corruption, to pursue her own degeneration: “But she disowned her master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness” (73).
Ungoliant lives in the shadow of desolate mountains, sucking up light and spewing shadow. Yet with each web of “strangling gloom” she weaves, her world becomes darker and she becomes more famished (73). She is a parasite no more capable of sustaining herself than she is of controlling her hunger. Later Tolkien tells us “Of the fate of Ungoliant no tale tells. Yet some have said that she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last” (81).
This is the quintessential picture of radical evil in The Silmarillion, a parasite chained to its own self-harming lust by hatred of its better and creator. There is a terrible majesty to evil, but it has no power beyond that allowed it by Eru.
The eccentricity of Jordan’s work, by contrast, is in creating an ‘Evil’ which is both an essential part of the Pattern, and a force to be held in great contempt. Rand holds the Dark One in his hands and chooses not to destroy it because he discovers that the presence of Shai’tan is necessary for humanity to be able to ‘choose’ between good and evil. In one sense, the Dark One is an Ungoliant skulking on the edges of the Pattern and eternally hungering to consume it, in another, Shai’tan is simply a balancing possibility.
I suspect Jordan cheapens his philosophy by attempting to combine a Judeo-Christian disgust for Evil with an eastern-inspired dualism. In most dualistic traditions after all, the forces of creation and destruction are simply forces, and their limited autonomy is essentially focused on their given purpose. Shai’tan, with his games and his lies, and his obsession with suffering, is not merely a disinterested ‘force’, nor does he seem to embody any essential role in the Pattern. To be told by Jordan, at the end of the last book, that Shai’tan is somehow necessary to the greater balance suggests Jordan didn’t completely understand the philosophical implications of his own work.
And Rand’s disgust at the emptiness of Evil, at it’s depravity and ultimate impotence, is far more in line with Tolkien’s fantastical theology that any tradition of dualism. If Jordan had wanted to remain true to said tradition then Rand, in his final confrontation, would have understood and accepted Evil as a vast, impersonal, unreasoning force that he was ultimately unable to judge (or even define as ‘evil’ in the western sense of the term). He would have been as incapable of destroying it as destroying the Creator, and the argument of Evil’s necessity to the universe would have had grounds.
Alas, Jordan (and perhaps Sanderson as well) failed in this final test.
Once again I am awed by the insight of J.R.R. Tolkien and disappointed by one of his lesser imitators. I will always appreciate The Wheel of Time for its scope, its detail and its richness, but (as I hope has been understood) neither its philosophy nor its theology.
*I’m going to refer to the author as Jordan for most of this piece because he’s the one who created most of the foundational structure of the world. Sanderson basically followed Jordan’s notes. Also, I’ve never been a fan of Sanderson and his blundering lack of subtlety.
** Here, as always, I am indebted to Dr. Corey Olsen (@tolkienprof) for his series on the Ainulindale.