Fantasy and Pluralism: Unpacking the Religious Sources of The Wheel of Time

By Andrew D. Thrasher, ThM

One of the best Fantasy series produced in the last 50 years, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Wheel of Time, a 15 book series of almost 15,000 pages produced over a 24 year span, encompasses a fantastic worldview displaying a pluralistic coherence of religious elements found in world religions. Jordan masterfully constructs a world guided by a pluralistic coherence of various aspects of world religions that depicts various theological ideas ranging from Indian conceptions of reality to Daoist cosmology and Christian soteriological themes of redemption, love, and reconciliation undergirding a vibrant mythological narrative and religious worldview embedded in the series displaying a plethora of religious ideas in The Wheel of Time. In this piece, I would like to describe the mythological narrative behind The Wheel of Time and unpack the religious and theological sources Jordan uses to construct his worldview to show the Religious and pluralistic coherence of his masterpiece.

The Narrative of the Myth

Because The Wheel of Time is so vast in its religious dimensions to adequately describe it in the “wheel of time” allotted to me (as it were) would take an entire volume (or more). However, behind any construction of a religion is a myth, a history that reinforces and embodies the belief in every re-enactment and retelling of the story. The myth is what stands presupposed in every belief, a constructed worldview that shapes how we make sense of and act in the world, often implicitly. But it also entails a history that tells the myth, a history where the myth is embedded and reinforced. Raimon Panikkar states that:

The mythos is like a picture frame in which we place everything that we become conscious of, thanks to our logos. What we believe in, without feeling the need to ask ourselves why this is so, is what constitutes the mythos on which we rely. Our belief in it is so strong that we do not even know that we believe in it. We take it for granted, as obvious and self-evident; our mind is compliant—it is serene and asks for nothing more. (Panikkar 2014, 148).

If our mythos is what we implicitly believe, the quest is to uncover and reveal what we believe. Applied to the WoT, what I hope to unpack is not only the mythos of the series, but how this entails a religious pluralism that combines various religious sources between eastern and western religions to show how The Wheel of Time demonstrates a logical coherence in its construction of a religious worldview. What follows are theological developments within and behind the narrative.

Unpacking the first two points is necessary in developing the religious mythos behind The Wheel of Time. The series has little reference to the Creator, essentially pointing out that the Creator created the pattern/The Wheel of Time (loosely meaning the cosmos) to govern itself by creating balance and harmony. The pattern naturally and impersonally works out this balance often in ineffable ways, causing many characters to state, “the Wheel weaves what it wills.” By following the threads of what the pattern creates, it moves towards a purpose of harmony and balance. Equally so, the Pattern creates certain persons who can access the power guiding the pattern, called Aes Sedai, and the balance in use of the One Power includes gender. The Aes Sedai in the history behind the current events in the series (in the Age of Legends) were both Male and Female, the female Aes Sedai having natural talent for working the threads of Water and Air, the Male, Earth and Fire, with an equal balance of Spirit between both genders. Aes Sedai were the conduits for the pattern to create and fulfill its purpose, thus; the Aes Sedai follow the pattern in all of its threads, whether they are even aware or unaware that they are following it.

In the age of Legends, thousands of years before the series begins, certain Aes Sedai were taken by the pursuit of power and began boring a hole into the pattern to access what later in the series shows to be the True Power, the power of the Dark One, Shai’tan (I realize now I must look for the Dark One’s affects in my life for invoking his name twice!). When the Bore was made this resulted in a sort of Fall. War, previously unknown wracked the face of the earth lead by those Aes Sedai who followed the Dark One (Called the Forsaken or the Chosen, depending on your orientation).

In humanity’s time of need the Dragon came forth, Lews Therin Telamon, a leader sought to seal the bore shutting away the Dark One forever—unsuccessfully. In response, the Dark One tainted the Male half of the One power with his essence, causing all Male Aes Sedai to go insane and change the surface of the world. People fled in all directions, fleeing to dry land when the waters swallowed up full cities and mountains. The face of the Earth has changed and fear and distrust was instilled within every heart with the name Aes Sedai. And yet the world awaited the rebirth of the one blamed for this destruction, the Dragon, the Kinslayer, who was prophesied to both break the world again and seal the Dark One away forever. Here the series starts with his rebirth and tells his story.

The mythos of Wheel of Time:

  1. There is a deistic creator.
  2. The creator created cosmos to govern itself: The Wheel of Time/Pattern.
  3. There was a Fall (the Bore) opening Shai’tan into the world.
  4. The is a savior figure who leads the Children of Light against the Dark (the Dragon).
  5. The original Savior figure failed to adequately seal the bore resulting in prophecy and reincarnation.
  6. The Dragon is reborn (reincarnated) to perfectly seal the Bore.

Religious Elements Behind The Wheel of Time

Throughout The Wheel of Time there are certain religious elements and symbols behind the series that Jordan used to construct his fantasy world. The following is an exegesis of theological themes found in The Wheel of Time. The series is dominated by a systematic expression of a pluralistic construct of the religious worldview that combines eastern and western religious conceptions of the world. Certain themes developed below seek to articulate the religious sources behind the series’ religious worldview and make sense of the fantasy’s pluralistic religious system to articulate its logical coherence. Below I seek to articulate eastern notions of reincarnation, Dharma, Karma, The Great Ultimate (Taiji: Yin/Yang), and western notions of telos and purpose through analysis of the Pattern’s impersonal and personal dimensions.

Reincarnation entails that people are reborn, or that something carries over from our previous lives into the next. In Hinduism, this is the cosmic essence within every human being, the Atman (True Self) which is eternal and immutable, that transcends every individual existence. Buddhism, because it rejects an eternal self, articulates reincarnation (like many aspects of Hinduism) through the lens of Karma and the accumulation of merit (punya) and demerit (papa) guiding what type of life one will be reborn into in the next life by the intentional volitions at the end of one life. The role of Karma entails moral justice in this process of rebirth, an impersonal justice based off of what we did, pursued and performed in our previous lives. Sharma states that “the idea of Karma is especially seen as implying rebirth. If something good or bad happens to us for which no obvious cause is traceable in this life then in Hinduism it is explained in terms of an effect of some action performed by us in a past life” (Sharma 2000,11). Panikkar goes further to describe Karma as:

the link that connects us to every particle of reality and restores our sense of unity with the whole universe, for all beings are, without exception, governed (and nurtured by the same cosmic law). This law is not a mere causal chain, for there are forms of dependence that belong to karman and are not necessarily causal, unless we expand the concept of cause to any process of interdependence. Essential in this view is the universality of such a law. All that is, precisely because it is, has an [intrinsic] relatedness to everything else (Panikkar 2014, 56).

Whereas Indian religions are governed by the terms Reincarnation and karma, the third theme (Dharma) entails an impersonal sense of righteousness and order guiding the system, “that which both keeps the world together and maintains each thing according to its nature” (Prabhu 1988, 178). Prabhu goes further: “Dharma is that which maintains, gives cohesion and thus strength to any given thing, to reality, and ultimately to the three worlds of nature, society, and the transcendent (tri-loka)” (Prabhu 1988, 178).

While Karma and Dharma may agree with the Deistic conception of the pattern in The Wheel of Time, I think the pattern also is based off of Indian conceptions of telos (end-goal). While telos fits naturally within Christian conceptions of the biblical narrative as displaying God’s purpose in creating humans and the natural world to be in fellowship with Him (between the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation), in The Wheel of Time I think the Indian notion of telos in the form of cyclical renewal fits better (though the end of the series is of course, open-ended on this question so this remains speculative). In Indian religion, Reality and human life is governed by the pursuit and performance of dharma and Karma as a cosmic law, entailing impersonal descriptive and prescriptive dimensions of order, righteousness, and justice (entailed in the concept of Karma).

The Tri-Murti, (three main gods in postclassical Hinduism) Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, entail a cosmic maintenance of dharma: Brahma the creator of Dharma, Vishnu the Preserver of Dharma, and Shiva the destroyer and renewer of Dharma. Entailed within this cyclical conception of renewal is: 1. the origination of dharma which; 2. must be preserved against chaos and; 3. will be destroyed when it is beyond redemption and recreated again in perfect Dharma. If reality is ordered towards perfect dharma, its teleological dimension allows for reincarnation to fulfill the purposes of perfect dharma.

But The Wheel of Time does not only emphasize an impersonal view of justice and righteousness characterized by the Pattern—it is also concerned with Harmony, a value of Chinese religions. The Daoist Taiji symbol of the Yin/Yang entails that the great ultimate (Taiji) encompasses a balance of opposites and harmony of dualistic dimensions balancing one another in their relationship to one another. Yin and Yang are not total opposites, they are relative to one another and need each other to be whole and maintain balance. If you look at the Taiji symbol, you see that is a circle (indicating wholeness), and the circle is divided evenly between light and dark (indicating opposites), but, within each, there is a small seed of the other (indicating each side needing the other for balance). Young-Chan Ro states that, “The Yin-Yang principle was not only a cosmic principle but also an ontological and anthropological principle. In fact, the Yin-yang principle has permeated in every aspect of life of all beings and it has become a symbol of the universe, the human, and all other beings” (Ro 2013, 151).

Likewise in The Wheel of Time, one sees the inversion of the Yin/Yang symbol in terms of gender: while the male represents light balanced with the darkness of yin in Daoism, the white flame represents the female half of the one power and the dark dragon’s fang represents the male half of the one power. The Pattern in The Wheel of Time entails a purpose for harmony, and the Chinese symbol entails a pertinent symbolization of harmony applied to the WoT (soteriologically). Throughout the series, there are important instances emphasizing this need for balance in the pattern and how the pattern naturally and impersonally provides the harmony at the right time (also to fulfill the storyline of course) with instances of Nynaeve using all five elements of the One Power to heal (without imperfection) shows a balance of opposites symbolic of the theory behind the Taiji Symbol.

If The Wheel of Time entails the purpose of the pattern is to create harmony, Daoism offers a key element, and if the WoT is an impersonal reality pursuing this purpose, dharma and karma entail the ordering of this harmony. But tied to reincarnation in this system is not some unguided purpose for rebirth. The pattern allows pivotal figures in history to be reborn because they shaped the history behind the narrative so substantially in fulfilling the purposes of the pattern at creating harmony and balance to the pattern. There are two components to this system—one western, the other eastern: Reincarnation (eastern) is ordered (Indian) and intentional (a personal dimension reminiscent of Abrahamic faiths) to fulfill its purpose to create balance and harmony (Chinese) in the Pattern and not for everyone (only important figures in the history behind the narrative; reminiscent of the historical importance of particular figures in Abrahamic faiths).

There is also the dimension of a salvific figure who is not only reborn, but must sacrifice himself for the redemption of the world (to seal the Dark One away forever). At the end of The Gathering Storm, book 12 of the series, not only is the Dragon Reborn redeemed but the tension in his memories between insanity of Lews Therin and his own life must be reconciled and redeemed through union. Through a moving passage within the mind of the Dragon Reborn on the brink of self-destruction, the inner dialogue displays the redemption of the dragon named Kinslayer. Lews Therin Kinslayer was named so because in his insanity he killed everyone he loved before his own self-destruction. With the Dragon Reborn’s love for family, three women, and friends he could not embrace the insanity of Lews Therin for fear of following in his footsteps. It is only with the revelational clarity of Lews Therin that the Dragon Reborn is redeemed: “Maybe we are born to love again.” If love, a Christian theme, is the reason for reincarnation, an eastern theme, for another chance to right what was wronged, then this is clearly something to live for. This entails an impersonal pattern that is not only concerned with maintaining balance and harmony, but allows persons to be redeemed through their countless lives.[1]

Fantasy and Pluralism, Reality and Truth

What I have been articulating throughout this article is an attempt to show the coherence of a religious pluralism found in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. While Jordan and Sanderson develop an entire religious mythos, history, and worldview grounded in religious dimensions borrowed from various world religions, we must remember that this is fantasy and makes sense because it is fantasy. Fantasy allows us to embrace our imagination, to create something original and new, but our imagination still originates in reality. The Wheel of Time develops a religious pluralism that invokes a mix: threads of coherence within its religious system, but does this mean that it is true? What we have in The Wheel of Time is not reality, though it may express a systematic coherence within a mythological narrative and experiential relevance to contemporary spiritualities in the west: it still lacks reality and truth in one fundamental characteristic of truth: empirical adequacy.

No historical world religion can combine aspects developed in the fantastic worldview developed by Jordan and Sanderson because there are incommensurable truths and differences that various religious hold to be true that negates the reality of a religious pluralism developed by Jordan and Sanderson. While our imagination can create, what is true about reality is still bound to the real world. There is a task of understanding the truth of things that myths and fantasy may hold some truth, but they are still based on something in the real world. Imagination is both a dangerous and wonderful thing. It creates wonder. But it can also distort reality. My guard is that we not take the religious worldview developed in The Wheel of Time as truth, but as an imagination of truth found in world religions and combined in a coherent system while still remaining fantasy.

Andrew D. Thrasher holds a ThM in Christian Theology from Regent University (2017) and an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from George Mason University (2014) and serves as an Adjunct Professor of Religion at Tidewater Community College in Southeastern VA. He enjoys re-reading high fantasy for leisure and intends to pursue doctoral studies in Comparative Theology. He currently resides in Chesapeake, VA.

References:

Panikkar, R. (2014). Mysticism and Spirituality: Mysticism, The Fullness of Life. (M. C. Pavan, Ed.) (Vol. I.1). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Prabhu, J. (1988). Dharma as an Alternative to Human rights. In S. K. Maity, Upendra Thakur, & A. K. Narain (Eds.), Studies in Oreintology: Essays in Memory of Prof. AL Basham. Agra: YL Publishers.

Ro, Y.-C. (2013). Cosmogony, Cosmology and Kosmology: Yin-Yang and taiji Symbolism. CIRPIT Review, 4, 145–153.

Sharma, A. (2000). Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Notes:

[1] Please note that this is not the point of reincarnation in Indian religions. Reincarnation is a means to an end, the end liberation from cyclical existence entirely. This means the goal of Indian religions is not to be reincarnated but to liberated, freed from the trap of reincarnation.

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