Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Great Hunt

Welcome back to my Wheel of Time Re-read, where I try to figure out how much I actually remember about books I’ve read a whole bunch of times but not for almost fifteen years. Today we’re going to talk about The Great Hunt, which is the second book in the series and the one which begins to break away from the Lord of the Rings thing that The Eye of the World was playing with.

The Eye of the World was less of an LOTR clone than, say, The Sword of Shannara (and please don’t try to convince me to do a Shannara re-read when I’m in the middle of two different huge re-reads that will take me the better part of a couple of years, I really don’t need to do three even though I’d like to talk about Garet Jax, the introduction of the Wishsong, and the Heritage tetrology). But back to the original point of The Eye of the World being less of a clone - there were still plenty of echoes of Lord of the Rings and in light of the rest of the series, I think that served to ground The Wheel of Time in a particular epic fantasy context before Robert Jordan gently and gradually changed those expectations for what sort of story this was and also just how damned big it was going to be.

Alright, let’s do this thing.

Spoilers, ho!

While the Dragonmount prologue to The Eye of the World is, in my view, the most iconic of the series and the most important by far, I remember The Great Hunt’s prologue far more clearly than I would have anticipated. It’s the “Bors” prologue, the first time we meet a Gathering of Darkfriends and Robert Jordan gives readers a greater suggestion that there are Darkfriends in High Places and that they are in nations all across the world and among the Aes Sedai (Black Ajah, y’all). That’s quite a bit different than having the random assortment of villagers chasing Rand and Mat. This is bigger and the stakes are bigger. And, even though we haven’t been introduced to the Seanchan yet, we know there is something going on out west and one of the Darkfriends is supposed to ignore them.

As with The Eye of the World, this is a slower moving book, especially at the start. In my memory these early novels moved much faster than they do - but that’s more of an acknowledgement than it is a complaint because what I’ve found beginning this re-read is that revisiting The Wheel of Time is revisiting old friends. Even if they are young and I want to shake them.

The main storyline of The Great Hunt is that Padan Fain steals the Horn of Valere and Mat’s dagger. For the world and a hope to defeat the Dark One, recovering the Horn of Valere is the most important thing because it is noted that the Heroes of the Horn will follow whomever blows the horn and not just fight for the side of Light - though I wonder if any of the turnings of the wheel have had the Shadow blow the horn and if that’s been tested. For Mat and Rand, recovering the dagger is paramount because even though Mat has been partially healed he will die if he is separated from the dagger for too long. Basically, they’re still chasing a plot coupon.

So - half of the novel is a chase across the land to get the dagger (and the Horn) back from Padan Fain, and Rand is being an absolute jerk because he doesn’t want to tell Mat and Perrin that he can channel (and that he’s probably the Dragon, but more on that later) but it eventually comes out and their friendship is strained because they’re all teenagers. It’s not as much fun to read as I remember, but then portal sones are introduced and we meet Selene (Lanfear) and we’re off in a different really cool direction.

If I was asked what the three most memorable bits of The Great Hunt were, my answer would be the introduction of the Seanchan, portal stones, and the blowing of the Horn.

Portal stones is probably the least important part of the novel and it’s the bit that is the least explained because they are from the Age of Legends and most everything from that time is lost - but it’s one of my favorite little bits in the series. The Portal Stones are described as Worlds of “If” - it’s a multiverse accessible by magic and rock. For example, in one of the worlds there is a “wispy streak crawling across the sky like a line drawn with cloud. The lines were too straight to be natural…”, which suggests either aircraft or missile. This is a low probability world of either humanity losing the Trolloc Wars or Artur Hawkwing losing something - but if the Dark won (not the Dark One) and this is contemporaneous world to ours that has technology, where did the technology come from?

I also love the later travel by portal stone that adds months to the passage of time (but spares Mat from the ravages of actually living that time without the dagger from Shadar Logoth) because when Rand uses saidin to travel, he very briefly lives life after life of alternate paths, it’s the flicker flicker flicker and I win again Lews Therin that gets me. One of my favorite bits.

Also - Lanfear / Selene is in this book way more than I thought. I thought it was just the scenes with portals and then she disappears before Cairhain, but she comes back again in the city. She’s clearly trying to appeal to Rand’s sense of glory - which, at this point, he doesn’t have. He’s all about helping Mat, the Horn can take care of itself.

This is the exact opposite of Ingtar, who has warring frustration and obsession of finding the Horn. There’s a line in the book which suggests that Ingtar is chasing the Horn like his hope of salvation depends on it. We learn, of course, that’s likely true because Ingtar is a repentant Darkfriend filled with regret and his moment near the end when he confesses to Rand and then charges into battle is, if not a moment of awesomeness, at least a nice moment of poignancy.

Given that I consider The Great Hunt to be “The Seanchan Novel”, I should really get around to talk about the Seanchan. Because I had just finished a re-watch of The Wheel of Time on Amazon and (spoilers for that, too) the first season ends with the arrival of the Seanchan ships I had the Seanchan on my mind and I was slightly surprised that the book takes longer to truly introduce the Seanchan than I remembered. They are hinted at and alluded to, so that when they do show up it’s a big deal.

I originally planned to open this re-read essay with the idea that the Seanchan are going to steal your daughters and mess you up, which is true, but became less important as a concept by the time I got to the Seanchan in the book. But - despite everything else that happens in The Great Hunt, I do think that the Seanchan is the big thing that tells us that this series is going to do something different than the Lord of the Rings thing that The Eye of the World was playing with.

Obviously, there is far more in this book than Tolkein ever considered. I’d have loved to seen what Tolkein would have done with portal stones and Padan Fain’s evolution is far removed from anything in Lord of the Rings - but where the Eye of the World criticisms are valid in how it echoes Lord of the Rings - The Great Hunt begins the transformation into something different.

Okay, brief notes on stuff that I found interesting.

*The Great hunt gives us our first real introduction to Aes Sedai politics as the Amyrlin Seat and Liandrin visit Fal Dara. My image of Liandrin is now firmly actress Kate Fleetwood from the show, which is interesting because I have dueling versions of Moiraine - Rosamind Pike and then a much shorter version, and both work in my head. Siuan Sanche is mostly Sophie Okonedo now, though I’m really curious how the show will handle Siuan’s being stilled and looking far younger than she did as Amyrlin.

*The novel also introduces Verin, one of my straight up favorite Aes Sedai across all the novels. We’ll ignore that she’s friggin Black Ajah because even when Robert Jordan finally pays off Verin straight up lying about Moiraine sending her Verin is still a charming delight. I remember reading the message boards and the theory boards when the series was ongoing and how much was made of that detail. It was debated right up until the final reveal.

*In The Eye of the World Bayle Domon mentioned that giant statue holding a globe on one of the Sea Folk islands as one of the weird wonders of the world. Here, Rand and company run across the other one in the middle of the continent. It’s not yet named the Chodean Kal, but re-readers know what it is and the one Rand finds is the one made for men to use and it calls to Rand, has him drawing saidin in and even Selene / Lanfear is frightened of what might happen if Rand doesn’t get away from it since she knows exactly what it is. I always appreciate when, to get across just how scary something is, that an overpowered character is frightened. While I’m doing the Wheel of Time re-read, I’m also re-reading Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and when McGuire wants to get across just how big of a deal something is she notes that it frightens The Luideag. Here, if one of the Forsaken is scared - the Chodean Kal is a really big deal.

*Daes Dae’Mar (The Great Game, or The Game of Houses) is lightly introduced as a concept here of how people in Cairhain treat politics and getting ahead as a national pastime, moreso than even how everyone else does politics.

*There is a visit to House Damodred, the ruler of which is functionally second in power and prestige in the country and a rival to the King. He’s also a Darkfriend (before he’s killed, of course). Worth noting, this is Moiraine’s family. I don’t remember if it ever comes up that she discovered he’s a Darkfriend. Likely not. Moiraine is in a weird role in this book.

*Egwene and Nynaeve are split up from the boys in this book, first on their way to The White Tower for training (and to break Nynaeve’s block), meet Sheriam (later to be revealed of the Black), meet Elayne at the Tower, traipse off to Falme with Liandrin (bad idea, that), are turned over to the Seanchan, and eventually escape. For all that Rand’s journey across the continent feels like it takes three books, once Egwene and Nynaeve start moving, they *really* start moving. I would have said that they were prisoners and collared for half the novel but that’s not the case.

*Also, the introduction of the a’dam and the collaring of anyone who can channel. Absolutely horrifying and this will come back again and again and again.

*Thom is back! And quickly found an apprentice, Dena, who is promptly murdered / fridged to get Thom moving again.

*Introduction of the Illuminators (fireworks guild). They eventually grow in importance to the point that it will change warfare. More on that in a later book.

*Something that gets me is Mat blowing the horn, just before they are about to be crushed between the Seanchan and the Whitecloaks. And just like that, Mat’s destiny and path is changed.

*When the heroes of the Horn are finally called, we meet Birgitte - pay attention to that one. In the show, a little girl who is killed by a Fade (probably) has a Birgitte doll.

*There is a moment when Artur Hawkwing turns to Hurin and suggests that perhaps he could be added to the Heroes of the Horn in the future and Hurin felt like Hawkwing offered him a crown. It’s such a cool little moment when one of the greatest legends of that world thinks Hurin could possibly be of the same stuff to join that company

*One of my favorite blessings in the series - “The Light shine on you, and the Creator shelter you. The last embrace of the Mother welcome you home.”

Next up, The Dragon Reborn - where Rand really truly is the Dragon this time. Plus, bonus Aiel and the Sword That is Not a Sword.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him