Chapter 1: An Empty Road
From the destroyed opulence of Lews Therin Kinslayer and Elan Well-Dressed, the narrative shifts to the opening motif that will begin chapter 1 for this and the next thirteen books: following the path of a breeze, with the note that this was not the beginning, but a beginning.
A series called the “Wheel of Time” that has a theme of cyclical happenings?
(That image will never not be hilarious to me. DEAL WITH IT.)
This wind that is not the beginning blows past Rand al’Thor and his father, Tam, as they bring their wagon of cider and brandy from their remote farmhouse into the town of Emond’s Field in the general province of Two Rivers. Jordan would like you to know that Strange Things Are Afoot in Emond’s Field: even with the Bel Tine festival—
Wait, you mean Beltane, don’t you? You misspelled Beltane, you may want to look at that—
THE Z IS SILENT: 2
We’ve moved from a Judeo-Christian inspired concept of Satan to a Gaelic pagan springtime festival. Basically, Rule of Cool (WARNING: TVTROPES TIMESINK LINK) dictates the spiritual life of the denizens of Jordan’s imagination. Side note, yes, it can be spelled “Beltine”, as one word. But, you know, the Z is silent. By the way, what are the betting odds that any Hindu or Aboriginal or Shinto mythology will find a reflection in the text?
(HAHAHAHA, I’ll go ahead and stop you right there. It’s not going to happen. It’s a white, white, Anglo-Saxon world we’re dealing with. Literally, all of the non-white people were thrown to the ends of the earth after the Breaking.)
Moving on. Even with the Bel Tine festival approaching the next day, the weather is still brisk. There’s snow on the ground and the fields don’t have that tourism brochure look of flourishing in the green, green springtime. Even worse, wolves are getting bolder. You know the easiest way to signify that shit gets real in a medieval farm setting? Throw in wolves. Audiences get wolves.
You know, credit where credit is due: while not the most subtle author in the world, Jordan does understand the concept of “show, not tell” in regards to setting. In this chapter, as in the prologue, the information given to the audience allows the reader to extrapolate a great deal without being bogged down by meaningless trivia. While we do get a laundry list of Rand’s motivations, fears, and actions, the actual world building continues to be introduced in a palatable, informative way. As Rand and Tam guide their steady, faithful mare, Bela, down the deserted path, Rand suddenly gets the feeling that he’s being…watched.
And of course he is. Behind them on the path is a horse and rider, both of whom are all black. I mean, the rider is wearing all black, because remember, everyone here is super white. Sadly, the rider isn’t Elan Well-Dressed because there is a tragic lack of white lace collars and thigh-high boots. The rider’s black hood completely (and conveniently) obscures his face, but Rand still gets the feeling that the rider viscerally loathes him on absolutely no evidence.
It may shock you to learn that Rand is, in fact, a teenager.
He stumbles in the road, breaking eye contact, and I think you know where this is going. He looks up and the rider has vanished as though he never existed.
If you correctly called that, you will correctly call the next steps: Tam has seen nothing, there’s no evidence that anyone has been on this path other than them, and Rand convinces himself that he made it all up. Besides, he tells himself, one thing he noticed but is only bringing up now at the time of appropriate drama, the wind didn’t touch the rider’s cloak at all. The constant, chapter-starting breeze that gave Rand such a hard time skipped this guy. That’s an awesomely creepy image, and does help explain to the reader why Rand would be willing to doubt the validity of his own eyes.
Tam consoles his son and tells him to “think of the flame and the void”. SO IT BEGINS.
THE VOID STARES BACK: 1
This is Tam’s old soldier trick of clearing the mind before battle by imagining a flame and feeding your emotions into it to achieve…balance? Ascend to a higher plane of existence? This apparently is the reason that Tam wins the archery contest at Bel Tine every year. Anyway, this is not the last time we see the appearance of the flame and the void. Not by a long shot. The void is a tricky thing to achieve, though, and Rand has never had much luck with it.
When they reach Emond’s Field, I kind of want to hit my head against the table. Remember how I mentioned that subtlety is not Jordan’s strong suit? The rest of this chapter could basically serve as my entire thesis. Here’s what you need to take away:
- Emond’s Field is SO QUAINT and SO BUCOLIC.
- SERIOUSLY. THATCH-ROOFED COTTAGES and BICKERING TOWNSPEOPLE and STRANGERS? STRANGERS DON’T COME TO EMOND’S FIELD, SILLY. WOULDN’T THAT BE WEIRD IF THEY DID? WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
- Bel Tine customs are strange (according to whom? Jordan, I guess) but that’s just the Way Things Are Done and no one questions it because That’s What Country Folk Do. They have strange customs and don’t even know why, unlike the rest of us who completely grasp why a rabbit hides chicken eggs to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. I considered making this a count, but we won’t see Emond’s Field again for another three books or so, so I didn’t bother.
- Rural countryfolk are also ornery. After reading this chapter, I had The Music Man stuck in my head for the rest of the day. They can be cold as their falling thermometer in December if you ask about their weather in July! And they’re so by-god stubborn that they’ll stand touching noses for a week at a time and never see eye to eyyyyyyyyyyyyyye! (If you didn’t grow up in my family, kindly see Iowa Stubborn for reference.)
- Apparently, one of those quirky things that country people do is have strange names for things, like a road that is called one thing south of the river and another thing north of the river. I can only assume that at the time of writing, Robert Jordan had never been to San Antonio. Or Austin. Or all of New England.
- Women, am I right?
Yeah, that’s going to be another count:
WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS
Expect to see this count skyrocket at an exponential rate. In this chapter alone, we have:
- Rand musing about his crush on Egwene, the innkeeper’s daughter, except it doesn’t sound like a crush so much as him living in terror of her because omg girls: 1
- The fact that there are gender-segregated village leadership boards: the Women’s Circle and the Village Council. Does this strike anybody else as an inefficient form of government? Also, LOL the Women’s Circle gets SO ANGRY when menfolk try and meddle in their business because women are SO TOUCHY. Why can’t they be more rational and level-headed and accepting like the men? 1
- Nynaeve, the village Wisdom, doesn’t show up in this chapter but we learn that her reputation is that of a bossy, overbearing, demanding nightmare. Oh, I’m sorry, did I say Nynaeve? That’s pretty much every woman in Emond’s Field. To compound Nynaeve’s sins, she’s also young and doesn’t put up with the bullshit the townspeople give her. what a horrible person: 1
- The first (living) woman we ever see on page in this entire book series is Daise Congar, the wife of local small-minded grumpypants Wit Congar. She literally roars her dialogue, berates her husband for poking his nose into Women’s Circle business, and summarily hauls him off, presumably to hen-peck him to death. She’s also described as huge, shrieking, Valkyre-like harridan while her husband is a small, cowed, twitchy guy, presumably because he’s had to live with her for so long: 1
- All of the local housewives are constantly trying to get widower Tam al’Thor to marry their single cousins/daughters/sisters/what have you because women are obsessed with marriage: 1
- That hasn’t worked so they start to cast their eyes on Rand, and he reacts more fearfully to this concept than he does to the memory of the unnatural black rider: 1
WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS: 6
I mean, this chapter is only 18 pages long, and for 7 of them, the only characters around are Rand and Tam.
Good points: the description of the physical appearance of Emond’s Field is gorgeous to imagine: mountains looming in the distance, a wild forest that leads from the foot of it, farms for miles around, and a pretty spring that feeds into a wide river. It’s basically everything I love in life in one place.
After several run-ins with the local Debbie Downers, Rand and Tam finally make it to the inn, where the innkeeper/mayor Bran al’Vere is there to welcome them and take that cider off their hands. Also there is one of Rand’s best friends, Matrim Cauthon. Mat is your prototypical man-child prankster with no ambition who hates work and you’d be forgiven for wondering just how old these characters really are because Mat’s idea of hot fun is to tell Rand that their mutual friend Dav has captured a badger and is going to let it loose on the green where all of the women are sitting, presumably to watch them shriek and run around. Oh, to think I’d left that out of my list! No matter.
WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS: 7
I think that qualifies. To remind everyone, they’re supposed to be seventeen or so. A badger? It strikes me more as something a twelve-year-old might find amusing. Also, poor badger. Where are they even keeping it? It should be noted that the women are out on the village green preparing the
May Pole Spring Pole for the next day’s festivities.
THE Z IS SILENT: 3
Plot-relevant information finally enters Rand and Mat’s conversation as Mat mentions that he, too, saw the strange black rider but no one else did. DUN DUN DUNNNNN. Despite having corroboration for their tale, they both decide to keep this news to themselves. Naturally.
After that, the chapter devolves into a weird anticlimax, as it trails off into the men of the town bickering over the presence of a gleeman (which is a cause for great excitement, since strangers don’t come to Emond’s Field EVERRR), the possible presence of fireworks (which is a cause for even greater excitement, since everyone there hasn’t been a fireworks display in ten years and besides, everyone loves Gandalf), and the expense thereof. Lip service is paid to Rand having a good head on his shoulders, at which I laughed long, loud, and heartily for several minutes. Finally, we get some KOMEDY as Mat is unwittingly roped into helping Rand unload casks of cider. He has to actively remind Rand about Egwene, and the text lampshades how Rand had completely forgotten about her. All of Rand’s thoughts now that he remembers are how to avoid her. Seriously.
WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS: 8
And on that weird note, the chapter ends.
Oh my god, I managed to forget that we got this much gender stereotyping right off the bat. The chapter started out strong, with hints of conflict in both nature itself and in the appearance of the strange black rider, and continued nicely with the lovely description of Emond’s Field. Then it took a turn for the cliché, introduced a few elements that are actually relevant (Mat’s encounter with the rider and the presence of the gleeman, though the audience doesn’t know this is significant yet), and then hit a wall with the minutiae of purchasing fireworks before ending with a ha-ha scene of “Mat is lazy and doesn’t like working and Rand is ~so confused about Egwene”. I dunno. It kept my attention when I was younger, but at my current age, I think I’d put the book on probation at this point.
THE Z IS SILENT: 3
AT LEAST I’M PRETTY: 1
HINDSIGHT IS 20/20: 1
THE VOID STARES BACK: 1
WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS: 8