An Apology for the Wheel of Time Adaptation

Darrell K. Sweet’s original cover compared to the promotional poster for the show

There’s been some consternation over the recent Wheel of Time adaptation. It’s come to the point that there are even warring hashtags about #BookCloaks and #ShowSworn!

I get it–any adaptation will lead to hard feelings for folks who have spent so much time, money, and effort (reading 14 books!). But the special thing about the Wheel of Time is that it’s about adaptation and reception of the past.

Like the Arthurian tradition it draws from, the series engages in cultural work through recreating characters from other stories. King Arthur becomes Artur Hawkwing with maybe a bit of a Charlemagne resonance. We get more of the Arthur who marches on Rome than the fantastical and magnanimous Arthur of the Faerie Queene. Like Malory and Spenser, Jordan adapts the character to show us something different, focusing more on what happens after the breaking of the fellowship of the Round Table Artur’s empire and the conflict of two cultures that interpret his legacy differently.

Reception of the past, especially past stories, is at the heart of the Wheel of Time. The Forsaken even comment on this phenomenon with their amusement at what is retained and forgotten and what is misconstrued or changed.

The beginning of each and every book reminds us of this with a repetition of an elaborate conceit of the wind:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

A Memory of Light, Chapter 1, “Eastward the Wind Blew”

In sonnets, the conceit of the wind may bring a tenuous sense of connection between the speaking lover and the admired beloved, but here it grants continuity between turns of the wheel. Rafe’s adaptation participates in this very tradition of reception and recreation. 2021 is a different time than the 90s when people first started reading the series or the 80s when Jordan was writing. This is nothing new–and I think it’s good for the stories we love to be reworked by others. That shows the value they can have for us as we communally think out thorny issues through literary and artistic reasoning. The Pearl Poet has something different to say about Gawain than the French grail cycle, and Jordan has something more to say with Gawyn Trakand, and Rafe and company will still have even something more to say. 

I admit that the tone of the finale left me a bit cold, but I think this is a good thing. The story isn’t being updated so much as played with and commented on. This happens with Victorian medievalism where, for instance, Tennyson wants to say something about his current time with the knights of the Round Table that’s different from Malory. Or with steam punk that comments on our own time through an imagined Victorian past.

And perhaps what I’m interpreting as pessimism or a darker interpretation in the finale is Rafe’s version of the fatalism that pervades the series and in some ways offers a bedrock of hope that we can still do good or at least defiantly spit in the eye of evil as “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills.”

This kind of thinking is enabled by the interaction between adaptations and sources. Cultural work is being done through adaptations, enabling us to communally reason things out through them as creators and viewers.

So, what kind of work is this adaptation doing?

Quite a bit I think, but here are three examples that I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Gender: The Wheel of Time book series flirts with complementarianism through emphasizing the need men and women have for each other. Saidar and Saidin put masculinity and femininity at the heart of the created order. This is further expressed by masculine and feminine souls where rebirth tends to be in the same biological sex and masculine souls still channel Saidin. Where that may not have been as commented on in the 90s, it may be a hard sell now. The series retains the gendered metaphysics of the One Power but in a less emphasized way and there is no assumption that souls are gendered since anyone could be the Dragon Reborn. Something I think the adaptation does masterfully is emphasizing the matriarchal aspects of the series by showing much of it through an Aes Sedai gaze. Not only does this paradoxically follow and comment on the book series, but it also turns against the objectifying gaze of fantasy exemplified by the Game of Thrones adaptation.
  2. Pipe Smoking: The way Jordan describes smoking was the first time I really noticed it as a figure in literature, and now I’m preparing to teach a class on Victorian depictions of smoking! When I first began watching the series, I wondered how they would depict smoking. Rafe seems less interested in this aspect of the books, though. There was some communal tavern smoking (which is really cool from the standpoint of tobacco research because there’s a question whether smoking culture embodies individualism or communal hospitality) but the main characters never smoke and don’t seem to even own their own pipes! On one level this could be because Robert Jordan was a pipe collector. I don’t know what Rafe’s relationship is to tobacco but my gut is that there may not be much of one. Tobacco moments in the books are also representative of Jordan’s attention to everyday minutiae. Everyone makes increasingly infinitesimal nods and taps pipes out on their boots. Those aren’t so cinematic! I also get the impression that some of the purposeful grounding in The Lord of the Rings found in The Eye of the World is being avoided or subverted even earlier, so that may be part of it. 
  3. Pessimism (or good old-fashioned Borderlander fatalism?): On an emotional level, I don’t like the darkness of the finale. The books can be dark, but there’s often a purposeful resistance to despair to the point that Rand becomes a symbol of hope in his final conflict with the Dark One. But as someone who studies reception, I think it was a good move and I’m fascinated by it. The trend toward darker interpretations of source material can sometimes be troubling, but it may also be a sign of the genre developing by moving from straightforward versions to critiques. Thinking along with other recent continuations of popular stories, it’s like how fans of the original Star Trek rail against Discovery or Picard. Here’s the thing though—it’s not the 60s! Our cultural relationship with space is different! We are different! (And yet struggling with the same issues!) Our adaptations and continuations of stories follow that logic. We are fascinated by similar stories, but our relationships with them will change. Maybe we’re less optimistic than a 90s reader of a high fantasy novel.

I’m very curious how other aspects of the series will be handled with these changes. What will the last scene be like if smoking just isn’t important in this turning of the Wheel? What kind of epiphany about time and love can we have in a more pessimistic retelling? (My gut is that we need a hardened Rand quicker and that his turn toward love and laughter will be even more glorious!) What stories will Rand weave in the Last Battle, and will we see ourselves in them?

And speaking of adaptations, what will Aiel battle chants be like?

Adaptations let us do this kind of mental work because they already are a communal act of reasoning from a shared narrative as a starting point. We can engage in this kind of thinking because of the work by Jordan and Rafe and Companions. 

And I’m grateful for all of them.

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