Turning 30 with the Wheel

title graphic depicting the shadows of three people cast along a road at night Reflections on The Wheel of Time to a Young Student

You stand in the center of mountain stadium, beneath the collective gaze of the spectators watching from the tiers rising around you into the peaks above. In front of you, the judges stare at you from their platform, their expressions as blank as those of the assorted masks hanging from a stand before you. You approach the stand to select a mask, but as you consider them, a gust of wind from the mountains catches you from behind, sifting through your hair and clothing to displace the masks, sending them dancing around each other in a jumble of shapes and colors.

Now in production as a series for eventual streaming on Amazon Prime, the epically huge epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time became my story throughout my young adulthood. It helped me navigate my many conflicting identities during my high school and college years. Those conflicts were particularly fierce for me due to the difference between the small community surrounding my religious high school and the public college education I pursued in the same local community.

As I approach my 30th year of life – I was born in 1991, two years before the publication of the first book in The Wheel of Time – I’m still struggling to figure out how all the parts of my identity fit together. By casting its coming-of-age plot arc within the timeless cast of the alternate world fantasy setting containing many different factions defined by ideologies, ethnicities, and politics, The Wheel of Time became a library of vivid conflicts and folksy anecdotes that have come frequently to my mind over the years.

A little older, perhaps a little wiser, I will use this live action adaptation to relive my own past wile weaving its experiences into the pattern of the future. If I could, I would channel the voice of prophecy, unraveling the thread of my life to counsel an awkward and lonely student, uttering lessons learned in an age yet to come, an age long past.

Student, I would whisper through the Pattern, You don’t need any more advice for what to make of your experience; you have plenty. However, I want you to understand that you are an heir of destiny living in an age of legends.

And I would share with my younger self three observations.

Your right to be here is absolute, because you are here.

The Wheel of Time is about the fate of the world hanging on the conflicts resulting from the main characters’ potential, which factions and adversaries want to control. The major theme that turns this concept into a narrative is inevitability. The three young men at the center of the books are born into determined destinies, while they and other characters find themselves invetibably swept up into the machinations of their world. That inevitability is precisely the truth of your reality.

You have already beaten the odds. The usual anecdotes about your existence being cosmically unlikely are applicable, the absurd unlikelihood for you to have been born at all, and to have come by many unlikely circumstances to be a student here at this particular point in history and in your life. Because of the cosmic uniqueness of your existence at this place and time, the external identities and internal conflicts that you’ve had to navigate in order to be here are also absolutely unique. The fact that you are actually here validates whatever background paths may have lead to your being here. The fact of your presence is the truth, and as truth it is absolute.

You are the only person in human history to exist in your particular situation; therefore, you are the only person who can reconcile the contradictory forces warring within you. Fragments of the human experience are waiting to be unified, brokenness and damage waiting to be healed, and only you can bring about the reconciliation.

Whatever difficult dichotomies you may have to navigate, whatever engrossing problems or questions may lie beneath the circumstances leading you to have become a student, your particular story is one unique and inseparable thread in the shared context woven together out of our identities.
You are already part of great things.

You are already part of great things.

Much of the power of The Wheel of Time comes from the way it mixes philosophies and mythologies from historical civilizations and then takes us on a jaunty, popularly accessible tour of fictional cultures with recognizable facets of both East and West. The legends are all true, and you stand at their convergence. Your local community is one of the most diverse localities in America. You have only to look out your window to observe the connections arising out of the meeting place of different worldviews and legacies.

Talk to the people whose native language is different from your own. Talk to that professor; talk to that priest. Talk to your peers, and discover what you can build together in order to collectively bring the ancient traditions that shaped us forward into a fertile future full of meaning and fellowship.

I know about your sacrifice, about your existential wager that your local community could provide you with all the meaning and direction that you’ll need at this stage of your life. I know you’re not quite sure what kind of purpose you should expect to find. Your decisions prove your conviction that you should be able to find your purpose here. Having observed the beauty of diversity, the wonder of the depth of legacy, all around you, you are sure that if you can’t find purpose here, than you’ll never find it anywhere else, either. You are correct.

Great things are happening all around you, in your campus, in your neighborhood, in your extended network. And you are already automatically part of all of it. Your life is already woven together in the patterns that are unfolding in our communities and our period of history. Never let society tell you that your effort is useless, or that you have to earn the right to be involved in your community by being successful. As Robert Jordan puts it, “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” and exactly what part we play in grand adventure taking shape around us is not quite under our control. However, the fact that we are all caught up in this grand adventure, that we are all involved in shaping it and changing its direction, is just as certain.

When you realize that your choices regarding your identities and your communities influence so many people – those you left behind, those among whom you think you don’t belong – you will see that no matter what people may think of you, it is utterly impossible for you to be inconsequential. Your original childhood community will absolutely be affected by the decisions that you are making now. Whether you continue to identify with your original community or choose to leave it behind, whether they reject you, support you, or become estranged from you, you absolutely and inevitably influence them, just as you will never stop carrying their influence with you.

You have everything you need.

The Wheel of Time is also about circularity. History repeats itself, and people are reborn into the same pattern of circumstances, filling the same roles that many other lives have fulfilled before them. Now that we’ve established your absolute uniqueness, we must also acknowledge the fact that you are not unique in that the types of situations that you are experiencing have been repeating throughout human history. Succeed or fail, you can’t do experience anything that is not already accounted for. Although the world will be poorer if you fail to reconcile the contradictions brewing within you, the world always continues to turn, cycling past failures.

Experience supports the thesis that time is cyclical, at least on the personal level. There is redemption in this. The past can always be redeemed, when the patterns that defined the past come again. The past is always incarnate in the present, forming part of the present, and can always be recycled. It’s impossible not to have the resources necessary to do the best that you can with your real situation, because if you can’t do it, then it’s not your real situation.

One of the most important resources that you will have is your connections to those from your past. The Wheel of Time is a story about how the destinies of five young adults from one backward little village continually intertwine around each other as they embark on separate but related hero journeys. You may have discovered people from your own past whose lives keep cycling back around your own, friends who may be separated from you for long seasons of time but whom you know you can rely on when you have to go another round against “Jack o’ the Shadows.” The cyclical patterns of relationships throughout life will bring you assistance, validation, and opportunity when you avoid the opposite pitfalls of apathy and desperation.

I can offer you nothing more concrete, no specific promises or proven formulas. I’m just a ghost of a voice out of the Pattern. This is the hardest identity crisis that you will need to reconcile: the disparity between caring too much and caring too little about what transpires in your life. Is it a balance between two extremes, or an embrace of paradox? You are uniquely qualified to determine the answer for yourself. The fight to achieve your peace will be long, perhaps brutal, but the struggle is worthwhile.

In the meantime, the actors who will play those five old friends from Emond’s Field have already been announced. Nyneave al’Meara will be played by Zoey Robbins, Egwene al’Vere by Madeleine Madden, Mat Cauthon by Barney Harris, Perrin Aybara by Marcus Rutherford, and Rand al’Thor by Joshua Stradowski.

Amazon’s take on The Wheel of Time will reportedly emphasize the character of Moiraine Damodred, played by Rosamund Pike. I’m not sure if the media’s disclosure that the series with “follow” Moiraine means that she will be the protagonist rather than Rand, though that’s not necessarily an untenable framing of the narrative, given Moirane’s protagonist role in the prequel novel New Spring. (It probably means that the plot from the central books in the series would have to be massively contracted, but that’s like remarking that it will probably rain in April.) I’m glad to hear that Harriet McDougal, wife of the late author, will have a hand in the production. McDougal already saved our franchise after her husband’s passing in 2007, when she selected Brandon Sanderson to complete it. Part of my hope for reviving my teenage love of The Wheel of Time lies in Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, vastly different in every way but of kindred spirit.

For us long-time fans, accepting those actors’ portrayals as legitimate representations of the beloved characters that came to represent us and our adolescent friendships will be a sort of a death, a surrendering of our personal dramas to the general culture. We certainly will make that sacrifice, difficult though it may be, because we are overjoyed that something so important to our personal coming-of-age experiences is being validated by the glorious incarnation of live action video. In making this sacrifice, we needn’t fear losing our belonging, because every ending is also a new beginning.

A sudden gust of wind from the looming peaks reverses direction and backlashses the masks, sending shapes and streamers flying. You thrust your hand into the gathering storm and snatch a mask of multi-colored threads. Its strands thrash behind your upright shoulders as you raise it to your face.