‘A Memory of Light’ Triumph of the Will?

According to the staff page, I hold the title of Team Philosopher, which is more official than it may seem. I have a university education in both History and Philosophy, and my time in philosophy concentrated on ethics and morality. I’ve read my Nietzsche, my Kant, and my Mill.

So I came into the final chapters of A Memory Of Light with certain opinions, expectations, and ideas about how the various options for resolution could play out. Obviously, here follow MASSIVE spoilers for the end of A Memory of Light, so consider this fair warning. If you continue reading this article and haven’t already finished A Memory of Light, on your own head be it.

I’ll begin by saying a few things: I state my opinions very strongly. If this offends you, please stop reading. I am utterly non-afraid to call out people who do something better than I do for doing it poorly. Writing better than me is trivially easy, and you can still write poorly while being better than me. If the idea of Robert Jordan being called out for poor writing offends you, please stop reading. That said, please do read, enjoy, agree, disagree, call ME out in turn etc. as long as everybody remains civil.

I’ll start with a basic recap of my perception of the ending of A Memory Of Light, and my understanding of what is implied by events therein. This, like any argument, is going to be the underlying assumption that grounds my position.

As Rand is battling The Dark One, their engagement takes the form of each creating a new version of the Pattern to imitate the after-effects of a possible outcome of the battle, each attempting to get his opponent to accept his desired outcome as true.

We see a world where The Dark One wins, enters the world fully, and seizes control of the Pattern. In this world, The Dark One becomes the perfect despot. He states that he will remove not only the will of people to resist his oppression, but will also remove from them the suspicion that something is even wrong. They will become purely self-interested, uncompassionate, uncaring, casual with violence, murder, and rapine. It is described in the text as “A world without Light.” That capital L is vital because it refers to the dichotomy between “The Light” and “The Dark” as the representatives of The Dark One and the Creator. Obviously this is a world that Rand cannot accept.

After this, we see the reverse: Rand creates a world where The Dark One does not exist. Rand removes him from the Pattern, and he finds himself in a world where violence is unknown, crime unthinkable, and a sword is not even recognized for what it is. Things turn dark for Rand, however, when he sees that people have changed in ways that he also cannot accept. They are “Good” but he detects in their eyes a shadow, the same shadow he perceives in those who have been turned forcibly to worship the The Dark One.

He has an exchange with The Dark One at this point, where The Dark One raises the claim that without The Dark One, Rand will become as The Dark One is. By removing evil from the world, he has also removed the ability of humanity to choose to do evil. He has in this way taken away their free will in exactly the same way The Dark One would do if he broke free and took control of the Pattern.

This causes Rand to re-evaluate his plan to kill The Dark One, settling instead for breaking the seals, clearing away the patch Lews Therin put in place, and re-sealing him away, presumably “as well” as the Creator did at the moment of creation before the bore was ever dug. Since the seal also uses the True Power, and that was only accessible after the bore was created, the assumption I’ve made is that nobody using existing means could ever break through it since they wouldn’t have access to the True Power to remove the True Power part of the seal.

This is presented in the book as a triumph of free will, and an understanding that the most important thing is protecting the right of humans to CHOOSE. This emphasis on free will and personal agency forms the core of the ending of the book. The Dark One winning led to a world that was without free will, Rand killing The Dark One led to a world that was without free will. The only option that allowed humanity to continue as it had been, will intact, was to re-seal The Dark One away to limit, but not eliminate, his influence.

This is also either completely incorrect, or the result of terrible writing.

I’ll explain.

The thing that makes free will free is the ability to choose, free of influence or coercion. If you weren’t free to select an alternative, your agency has been taken away, and you are little better than a puppet.

The strong implication from these two visions for the future is that The Dark One intends to remove agency, by removing both the emotions that Rand considers positive traits for humans, and removing the ability of people to discern that something has been done. They are being oppressed and have also had their ability to gauge oppression removed, so nobody will ever question the reality.

The problem is that in Rand’s case, the reverse is not remotely true. Rand intends to kill The Dark One, a force of evil, that exists to control, or at the very least, influence, moving people toward evil. The Dark One is not ever explicitly stated to be the SOURCE of evil. If you think of the trope of the angel and devil on one’s shoulder, advising you on your moral decisions, the removal of the devil from your shoulder doesn’t mean you are now incapable of evil, but are merely not being pushed towards it. Those who are intrinsically evil would be perfectly able to continue being evil in a world without The Dark One.

In discussions with other readers of The Wheel of Time, it has been suggested to me that I accept as correct the idea that, in fact, The Dark One is the ONLY source of evil in the universe, and with The Dark One dead, evil would cease to exist, therefore bringing about the world Rand saw in his vision.

From this comes two possibilities: either The Creator and The Dark One are the sole sources of all moral actions, influencing people who would otherwise simply not act, thus fundamentally becoming zombies (in the philosophical sense), or they serve to exemplify, foster and encourage actions and agency that already exists in humans.

In the former case, without The Dark One, humans would be “good,” but in a way that lacks any meaning because there was no chance they could have picked the alternative. The implication is that if Rand had perhaps listened to Lanfear and used the Choedan Kal to challenge The Creator himself, perhaps killing them both, humanity would functionally cease to exist. The world would be left with a sea of apathetic beings with no moral agency who would sit around until they starved to death.

In the latter case, where humans are capable of both good and evil without the influence of The Dark One or the Creator, removing The Dark One would not magically remove evil as a concept from the hearts of minds of all people. Bear in mind, though, that The Dark One says explicitly of his vision of victory, “But I will make a world where there is no good or evil. There is only me.” This is the KEY difference: The Dark One is removing Good AND Evil, as well as removing the ability of humanity to discern the difference or realise that anything is wrong. Rand isn’t even removing evil (I argue), just removing a source of encouragement to do evil.

The idea of a cyclical world is a common trope in fantasy and science-fiction. Things happening again and again the same way populate books and movies ranging from Battlestar Galactica, through The Matrix, and right on down to Groundhog Day. The concept these things all have in common is the idea that the cycle can be broken, that the version of the story we are watching is the one where something new and unexpected happens that allows the cycle to be broken, and a new and unique future unfolds.

The Wheel of Time implies at the start of every book that there are no endings to the wheel of time, and that even this will only have AN ending, but throughout the series, Rand sets out to do something different, something unexpected. He is going to kill The Dark One, and bring an end to the repetition. Except he doesn’t. He falls victim to a faulty idea that his plan is the same as The Dark One’s, and instead of changing anything, he does exactly what was done before, and the world continues, hell bent on a new Age of Legends, a new idiot who decides to drill a bore, and a new Breaking. The Pattern maintains its balance and weaves on regardless of Rand’s intentions.

All along, during the epic chapter 37, the motif is one of choice, of will. People choosing to betray, choosing to sacrifice, choosing to be heroes. The revelation that allows Rand to defeat The Dark One is the knowledge that he needs to allow people to exercise their will, that it is wrong of him to try and control them, to protect them from their own decisions. It is Rand releasing to them their will that gives him the knowledge he needed. But if the Pattern simply forces the result it wants, forces the outcome required to keep the wheel moving, to bring everything back around again, do they actually have free will?

If all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again, why are we supposed to care? This book could have been any age, any version of these events, and everything would have come out exactly the same way. We aren’t reading about the choices and agency of characters, we are watching puppets move on their strings in a world running on tracks. The Pattern seems to be incontrovertibly powerful, and those who think they are exercising free will in a way that would allow them to change this only THINK they are exercising that will, and the threat to the pattern is itself part of the pattern.

The thing that makes this concept satisfying is to see the cycle be broken, to see someone act in a way that destroys the cycle, because it is in turn an affirmation of our own free will. To watch someone try and fail to exercise his will functions as a condemnation of our own will.

If the world lacks free will, Rand’s understanding and release of his attempts to control the will of others is exactly as meaningless as his belief that he was controlling their will in the first place. For someone whose investment in this trope is in the destruction of the trope, it was highly disappointing.

I’m unsure how to classify what led to this situation. On the one hand, there is the possibility that Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson didn’t think through the deeper philosophical implications of what they were writing. It’s an easy hole to fall through as not everybody studies ethics and morality, and maybe they simply didn’t care whether the story was logically consistent from this perspective. It is fantasy, after all. Our world lacks a Dark One and a Creator, so within the realm of Rand-land, the rules may simply work differently.

On the other hand, this could have been done entirely purposefully with a full understanding of the consequences. The plan from book one, from twenty-one years ago might have been to have Rand try and fail to fight against the Pattern and actually change something fundamental. It may have always been the plan for Rand to decide he can kill The Dark One, be presented with this horrible, and entirely inaccurate image of the future, and change his mind. The Pattern itself might have shown him a reality that was not in fact what would happen, as its method to prevent him from killing The Dark One.

In either case, this disconnect from expectations was jarring and really took me out of my immersion, which had been really coming along nicely (especially with Mat, he carried this book hands down) and left me wondering just what the authors were thinking, which is dangerous territory.

What do you think? Was Rand’s triumph of free will a triumph? Would a world without The Dark One be just as bad as a world with only him? Do humans in Rand-land have free will? Are they slaves to the whims of the Creator and Shai’tan? Should Rand have gone through with it? Were you so invested in the series that you neither know nor care whether any of this makes any sense at all? I’d love to talk about it.

About Dan Ruffolo

Dan Ruffolo
Dan is a History and Philosophy graduate from Laurentian University. When he’s not reading an excessive amount of fantasy and sci-fi novels, or putting way too much time into online gaming and forums, he runs a Wine Shop in the north end of Toronto Ontario. A lifelong fantasy reader, and gamer nerd, Dan’s life ambition is to become a librarian.

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  1. My personal interpretation is that Rand was tricked into believing his reality would be just as bad as the Dark One’s. By manipulating Rand, the Dark One therefore “won” by convincing him to seal the Bore and allowing the cycle to continue. After all, the death of the Dark One would be the end of his attempts to overthrow the Pattern, so even if this Last Battle is lost to the Light, if the Dark One survives, he can always try again.

    • Dan From Canada
      Dan From Canada

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I do like that interpretation, especially since I don’t actually think of Rand as all that exceptionally strong-willed. A possible interpretation of mine that I like is that Rand actually lost, and the entire denouement was all more illusion that Shai-tan spun for Rand and he’s basically just sitting in the middle of the room staring at nothing and Moridin is busily murdering everybody.

  2. I often wonder how much of this “free will” argument came from Robert Jordan, and how much came from Brandon Sanderson’s influence. As an active member of the same church that Brandon attends (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) the ending of the Wheel of Time seems to be in line very strongly with a philosophy that is mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Opposition in all things. Without free will and negative/evil influence, there would be no God, and therefore no life/existence. This is obviously only a summary of the Mormon doctrine, but it falls in line very cleanly with that. The duality (Good vs Evil) is essential to existence.

    My feeling is that the Wheel of Time follows that similar idea (the ancient Aes Sedai symbol is the symbol of the whole series) but it was tweaked or pushed further by Brandon’s personal beliefs.

    • I doubt this. Robert Jordan did write the actual ending himself and I don’t believe that his wife and editor (same person) would actually allow such an influence on Jordan’s life work.

    • Stephan van Velzen

      I believe Robert Jordan was a Mason. I’m not very knowledgeable on the subject of Free Masonry, but isn’t opposition in all things a Masonic theme as well?

    • Dan From Canada
      Dan From Canada

      While that message is certainly in keeping with the tone of the finale, it still fails the test of whether the view presented is logically consistent. If the Dark One is literally the sole source of all evil in the world, and humanity would be incapable of even conceiving of evil without him, then humans in Randland still have no free will, and thus no purpose or meaning.
      If you hold to a more real-world religious belief (That God and Satan merely push humans, who have free will, to one side or the other, but that the choice remains theirs, then the view of a world without the Dark One that Rand tried to create isn’t what would actually happen, so we go to Jeskar’s point on this thread already, that the whole thing was a trick of Shai’tan or it was just poorly written.

  3. I’m not sure how accurate my assertions are but I feel you, and many are assuming incorrectly in this regard. The whole battle of good vs. evil is not Shai’Tan vs The Creator, it is Shai’Tan vs The dragon. This, I believe, is key within the bounds of this debate. While I don’t necessarily agree entirely with the points I am about to expand on, they came to mind and I felt needed to be expressed. The Creator is generally referred to as inherently good, however I don’t think that is specifically the case. The Creator would be inherently neutral, by definition, because he created everything, the good and the evil. He sealed The Dark One away, recognizing the chaos “his” influence could cause, however i think The Dark One is more of a manifestation of the evil that is possibly inherent in all humans. If this is the case, to “destroy, or kill” the manifestation of evil, could reasonably be assumed that then the possibility to do evil within us all, could be destroyed. Of course these are all philosophical reaches within a non-existent and fantasy universe, but i feel it is within the realm of logical progression for this to be the case.

    • Dan From Canada
      Dan From Canada

      This sort of gets into the common misconception that God and Satan are equals (They aren’t, Michael and Satan are equals, god is above them both) but given that most of the people objecting to my interpretation of the ending of this book object by claiming that, in fact, the Creator and Dark One are the exclusive sources of Good and Evil in the world, setting them as unequal and the Creator being neutral is difficult to argue.

      The other alternative which still sets the Creator apart from the Dark One is also a little more in line with my interpretation, namely that teh Creator represents Order which is being presented as good. The Pattern as a mandatory fate for a humanity with no free will. If that is “good” then the Creator is definitely a source of Good. I just think that’s no kind of world to live in or care about.

      • Except you are arguing the most monotonous and negative possible interpretation of that meaning. I agree with your first paragraph in that it is quite difficult to argue one way or the other given my original assertions, because of the requirement of making the Creator neutral, and the DO unequal, so I will leave that as a possibility and instead argue the second. The Creator is almost never explicitly referred to, Literally like less than 10 times in the whole series if my memory serves me well.

        There is a possibility that The Pattern could be the manifestation of the Creator, or of HIS will. Since the Creator was almost never explicitly mentioned we truly cannot make very many assumptions about him. I like that idea that the Creator, while as far as we know might be a actual “physical”, or metaphysical or what have you, being, I like to think he is more of a concept and does not directly involve himself with anything within Randland. What I like to think is, at the moment of creation, the Creator recognized the danger that is, possibly, the manifestation of the evil inherent within his creations(the people), and sealed it away in order to give his budding creation a chance to flourish. He knew, however, that eventually, since his creation would learn to channel his own power “the One Power”, that the prison would never be permanent. Then he introduced, or created, or whatever, Ta’varen, and made on of these ta’varen exceptionally powerful or intelligent or however he went about doing it, making it POSSIBLE, that his creations could, after making the mistake of releasing this manifestation of evil, do battle and seal him away again as was designed. Here’s where your lack of free will comes into trouble. We have only watched one iteration of the cycle, and we know that Ta’varen only influence their immediate area, as was seen especially when Rand returned from the mountain. If ANY of the nations that Rand won over, or conquered, had made drastically different decisions, if any of the legends and things had been destroyed or incorrect, things could have been drastically different. We know without a doubt, that the decisions for those things, or a good majority, were not influenced by a ta’varen.

        Please ignore any bad sentence structure or what not, I’m typing this out as it comes to mind, and quickly before i head off to work. I also mentioned and argued very incompletely ideas, so argue against them with a grain of salt. I would have to put a lot more thought into a response to fully articulate my thoughts on the possibilities.

        Also keep in mind, as I said before, that i don’t necessarily agree entirely with the points I’m arguing, I just fancy myself good at presenting points that I feel should be presented.

        • (Obviously spoilers below)

          At one point before Rand’s final battle with the Dark One, the Creator speaks directly to Rand. Not sure if that at all impacts the above argument, but thought I’d bring it up.

      • If we ignore the God/Satan analogy, and stick to the fiction – why can’t the Creator be a neutral force that created both good and evil? He wants balance, so when the Dark One gets too strong/influential/out of control, the pattern is designed to weave out a Dragon to set things back to balanced.

  4. Shai’tan (I’m allowed to say that without bad things happening now right? O.O) is just one embodiment of evil. In this case, its pain, jealousy, and all the character traits of the Forsaken. The different visions that Rand and the Shai’tan fight over are interpretations by Rand, and Shai’tan. The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, not as the Dragon wills, or even Shai’tan. Padan Fain, or Shaisam now, is the Pattern preparing for Rand possibly killing off Shai’tan. Rand has no real control over the Pattern, nobody does. It simply sets them on a path, and what they do on that path, changes what the balance is. Had Rand killed Shai’tan, Shaisam would have killed off everybody fighting at Shayol Ghul, and planted itself there, like it planned, becoming the next “Dark One” for the Dragon to fight later on when the Wheel spun him back out.

    This is why the prophecies are so vague, it is just what could happen. Min can see events, but now how they happen or when. In my opinion, the multitude of visions she see’s are the pattern cycling around what could happen, trying to find the balance it needs for this cycle.

    • Dan From Canada
      Dan From Canada

      I actually quite like the idea that, in the same way the Pattern was spitting up False Dragons really frequently before the pattern sorted out the Real one, it was also spinning up some potential Dark Ones to replace Shai’tan if he was killed.
      It preserves the idea of Free Will on the one hand, since Rand could totally kill or not kill the Dark One as he liked, but since the Pattern required a balance, there would just arise a new Dark One to take his place.
      I mean, the moment when Rand is outside the pattern, that was his chance to remake a new pattern that simply didn’t have a Dark One at all, but from inside the pattern, all he can do is try and try fight against it, but it’s going to keep trying and trying to weave back into its proper form. That wouldn’t bug me at all, but nothing like that appears anywhere in the books.

  5. I havent thought it through as much as you Free Will as a concept is troubling in the Wheel of Time.

  6. What if the purpose of the entire series was to emphasize the idea that as human beings we need to assume that we have free will, and allow ourselves to believe that we act in a manner in which free will is the only possible explanation, when in reality everything is predetermined, not by a higher being, but by statistics concerning likely outcomes of specific events individually, societally (totally not a word), and even globally. Basically if something happens, there is x amount of things that could follow that specific individual event, and they are rated on a likliehood scale of 1 to however many options there are. Then, there’s millions of these similar events, and the effects are all affecting each other, all over the worl, somewhat like the butterfly effect, I suppose. Theoretically, with someone who was proficient enough at math and statistics (I, too, am a History major, haha) a formula could be worked out that would, with some degree of accuracy, predict all future events, with its accuracy declining at a steady rate as said future gets farther and farther away on a linear timeline. So, this would basically be predeterminism, except without the acknowledgement of a higher power. What if the point of the series was to imply that mathematically, no one ever truly has a “choice” using the definition of choice we choose to subscribe to? Well, that was a much more verbose thought than I intended.

    • Dan From Canada
      Dan From Canada

      Between Chaos Theory and the Uncertainty Principle, perfect knowledge is a bit of an impossibility for things that obey the observable laws of our universe.
      There are scientific arguments for Determinism along those exact lines, but they don’t do very well against observable phenomena without getting into alternate universes (which is fine by me)

  7. The thing that I sometimes feel like I’m the only one who cares about, is Shadar Logoth. They were against both the Shadow and the Light. When Rand is cut by the dagger, Flinn remarks on how different the wound is to the one Ba’alzamon gave him in Book 2. So clearly the capacity for evil is within man by themselves.

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