The Wheel of Time and Arthurian Legends

Books That many character names, place names and themes in the Wheel of Time are based on Arthurian Legend is hardly a secret. Some of the parallels are quite subtle.  I didn’t make the connection between Egwene al’Vere and Guinevere until I came across it on some WoT fan site or other.  Tar Valon and Avalon is another one I confess I failed to spot first time.

Robert Jordan’s premise is that through the cyclical machinations of the Wheel of Time, historical events and people in our real world turn up in highly distorted form as legends in the Wheel of Time universe and vice versa.  There are some examples of the former in Chapter 4 of The Eye of the World where Thom Merrilin rattles off a list of tales he knows including “Lenn, who flew to the moon” (John Glenn), “Mosk the Giant (Moscow) and his wars with Elsbet, Queen of All (Queen Elizabeth)”, “Materese the Healer, Mother of the Wondrous Ind (Mother Teresa)”.

Most of the legend creation we encounter goes in the opposite direction, where characters and events described in the WoT books are presented as the retrofitted backstory to account for the Arthurian and other legends we are familiar with.

In some cases we have two WoT “origins” for a single Arthurian character. For example Arthur himself has two WoT antecedents, Artur Paendrag Tanreall (Artur Hawkwing) and Rand al’Thor (al’Thor -> Arthur).  Both are great rulers, albeit at different times, and (under Jordan’s construct) the names have fused over repeated retellings into a single Arthur figure.

Another example is Merlin. We can postulate Thom Merrilin as an obvious antecedent noting his past role as Court Bard.  But he cannot channel (do magic) so how is he known to us as a great wizard? The answer is in the second component from which the name Merlin is derived, namely the Amyrlin Seat, referring to a wielder of great magic power. Jordan wants us to imagine that the names of Merrilin and the Amyrlin have become conjoined into a single character named Merlin who is both attendant at a royal court and wielder of magic.

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One Response to The Wheel of Time and Arthurian Legends

  1. This idea of portraying events in books as “the real story” giving rise to well-known legends is not new. Tolkien used it extensively in The Lord of the Rings. A favourite example would be Frodo at the The Prancing Pony in Bree, singing the original complete version of the song that has been passed down to modern times in abbreviated form as “Hey Diddle Diddle”.

    This is a device to give a feeling of depth and reality to a story. It feels easier to get immersed in it if you can think of it as the true retelling of events long ago, distorted echoes of which survive in our songs and legends.

    A related device, also used by Tolkien, is the invention of a rich, internally consistent historical backdrop which goes back aeons, allied to peppering the narrative with references to characters and events drawn from this imagined back-story.

    With both devices used in tandem, we get historical echoes going both forward and backward in time from the main narrative in the book, reinforcing the sense of a self-consistent, believable universe.

    Jordan has unashamedly taken his cue from Tolkien in the use of these literary devices, much as he has borrowed other concepts from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But then again, so has every other successful fantasy writer since those books were published. Tolkien did rather define the genre and the elements which make it work. Jordan and others have built on that platform adding their own creativity and ideas.

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