This week on Reading The Wheel of Time, we’re covering the middle of the prologue of Winter’s Heart, in which Elayne and Aviendha go through the Aiel first-sisters ceremony. It’s a really interesting section, and I mostly really liked it, despite a few quibbles here and there.
Leaving Dyelin, Birgitte, the Sea Folk, and the Asha’man behind, Elayne follows Nandera down the hall, wrapped only in the cloak. She has realized the timing of all this was intentional, to make sure that adopting Aviendha was important enough to Elayne. Nandera remarks that Elayne is sharp to see it, and that she almost put a stop to the men turning their backs except that Taim kept sneaking glances and it was clear that Elayne felt them. Elayne is furious at the revelation, but Nandera doesn’t see the big deal and suggests that Elayne focus on the woman she wants for a sister instead of thinking about men.
Elayne is taken to a room where Aviendha, also naked, is waiting with over a dozen Wise Ones. Elayne is surprised to see that Amys has Traveled from Cairhien, and expresses a wish that Melaine were in attendance as well. But she is told that the weaves used in the ceremony could touch Melaine’s unborn children, making them part of Aviendha and Elayne’s bond, or possibly even killing them. Elayne hadn’t realized that the One Power would be part of the ceremony, but is assured that nothing that happens will affect anyone outside of the room—at most, Birgitte will be dimly aware of some of Elayne’s experiences.
Elayne and Aviendha sit in the circle of Wise Ones. Two of them, Viendre and Tamela, symbolically stand in for their mothers, while Amys offers herself to “suffer the pangs of birth” for them. Next, Aviendha and Elayne are asked intimate questions about how they view each other; what the other’s best and worst qualities are; what is the most childish thing about the other; and what about the other woman makes them the most jealous. As they answer, weaves of saidar capture their voices, releasing the answers at the same time after both have finished speaking.
When Elayne hears good things about herself from Aviendha, Viendre cuts Elayne down, countering the positive narrative. When Elayne’s answers criticize Aviendha. Viendre points out the ways in which Elayne is no better, just as guilty of the same flaws. Tamela does the same for Aviendha. When that exercise is over, the two prospective sisters are told to slap each other as hard as they can, first with one hand, and then the other, knocking each other down.
Monaelle, who is leading the ceremony, tells them that they may leave now, if they wish, but if they still love each other enough to go on then they should embrace, which they both do, both apologizing profusely.
Monaelle was standing over them, now. “You will know anger at one another again, you will speak harsh words, but you will always remember that you have already struck her. And for no better reason than you were told to. Let those blows pass for all you might wish to give. You have toh toward one another, toh you cannot repay and will not try to, for every woman is always in her first-sister’s debt. You will be born again.”
Elayne can feel the weaves of saidar changing, and the room grows darker. Everything fades, including her sense of herself as Elayne.
She experiences being in the womb, aware of another in there with her, and experiences birth. When she eventually comes back to herself and recalls who she is, she finds herself and Aviendha both being cradled by Amys.
“This is my daughter Aviendha,” Amys said, “and this is my daughter Elayne, born on the same day, within the same hour. May they always guard one another, support one another, love one another.” She laughed softly, tiredly, fondly. “And now will someone bring us garments before my new daughters and I all freeze to death?”
Elayne did not care at that moment if she did freeze to death. She clung to Aviendha in laughter and tears. She had found her sister. Light, she had found her sister!”
Does anyone else remember when that study from BYU came out in 2010 that said having a sister makes you a happier and better person? As someone with two sisters of my own, and who once considered myself a sister in turn, I was more than a little tickled by the study’s claims. And as I was reading this section of the prologue, I kept thinking about the conversations I saw online for weeks after, as people told their own stories about growing up with sisters and siblings.
You all know how I feel about defining people by applying binary gender rules. Jordan does it a lot, and often in silly or egregious ways, but it’s not always wrong. In the modern US, for example, the cultural expectations of women (that they should be kind and caring, that they are gentle, that they should be protected, that they are good mediators) can result in women having a certain kind of close and intimate bond with each other that men are often not able to achieve, because men are not encouraged or allowed that when they are young and developing. We’ve increasingly seen in online conversation that many adult men feel isolated as a result, and that people in heterosexual relationships often experience communication issues because of the way men and women can feel like they come from different cultures. (Men are from Mars, etc. etc.)
The problem, of course, comes when society asserts that these differences are innate and immutable, rather than the results of rules that culture created and that are enforced on children more or less from the moment of their birth. Jordan also makes this mistake, building gendered stereotypes into the very fabric of creation with saidin and saidar and failing to create more than minor differences in how different cultures identify and define gendered norms. That being said, however, throughout the series you can see Jordan’s curiosity around—and perhaps even jealousy of—the communication and connection that women have with each other. Although Perrin, Rand, and Mat are good friends, I think it’s very relevant that none of them have found anyone with whom they share the kind of deep friendship that Elayne and Aviendha have with each other, or even that the two of them have with Nynaeve and Elayne has with Min.
(Perrin has probably gotten the closest with Gaul and Elyas. Mat is good with people, but his are casual relationships with fellow soldiers and gamblers. Rand is, of course, aloof with everyone—the closest he gets is with Bashere and Lan, men who don’t exhibit fear of him, and who take on slightly mentor-y roles towards him. I would guess that both Lan and Bashere probably remind Rand of Tam a little, which helps him be less suspicious of them.)
So while I dislike the assertion that women are better able to connect with each other because of some innate biological reality, I do think that Jordan’s exploration of these connections is interesting, and can be very insightful. The Wheel of Time is very much about how secrecy, shame, and fear continually interfere with the forces of good (both for men and women) when it comes to working together and communicating effectively. Sometimes this is the result of interference by Dark Forces, while other times the main problem might be one or more individuals’ own personal flaws—but either way, the results are very significant, and can often be frustrating for the reader, who has a much clearer picture of what’s happening than any single character in the story.
This week, however, we have the exact opposite of that situation. Aviendha and Elayne were initially unsure how they would build a relationship together, and were dealing with the complications of already knowing, before they even met, that they were destined to share the same man. They were both very understandably nervous and guarded about it, but they still went into their prospective friendship with openness and a desire to trust. Now, not only have they become very close and very secure with each other, they have actively chosen to undergo a ritual that tests that security and demands even more honesty and vulnerability than that which they already share. And although the first-sister relationship is required under Aiel law for them to eventually be sister-wives, it is made very clear that this is a relationship they both want, independently of any connection to or for Rand.
Like Elayne, I assumed that the first-sisters ceremony was just a regular type of commitment ceremony, and I was surprised by the fact that there was so much saidar, and a whole simulated (re)birth, involved. But my favorite part of the process is the requirement of being so honest with each other, that each had to say out loud not only what she loves and respects her soon-to-be sister, but also what she sees as the other’s flaws, what about the other each might be jealous or resentful of. Even the requirement to physically strike each other is designed to increase trust and intimacy between the two. As Monaelle points out, they will have fights and disagreements in the future. But each woman has now affirmed, for the other and most importantly for herself, that she loves her sister more than she might resent a slight or be angered by a confrontation. She has now forgiven insults and blows, and asked forgiveness in turn, and when they argue in the future, they will be able to look back on this argument, simulated just as the birth is simulated, and yet made real through being experienced, just as the shared experience of being in the womb is made real.
And if you think about it, what the Wise Ones have given Aviendha and Elayne’s friendship is quite a gift. Even the closest and most loving relationship will experience conflict many times over the span of its existence. People hurt each other, both intentionally and unintentionally, because human beings are messy and imperfect. The truest relationships survive these conflicts because the people in them choose to work on them, to forgive each other, to recommit to the relationship. Love, platonic, romantic, sisterly, is a choice we make, and one we must constantly affirm.
Usually, very deep relationships are either forged over a good deal of time or because the people involved go through an intense experience together. And often “intense” means “traumatic.” It’s really incredible that the Aiel have a way to create a sort of crucible for these first-sibling relationships that is intense but also joyful and ultimately very positive. (I might ask why there isn’t actually a first-sibling option for people of different genders who want to become siblings this way, but I mean… I know why.) It feels very, very special, particularly in this series, and it got me thinking about how some of the Forsaken have been baffled by the existence of weaves that were not known in their day, like the Warder bond. I wonder how what the Wise Ones do in the first-sisters ceremony evolved, and whether the extreme loss that they experienced during the breaking might have something to do with the development of a type of channeling that allows one to have a new sibling, and also a new mother, as it turns out.
I had such a pang in my heart for Elayne when Monaelle asked if their mothers were present. It’s easy to forget that Elayne (and everyone else) still thinks that Morgase is dead. I feel like Jordan is going to keep that secret going for a very long time, and I am definitely side-eying him about it.
I’m also looking a little askance at the term sister-wives. Jordan didn’t come up with it of course—it’s used in Mormon polyamory to describe women married to the same man, and possibly elsewhere. But the term has never sat right with me, in part because it makes the whole thing sound a little incest-y, and in part because it seems like the term is designed to make if very and aggressively clear that there there is nothing remotely sexual or romantic about the relationship between the women. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an arrangement like that, but the insistence on polyamory as only being patriarchal and heteronormative is. You can almost feel the “no-homo” in the term “sister-wives,” both in our culture and in the Aiel’s.
And then there is the fact that the first-sister ceremony has the participants experiencing being together in the womb as twins and being born to the same mother, which does increase the incesty-feeling a bit for me. Maybe that’s a smidge nit-picky, but I feel like it would have been easy enough to choose a different term other than sister-wives for women.
I do, however, really understand now why Aiel culture requires women to become first-sisters before they can be married to the same man. What the Wise Ones are essentially doing is requiring such women to learn how to work together, face conflict, and manage their relationship effectively. Communication, trust, and teamwork is necessary in any relationship, of course, and the more people are involved in the dynamic, the more those things become essential for everyone to function within the group. In any polyamourous configuration.
Like Elayne, I wonder what kind of uncomfortable situation Aviendha was put into when she was called to the ceremony. Perhaps she was interrupted fulfilling some other duty of hers, something she would feel shame leaving undone, or would incur toh for. I didn’t much care for Nandera’s choice to interrupt Elayne while there were Asha’man there. I guess the point is that the Aiel don’t have the same kind of predation of men against women that the wetland cultures do, but it always twinges me the wrong way whenever a Wise One or Maiden is like “of course men like to look at naked women, why are you being weird?” If Nandera had any idea who Taim was, or suspected that he was a Darkfriend, she might have viewed things differently. Then again, maybe that would have been an even better test? But from a narrative standpoint it did make me a little uncomfortable.
I mean, it kind of makes sense that they have to get naked to be born, but also it kind of doesn’t? And once again we’re looking at a female channelers having to get naked for some sort of logical but also kind of silly reason. At least Nandera didn’t make Elayne walk the whole way without the blanket. Although if she had, it would have been an echo of the old Aes Sedai tradition of walking from your raising to your Ajah quarters “clad only in the Light,” which amused me a little. But I don’t think walking around naked for secret Aiel ceremonies would be a great impression for Elayne to leave on people. At least until she’s actually been crowned.
My final thought was about Melaine. I know Melaine has a strong connection with Min since Min had a viewing of Melaine’s future children. But I don’t remember when Elayne got to know her. Maybe that happened off screen, so to speak, but it did feel symbolically relevant that Elayne has that connection to Melaine, since Min is going to be the third partner to Rand. Also the fact that Melaine is going to have twins parallels the fact that the first-sister bond is also a twin bond.
Twins are always important and symbolic in fantasy and science fiction, as they often are in mythology and folklore as well. I like the idea of giving two people who are so dedicated to each other a bit of that fabled “twin-connection.”
Next week we’ll finish up the prologue, catching up with Toveine and then with Rand and Min. Rand has some momentous plans, and I can’t wait to see how they unfold.
Happy Turkey Day to those who are taking part in that, and I hope you all have a wonderful week.
Sylas K Barrett would like to shout out his own two sisters, for whom he is continually grateful, now and in childhood. I don’t know who I would be without them.