Reading The Wheel of Time: Mat Faces a Gholam, and His Future, in Winter’s Heart (Part 13)

This week in Reading the Wheel of Time, we are covering Chapters 16 and 17 of Winter’s Heart, in which Mat has not one, not two, but three fateful encounters, and in which his pathological demand avoidance has him appearing before his current lover and his future wife covered in mud and sporting a very cheeky attitude. For a man who always wishes to be safe and away from danger, he certainly does like to stick his neck out, doesn’t he? I love him.

Mat, Thom, Beslan, and Olver make their way back to Ebou Dar, and Mat notices how little damage was done to the city when it was conquered.

Surprisingly, such trade as there was this time of year had hardly faltered with the city’s fall. The Seanchan encouraged it, though merchants and ship captains and crews were required to take an oath to obey the Forerunners, await the Return, and serve Those Who Come Home. In practice, that meant largely going about your life as usual, so few objected.

When they make their way through the gate everyone stops to stare at streets so full of Seanchan and carts and livestock that everyone can barely move. Mat realizes that the harbor had been full of ships as well, and that there could be even more beyond the horizon, waiting to dock.

“The Return,” Thom muttered, and if Mat had not been right at his shoulder he would not have heard. “While we were taking our ease with Luca, the Corenne has arrived.”

Mat suggests that Beslan and Thom make their way to the Palace via back alleys. He also warns them not to try anything, to wait for Rand to come and sort out the Seanchan. Thom suggests that whatever Mat ends up doing will be far more dangerous than anything he or Beslan might try, but agrees to take Olver back to the Palace.

Left on his own, Mat goes looking for an inn where he can rent a space where he can hide clothes and small bits of money—taking very much at a time from his chests in the Palace will alert Tylin that he’s trying to escape her. But he doesn’t have any luck and eventually gives up.

He has fully memorized the back alleys of Ebou Dar during his recovery, so it’s easy to make his way back to the Palace without encountering many people. He’s nearly to the square in front of the Palace when he trips and falls over, landing in the mud. Someone trips over top of him, sprawling in turn, and Mat turns to see the gholam that attacked them in the Rahad. He realizes that if he hadn’t tripped, the gholam would have had him easily.

Mat throws his walking staff, buying himself a second to pull the foxhead medallion off and swing it. He manages to burn the gholam with it, but he’s tired and sore, barely able to keep the thing off of him. Suddenly he hears a voice shouting “He’s down the alley!” and “Hurry, he’ll get away!”

The gholam hisses at him that it has been told to avoid notice, and so Mat will live a little longer. Mat runs after it as it retreats, aware that the thing will just come back from him again and wondering if the medallion could kill the creature. But the gholam finds a small hole in the brick wall and slithers into it, astounding Mat and the old man who has come to his aid.

The old man admits there wasn’t anyone with him—he used the ruse to scare off Mat’s attacker. However, seeing what the creature could do, he thinks maybe he and Mat both have the Dark One’s own luck. He introduces himself as Noal Charin, and Mat thinks that the man’s face looks familiar, though he can’t place it. He offers to put Noal up in the Palace with his own men.

Suddenly Mat realizes that the dice hadn’t stopped spinning when the gholam attacked him. Which means there is something else out there, still waiting for him.

Mat takes Noal to one of the stableyard gates, where both Seanchan and Ebou Dari soldiers are standing guard. He greets the Ebou Dari officer politely, and is irked when the man remarks that “she” will be upset when she sees the state of him. When a Seanchan messenger asks the Ebou Dari guards, not the Seanchan ones, to be let into the palace, Noal asks what the Seanchan would do if the Ebou Dari refused. The officer tells Mat to educate his friend on what should and shouldn’t be said aloud.

They go into the stableyard, and Mat explains about the Seanchan Seekers, who make the Whitecloak ones look tame by comparison. He also observes the sul’dam exercising their damane. The ranks of the damane include Sea Folk windfinders and Teslyn Baradon. Mat mutters that he supposes being collared is better than being dead—the Mistress of the Ships and her Master of the Blades had chosen to die at the stake—but when Noal asks if Mat really believes that, Mat isn’t sure he does.

Mat takes Noal and introduces him to his men. Seeing the state of him, they are eager to fight whoever it is, but Mat has Noal explain what happened. The man is an excellent storyteller. Mat tells them in the morning he’ll give them gold so that they can buy passage out of the city, but they all refuse. Noal remarks he has seen great leaders like Mat before.

Mat leaves, heading to his own quarters to get cleaned up, but so many servants remark on the state of him, warning that Tylin won’t like it and offering to help him get cleaned up, that he gets annoyed. He also runs into Juilin, who is supposed to stay in the servants’ areas. Mat warns Juilin about the gholam, but Ju​​lin observes, looking guilty, that he has a reason to stay. Mat deduces that he has met a woman. He tries to advise that Juilin can meet plenty of others, but Juilin gets huffy with him, calling Mat “My Lord” and reminding him of what Tylin said she would do to Mat if she caught him in such a state again.

And that was the stone that broke the wagon clean in two.

Mat sails brazenly into Tylin’s apartments and throws his hat across the room, only to stop dead when he realizes that there are other people with her—and more importantly the dice have stopped tumbling in his head. They land so hard his head is ringing, putting him in a state of shock as he takes in Tylin, Suroth, various servants, and a petite woman wearing a veil, with red-lacquered nails and a completely shaven head.

The woman, Tuon, begins scolding Suroth for not making the streets safe, and Mat can see that Tylin is angry with him for causing a problem. He tries to assert that he fell down, but Tuon can tell that he’s lying. When she suggests that this might be because Mat fears Tylin’s anger, Mat gets reckless again, telling her that he was hurt during the Seanchan attack. Tuon seems intrigued that Mat would have fought the Seanchan if he could have and circles him, taking particular note of his signet ring.

The woman Anath advises Tuon to just buy him if she fancies him so much, and Tuon asks Tylin to name her price. Tylin awkwardly explains that Mat is a free man and can’t be sold.

“The girl turned away from him as though dismissing him from her mind. “You are afraid, Tylin, and under the Light, you should not be.” Gliding to Tylin’s chair, she lifted her veil with both hands, baring the lower half of her face, and bent to kiss Tylin lightly, once on each eye and once on the lips. Tylin looked astounded. “You are a sister to me, and to Suroth,” Tuon said in a surprisingly gentle voice. “I myself will write your name as one of the Blood. You will be the High Lady Tylin as well as Queen of Altara, and more, as was promised you.”

She invites Tylin to accompany her to her rooms and Tylin accepts. As the so’jin are fixing the High Ladies’ clothing, Tylin and Mat take a moment apart, and Mat explains about the gholam. He suggests it might be safer for everyone if he left, but Tylin asserts that the thing cannot have him, and neither can High Lady Tuon. Furthermore, she promises to dress Mat in pink as punishment for this interruption.

Tylin, Suroth, Tuon, and their entourage leave. Mat sits alone in Tylin’s room as a servant clears up, puzzling over the dice stopping and how nothing seems to have happened. Always before when the dice stopped something had happened to him immediately. But when Tylin returns and breaks out the pink ribbons, he has something else to think about.

I don’t understand Tylin. I really liked her character back when she was just interacting with Nynaeve and Elayne, but her behavior towards Mat is abhorrent. In the beginning it wasn’t too bad, and I thought it might be interesting for Mat to unlearn some of his beliefs about proper gender roles when it comes to who is “supposed” to be the pursuer and who is “supposed” to be pursued. The man likes money and nice things, after all, and gambling and relaxing and not having responsibilities. If being a “pretty” was just being a sugar baby for a while, I think he might actually really enjoy it.

But of course, it’s not working out that way at all. For one, Tylin doesn’t want Mat to have much freedom to do the things he enjoys, even though she must be busy and can’t be spending all her time with him. She seems to delight in making him uncomfortable, and when he doesn’t behave and do as she wishes, she punishes him. Ironic that she had to tell Tuon that Mat was a free man who couldn’t be bought or sold, given that she clearly does not want him to have much freedom, and is quite content to treat him as a prisoner, which isn’t a position very far from being owned. Mat himself could have laughed when Tylin uses the term “free man,” and for once, I wouldn’t say he was being dramatic.

It’s unclear how much of Tylin’s controlling and abusive behavior towards Mat is typical for Altaran/Ebou Dari culture and now much is specific to her and might be considered crossing a line by others from her nation. But even if the general shape of Mat and Tylin’s relationship is normal for Ebou Dar, even including some aspect of control exerted over the younger party, we do have clues that Tylin has gone too far even for her own culture. The biggest one is, of course, Beslan’s willingness to help Mat plan his escape. Beslan was initially very approving of his mother’s relationship with Mat, and even now has pointed out that his mother needs the distraction. If he is willing to help Mat escape her, and while he’s also focused on how to resist the Seanchan, I think Beslan believes that his mother has become more than “a little” too possessive. Of course he’s going to downplay what he says about it, but the action speaks louder than the words.

Even the servants, who used to be amused by Mat’s predicament, mostly seem concerned now about keeping him from getting in trouble. Maybe it’s because they need their mistress to be in as good of a mood as possible, given everything that has happened, but there also might be some genuine concern for Mat as well. Even Tuon, who has just met both of them, wonders if Mat is afraid of Tylin, and she is right about that, though Mat tries to downplay it in his own head.

And Tylin demands so much more of Mat than to let himself be cosseted and have a lot of good sex with her. She doesn’t just want him to let her spoil him and to make her feel wanted in return—she’s taking his clothes and controlling his access to his own money. When he doesn’t behave in the way she wants, she punishes him, including by withholding food and, it seems, in sexual encounters. Not to mention the extreme power imbalance here—as the queen she could do much more than order the servants not to feed him. If she wanted she could have him arrested, or possibly even executed. I don’t think she would, but the threat exists purely because of their respective positions in society. And when Mat brings up the gholam, Tylin doesn’t show much concern about his safety, or about the safety of the people who might be close to him.

I guess that there’s a chance that Tylin doesn’t really understand the full threat the gholam poses, but she was warned by Nynaeve and Elayne, and the thing is clearly shadowspawn. If she cares about Mat so much, it would certainly be in his best interest to be allowed to try to escape it, and if she loves her people, she should want to do anything in her power to get such a creature out of the city. And the only thing in her power is to let Mat leave and hope the gholam follows him. Instead, she just tells Mat “it can’t have you,” as though her saying so will make any difference at all.

I can certainly appreciate how impotent Tylin feels, however. She’s a very interesting queen, in that she has the authority of a ruler but only over a very small part of the country. Perhaps that is part of the reason she behaves the way she does—the status she holds and the power she wields is very great compared to those under her rule, but compared to other rulers you could almost say she isn’t really a queen in anything but name. Actually, in many ways she’s a lot like Berelain, who is the ruler of her own country but one who doesn’t get the respect of other rulers and even of high-ranking lords of larger, more powerful nations.

And now that I think about it, my response to the character of Berelain was very similar to my response to Tylin. When she’s interacting with other women Berelain is interesting, clever, and even admirable. But put her around Perrin (or Rand, before he scared her off) and she seems like a different person, and her motivations don’t make any sense. Like Berelain, Tylin had a great introduction and her interactions with Nynaeve and Elayne, especially that first one, really made her stand out among the nobility our Two Rivers’ heroes have encountered.  And then she met Mat, and she turned into this weird sex predator for no really discernible reason.

Of course, it’s not unrealistic for a person who seems interesting, smart, and even morally upright to have such a flaw, but after being so frustrated by Berelain, seeing such a similar story unfolding with Tylin and Mat makes me wonder if Jordan isn’t driving at a larger theme. The way The Wheel of Time navigates gender politics makes me a little wary of such an exploration, but I’ll try to maintain an open mind and see where this goes.

It is interesting, also, to note that Berelain and Faile actually are very similar people in many respects, and now Mat is trying to escape a queen while (as yet unknowingly) drawing closer to the future Empress he is fated to marry. As Tylin and Tuon attempt to understand each other, the one keeps Mat a prisoner while the other is going to be his wife.

The culture clash between the Seanchan and those they invade has always been interesting to watch. Every time it’s brought up, I find myself wondering if the Seanchan actually believe that these foreigners they are conquering understand the oath they are swearing. They certainly behave as though they believe it—but I think it’s more likely that they are so dedicated to their societal rules that they expect those they conquer to either adapt or suffer the consequences, which is no more or less than they expect from their own citizens. Mat notices the hanged people on the gates of Ebou Dar and that the Seanchan are punished equally for the same crimes—even those of the Blood are held to the same standards, and although their punishments are carried out differently, one can safely assume that if someone like Tylin or Beslyn were caught breaking a law, they would be also treated the way the Seanchan High Lords and Ladies are.

The Seanchan societal structure already relies on the idea that those who suffer consequences according to culture and law have brought it upon themselves, and whether it be through intentional illegal action, honest mistakes, or failures makes no difference. So why should it make a difference if those they conquer fail to uphold their oaths because they do not understand them, or because they swore them under duress, or because they lied while swearing with the exact intention of breaking the oath at the first opportunity. The consequences are the same, and the responsibility to act according to what is expected of you is on the individual. This is how some of Tuon’s siblings were made da’covale, even though they were children of the Empress herself. And in the same way, this is how those who perform with the most excellence find themselves raised in societal station.

It is a system that treats everyone equally, but not with equity. But for those who believe in it wholeheartedly, as Tuon does, the two would feel like one in the same.

We see this culture clash between her and Tylin. Tuon seems absolutely genuine in her desire for Tylin to be comfortable and content in her new role, for her not to fear Tuon and to see her as a sister (though not like the actual sisters she had to compete with, I’ll wager). It either would not occur to her or not matter to her that, from Tylin’s perspective, her home is being invaded and her culture replaced with that of the invaders. She might control more territory now that she did before the Seanchan’s arrival, she might be Queen of Altar in name, but she will not be passing her own laws, or ruling as she sees fit. She will be enforcing Seanchan laws, and answering to the Empress, and the consequences of failing to do so will always remain dire.

Perhaps many Seanchan find comfort in the intense hierarchical structure of their society. It prizes ability, after all, and at least in theory suggest that talent and strength and brains are (somewhat) more important than what class you were born into. Yes, it’s quite possible to fall very far through accident or failure, but the trade off is having life’s rules be very clear, if complicated. In theory, this sort of structure prevents the high from abusing the low for no reason other than their own whims or feelings of superiority—though in practice of course human nature will always play a significant factor, and any social system can be abused, or ignored, by those with power and influence.

And let us not forget, the Seanchan are invaders to the Altarans, but the Seanchan Empress and those of the Blood who trace their lineage back to Luthair believe they are reclaiming something stolen, and the people of this continent have forgotten who the land actually belongs to. This, too, is a mistake that brings its own punishment, and will earn little sympathy for those who might struggle to adapt to Seanchan rule.

Still, Tuon seems to be honest and dedicated, and loyal to both the letter and the spirit of Seanchan law. She performance penance when she abuses her power, she follows omens and listens to her Truthspeaker even when she does not agree with Anath, and she takes an active role in caring for the people in her charge. If one were to accept for a moment the morality of her culture, she would seem to qualify as a good person.

Of course, much of the Seanchan society is entirely amoral, especially the attitudes towards damane. But what’s interesting to me is the idea that a woman who is destined to be the Empress of this rigid, highly controlled society is also destined to marry Mat, who is figuratively and literally an agent of chaos and chance. What effect would such a person have on the ruler of the Seanchan, and how will that effect trickle down into the rest of society, especially when the Seanchan settlers mix and intermingle with the people of this continent, with all their varied cultural beliefs and different laws and customs?

That remains to be seen, but in the meantime, I, like Tuon, will take special note that Mat’s signet ring has ravens on it. Bought by chance, this object also seems to herald the wife he is destined to have, since the Roses and Ravens are the symbol of the Empress herself. And is he the fox, perhaps? He’s crafty enough for such a description, certainly.

I’m also so curious about Noal. He’s obviously someone important, and not just because Mat thought his face looked familiar. Some of the way he phrases things was very puzzling to me, such as when Mat explains the Seanchan Seekers.

“I hadn’t known that.” He sounded irritated with himself. “You must spend a good deal of time with the Seanchan. Do you know the High Lady Suroth as well, then? I must say, I had no idea you had such high connections.”

I can certainly understand why someone might feel awkward and irritated at making a potentially dangerous mistake, but Noal’s reaction feels more like a kid’s reaction than that of an adult, as does the way he protests when the officer initially becomes upset with him. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the way he’s stumbled into Mat’s life, the way he says “I had no idea you were so important” as though Mat is someone he’s known for a long time just seems… significant. Plus, this is Mat. When is the last time he made a random fortuitous connection that wasn’t important.

Noal just seems to know things, and I think that will matter later in the story. I was also struck by his compassion and insight when Mat observed that being made a damane was still better than being dead, and Noal asked if he really believed that. Mat had the grace to realize that he didn’t, and the empathy to relate to the damane in their literal collars while he himself is trapped by a physical one.

Will Mat succeed in escaping from Tylin? Will he find out who Tuon really is before he goes, or will the truth remain hidden until much later? What rebellious act are Thom and Beslan considering? Will Mat figure out Alludra’s riddle? And what exactly is Juilin up to? So many questions, but we’ll be staying with Mat in Ebou Dar as we continue on to Chapters 18 and 19. Until then, dear readers! icon-paragraph-end

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