In which Rand and company travel to Toman Head by Portal Stone, a trip that spans several months and many, many lifetimes.
I am for the first time devoting an entire reread post to just a single chapter, both because the Portal Stone-provided glimpse at the multiverse is one of my favorite chapters and concepts in the entire series and because I believe it is heavily underrated by the fandom as a whole.
There is much that could be ascribed to Portal Stones that gets ignored or credited elsewhere. And here, with the visions of the future, Jordan offers us, ahem, a portal into his vision for the full story.
Jordan only shows us what Rand sees. Or like a tiny slice of it, since just as Phil was trapped in Groundhog Day for eight years, eight months, and sixteen days, I think we can surmise that Rand spent four months viewing potential lives. This is narratively convenient—it gives Fain time to establish himself in Toman Head and time for Egwene et al. to get in some training at the White Tower before their own journey while allowing Mat to avoid dying without the dagger—but it also gives weight to what the characters are going through, living their lives over and over again, mostly ending in nasty consequences, for a mentally staggering chunk of time. And we may not have seen what the other characters saw, but the hints Jordan gives us are tantalizing.
Rand first sight of Ingtar after recovering from the Portal Stone experience is Ingtar with “his sword out, gripping the hilt so hard the blade shook, staring at nothing.” Shortly after he insists franticly that he walks “in the Light.” His menu of possible lives drove home the gravity of pledging his soul to the Dark One in desperation and the difficulty of forsaking that decision. He doth protest too much when he reiterates that he will “pull down Shayol Ghul’s power.” He knows now that isn’t an option. Once he accepts that he will be ready to give his life for a much lesser blow against the Dark One.
Masema is weeping openly. We aren’t given anything more, but repeatedly living lives that have to as likely or not end with the Last Battle surely plays a role in his conversion to wild-eyed zealotry after the events in Falme.
Perrin has “his fingers dug into his face as if he wanted to rip away whatever he had seen, or perhaps rip out the eyes that had seen it” (emphasis added). A few minutes later, Perrin tells Rand “We don’t have many choices really, do we, Rand? Whatever happens, whatever we do, some things are almost always the same.” This is, of course, a key theme in the series. And we can guess just what that fixed point is for Perrin based on his reaction. He was always going to end a Wolfbrother. It is written. Not that it appears to have done much to make Perrin accept his lot. It may have made things worse by showing him how seeking the Wolf inside himself can go badly.
Mat’s experience may undercut the Truth in the Portal Stone lives, though. Mat is “huddled in a ball with his arms wrapped around his head.” Visibly frightened, Mat grabs Rand’s coat and pleads that he’d “never tell anyone about—about you. I wouldn’t betray you.” On original reading, I took this as foreshadowing that Mat would do just that. I fully expected a betrayal by a major character, influenced no doubt in part by Dragonlance, and perhaps Boromir in The Lord of the Rings, but it never comes. And it is Perrin, not Mat, who comes much closer to betraying Rand. Mat fights his destiny, but he never considers betraying Rand. I am not willing to dismiss his reaction out of hand, though. Based on the lives Rand lives, it is likely that Mat’s lives also branch early and diverge wildly. I find it entirely believably that Mat inadvertently (or partially so) betrays Rand while under the influence of the dagger or while he remains as immature and foolish as he is at the open of the series.
There is another possibility. Rand channeling seems one fixed point in his lives, and the Seanchan, but there is another. Each ends the same way: “I have won again, Lews Therin.” The repetition serves a narrative purpose, reiterating that we are seeing that 1-in-14,000,000 chance.
If Rand never leaves the Two Rivers, if he joins the Queen’s Guard, if he becomes a gleeman or a sailor, then the Dark One wins. But how likely are any of those? The Pattern will only brook so much agency from ta’veren, as we will see demonstrated repeatedly. Portal Stones can take you to worlds that are very unlikely, but the lives Rand sees perhaps defy all probability.
It is possible, I think, that the Portal Stone was a trap. Not by Fain, who couldn’t do such a thing. But rather by Ishmael. After all, he demonstrates a great range of skills throughout the series, denigrating the other Forsaken for not developing theirs. He knows enough about vacuoles to use them, why not Portal Stones? A trap designed not to kill Rand or even to stop him, but rather as a bit of psychological warfare. It is possible that it was Ishmael who closed the Ways to Rand et al., but I think it is more likely that was an accidental side effect from Fain encountering the Black Wind (he wanted Rand to follow him, after all), and Ishmael was merely opportunistic.
There is some great imagery here, especially of the rotting disease that afflicts male channelers. The threat of the Seanchan is established and that of the Dark One reestablished. No one should think the Seanchan done for at the end of the book after this sequence. But it also establishes the Dark One as the greater threat, a hint of the dangerous bargain Rand will cut. There are also some neat allusions here. The lives spent as shepherd and carpenter allude to Rand’s messianic role. He does become a king, and a beggar’s staff appears in one of Min’s viewings. This sequence gets forgotten, but it presages the glass column sequence so frequently mentioned as one of The Wheel of Time’s best.
You can find all of my reread posts at The Wheel of Time Reread Index.
 Where do the huge hordes of Trollocs come from? Where does their food come from? Unlike Mordor, the Blight doesn’t have a breadbasket. The answer? Portal Stones.
 Based on the number of “flickers” in the text, Rand “lived” at least 38 lives, but Rand’s POV itself describes living “A hundred lives. More” and that is before the long string of flickers at the end of the sequence. If he lives over a hundred lives over the course of four months, that is well over half a day spent experiencing each.