Telling and Showing in Tar Valon

“Show, don’t tell,” goes the old adage. Thankfully, that truism is losing power. One of the early episodes of The Wheel of Time does an excellent job demonstrating how those two modes do not have to be mutually exclusive. (This will contain some light spoilers, but only for the first episode.)

So, who’s watching The Wheel of Time?

:: raises hand ::

Adaptation Excitement

I have to say, by and large, I’m really digging this show. I love to see a fantasy series that doesn’t try to apologize for or hide its fantasy elements. Also, this is the first time in a long time I’ve gotten to enjoy the excitement of an adaptation. I didn’t read the Game of Thrones books until the series was already under way. I’ve never been a comic-book guy, so I’ve not experienced quite that thrill in watching the MCU develop. And even though I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings well before Peter Jackson blessed us with the latter and cursed us with the former, I only read them after having seen the Rankin-Bass/Ralph Bakshi adaptations so much that, when I read the books, my imagination was populated with pre-existing imagery.

But I had been reading Robert Jordan’s series before the Amazon series was announced. I say that not to establish any sort of street cred, but only to point out that this is the first time in a long time when I’ve gotten to see how a different imagination manifests something that had previously existed primarily in my own. And the series, so far, has been very mindful of the overall feel and point of the narrative, but not mindlessly devoted to the minutiae. This means I get both the delight of recognizing a place I have been before and the joy of discovering somewhere new.

Quick Recap

The scene that cemented The Wheel of Time series for me occurs in the second episode: “Shadow’s Waiting.” In the previous episode, our “core four” protagonists (Rand, Egwene, Mat, and Perrin) have just discovered that one of them may be the reincarnation of an ancient wizard-king who kicked evil’s ass 90% of the way to the curb. Well, evil has had a chance to pick itself up, roll up its sleeves, adjust its bowler hat, and stalk back into the fray. Now, all four of them are targets (evil isn’t too sure which one of them is Wizard-King, Jr., either), so they’ve had to leave their home town to keep it safe and are on the road to Tar Valon, where the Aes Sedai (a badass organization of lady wizards) are headquartered. They are escorted there by Moiraine, an Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah (more on that later), and her Warder (think soul-bonded bodyguard) Lan.

The Scene

While on the trail, our core four try to lift their spirits by singing a folk-song they know about setting out on a journey and remembering the generations that came before them. A couple key phrases interest Moiraine: “Sing of Manetheren” and “Weep for the blood of Aemon.” She asks the others about these phrases, but is told it’s just part of the song, and doesn’t have any real significance to them.

That’s when she shares the lore behind the song, which has apparently been lost to them. Their hometown had sprung up on the site of a bloody battle, centuries before. Aemon was an ancient king trying to defend the land against the armies of darkness. Manetheren was the ancient name of the land the characters grew up in. A neighboring kingdom that promised Aemon and Manetheren aid if he could hold out. But the aid never came, and after holding out longer than should have been possible, Aemon and his army was slain.

The Song

Though it’s not super-relevant to the point I want to make here, I just want to say how enchanted I was by the musical choice in this scene. Whenever there’s a song in a high fantasy series, it usually sounds the same: stilted, ancient-sounding melodies sung in ethereal voices. Think of “Far over the Misty Mountains Cold” from The Hobbit. The faux-medieval trappings of most high fantasies (WoT included) carries with it a default that all cultural trappings, including the music, must also be faux-medieval. But rather than our core four partaking in some kind of madrigal mystery tour, the Manetheren song sounds more like an American spiritual,1 complete with call and response, rather than some dire dirge in the key of Augmented Ominous Portent. For me, it went a long way toward making this world feel lived-in. These aren’t ancient songs carried forward by rote recitation–these are living tunes constantly resumed and reimagined by successive generations. We get a little more of this in the next episode, when Thom’s tavern song is a bit more bluesy than the usual bardic fare.

The Story

This brings us the to the story behind the song: the siege that collapsed when Aemon’s ally never sent reinforcements. The decision on how to include this information was a bold choice, though of a boldness easy to overlook. I feel like a lot of times when we talk about a show making “bold decisions,” we focus on the sorts of things that would affect its rating: In terms of Game of Thrones, the preponderance of nudity was a stereotypical “bold choice”; recasting half of the consensual relationships into sexual assault was a “bold choice”; the hyper-violence and gore of its combat were a “bold choices.” But the boldness of Wheel of Time‘s Manetheren scene is far from this: it’s a boldness of small things–daring to do something low-key and human and trusting it to have a hold over the audience.

It’s also bold because, as implied by the lede, here the adaptation bucks the old “show don’t tell” truism.

For those of you who aren’t writers, the adage “show don’t tell” is intended to keep reading exciting. Don’t just “tell” a reader what happens when you stick a fork in a light socket–show them at some point. The idea is to weed unnecessary layers of narration that separate the reader from the action. One problem is, trying to show everything quickly gets exhausting and dilutes the focus from the story you want to tell. But still, the adage persists, and “show doesn’t tell” persists as an article of faith which, like “puns are the lowest form of humor” is clung to as a pithy and therefore universal truth without any consideration of the original intent or need the phrase was coined in response to.

Perhaps the most bothersome way that this has been internalized is with the idea that audiences are irretrievably bored by the slightest whiff of expository dialogue. And this leads to a lot of ways that such exposition can be dressed up.

Option A: The Flashback

A standard way of showing the tell is the flashback. We could have gotten a direct view of the Battle of Manetheren, with or without Moiraine’s narration. This would be akin to Elrond’s account of seeing Isildur refuse to destroy the ring in The Fellowship of the Ring. But I don’t know if this choice would have had the same secret sauce here, and not just for budgetary reasons.

Jackson was able to replicate some visuals between the Isildur scene and the final Mount Doom scenes in The Return of the King in ways to establish direct parallels, and it wasn’t particularly onerous because it was “just” a trilogy–the set-up wasn’t ridiculously far from its pay-off. Plus, Jackson knew when making Fellowship that the other two movies were coming. But who knows how long we’d have to wait for the visual parallel pay-off between Manetheren and some future climax–if we ever get it. Additionally, while the concept of the flashback does necessarily make the past more real, it does so by leaving the present moment, thus deprivileging the present as the stage for narrative action.

Option B: Animation

A fun way of presenting narration is what we see in the Deathly Hallows movies. We are told the origin story of three magical items that are so important in the Harry Potter universe that they’ve never been mentioned until the last book.2 In the movies, this is related through a nifty, stylistic animation. The audience needs to have this information and have it quickly so we can all move on to the more important matter of searching for these magical gewgaws. The animation connects the narrative tothe object, clearly establishes the quest or thesis of the final stretch, and does so in a memorable way.

This is a path that was conceivably open to WoT, but it would have made huge demands on the aesthetics of the show. An animatic like that isn’t something you can do just once–it would have to become part of the narrative toolbox of the series. Especially if it was introduced into the series so early on. That’s a big ask, and wouldn’t exactly line up with the grounded earthiness of the series.

Option C: Something Stupid

Then we have the classic idiocy of Game of Thrones: having a character narrate an infodump while distracting the audience with boobs. (You probably don’t want to click that link.)

Fortunately, the Wheel of Time showrunners aren’t twelve-year-old boys.

Option D: What They Did

What WoT did instead was something simple: they made a scene of it. Not “a scene” in the flashback sense, but in a theatrical sense.

There is more to action than sword-fights, as any stage actor can tell you. In Euripides’s Trojan Women, the fate of Astyanax is relayed (in the mode of Greek drama) through dialog rather than physicality. But it is nonetheless gut-wrenching, or can be if effectively staged. The revelation of Astyanax’s fate is not just something you hear–it is an action you witness. Dialogue is action when it has an active effect on the characters. In other words, showing and telling aren’t opposites, but alternate forms of each other.

Admittedly, the told thing is not the shown thing. Talthybius telling Andromache that her infant son is to be executed is not the same thing as showing the execution. What is shown is the grief of the mother, and her complete powerlessness as she must surrender her son, whose only sin is being the sole heir of Hector. Similarly, when Moiraine tells the core four about the fall of Manetheren, we aren’t shown the fall. What we are shown is the effect of that fall on the characters. We are shown each of them dealing with the revelation that their sleepy little village is more bound up in the history of their land and its turmoils than they could ever have expected. This twins and furthers their recent revelation that they are more bound up in the present iteration of that conflict than they could have anticipated.

It also shows us Moiraine in action. You see, the Aes Sedai is sorted into several color-coded clusters, each with their own jobs. The Blue Ajah, Moiraine’s ajah, are the spies of the organization. They collect information, and they also manipulate events.3 By showing us the effect of the story on the core four, we are also shown Moiraine playing to her strengths by eliciting that reaction–using her story to get each of them to buy into her mission a little more, and make them just a touch more tractable as a result. (This in turn shows us that the Aes Sedai have more skill and power than just their magic.)

I am excited by this decision because it is a bold decision. For such a scene to occur, the showrunners have to trust the performers (and yes, have performers worthy of that trust)–when a lot of spectacle-heavy dramas, like some of the less fulfilling Marvel offerings, want to distract away from their performers. But with such a low-stakes, low-action scene, all you have to work with are the actors, and it’s moments of trust like this that really make Wheel of Time what it is.

This decision also depends on trust of the audience–that they’re not going to get bored in the absence of wizard fights. While most audiences may not perceive the trust in this scene, they would perceive its absence: pandering condescension.

Finally, for this scene to work, there has to be trust in the material. That’s the thing missing in the aforementioned Game of Thrones “sexposition” scene–the implicit assertion that nobody will find the information interesting without boobing things up. With any adpatation, fans love to argue about whether the showrunners are fans themselves, or are just cynical money-grubbers. A lot of time, this argument turns on how faithful the pettiest details are: if this character has the wrong hair color and that character doesn’t have exactly seventeen freckles, then the showrunners must be greedy dinguses who hate our childhood.

But for me, there is a much better measure of devotion. In a show like Wheel of Time, which has been playing fast and loose with the physical descriptions of all the characters since the word go, we can see the real love and devotion of the source material come through, not in mindless reproduction, but in the inherent act of trust that the material is good enough to maintain a sense of wonder, whatever form it takes.

In short, if the showrunners saw this as a show about wizard battles, they would have made sure to give us more wizard battles. But instead, they give us a quiet scene of meaningful dialogue, because they know that Jordan’s books are a series about the effects of the past on ensuing generations. And you show that by having that very generation affected by the telling of a story.

  1. Granted, everything is sung with British accents, because the modern imagination can put up with a lot of challenges, but a villager that says “y’all” is not to be considered. 
  2. Yes, the ring shows up in the sixth book and the cloak in the first, but the concept of this supposedly culture-defining triad never comes up. Before you weigh in on pointing out all the subtle ways JKR planted the seeds since the very beginning, please consider that I do not care. 
  3. The Gray Ajah are negotiators and arbiters, so they also manipulate events, but much in a much more open and aboveboard manner. 

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