Let’s talk about the Whitecloaks.
Their pervasive presence, aggression, and above all effectiveness at killing Aes Sedai in The Wheel of Time has been a divisive surprise among book readers. For some it defies logic; how can a military force threaten a woman who calls down lightning? But I think it not only works, it improves the show by providing an enemy less obviously evil than Trollocs and Myrrdraal.
When we’re first introduced to the Children of the Light in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, they’re an armed legion who run afoul of Egwene, Perrin, and a pack of wolves while wandering the grassland after the events in Shadar Logoth. Led by Geofram Bornhald, father of a Whitecloak they briefly met in Baerlon, the Whitecloaks mark Perrin for execution once he kills several of them, enraged at the death of Hopper the wolf. Subsequently freed by Moiraine, Lan, Nynaeve, and an angry wolfpack, Perrin flees but is hunted by the Children for most of the series.
This sets the tone for the Whitecloaks moving forward; they are dangerous to anyone who cannot channel but are otherwise an afterthought. It’s noted in passing that in their long history the Children claim only a few victories against individual Aes Sedai, and so are seen as little more than a nuisance outside their home kingdom of Amadicia. Inside it, they are the main political, military, and religious force. Amadicia has a secular king, but for all intents and purposes it’s the Whitecloak order that controls law and custom, not unlike many real-world counterparts with religious councils and secular presidents. Within its borders, anyone suspected of being a Darkfriend is questioned, in many cases tortured until they offer a false confession. Whitecloaks will often cause trouble in the smaller villages, accusing folk (particularly women) of dealing with the Shadow, and marking their doors with the Dragon’s Fang. They’re book burners, destroying any Dragon prophecies they come across. They camp outside the city of Tar Valon for a time to demonstrate their confidence, though they can do nothing in the face of Aes Sedai power. They have significant military ambitions but are repeatedly thwarted in their efforts due to alliances between neighboring countries and, eventually, a foreign invasion. By the end of the series, the “bad apples” are removed from the barrel and the Children fight for the Dragon Reborn in the Last Battle.
This is not the case in Amazon’s Wheel of Time series. From our first introduction of Eamon Valda, a sadistic Inquisitor with the Hand of the Light (ie the “Questioners) it’s obvious this Whitecloak organization is very different from its original incarnation. Valda, through methods still unknown, has found a way to kill Aes Sedai. We meet him as he, very casually, burns a Yellow sister at the stake after amputating her hands. There are a number of theories about how he could do so without losing his head. Did he find a way to exploit the Three Oaths, despite their “self-defense” loophole? Do the Whitecloaks know about forkroot, an herb that inhibits channeling? Does he carry a ter’angreal (an ancient device created with the One Power) that protects him from weaves? Is he channeling saidin, perhaps unconsciously, and defending himself? The last is very unlikely, but would go a long way to explaining his sociopathy and the obvious pleasure he receives from torture, though his fear of Perrin is a strong counterargument. And it’s not like madness is required for religious fervor. Regardless of how he manages to kill Aes Sedai, the fact he can puts a very different spin on Whitecloak activity. Geofram Bornhald, the “good Whitecloak,” does nothing to restrain Valda despite Bornhald’s higher rank. While he doesn’t technically have authority over Valda, it’s more likely his fear of the Questioners’ attention that keeps him from being useful. Roaming Andor and Tar Valon land to “root out the Shadow” is much more ominous if Aes Sedai themselves are at risk. Valda’s misogyny, and by extension that of the Whitecloaks as a whole, is on clear display. There isn’t a single woman among their ranks or even servants. Any woman might be a channeler or a White Tower spy. Valda’s monologue in the fifth episode, “Blood Calls Blood,” makes it clear his suspicion isn’t merely of women who can channel but women in general. We also see their willingness to beat even the most pacifist protesters, ie the Tuatha’an when they defend Egwene and Perrin from arrest. And that’s a good thing, story-wise.
When The Eye of the World was first published in 1990, the dangers of militarized American fundamentalists were, for the most part, hypothetical. The Waco, Texas catastrophe was still several years away. It took the Internet for all the loonies across the nation to organize into first into the Tea Party and then the mass of rabid mouth-breathers we face today fighting against LGBTQ and abortion rights, sane gun control, and Covid precautions. It’s not that they weren’t out there before; it’s that they were more localized. Even police brutality cases were local news until Rodney King in 1991. Jordan drew most of his inspiration from the Spanish Inquisition, given the obvious parallels. He was also a devout Episcopalian, which no doubt discouraged drawing modern parallels to American Christianity. Jordan’s heroes were primarily Andoran, an obvious analog to Arthurian England and, more broadly, Western civilization.
It’s clear showrunner Rafe Judkins bears no such illusions. No doubt growing up gay in a Mormon family originally from Utah has something to do with that. Judkins’ version of the Whitecloaks mirrors the Christian fanaticism infecting the GOP like, well, the Covid killing all their radio hosts. They’ve got the same book-burning tendencies; just look at Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, and every other state where any education into the fight for civil rights and equity are viewed with suspicion and book bans. The misogyny displayed by the “grab them by the pussy” party requires little elaboration when our 5/9ths Christian fundamentalist Supreme Court is poised to gut Roe vs. Wade. They share an obsessive desire for theocratic mob rule where religious or sexual deviance from the norm gets a violent, perhaps even lethal response from the state. It’s little wonder Judkins has faced homophobic death threats for his WoT work since 2019.
You all are very kind. I’ve dealt with them before and there’s truly only one way to respond — turn their favorite characters gay. Cause I can. This gentleman reaps what he sows — Perrin and Lan now gay for each other. Next homophobic death threat? Egwene and Daise Congar ;)— Rafe Judkins (@rafejudkins) June 29, 2019
A number of fans have trouble with this interpretation of the Whitecloaks. Some are simply resistant to any changes to the original story, as though entertainment is static and what worked 31 years ago still works perfectly today. Others, likely the same people upset at Kevin Smith for Masters of the Universe: Revelation hate any changes that elevate the importance of female characters. Making the Whitecloaks more dangerous by necessity places more emphasis on the women’s stories and as the /rwhitecloaks page on Reddit demonstrates, some people are very pissy over that. And I suspect others are angry at Judkins and his writers for holding a mirror up to their beliefs and behavior because they don’t like what they see.
Wheel of Time’s changes to the Whitecloaks are topical and, more importantly, logical. Religious fundamentalists never do anything by half-measure, and the updates reflect that. What’s more, they cast a light on the Christian fundamentalist movement infecting every level of American life, from local school boards to Congress. The more fiction reflects our current reality, the better.