Since the series has been officially completed now, I wanted to share a few notes on it. I have enjoyed the series since I was a kid. In fact, I read it before I even read the Lord of the Rings. As time has gone on, I have just gotten more fascinated with this vast and complex fictional history.
Does that mean that I agree with everything in it? Not necessarily. As well as drawing from Christian imagery, it draws from Authorian legend, Masonic doctrine and Buddhist religion. However, it does stand as a great example of a highly developed fantasy world, and I think aspiring writers can learn several good lessons from a highly skilled author.
I will try to avoid spoilers, but the basic history goes as such: There is the Creator. He created the world long ages before the time of the story. Standing opposite to him is the Dark One, Shaitan, who is the essence of destruction and chaos. Through the ages they have fought their endless war using human surrogates- the Creator with the Dragon, and the Dark One with the Forsaken, powerful men and women who have sold their souls.
There is also the Wheel. It has seven spokes, for Seven Ages. The timeline is seen as cyclical, not linear, as in Buddhist philosophy. It is reflects Eastern philosophy in the idea of the One Power- the force the Creator put into the world to control it and run it, and that certain gifted people can tap into to do what we would think of as magic. Of course, the Dark One has his power too- the True Power, that would corrupt and enslave anyone that uses it.
Is the Creator involved in his creation? No. This is a deistic God, speaking only twice in the entire series. Though people may pray to him, he is not likely to respond. However, the Dark One will respond to whoever calls upon him, often in frightening and horrific ways. This leaves the world is unbalanced, but this is the essential flaw that the Creator instituted into his creation, for without it, free will would be lost and people would have no choice between good and evil.
We must be aware, too, that this is no static religion. What need is there of a church when good and evil are right before you? The creatures of the Dark- Trollocs, Myrdraal, the Golem, and Darkfriends- are always active, ready to do their dark lord’s bidding. So, too, good is active- though again, good is handicapped. The only way to remove the handicap is to seal the Dark One into the prison the Creator put him in, so returning the world to a paradisiacal state. To this end, the Dragon works tirelessly, in every Age.
That is enough to go on. It is a complex set of beliefs, not even counting that the Dragon is often misunderstood, and the prophecies about him are often extremely dark. He is more of an anti-hero than a hero, but he is the only one that can redeem the world from the Dark One’s touch.
As such a flawed character, working in such a handicap, I think the Dragon introduces a huge element of danger. What if he succumbs- either to temptation or to pressure? He could destroy the world as easily as save it. Then, too, there are the free choices of the characters. If they don’t support him, he loses, and the world with him. If he wins, all will win together. So religion is not used to preach- it is used as an essential part of the story. Win one for Robert Jordan.
His religion is also complex. It is not a simple good and evil. Like our world, religion is seen as dangerous and unpredicatable. Here, your millenialists are evil. They want the Dark One to win. But sometimes, they help the Dragon, for their own designs. Just because someone may have sold their soul doesn’t mean they have lost their free will- there is often white within the black. One of the most stunning reversals happens in book twelve, and in my opinion changes the whole course of the novels for the better.
But there is often black within the white. Those that are good have their own designs as well. They, too, have their free will. Not all want to bow to the Dragon’s rule (for he is king as well as messiah). They want their own kingdoms and their own ambitions to be realized- why bow to a man that could lose when they are so much more capable, at least in their own eyes? Many of these ambitions only play into the designs of the Dark One, much as our own ambitions often hurt goodness more than help it. So the religion is also true to life- win two for Robert Jordan.
Third, there is often the idea of helplessness. This is a war between two powerful beings- and men often feel ground down into the dust between them. Even the Dragon, for all his power, is only a representative of the Creator, not the Creator himself. And the Creator will not help. He left his Power, and then withdrew. And this is no Holy Spirit, either, just a blind force controlled by men. So what can men do? All they can do is choose right- but what is the right? Sometimes, the Dark looks extremely attractive. Even if the Dragon wins, the Wheel will just turn again. Why try to win? In this, we can see our own lives. Many voices compete for our affections, and sometimes it is hard to know what to do. So this religion is not a comfort or a dues ex machina- this is often a terror. So the pursuit of goodness is often seen as worse than daily life- win three for Robert Jordan.
So what did we learn from this master of fantasy? If you must have a religion in your novels, make it:
Complex and uncertain,
True to life,
Seen as a burden, not a comfort,
Essential to the plot.
Do this, and you might be able to put in your beliefs, not as a preacher, but as a writer. And your novel will be far richer.
(And no, I am not saying if the Dragon wins, or even who the Dragon is. Read the books for yourself.)