The following piece was written by Reddit user Hampus-Andersson and originally posted on r/fantasy. I found his thoughts quite interesting and so I’m reposting them here with his permission. It contains spoilers for the Red Queen’s War trilogy, so obviously don’t read this post if you haven’t read the books yet.
“Lawrence manages to blend deep philosophical themes with epic battles and action, unique characters, and humor in a way few authors can. That is one of the reasons I enjoy his books.
This contains spoilers.
The Wheel of Osheim and all of The Red Queen’s War is packed with philosophical themes. I will try to unveil some of them here. Bear with me.
Starting with the object of the title, because everything that is in a title is bound to be important. So, The Wheel.
So, the actual Wheel is, as it turns out, is a particle accelerator located in Leipzig. This Wheel is what brought magic into the world, when the Builders – the term used for the people living before the Day of a Thousand Suns, i.e. ’us’ – used the Wheel somehow. Shortly after ’turning the Wheel’, they all died in the Day of a Thousand Suns – a nuclear war. But some Builders found a way to stay ’alive’. ”They used the changes they wrought in the world when they turned the Wheel. They escaped into other forms when their flesh betrayed them. Others were copied into the Builders’ machines and exist there now as echoes of men and women long since dead.” These ’echoes’ are some kind of AI, and the other forms some Builders took was the form of gods and spirits, and they became part of human mythology. ”The Builder spirits found themselves ensnared by myth, each tale growing around the spirits, reinforced by them, weaving them into a fabric of belief that both shaped and trapped them until they could scarcely remember a time when they were anything other than what men believed them to be.”
This is the nature of the magic of the Wheel: Peoples beliefs changes reality. Reality becomes what people believe. What people believe becomes reality.
So, if everything we believe to be true is only true because we believe it to be, then what is actually true? Hello Philosophy. Hello Relativism. This philosophical idea claims that nobody can ever know what is actually true, that everything is relative, and thus everyone is free to form their own perception of reality. What is true to one person might not be true for another person, etc.
This relativism is reflected in the Wheel. Because of the Wheel, reality is formed by peoples beliefs. For example, when Jalan and Snorri come to Hell, the shape of Hell is only as it is because that is what they have been told and believe. ”It’s what the Wheel has given us because the stories we tell ourselves have bound about us so tight, we believe them, we want them, and now we have them.” And when they arrive to Osheim, they are able to form reality easily. ”The Wheel grows stronger as you get closer. At first it answers your will. As you get closer it answers your desire. And closer still it dances to your imagination. All your dreams, each shadowed corner of your mind, each possibility you’ve considered . . . it feeds them, makes them flesh, sends them to you.” Our worldview is formed by our beliefs. What we believe to be true shapes the way we see and interact with the world. Our values, the norms in our society, etc.
Kara also speaks of ’the id’, when she talks about the Wheel. The id is a part of the psychoanalysis theory of Sigmund Freud. The id is our instincts in our subconscious, our animalistic impulses and desires, particularly our sexual and aggressive drives. The id acts according to the “pleasure principle”—the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse defined as seeking to avoid pain or unpleasure. Jalan is bad at controlling his id. He often acts out his desires and instincts. He seeks pleasure through sex and alcohol, etc, and avoids inconvenience. Thus when he arrives to the Wheel of Osheim, the ’monsters of his mind’ are brought to life. He is, as he himself states, the worst person to send to the Wheel. “Your dreams are what will tear you apart. Every man is the victim of his own imagination: we all carry the seeds of our own destruction.”
Lady Blue tries to tempt Jalan into helping her destroy the world instead of stopping the Wheel, which would make Jalan a ’god’ in the new world to come. ”The freedom to do as you want, unconstrained by troublesome morality, unbound by that nagging voice of conscience which others have imposed upon you, infected you with.” But in the end Jalan does not do it. He is tempted to do it, even in the end. And what is it that keeps him from falling to temptation? It surely isn’t his impeccable sense of duty. No, it’s friendship. This is what happens as he is about to turn the Key: ”I looked back past the false god, a thing made real by the dreams of men, and saw, standing at the blood-smeared window to the other room, the hulking figure of my friend, only his eyes clearly visible where a hand had wiped the glass clean. I turned the key.” He looks first at Loki, the embodiment of lies, the symbol of temptation, and then at Snorri, his friend. And he chooses Snorri. He chooses friendship So, apropos of philosophy, this book may advocate relativism in terms of reality and truth, but not in terms of morality. And that is a big and important difference.
Furthermore, there is Loki, the Norse god of tricks. Loki emphasizes and embodies the idea of relativism. He is a human being that has been made a god because people believe in him. So he has the power of a god, even though he is actually only a human being, formed by others expectations. So is Loki a god? Yes, because he has the power of a god. No, because he is only an idea. It is a matter of perspective, just as relativism claims that everything is a matter of perspective.
This is the philosophy of Loki: ”What if at the core, if you dug deep enough, uncovered every truth . . . what if at the heart of it all . . . there was a lie, like a worm at the centre of the apple, coiled like Oroborus, just as the secret of men hides coiled at the centre of each piece of you, no matter how fine you slice?” This line is spoken twice, once in the beginning of The Liar’s Key, and once in the end of The Wheel of Osheim. If a line such as this one is written twice, it means it is important. And it is. In fact, it is the single best line I have read in any book for a very long time. What is the core? What is the heart of it all? The centre of the apple, could be a reference to Original Sin, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit (often described as an apple) of the Tree of Knowledge, and thus sin entered the world and they were cast out of Eden. The Worm in the centre of the apple could be a reference to the serpent in the same story, which tempted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit. The serpent is the symbol of satan, the devil, and it’s worth noting that Loki is more or less the equvilent of satan in Norse mythology. A Worm coiled like Oroborus … Oroborus is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating it’s own tail. It is often taken to symbolize introspection, the eternal return or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself. It also represents the infinite cycle of nature’s endless creation and destruction, life and death and despair. The symbol of Oroborus speaks to the entire trilogy. Introspection is reflected especially in The Prince of Fools in how Aslaug and Baraqel affects Jalan and Snorri, and also in how the Wheel reveals ”the dark places in your mind where you make war on yourself.” Cyclicality is reflected in the way Jalan repeatedly falls back to his desires – which also touches upon the idea of Original Sin and that sin is inevitable. Life and Death is reflected in the necromancers, the army of the dead and so on, and in Jalan and Snorris trip to Hell. Creation and destruction is reflected in the Day of a Thousand Suns, and how a new world was created, which is about to end, which will then bring a new world, etc. The symbol of Oroborus, of a serpent biting its tail, also exists in Norse Mythology, where it is the child of Loki, which gives it even more importance. And Oroborus is a ring, a circle … a Wheel.
Reality is shaped by belief. The more people believe it, the more real it becomes. The Wheel of Osheim must also be affected by this magic, by its own magic. People believe the Wheel turn their dreams to reality, so the Wheel does it. Loki’s Key didn’t have any power at first, it was just a key. But the stories of the key made the key gain power, until the myth became the truth. What if it’s the same thing with the Wheel? What if the wheel doesn’t have any magic in itself, but only gets it’s magic from people beliefs? So the origin of magic, is actually … a lie. At the core, circular like a wheel, is a lie. The Wheel, which is a particle accelerator, is named IKOL, which is Loki spelled backwards, which would emphasize that the Wheel is simply just a lie, a joke, a trick. But then another question arise: where does the magic come from, if not from the Wheel? And that I don’t know. And I think that’s the point. Because, what if at the core, if you dug deep enough, uncovered every truth . . . what if at the heart of it all . . . there was a lie? “Lies are our foundation—we each start with a lie and build a life upon it. Lies are more durable than the truth, more mutable, able to change to meet requirements.” That is the philosophy of Loki, that nothing is true. It is relativism, but this relativism is extended to include morality as well. “Hate, courage, fear . . . all lies. Don’t look for reasons. Do what you feel. Not what you feel to be right—just what you feel.” Loki tells Jalan to not care about morality, of conscience, to simply follow his desires. Because for Loki, morality is a lie.
But here comes the most important part of the book: the end. As Jalan is tempted by Loki, as he is about to turn the key, he looks from Loki to Snorri, his friend. And he turns the key. To save his friend. And that is the most important part of the book. The book embraces relativism in terms of what is real and what is true, but not in terms of morality and empathyz. These are the very last sentences: Neither of us know the definition of the word—but we both know what it means. And in the end neither the lies nor the truth matter. Just what we feel. I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, rarely let a friend down.” So maybe it doesn’t matter if we know everything. Is there life after death? How was the world created? Maybe we need to accept that we cannot know everything. We don’t need a definition of everything, but we can still know what it means. We don’t need to know the molecules of coke, we can still enjoy it.
It may seem like there is no character development in Jalan, since he starts out in basically the same situation as in the beginning, being a spoiled prince in Vermillion living indulging in his desires. But there is a development, and it is manifested in the last line of The Wheel of Osheim: I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, rarely let a friend down. The Prince of Fools begins with this exact line, but with an added ”Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play, or bravery” In the end, Jalan stands up for Snorri. He embraces friendship. He also cries for his brothers as they die during battle earlier in the book. He truly embraces empathy and his emotions for his friends. In the end, he is still a spoiled prince, and he lives for his indulgences. But he also lives for his friends.”