Last week was a fortuitous one for badgers. I know what you’re probably thinking: Isn’t every week a fortuitous one for badgers? Because National Geographic popped into my inbox to tell me that badgers – the honey badger, at least – is IUCN Status: Least Concern, I’m inclined to say yes. Badgers seem to be thriving for the time being, and, according to another Nat Geo article, they also appear to love fucking. Loudly.
Good for them I say.
But this particular fortuitous badger week began when National Geographic slid into my “Bird Stuff” email folder. I work at a conservation non-profit and have inherited an inbox that receives pretty much every animal/nature related newsletter under the sun. I’m constantly being click baited by “the mystery of cubic poo” or blasted with “GIVE US MONEY OR ALL BIRDS WILL DIE IMMEDIATELY. ALL BIRDS ARE DYING. FUCK. CASH PLEASE. DEAD BIRDS.” (This is actually fairly true – birds are in a bad way, but I do wish someone would tell the Audubon Society to chill out for, like, even just one minute.) Anyway, last week it was badgers, and I learned that a group of badgers is called a “cete,” which - according to Nat Geo and the Oxford English dictionary – is a term that may derive from the Latin coetus, meaning “meeting, assembly, company.” The word “cete” may also mean “a whale, a sea monster.”
More on that later, when we get to the collective military memories in Mat’s head or if, I don’t know, Book 9 surprises me and Master Cauthon goes hunting for Moby Dick. (This would not surprise me at all, and good for Mat I’d say.)
Badger week hit act two when I bought new hand goo, because the Utah winter is drying me out like I’m being prepared for preservation. My new jar of hand goo – technically foot balm, but as Emily said, “Eh, it’s all skin, isn’t it?” – has a badger on it and he’s very cute.
More on cute badgers later, when we talk about folklore, fairy tale, and Mat as Robin Hood.
Badger week climax was Saturday. I was following my two and a half year old niece around SCHEELS the sporting goods store, which, because America HUNTS, has some taxidermy animals. Including this guy –
He snarled at me and I thought immediately of Mat Cauthon, but I wasn’t reminded of Mat Cauthon. A fascinating division in thought that convinced me I should write a bit about this symbol after all.
While I was convening with Mr. Badger, my mom pointed to a buck and asked, “What’s that?” My niece said, “Christmas,” and this word association gives me high hopes for her future as a poet.
More on word associations in…just a minute, actually.
Alright then, folx, let’s do this.
The badger in Wheel of Time functions as some sort of symbol, and that’s what we’ll gather here to explore. As for what a literary symbol is, I like Shmoop’s definition:
"A symbol is something that represents something else. We know - super helpful, right?
Want more clarity? Okay, how about this: a symbol is a word, image, or anything that somehow represents a larger idea. In other words, what you see is not just what you get. Symbols are more than meets the eye. They’re loaded with meaning.
Example? In America, eagles are a symbol of freedom. In punk rock, the safety pin is a symbol of rebellion. In Western literature, the apple is a symbol of sin. See how that works?
But when you’re talking about symbols, it’s also important to remember that the symbol is still itself, in addition to what it symbolizes. So when you see an apple in a book and immediately think of sin, don’t forget that it’s also just an apple. And someone’s probably going to eat it. Or at least bake it into a pie.”
I like this definition in particular for the last paragraph – “A symbol is still itself, in addition to what it symbolizes.” Symbols are something before they are symbols. What this means for badgers is pretty important, to me anyway. As a text, Wheel of Time has a surprising amount of biodiversity. Not just the domesticated animals of fantasy – horse to ride, cow to demonstrate that you are just a humble farm boy not anything special like The Chosen One, dog to alert the evil aristocrat that you’re breaking and entering – and not just the edible variety, either – poultry, fish, rabbit. There are a shocking amount of birds named by species, snakes, the titular badger, wolves, bears, elephants, giraffe skeleton, cats, and a whole new phylum for creatures of the dark, like Trollocs and Draghkar.
Before the badger means anything, the fact that it’s on the page tells us something about the world of Wheel of Time, where animals can exist outside their contribution to the human narrative. Not all of them do – RIP Hopper – but they can. In theoretical terms, the badger contributes to what Roland Barthes called “The Reality Effect,” where the quote unquote “extraneous details” of a fictional world are not extraneous at all; they exist to show us a reality unto itself. Why wouldn’t a fully developed world have a fully developed, biodiverse ecosystem, and why can’t I watch Planet Wheelworld?
Do you feel as if I’ve said something moderately intelligent? Can I now play my badger association word game?
Because the thing about symbols is, as Shmoop says, “they’re loaded with meaning.” No one just drops a symbol into a novel because, hey, wouldn’t it be neat if there was a whole lot of the color green and then we could force 16 and 17 year old students to write bad essays about possible associations for the color green in The Great Gatsby for the rest of eternity, slowing but surely diminishing the human will to live?
No, the infamous green light in Gatsby contributes to the meaning of the book. Money and greed are the color associations that come right to mind, as they should since this is a book about the American dream, but the green light that the Bastard Gatsby is constantly longing for tells us something about the Bastard Gatsby’s story and the Bastard Gatsby himself. The green light is far across the water and from a distance the light can be whatever Gatsby wants it to be. Gatsby looks at Daisy in the same way; he can never adjust to the reality of what she is, because he looks at her through the distance of his memories. The light is green which, again, associates it with money – green American currency – which the Bastard Gatsby believes will get him whatever he wants. The belief that anyone can have upward mobility if they work hard enough to get some of that green American currency is the infamous American dream. So, if the light that symbolizes the American dream is far across the water, not something that exists in reality, but a notion that destroys the man who believes in it…maybe…the American dream is not actually a real thing but a capitalist lie to make immigrants work harder for the gain of, like, three white guys in New York City.
Have you gathered yet that I was one of those 17 year old students writing a terrible essay about Gatsby?
I fall back on Gatsby because it’s one of those canonical readings, and has one of the most canonical symbols in the American literature I am familiar with.* I don’t find Gatsby particularly interesting except that a fairly decent Fergie song came out of the most recent Baz Luhrmann adaptation, but it’s a good book for understanding what symbols are meant to do. There are books that do it better of course, more subtly, and with more revolutionary meaning than, “OH SHIT, America is a lie!!!!” But symbols tell us something about the book and its characters that the words on their own cannot. It’s one of the most beautiful things about literature, that the figurative language and literary devices add up to be greater than the sum of their parts.
Only, symbols are built on association. We see green and think of greed, money, and what Gatsby must be wanting. My niece looks at an animal, thinks reindeer, says “Christmas.” You could drop a reindeer into any piece of media and a lot of people are going to start thinking about Christmas, which will get them thinking about Christmas in relation to the story they are consuming – consciously or not. We talked in that EHR episode where we said “deflowered” enough times to be charged with crimes against humanity (Episode 34: Vanilla in the Streets) about how literary symbols are built on years and years and years of association so, unfortunately, you can’t drop a rose into a poem without people thinking about vaginas. I’m sorry, but you can’t.
Perrin is associated with wolves – his community (pack) is important to him, he has a leadership arc, he must wrestle with his animal instincts, and has a dream world thing. Wolves are archetypal dream creatures.
Rand is associated with dragons – he has a large and mythic presence, deals a lot with fire and the color red, and is the most powerful creature on the continent. Dragons are old and potent and we know to be afraid of them. Though, ‘Do actual dragons exist in the Wheel of Time universe?’ is almost as important a question as ‘Does ABBA exist in the Mamma Mia universe?’
Which brings us to our third ta’veren boy and his weird association with badgers. Mat has more obvious animal symbols (fox, raven), but the badger is also there pretty consistently.
Okay, I’ve gotten further into my point and referenced both Fergie and ABBA, fulfilling my pact to the warlock that raised me from a bog. Now, I can play the badger word association game.
Badger: vicious, mean, stocky, solid, teeth, stripes, tunnels, dachshunds, fighting, biting.
None of these words particularly remind me of Mat, except maybe tunnels. Since he’d love to just hide. And biting I guess. There is an element of fight to Mat, but, to me, badger on its own most carries connotations of vicious, which is not a word I would readily apply to Mat. The dragon lends to Rand a mythic, powerful air. The wolf lends to Perrin something noble and forest-y. The fox and the raven lend Mat their cunning and their tricks, so why are they juxtaposed with badger when vicious doesn’t quite fit the bill?
I have done some cursory research on badger symbolism and there are arguments to be made, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered writing so many words on this. So far my favorite threads are the badger’s connection to an earthy, grounded energy; the badger as a survivalist animal; and, finally, the badger as an old symbol of bad luck.
This last one, though obviously the most compelling, merits many more hours of research as I learned it on badgerland.co.uk, which has a website aesthetic that catapulted me back to a time when I would wait half an hour to launch the internet, and wasn’t old enough to have my own AOL account so I used my brother Ian’s in order to play Neopets.
No offense to badgerland, but that is not an era that inspires much confidence. We’ll pick up next time in Badgerland itself with the Badger King of the Two Rivers. Meanwhile, I have to find a copy of The Eye of The World so I can re-read the classic badger scene. This blog is being released on EHR’s one-year anniversary and conveniently finds us in the same place where we started: with no physical copy of The Eye of The World.
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* The idea that there are canonical arguments and canonical symbols comes from Emily, who is the most brilliant person I know. We talk about that on the Earthsea episodes of our Patreon podcast, We Don’t Watch Outlander. Who knew this would be a blog with footnotes, eh?