Sappho and the White Tower

 As Robert Jordan probably expected (and if he didn’t, he should have) his use of the term ‘pillow friends,’ always in reference to two women, constantly raises arguments among his fans as to what he meant by it. Was Jordan actually (shock, gasp) implying homosexuality?

Well - let's not put this one too subtly. Yes.

The problem with trying to discuss this over BBSs or the like is that either the thread is shut down immediately because the topic is deemed unsuitable for possible young readers, or before long it degenerates into an argument over whether homosexuality is ‘right’ or ‘natural’ - and then it gets shut down.

But there’s no one here to argue with me, and if you disagree, you can do it via email which is (thankfully) unmoderated. My address is for anyone interested in responding.

Now, to start off, while it has been hinted at constantly in other books it was made clear as crystal in Winter's Heart; 'pillow friends' can be used to mean lovers. Verin used the term to refer to Shalon and Ailil, and her comments and later Shalon's thoughts couldn't have been much more blatant about what was meant. Words, however, frequently have more than one meaning.

For example, take the modern-day term ‘girlfriend.’ If I talk about a woman’s girlfriend in one way, most people would simply assume I meant a close friend who she confided in, and who happened to be female. If I put a slightly different slant on the way I use the word, though, it carries implications of a romantic and/or sexual relationship.

‘Pillow friends’ seems to me to be somewhat similar, although the connotations aren’t identical. For one, I’m guessing (just guessing) that it means something slightly different depending on who you’re talking about.

If you’re talking about a pair of young girls or women, novices or Accepted, then it probably means – best friends, confidantes, near-sisters to use the Aiel term, two girls who spend their free time together, share secrets with each other and who may (considering the basically cloistered, all-female environment) share some kind of experimental, sexual relationship. Obviously it’s highly personal, which is why Moiraine was both angry and embarrassed when Merean referred to her and Siuan in New Spring as pillow friends. Sure, they were in the platonic sense and maybe even in the sexual, but either way it’s something very private and special between two people, not something that you talk about to others.

If you’re talking about adult women, though, about Aes Sedai – now that’s an entirely different matter. Two teenage girls kissing behind the bike sheds (hmm, anachronistic term. Behind the stables, maybe?) might just be an adolescent crush, but two grown women doing so is evidence of something more serious. By the time you’re old enough to have reached the shawl, you’re supposed to have grown out of crushes and whispering after lights-out and be able to engage in a mature relationship, and it wouldn't be too surprising if the adolescent term was appropriated to refer to adult relationships as well. Note that every use of the word so far has been by an Aes Sedai.

One of the participants of a discussion on the book forum (before it was shut down – the discussion, not the forum) surveyed her friends to see what their opinion was of Yukiri’s remark. I gather these were people who had never read the Wheel of Time, so were not biased. Her question was (approximately – I don’t remember the exact words) “One woman sees two others attempting to meet secretly. Confronting them she says ‘You could be pillow friends, for all I know, and whose business is that but yours…’ Given this, what would you assume is the nature of the relationship between the two women?” Most if not all said they would assume the women were lovers.

There is an alternative explanation which requires the context of the books to understand, though. That is that Pevara and Seaine are best friends and meet in secret simply to talk, because they are of different Ajahs and the six remaining in the Tower (particularly the Red) are currently hostile to each other. Especially since they are both Sitters, they might both be faced with disapproval along the lines of ‘fraternizing with the enemy’ – so they keep it discreet. As it happens, this is pretty close to the real situation – Seaine and Pevara were best friends before being raised, and that first time Seaine went to find Pevara in her quarters she got a lot of glares from Red sisters she passed on the way.

However, despite the existence of this alternate interpretation, I agree with the first one. Not that Pevara and Seaine are lovers – it’s clear they’re not – but that that was what Yukiri was referring to.

So let’s talk. The existence of a colloquial term for it implies that lesbianism is, if not common in the White Tower, not particularly rare or frowned upon either. Certainly no one has reacted with shock or disgust to the mention of it. And, if you think about it, it’s not that surprising.

Starting with the novices – they’re young, usually between fifteen and eighteen when they come to the Tower. To be precise, they’re at an age when they’re likely to be fairly interested in love and sex. Kept under strict control in an all-female environment - men are forbidden to enter the novices’ quarters – little interaction with anyone outside the Tower, and possibly far from home, homesick and looking for comfort. (Comforting – there’s another ambiguous term for you. Ask Min.) In those circumstances, it would be pretty natural for close friendships to form that might also have a romantic and sexual component.

In probably the majority of cases, those relationships would dissolve or become purely platonic once the two involved matured and started interacting with normal society. In some, they wouldn’t.

Furthermore, girls who come to the Tower (excluding those with the spark, who don’t have the choice) are often those who aren’t interested in marrying and having children, which may be because they’re not attracted to any of the men they’ve met. Or to men at all.

Second case – adult women. Bear in mind here that simply being Aes Sedai presents problems for any kind of romantic relationship. An Aes Sedai who falls in love with a normal man is very likely to outlive him - unless he’s a couple of centuries younger than her, which makes an equal relationship difficult. Romance with channeling men obviously has even more pitfalls.

Aes Sedai are supposed to put the White Tower ahead of anything else. That has to mess up romance. The only men who are likely to be able to cope with that are Warders, who are supposed to do the same. And once again, because the Warder bond means that the Aes Sedai commands and the Warder obeys, the relationship has to be unequal.

Some overcome these problems, sure. But there’s one kind of relationship that doesn’t have them. The perfect partner and soulmate, compatible in lifespan, who understands the lifestyle and priorities, who can interact on an equal basis, for an Aes Sedai…think about it, and you should be able to work out that the answer is another Aes Sedai.


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