This article contains spoilers for The Wheel of Time.
Let’s face it. The Aes Sedai in The Wheel of Time have made some questionable decisions regarding Nynaeve al’Meara since her arrival at the White Tower. Although it’s possible they are in a rush to get the powerful channeler up to speed before the battle against the Dark One, it seems more likely that Leandrin is simply anxious to bypass the prohibition against her teaching Novices so that she can get her hooks into Nynaeve once she’s an Accepted. But pushing Nynaeve through a dangerous initiation too early may have had dire consequences.
The Silver Arches, as they’re called in The Wheel of Time novels by Robert Jordan, are artifacts known as ter’angreal, objects made out of the One Power itself during a time long ago when Aes Sedai channeling abilities were far greater. Although their original purpose is unknown, they’re now used as a test of will and commitment for those wishing to join the order. It’s an interesting ritual for Nynaeve to undergo considering she’s not all that enthusiastic about becoming an Aes Sedai in the first place.
The rules are simple. One may refuse to be tested up to three times before being asked to leave, but once the ritual has begun, it must be finished. The three arches that must be passed through present the candidates with their greatest fears, but in The Wheel of Time books, it’s also made clear that they show moments from the past, present, and future as well.
For Nynaeve, the first arch presents her with a traumatic memory that does not appear in the Jordan novels. A younger version of her hides in the cellar while unspeakable things happen to her parents. The second arch supposedly shows her what is currently happening in the Two Rivers: a terrible plague that she is not there to help with as Wisdom. This version of the present is not all that different from what Nynaeve is shown in the books, which is an important distinction given what happens next.
The third arch shows her a disjointed, nightmarish vision before making her think she has suddenly finished the test. She angrily refuses to become an Accepted and runs off to help her beleaguered village, meeting Lan on the road and sharing an embrace. But in reality, the dream of the Arches had not yet ended, and as the return gate fades, she seems to forget that the way back “appears but once,” as she was told. She is lost in the Arches, like so many Novices before her.
But of course she wasn’t really. Despite the fact that Nynaeve’s failure to return does appear in The Wheel of Time books, it did not result in a delay or the guilt felt by the three sisters who thought she had died as it did in the show. The years of subjective time and the loss of a daughter weren’t there either, but one thing is true in both forms of the story: her channeling in the Arches, which is not supposed to be possible without burning out, was powerful enough to bring back the arched exit a second time.
When changes like this are made for a television adaptation, it’s best to focus attention on how the storytelling choice might clarify the journeys of several interconnected characters in the absence of narration. Nynaeve’s return poses the question of what’s next, not just for her but for someone close to her like Egwene, who may have seen this near tragedy as just the sort of catalyst she needed to find her own inner strength.
In the books, Nynaeve declares her hatred of the Aes Sedai upon her return from the Arches, but she never leaves the order the way she did in her arch-induced dream. Will the loss of a daughter-that-never-was cause her to actually follow through on her departure, or will it push in her another direction? The answer awaits when The Wheel of Time returns for its fourth episode on September 8, 2023 on Prime Video.