Obviously, there will be huge spoilers throughout for books in the series if you haven't read them.
The Wheel and the Power
Time is said to be a wheel with seven spokes, each spoke representing one of the great Ages of history. The Wheel of Time weaves the tapestry of history out of the fabric of people's lives, each person's life being a thread in the pattern. The energy that drives the Wheel is the One Power, drawn from the True Source. This energy is divided into two halves: saidar, which only women can use, and saidin, which only men can use. The Wheel, the universe and all of creation were forged by a being known as the Creator and opposed by a being known as Shai'tan, the Dark One. At the Moment of Creation, the Creator imprisoned the Dark One within a prison of energy, there to remain bound for all time.
A Portal Stone, an artifact of the Age before the Age of Legends.
The First Age
Rand al'Thor's struggle against the Dark One takes place at the end of the Third Age, the Age of Prophecy, but the seeds for that struggle were laid many thousands of years earlier, in the First Age.
In the First Age, humanity discovered the ability to channel the One Power, that is to use the energy that drives time itself to conjure fire from the air, to heal all injuries short of death and perform other apparently supernatural feats. According to myth, the person who discovered the Power was called Tamyrlin. Others later also developed the ability to wield the One Power. These early channellers created devices - Portal Stones - that could allow them to travel to parallel worlds or vast distances in the 'real' one, as well as creating glass columns that could show images of the distant past or future.
Few hard facts about the First Age are known. Most information from this time comes in the form of obscure myths and legends, but what they mean is unclear. Popular stories tell of Lenn, who flew to the moon in an eagle made of fire, and his daughter Salya who travelled amongst the stars. Another legend refers to a great global confrontation between Mosk, a giant who possessed a lance of fire that could reach around the world, and his rival Merk. Mosk also warred with Alsbet, the Queen of All. Stories also speak of Materese the Healer, Mother of the Wondrous Ind. Some items from the First Age are also alleged to still exist, some in the museum in the Panarch's Palace of Tanchico. Amongst these are a frieze showing an animal with an incredibly long neck, now thought to be extinct, and a strange three-pronged symbol that apparently was once a sign for hubris and pride.
An artifact of the mythical First Age, currently on display in the Panarch's Palace of Tanchico. Private viewings can be arranged for modest remuneration to the Panarch's office.
When and how the First Age ended is unclear, except that it seems to have accompanied the banding together of the channellers of the One Power into an organisation known as the Servants of All, Aes Sedai in the Old Tongue. It appears that the First Age ended in some kind of catastrophe, as knowledge of the the workings of the Portal Stones and much other information about this Age was subsequently lost.
The ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends.
The Age of Legends
The Second Age, the Age of Legends, lasted for many thousands of years and was an unusually long period of prosperity and peace. Mankind used the One Power to eliminate war, poverty, hunger, disease and crime. The Aes Sedai guided humanity but did not rule it. Instead, a world parliament made up of elected officials guided the world through this golden age of peace, meeting in the great city of Paaran Disen. Scientific research and artistic endeavours were the main motivations pursued by people at this time.
The Aes Sedai were powerful and prevalent. Only three in a hundred people were born with the ability to channel, but channellers could live for in excess of seven hundred years (thrice the length of a non-channeller at this time), so were more commonplace than their low birth rate would suggest. Aes Sedai carried out great scientific works, led research projects into new uses of the Power and were great healers and advisors to the world parliament.
Technology and knowledge of the Power developed together, although even at the height of the Age the Aes Sedai were still unable to replicate the powers shown at the end of the First Age (they still could not replicate the Portal Stones or fully understand their workings). However, they were able to create great aircraft that could cross the oceans, sho-wings, and personal hovering vehicles known as hoverflies, jumpers and jo-cars. The Aes Sedai had other methods of crossing vast distances, such as Travelling, a form of the Power that allowed portals to be opened directly from anywhere on Earth to anywhere else. Technology even extended into the areas of entertainment - three-dimensional images were projected straight into people's homes - and clothing, with the creation of streith, a fabric that could shift colour and size depending on the wearer's mood.
The Aes Sedai also had the power to change human behaviour. Criminal and violent tendencies were identified early on and 'edited' out using a method of mental manipulation called 'Compulsion' (widely-used at the time, but long since banned in the Third Age). As a result crime was almost completely eliminated. Combined with bountiful resources, there was no longer any reason for war or conflict, and the terms became obscure, only known to historians.
The Aes Sedai also assisted in manipulation of the natural world. Using powerful ter'angreal - devices that could harness the One Power towards specific goals - Aes Sedai were able to change weather patterns across large areas. Using dozens of weather control ter'angreal, Aes Sedai could shift weather patterns over whole continents. They could bring rain to areas affected by drought, helping in the growing of crops.
Of the great cities, Paaran Disen was the largest and most influential, the seat of the world parliament and the Hall of the Servants, the base of operations of the Aes Sedai. One of the other notable cities of this time was V'saine, a university town whose dominant college, the Collam Daan, was recognised as the leading institution in the research of the One Power. To show their mastery of both the Power and mundane science, the heads of the Collam Daan commissioned the building of a new research laboratory, called the Sharom. This took the form of a vast metallic sphere, floating a thousand feet above the rest of the Collam Daan on anti-gravity fields. The most advanced, high-energy experiments into the nature of the One Power and the True Source were carried out here.
The Aes Sedai also undertook research into the Portal Stones of the First Age. Exploring the worlds reached through these Stones, the Aes Sedai discovered unusual races and odd parallel universes with differing laws of physics, or where human life did not exist at all. Around this time a race of nonhuman beings known as the Ogier appeared on Earth. Some conjecture that they came from one of these Portal Stone worlds. The Ogier, studious and peaceful, dwelt in harmony with nature in groves of peace and tranquillity called stedding. The Aes Sedai themselves experimented with creating nonhuman intelligences, eventually crafting a race of beings known as the Nym. The Nym were huge, towering creatures made of living matter who enjoyed an inherent connection to nature. The Ogier, the Nym and some humans could together
manipulate the elements in a method called 'seed singing', conjuring the maximum growth possible from fields or plants. The Aes Sedai seem to have retreated from the idea of creating other races themselves, but at least some seem to have pursued theoretical research into the idea further.
The Age was one of peace and calm, but on a personal level people still got angry, and occasional fights and violence took place (although almost never escalating to dangerous levels thanks to intervention). One group of people rejected even this minor display of aggression and dedicated themselves to a philosophy of total peace and pacifism known as the Way of the Leaf. This group named itself the Da'shain Aiel and gave themselves over to the service of others. Many became assistants and aides to the Aes Sedai. Others became seed singers (the Da'shain showed a great affinity towards both the Nym and Ogier). All only wanted to live in peace and harmony with others.
As a convention, most people in the world were born with two names (an identifying name and a family one). However, a third name could be added in return for achieving great things in a person's chosen field. One of the more common failings of this Age was that some individuals became obsessed with gaining a third name, and thus showing that they enjoyed the respect and admiration of their peers. As the Age continued and greater advancements in science, technology and the Power were made, so the opportunities for achieving a third name dwindled, and some individuals fell to pride and ambition in trying to achieve this goal.
Mierin Eronaile, better-known to history as Lanfear.
Creating the Bore
Mierin Eronaile was a talented individual, said to be one of the most skilled researchers and scientists looking into the very make-up of the One Power. She was also formidably gifted in the Power herself, possibly the most powerful channeller of saidar in the world. Yet her skills had not earned her the respect necessary to be given a third name. A dalliance with Lews Therin Telamon, the First Among Equals (the leader/chairperson of the Aes Sedai) which ended badly, further angered Eronaile. When Lews Therin took up with Ilyena Moerelle Dalisar and later married her, Eronaile was filled an unreasoning hatred towards the other woman.
Eronaile threw herself into her work. Along with another Aes Sedai, a man called Beidomon, she uncovered evidence of the existence of a previously unknown source of energy, similar to the One Power but not divided into male and female halves. Using this energy she believed humanity could achieve things far beyond the capabilities of even the One Power. Confident in her own abilities, she undertook an experiment at the Sharom in V'saine. This was a brute force procedure, blasting a tunnel or bore straight into this untapped energy source where it could be studied in more detail.
The project was a catastrophic failure. The backblast from the creation of the Bore consumed and obliterated the Sharom, sending the huge structure crashing down onto the Collam Daan, destroying it utterly. Dark energy spilled forth from the Sharom, causing the skies to go black. Thousands died. It was one of the greatest disasters of the Age of Legends. Beidomon and Mierine Eronaile had survived thanks to safety precautions put in place before the experiment, but the disaster affected them in very different ways. Beidomon, horror-stricken (especially once the true outcome of the experiment was known), eventually committed suicide. Eronaile's failure seemed to fuel her anger and resentment against the rest of the world, especially Lews Therin and his wife, and she became consumed with winning him back and embarrassing her rival, Ilyena.
The disaster was horrific, but ultimately would have been dismissed as a one-off incident. Unknown to anyone at the time, it had far-reaching consequences which would take some time to become clear.
It is unclear exactly how the downfall of the Age of Legends first manifested itself. According to some reports, sports which had previously been safe thanks to safety precautions suddenly became dangerous, even lethal. Sportsmen who enjoyed the game of 'swords' removed such safety precautions and displayed their injuries and scars with pride. Bizarrely, some refused Aes Sedai Healing even to the point of death.
Crimes gradually went from rare, abnormal events to becoming increasingly common. Riots, outbreaks of mass public disorder and random destruction of property started taking place. The normal responses - medical intervention, use of Compulsion and so on - proved ineffective. As the years passed these outbreaks of chaos became commonplace. Some cities became havens of illegal behaviour and chaos.
The world parliament proved unable to deal with the situation. They looked into various solutions but none presented itself. To investigate, they called upon the foremost experts in the world to study the phenomenon and find a cause. Elan Morin Tedronai, the world's foremost philosopher, postulated that humanity's darker sides, having been held in check for millennia, had suddenly been unleashed in an outpouring of rage, blood and chaos. He began investigating the triggering mechanism and quickly noted that the destruction of the Sharom and the Collam Daan had taken place close to the first reported outbreak of violence. However, nothing at the site suggested a connection.
Ultimately, he discovered that a remote volcanic island in the northern ocean had become uninhabitable following the events at V'saine. Travelling there, in the heart of a tall volcano, he found a 'thinning' in the fabric of reality separating the material world from a prison forged of the One Power itself. This prison contained an entity identifying itself as Shai'tan, the Great Lord. This entity was the source of the undivided energy that Mierine Eronaile had discovered. This being, known to history as the Dark One, told Elan Morin that the experiment at V'saine had blasted a hole into its prison, through which its influence was seeping into the world. It was not enough to allow it to escape its prison, but was a start. The entity's knowledge was immense and it granted Elan Morin the use of the True Power, its own equivalent to the One Power. Elan Morin's hunger for knowledge and power provided the Dark One with a way of corrupting him and turning him to its cause.
Eventually, Elan Morin revealed the existence of the Dark One to the world at large. Millions of ordinary people swore themselves to its cause, becoming known as the Friends of the Dark. Channellers also flocked to its banner, becoming known as Dreadlords for their ability to unleash vast destructive energies in its service. The Dark One granted twenty-nine of the Dreadlords the ability to use the True Power, naming them its 'Chosen'. Elan Morin, cursed by the people as Ishamael, the 'Betrayer of Hope', was the first and greatest of these. Other great figures also swore themselves to the Dark One's service, such as the geneticist Ishar Morrad Chuain (Aginor), the psychologist Karamile Maradim Nindar (Graendal)...and the scientist Mierin Eronaile, who was given the name Lanfear or 'Daughter of Night'. The Chosen, once their existence became known to the world at large, became more popularly known as the Forsaken.
The world parliament was forced to respond. Lews Therin Telamon, the First Among Equals of the Aes Sedai, was given emergency powers to respond to the threat. He began using the Power and the science of the Age to forge weapons and began training armies to defend humanity from the Dark One. His ultimate goal was to find a way of re-sealing the Dark One's prison completely, shutting away its evil influence from the world. Before he was ready, the Dark One's minions struck.
A Myrddraal leading Trollocs into battle.
The War of the Shadow
The War of the Shadow began almost exactly one hundred years after the disaster as V'saine. The Dark One's minions made an attempt to breach its prison completely and release it into the world. Lews Therin's forces tried to stop them. For the first time in millennia, a battle was fought. This battle escalated into open, all-out conflict. The War of the Shadow, the War of Power, began.
Lews Therin and his forces were caught on the back-foot by the revelation that the Friends of the Dark had been breeding, in secret and for decades, monstrous creatures in the service of the Dark One. Aginor, a great genetic engineer, had blended animal and human stocks to create hideous creatures known as Trollocs. They bred profusely, ate anything (but preferred human flesh) and were ferocious, though it has to be said also somewhat stupid. To Aginor's own surprise, a small number of other creatures emerged from the vats used to create Trollocs. These beings were humanoid with no sign of their animal heritage, but had no eyes. They could also move from place to place through shadows and were much stronger than humans. Aginor himself did not understand how these creatures, the Myrddraal (also called Fades or Eyeless), came into being, though some theorised they were formed when channellers were added to the stock used to create them. Others suspected the direct intervention of the Dark One using its limited influence: Myrddraal are arguably the most fanatical servants of the Shadow, even moreso than the Forsaken themselves. Other forms of 'Shadowspawn also appeared, such as Grey Men (assassins able to blend in with their surroundings), Draghkar (winged humanoids capable of sucking out people's souls), Darkhounds (ferocious animals), gholams (shapeshifting creatures immune to the One Power) and jumara (hideous worm-like creatures, believed to be capable of transforming into a more threatening form).
Vast armies of Trollocs, led by Dreadlords and Myrddraal, fell upon the human armies under Lews Therin's leadership, scattering them. Lews Therin tried to rally his followers but faced insurmountable opposition. The Shadow enjoyed victory after victory for three years, with its eventual success apparently becoming inevitable. The Light was stunned by the defection of several senior generals - including Lews Therin's friends Barid Bel Medar (Demandred) and Tel Janin Aellinsar (Sammael) - to the Shadow, as they wished to join the winning side.
At this point, Lews Therin suddenly unleashed new strategies and new tactics. What these were is unknown, but it is reported that the Ogier - albeit reluctantly - entered the war on the side of the Light. It may be that the Ogier's arrival and their superior strength and discipline served as a counterweight to the intervention of the numerically superior Trollocs and other forms of 'Shadowspawn'. However, it may also be that the Shadow had grown overconfident and lazy, relying on superior numbers to win every engagement, allowing the Light to exploit their weaknesses to achieve success. The Light won the upper hand and reversed the Shadow's onslaught for four years in a row, achieving tremendous successes. Lews Therin became known as 'the Lord of the Morning' and 'the Dragon' for his impressive victories.
In the eighth year of the war, the Shadow responded once more and ground Lews Therin's forces down to a stalemate. Anxious to find a way of breaking the stalemate, one of the sides (history does not record which) found a form of the One Power called balefire. Using this ferocious weapon, both sides blasted entire cities out of existence, killing millions. Balefire not only utterly destroyed whatever it touched, it also erased them backwards in time for short periouds. The unrestrained use of balefire by both sides for a year created innumerable temporal paradoxes, threatening causality and reality itself with dissolution. With no formal truce or discussion between the two sides, all use of balefire was suspended before the end of the year.
The Strike at Shayol Ghul
At the beginning of the ninth year of the war, the Shadow gained a strategic advantage that became unstoppable. Millions and millions of people in the service of the Light had been slaughtered, and could not be replaced easily. On the other hand, Shadowspawn could be bred almost as fast as they were slaughtered. The balance of power tilted back in favour of the Shadow, and this time could not be countered.
In the Hall of the Servants, Lews Therin proposed a bold stroke. He would lead the remaining Aes Sedai in a single, massive assault on Shayol Ghul, the volcano which served as the Earthly link to the Dark One's prison. There he would use seven powerful ter'angreal known as the Seals to collapse the Bore and repair the Dark One's prison. This plan was rejected by Latra Posae Decume, the leader of an ajah (a temporary political faction among the Aes Sedai) known as the Fateful Concord. Decume believed that the seals could be used to destroy the Dark One's prison, and could facilitated its escape into the world. She counter-proposed the creation of the two most powerful sa'angreal (devices which increased the amount of the Power that could be used by an individual exponentially) in history, the Choedan Kal. These would be used to seal Shayol Ghul away from the rest of the world, ending the Dark One's influence and giving the Light time to work on a safer method of sealing the prison permanantly.
The two sides were deadlocked, so it was decided to proceed with preperations for both plans simultaneously. Unfortunately, armies of the Shadow overran the area where the 'access keys' for the Choedan Kal were being created, and these were lost. Lews Therin moved to proceed with his plan, but Latra Posae and her followers refused to take part. Lews Therin and the 113 most powerful Aes Sedai sworn to his service - all men for reasons not entirely clear - chose to undertake the attack anyway.
The Dragon and the Hundred Companions launched their assault on Shayol Ghul, Travelling there with ten thousand regular human troops. Battle was joined. By great fortune, the thirteen most powerful of the surviving Forsaken were found to be at Shayol Ghul at the time of the attack. In a ferocious battle Lews Therin successfully placed the Seven Seals on the Dark One's prison, creating an imperfect patch across the Bore, but enough to re-seal the prison. The Forsaken present, bound to the Dark One by ties of the True Power, were drawn into the prison and sealed away as well. The exception was Ishamael, who managed to avoid being permanantly drawn into the prison. Instead, he was partially bound and was able to escape for periods of forty years or so every few centuries.
At the moment of victory, triumph turned to disaster. The Dark One's counterstroke tainted saidin, placing a rotting curse upon the male half of the True Source. Every male Aes Sedai present went insane on the instant, unleashing maddened, uncontrolled eruptions of the One Power. This radiated out across the world, ultimately affecting every male chaneller over the course of months.
Lews Therin Telamon after being driven insane by the Dark One.
Lews Therin, crazed as his fellows were, Travelled back to his home in Paaran Disen. In his maddened state he slew his wife and his children, his servants and friends, leaving his palace in smouldering ruins. Ishamael appeared and taunted Lews Therin, using the True Power to Heal his madness and reveal what he had done. Traumatised by this revelation, Lews Therin Travelled to a remote part of the world and there channelled more of the Power than he could safely handle, immolating himself in a funeral pyre. As he died, an immense mountain pulled itself out of the ground around his grave, a mountain that became known as the Dragonmount.
The War of the Shadow had been won, but at tremendous cost. The high technology and learning of the Age of Legends was lost in the chaos and tumults of the years that followed. Hundreds of millions were killed as the male Aes Sedai continued to unleash random, uncontrolled eruptions of the One Power. Entire continents sank beneath the waves, mountain ranges were levelled, and others pulled themselves out of the ground. Almost every trace of the world before was lost in a period that became known as the Breaking of the World.
Next up: the Breaking, the exodus of the Da'shain Aiel and the re-establishing of civilisation.