For better or worse, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is filled with characters. Encyclopedia WoT has the total at around 2200. Most, thankfully, are minor. Some have small roles. Others are given a single POV section and never heard from again. Still more play significant parts in the greater schemes of individual countries and factions.
If the core of the series is about characters, then no character has received as much development outside of fan favorite Matrim Cauthon. (With the exception of Rand al’Thor.) No character goes on as many adventures as Mat. No character travels as much as Mat. No character is diverse as much as Mat. From Fool to General, from Rags to Riches, Mat is given the traditional fantasy treatment, but pulls it off with such flair as to make it his own.
What about Mat makes him such a compelling character?
The Foolish Everyman
Mat’s introduced as a typical class clown. He ducks out of work, gets into trouble, jokes, pines after girls, and sticks his head where it doesn’t belong. We learn, as the series progresses, Mat was the one everyone in town blames when something went missing or went wrong. His friends view him as immature and childish.
Thing is, they’re right.
Mat’s ineptitude is what leads him to wander around a ghost city, steal a corrupted dagger, and then lie about it. For the initial journey, he’s a liability more than anything else. The dagger wreaks havoc on his body and mind, and he’s forced to rely on the goodness of his friends to help him survive.
Another thing compelling about Mat is his initial normalness. Rand is the Dragon Reborn. Perrin is a Wolfbrother. Egwene and Nynaeve can both Channel. Mat’s just Mat. He has no special powers until later on. He’s a helpless ta’veren pulled along in the wake of the others.
The Lucky Gambler
Of course, this is The Wheel of Time we’re talking about here. Everyone’s special in some way. Mat’s ability (for lack of a better term) is his luck. Mat is very, very lucky. He will win any dice game he plays, guaranteed. As you can imagine, this is both exciting and worrying to Mat at the beginning.
Oh, I can win any game of chance I play? I’ll be rich!
Oh, I can win any game of chance I play, and there sounds like there are mysterious dice rolling around in my head that only stop when I make an important, life-changing decision? Something’s wrong.
His luck extends past dice games though. If what many referred to as Deus Ex Machina, Mat’s luck almost guarantees that he’ll find what he’s looking for, whether it’s a person, place, or thing. It’ll guarantee that he survives almost any attempt on his life (and there are plenty).
I can see why people had a problem with it. It’s cheating, after a fashion. But I think Mat managed to keep his charm and charisma intact enough to counter-balance the effects of the luck. We watched him grow with it, watched him fret and freak out over it. It was actually pretty fascinating.
The Son of Battles
Through a bizarre set of circumstances, Mat’s mind is filled with the memory of dead generals. Really great, dead generals. He has so much strategic know-how in his brain, he can win almost any military engagement.
Naturally, Mat becomes the leader of a mercenary band of soldiers, the armies of the Seanchan, and eventually the Armies of the Light itself.
This was done well, I think. It’s a gift bestowed on Mat in the fourth book, but it doesn’t really come into play until a bit down the line. Sure there are hints at it, subtle changes in Mat’s behavior, quips of dialogue explaining military maneuvers and whatnot, but on the whole, Mat takes a while to figure out what’s going on.
I think that’s one of the most compelling things about Mat. He doesn’t really want all this responsibility. He doesn’t want to be a noble, or a general, or a lucky man targeted by assassins. He just wants to go to a bar and have a drink. While other characters are rather quick to accept their newfound responsibilities, Mat maintains his distance from the Light versus Shadow for a while (though he is ta’veren and is thrust into it regardless).
But, like any anti-hero, Mat rises to the occasion.
The Prince of Ravens
Mat thinks of himself as an everyman, even when it’s clear he no longer is. He consistently tells his friends, “I don’t want to be a noble.” So what happens? He accidentally marries the Empress of an entire continent and becomes a noble.
When you get down to it, Mat’s the comic relief in Wheel of Time. Rand is the one who reflects on the horrors of war, Perrin is stoic and bears witness to the decaying world around him, the Aes Sedai characters are concerned about the Forsaken and uniting the White Tower, the Forsaken are busy doing bad things, Galad’s way too into his honor, etc.
Mat just wants to chase girls, drink wine, and play dice games. He just can’t. So when you read Mat, you get to see him try his best to get away from the responsibilities the world has given him, and failing every time.
The Wheel of Time is a great series full of interesting characters. Mat’s just one of many worthwhile reads in the story.