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I'm reading the second book of The Wheel of Time (please avoid spoilers from subsequent novels) and I'm not fully understanding the whole concept of the Breaking of the World.

Quite often characters refer to the Age of Legends and to Before the Breaking and I understand it is an event where all Men with Saidar went mad but what exactly happened?

Did the continent shift due to madmen casting spells? Did some race get wiped out? Did some crystal ball that contained all the magic break and go loose?

I don't fully understand the impact of the Breaking. Maybe I am supposed to learn as I read more and I do not know it yet? Again, please make sure not to spoil anything.

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    Yeah, you're not really supposed to understand it at that point. It's just some ominous thing the characters keep referring to, and yes, it's eventually fleshed out more. – user124384 Oct 6 '17 at 1:28
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    There are MANY things in the Wheel of Time series which are mysterious and unexplained at the beginning and which you later learn so much about that you can look back at the first few books and think "wow, did I really not understand this back then?" Including things which are really important to the series, such as Aiel culture or the nature of Aes Sedai. This is one of the incredible things WoT can do due to its awesome size and scope. – Rand al'Thor Oct 6 '17 at 5:45
  • Small but notable point: Saidar is what women use. Men use Saidin. The fact that this distinction exists is very important, and is the reason that only the males went insane - the Dark One tainted Saidin only. – Douglas Oct 6 '17 at 17:42
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The following generalizations describe the Breaking:

  1. Geographic upheaval - land sank, mountains heaved up out of the earth, places became unlivable and new places to live were often inhospitable.
  2. Political upheaval - old nations and states disintegrated, and newer, more primitive ones replaced them.
  3. Massive refugee migrations - what with the land being disrupted, people fled wherever they could (which contributed to #2).
  4. Actual Evil™ out and about, doing nasty things like killing entire cities.

And all of this was prolonged over multiple decades. Consider refugees, on the move for decades, constantly finding new horrors and new problems. Some caused by an aggressor, some caused by men driven insane and imbued with incredible power. Over a century (IIRC) without stability.

That is the "impact" of the Breaking. Everything in flux, horribly so, for horribly long. It is little wonder that humanity emerged from the Breaking with little memory of what had gone before.

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    Also worth noting that along with that came extreme regression of knowledge. They lost countless technologies and knowledge of both the One Power, and of many feats in general. The more you read, the more references to the Age of Legends you find; that aren't understood by people in the current age. – JMac Oct 5 '17 at 19:26
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    Not sure about point 4. If you're going by the notion of "evil" in the books (related to the Dark One and his servants) the Actual Evil happened during the War of Power, being perpetrated by the Forsaken. Imprisoning the Forsaken in the bore marked the end of the War of Power, and the start of the Breaking - but events during the breaking were caused by insanity, and peoples' inherent evil, rather than the supernatural evil of the Dark One and his forces. – Andrew Hows Oct 6 '17 at 1:07
  • And death. Lots of death. – user31178 Oct 6 '17 at 2:28
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    Also the weather was completely out of whack, you never knew if you'd need to bring a light jacket or a warm one. – Binary Worrier Oct 6 '17 at 7:21
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    . . . dogs and cats living together . . . – Binary Worrier Oct 6 '17 at 7:35
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This does get explained in a little more detail in subsequent books, this won't spoil anything, but essentially it is the the whole face of the land changing due to the mad men casting spells. If you remember the prologue of Eye of the World Lews Therin Telamon created a new mountain where he was standing when he realized what he had done. Now imagine that happening with hundreds of men all over the world. New mountains, new canyons, some islands blasted away, etc.

  • Thanks, I didn't quite fully understand the scene with Therin Telamon. I was under the impression that he broke the world, or breaking was the effect due to his negligence. Glad to learn it was only an example of what all the men were going through. – Bojan Oct 5 '17 at 15:30
  • @Bojan Yeah, he was among if not the most powerful of the male channelers at the time, so his is probably one of the biggest sudden changes, but with an unknown number of them all going mad at once, fun stuff can happen. – Daishozen Oct 5 '17 at 15:32
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The Wheel of Time wikia describes the Breaking of the World as lasting between 239 and 344 years. The existing society collapsed and would eventually be replaced. That replacement took considerably longer than the collapse. For example, the binding of the Aes Sedai with the Oath Rod didn't start to occur until after the departure of Artur Hawkwing.

The largest single event of that period was the creation of Dragonmount, which the wikia describes thus:

It was created during the Breaking of the World, when Lews Therin Telamon killed himself after Ishamael Healed him from the insanity caused by the taint on saidin. His return to sanity forced him to acknowledge what he had done to family and friends, and in utter despair, he began channeling massive amounts of the One Power. He drew upon all that he could possibly channel, and then exceeded it, causing a bar of white-hot energy to descend from the sky. This pillar struck Lews Therin and atomized him, but also struck the ground where he had been standing. The blast, so hot as to flash-vaporize stone, tunneled into the mantle of the Earth and caused a volcanic eruption of gigantic proportions, creating Dragonmount. This eruption caused a river that had been flowing through the area near the mountain to fork, creating an isle that would come to be known as Tar Valon.

That description is a summary of what happens in the Prologue of the Eye of the World, the first book.

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According to Wheel of Time wiki (don't click that, spoilers abound), 3% of the population in the Age of Legends could channel. 3% of the male population of an advanced world-spanning utopian civilization were male channelers. I'd guess they numbered at least in the millions.

So, you have millions of male channelers. Every single one of them went insane, often in a murder-and-destroy manner, and even the weak ones could do things like throw a handful of fire at someone. The strongest ones could wreak destruction on par with the detonation of an atomic bomb, and they could do so repeatedly and in many different ways, limited only by fatigue until they died - and they were very hard to kill and had lifespans measured in centuries.

In a very short period of time the entire world became a chaotic war-torn mess where you never knew when the next personified roving unnatural disaster zone might show up, or when your teenage brother might discover he can channel and be faced with the choice of suiciding or becoming another personified roving unnatural disaster zone - he might manage to hold off the madness for a few years if he were lucky, but no one could hold it off forever.

Global society disintegrated, and practically the entire world population became refugees with nowhere that could shelter them. By the time enough of the older male channelers had died off and coping strategies for the new ones had formed, centuries had passed, and a map from before the Breaking would be completely useless - even the land, even on the scale of mountains and continents, no longer bore any meaningful resemblance to what it had been before, because of how much tinkering with the landscape all those insane men had done over all that time.

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