This article contains spoilers for the entire series.
Reluctant hero, ta’veren, and commander extraordinaire, Mat Cauthon undoubtedly has some of the best scenes in the series. His charismatic blend of wit, impulsiveness, skill, and luck consistently make for compelling reading (particularly, in my opinion, once we’re past the whole fiasco with the dagger in the first two books). Although he famously complains about the situations he finds himself in, Mat is a consummate risk-taker who frequently gambles with far more than money. “What’s life,” he asks, “if you don’t take a chance now and then?” (ACoS, Ch. 39)
I’ll say right off the bat that my own personal rankings for Mat’s best gambles often change based on my most current re-read, and I’ve had to leave a lot of scenes I love off this list. Like many fans of The Wheel of Time, Mat is one of my favourite characters, and I read most of his chapters with relish. The following, however, are always highlights for me no matter how many times I re-read them.
5. The Malvide Narrows
“She goes with you. But you leave me a dozen of your Deathwatch Guards and some of the Gardeners. If I’m going to take these people off your back, I need them to think I’m you.”
–Mat to Furyk Karede, A Memory of Light, Chapter 36
I always love seeing other characters trying to keep up with Mat. Here, it is the Seanchan who are left confused while Mat directs a brilliant decoy that ensures Tuon’s safe return to Ebou Dar. Mat has to juggle a lot of different things to pull this off. The timing needs to be right; Tuon’s would-be-asassins have to buy the decoy and walk into Mat’s trap, thinking they’ve caught Tuon unawares; Aludra’s weapons have to work; and the Aes Sedai have to find themselves in enough danger to channel killing weaves at humans. And all the while, leading a force that would normally be at each other’s throats, Mat can sense “so many tensions in the air he could almost feel that hanging rope around his neck again” (KoD, Ch. 37). In the end, it all comes together, but it’s a little like watching a puzzle.
4. Rescuing Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve from The Stone of Tear
“At least I know where they are, now. All I have to do is get them out.”
“Get them out, you say. Just like that. Out of the Stone.”
–Mat and Ailhuin Guenna, The Dragon Reborn, Chapter 52
In this sequence, Mat not only sneaks into an impenetrable fortress—he gets to play with fireworks in the process! Despite the fact that it is supposedly impossible to do, Mat manages to break into the Stone of Tear with only Juilin as backup. It is a feat that even Birgitte later says she would not attempt for anyone but Gaidal. In order for his rescue plan to succeed, Mat has to count on numerous things going his way—not the least that Juilin is trustworthy and Aludra’s fireworks don’t get them both killed.
3. Freeing Nestelle din Sakura South Star from the Seanchan
“‘I want you to answer a question,’ he whispered. Blood and ashes, what if he had mistaken the room? What if this was not a Windfinder at all, but one of the bloody Seanchan women? ‘What would you do if I took that collar off your neck?’ Lifting his hand, he held his breath.”
–Mat, Winter’s Heart, Chapter 31
Mat’s escape from Ebou Dar is one of my favourite plotlines in the series, but his encounter with Nestelle din Sakura South Star in particular always gets to me. Realizing that he cannot leave the Atha’an Miere Windfinders as prisoners of the Seanchan, he decides to take a chance on freeing them. Despite the fact that this might jeopardize his own escape, he ultimately decides that “if he could not take the chance, then who could?” Mat spends a lot of time throughout the series insisting that he’s not a hero. However, in moments such as this, we repeatedly see him go out of his way to help others at great risk to himself. Although Mat later feels guilt over those who died in the Atha’an Miere rebellion, he also knows that “Freeing the Sea Folk Windfinders had been the right thing to do, the only thing he could do” (CoT, Ch. 1).
2. Rescuing Moiraine from the Tower of Ghenjei
“Matrim Cauthon was the only man to have diced with the fate of the world itself in the prize pouch.”
–Mat, A Memory of Light, Chapter 15
One of the most long awaited moments of the series, rescuing Moiraine is risky business indeed. In her letter to Thom, Moiraine confesses that she has seen many possible futures in which the rescue does not go well. Mat agrees to help anyway, both for Thom’s sake and because he feels he owes a debt to Moiraine; inside the Tower of Ghenjei, he learns he has made the right call. It is here that Mat will fulfill the Aelfinn’s promise that he will one day “give up half the light of the world to save the world” (TSR, Ch. 15). This is the gamble that ultimately has the biggest payoff in the series—without Moiraine, Rand is doomed to lose the Last Battle, and Mat’s presence in the Tower of Ghenjei is necessary for her rescue.
1. Fighting Gawyn and Galad in Tar Valon
“I have to win this. I opened my fool mouth, and now I have to win. I can’t afford to lose those two marks. Without those to build on, it will take forever to win the money I need.”
–Mat, The Dragon Reborn, Chapter 24
This is hands-down my favourite scene of Mat’s in the series. Still recovering from the intensive Healing that severed his link to the dagger, Mat decides on the spot to challenge Gawyn and Galad to a duel. He bets two silver marks against two from each of them that he can beat them at once; as he tells Elayne’s brothers, “You can’t have fairer odds than that.” I think what I love so much about this scene is that Mat doesn’t yet have his memories or much experience with his enhanced luck. Thus, he’s really just taking a chance on himself and his own skill with a quarterstaff. His win sets so many things in motion for him; with the marks he wins from Gawyn and Galad, he goes on to start his fortune.
Honourable Mention: The Last Battle
“Without a gamble, we’re dead. Finished. Buried.”
–Mat to Elayne, A Memory of Light, Chapter 37
When I was drafting and redrafting this list, I couldn’t quite decide what to do with the Last Battle. The problem is that there are so many moving parts that I didn’t want to lump them together as one point on the list. The complexity of the Last Battle is such that Galad describes Mat as playing “the Game of Houses on the battlefield.” From sending one of the foxhead medallions to Galad, to his staged fight with Tuon, to his use of Hinderstrap, the Last Battle is full of so many brilliant plans and gusty moves from Mat that it really deserves its own list. Because I couldn’t leave it out entirely, I opted to place it separately from the man portion of the list.