The Wheel of Time: A Late Eulogy for Robert Jordan

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For my first review, I was all set to review a book by Brandon Sanderson. I outlined what I liked about the book, what I thought Brandon Sanderson brought to the table, where his writing felt flawed, and so on. And then I tried to introduce Brandon Sanderson. I couldn’t do it. To talk about what Brandon Sanderson does right and wrong was something I had only ever learned to do in contrast to Robert Jordan, and anything I could write about Brandon Sanderson would be overshadowed by my 5 paragraph intro about Robert Jordan. Brandon Sanderson is a spectacular author in his own right, and deserves to be written about on his own, without a page of intro about somebody else. So instead, I find myself writing about Robert Jordan.

Really, it’s hard for me to write about anything in the world of fantasy without first paying homage to Robert Jordan (well, let’s not get into Tolkien today). Robert Jordan was one of the most influential modern writers of epic fantasy. I grew up with Robert Jordan’s writing, both literally and literarily. The Eye of the World came out when I was not even half a year old, and I started (and stopped 50 pages in, out of boredom) reading it when I was too young to properly remember. I later picked it back up at the age of 10, blazed through the whole series, and waited in anticipation for each book as it came out. Robert Jordan lived and died by the epic style of fantasy, and much like Tolkien, seemed to get lost in the lofty and airy tones of background, history, and world-building. When you read The Wheel of Time, much like when you read Tolkien, you are reading a masterpiece not of literature, but of attention to detail. You are immersing yourself in a living, breathing world. It is not for everybody. It can feel tedious and stressful and frustrating. The gap between books meant you had to re-read them with every new book, just to refresh your memory on the wealth of minor characters. Sometimes, when a plot twist happens, you don’t even realize it’s a plot twist, because you had lost track of that character and his/her storyline. For example, when <SPOILER> decided to <SPOILER> right before she <SPOILER>, my first thought was “oh, was <SPOILER> one of the <SPOILER> that <SPOILER> was trying to stay away from?” Then I re-read all of the books, just to make sure I knew what was going on, and continued on. Of course, I could have just looked at the ‘wiki’, but that would really have ruined the fun of Wheel of Time, keeping up with all of the characters like you’re reading Tacitus and you don’t know who’s going to go crazy and who’s going to end up a Roman Emperor.

For me, works like Wheel of Time (WoT) and Lord of the Rings (LotR) simply serve a slightly different purpose than much of traditional fantasy and science-fiction. Much like the point of literature and high school English classes is to teach you HOW to read books from the perspective of analysis, WoT and LotR are exercises in attention to detail. Any aspiring world-builders should read Tolkien and Jordan because of their attention to all details of the world, not just the ones directly related to the plot at the moment; contrast this with George R.R. Martin, who has explicitly said that any information he puts into his Game of Thrones (GoT) series is going to be important at some point. It seems that Jordan, much like Tolkien, revels in the ancillary details, the unnecessary and the gratuitous. And it is this detail that fleshes out his series and has made it a classic. In GoT, the world exists to forward the plot, but in WoT, the plot exists to explore the world.

In many ways, WoT is a very trope-filled world. Eye of the World resembles the traditional Tolkienian monomyth, with small, unremarkable protagonists who originate from the unlikeliest locations, but rise to meet challenges. WoT borrows heavily from Norse mythology, history, traditional fantasy like LotR, classic sci-fi like Dune, and as such, it has great appeal to geeks of all kinds, who will enjoy finding and analyzing the allegories laced liberally throughout the story. On the other hand, WoT also violates many tropes, with peaceful ‘ogres’, a romanticized age of technology (and much technology on the side of good, rather than evil), and like GoT, a wealth of violent conflict between important named characters.

WoT has characters who are very well-defined and very repetitive, and yet rarely one-dimensional. Most interesting to me is how much work Robert Jordan put into fleshing out the world, from its history to its dead languages to the breadth of cultures it houses. Its locations manage to avoid feeling too similar, all having distinct-feeling cultures, without having the forced exoticism that plagues so many fantasy worlds.

Its magic system avoids many of the pitfalls that other fantasy worlds fall into. As new magic is discovered, it is used in conjunction with technology and intuition. In far too many universes, magic is used unintelligently as a blunt tool. As well, WoT‘s magic system at least has the semblance of rules, so the uses of magic feel logical, and flow from a natural understanding of the universe (and those few occasions which don’t are notable).

Finally, Jordan has a flair for the epic. Not only was the scope of the series epic (the completed series surpassed 4 million words), but so many of the scenes are charged with a palpable “DID THAT JUST HAPPEN? THAT JUST HAPPENED!” For those of you who have read the book, you will recognize “kneel or be knelt” as a particularly strong line in the context of the surrounding scenes; its brevity, syntactic neologism, and its juxtaposition to its context all but guarantees that the scene at Dumai Well’s give the reader chills.

Of course, Jordan was not without his flaws. His attention to detail could go too far, and he would seemingly get lost describing scenery. He accrued so many PoV characters that later books often contained scenes from the previous book, but just from different perspectives. Crossroads of Twilight may as well be titled Reaction Scenes to the Cool Shit from Winter’s Heart. As such, books 9-11 started to lag a bit, and readers began to speculate that we’d never see an end to the series.

At this point, it had reached 3,309,426 words. To put that in perspective, if you wrote a thousand words a day, it would take you a bit over 9 years to write that amount. The season WAS about 15 years old at this time, to be fair, but when you take into account editing, publishing, and not working consistently every day for your whole life, it’s a pretty impressive amount.

And we will never know how long it could have run. On September 16th, 2007, Robert Jordan died, and the series, after a brief period of limbo, was scheduled to be completed by Brandon Sanderson, who had written this about Jordan.

I remember clearly my initial thoughts: that nobody could replace Robert Jordan, and yet that anybody could write the series more quickly than him.

After reading the first WoT book penned by Brandon Sanderson, I was willing to take it back. Sanderson soon proved a master at driving the plot forward, instilling excitement into every scene, and forcing the characters to grow. On top of that, he fully embraced Robert Jordan’s epic style, such as when (SPOILER ALERT) Rand removes a WHOLE TOWN OF PEOPLE from the very fabric of existence to kill a powerful enemy of his and she escapes. or when al’Lan Mandragoran duels Demandred the most powerful blademaster and channeler (magic-user) from the Age of Legends, despite not himself being a channeler, using the same technique Rand used (taught by Lan) to beat Ishmael in the Battle at Falme or when Egwene dies in a way so sad I can’t even summarize it, lest I start crying. Let’s not even talk about Mat giving up his eye to save an old friend or Androl learning to think with portals.

Many, myself included, began to speculate that the Sanderson books were BETTER than at least the last few Jordan books. I completed the series this year, 6-months shy of my 24th birthday. I had always thought that while the series remained incomplete, a part of my mind would remain forever locked in WoT. I may have been right. Worse still, I worried that I would remain haunted with the knowledge that Sanderson had not, despite his best efforts, managed to do the series justice in wrapping it up. And in that, I was wrong. In fact, its completion was so spectacular, however, that I fear the whole of my mind has been indelibly altered.

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One response to “The Wheel of Time: A Late Eulogy for Robert Jordan

  1. Pingback: Top 25 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books/Series | Fistful of Wits

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