Or: How I discovered Epic Fantasy, and Robert Jordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This month marks the 25th Anniversary of “The Eye of the World” (January 15, 1990 to be exact) and likewise, the 25th Anniversary of the inception of the series, The Wheel of Time: Boxed Set itself. I often tell people that WoT (the favored acronym for the series) is my personal Harry Potter, meaning that I grew up to these books, the characters lived with me, and the series defined my preconceptions of what fantasy was.
“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow” – Epilogue
I remember the obsession starting with, strangely enough, book 2, The Great Hunt, when my Mom grabbed this book from a used book store. I owe so much of my reading background to my Mom’s love of used book stores and books in general. In fact, I can’t walk into a used bookstore without getting a little excited and entranced. I immediately call my Mom afterwards and tell her about it. I had been reading small fiction up to that point, and had not yet discovered the concept of “Epic Fantasy” as a genre. But it had been the genre I had been looking for, even though I was too young and inexperienced to explain it. I would tell my mom “I want bigger books that look like:” and I would point to Darrel K Sweet style art work, not because I especially enjoyed his art work, but because his cover art graced so many Epic fantasies.
The Adventure continued with (more oddness here) with book 4, The Shadow Rising and I started to understand the scope of what “Epic” in “Epic fantasy”. A cast of characters that traveled through living breathing countries and cultures, with quests, magic, and of course the epic scale of the stakes. Wheel of Time provided that, and much more.
The danger with getting invested in an Epic Fantasy, or maybe the big investment you need to make, is that it takes time. It takes time to read thousand page books, and if you had started the series before it was completed, waiting for each book to come out would have taken investment of your life as well. And something we sometimes forget as readers, is that our favorite authors are human beings too.
I awaited each new Wheel of Time book as if it was Christmas Morning. In fact, as luck would have it, I was able to purchase many of the series at around my birthday, or close enough to make it count. However, in 2007, September 16 (exactly a month before my birthday) events transpired that made me fear I would never be able to hold a new Wheel of Time book as a birthday present ever again. Robert Jordan, who had been suffering from cardiac amyloidosis for over a year, died.
For an avid reader, there are few things as saddening as a series unfinished. It is as if the characters are caught, eternally, in incompleteness. They are sitting there, waiting for the next scene, the next chapter, the next book, that is never to come. But luckily, a series that was filled with magic, was likewise blessed with some amazing magic as well.
Luckily for us, who were invested in Jordan’s world (affectionately called “Randland” after the main character), Jordan had copious notes on how the series was going to end. A combination of Tor the publisher, and Jordan’s estate (headed by his wife, fabled editor Harriet McDougal) were to decide on who would continue, and finish, the Wheel of Time. They chose a relatively new Mormon author, Brandon Sanderson. You can read more about his reactions to the privilege and honor here at Dragonmount . Interestingly enough, I had just begun to hear about Mr. Sanderson, and his amazing work, and now he was going to be taking over my favorite series.
Of course, all of this is yet to come, and for those about to journey into the Wheel of Time, now is as great a time as ever, on it’s 25th anniversary, with the series completed, to join us all in Randland, for the Final Battle.
“Strange clothes you wear, Child of the Dragon. Has the Wheel turned so far? Do the People of the Dragon return to the first Covenant? But you wear a sword. That is neither now nor then.” -Someshta
The Wheel of Time might be one of the best modern fantasy examples we have of the Mono-myth. And maybe because of that, a lot of the setup in books 1 through 3 (what I consider the intro) might seem cliche or formulaic. There is a young country boy who grows up in an idyllic village, a sheep herder, who dreams of seeing the big wild world outside of his small village. There is a travelling mysterious stranger, who brings magic and tales of exotic lands. And there a legend and a dark evil.
All the Elements are there for the Hero’s Journey, but for a young and new epic fantasy reader, these elements were novel and fresh. And they are masterfully told by Robert Jordan. I would learn later that the beginning of this story is formatted like the Hobbits leaving the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring. And in the spirit of beginnings, Eye of the World hints at the greatness to come, giving small glimpses to the destiny and power of our main cast of characters.
“Arthur Paendrag Tanreall, Arthur Hawkwing, the High King, united all the lands from the Great Blight to the Sea of Storms, from the Aryth Ocean to the Aiel Waste, and even some beyond the Waste. He even sent armies the other side of the Aryth Ocean. The stories say he ruled the whole world, but what he really did rule was enough for any man outside of a story. And he brought peace and justice to the land.” – Elyas Machera
Open the cover of any Wheel of Time book, and you will see a world map. Welcome to Randland. Almost every inch of the main continent, from the Great Blight to the north, to the Storm of Seas to the south, from the Aiel Waste to the east, to the Aryth Ocean to the west, is a unique country, nation, people, culture. A living and breathing world. Robert Jordan was a master world builder. Reading about the countries in his world, one does not think “I am reading a country created by an author”, instead you think “I opened up a history book to discover a country that truly exists”. Culture, accents, traditions, politics, history, society, military formations, every country is vibrant, unique, and colorful.
I happen to own the The Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game book, and it covers each country rather extensively, not to mention there is at least 2 more continents (Seanchan and Shara), a society of seafarers, and 12 clans of Aiel. If I could world build countries and cultures half as well as the Master, Robert Jordan did, I would consider it a job well done.
“As the Wheel of Time turns, places wear many names. Men wear many names, many faces. Different faces, but always the same man. Yet no one knows the Great Pattern the Wheel weaves, or even the Pattern of an Age. We can only watch, and study, and hope.” – Someshta
If my explanation of how expansive the list of countries were in Randland, be prepared to be impressed by the list of characters. With a cast of easily 20 “main” characters (characters who get POV chapters multiple times), Robert Jordan’s writing is as such that even minor characters will play major roles. The cast of characters are populated by kings, queens, generals, warriors, politicians, advisers, magic wielders, soul bound eternal servants of evil, and of course, humble villagers.
But enough about quantity, how about quality?
The main cast is varied, and likable. The main character himself, Rand al’Thor, is a confused young shepherd with big dreams, but who will be haunted by a foreboding prophesy and a dark power. There is his best friend and partner in crime, Mat Cauthon the gambler, who is likewise destined for great things: a dagger, a horn, a spear, a fox, and a raven. And lastly there is Perrin Aybara, a soft spoken and humble blacksmith who must decide between the hammer or the axe, the wolf or the man.
There is Moiraine, a magic wielder – called Aes Sedai – who is on a quest to save the world, in accordance to the Prophesies of the Dragon, and Lan, her faithful sword arm.
There is Egwene,the typical wide eyed village mayor’s daughter, waiting for an adventure, and her friend Nynaeve, the Village wise woman with a magical secret.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Epic fantasy length, is the opportunity for growth. All these characters, and the many more who will join the cast, have great destinies ahead of them, but we will get to know them before they have achieved them. And we, as the reader, get to join them at every step of the way. One of my favorite progressions is Rand inheriting his father’s sword (a video game cliche if there ever was one), and starting as the clumsy novice, and then following his journey to hopefully become a fabled Blade Master.
“What a strange thing to say,” Egwene said. “Why do they use it like that? Peace favor your sword.”
“When you have never known a thing except to dream,” Lan replied, feeling Mandarb forward, “it becomes more than a talisman.”
What can a new writer take from the Wheel of Time? I think it is easier first to discuss what a new writer Shouldn’t take from it. First, building a world as expansive as Jordan’s takes skill and experience. For the majority of you, this task will seem so daunting that many of you will quit. I know I did. Somewhere in my middle school notebooks lies a hearty sum of scribbled pages, as I envisioned this grand world with countries, societies, cultures, traditions. I got bogged down by World Builder’s Disease, that is a writer’s block that comes in the form of fear of writing your story, or at least delaying the writing, because you have not crafted your world fully enough. Avoid this. This syndrome is discussed at length here at Writing Excuses .
Also, do not try to tackle a huge cast. Again, Jordan does so masterfully because he is a master. The amount of story lining and foreshadowing and planning involved must have been immense, but I imagine he knew that WoT was going to become his opus.
What can a new writer learn? Colorful backgrounds and history. A country of origin isn’t just a name, it is a collection of accents, attitudes, cultural beliefs and euphemisms, philosophy, system of government, military traditions, and even profanities and blessings. When an origin is well though out, it provides all of that to a character, whether he is typical or atypical in this regard to his culture. One of the best illustrations for this is the quote above. To quickly explain, the story takes us to Shienar, a country that is part of the “Borderlands”, four countries that live at the edge of where man exists, and beyond that, evil reigns. These four countries, with literally the Devil in their backyard, live in a world of constant war, and their society reflects it. It changes their culture, and in doing so, their attitudes differ from those who do not live in constant war. Peace, something that no Shienarian will ever know in their life time, takes on an almost magical quality because of this. In short, think deeper, not wider. It is better to have one, a couple, or handful well thought out and comprehensive cultures, then to have 20 countries that are only different by name.
Another important aspect of the series is the Hero’s Journey. The Monomyth. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This is the belief that every myth is really just a variation of the one myth, and this myth permeates human history because it resonates with the human experience. That is not to say, that there is a formula to writing a story. But rather, as an author, you must be aware of the archetypes you use. If you use an archetype, or heaven forbid, a cliche, and use it unknowingly, you come off as a cheap or novice writer. But if you use the archetype masterfully, using it to thread your story so it resonates with time tested themes, your story becomes elevated.
“The Dark One is after you three, one or all, and if I let you go running off wherever you want to go, he will take you. Whatever the Dark One wants, I oppose, so hear this and know it true. Before I let the Dark One have you, I will destroy you myself.” – Moiraine
I claim seven read-throughs of the Wheel of Time series, having read it to it’s ending (at the time) and then reading through again each time a new book was released. I am currently on my first read through of all 14 books, in Audio book this time. I mention this to illustrate my love for the series, and my love for it’s epic scope.
Like any well written series, each read through uncovers more secrets, highlights more connections, discovers more foreshadowing. Jordan’s writing became the foremost example of what Epic Fantasy writing was.
Though I am sad that I was never able to meet this great man in person, and to thank him for all he did for me, his magic still lives on in his books. The series was faithfully and expertly concluded by Brandon Sanderson, and I was happy and satisfied with my time in Randland. Brandon shares similar emotions in Eulogy to Robert Jordan and I could not put it in better words.
Thank you, Robert Jordan. Thank you for the magic.
Yet one shall be born to face the Shadow,
born once more as he was born before,
and shall be born again, time without end.
The Dragon shall be Reborn