Some Thoughts on "The Wheel of Time"

by Nick Langdon

It was in late January 2000 that I embarked upon Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World - a millennial beginning to a millennial epic - and I finished the concluding volume, A Memory of Light, this February. This means that the 14 books have taken me almost exactly 15 years to read, literally half a lifetime in my case, and therefore I believe some reflecting is due. After this long I feel I have earned the right, and as tribute to Mr Jordan I'm setting out upon this essay only having a vague idea of how I'm going to get to my conclusion and I'll probably end up waffling on for far longer than I should and testing your patience, but hey, all Wheel of Time fans should be accustomed to such things by now.

The series begins, as these sort of tales almost always do, with The Hero's Journey™. Having over the past few years upgraded myself to almost full time reading of literary fiction, this particular trope of contemporary epic fantasy is probably the one I miss least. You know how it goes, a boy or young man (occasionally a girl, but not often) grows up in obscurity (wretched poverty and abusive childhoods are also options), usually unaware of his real parentage. He is then found by a wise older person who becomes his mentor, this mentor then reveals that he is the chosen one who must save the world or galaxy. Through training he learns heretofore unknown great powers, and along with his trustworthy companions survives many trials and much suffering which may or may not include dying and being reborn. Eventually he will have to confront and defeat the evil one or evil forces threatening to overwhelm everyone he loves, and there's usually a wedding to some sort of princess thrown in somewhere. Naturally, you're already thinking, "Hey, that sounds like the plot of The Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Harry Potter/The Matrix etc" and you would be correct.

RJ claimed that he deliberately crafted the opening to The Eye of the World to be reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but to myself, and many other readers, some of those homages look more like knock-offs. To wit: at the end of the Third Age as a dark lord regains his strength, a wizard-like character brings four young people from their rural idyl famed for its production of tobacco into a dangerous world of beastmen bred during a long ago war by perverted science, an un-hasty race of nature loving giants and a mysterious creature that stalks them on their quest. Said quest involves travels through exotic lands, a breaking of the fellowship after some of its members are kidnapped plus, of course, the obligatory underground journey. Not saying it's terrible, just derivative (although a charge that is by no means unique to Jordan).

Thankfully, follow up, The Great Hunt is a marked improvement. More characters' perspectives are added, most of the obvious Tolkien parallels are dropped and the Aes Sedai training passages are some of my favourites in the series. Perhaps The Wheel of Time's greatest strength as a work of imaginative fiction is its magic system; in most other fantasy series the magic often feels perfunctory, something the author chucks in more because they feel they have to rather than because they have a new spin on it. Rather than being unbelievably “magical”, Jordan's One Power seems a tangible force in the universe, almost scientific rather than ritualistic or religious in its rules and application, yet still undeniably numinous.

After the bridging volume, The Dragon Reborn (which exists mostly to set up the next phase of the story), the subsequent three books, The Shadow Rising, The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos form both the middle section of the series and also contain its strongest writing. The journey through the Aiel Waste reveals much more of the history of the world, Mat becomes a character of significance, and in general shit gets real, especially at Cairhien and Dumai's Wells. Yes, the books are longer than ever (Lord of Chaos is over 1000 pages in paperback), but things happen in them, interesting things to people you have come to care about.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the next FIVE volumes. Now I must clarify that I am not axiomatically opposed to either long novels/series nor large casts. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has more than a thousand named characters with still two books to go, but Martin has more skill at manipulating all these plot lines into a propulsive narrative (although even he seems to be struggling over the course of the latest two volumes). From A Crown of Swords onwards the action almost seizes up as story threads wander through multiple books without ever seeming to be advancing towards any sort of conclusion. Characters are stuck in Ebou Dar talking to boring people, lurking in Salidar grimacing at those holed up in Tar Valon and vice versa, or spending far too long being held prisoner or in a bloody travelling circus doing high wire acts. The occasional moment of real action no longer makes up for the thousands of pages where nothing of any real consequence is occurring. Even consulting summaries of The Path of Daggers and Winter's Heart in order to write this has me recalling only a handful of incidents, the rest was just a blur of repetition, snow and soporific Aes Sedai squabbling.

This is not to imply that my issues with The Wheel of Time begin only at volume 7. In addition to adhering all too closely to the hero's journey archetype, one cannot overlook Jordan's tedious but ever-present gender politics. While occasionally he hits upon something original, such as in the obvious yet unique sexual allegory that is the male/female division and use of the One Power, for the most part this consists of an endless and immature “Men are from Seanchan, women are from Shara” battle of the sexes sniping, and from almost every damn character! Which leads to another complaint of mine: the very thin characterisation on display. Even the principal actors in the series often seem more a collection of catchphrases and mannerisms than believable people, and their emotional development is minimal to zero. I realise that most of the main characters are quite young, but they should be changed far more by their amazing (and often traumatic) experiences.

Speaking of the Seanchan, many consider them both irritating and superfluous to the greater story, but I actually don't mind them. I find the geostrategic threat they pose to the nations of Randland and the Aiel intriguing, as different ways of political and cultural thinking causing friction is a problem that bedevils real world leaders, and there are often no easy answers, only messy compromises. Also the Seanchan culture, while heavily inspired by imperial China and feudal Japan, is more interesting than the all-too-familiar Wardour Street version of the Middle Ages that is the standard currency in most fantasy novels. Jordan's decision to add to this an almost Victorian era-esq culture and morality along with a greater level of female empowerment has potential, but as mentioned above, his characters' mostly interchangeable dialogue and monologue rapidly have you wishing for something, anything else.

Anyway, back to the summary. After the series reached its nadir with the interminable and inert Crossroads of Twilight, even Robert Jordan finally recovered from his narrative torpor, and in Knife of Dreams things started to get going again, albeit still far too slowly. However while working on was to be the twelfth and final volume in 2007, Mr Jordan passed away, leaving some completed scenes, descriptive notes and dictations of what was to become the conclusion to his life's major work. Enter fellow fantasy author and replacement, Brandon Sanderson, who, while actually managing to finish the thing, regrettably bought with him his own weaknesses.

While the story itself was in dire need of an immediate adrenalin injection followed by narrative triage, Sanderson's greatest challenge was actually the writing. Unlike films or TV series which, even if credited to a single creator, are always collaborative efforts, a novel remains, even with editorial assistants and proofreaders, an individual's personal vision written in their singular voice. For all my complaints about the singular voice of RJ, unfortunately the quality of writing in the last three books fell below even this standard. There was a dulled sense of emotion, major events just didn't resonate the way they should have, and some characters behaved in manners at odds with how they had previously. For all the streamlining and pace Sanderson brought, at times his prose felt more like Wheel of Time fan fiction than WWRJD. Perhaps this was inevitable and I'm being too harsh, but given his status as an über-fan of the series, a published author in his own right and operating under the tutelage of Jordan's editorial team, I guess I expected better. He stated explicitly that he wasn't trying to ape RJ's style, but in so many cases did just that, however as my dad always says, “consistency, thou art a jewel”.

And while we're on the language kick, long time Wheel of Time readers became resigned to Jordan's weird repetitions, what with all those woolheaded men exclaiming “Light!” while the women sniffed and crossed their arms beneath their breasts as Nynaeve tugged on her braid.... Sanderson carried on this way too as well as with far too many instances of boring cliches like “his face hardened” or “her expression darkened”. BS also contributed some regrettable modern phrases that jarred with the fantasy world, words such as “crazy” and “doctor” instead of, say, “mad” and “healer”. Also, being a younger citizen of the United States, he doesn't seem to realise everyone else doesn't speak American, so can't seem to understand why words like “twister” and “stomped” do not work in a fantasy context. US writers from a pervious generation, such as Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin do, which is why their work is mostly free of such stylistic infidelities, but with Sanderson you're always half expecting to run across sentences like: “And Perrin said, 'Awesome!'”.

I'm now going to discuss in some detail the final books, so the spoiler phaser that has previously been set on “stun” is now redlined all the way to “kill with fire” for the next six paragraphs, so consider yeselves warned. The Gathering Storm resolved several long and tedious plot strands including Faile's capture, Lews Therin's less than positive influence on Rand's psyche and the split in the White Tower/Black Ajah conspiracy, and about time too. The series always laboured under its somewhat awkward structure whereby the ending was foretold at the beginning; from the first book it's obvious that Rand is the Dragon Reborn and will fight the Dark One at Tarmon Gai'don, therefore the quality of the read becomes greatly dependent on unforeseen plot developments and twists before the inevitable conclusion. Verin being revealed as Black Ajah was one of the increasingly rare surprises.

Having wrapped up most of the loose ends, Towers of Midnight began setting up the big finish we were promised oh so many years and books ago. Rand's quasi-apotheosis has him become a mixture of Jesus and Shiva Destroyer of Worlds, while Moraine makes a not entirely welcome re-entrance (another annoying trope of fantasy and science fiction is that hardly anyone ever really dies, and with the possibility of resurrection ever-present the stakes are lowered whenever characters become imperilled). As this then segues into the final volume, A Memory of Light, we also get quite a bit of Asha'man politics, more Darkfriends, and yet more not particularly interesting characters. After being mostly off page, the Black Tower arc comes too late and too thickly for my taste, and it happening just when all the equivalent White Tower shenanigans was winding up makes it especially difficult to warm to. I like Logain as a character and Taim is a quality villain, but feel that after volume 6 the whole Black Tower sub-plot wasn't given the time and space it deserved.

Elsewhere in the final book, having said I appreciated another political angle, the Seanchan, I must now counter that with by saying that the Dragon Reborn's plan of setting up his version of the United Nations of Randland with the Aiel acting as peacekeepers makes no sense, and in fact suggests either lazy writing or that the combined efforts Lews Therin and the Dark One's taint on Saidar may have eroded crucial parts of Rand's mind. It comes across like a hypothetical some ignorant novice from the backwoods of Tear angling for a career in the Grey Ajah would invent. The concept of an entity supranational body with authority that, in certain instances, usurps sovereign control and through which inter-state conflicts are adjudicated is too great a stretch for most denizens of THIS world, let alone a fantasy one where the natives seem even more prone to argument than human nature (already a prickly creature) would otherwise suggest. Just look at the opposition to the UN/EU/IMF etc.

Tarmon Gai'don itself is, for the most part, deftly handled, even if we never got our three heroes from Emond's Field standing together and fighting as one which most long term fans of the series sort of expected would feature in its conclusion. The cutting between the points of view was well balanced, it was nice to see all the familiar faces one last time, and while there probably should have been some more deaths of major characters, the ones who do snuff it mostly go out in style. That being said, there are still problems. Tuon's prevaricating is even more annoying than she usually is because it's obvious that Mat, not Elayne, will eventually be directing The Last Battle, and so it proves, making the delay so stupidly pointless that you feel Peter Jackson must have somehow been involved. The fact that Perrin spent most of said battle in bed after playing hide and seek with Slayer was also disappointing and Rand's personal struggle with the Shai'tan underwhelmed. The time dilation was a useful plot device, but their caps lock shouting match and competitive speculative fiction scenarios didn't quite add up to the age-ending Ragnarök we'd anticipated.

I'm also not happy about the Sharan angle. Having read The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time I was familiar with them and had been hoping they'd show up, but can't help wondering why, even despite their famous hostility to outsiders, neither the White or Black Tower sent emissaries there (or perhaps a bit of the old ta'veren action could have brought them round?) even when it was known the Last Battle was in the offing. And they're ignorant of the prophecies surrounding the Dragon Reborn that every other culture in the world seems to possess yet they have their own wacky one which Demandread can exploit, or was “Bao the Wyld” supposed to mean Rand? Even if there are good answer to these questions, why weren't they in the book? Don't say there wasn't space because there totally was, it was just wasted with other guff.

As with Moraine's non-death, the final ending is, to me, something of a sellout. I know that Jordan apparently wrote it while still alive, but the fact Rand doesn't die lowers the stakes of his sacrifice to practically nothing. It just seems like a cop out in order not to disappoint his three sister-wives (I bet they'd love that concept in Utah) and their offspring. Plus, with no real explanation, he can no longer channel but seems to be able to effortlessly manipulate the Pattern to his will. What is he now, a wizard? The Creator's only son sent down to redeem mankind by dying and being reborn after 3 days? I know Jordan was an Episcopalian, but like all quality fantasy authors he'd worked out that the spiritual never really lies comfortably alongside the magical, so sacrificed the former for the convenience of the latter. Well, I mean he tried to have some sort of spirituality, but put it this way; throughout the series the Whitecloaks were the bad guys, and if the Pattern of the Wheel wove Rand as the reincarnation of Lews Therin then the Creator didn't do shit.

Were Birgitte here she would no doubt admonish me for preaching like a Tovan Councillor, but you don't spend 15 years with something without forming a few opinions on it, so you're welcome. Any battle-hardened veterans who have made it through both The Wheel of Time and this essay/rant (I now have the ending written, I promise!) will most likely share my strongly mixed feelings about the series as a whole. A powerful work of the imagination, it very much improved upon the David Eddings/Raymond E. Feist model of post-Tolkein, post-AD&D modern epic fantasy, laying the groundwork, in a sense, for other, deeper works, such as George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, that followed. I think I've made, what I consider, the major failings of the series pretty obvious by now, so to add any more would only be belabouring the point. I don't consider the time I invested in reading and talking about Jordan's world wasted, but I still believe much of that time could have been better spent or not cashed at all.

So, aside from the forthcoming companion volume that will mostly be a reference guide based on the books with a few additional notes of Mr Jordan's, this is very much farewell to The Wheel of Time. The two other prequels he was planning to write after New Spring (which I quite enjoyed, coming as it did during the series' lowest ebb and reminding readers that RJ could indeed tell a concise tale and filling in some of the backstory in a very satisfying manner) will never eventuate. More than once I have been asked for my opinion on The Wheel of Time and to state it as emphatically as I can, the latter books stop me recommending the series, as it is somewhere between 4 and 7 books too long depending on to what extent each reader thinks the red pen should have been wielded. The Wheel may turn, but I don't believe I will come around again to reading this series, so from Shayol Ghul I wander away, my destination unknown, but most likely never to return, in this age or the next.