A YEAR ON THE WHEEL

One man’s thoughts on The Wheel of Time saga.

The wheel of time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the ages that gave it birth comes again. In one age, called the Third Age by some, and age yet to come, an age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of time. But it was a beginning.

Or, rather, for one man in Fort Worth, Texas, it was an ending.

I don’t know how that copy of The Eye of the World ended up in my parent’s house. I remember, after reading it, asking my parents which one of them had read it and receiving blank stares. Neither of them remembered ever having heard of it, let alone read it. I remember this reaction vividly as it was inconceivable that someone could read this book and not remember it. It is still completely inconceivable to me. I have no idea how that book came to be in our house… but I am so thankful that it did.

In my house, growing up, you never got in trouble for reading unless you were at the dinner table. The dinner table was sacred ground. Other than that, reading was always allowed and we had a big library of books to choose from. My parents were both readers and I can remember many an evening with all four of us curled up on couches, chairs, or the floor – each of us wrapped in silence and the worlds spun by whatever author had our attention on that particular evening. It was glorious, as a rambunctious kid, to come in from exploring the woods, catching lizards, or chasing dogs and to be able to plop down with a book and get completely lost in a story for hours on end.

I was always a sci-fi kid. I still am, honestly. I remember thinking that fantasy was for little kids but science fiction? That was serious reading. But it was summer between 6th and 7th grade and I was out of sci-fi to read, I had finished up my summer reading list ages ago and I needed something to read. So I went digging through the bookshelves for something that I hadn’t read.

I found The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. And I read it. And I was hooked.

“At my age, if I make it up, it’s still an old saying.”
― The Fires of Heaven

James Oliver Rigney, Jr. – A.K.A. Robert Jordan, published The Eye of the World – the first book in The Wheel of Time series – in 1990. The 80s and 90s were a good time for fantasy novels and The Eye of the World could easily have been lost in the crowd of new fantasy novels and series. Because The Wheel of Time is very much high fantasy. There’s magic and monsters and heroes and villains. There’s prophecy of a savior and an ancient evil trying to destroy everything good in the world. On paper, it could easily be mistaken for just another predictable fantasy series.

But it’s not. And the things that make it different make a BIG difference.

For starters, there isn’t just one hero – there are four. Three young boys and a girl from the same village who get caught up in things far bigger than themselves. You could argue that there are more than four heroes, but I stand by these four being the pillar characters that story is built around. Robert Jordan did a great job crafting all of his characters – they’re never flat or predictable. They make choices and grow and change and seem very much alive. But these four kids? They’re some of the best-written characters in all of fiction. And he grows all four of them over the course of the series. Though one of them is the central figure to the mythos of this world, the other three are never forgotten. They are never sidelined. This is a brilliant bit of storytelling that makes the story relatable to just about anyone reading. These four characters are all different from each other – each, in some way, taking on a group of narrative archetypes that make it so that at least one them will be identifiable to the reader. I always like to ask other people who’ve read the books who their favorite character is. Everyone has one and who they choose says a lot about their personality.

“Better to have one woman on your side than ten men.”
― The Great Hunt

Another thing that sets Jordan’s characters apart is his female characters. I think that having grown up reading Jordan’s female characters is at least partially responsible for me always being attracted to strong women in real life. I fell in love with these strong, courageous, complex, independent, intelligent female personalities in the books… it stands to reason that I would fall in love with (and marry) the same type of woman in reality. A lot of fantasy – especially high fantasy – relegates female characters to old, established archetypes. The princess to be rescued, the queen to be admired, the witch to be feared, the lady to be revered, the mother to be… motherly. While these tropes are (usually) not intended to be degrading or demeaning, the fact remains that they ARE degrading and demeaning. They’re dehumanizing. They at least imply that female characters – and by extension, females – are supposed to fit into a mold or behave a certain way. Anything outside of those established roles doesn’t allow the heroic male archetype to fulfill his role in the narrative.

I don’t particularly feel comfortable with the idea of my daughter reading high fantasy (when she’s old enough to read) because of the unrealistic and confining gender tropes that it generally contains.

But Jordan’s women aren’t like that. These characters are at least as complex as the male characters – in the case of Egwene Al’Vere, far MORE complex – and more “real” as a result. They have shortcomings and skills. They have surprising moments of weakness and heroism. They have character flaws and failings but they also have strength and tenacity. They are, in a very real sense, whole people. At least as much as any fictional character can be.

Because his narrative doesn’t revolve around the usual, strongly-gendered archetypes, these female characters are free to be people and, because of that, the narrative gains a profound depth and is far more compelling.

And the world of the Wheel of Time really is strikingly deep and detailed. Jordan clearly stepped into this epic storytelling project with a fleshed-out idea of what it would look like. The history, lore, creatures, magic system, the entire framework, is present from book one page one. Sure there are details that get fleshed out later in the series but, the core of the storytelling seems to have been put in place from the beginning with the main characters almost set loose to grow and tell their own stories according to their character. It’s beautifully complete and the scale is both daunting and majestic.

“Bring your lightnings, Aes Sedai. I will dance with them.”
― The Great Hunt

Without going into too much more detail, I do feel it’s worth discussing Jordan’s unique magic system that he set up for this series. The idea of balance is crucial to the whole story and nowhere is this as explicitly laid out than when it comes to magic and magic casters (or The One Power and those who can Channel it). There is a single source of power but it has two “halves” – male and female channelers can draw from one side or the other of the One Power. The male half is chaotic and wild, the female is calm and graceful. But they are balanced. Neither side is more or less powerful than the other. They are different but equal. The one power is wielded as “threads” of power that are “woven” into what would be called spells in many fantasy stories. The complexity and form of these weaves determine the effect and efficacy of the weave. There are no wands or incantations or magic potions. There is simply a greater power and people who can channel this power with varying levels of skill and strength.

This system is incredibly refreshing to me, as a reader because it’s not about ego. Since the power is not from themselves, those characters who can channel are free to develop along the same lines as those who cannot. That is, they develop because of their personalities, strengths, and character flaws instead of their development being focused on learning new spells and becoming the best magician or whatever.

“I always say, if you must mount the gallows, give a jest to the crowd, a coin to the hangman, and make the drop with a smile on your lips.”
― The Fires of Heaven

When Robert Jordan died, I was devastated. I’m not being hyperbolic here, I was legitimately upset. I had never felt anything beyond passing sadness for the many musicians, authors, or actors who had passed away in my lifetime. Sure it was sad that they had died but I didn’t know them. But Robert Jordan… that was a different story. I had spent so much time in his writing and had become so invested in his characters – his world – that if felt like I did know him to some degree. I knew his moral stances and how he viewed the world because I had seen it all reflected in his writing. When he died, I cried. I cried for his family’s loss. I cried for MY loss. I cried for his characters. I cried for his unfinished epic.

Because, when he passed away, Robert Jordan had not finished the Wheel of Time. He was one book short.

He had written eleven long and engrossing novels (12 if you count the prequel, New Spring) but the epic remained unfinished. And it seemed that it would remain that way… but his beloved wife Harriet and his publisher Tom Doherty were determined to see that the epic was completed. Eventually, they approached Brandon Sanderson – a critically acclaimed fantasy author in his own right – to take up and finish the story.

As a huge Robert Jordan fan, I found myself strangely unwilling to give this Sanderson guy a chance. I cared so deeply for these characters and this story… I was protective of it. I didn’t want someone else – someone with his OWN relatively large fan following and his own writing style – to come in and put their stamp on The Wheel of Time. I was willing to leave it unfinished… because, even unfinished, it was perfect. I didn’t want to risk that perfection.

So I put the series down. And I didn’t pick it back up for 10 years.

In February of 2015, I found myself in need of something to read. I had finished everything in my kindle reading queue and I’d re-read the Lord of the Rings series the year before so I wasn’t feeling that one again just yet (it’s an every-other-year read for me). So I went to my bookshelf and starting digging for something to keep me occupied. As I ran my fingers across the spines of my paperback collection, my hand stopped on The Eye of the World. “Huh.” I thought, “It’s been a good long while since I read this… is it time to give this another go?” I knew that, if I was going to jump back into the world of The Wheel of Time, I would have to start from the beginning and see it through to the end – including the Sanderson novels. So I looked him up to see what I was in for. I found out that Sanderson had taken his job very seriously. He had taken a look at the notes that Jordan left, spoken with Harriet, and determined that there was no way that he could finish this story in one book. Robert Jordan may have been able to pull that off but Brandon Sanderson wasn’t even going to try. I also found an interview with Sanderson where he discussed his feelings of awe and the weight of responsibility that he felt when tasked to finish the series. He spoke with such honesty and reverence…

So I grabbed my copy of The Eye of the World and sat down to read.

And, for the next year, I immersed myself in the world, characters, and storyline of The Wheel of Time. I did take two breaks during that year – one to read The Martian and one to re-read Dune as I waited on book 12 to arrive in the mail from Amazon. While those were welcome breaks, I was always eager to dive back into series again.

“Til shade is gone,
til water is gone
Into the shadow with teeth bared
Screaming defiance with the last breath
To spit in Sightblinder’s eye on the Last Day.”
― The Dragon Reborn

Spending a year completely bought into a story, experiencing it every single day (sometimes for hours on end), is a truly unique experience. I’ve never done that before – not even close. There are very few series that a) can keep my attention for that long and b) have the sheer volume of page to keep someone who reads at my speed occupied for a full year. When you spend that amount of time in a story, though, you start to internalize and almost anticipate parts of it. The cadence, the language, even the sentence structure and how the author constructs paragraphs and delineates chapters – all of it becomes a part of the experience and, to some extent, part of how you interact with the world at large. Picking up any Wheel of Time book was instantly like coming home. I could immediately fall back into that world without a thought b/c everything felt familiar. I think, to some degree, Robert Jordan was aware of this because, every once in a while, he would write a part of the story that felt… different. Whenever I would hit one of these spots, my brain would almost stumble for a moment before stopping and paying attention to that thing that felt unfamiliar. And it was ALWAYS a part of the story that needed to be paid attention to which is why I believe that it was intentional on the author’s part.

Sanderson’s three contributions to the series are really quite good. Let me just get that out of the way. Brandon Sanderson is an accomplished writer and I’m really glad he was asked to finish this series. These three novels do not feel like Robert Jordan’s novels, however. Stepping from book eleven to book twelve was like taking a sip of sweet tea and then suddenly realizing that it was, in fact, unsweetened. I happen to like unsweetened tea, personally. There is a lot of subtle flavor elements that you can taste in unsweetened tea that get covered over when you add sugar. But you have to get used to the flavor first. And, if your mouth is set for sweet tea, you have to get over the palette shock first.

Robert Jordan was a fantastic writer. In a single sentence, he could communicate a wealth of information, emotion, and ambiance that would take other authors two or three sentences – and it would feel natural. Easy. Sanderson is ALSO a great writer… but his style is his. He doesn’t write with the poetic economy that Jordan exhibited. And that’s ok. Once I got past this difference, I enjoyed the last three books in the series immensely.

When it was all said and done, I was glad that the story had been finished and I was glad that Sanderson had been the one to finish it.

“Relax, lad. Take life as it comes. Run when you have to, fight when you must, rest when you can.”
― The Eye of the World

I sat down to begin writing this, thumbing my favorite pipe full of my favorite tabac, a cold beer in front of me, trying to figure out how it feels to just now – more than twenty years after I first read The Eye of the World – close the cover on the last book.

I love this story. There’s no other way to say it, really. I fell in love with this story at a young age and never feel out of love with it. It’s one of the relatively few masterpieces of epic, multi-volume fiction out there. It is, in my estimation, right up there with The Lord of the Rings and The Foundation Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is sweeping in scope and yet deeply personal in its storytelling. These books are a gateway into a strange and exciting world that, at the same time, is somehow familiar. The characters, their motivations, emotions, even their choices… they feel… like us. You see your family and friends reflected in these fictional people. You see yourself.

Every time I cracked open any of the novels in The Wheel of Time, I felt like I was, to some degree at least, coming home. And that’s why it was so hard to turn the last page, close the back cover, and be done. There’s a sense of accomplishment, sure. That’s a lot of story to read and it feels good to have finished it in a year, even given my usual, voracious reading rate. But there’s also a deep sense of loss. This world was MY world for a year. When I turned off my brain and needed to escape, this is where I went. These characters were people that I cared about. And now it’s done. It’s over. It’s finished. There will be no more books written about Rand Al’Thor and Perrin Aybara and Matrim Cauthon. We won’t ever know what happened during the reign of Elayne Trakand. We won’t find out how the Aiel survived the end of their great purpose.

We’ll never know. Because it’s over.

Even as I write that, my chest aches. There’s a very real finality to the end of that book. Robert Jordan has passed on and, while Brandon Sanderson finished the epic, it’s not his world to expand on. Besides, he has his own epic fantasy series to write.

And that’s ok. It was a good end. It felt right. It felt complete.

I’m 100% sure that I will, at some point, re-read the whole thing again. I’m only in my mid-thirties, after all. I’ve got plenty more reading years left to me. But it’s not going to be any time soon. I’m going to have to rest a bit… a year is a long time to spend reading one story. Even if it is one of the best stories ever written.

James Oliver Rigney, Jr., better known by his pen name, Robert Jordan

(October 17, 1948 – September 16, 2007)

“May you shelter in the palm of the Creator’s hand, and may the last embrace of the mother welcome you home.”
― Robert Jordan