Friday, 12 March 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 1: the Eye of the World (1990)

I know the gags, of course (‘help, I’m trapped like a hamster in the Wheel of Time!’) but I’ve decided to give it a go anyway. It may or may not be significant Fantasy in an aesthetic sense, that remains to be seen. But there's no questioning its commercial success. The Eye of the World is sitting in front of me on my desk right now. This is what the copyright page tells me: first published in the United States by Tom Doherty Associates Inc, 1990; first published in Great Britain in 1990 by Macdonald & Co; this Orbit edition published 1991. Reprinted 1991, 1992 (twice), 1993 (twice), 1994 (twice), 1995, 1996 (twice), 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 (twice), 2003, 2004 (twice), 2005, 2006 (twice), 2007. People keep buying it, evidently. I bought it myself—in a charity shop, for £1:49

So on one side of the scales is my curiosity. On the other side, obviously, is the enormousness of the task. Fourteen volumes, each c.800 pages long. Think of it as one 11,000-page novel. Phew. I daresay there’s a lot of stuff in that sedimentary cliff-face of text: many characters, a peck of business, a Cook’s-tour (or perhaps several) of Jordan’s imaginary world. I don’t anticipate Tolstoyan depth and richness; or Nabokovian prose; or even Dostoevskian intensity. But it’s clearly long, at any rate. We can probably go further and say that some of the appeal of this series is precisely its length. The back of my second hand orbit paperback carries this endorsement, from the (UK) Sunday Times: ‘Epic in every sense.’ The truth is probably that it’s epic in no classical sense at all, but ‘epic’ now is taken as a synonym for ‘very long’, and The Wheel of Time is clearly very long.

So, I read the first volume, and I’m heartened. It turns out that The Wheel of Time is not long at all. It may look long to the inexperienced eye, but it’s actually fairly short. The whole series will be a doddle.

Here’s what I mean. The Eye of the World is 53 chapters, each chapter 15-20 pages long. But the plot traced out by those 53 chapters is unthreateningly simple, and even the narrative, though clearly puffed and tumoured a little in terms of length, is not much longer. Jordan’s 800 page novel is actually a 300 page novel. For example: Jordan’s protagonist is making his way through the forest with his dad when he sees a mysterious dark horseman. Here’s how Jordan writes the sentence ‘Rand stumbled and nearly fell.’
Abruptly a stone caught his heel and he stumbled, breaking his eyes away from the dark horseman. His bow dropped to the road, and only an outthrust hand grabbing Bela’s harness saved him from falling flat on his back. With a startled snort the mare stopped, twisting her head to see what had caught her. [4]
And here’s how he writes ‘when he looked up again, the dark horseman had vanished.’
Tam frowned over Bela’s back at him. ‘Are you alright son?’
‘A rider,’ Rand said breathlessly, pulling himself upright. ‘A stranger, following us.’
‘Where?’ The older man lifted his broad-bladed speak and peered back warily.
‘There, down the …’ Rand’s voice trailed off as he turned to point. The road behind was empty. Disbelieving, he stared into the forest on both sides of the road. Bare-branched trees offered no hiding place, but there was no glimmer of horse or horseman. He met his father’s questioning gaze. ‘He was there. A man in a black cloak, on a black horse.’
The writerly-technical term for this is ‘padding’; but the prolixity is such a fundamental part of what Jordan is doing that I suspect it misses the point to object to it. I was reminded a little of Scott, and his swaddling swathes of garrulous prosifying (except that, unlike Scott, by bulk, about half of Jordan’s padding is dialogue). It has specific textual effects; and the one that struck me, on reading through it, is of upholstery. It’s a comfortable sort of style, like settling into a bath; a mix of stiff little archaic touches and chattily modern waffle.

The other thing that leaps out, having read it, is the wholly saturated derivativeness of it all. According to The New York Times (quoted on the front cover, up there), ‘with the Wheel of Time Jordan has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal.’ That ‘reveal’ is rather annoyingly precious; but we can take this as code for ‘the Wheel of Time is massively derivative of Tolkien.’ And indeed it is. Good Odin it is. The only substantive thing it adds to Lord of the Rings is increased length, and since each of Tolkien’s 1100 pages is ten times as dense as Jordan’s 11,000, that resolves into no additional substance at all. Otherwise there’s a cosmic battle between good and evil; little people caught in the middle of incipient cosmic war, bestial orcs (‘trollocs’), istarian wielders of the true source. Does Jordan, in one jarringly unAmerican moment, have one character say 'I can feel it ... I can bloody feel it!' [684] because he thinks that's how JRRT's compatriots swear? The Professor would not have been pleased.

Still, best to take this novel as an self-conscious exercise in remix. Our hero is an ordinary chap, in a rural community (‘Two Rivers', which I must say made me feel right at home) whose life is upended by the eruption of mysterious dark riders and orcs (trollocs, sorry) into his sequestered backwater . Fleeing from them takes him, and his various companions, first of all, to a Bree-like town (Baerlon); then via a Mines-of-Moria-like dead metropolis (Shadar Logoth) to a brief kinda-Elvish-y sanctuary (Caemlyn). All through these journeys the forces of evil, servants of the disembodied Shaitan, harry Rand. They do this because they know him to be a reincarnation of their ancient enemy, and they try in various ways to bump him off: Trollocs and airborne Nazgul (I can't, off the top of my head, remember what Jordan calls his Nazgul; but big lizard-like flying evil creatures are certainly there) from without, treachery from within, not least the egregiously Gollum-like ('Gollumoid'? 'Gollumnar'?) peddlar Padan Fain. More than that, the evil one himself keeps appearing in Rand's dreams, wearing uber-melodramatic impossible-to-actually-visualise facial expressions, and calling him 'youngling'.
Ba'alzamon's clothes were the color of dried blood, and rage and hate and triumph battled on his face. "You see, youngling, you cannot hide from me forever!" [493]
A couple of non-Tolkien elements are also thrown into the mix: one being the pesudo-militia 'Children of the Light' who, like New England Puritans, have taken opposition of 'the evil one' to self-defeatingly destructive and fundamentalist lengths. Prophesy tells of the rebirth of 'the Dragon', who will battle the evil one, but whose coming is will wreck the world, and so is looked on with as much dread as anything.

Now, reading this was actually not wholly a chore. The whole galleon moves at a stately but by-no-means boring pace through 40-odd chapters. Then Jordan seems to decide he needs to speed things up a bit; so he introduces some interdimensional portals called 'the Ways' to shift his characters out of beseiged Camlaen and zoom them the great distance to his Mordor/Mount Doom-ish denoument without further faffing; which reads like a bit of a cheat, actually. And then it's into the wasted lands behind the mountains, pursued by myriad manifestations of evil, to get to the titular Eye of the World. This turns out to be a magical reservoir of the Magic Magical Energy, 'Saidan', that underpins Jordan's cosmos, magically. For a man to utilise this stuff is inevitable madness and death (women do rather better with it). But Rand has his stand-off with evil, wields the magic Saidan to destroy the armies of wickedness. The book closes with a quick flourish of 'duh-duh durr!', viz., Moraine, a sort-of female Gandalf, after consoling Rand that things will be OK, waits til she is alone and whispers 'the Dragon is Reborn!'.

**

Reading is a different pleasure to re-reading; the one exploratory, an encounter with newness; the other reassuring, an encounter with familiarity. But what Jordan has done here is produce a book such that the reader feels as if she is rereading it even when she is actually reading it for the first time. That doesn’t perfectly suit me, since I prize the estrangement of literature over the comfy warm-milk-and-cookies pleasures of curling up with a book that will give you all the things you expect of a novel. But I daresay that’s just me.

There were some things I enjoyed about it, mind. I quite liked the way we intuit, from early on, that the whole cycle is actually a far-future history. Buried behind the horizon of Jordan’s world’s history are the events of 20th- and I suppose 21st-century history remembered only as mythic fragments, the 1969 Luinar Exploration Module becoming ‘Lenn … how he flew to the moon in the belly of an eagle made of fire’, and a Russian-US nuclear war (Jordan shows his age and generation in this) reduced to ‘tales of Mosk the Giant with his Lance of Fire that could reach around the world, and his wars with Elsbet, the Queen of All.’ [51] It’s neither original nor particularly cleverly done, this, but it works quite nicely nevertheless.

Less clever is the way Jordan continually interrupts his narratives to have characters recite gnarly infodumpy chunks of history, like this:
Before Mordeth had been long in the city he had Balwen's ear, and soon he was second only to the King. Mordeth whispered poison in Balwen's ear, and Aridhol began to change. Aridhol drew in on itself, hardened. It was said taht some would rather see Trollocs come than the men of Aridhol ... The story is too long to tell in full, and too grim, and only fragments are known, even in Tar Valon. How Thorin's son, Caar, came to win Aridhol back to the Second Covenant, and ... [289]
Wait, didn't you just say it was too long and grim to tell? Why do that and then go on and on for pages? Or, this:
"I remember the making of it [the Eye]. Some of the making. Some." His hazelnut eyes stared, lost in memory. "It was the first days of the Breaking of the World, when the joy of victory over the Dark One turned bitter with the knowledge that all might yet be shattered by the weight of the Shadow. A hundred of them made it, men and women together. The greatest Aes Sedai works were always done so, joining saidin and saidar, as the True Source is joined..." [744]
And so on.

Jordan's gender politics are marginally more progressive than Tolkien's, although the margin involved is slender, for his whole world is built around a small-c conservative and essentialist notion of the appropriate powers and responsibilities of male and female. No gay characters; and indeed I was struck, reading the whole, by how painfully chaste it all is. Pitched perfectly for religious-prudish middle America.

One last thing. The book reads like the first installment in a trilogy (as, Wikipedia tells me, it was originally planned). I don't see how Jordan and his heirs can spin this story out through fourteen fat volumes. But we'll see. Next Friday, vol. 2. Onward.

38 comments:

Ian Sales said...

To be fair, the world gets a little more interesting, and less Tolkien-lite, over the next few books. Sadly, the ratio of plot to padding also lessens, and the gender politics seem to get stuck in a Dirty Old Man rut (no pun intended).

I think it's book 10, Crossroads of Twilight, which consists of 860+ pages in which nothing actually happens - the narrative covers three days, and the story-arc doesn't move forward at all.

rreugen said...

Hello, mr. Roberts.

I have tried to read this series too, but I abandoned it after the first pages of the second volume.

When I read it I was amazed by how derivative it was. One thing that to me it seemed obvious but I didn't see it mentioned in reviews was that the Aes Sedai were obviously the Bene Gesserit from Frank Herbert's Dune (although dumber, but heh, everything in this first volume struck me as dumber than the copied originals).

I don't remember now why exactly it seemed so - I simply can't remember details from this book enough so that I can construct a valid argumentation, but I am curious if you think that I am wrong, and there is no connection between them.

GeoX said...

I admire your commitment to the cause (is it a "cause?"), even as I find it slightly nuts. I look forward to your ruminations on future volumes.

Adam Roberts said...

GeoX; I'm halfway through vol. 2, and the profound, chasm-spanning vastness of my nuttiness is starting to dawn on me.

rreugen: you're absolutely right about the Aes Sedai being Bene Gesserit clones.

Ian. I assume the pun you were going for was: 'Jordan is the Rutles to Tolkien's Beatles'.

Adam Roberts said...

Also, I see nobody has weighed in on the post's most pressing question. Is it 'Gollumoid'? Or 'Gollumnar'?

Joe Sherry said...

Adam: Jordan may actually have meant hazelnut eyes, if the individual in question was the Green Man.

Also, yes, the series does become less Tolkien-clonish over the next couple of volumes (as Ian mentioned). The pace rot seems to set in somewhere around volume 7 or 8, I think.

Mark_W said...

Never mind “is it 'Gollumoid'? Or 'Gollumnar'? (or Gollumoavish, or Gloamsch, or even (pronounced) Glams): fair play to you for writing two-thousand words whilst only subliminally suggesting that this is all “a load of old trollocs” (or variations thereof…..)

Having (smugly and unacceptably) said that, it’s only fair to say that I was exactly the right age to consume (as I did) Jordan’s Conan the Invincible/Defender/Unconquered/Triumphant/Victorius etc, and that I thus still retain a huge fondness for him, even though I’ve never yet read any of the unaccountably vast pages of the Wheel of Time...

Paul said...

Hi there Adam

I bought this book out of curiosity (it is so popular), alas I was unable to read it page by page and line by line (I HAD to skip lots) and have no intention of ever reading another volume.

I did enjoy the start of the novel but it dragged far too quickly.

If you truly are able to read each book in this series then I will respect your colossal stamina (and think you are crazy!)
You will need bags of coffee or some other stronger stimulant to keep you awake.

I really enjoyed 'Land of the Headless' btw

regards
Paul J

Adam Roberts said...

Joe S.: you're quite right. I missed that on my reading, but the green man not only has grass for hair and acorns for fingernails, but 'huge hazelnuts' for eyes. I've corrected.

Paul J. Thanks!

Adam Roberts said...

Mark W, 'Glams', as an adjective, sounds more Ziggy Stardust than Gollum-ish, surely?

David Moles said...

I see nobody has weighed in on the post's most pressing question...

Well, it's all down to nuance, isn't it? Gollumly and gollumlike (both presumably from the German *gollumlich): of a creature having the Gollumn-nature, those characteristics proper to that nature; gollumish (G. *gollumisch) characteristics of Gollum found in a creature to which such characteristics are not natural.

(Such cod-Latin, cod-Greek or cod-French terms as Gollumnar, gollumoid, gollumesque betray an untolkienlike lack of philological rigor and are not to be countenanced.)

Adam Roberts said...

Gollumic?

VictoriaH said...

I'm sorry to say, this post made me a tiny bit nostalgic for reading the Wheel of Time. I got hooked at age 14, and not even Crossroads of Twilight (all 800+ agonising pages) could make me give up on the series.

Sigh.

VictoriaH said...

Oh, and this is (and the above was) Nic, not Victoria.

Mark_W said...

Adam,

You're quite right, "glams" does suggest Ziggy Stardust more than gollum-ish. That was a good bottle of port, I'm not even sure quite what I thought I found funny about it anymore...Heigh ho.

I'm still quite fond of "gollumoavish"; it reminds me of something a friend of mine once said to me about how he wished that the plural of "oaf" was "oaves"...

Clark Bayles said...

I saw the Bene Gesserit connection shortly after beginning book 2. I also thought the Aiel were a rip off from Dune as a less water dependent form of the Fremen. Although I like the Aiel better:)
Any good author knows that once a good and complete description is given it does not need to be repeated everytime the character reappears. ie.. We already know that Perrin has the arms and shoulders of a blacksmith. and how many times do we need to hear that they ride High Cantle Saddles. ugh.
If Stephen King had written this series it would have been 5 books max! no wasted words. I have actually been looking for someone who has read the series who can suggest an abridged methos of approach. Which chapters can just be skipped. that would be helpful.

Adam Whitehead said...

If it's any consolation, there's a veritable explosion of gay (of the sapphic variety, naturally) into the series around the Book 7-9 period, if you stay the course.

I have to say that I don't think Jordan's massive infodumps are really any more offensive than Tolkien's, except that Tolkien's would be five pages longer with a musical number in the middle and you still don't understand what's going on unless you've read THE SILMARILLION as well.

Interested to see how this project goes and how you react when you get to the late-middle volumes when the will to carry on and, indeed, live starts being eroded.

Christina said...

You cannot judge the entire Wheel of Time series by the first book. Fantasy authors may hope to publish an epic series like this, but the first book is a real gamble, so it has to be self-contained in case the publisher puts the cabash on the rest of the operation. So yes, all of the Tolkienesque archetypes are there, and it may not seem all that original at the first glance.

But as for your complaint about padding? Sure, Jordan gets a bit flowery in his descriptions, but would you want to read a first grade primer version that said nothing more than "Rand stumbled and nearly fell. When he looked up again, the dark horseman had vanished." I don't think so. Painting a picture with words is not necessarily a bad thing, although yes, even fans can find some of the descriptions tiresome.

Gay characters? Keep reading. There's quite a lesbian population, it would seem. Chaste? You haven't gotten to the good part where Rand Grows Up. ;-)

Admittedly, the series is not for everybody. But what got me (and thousands of other fans) is how real the characters are. There are a handful of two-dimensional characters, but most of them are quite rich and rounded, with all of the flaws and insecurities that normal people have. Readers can identify with that.

Hope you enjoy the further books more than you enjoyed this one. (Although I have to agree with the verdict on Crossroads of Twilight, Book 10. It was dreadful to trudge through the first time, but the re-read was much easier once the next book was out and I knew what the setup was all about.)

jdw87_aoe said...

I had to post more than once to say what I wanted, so sorry...

I'm a huge Wheel of Time fan, so I suppose it won't be such a surprise that I'm defending it. I want to let you know a few things about the first few books especially. Robert Jordan stated that he purposely began the Wheel of Time in such a way that it would evoke remembrances of Tolkien. He did this so that the reader could begin the story in a place that was more familiar, that way he could deliberately take you somewhere that -- at the time -- fantasy had never gone before. I think that people who pick up the Wheel of Time today expect it to be some earth-shattering piece of work that re-defines the fantasy genre. What you have to remember is that the Wheel of Time re-defined the genre 20 years ago, and if it wasn't for Robert Jordan, many of the stories that are re-defining fantasy today simply wouldn't be what they are. Now, since I know that there are a fair number of authors who are doing new things in the genre today who haven't read the Wheel of Time, let me explain.

In 1990, Tolkien-esque fantasy was the norm, and even the concept of the trilogy had itself become a trope of the genre. The Wheel of Time was the first series to well and truly break that trope. It proved to publishers that a story much longer than three books was possible. You also have to remember that at the time the first book came out, the Wheel of Time was breaking new ground in other ways as well -- I know that this is going to sound like a very weak attempt -- but how many times before the Wheel of Time was there a system of magic where men were NOT allowed to practice it? Women controlled all of magic. I know that it was seen in the Bene Gesserit in Dune, but in a fantasy setting, I can't really name any. And by creating such a magic system, he was able to create a truly gender-balanced culture for his world. In such technologically sparse worlds, and in our own past, the reason that men became so dominant is because of their physical strength, and it is only in modern technological times that gender roles have become more balanced, because there are a lot more day-to-day activities that do not require physical strength. By creating this magic system, he was able to make a world that was truly balanced because there was a whole ability that women had that men couldn't hope to use -- not without going insane, anyway. There are also, once you get to books two and especially book three, far more major female characters than in the fantasies that had come before. The story isn't just about Rand -- which is another complaint that I've heard, because there are whole books in the Wheel where Rand doesn't really show up -- it's about the entire world, and in that world there are both men and women, and some of those women are nearly as important to the end of the story as Rand himself is. Egwene, for example, or Elayne, Min, Nynaeve, Suian Sanche, and others.

jdw87_aoe said...

And as far as Rand being a classic farm-boy-grows-up character... I think that it is much more than that, because Jordan is also doing something with Rand that had never been done before. Before the Wheel of Time, the farmboy hero was always able to cope with what it was he had to do -- it might be difficult, but he always accepted it, and he never really changed. At least, the reader never noticed the change until he came back home. With Rand, Jordan began the story in that way, but with a few differences. Jordan wanted to convey a true sense of what it would be like, in his own words, "To be tapped on the shoulder and told 'You were born to be the savior of mankind.'" In fantasy pre-Jordan, the hero always just says "Alright, fine, let's get going then." But in the Wheel of Time, Rand does not accept the fact that he IS the Dragon Reborn until the beginning of the fourth book -- in fact, the driving forces behind books two and three are him trying to escape that, trying to prove to people that they are wrong and he isn't the Dragon. The other aspect of Rand that I don't think had been seen before is something that appears later in the series. Rand begins to go mad, and I don't believe that it is because of his use of the One Power. I think that it is a result of the immense amount of pressure that is riding on his shoulders -- he is supposed to save the world, yet the world doesn't seem to want to be saved. Humanity is practically refusing to be saved -- people are still fighting their own petty wars, trying to carve out nations and empires. Some are trying to use him to accomplish this, some are trying to accomplish this by opposing him -- and all the while, he sees the Shadow growing, becoming more of a threat, and he knows that he HAS to unite the world, or all is lost, but he doesn't know HOW to unite the world -- all of that pressure, of betrayal, of his own sacrifice, leads him slowly down a long and winding path of madness that seems to finally culminate in book twelve.

I also want to comment about the concept that the Aes Sedai are similar to the Bene Gesserit -- they are, yet they aren't. They seem to be like the Bene Gesserit early on, and I believe that Jordan did it deliberately. He did this because things in his world cycle, stories and concepts -- so he purposely uses elements from some of our most popular stories, such as Dune, LotR, and others -- because he wants to put in familiar elements in every aspect of the Wheel of Time, to create a resonance with the reader -- to put in things that the reader somewhat recognizes and is familiar with.

jdw87_aoe said...

You touched on how the myths in the Wheel of Time are based on 20th century events, because the story takes place in our distant future. Well, the story ALSO takes place in our distant past, because time is like a wheel (hence the title of the series) and things will eternally repeat themselves. So Jordan used elements from mythologies and religions from all over the world to create his characters and his plot. Some of the character names evoke this -- Galad Damodred is the basis for our legend of Galahad the Pure. Egwene al'Vere is Gwenevere, from the King Arthur Legend. Mat Cauthon has a lot of the Norse god Odin in him -- the clothing he wears, the weapons he uses, even the prophesies about things that he is supposed to do are based heavily on Odin. So when you're reading the Wheel of Time, and you see something familiar that reminds you of something from another story, I'd be willing to bet that Jordan did it on purpose. Now, to defend that. He didn't COPY, the way that Christopher Paolini did with Eragon. Jordan does it on purpose, knowing what he is doing ahead of time, because it is one of the themes of his story -- that concepts and ideas repeat in an endless cycle. So the similarities are there on purpose to help build the cyclic world that he created.

I think the most important thing to remember when reading the Wheel of Time is that had Jordan finished it in the amount of time he thought it was going to take him, the books would have been finished in the mid 1990's, and it would have been a genre-changing ending, I think. But because it took him so long to write it, those ideas -- which in the late 80's and early 90's were ground-breaking -- now seem trope-ish because other authors have taken the genre further.

Martin said...

jdw87_aoe,

sorry you've slipped in to fan mode, for example, even in 1990, there was nothing particularly new in the fact that fantasy series went longer than a trilogy.

The Belgariad had gone for 5 books in 82-84. Zelazny had 5 books for the Amber series in the 70s, and by 1990, had that series up to 9 books. Terry Pratchett was publishing his 9th Discworld novel in 1990, let alone things like the Conan novels.

There is a solid entertaining fantasy trilogy (perhaps even 4 or 5 books)buried inside the WoT monolith, but unfortunately, the natural tendency of the author to want to keep telling the story, combined with a massive lack of editorial control (presumably caused by the rivers of money being generated) swamped the story

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carlinsmith7 said...

Funny how much fluff you used to tell everyone that Jordan's work is full of fluff.

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Do you think that part of the popularity of Jordan is that fans can skim, or sort of phase in and out (either their attention, or maybe just their libidinal investment), and yet still understand what's going on? I.e. perhaps it's not padding, it's the necessary security redundancy for a particular form of reader? (I don't necessarily think that would be a bad thing BTW).

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