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. 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?’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.
‘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 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!'  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!" 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.’  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 ... 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..." 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.