Sunday, August 18, 2013

Grokking the Wheel of Time

I’ve talked before about my affection for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series—even mentioning that I named one of my children after one of its characters.  There are 15 books in the series, which I’ve always felt break up into a quadralogy of trilogies (despite the fact that the math on that really doesn’t work, but we’ll get to that in a second).  So it’s a very long series, both in page count (nearly 12,000 pages), and in terms of years of waiting for the series to be completed (nearly 23 years).  I personally have been reading it (off and on, obviously) for about 40% of my life, rereading the older books when the newer ones come out, poring through the online encyclopedia, listening to the audiobooks on long commutes, even fashioning a role-playing campaign around it once.

So it’s been a pretty big part of my life.  And the series is finally finished: the final volume came out at the beginning of this year.  The Wheel of Time outlives Jordan himself, but thankfully his extensive notes were passed on for completion to a new author, Brandon Sanderson, who was hand-picked by Jordan’s widow.  For some reason, after Jordan’s death, I took a break, and I haven’t read any of the Sanderson books (i.e. the final three in the series).  But, now that they’re all complete and I can finally see how it all comes out, I’m anxious to get through them.  After some consideration, I decided to start at the beginning and read straight through until the end.  But not with the paperbacks, although I own nearly all of them.  Nope, I decided to go audiobook for all the Jordan books (they’d all be rereads anyway, and in many cases several-times-over-rereads), then switch to e-book for the Sanderson volumes (so I can pay closer attention to the ones I’ve not read before).  As of writing this sentence, I’m about 3 hours away from finishing Knife of Dreams, the last Jordan book.  I’ll be starting on the first Sanderson book, The Gathering Storm, within the week.

It should go without saying at this point that I’m a fan.  Although that’s not to say that I recommend the books unconditionally: they do have flaws, and I’m keenly aware of them.  I’ve already talked about Jodran’s tendency to stifle his characters.  Also, Jordan never met a subplot he didn’t like: when he started off book #10 (that is, page 7,382 of the series, not even considering the prequel) by introducing a new character perspective, someone we’d heard of before but never seen in the flesh, in a country which none of the characters which could possibly be considered main characters had likely ever even visited ... well, that’s when I knew he had a problem.  No, Mr. Jordan* was not a perfect author ... but then who is?

There are also criticisms of Jordan that I disagree with.  One such persistent claim is that the series (or at the very least the first book, The Eye of the World) is a cheap imitation of The Lord of the Rings.  The typical defense of this is to bring up Jordan’s own words on the topic:

In the first chapters of The Eye of the World, I tried for a Tolkienesque feel without trying to copy Tolkien’s style, but that was by way of saying to the reader, okay, this is familiar, this is something you recognize, now let’s go where you haven’t been before. I like taking a familiar theme, something people think they know and know where it must be heading, then standing it on its ear or giving it a twist that subverts what you thought you knew.**

See? (say Jordan’s defenders) he wasn’t deliberately trying to steal LotR’s plot; he was, rather, making a conscious choice to borrow elements from it in order to make the reader feel more comfortable.  Totally different.

I have a completely different response to this argument: I just reject it.  How are they similar again?  In both cases, a mysterious magical figure comes to a sleepy backwater village and tells some simple country folk that they are now caught up in the ultimate fight against the personification of evil in their world.  Well, when you describe the plot from 50,000 feet, sure, they do sound a bit similar.  But that’s sort of like saying that Harry Potter is a rip-off of James and the Giant Peach because they both involve orphans raised by unpleasant family members who discover a strange, magical world living in the grim, dreary cracks of the real one.  Does The Eye of the World share broad themes with The Fellowship of the Ring?  Well of course.  All modern fantasy shares broad themes with Tolkien.  He invented modern fantasy.  It’s sort of like wondering if some modern detective in crime fiction bears any resemblance to C. Auguste Dupin—how could they not?

So I never bought the Tolkien-rip-off theory.  It’s crap.  Anyone who has the patience to get through the first book knows that this ain’t your daddy’s Tolkien.  And anyone who doesn’t isn’t particuarly qualified to comment: they’ve read less than 7% of the total story (again, not even counting the prequel).  Even Jordan’s quote above doesn’t much phase me.  I much prefer this one:

Question: I have noticed some similarities to The Lord of the Rings. Was Tolkien an inspiration for for you?
Jordan: I suppose to the degree that he inspires any fantasy writer in the English language, certainly.***

The other thing that Jordan is often criticized for is his pacing.  Yes, it’s true that he describes every little thing: the plants, the dresses, the architecture, the history, the shades of meaning of things translated from the Old Tongue, where the armies are getting their supplies from, how this servant used to serve that one’s mother many years ago, how much this character like his or her horse, etc etc ad infinitum.  Nothing wrong with that, per se.  Description immerses us more fully in the world.  It’s not Jordan’s fault if our minds being to wander while he’s painting us a perfect mental picture.  He built an entire world here, and he’s justifiably proud of it.  Besides, Tolkien was very fond of that too, as are many writers in the fantasy genre—not to mention sci-fi (e.g. Frank Herbert) and horror (e.g. Peter Straub).  He’s also accused of being verbose, which, again, is not a crime in and of itself: certainly Stephen King has been accused of that more than any other literary sin, and I’ve already mentioned that he’s my top literary idol.

No, all of these are just roundabout ways of saying that his pacing is too slow.  It takes forever for anything to happen in a Robert Jordan book.  Now, first of all, I don’t even consider that to be particularly problematic.  After all, Jordan’s pacing isn’t any worse than that of Ann Rice (who is fond of having the first ten and the last twenty-five pages happen in the present, while the thousand pages in between are one giant flashback, or the reading of someone’s diary, or somesuch).  And Ann Rice’s works are genius too (remember: another one of my children is named after one of her characers).  But, above and beyond that, I think the problem is just understandig the structure of the series.

Most fantasy series are trilogies, this being the pattern set by Tolkien.  Book 1: establish the characters and set up the action.  Book 2: create obstacles for the characters; allow the villains some victories, and end with the characters seemingly on the brink of defeat.  Book 3: the characters make a mighty comeback, mostly through sheer force of will, and the villains are defeated for once and for all.  This is a tried and true structure for trilogies—not only does the Lord of the Rings follow it, but so do many other fantasy series (e.g. His Dark Materials, the Riddle-Master trilogy, Drizzt Do’Urden, Bartimaeus, etc etc) as well as things as far flung as the first 3 Dune books, the original Star Wars movies, and the Millenium series.  Typically, if a series is longer than that, it’s either from adding prequels and side stories, or it’s from stretching out the various bits of the trilogy into multiple books.  For instance, if you tilt your head and squint just right, you could see Harry Potter as a triology: books 1 and 2 are Book 1, books 3 - 6 are Book 2, and book 7 is Book 3.

But there are series with more complex rhythms, and I’ve always felt that Wheel of Time was one such.  I think that you need to view WoT as a quadralogy of trilogies, with the addition of a prequel, and the fact that the final book in the final trilogy was so huge that it had to be split into 3 books (which gives you the total of 15).  The overall structure goes something like this:  Trilogy 1: introduction and establishment, and the characters begin to lose their innocence.  Trilogy 2: the characters make some strides, despite heavy opposition.  Trilogy 3: the villains get a lot more organized and dangerous, and the heroes start to discover their limitations.  Trilogy 4: well, I’m hopeful that this is where Good pulls it out in the end, but I haven’t actually finished reading yet, so I can’t say for sure.  But I’m pretty confident.

But within each trilogy, the structure is pretty much the same as a traditional trilogy: establish a situation, ratchet up the tension, and then an explosive finish.  However, what this means in the overall context of the series is that books 3, 6, and 9 (and presumbly the final book) are amazingly exciting, with each one being even more amazingly exciting than the previous one.  But that means that book 4 is a bit of a let-down.  And book 7 is a big let-down.  And book 10 is nearly unbearable.  But you have to pace yourself.  You have to remind yourself that Jordan couldn’t keep that level of excitement up for however many more books you have left to go: your head would just explode.  You need to come back down a bit, and then work at getting back up to those dizzying peaks slowly.  Book 3 makes you happy; book 4 makes you want to sigh.  Book 6 makes you want to laugh; book 7 makes you want to grumble.  Book 9 makes you want to cheer ... and book 10 makes you want to gnash your teeth and start tearing out your hair.  Yes, yes, all that info is important, and I’m sure I’ll need to know it as background for the future action, but, as Monty Python would say: GET ON WITH IT!

But my attitude is: forewarned is forearmed, and now that you understand how the rhythm and flow of the series is going to work, you can be prepared for it.  If you read this series, and you stick with it, you will be rewarded, I promise you.  The world is rich, and full of interesting cultures.  The politics is subtle, and intriguing, and full of factions (and sub-factions).  The magic is different, in both broad and fine ways.  The allusions (not just to Tolkien, but to Arthurian legend, Norse mythology, Samurai culture, and so forth) are rich and subtle.  The characters—even those you want to strangle for not waking up and seeing their own mistakes—are genuinely affecting, and you will come to care about them.  And, there are so many of them that, if there happen to be a few who rub you the wrong way, you won’t have to put up with them for very long before someone else’s point of view comes along.  The story is intricate, with seemingly throwaway minor characters popping back up, sometimes so subtly that you don’t even notice they’re the same person until you reread for the second or third time.  It’s the work of a master crafstman, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

And I’m really really excited to see how it all turns out.

* Yes, I know that’s not actually his real name.  But I shan’t refer to Mark Twain as Mr. Clemens, and I shan’t refer to Lews Carroll as Mr. Dodgson, and likewise I shan’t refer to Robert Jordan as Mr. Rigney.

** from a June 2002 interview, preserved at Theoryland of the Wheel of Time

*** from an online chat on October 21, 1994, preserved at Theoryland of the Wheel of Time

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