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ROBERT JORDAN: GENIUS OR HACK?
an essay by
Few critics and fans are able to agree on The Wheel of Time. Some say this series grows more exciting with each new volume. Others say that the first three or four books held promise and excitement before the series descended into a complex mess of boredom. Some view the female characters as being so strong that they believe Robert Jordan is actually a woman writing under a pen name; others say the women inhabitants of Randland (as fans refer to it) are dull caricatures of feminist extremists. Some fans are so obsessive that they've set up large-scale role playing games and sites of worship for "the Creator." There are also people hold Jordan in contempt for getting them hooked on something that- in their opinion- turned into a pile of crap.
What is this monstrous work that has inspired so much contradiction? Is "the Creator" a clueless copycat author, or a true genius?
I admit that Robert Jordan shares a notch with Stephen King at the very top of my authors-to-worship list. But in truth, there is really only one work created by Jordan which I hold in such high regard: The Wheel of Time series. Almost every other work of fiction I have read pales in comparison. If not for The Wheel of Time, I never would have touched the genre of fantasy.
There are certainly some elements in this unique series which have sparked legitimate criticism. In The Eye of the World, the first volume, the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien is undeniable. We are introduced to an isolated farming village where the people grow tabac. The main protagonist's friends are named Mat, Perrin, and Egwene, which sound rather like Meri, Pippin, and Eowyn. The Trollocs speak and behave like Orcs. And yes, those Ogier are about as hasty and formidable as Ents.
A line may be drawn between honorary tribute and true copying. By the second volume, these Tolkien-esque elements all but disappear, and we begin to realize that Randland is not Middle Earth by any stretch of the imagination. Instead of remaining innocent, the protagonists grow powerful and cynical. Instead of facing an enemy with a single agenda, the enemies multiply, and each has a different set of priorities. Magical ability is exclusively the province of gifted human beings. Not a single elf, dwarf, balrog, or wizard is ever encountered. Those original hobbit-like elements, in fact, seem to have been used intentionally by the author; altered for his purposes, but deliberately left recognizable to any Tolkien fan. If The Wheel of Time ever becomes a timeless classic- or grows to dominate the genre of fantasy literature- then Jordan has ensured that the man who paved the way will never be forgotten.
Deliberate, too, is Jordan's construction of each volume. No matter how many new subplots are introduced (or solved), the reader is assured of a specific beginning and a specific climax at the end. Rand will battle one or more of his most powerful enemies. In between, love triangles and quadrangles twist around with all the contrivance of a soap opera. Jordan follows whichever character he deems most important at a certain point. There are occasions when a main character is entirely left out of a volume, much to the frustration of that character's devoted fans.
Does all of this indicate a formula, or amateur writing? Or is this art?
We know that Jordan has outlined his entire saga. He alone knows how it will end- but he has assured readers time and again that he does know. Thus, it seems likely that he meticulously plans each volume. Like a puzzle master, it may be the case that he engineers each and every fragment of his work to fit together with such subtlety that a team of die-hard fans would require years to analyze it. Like a sixteenth century clockmaker, he may have painstakingly constructed every misunderstanding between characters, every battle, and every element to fit together into a mind-boggling tapestry which cannot be seen clearly until the series is complete. Already many of those apparently contrived plot points have blown into important subplots, which may affect yet others. To give an example of an apparently forgotten character: the sniffer Hurin seems to have disappeared in second book, never to be heard from since. Fast-forward several volumes later. A brief mention was made that the nations of Shienar and Arafel were at war. Such statements are made in the dialogue between characters all the time; Jordan intentionally bombards the reader with detail, so news and current events in Randland often go unnoticed. Yet a closer look at this miniscule detail leads to the possibility that this distant, minor war may well have been caused by the news Hurin brought when he returned to Shienar... and this may directly affect Rand or some other main character later on.
The Wheel of Time series is more than escapist brain candy. It is a fractal; an infinitely complex structure so tight that it seems to teeter on the ledge that separates fantasy from reality. The world of The Wheel of Time is as intricately detailed as our own. Its creator is either a genius or a madman; possibly both. When I picture Robert Jordan's house, I can only imagine room after room full of papers, push-pinned to every wall, outlining a million details, keeping track of the shifting population of an entire world. He's got to have timelines, languages (the Old Tongue, Ogier), lists of local cultures and customs, lists of national histories, lists of flags, armor, and weapons, lists of guilds and societies, maps of cities, nations, and continents, and too many other things to name. In recent years a guidebook to his world was published; I suspect that it barely reveals a tip of this gargantuan iceberg.
Despite all this, the critics of Jordan's characters do have a point or two. There is a certain sameness between all the male characters and all the females. No crossovers exist. In Randland, the women mostly regard men as "oafs" and "woolheads," and bond very easily with each other, while the men are mistrustful of everyone, and of women in particular. It has been said that Jordan ignores the realities of human interaction.
At a first glance, it seems that his clearly defined separation of male and female roles is a reflection of a traditional sexist male viewpoint. In Randland, men cannot do women's work (which includes tossing lightning bolts and manipulating kings and queens), and women cannot do men's work (which mainly consists of slightly altered versions of their own capacities). Naturally, this leads to confrontations when a woman needs a man to do something, and vice versa. I took offense when I first read The Eye of the World, because the women of Emond's Field were represented as stereotypical village goodwives and maidens. It seemed apparent (at that point) that the heroes would be mostly male. Then along came Moiraine Sedai, and my expectations were blown to smithereens. As a woman, I am grateful to Robert Jordan for having the temerity and skill to invent likeable female role models. Such are extremely hard to come by in almost every genre of fiction.
The world of The Wheel of Time has a three thousand year history of subtle female domination. The cultures and characters are developed accordingly. In our world, perhaps, bristling relationships between men and women are not so commonplace... but Jordan has a unique view on society. He seems to suggest that men would have a much harder time accepting female dominance than women in our own culture have historically accepted male rule. There are nations in Randland where men are treated like second-class citizens. But Jordan is not catering his series to women exclusively. His male characters are equally strong, and it seems that his world is on the cusp of an era where balance will be restored, and men will reestablish their equality with women.
While there is this constant undercurrent of attraction/ repulsion between male and female throughout the series, Jordan has no handicap in creating strong individuals with unique personalities. There are women who fight alongside men and women who prefer intellectual activity. There are men who would die to protect their loves, and men who try to see women as sex objects. It is true that Jordan's characters undergo slow changes, and yes, the first half of the first volume has a labored beginning, but by the end, it is just about impossible to resist the second book.
This addictive quality is almost entirely due to the unforgettable characters. These are not your stock comic book fantasy heroes. All have families, histories, hopes, dreams, fears, and imperfections. Rand is fascinating not because he can kick ass, but because he is actually frightened, kindhearted to a fault, and under a ton of ever-increasing pressure. Elayne is interesting not because she's the heir to a wealthy throne, but because her desire to enjoy life is at odds with her responsibilities, and she doubts her own ability to rule a country that may turn on her at any time. Mat is awesome not because he's a war genius, but because he's gullible, insolent, cocky, and completely in denial of his own shortcomings.
If these solid characters aren't enough to build a world, then Jordan adds action, dialogue, and description in abundance to round it out. When mist gathers on Toman Head, the reader feels it. When shanty huts are built by war refugees outside the sober fortress city of Cairhien, the reader is put right there, watching the dusty widows and children whose husbands died in Aiel attacks. There are some critics who complain that Jordan is too descriptive. I agree. He revels in description, and I love every minute of it.
This series, I believe, has the potential to be the greatest work of fantasy every written to date. Time will tell. Unfortunately, the cover art is a major point of dissuasion to new readers. I suspect that Jordan would have a much larger audience if the artist depicted actual scenes from the books. The female characters in Jordan's world are powerful, but the covers portray them as simpering stereotypes.
Lately Robert Jordan has been talking about starting another gigantic epic series, or even going back to publish prequels. This scares me... not because I'm not eager to get addicted to new books, but because I'm afraid he might give up The Wheel of Time. He may have begun to see it as a chore, rather than the amazing, fantastic, engrossing work of art that it is. To those who say it has gone on long enough already, I say: "be quiet and let the man work!" Imagine if Tolkien had quit writing his epic Lord of the Rings because it was too long, or if Tad Williams quit either of his two epics. Imagine if Stephen King decided to stick only to short stories. Some of these authors have sculpted the landscape of modern fiction. Criticizing a work of art based solely upon its length or its size is not a legitimate form of criticism. A sunset may be beautiful even though it takes up the entire horizon and sky above. As far as I know, there is no rule that states that a series of books must fall below 9,000 pages to be any good.
If The Wheel of Time continues beyond page 100,000 of book 100, I think I'll still be reading it. Please, Robert Jordan, take as long as you need!