Inaugural Post: 22 Years on “The Wheel”


Recently – and I’m not sure how this happened – I realized that I’ve been reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series for twenty-two years.

A blogger I respect recently suggested that Wheel of Time fans have terrible taste. If said fans were trying to hold up the Wheel of Time as some sort of high cultural achievement (a pedestal to which I don’t think the series, nor Jordan himself, ever aspired), certainly I would have to agree with her. But the above criticism fails to take into account a crucial ingredient of Jordan’s success: an ingredient that perhaps explains why a perfectly reasonable person might read and repeatedly re-read the series.

Jordan got me when I was 12.

Don’t misunderstand: I am critical of Jordan’s work. His female characters are some of the most ill-conceived in literature. He often plays domestic abuse for laughs and when he’s not unintentionally outraging me, he’s boring me to tears.   Eventually, the things that made me like him in my teens—his thorough world building and exhaustive attention to detail—reach a level of obsession previously obtained only by Howard Hughes, and the resulting breakdown upends the entire series. (Currently I am re-reading book six: Lord of Chaos, where Jordan doggedly describes every chair in Caemlyn—and not just the chairs, my good friends, but the carpets. They are red and blue and covered with flowers.) The Believer once wrote an article on Jordan, noting that his work contains more descriptions of womens’ dresses than a romance novel. Ladies and gentleman: that ain’t wrong. Jordan’s famous byline, announcing his intent to keep writing until they nail shut his coffin, began to sound more like a threat the longer (and longer!) the Wheel ground on.

Still, when Jordan died, I was saddened. I doubt our world views agreed, but he’d been part of my childhood. By all accounts, he was liked and respected in the community and, despite the tremendous flaws in his work, he did many things to enthrall a young reader. Those irritating women? Well, they aced the Bechdel Test. Jordan’s detailed world set a benchmark for epic fantasists. He could see everything so well – and he made you see it too: costume, color, food, paint, cannibal fish (in The Fires of Heaven) and, (in maybe the most inventive sequence in the whole saga,) killer playing cards (The Shadow Rising). As a teenager, inspired by his obsessive character descriptions, I set out to draw Every Damn Person in the series. I made it through about fifty of them (Morgase’s maid, Lini, who I hated, was poised to whack Tallanvor with a rolling pin, while Morgase leaned in thrall against the Forsaken, Rahvin, and Alludra the Illuminator lobbed some dynamite at Matt) before realizing there were just too many of these people and that the frustratingly long series had no end in sight. (I was 18 by then, I’d read the books five times in six years, but only seven of the eventual fourteen had been published.)

Aside from being young and hungry for dragons, Jordan snared me because his books are an obsessive compulsive’s nightmare. If you have a speck of “finish what you started” in you, you can’t not know – after fourteen-billion pages -what the hell is going to happen to Rand al’Thor. When you get older, read better books, and realize your naiveté, you can’t not buy A Memory of Light to complete your swollen collection of door stoppers – and you certainly can’t not be depressed for a week when the ending is so bad that you know, undeniably, you’ve wasted your life.

All this said, now that I know how the books end (Rand dies, comes back to life in the body of some Forsaken and then proceeds to wander off into the sunset, leaving his pregnant wife (wives?) behind because, naturally, when readers have suffered the tortures of the damned, the most satisfying conclusion is to make your hero an absentee-dad) why, by the Light, am I reading them again?

I have a few defensible reasons for this, foremost of which is that I am now married. My husband has only read up to book seven and we are listening to the tomes (tombs?) on audio book to catch him up. This experience has been interesting from a number of vantage-points. As someone who used to hate, hate, hate Jordan’s women, hearing a voice actor read their parts has revealed some of their humanity. (This impresses me as quite a feat since, by book six, you are convinced that Jordan gave them none.)   Another great aspect of this experiment has been hearing my husband’s reactions to burning questions, like: what should Jordan do to improve his gender politics? (The emphatic answer: “Dude! Seek help!”)

From a craft standpoint, the audiobooks have also toppled my recollection that Jordan’s worldbuilding remained solid throughout the saga. Yes, he does know every stone in his world, but there’s a reason “Jordan needed an editor” is the de facto statement about him. The author Marie Brennan has written a brilliant series of analyses on his books (for the love of Light read her – she’s the final word as far as I go), which includes a chronicling of how Jordan slowly “takes the brake off” his world and turns his enthusiasm for world building into his Achilles’ heel. This really comes through when the Wheel is read aloud; those exacting descriptions I so loved when younger really begin to weigh things down. The first four books felt rich and unique (even the gender politics—I’ll hand it to him: unique). You could feel the hot and cold of the One Power, taste the food in Cairhien, vividly imagine how they dressed in Tanchico. By book six those goddamn chairs are overwhelming the story. The thrilling battles (Jordan excelled at them) are too few and far between.

Why then, if I’m so critical, do I plan to devote a few posts to this already heavily criticized dinosaur of a series? Well, for one thing, there’s those twenty-two years. One feels they must recoup their losses. I’ve also been meaning to write something about The Women for several years, and I don’t feel anyone has expressed an adequate amount of disappointment that the last book is the biggest let down this side of the Dragonwall. It’s a testament to how Jordan hooks you in the beginning that so few long-term Wheelers have been willing to admit they’ve been had. If I manage to wade through the rest of the behemoth instead of abandoning the audio-book experiment in a fit of sanity, I shall probably scorch A Memory of Light with enough colorful language to make Nynaeve al’Maera blush. (By the way—there’s a revelation: as an adult reader I am crazily, inexplicably in love with Nynaeve. She is pretty much the go-to exemplar of everything wrong with women in Jordanland, but, all these years later I find her comical- even endearing.)

Finally, while condemnation is the go-to language of the web, we must remember that we can also learn from imperfection. When warranted, we can still see people we disagree with, as people – in Jordan’s case, a person who attempted something grand. He may have failed—in my opinion. He may still rile and appall with his (literal!) character flaws. But the more I write and publish the more naked I find myself and the more naked, I realize, all writers are. You simply can’t write umpteen thousand pages and not, somehow, give part of yourself away. Jordan gave us something flawed and unique and ambitious, and I remain strangely fond of him though my sensibilities have matured. I hope, with a little time and humor, to write a few posts about my endless re-read. Jordan has given me more than chairs. He has given me some interesting food for thought.

About hsmartin

I'm a writer in Northern California.
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