Rumors of the Wheel

(For those asking: "Is Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series worth the time to read?" this page if for you.) I have been eyeing it for years but..."There is a certain café that my family loves. My parents have been going there since before I was born and we still go there now, the effect being that my sister and I truly grew up eating breakfast at this place. A place that is a bookstore as well as café, and I remember well a conversation I had with my Dad there in which he was trying to convince his very young son who then did not like reading at all to let him read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien aloud to him. That is one memory, but another is seeing a book titled The Dragon Reborn on the shelves year after year, its title and cover imprinting itself on my mind. A book that was the third volume of a series called The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.

"The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow. Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time."

So naturally I have been aware of The Wheel of Time for a most of my life, yet had long sworn not to read it for reasons of excessive length (even by my standards) and a glacial pace. That being the case, though, I would often browse through random volumes while in bookstores and in doing so noted Jordan's skill (for creating a world that rivals Middle-earth in scale and gaining such fame is no small thing). I viewed the series as a tragedy of Fantasy: an author who let his world swallow the story he was trying to tell at the story's expense given the glacial reputation. However, as my interest in The Wheel of Time grew I began to research it, looking at once for an excuse to read it as well as validation for my vow not to touch it. Paradoxical, I know, but such is the nature of the human mind at times. The six key rumors I found are as follows:
  1. That the first book, The Eye of the World, is a near-copy of Tolkien (as that was required to get published way back when).
  2. That Jordan really diverges and becomes his own writer story-wise in book #2, The Great Hunt.
  3. That the glacial pace does not start until book seven, A Crown of Swords, making the first half the series exemplary to the highest definition of the word.
  4. The the glacial pace was made far worse by the fact that each book took years for Jordan to write, making readers tear their hair out over getting slow book after slow book afters eons waiting.
  5. That, now that all the books of out, the rumored glacial pace is not half so bad because, rather than waiting years, readers can move straight from book to book.
  6. That the final three books written posthumously by Jordan's chosen successor, Brandon Sanderson, are masterful with the last book, A Memory of Light, being one long heart-stopping climax.

Having read the entire series I can thankfully answer as to the accuracy of these rumors. To start, The Eye of the World is not a Tolkien-imitation once one gets past the first quarter of the book. Again, back in the day everyone wanted a second LOTR so some Tolkien-imitation was required if one wanted to get published – but Jordan's story swiftly becomes a unique one in the first book and blossoms in The Great Hunt. In short, Book #1 was excellent, but afterwards is where the tale takes off in truly startling directions. As to rumors 3-5, while I can easily see how the story felt glacial when it was first coming out, reading it straight through negates that because one has not had years to forget the characters' names and the many plot points both major and minor between one volume and another. A critical fact, as Jordan has the depth of vision to give key hints, visions of the future both large and infinitesimal, that do not come to full fruition until several books later. Indeed, the only book I would call truly slow is Book #10, Crossroads of Twilight, yet even that has several thunderous scenes and the ending had me hopping about. Also, Book 11, Knife of Dreams (and the last book completed in Jordan's lifetime), is easily one of the most eventful in the series and wraps up several major subplots no less neatly than a spider does a fly in a climax that I won't soon forget. As to the sixth and last rumor, I confirm it. Utterly. Completely. A Memory of Light is truly a thousand-page heart-stopping climax to the degree that it rendered me emotionally numb before the end, detailing true apocalypse where the very laws and fabric of reality rip amid the desperate efforts of humans to live free and with hope. Willing to die so that other may live, and charging death unflinchingly to do so. Beyond that I can confirm that Brandon Sanderson does a truly masterful job of things in those three final and posthumously written books. Which makes sense seeing as he became infatuated with Fantasy literature from reading The Wheel of Time as a young man, is now an accomplished Fantasy author in his own right, and had literal piles of notes and audio-recordings left by Jordan. Indeed, if I had not known that another hand was part of writing final three books I would never guessed it. As it stands, one can tell in that they are quicker insofar as writing style goes (a sentence less here, a word less there, compared to pure Robert Jordan), but the narrative voice and that of the characters is utterly the same.

The overall key fact is that everything matters. No matter how small the event or character may be, the odds are strong that it/they will in some manner be relevant to the future. The butterfly effect is real here, as characters you might forget, or believed to be localized to a subplot long finished, will likely turn up again far from where you last saw them. People may compare it to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, arguing that GRRM's literary bloodbath is far more fast-paced, but this is an illusion. How many subplots in Ice and Fire truly matter? How many gripping intrigues developed by the High Lords playing their Game of Thrones actually ended up shaking Westeros and making a real difference to the story? The answer is very few, yet the story seems fast-paced due to GRRM's immense skill in the art of storytelling. He creates a near flawless illusion of speed that keeps the reader hooked. Which is no small feat considering that GRRM's grimdark tale has no natural endpoint. (Yes, I am aware that the Others must needs be defeated, of the prophecy of Azor Ahai and the prince/princess that was promised, and of course that someone must finally sit the Iron Throne uncontested. But the Others and the prophesy are marginalized by ruthless High Lords playing their game of thrones, and who sits the Iron Throne one year may be dead along with all their kin the next. Hardly natural endpoints for an epic Fantasy of such scale, in my mind.)

This is not the case with Robert Jordan. As Verin Sedai says in book #2, "The Pattern puts everything in its place precisely, and when we try to alter it, especially if ta'veren are involved, the weaving changes to put us back into the Pattern as we were meant to be." Meaning that, while Jordan's story may seem slower than GRRM's, every ounce of movement is real. Not an illusion, but a solid and true step forward and towards the clearly defined endpoint that is Tarmon Gai'don (the Last Battle), for the Wheel does not turn backwards anymore than time itself. Even the court intrigues, believe it or not as before the Game of Thrones was played in Westeros the Game of Houses (also called "The Great Game," translated as "Daes Dae'mar" in the Old Tongue) was played in the Westlands are every bit as devious as those GRRM spins (and, unlike Cyvasse, stones has a real-world counterpart with proven depth and complexity). As Moiraine Sedai once said, "Everything is a part of the Pattern." That being said, I cannot deny that The Wheel of a Time is hardly a fast-paced series and agree completely that the minutiæ should have been edited down – yet I think of it more as a matter of condensing rather than cutting. A stark difference from A Song of Ice and Fire, as one could completely cut out a host of sections, namely the pornographic/whore-related ones, without loosing anything of substance storywise. But to call the Jordan's series glacial is wrong. In sum, I confirm rumors one, two, four, five, and six, while deny three due to the lack of said glacial pace. Finally, I feel inclined the mention that the title "The Wheel of Time" is not Jordan tacitly acknowledging the series' length. Rather, it is a crucial and one of the most unique elements of the world he created: "The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”

Of course, now the obvious question is "But what is The Wheel of Time actually about? Is it just a really long blend of The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire?" All I can say in answer is that never in my life have I read a book series such as this. Vast in every sense of the word, spanning the world and all quite distinct cultures within it, populated by the largest cast of characters I have ever seen. Unique in way seldom seen in Fantasy: Tolkienesque in spirit and, in the very beginning, plot, but soon something else entirely. A mythos that is truly Robert Jordan's own, epic by every definition in that it, per its scope, the story is not just about the Dragon Reborn and his friends but, in addition and as is so fitting said by the website Dragonmount, it is the story of an entire world's struggle to deal with war and change, destruction and hope. It is about a battle not at the end of Time but rather to keep it from ending. Yet these are only a bare fraction of the themes, or a gross simplification rather, for each is viewed through the eyes of very different people. A classic battle between good and evil is at the heart, yet in a world where, unlike in Middle-earth, there are many competing agendas and clashing worldviews, cultural as well as personal, regarding how to meet the threat. A battle between selflessness and rampant self-interest and pride, yet often all three must work together. Cultural hatreds born of blood-feuds overcome, but doing so kicking and screaming. Simple resistance to change coupled with those who feel a great sense of responsibility wanting to avoid it and, indeed, bending over backwards in trying to do so. The Aes Sedai say "the Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills" and, in most other Fantasies, the protagonists except their destinies readily enough depending on the situation. Not so in this series. The Borderlanders say "Death is lighter than a feather. Duty, heavier than a mountain" because that duty often involves sending others to their deaths. People you would like to save, people you feel you should be able to save, yet cannot. It is about those burdens and how best the heart can deal with them. About moving forward even when literally countless people and Shadowspawn are actively trying to kill you. As said Birgitte Silverbow, "If you must mount the gallows, give a jest to the crowd, a coin to the hangman, and make the drop with a smile on your lips." It is about caring, about accepting and giving love even in the face of fear that doing so will hurt those people you love. It about doing what needs to be done. It is, in addition and no less than the Dragon Reborn, about:

"A woman, torn and beaten down, cast from her throne and made a puppet. A woman who had crawled when she had to.

It was about a man that love repeatedly forsook. A man who found relevance in a world that others would have let pass them by. A man who remembered stories and who took fool boys under his wing when the smarter move would have been to keep on walking.

It was about a woman with a secret, a hope for the future. A woman who had hunted the truth before others could.

It was about a man whose family was taken from him, but who stood tall in his sorrow and protected those he could.

It was about a woman who refused to believe that she could not help, could not heal those who had been harmed.

It was about a hero who insisted with every breath that he was anything but a hero.

It was about a woman who would not bend her back while she was beaten, and who shown with a light for all who watched."  

It is about them all."

I call reading The Wheel of Time the great journey, not due to its length alone but, also, because it is a true heroes journey and the length makes it feel like one is truly taking the journey with them. Indeed, for the characters the whole bloody business took about two years and it took me about the same time to read the series. It truly feels like a great journey.

Beyond that, the various cultures are clear an distinct in there differences. Aiel humor alone is absolutely hysterical – though I often understood it better than the non-Aiel characters – to their rich ji'e'toh ("honor and obligation" in the Old Tongue) code on conduct. Then their is the incredible complex hierarchy of the Atha'an Miere which is displayed for those who know to read it by a frankly painful looking array of facial piercings. I can and will not say more due to lack of time and, most critically, unwillingness to spoil the joy of discovering these and so many more peoples for yourselves. I mention these simply to help underscore the fact that Robert Jordan created many and more cultures no less unique and diverse than those in our own real-world. Which, importantly, means many of his character's are not white-skinned. 

Why have a dedicated half a page to this? Because, like I did, there are many who ask "Is Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series worth the time? I have been eyeing it for years but..." That, and there are many who will not ask and simply avoid it due to the length alone. This is understandable as a fourteen-volume epic Fantasy each book of which is 600-700+ pages is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, it requires a deep commitment. Thus I write this page to say that it is utterly worth it. Not once did I regret my choice to begin nor was ever truly tempted to stop. Yes it is long, but is it a series like no other in part because it length allows Jordan to do things shorter works cannot manage. Take the map of the Westlands, for example; most any epic fantasy worth its salt has a map, but no matter how long the series is or how far the characters journey, there are still many locations that the reader and characters have not seen. Not so with Jordan: the majority of places are seen and there are characters from the places that are not. However, no matter how infatuated with the series you become, do not read The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time until after finishing A Crown of Swords (book #7) as it contains spoilers; and do not read The Wheel of Time Companion until after completing the entire series because it tells every spoiler. (Also, I council against reading the shorter prequel novel, New Spring, until one has at least read the first few books of the main series for the simple reason that I doubt it would make much sense to new readers. Doubt. I am not certain since some have said they liked it enough to give the whole The Wheel of Time a try, but I would not recommend it.)

The Dragon Banner
The Coat of Arms of
House Targaryen of Dragonstone
Now for some deeper analysis regarding the book itself, namely continuing my comparison of Jordan with GRRM. I have already stated that before the Game of Thrones was played in Westeros the Game of Houses was in the Westlands. In fact, I think the Cairhienin always contending for the Sun Throne could teach the Westerosi a few things in their endless wars for the Iron. More to the point, when reading the Knife of Dreams I came across a quote of Lews Therin Telamon, called "the Dragon" in his day and after, which rang a distant bell in my brain. Then while aimlessly surfing the web I found myself on a wiki page dedicated to one Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen.

"A man who trusts everyone is a fool and a man who trusts no one is a fool. We are all fools if we live long enough." - Lews Therin Telamon

"It seems to me that a queen who trusts no one is as foolish as a queen who trusts everyone." - Daenerys Targaryen

Lews Therin Kinslayer
Aerys II Targaryen, also called the Mad King,
and the father of Daenerys
Quite the similarity there, beyond question. And as to the question of whether this is a coincidence, well, while I cannot read the mind of the GRRM, I can point out other marked similarities between the Stormborn and the First Among Servants (another of Lews Therin's titles). Beginning with their last names, as Telamon and Targaryen are not exactly worlds apart linguistically. Yet it goes well beyond that. Lews Therin is named the Dragon and was key to defeating the Shadow in the long-ago War of Power as per the prophecies of the day. Daenerys Targaryen is named the Mother of Dragons and is descended from Aegon the Dragon whose conquests she seeks to emulate but, more importantly, she appears to be the princess that was promised and, per the prophecy of Azor Ahai, is destined to save the world from darkness. Is there an echo in here? Yes, and in continues into madness. Literally, for as Barristan the Bold once noted, "Every child knows that the Targaryens have always danced too close to madness." Indeed, Dany's father and several ancestors killed countless and died themselves of it. Just like Lews Therin Telamon, who went horribly mad, was renamed Lews Therin Kinslayer, and whose fate makes the strong tremble three millennia after his death.

The Dragon Reborn
The princess that was promised
Do the above quotes combined with the all rest heavily suggest that GRRM's Daenerys Targaryen was at least partly inspired by Robert Jordan's Lews Therin Telamon? At face value perhaps, yet it is more accurate to say that the Dragon was the inspiration behind House Targaryen. Which brings up other similarities. The Targaryens, under the Aegon the Dragon, united Westeros under their banner in the War of Conquest, just as Lews Therin united and led the forces of the Light under his during the War of Power. It has already been mention that both Telamon and House Targaryen fell to madness that decimated their families made people curse their names. Yet in both cases, in both book series, this is the stuff of history. So was the Stormborn based off the First Among Servants? Not quite. Rather she is based off Rand al'Thor the Dragon Reborn. Remember that Dany is descended from, seeks to emulate, and is effectively called Aegon the Dragon come again in female form by Tyrion Lannister. Well, Rand is literally Lews Therin the Dragon come again (hence his title the Dragon Reborn). Remember that Dany appears to be the princess that was promised and, per the prophecy of Azor Ahai, is destined to save the world from darkness: "When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone." Well, Rand is the subject of the Prophecies of the Dragon (also called the Karaethon Cycle) and is destined to save the world from the Shadow. In fact, the two prophecies mirror each other almost exactly; just looked at the wording again: "Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone." Not a far cry from the Dragon Reborn, whose coming will be largely identified by his taking the Stone of Tear. "The Stone of Tear will never fall, till Callandor is wielded by the Dragon’s hand. The Stone of Tear will never fall, till the People of the Dragon come." In short, both Dany and Rand are both ancient saviors come again, and there is a good argument that GRRM based the prophecy of Azor Ahai off of the Karaethon Cycle. Azor Ahai was called Shadowchaser. Rand is called by wolves Shadowkiller. Azor Ahai helped end the Long Night and there is a possible connection between him and the Battle for the Dawn in which the Others were driven back beyond the Wall in Westeros. Well, Lews Therin was named the Lord of the Morning and the Prince of the Dawn and was key in sealing the Dark One away which ended the War of Shadow (another name for the War of Power) in what is now named the Westlands. Also and briefly returning to linguistics, anyone familiar with ASOIAF knows the name Aemon as it is the first name of a certain maester at Castle Black, as well as the first name of various other members of House Targaryen in history. Yet the first instance of the name was in Aemon al Caar al Thorin, the last King of lost Manetheren among whose descendants the Dragon Reborn was raised. Which makes a double connection as not only did GRRM employ the name Aemon, he made it a not-uncommon one among the Dragonkings Targaryen.

Winter's Heart
Demons made of snow and ice and cold.
The ancient enemy. The only enemy that matters.

Furthermore, do not try telling me that GRRM is utterly unique is using the seasons as he does in relation to the Azor Ahai prophecy, for here is a section of the Karaethon Cycle that would sound perfectly appropriate coming from the lips of Melisandre or any Red Priest of R'hllor: "The Seals that hold back the night shall weaken, and in the heart of winter shall winter’s heart be born, amid the wailings of lamentation and the gnashing of teeth, for winter’s heart shall ride a black horse, and the name of it is Death." I am not saying that GRRM did a bad job, and indeed I have said in the past that he is an absolutely brilliant storyteller and at making winter and night a thing to fear; indeed, the Others are truly chilling enemies. "Winter is coming." "The night is dark and full of terrors." Yet reading The Wheel of Time showed me that A Song of Ice and Fire was and is not as unique as I first thought for by all appearances GRRM drew heavy inspiration from Robert Jordan. Nor am I the only person to notice this.

Moving away now from prophecies but continuing with the comparison, Remember that Dany and others worry about the madness in her blood and if/when she will succumb to it. Well, the same is true of Rand albeit that the madness comes from a different source which I cannot say for fear of spoilers. Finally, both struggle with the burdens of leadership and whom they can trust, which ties into the initially given quotes of Lews Therin Telamon, which Rand heeds, and Daenerys Targaryen.

I feel inclined to mention that I am not criticizing George R.R. Martin for drawing such inspiration from Robert Jordan. Anything but, as to do so would be hypocritical in the extreme given how the entire Fantasy genre draws heavily from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and Jordan is as guilty of that as any; perhaps more so. Not much difference between Ogier and Ents, right down to their long lives, love of trees, and "do not be hasty" motto. And just as the White Tower on Tar Valon stands guard against the Dark One Shai'tan, so too did the White Tower of Minas Tirith guard against the Dark Lord Sauron. To say nothing of Pit of Doom beyond the Mountains of Dhoom, which could not be a clearer tribute to the Cracks of Doom within Mount Doom. Finally, recall the name Aemon al Caar al Thorin, the last King of lost Manetheren? Well, Manetheren means "Mountain Home" in the Old Tongue, and quite fittingly as the nation's capital city was built into the Mountains of Mist, making the realm's true wealth based in the gold, silver, and other precious metals. As to Aemon al Caar al Thorin himself, he died defending his home from Trollocs. A fairly clear tribute to Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror King under the Mountain and the Dwarven realm of Erebor (called the Lonely Mountain) from The Hobbit. At the day's end, all roads lead back to Middle-earth.

Hence, given all of the above, I think the epithet American Tolkien is not inappropriate to award Robert Jordan. Indeed, when I first began The Eye of the World, I kept telling my family that "I feel like I am reading another Lord of the Rings!" I am sure people will note the partial irony here, as I was once one of George R.R. Martin's most avid fans, calling him – as many did and do – the American Tolkien; until I named him the Anti-Tolkien, naturally. Why one and not the other? A good question, seeing as I listed a host of similarities between the two; a list which came after me saying that Jordan's Game of Houses is every bit as devious as GRRM's Game of Thrones. And before I answer that question I will lay forth another likeness between the two series: treachery. Anyone familiar with A Song of Ice and Fire is well aware that trust is valuable thing and sadly often repaid with a knife in the back or another form of treachery. As I have said, Westeros offers little aside from "blood, porn, and amoral lessons that corrupt the soul." The Wheel of Time is, blessedly, not like that and yet whom to trust outside of the core protagonists is just as large an issue...because one never knows who might be a Darkfriend. I will not say much so as to avoid spoilers, but Darkfriends are are humans who have been tempted with promises of immortality and power by the Dark One, or by other Darkfriends, into serving the Shadow. There are Darkfriends in all nations, people and communities, even those dedicated to fighting the Dark One, such as the Borderlanders, Aes Sedai and Whitecloaks. You never know who is secretly sworn to Shadow and their plots checker the series, mostly manifesting in strings of murders and betrayals of the most heinous kind. There were several characters whom I trusted who turned out to be Darkfriends, and countless more whom I and the core protagonists were afraid to trust for fear that they might be. In short, just as who to trust is subject of ripe speculation in GRRM's work, the same holds true in Robert Jordan's. 

Which brings one back to the question of why name one the American Tolkien and not the other? Because Jordan unerringly keeps to the Spirit of Tolkien even while playing Daes Dae'mar; even in the midst of Darkfriend plots where torture, betrayal and murder are planned. Where armies number in the tens then hundreds of thousands, the land wracked with war, crippling droughts and merciless winters, among other things. Because The Wheel of Time is not Grimdark Fantasy – which is, of course, the antithesis of the moral centeredness that defines the High Fantasy. As I have said, it is NOT a clone of The Lord of the Rings; indeed, it is far from it after the first book. But the bright souls of the two masterworks are kin.

I find it difficult to listen to the song The Dragonborn Comes without thinking of The Wheel of Time these days, so I decided to rewrite the lyrics to fit Robert Jordan's epic as opposed to Skyrim: Elder Scrolls. Personally, I think it came out rather well, with the second half inspired by another set of rewritten lyrics. Sadly, I have yet to replace the Dovahzul part of the song with something written in the Old Tongue.

Our hero, our hero claims a shepherd's heart
I tell you, I tell you, the Dragon Reborn comes
With a soul wielding the Power of ancient Aes Sedai

Twice and twice, he shall be marked, 
Twice to live and twice to die
It's an end to the evil of the Creator's foe,
Beware, beware, the
Dragon Reborn comes,
For the Shadow doth rise, and his legend yet grows,
You know, you know the
Dragon Reborn comes.
With the soul of Lews Therin and the might of the sword,
When the Forsaken are loose and the seals are no more,
He will save the world, yet break peoples and land,
By the Wheel of Time, here he stands.
By the countless of evils our hero has slain,
The Shepherd of the Night shall know his bane.

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