Off-Topic Drivel: The Wheel of Time

There are very few things that manage to entertain me. One of these is fantasy literature. Literary fiction succeeds only in boring the living hell out of me, no matter what the genre. (Was anyone else subjected to The Joy Luck Club in high school? Is it any wonder why so few teenagers have an interest in books when they’re forced to read that crap? And The Great Gatsby…does it really take an unbearably dull, 200-page soap opera about a collection of worthless and empty human beings to teach us that greed and materialism are bad things? Maybe back in the 1920’s when it was first published that was a unique idea…no longer.) About a month ago I finished the 13-volume, 10,508-page Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (pen name of James Rigney)…a notable accomplishment in my mind, especially since I read the entire series in about three months. The story is a heroic epic about the Dragon Reborn, a young man named Rand al’Thor – the reincarnation of an infamous ancient hero – who is prophesized to save the world from the Dark One in the Last Battle. The catch is that the prophesies also say that he will go insane, destroy most of humanity, and die in the process. I felt like sharing some thoughts about the series. I don’t plan on giving away anything critical to the plot, but just to be safe, and to absolve myself of any responsibility if I do, I hereby invoke that ubiquitous cliche of internet fandom……SPOILER ALERT!!! First off, reading this series immediately after George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was quite refreshing. The Wheel of Time is classic epic fantasy, whereas Martin’s series is another one of these “dark and gritty” fantasy works that have become popular in recent years. For some reason, many people are willing to praise Martin’s books on that point alone. Why? When fantasy literature becomes that dark, it loses its value as escapism. If I want a bleak world filled with misery, death, and despair, I’ll do what I normally do (get up in the morning) and read what I normally read (the news, history, strategy, etcetera). Martin’s prose is excellent, but his characters are relatively flat, his universe – modeled on feudal Europe – is uninteresting, and his central plot about warring noble houses is not very captivating. Most of the time Martin’s books don’t even feel like fantasy. That said, The Wheel of Time is not some hunky-dory children’s fantasy; in fact, I was quite struck by the dramatic change in tone beginning with book three, after which some of the themes became dark indeed, but without the unremitting sense of bleakness that characterizes Martin’s work. There is a major drawback to the series, however: I have a visceral hatred for the protagonist. The Rand character is a stupid, egomaniacal, and sociopathic malignant narcissist (a few redundancies in that description, but accurate nonetheless). From what I’ve read in some of the fan discussion, many readers have come to dislike the character as the series has progressed, but I feel prescient because I’ve hated his guts from the moment he was introduced in chapter 1 of The Eye of the World, the first book in the series. Back then he was just a farm boy, but unlike other fans I recognized him immediately to be a dangerous and unstable lunatic, completely unsuited for the burdens of fulfilling prophesy. It turns out that I was correct. His inner monologue (a common narrative device in fantasy literature) reveals no sense of philosophy or education that would guide his actions and help him cope with his burdens; only seething vitriol and resentment for everything around him, including his friends and allies. For all his power he suffers from an enormous inferiority complex, obsessed with the possibility that others might be manipulating him, and he interprets the proffering of advice to be “manipulation.” He despises sycophants, but he threatens to execute those who don’t obey him. He keeps telling himself how “hard” he must become…evidently, he interprets “hard” to mean indifference to cruelty and suffering, but he offer no explanation as to why this is necessary. He has no sense of temperance or moderation. For example,  his only coherent moral principle is that he refuses to kill women (he has no problem confining them to dungeons, however)…but any virtue, when conjoined with stupidity, becomes a fault. In one instance, he applies this prohibition to a female antagonist who is basically demonic, and of course she escapes to wreak all kinds of havoc, killing others in the process. In the aftermath of this fiasco, Rand is now willing to kill any woman whatsoever, for any reason he can think of. Great moral development! Nor does Rand have any sense of duty or obligation. Indeed, he hates the very world that he is supposed to save. At one point, a close relation visits him and tries to impart a sense of soldierly duty to change his perspective and get him back on the right track. Big mistake. Rand considers that to be “manipulation,” flies into yet another rage, and nearly kills the man. Rand al’Thor is the perfect example of what happens when a spiteful peasant is given absolute power: he becomes the type of leader that any self-respecting polity should string up from the nearest lamp post at the first opportunity. It’s been frustrating for me because there’s always a number of subplots that involve conspiracies to kill Rand, but all have failed thus far. Whenever one of the more likable characters is near Rand, I find myself mentally screaming to them, “kill him…Kill Him…KILL HIM!!! Take your chances with the Dark One and KILL HIM!!!” Of course, Jordan’s intent with the character was probably to explore how such an awesome burden of responsibility can drive anyone insane to evoke sympathy for his plight. Meh…I’m not impressed. If Rand is willing to kill and demand that others die for him, then he should be able to handle dying to save the world without becoming a nightmare version of Frodo.

Moiraine Damodred: gone too soon

I read the series because I like most of the other characters, especially Moiraine, who is the literary equivalent of a female Gandalf. Unfortunately, the traditional role of a Gandalf-esque character is to die off or otherwise disappear early in the series, leaving the young heroes to find their own way. And so it was with Moiraine. The indications are that she will be returning (also Gandalf-esque) in the next book, but her absence for most of the series was disappointing. Robert Jordan died in 2007 before completing the final book. His passing was a major loss to the genre, because Jordan was unique as an author: a decorated Vietnam veteran, graduate of The Citadel, and later a nuclear engineer in the Navy, Jordan brought a perspective to fantasy that more conventional authors lack. But there’s a silver lining to everything. The pacing of Jordan’s later books slowed to a crawl as hundreds upon hundreds of pages were devoted to intricate descriptions of clothing, furnishings, facial expressions, body language, etc. Book ten, Crossroads of Twilight, has the dubious honor of being Amazon’s worst rated product. Ever. And having read it, I can say that it deserves worse. After Jordan died, Brandon Sanderson was selected to finish the series, working from the notes that Jordan had left behind, and he managed to do the impossible by rescuing The Wheel of Time from its own author. With Sanderson writing the final books, the series has been revitalized and appears poised for a conclusion that will redeem it from the drudgerous legacy given it by Jordan’s later work. For my next epic, I am considering either Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, or Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (who would have thought Vikings to be such prolific fantasy authors). I hesitate to start either series, however, because I understand the title character of the former to be another tiresome antihero, and the universe of the latter to be even bleaker than Martin’s work. So in the meantime I thought I would try a few standalones. First up is Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker, which I selected pretty much at random. After that, I thought I would try Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, which has received rave reviews. The chances of me bothering to write about either of them are quite slim.

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12 thoughts on “Off-Topic Drivel: The Wheel of Time

  1. I have not read the Circle of Time series, but I have read most of Martin’s stuff. I found his book enchanting less because of the grit and darkness and more because of its incredible realism – it felt as if his story had been lifted from the history books, albeit that of another reality. Most fantasy series cannot make the same claim.

    • I should point out that – for the most part – I do like Martin, and I will continue to read his ASOIF series (if he ever gets the next book done). It’s just that the tone of his works requires a different mindset than that of most other fantasy. The quality of his writing redeems his other faults.

  2. Drop everything and read “Name of the Wind.” It has by far the best character developement of any fantasy I have ever read. The book literally grabs you by the throat and forces you to identify with the protagonist. I say this having also read the Wheel of Time series (with feelings similar to yours, albeight more simpathetic to Rand) and some of Sanderson’s stuff.

  3. Read the first Thomas Covenant book then purge the existence of the others from your mind. Its a genuinely anti-heroic protagonist, which is interesting at first, but by the second book you want to throttle the useless bugger to stop him complaining.

    • Thanks for the heads-up; that’s what I was afraid of. Though I do find it difficult to not finish a series without a sense of guilt. The only series that I quit without any hesitation was Dune. The first book was interesting…the second was okay…the third was a soul-crushing boredom that I could barely tolerate.

  4. I finished Warbreaker about a week ago. One reason I read it was because I was impressed by the way Sanderson managed to salvage The Wheel of Time and I became interested in his other work.

    However, I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of this book; unlike The Gathering Storm, Sanderson’s voice is unrestrained, and the dialogue is a bit too sardonic and modern. Plotwise the book was okay, but there was too much emphasis on the intricacies of the magic system (a common flaw in current fantasy literature), little of which was relevant to the story.

    Still, it was suitable for diversionary reading and I’ll probably check out some of Sanderson’s other stuff.

    I intend to start The Name of the Wind either tonight or tomorrow.

  5. To me, Jordan had a talent for setting and story but execution (particularly character interaction and development) is lacking. Also the tactics are less than exemplary. Apparently he was a soldier but if so he didn’t carry that into the books, though I will admit that these were written for a young audience and not for more tactically astute readers.

    While not exactly the bastion of literary analysis, the link below has a thread that does a good job of pointing out the oddities and inconsistencies of the most of the series (as well as being absolutely hilarious).

    http://www.ataricommunity.com/forums/showthread.php?t=386600

    • Personally, I thought that Jordan was at his best when describing battle scenes. But you’re right; The Wheel of Time is not military fantasy, and the tactics and strategies associated with the battles don’t make much sense.

      When I read Fires of Heaven, I cringed when they decided to let the Shaido escape after the Battle of Cairhien. I knew the only result would be the survival of the enemy and the continuation of that plotline. If only Mat, or one of the dead generals in his memories, had bothered to read Clausewitz, none of that would have happened.

      Perrin, on the other hand, had the right idea when he fought the Shaido: isolation of the battlefield, concentration of all available combat power in a single action to achieve the annihilation of the enemy…a good Western strategist. (Must have been glancing at Clausewitz, or at least Jomini, while he was working at the blacksmith.)

      But I wouldn’t say that WoT was written for a young audience. I know that the series has many younger fans, but I think most parents would be horrified if they were aware of some of the darker themes in the series (sex, torture, insanity, etc).

      And actually, I thought Jordan did a pretty good job with characterization.

    • I also thought there was a bit too much of what Patrick Porter calls “military orientalism” in the book: it features prominently a race of unparalleled desert warriors, the Aiel, similar to the Fremen of the Dune series. In both books it is argued that their warlike nature and military effectiveness derives from a hostile climate and environment. In fact, Frank Herbert was apparently under the impression that armies could be created simply by leaving them in physically grueling conditions, because the two most effective military forces in the books, the Sardaukar and the Fremen, are products of the desert. That’s a flawed and very simplistic view of military training, and I think it weakens the stories of both series by cheaply creating seemingly invincible armies. As an ex-soldier himself, I’m surprised that Jordan made the same mistake.

      Then again, it is just a fantasy novel…

      • For storytelling his battles aren’t bad (though he had an apparent dislike of putting large battles in his stories) but the strategies don’t really sound like a strategist made them. I’ll admit that I’m not a professional soldier, but I have enough imagination to wonder why Rand doesn’t sweep the fields with fire or start an earthquake.

        As for the Frem- I mean Aiel, I think you’ll find that combatants from those conditions might make good ‘warriors’ but not good ‘soldiers’. There is a serious difference. You’ll notice that as the U.S military grew more organized in the 19th century the ability of First Nation* fighters to resist in conventional battle decreased.

        The Aiel here, and the Fremen they were based on, are a romanticized view of the Arab leaders that rebelled against the Ottoman Empire in 1916. Sadly most people remember the speed they moved at and not the British gold or the focus on sabotage and attacking exposed forces. Not to say that they weren’t incredible (the Arabs managed to enter Syria, complication matters with France) but they certainly weren’t close to supermen.

        *Indians or Native Americans to the rest of you.

      • People also tend to forget that the Ottoman retreat from the Hejaz was not caused by the Arab revolt, but by Allenby’s advance out of the Sinai; Ottoman forces in Arabia were in danger of being cut off, so they were going to pull out anyway.

        I read Dune before I read the Seven Pillars of Wisdom or watched Lawrence of Arabia. The parallels were indeed strikingly obvious.

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