Review: The Wheel of Time

May 28th, 2014

Five years ago, I opened The Eye of the World, the first book in the Wheel of Time series, and read:

“Lord of the Morning,” he said, “I have come for you.”

On the island, the air shimmered and coalesced. The black-clad man stood staring at the fiery mountain rising out of the plain. His face twisted in rage and contempt. “You cannot escape so easily, Dragon. It is not done between us. It will not be done until the end of time.”

Then he was gone, and the mountain and the island stood alone. Waiting.

And then, as often, Robert Jordan began books citing some of the prophecy he invented:

And it came to pass in those days, as it had come before and would come again, that the Dark lay heavy on the land and weighed down the hearts of men, and the green things failed, and hope died. And men cried out to the Creator, saying, O Light of the Heavens, Light of the World, let the Promised One be born of the mountain, according to the prophecies, as he was in ages past and will be in ages to come. Let the Prince of the Morning sing to the land that green things will grow and the valleys give forth lambs. Let the arm of the Lord of the Dawn shelter us from the Dark, and the great sword of justice defend us. Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.

—from Charal Drianaan to Calamon,
The Cycle of the Dragon.
Author unknown, the Fourth Age

And then, the grand opening to each of the books in the 11,000-page series, something like this:

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.

Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road.

And yesterday, 11,000 pages later, I have completed the series. Really, how could I have put down a book with such a majestic beginning as that? It hinted at the epic that was to come, the amazing literature I was going to read. I didn’t read it straight through; I enjoyed books like War and Peace along the way. But what a trip the Wheel of Time series was. The characters were so detailed, so deep, the setting so elaborate, the plots so grand and also so small — everyone from servants to queens were well-represented in the books. Not every section was a page-turner; in fact, around the 4th or 5th book, the series started to plod for a thousand pages or two, reading more like a history book than a novel. Sometimes the prejudices and stereotypes of the characters, particularly the sexism that both the men and women displayed, were frustrating to read. I never quite figured out of this was brilliant writing (making the reader feel frustrated at the plodding pace of the book when it was describing characters being frustrated at the plodding pace of events), or if it could have been trimmed down by 2/3 in some places.

But really, the number of brilliant endings, laugh-out-loud situations, and page-turning suspense that somehow managed to build over hundreds, and then even thousands of pages, outweighed the flaws.

Politics is a foggy mire full of snakes.

– The Eye of the World

“Ah.” Furlan washed his hands in one direction, then rubbed them in the other. “Ah. Forgive me, Master Andra, but Lady Alys is a fierce sounding woman.”

“Only with those who displease her,” Lan said blandly. “Her bite is far worse than her bark.”

“Ah. Ah. Ah. Your rooms are this way. . .”

– The Dragon Reborn

One of the marks of truly good writing is that I leave a book or series with a sense of sadness or nostalgia, leaving characters that seem almost like friends. I felt that after finishing the last book in the series, A Memory of Light. The ending was deep, and satisfying, but ultimately left me wanting even more — even more than 11,000 pages, somehow.

“Elienda and Briain woke from the dream.” She might have been speaking of the weather rather than two deaths among women she knew. “We all must wake eventually.”

– Knife of Dreams

I was often touched by the way the Aiel referred to each other. A desert people, their fond farewall was “may you always find water and shade.” A fitting metaphor for anyone’s life, I think. And they referred to their spouse as “shade of my heart.”

Jordan touched on quite a few themes of religion and philosophy. In that quote above, he has the Aiel referring to death as waking from a dream. An intriguing metaphor, isn’t it? He even writes conflicts of philosophy, religion, and culture into the series.

I was particularly impressed with his treatment of theodicy and the problem of evil (the argument and religious response relating to the presence of evil in the world in the face of a loving God.) It is the most impressive treatment I have seen in fiction, and does a better job of advancing the theodistic argument than many philosophers have, I suspect. It is hard to really go into that one here because of the length and potential for spoilers.

I can, however, comment on his treatment of existential nihilism — the theory that life and the universe is without meaning, and the sometimes-related comment that “what does anything matter then anyway?” Here are a couple of quotes:

“In Maradon, I saw what had been done to men who followed me. I saw Light in them, Min. Defying the Dark One no matter the length of his shadow. We will live, that defiance said. We will love and we will hope. And I saw him trying so hard to destroy that. He knows that if he could break them, it would mean something. Something much more than Maradon. Breaking the spirit of men…he thirsts for that. He struck far harder than he otherwise would have because he wanted to break my spirit.” His voice grew softer and he opened his eyes, looking down at her. “And so I stood against him.”

– Towers of Midnight

“What if I think it’s all meaningless?” he demanded with the loud voice of a king. “What if I don’t want it to keep turning? We live our lives by the blood of others! And those others become forgotten. What good is it if everything we know will fade? Great deeds or great tragedies, neither means anything! They will become legends, then those legends will be forgotten, then it will all start over again!”

Why? Rand thought with wonder. Because each time we live, we get to love again.

It felt relaxing to stare out at that distant light, so welcoming and noble. “Storms will soon come,” it seemed to say. “But for now, I am here.” I am here.

– The Gathering Storm

I unfortunately can’t put in in its proper context due to spoilers, but it is a pivotal turning point in the series, relating to the preservation of the world. By giving what we might normally call a characteristic or behavior — evil — an almost-human voice and character, it can be discussed in interesting ways.

We are always more afraid than we wish to be, but we can always be braver than we expect. Hold on to your heart, and the Aes Sedai cannot harm what is really you, your heart. They are not nearly so far above us as we believed. May you always find water and shade, Egwene. And always remember your heart.”

– Lord of Chaos

“Eben is dead. Would you want to forget your pain if you lost that hulking giant of yours? Have your feelings for him cut away like some spoiled chunk of flesh in an otherwise good roast?”

– The Gathering Storm

These quotes are examples of characters in the series dealing with difficult situations. In one, a character is yelled at for offering to use her special powers to numb the pain of another person over a death. It brings up a question that those of us that have known pain might find interesting: would we really have wanted our pain erased? And suggests perhaps not. That there is a benefit to it. That we get through it by embracing it — by embracing it while still being true to our heart.

He had four rules concerning action and information. Never make a plan without knowing as much as you can of the enemy. Never be afraid to change your plans when you receive new information. Never believe you know everything. And never wait to know everything.

– Lord of Chaos

Sometimes the series treats us to logical thinkers, whether they are generals or innkeepers, and gives us little tidbits like this one.

Androl brushed off his hands, smiling. Children were so adaptable. Before them, centuries of tradition, terror and superstition could melt away like butter left too long in the sun.

– Towers of Midnight

And sometimes, things to chew over. Isn’t that an interesting comment on prejudice? Children aren’t born prejudiced; we can see how easily they make friends with anyone. It is sad that we teach them to be, isn’t it?

Wheel of Time is a fine story, expertly woven. But it is not just a story. It is true, in the sense that it illuminates truths, just like Romeo and Juliet can. In it, I see lessons and echoes of the civil rights era, comments on what makes good leaders, characters wrestling with decisions without adequate data, people putting on a mask of emotions, sacrifice, and the overall theme of the entire series: the power of love and compassion.

The inspiration of the series for me — well, it is there, but it may take a few more days to figure it out. I think it has something to do with this: “The wind rose high and free, to soar in an open sky with no clouds.”

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