Robert Jordan is a well-known name in the fantasy world. He authored most of The Wheel of Time series, only failing to complete the project when he died. He outlined the plot Brandon Sanderson used to finish the work, and his original epilogue is used to end the final novel. He became one of fantasy’s heavy-weights, chronicling a tale of such sheer, epic scope, with such a deep history and multitude of cultures, that his work is worthy of respect.
However, in this entry to my Masters of Storytelling, I’m not just going to praise what he did right. I’m going to comment on the flaws in his work, and there are a number of them.
I should hasten to emphasize that I mean no disrespect to the man, and perish the thought of speaking ill of the dead. This is meant to be a complimentary work, after all, telling what we can learn from the man. However, the wise man learns from mistakes as easily as triumphs, and it’s not like any of these Masters is perfect. I intend to comment on Jordan’s mistakes as part of what we can learn from, and in the context of what he did right. So if this should offend anyone, I apologize in advance.
In The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness: the epic scale of his narrative.
Mind you, this is a conflict of global proportions, entailing a series of conflicts large and small culminating in a single battle that’s more like an entire all war on its own, all leading to the final confrontation between this world’s devil (the “Dark One”) and its messiah (the “Dragon Reborn”). There are several cultures and a multitude of nations involved, as well as secret orders and mystical communities which transcend national borders. There are the equivalent of fallen angels, sorcerers who swore themselves to the Dark One, and the many monsters they command. And so much more.
Too much, in fact.
It’s fine, and quite an achievement, to create a tale of so epic as this, but the cast is simply too huge. There is a supporting cast for the supporting cast’s supporting cast. That is simply too many people to keep track of (particularly when we see them only for a moment in one novel, and then they show up again three novels later), let alone spend so much time getting visual descriptions of (a page or more for one character, right down to his shoelaces), yet without much clue as to why they are doing what they are doing (I read one scene which involved the leader of an overzealous military-religious order leading his men into a charge…and I had no idea what they were charging against except “the city,” let alone why they were charging).
We were being told what a multitude of people were doing, but it was rarely explained to us just what they were doing. There was no intimacy between the audience and the characters, and when your shortest novel is five hundred pages (and it’s a difference substantial enough that I was like, “whoa, that one went by fast…”), the audience simply needs to be able to connect with the characters at some point, or its just a slog through endless events. Heck, some of them even had names so similar I kept confusing them.
This would be the major reason I have not made it to the end of the series myself, as of yet.
The cultures were also fairly diverse, but never really explained. The names of all these characters sounded like they actually came from these cultures, but a number of them looked a tad too difficult to pronounce correctly without hearing them first. I still don’t know how to pronounce “Aiel” like someone would actually say it, as people generally say things more smoothly in their native tongue than the foreigners who learn it as a new language. “Aiel” humor was often commented on being strange, but never explained, especially since it seemed virtually identical to every other cultural humor I found. Some things which would be outrageous in our culture (like a widowed queen forcing a man into her bed at knife-point after harassing and even starving him in previous attempts to coerce him) seem to be perfectly acceptable and accepted by everyone (even the man who was on the receiving end of that particular example). There aren’t any moral objections or discussions, it’s all simply one prolonged grab for power. And that’s it. There are such rich cultures here, which can be used to raise such engrossing and important discussions, and there’s virtually nothing of it! It’s such a waste!
(Also, the romantic stories were really less developed, just kind of… happening. Just because.)
Basically, Robert Jordan thought a little too big. Yet so very small. After this “final battle” war is apparently outlawed. Because all you have to do to end something is outlaw it, right? I mean, really, how simplistic is that? Especially in contrast to this wide open, complex world the books are set in?
Now, perhaps I am simply painting a target on my face, with a big sign in neon letters that says, “Ignorant. Please punch.” I have, after all not finished the novels. I have not read whatever explanations may lie at the latter end of the series. And what I read, I read years ago, so perhaps I am misremembering some things. Certainly, I can’t do justice to this epic, written by a master of fantasy, within just a few paragraphs. But, knowing that fans will likely want to be banging my head in as they read this, I feel that The Wheel of Time lacks much of what it had the potential to become.
That said, I wish to end with another emphasis of what Robert Jordan did right.
He crafted an epic struggle which spanned every corner of the world we visit in the books. He managed a huuuuuge cast of characters. He told the story of these characters in their struggles as they rise and fall, laugh and cry, fight and flee, live and die. The world he created was not simple, not by any definition. And I read the first several books because I enjoyed them. There was a certain intimacy to be found (with the smaller cast), and thrilling adventures to be shared. Even well over a decade after the last time I so much as looked at one of these novels, I remember enough about them to comment on them, even recall specific examples. I loved how the characters evolved from normal peasants into the heroes of their age.
The Wheel of Time may have lost me in later novels, but I savored much of the early tales. For that, I am grateful.
And I still consider Robert Jordan to be a Master of Storytelling.
And I always will.