“The Wheel of Time” as an adult

In middle school I read the first six or eight Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books; I’ve mentioned that before, but the other day I saw someone reading one of the books in a coffee shop and that inspired me to download some. From the opening pages they’re badly written; we find one character described as standing: “with his thick chest and broad face, he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting dream.” What is a “pillar of reality?” As opposed to a “pillar of fantasy?” Does reality have pillars? Does fantasy have pillars? In dreams, stones can drift as much as they want. This is representative—not every sentence in a given book is to every person’s taste—and things like it recur again and again. Perhaps the books were written too fast, or maybe the writer’s attention was elsewhere. But for very inexperienced readers, as I was, that doesn’t matter: everything is novel.

The novels are Tolkien-esque, except worse. They concern a typical quest to defeat “The Dark One,” but The Dark One seems like a bad deal. I mean, his nickname is the Lord of Lies, yet various people in the Wheel of Time world are eager to sign up to serve him. Why would anyone make a deal with him? People try not to do business with people they don’t trust, and normal commerce concerns money—not the soul itself. Truly evil people don’t announce they’re evil; they call themselves good. In Tolkien, Sauron is at least depicted as once having been fair, and being able to use his powers to daunt and seduce the men who haven’t been exposed to Elvish influence. Tolkien thought through a lot of subtle details that are easily missed in a first pass but picked up later on.

Perhaps the Dark One’s dealmaking skill is a metaphor for life under communist regimes, which are highly duplicitous and not very pleasant, but, if one’s government was part of the Soviet Union, that was part of the deal. Many people who ought to have known better were convinced socialism was a good idea. They may have sold their souls, in essence.

The Jordan view of sexuality might be called “curious,” as I grope for words: his view is very adolescent; as a work that might appeal to 12- or 13-year olds, it makes sense. To adults, it does not. Many of the characters are very attractive and very attracted to one another, and yet none act on it, or only act on it after months or years of courtship that leads to marriage. This seems improbable. Most adults attempt to fulfill months- or years-long mutual attractions somewhat faster than that. The Wheel of Time‘s sexual world sounds a lot like middle school behavior but not much like adult behavior. A fantasy novel like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is much more reality-grounded in this domain, despite featuring far younger protagonists. As an adult I look at Jordan’s Wikipedia page and am unsurprised to find this: “He described himself as a ‘High Church’ Episcopalian and received communion more than once a week.”

Like a lot of thrillers, something happens in almost every chapter of every book (the early ones, anyway). A sudden attack. A reversal of fortune. The introduction of a new character. But, as with a lot of thrillers, the “something” often doesn’t make much sense. Why are the bad guys so ineffective? Why do they try the same sort of attacks, over and over again, which keep failing? Why do Dark friends not get a better name? Could they hire a branding consultant? Thrillers work if you don’t think too much about them—something I realized after reading Persuader, a novel that’s wildly plausible despite its absurdities. Sometimes I wonder if I could become a thriller writer through a deck of cards with plot points like “sudden betrayal,” “bad guy goes good,” “unexpected fight,” etc. on them.

And the attacks are mostly the same: the same Orc-like creatures suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, and execute the same attacks that fail in the same ways. They’re like video-game monsters. If the Dark One is so brilliant, perhaps he ought to learn new tactics? Or perhaps that’s the curse of a 14-novel series: there are only so many variations on a theme.

It feels like Jordan had a bunch of dice when he was writing. Roll a 2? New attack from Trollocs. Four? New magical items. Double sixes? Dark friends. Someone like Philip Pullman or Carlos Ruiz Zafon has a very different, more organic feel, as well as more bounded worlds that may ultimately be more satisfying worlds. The endless size of The Wheel of Time means flatter characters, more repetition, and the exploration of fewer ideas.

Even as a kid, I gave up on the series. But I wonder about what adults see in it. Many people are of course comforted by and susceptible to simple good-vs-evil stories. When one becomes popular, like The Wheel of Time, pointing to it as being popular because it’s a good-vs-evil story isn’t enough. Maybe it’s popular because it’s simple along so many dimensions. The sentences are simple. The motivations are simple. The plot is less simple on its surface but fairly simple beneath. The good guys win at the end (or appear to: so say Internet summarizers). The Wheel of Time world of motivation is fairly simple. In a complex world, simple has appeal.

The chief protagonist is named Rand al’Thor, and the description of him working magic is notable and concerns what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “Flow” or what might otherwise be called total concentration, which the channelers must use: “Tam had taught him the Void as an aid to archery, to be one with the bow, the arrow, the target. He made himself one with those imagined black wires.” One reading of Wheel might be about the value of total concentration, although that’s a funny lesson in books that don’t demand total concentration and if anything don’t reward it. But for the reader, especially today in an environment of digital distraction, admiring total concentration may be useful.

Robert Jordan, the Wheel of Time, and the world around him

The End of the Story” concerns Robert Jordan and his epically bad fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. I’ve mentioned The Wheel of Time as being an important influence, “mostly for the worst,” although it eventually offered me something to react against. Still, from the ages of 12 – 15 or so, The Wheel of Time captivated me. I’d like to say, “I have no idea why,” but I do have some ideas, none of them flattering, and none of which I’d like to list.

My 12- – 15-year-old self is hardly alone: Jordan “sold more than 40 million books in his lifetime.” Whatever their merits, the people who bought those books in such numbers must have found something useful in them. But to me, the meta-phenomenon is sometimes more interesting than the phenomenon itself: Robert Jordan (or J.K. Rowling) aren’t particularly good writers, and Jordan is outright bad. Yet their popularity must say something about our culture, as difficult as it might be to ascertain what that something is.

Zach Baron tries to answer that question in “The End of the Story,” which is fascinating for its exploration of Jordan’s life and work. I kept waiting for him to talk about the writing itself: the first half of “The End of the Story” is notable for how it doesn’t cite examples from the work. As B.R. Myers said about Jonathan Franzen:

No doubt the rave reviews for Freedom will evince the same reluctance to quote from the text that we saw [with The Corrections]. Reviewers gave that book maximum points for sweep and sprawl while subtracting none for its slovenly prose, the short-windedness of each of its thousand “themes,” and the failure of the main story line to generate any momentum.

I don’t know if Myers is right about Franzen—I tried to read The Corrections not long after it came out and gave up—but Myers’ point about the disconnect between writing about books and citing what’s actually in them is well-taken.

For Jordan, there’s a very good reason for not quoting him: his writing isn’t very good. Baron does get there, mostly in the context of Jordan’s retrograde view of sexuality:

Jordan possessed an understanding of women so bankrupt it would make a seventh-grade boy weep. It was admirable that he tried: Jordan’s heroes were as liable to be female as male—more so, even—and most of the societies he depicted were either matriarchal or, at worst, equal opportunity.

But Jordan’s women do a lot of “sniffing,” usually loudly. They cross their arms under their breasts. Men to them are “wool-headed lummoxes” or “wool-brained mules.” (A disproportionately high number of women in the Wheel of Time are also lesbians—make of that what you will.) Jordan was not above describing rivals for the same man as “two strange cats who had just discovered they were shut up in the same small room.” That is, when he wasn’t making Borscht Belt jokes about their bad cooking, or spending pages describing their dresses. (In this respect, Jordan put romance novels to shame: the Wheel of Time without a doubt holds the record for inexplicably extended rhapsodies over brocaded silk, embroidery, hemlines, and necklines.) Mostly, what Jordan’s women are is the same: some combination of cold, willful, quick to take offense, and—around the right man—weak in the knees.

And fake: completely, totally, fake. The greatest fantasy in The Wheel of Time isn’t about magic—it’s about how women behave (or don’t). One thing that’s so refreshing about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is that, unlike so much fantasy (Jordan, C.S. Lewis, and others) women are real, present, and not merely there to be props for men or otherwise manipulated. Rowling, whatever her weaknesses as a stylist, also does this well in Harry Potter, but that something resembling real female characters are sufficiently unusual to be notable is unfortunate.

This was a common enough and fair enough criticism that Jordan responded:

Jordan was never anything but unapologetic. “I’ve seen a lot of comment, apparently from men, that my female characters are unrealistic,” he once wrote. “That’s because women are, for the most part, consummate actresses who allow men to see exactly what they intend men to see. Get behind the veil sometimes, boys, and your hair will turn white.

The dupe here is not male critics of Jordan (like me, or, implicitly, Baron), but Jordan himself, who claims to pierce one “veil” but in doing so has created other, more pernicious ones, constructed from cardboard and perhaps more constricting than whatever one he previously imagined.

Then again, given his male characters’ silliness and hangups, maybe we shouldn’t say that Jordan has problems with female characters—he has problems with characters. It’s just that the ones about male characters aren’t as offensive because they don’t exist in a context of men being portrayed as helpless, stupid, or mostly asexual. Instead, they’re merely aesthetically offensive. Which is worse I leave as an exercise to the reader.

The Name of the Wind, The Daughter of the Empire, and Pulp Fantasy

In middle and early high school I read more pulp fantasy than I care to recall, which my Dad derisively referred to as “dragon books.” Most were terrible, and when I’ve picked some up more recently I’ve been aghast at the poor writing and haphazard plot. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is as bad as Dragonlance, The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth, and the many of the others I used to read. To give some examples from The Name of the Wind: “The man cut him off with a sharp gesture,” whatever a sharp gesture is, and “[A sword] was deadly as a sharp stone beneath swift water.” Underwater stones are deadly? To who, besides writers struggling for metaphor? There are enough variations on “sharp” to whet every magic sword in the kingdom. Elsewhere, Kote’s head “[…] was bowed slightly, as if a great weight had settled onto him.” Chills get sent down spines. In addition to language problems, nothing actually happens in the first fifty pages, which also lack the jovial pleasure of the Shire.

Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire is at least as bad and perhaps worse. Atrocities, adverbs and cliches abound: “Mara put on a brave face,” as no one has ever done before, this not long after her “cheeks burn with anger,” her “eyes narrowed,” and “her voice controlled fury.” Doubts plague, inner peace is sought, weight shifts, and after 30 pages of honor and ritual I’m ready for Woody Allen.

The low standards for writing and reviewing pulp fantasy novels are evident from pieces like this one from The Onion A.V. Club, which says, “Shelve The Name Of The Wind beside The Lord Of The Rings, The Deed Of Paksenarrion, and The Wheel Of Time—and look forward to the day when it’s mentioned in the same breath, perhaps as first among equals” (italics added). That day will never come. The Wheel of Time is written at a 12-year-old’s moral and intellectual level, and it dramatizes an immature adolescent’s view of sexuality. That The Name of the Wind received any good reviews, let alone a comparison to Tolkien, demonstrates the inadequacy of the competition to which fantasy novels are compared and the knowledge of some who review them. The Name of the Wind steals so much and so poorly from Tolkien that one should read the master and skip Robert Jordan. To explain how a series of novels as awful as The Wheel of Time comes to be, I’m forced to go back to Stephen King on Tolkien again:

A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post-World War II fantasy fans; even when you add in that clumsy, galumphing dirigible of an epilogue, The Silmarillion, it hasn’t been enough. Hence Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, the questing rabbits of Watership Down, and half a hundred others. The writers of these books are creating the hobbits they still love and pine for; they are trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Grey Havens because Tolkien is not around to do it for them.

While the desire for Middle-Earth illuminates why The Wheel of Time was written, I can’t explain its popularity. The criticisms of The Name of the Wind and Daughter of the Empire both apply, and if I still owned The Wheel of Time novels I’d pick a page at random and find still more examples.

The worst part of someone reading these lousy novels is that some great modern fantasy novels exist: His Dark Materials and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy both qualify. Both are rich in language, plot and ideas, unlike the sloppy hackery from The Name of the Wind and Daughter of the Empire. They almost justify highbrow sneers about genre fiction, and I write about the two only as a reminder that good fantasy exists for those who care to find it. Too bad Feist, Wurts, and Rothfuss probably don’t understand the difference, and if they do, fail to show it in their writing.

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