Revisiting the Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World
As promised last month, I have begun a leisurely re-read of the Wheel of Time. (Very leisurely. One book every two months, on the twin principles that this will keep me from burning out, and have me finishing shortly after the series itself is done.) I will be blogging this process, but not very intensively; the intent is to make one post per book.
Needless to say, this will involve spoilers. Potentially up through Crossroads of Twilight (the last book I read), until of course I move on to the books after it. (Corollary point: if you’ve read Knife of Dreams or The Gathering Storm, please don’t spoil those. I’d like to read them with as fresh an eye as possible.) But this isn’t just Nostalgia Lane; I will be doing some craft-oriented critiquing, musing on the subgenre of epic fantasy, etc. So if you’re interested, follow me behind the cut.
It’s been a while since I read EPIC! FANTASY! I haven’t read much epic fantasy at all, lately, and most of it has been aiming for the gritty, realistic, broken-down end of things; it’s kind of sweet to see a book be so unabashedly in love with grandeur. Every so often it busts out with Lan’s titles or something and you just kind of want to pat it on the head. Not really my cup of tea anymore, but I’m pleased to say that at least I’m able to read it; I was afraid I’d get two hundred pages in and realize I just couldn’t do this.
And if you don’t choke on the EPIC! FANTASY!-ness of it, I still say the prologue is one of the better things Jordan did in the whole series. Maybe not the best-written bit — I’ll have to see as I go along — but it helped me clarify my thoughts on prologues, how to do them wrong and right. This one is done right, in the sense that it provides the reader with a scene instead of an infodump, conflict and characters instead of a history lesson. Long after I’d forgotten pretty much every other scene in TEotW, I remembered this one. So Jordan gets a cookie for that.
But if I try to do a scene-by-scene blog of this, I’ll never get anywhere. So let’s move onto the macro issues.
Pacing first, as it is probably the single biggest flaw marring the series as a whole. This is, of course, a Very Fat Fantasy (over 300K words, according to Wikipedia; I shudder to think of tackling a single manuscript that long, much less multiple). Unlike some later volumes, though — where I think Jordan had the Big Thing he wanted to happen at the end of the book, and everything leading up to it was marking time — there are relatively few bits that could be cut wholesale. Personally, I saw two: the chapter where Nynaeve, Moiraine, and Lan get to Whitebridge (since that basically just updates us on their position, and recaps what we already saw happen to Rand, Mat, and Thom), and the sequence of Darkfriend attacks against Rand and Mat on the way to Caemlyn. The former didn’t pull its weight, and the latter didn’t build properly; the first attack was by far the most exciting, and the others felt like afterthoughts. Re-organization of that sequence might have solved the problem just as well as reducing it.
You certainly could cut the plot more. Skip the altercation with the Whitecloaks in Baerlon, for example, or Perrin and Egwene’s brief stedding detour. I’m not convinced that would improve the plot, though; the effect would be to simplify the world, such that later things (like Perrin and Egwene’s arrest by the Whitecloaks, or the discussion of how the male Aes Sedai came to grow the Ways for the Ogier) seem more like they were pulled out of Jordan’s ear. And this is epic fantasy, a genre where exploration of a rich world, both geographically and socially, is one of its selling points. The main way I would shorten the book, then, would not be to remove stuff, but to do that stuff more efficiently, with fewer words. And even then . . . sure, the Trollocs could have attacked Emond’s Field on page 20; you don’t need all that elaboration of a village that the plot almost certainly wasn’t going to return to. (Perrin does go back, of course, but I suspect that was a later development, not on Jordan’s radar when he wrote TEotW.) But I’m kind of glad a genre exists where you can do that sort of thing, where an author can take the time to show you the people at the fringes of the Great Narrative. As I said at the beginning, not really my cup of tea anymore — but I do appreciate its existence, for all it usually gets slammed.
The other thing that’s bad in the series, of course, is the women. My hypothesis — to be tested as I read on — is that this flaw consists of three components, one of them craft-based, the other two issues of gender politics.
The craft issue is one of characterization, regardless of gender. It just isn’t Jordan’s strong point, period. He does better with the men, but they still aren’t the most nuanced and three-dimensional people ever to grace a page; and as the series goes along, it seems to me that he has an increasing amount of difficulty keeping them distinct from one another. (A difficulty probably worsened by the cast growing beyond all reason.) This process happens faster with the women, but you can see it with the men, too, and it’s always been one of the weak legs of this story.
As far as gender politics are concerned, you see a brief flash of one issue here, which is the implication that even strong-willed women — maybe especially strong-willed women — really want an even stronger-willed man to tell them what to do. Mostly it doesn’t figure into this book, except for a very fleeting occurrence when Perrin and Egwene are split apart from the others, but it will show up more later, as will the notion that when a woman convinces a man to do what she wants, it’s “bullying.” That, needless to say, is an unsavory argument. The other gender-politics issue is blessedly absent from this book, namely, the bizarre obsession Jordan’s female characters have with physically disciplining one another. The Aes Sedai, Wise Ones, Maidens of the Spear, Kin, and other female societies have this insanely common tendency to beat on each other with birch rods, switches, shoes, and so on. I don’t know what’s up with that motif, and I DON’T WANT TO. But it was kind of lovely, having an entire Wheel of Time book without a single instance of that happening.
Onward to the better stuff. I said before that one of the things Jordan does very well is prophecy. TEotW doesn’t display too much of it, but the bits that show up are interesting to me, because of the implications they have for Jordan’s long-term planning. The most obvious example is probably Min’s viewing of Mat, where she sees “an eye on a balance scale” — a prediction that has not, as of Book 10, come true yet. I would dearly love to see a textual history of this series, one that makes it clear at what points in the process Jordan changed his conception of how many books he was going to write, because I suspect that would greatly illuminate some of the plot developments. That Mat is going to lose an eye has clearly been planned from the start; but has the context of that loss changed? It eventually became part of a whole complex of prophetic material, my favorite example of how the interested reader can piece together bits of the puzzle, but which parts of that complex are original to the “I’m writing a trilogy” plan? “To give up half the light of the world to save the world” doesn’t get spoken until (iirc) early Book 4; Mat doesn’t really acquire his pervasive Odin imagery until late Book 4; Moiraine doesn’t go AWOL until Book 5; I don’t even remember when Min makes her statements about the one viewing that didn’t come true, or how Rand’s doomed to failure without a woman who’s dead, but they’re later than that. The snakes and the foxes, the dream of Thom pulling Moiraine’s crystal from a fire, all those bits and pieces come later. But they all — if fandom’s theories from back in the day are correct — revolve around a central point, which is the rescue of Moiraine from the *finn. Was that always going to be why Mat lost his eye, or not?
Prophecy also brings me to a moderately startling point: the extent to which the whole Dragon Reborn thing is not a big issue in this book. There’s a decent bit made of Logain being one of several false Dragons, and Ba’alzamon makes it clear that he groups Rand in with the others, but nobody tells him he’s the Dragon Reborn. It’s just, “hey, you can channel; sucks to be you.” Moiraine says it in the final words of the book, but not where anybody can hear. And they hardly even talk about what it means! You get a fair bit about Lews Therin, but hardly anything about what his successor is supposed to do. To the best of my recollection (I didn’t think to keep an eye out for this), the whole bit about “his blood on the rocks of Shayol Ghul” doesn’t even get mentioned yet — this despite the fact that one of the leading candidates for what that might mean (other than Rand’s death) is the “severed hand” cluster of prophecies, which makes its first appearance in Min’s viewings in Baerlon. For something that’s, y’know, the founding concept of the series, it’s remarkably Concept Not Appearing in This Book.
And it turns out I was justified in my reaction when I finished TEotW for the first time, which was to wonder how the heck this thing was a series. I mean, hasn’t Rand killed the Dark One? I wasn’t just confused; he thinks he has, and for all that Moiraine hints their trouble isn’t over, she never says he’s wrong. According to Wikipedia, not until the end of the third book does the story come out and say clearly that Ba’alzamon isn’t the Dark One, just Ishamael with delusions of grandeur. So while I failed to grasp a lot of things in my half-distracted initial reading, lo these many years ago, that wasn’t one of them. As of the end of this book, Jordan wants you to believe that the Dark One is indeed dead.
Which is kind of an odd choice, but hey.
And that’s it for this installment of Revisiting My High School Bookshelf. Look for a post on The Great Hunt in March or April — more likely March, as come April I’ll be wading into the Victorian period, pen in hand.