Tolkien’s Heirs (IV): Robert Jordan

In my inaugural entry in this year’s Tolkien Appreciation Month (which always takes place in December), I thought I would do a little spiel about Robert Jordan. Since I’ve been making my way through The Wheel of Time, it felt like this month would be a fitting time to speak about why Jordan deserves the recognition as one of Tolkien’s heirs.

There’s no question that Jordan clearly set out to write a fantasy in the Tolkien mold. The Eye of the World, like many other first entries in a fantasy series, follows the LotR paradigm: simple man from simple country folk; interloping magic-wielder who leads him on a quest, etc. The Blight looks suspiciously like Mordor, and there are numerous other parallels. This isn’t an indictment of Eye, however, as I’m not one of those who thinks that imitation somehow cheapens the work. Jordan clearly understood that this was a narrative archetype that worked and that could be used to address the cultural and social concerns of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and so he used it to explore issues in his unique way.

Thus, once we get beyond The Eye of the World, it quickly becomes clear that Jordan has something in mind that is more akin to the vast scope of The Silmarillion than to the mostly straightforward quest narrative of The Lord of The Rings. Beyond the scope of the series–which, we should remember, ended up being 14 books long–there is the vast tapestry of Jordan’s created world. Like Tolkien, Jordan understood that the actions of the past continue to press against the present and, to some extent, dictate the contours of the future. Thus, each book reveals a bit more of the history of this vast world. However, Jordan also took a key lesson from Tolkien: sometimes, there are aspects of your world that should remain beyond the reader’s gaze, tempting them with the lure of the perpetually unknown.

Like Tolkien, Jordan is also interested in the great philosophical questions that are, for many, the hallmark of truly great literary/artistic expression. To what extent do individuals control their own destiny? Are we all doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over? Are we all caught in a grand struggle in which we are but bit players? Of course, there is ultimately no answer to these questions, and it is this key tension that makes fantasies of this sort such a pleasure to read.

Unlike Tolkien, for whom people of colour and women were largely ancillary, Jordan involves them very much in the center of his created world. Many of his nations and peoples are explicitly depicted as being non-white, and some of the most compelling characters (Nynaeve, Egwene, Moiraine), are women. His perspectives on the relationships between the sexes–to say nothing of the neat way in which the Power is divided among women and men–may be quite old-fashioned (and even regressive), but at least he does give his female characters something meaningful to do in the novels themselves.

However, Jordan does have a fairly straightforward conceptualization of good and evil. Sure, there are characters that struggle with the right and wrong thing to do, but that’s not quite the same thing. It’s pretty clear that the Dark One is the embodiment of pure evil and the Forsaken, his most powerful servants, are likewise creatures of malice and unscrupulous desires. Taking a page from Tolkien’s book, however, Jordan also recognizes that there is something irresistible and compelling about the supposedly evil characters. We know that they cause untold damage to many hundreds of innocent people, yet we feel ourselves drawn to them anyway.

While it is commonplace to praise an epic fantasy author by comparing them to Tolkien, that praise has become so overused as to be almost meaningless. In Robert Jordan’s case, however, he most certainly deserves the title. Through both his world-building and in the depth of  the philosophical questions that he asks, he demonstrates (thankfully) that epic fantasy is not a genre that should be taken lightly. Indeed, it well deserves its place as one of the literary genres that tells us the most about how a culture thinks. And, in the hands of writers like Jordan, it can attain that rare thing: true beauty.

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