It was sad to hear of the passing away of Robert Jordan on 16th September, whose Wheel of Time series was a modern, if flawed, fantasy masterpiece. The series had captured the imagination of a generation, selling some thirty million copies and was translated into twenty languages.
Of course literary critics are usually sniffy about popular literary genres like fantasy or sci-fi, and Jordan’s works were no exception, although, as the Times obituary notes, the Wheel of Time series had even begun to win some of them over:
In fact, the epic sweep, intricate plotting, constructed languages and intelligent character development of Jordan’s work won over many sceptics, and, some would say, helped to imbue his genre with a new respectability.
An epic tale of good and evil, The Wheel of Time was metaphysically interesting in that the chief protagonist was more a Hindu or Buddhist avatar than a messiah figure. The series felt more dualist than monotheist in positing the Devil figure as a powerful and active malevolent force for evil in the world. The series had a complex and rigorous moral framework with real insights into ambition, duty and politics, and, most importantly, into how difficult it can sometimes be to recognise evil if it is disguised as the good. The plot reached a level of complexity that, in trying to get to grips with it, felt like keeping track of current geopolitics, attempting to get one’s head around a thousand factions, each with their own agendas. Jordan completed eleven books in the series, spanning several hundred thousand pages, in which the heroes criss-cross the map, discovering all the peoples and lands of Jordan’s intricate and prodigiously imagined fantasy world. It’s as if Frodo and company had embarked on several quests and not just the one to Mordor. Jordan, who also saw military action in Vietnam, described the epic swordfights and massive battles in the series with the veteran’s unsentimental insight into the complex interplay between fear and courage, self-interest and altruism, and loyalty and betrayal on the battlefield. The series was also notable for having several central heroines in a genre that has generally been male-centred.
I thought there was some influence of Frank Herbert’s Dune series in the Wheel of Time series as the main protagonist in both returns to conquer and renew civilisation through the support of nomadic and uncorrupt desert peoples. It seems highly likely that Herbert drew on Ibn Khaldun‘s famous theory of civilisational renewal to provide the philosophical and architectural underpnnings to the Dune series. For Jordan’s Aiel read Herbert’s Freman; for Herbert’s Freman read Ibn Khaldun’s Bedouin. (A hint is a reference to Ibn Khaldun’s Kitab al-Ibar in Dune, a history that he wrote, which is used to refer to a moral and survivalist handbook used by the Fremen.) Both Jordan and Herbert also portray the medieval Catholic Church as power-hungry and manipulative: Herbert with his matriarchal spin on the Papacy in the form of the Bene Gesserit and Jordan with his take on the Inquisition in the form of the Children of the Light.
The Wheel of Time was well sustained in the first half of the series but began to loose its intensity and focus with the sixth novel, becoming overly drawn out, meandering and wordy in the second half. Still, many readers persevered because the series retained an epic momentum that kept them wanting to see it through to the end.
At the age of 58, Jordan was struck down by coronary complications caused by a rare blood disease, amyloidosis. In his last year he had attempted to finish the final and twelfth installment, A Memory of Light, and he wrote with dignity, humour and determination online about his struggle to overcome his condition. No doubt he will be missed by his millions of readers.