Four point four million words. Or, to be precise, 4,410,036 words and 2,782 characters, if the Wikipedia article is correct. This is the length of The Wheel of Time series of fifteen books by Robert Jordan — the last three completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death. This is an astonishing achievement in itself, more than twice the length of India’s epic poem, the Mahabharata, and it has earned a place of a classic in the generations of fantasy literature that came after Tolkien. I needed some two years to work my way through the series, and having finally reached the end, I have thoughts in response — alas, ones that are not the expression of much love for the books.
The series comes some two decades after the death of Tolkien, and it exists in the context of his œuvre. Jordan from time to time is called the American Tolkien, and the structure of The Wheel of Time as the tale of destiny of prophesied figures who must go on a quest to save the world has obvious parallels — if only Joseph Campbell will let them get on with it. But Jordan chooses eastern philosophy as the basis of his mythology, staking out a distinctive territory from the Oxford don’s medieval Christian world.
In terms of cultural norms, this places Jordan in contrast with his own country, since America’s founding principles come out of western Enlightenment, though the philosophy of the East did have considerable influence in its pop religion form during the 1970s when Jordan began writing. The wheel of the overall title refers to the concept of time as a circle, rather than a linear phenomenon and one of the key oaths of the characters invokes their hope of rebirth, the return of their threads in the ever-cycling pattern. This is a difficult belief to maintain in one’s everyday life. All of this may have happened before, and all of this may happen again, but we do behave as if our lives start in one place and work their ways to somewhere else, and a story has to progress from a condition of motivation and initial conflict through to a conclusion to be a story. And the more that something is repeated, the less I care about it as a reader.
It may be that the endless cud chewing in the characters’ thoughts and constant repetitions by the author of things that readers already know is a consequence of this theme of circularity. For most of the point-of-view characters, take any passage of internalization at any point in the series, and you can drop it in anywhere else without alteration. And most of it involves the characters’ running commentary on the world around them, leading me to recall a sign on the desk of a principal I worked for a while ago: Never miss a good opportunity to shut up. The female characters ruminate about their resentments of the women around them while brewing contempt against all the men, while the male characters worry about how the women see them or how they might act to fulfill their notions of duty. The author tells us at every opportunity that the male half of magical power has been tainted and is sickening, until this is no longer the case, at which point, he reminds us over and over that the male half of magical power was tainted and sickening.
Men and women as stereotypes is all too often to be expected in a tale of sword and sorcery, though the men are typically the ones in power. But the series suffers from a view of men and women that comes straight out of the sitcoms of black-and-white television. Ralph and Alice Kramden would feel at home in this world and could have acted as typal for a long list of characters who then could have been edited out. But The Honeymooners was funny. The Wheel of Time is more like the mirror universe of the original Star Trek series, a horrific world in which material success is dependent on one’s ability to exploit others ruthlessly, to treat others as tools without their own rights or desires.
One example of this is found in bonding. In the time of the story, a group of women, the Aes Sedai, who can tap into the female half of the One Power have a practice of taking control of men who then act as bodyguards, called warders. This is done by establishing a mental connection with the warder, allowing the woman to monitor and shape her warder’s thoughts and emotions. In recent custom, this is done with the man’s permission, but no law forbids a woman from taking men as her slaves if she wishes. And in the first book, New Spring, we watch Moiraine Damodred engage in a campaign of harassment and gaslighting to bully Lan Mandragoran into becoming her warder. This is the procedure that most Aes Sedai accept as the appropriate method. And when the women use their warders as sexual partners, as many do, this moves beyond slavery into outright rape. In the later books, male users of the One Power develop the ability to bond women, but this is an equalization that drags both sexes onto a level battlefield, rather than creating any mutuality in relationships.
This is made all the worse by the fact that there numerous point-of-view characters and thousands of others, all of whom are described in excruciating detail. Every article of clothing, every bit of jewelry, every idiosyncrasy of speech, and every expression of contempt for the opposite sex — except for the one person for whom the character will become a shattered pile of a once ceramic heart — is given to the reader. This might be interesting if it were not for the fact that all of them think effectively alike while squabbling over the differences in the accents of the thoughts. Anyone more motivated than the average clod of earth, but for a few characters, wants to control anyone nearby. Women in company bicker like cats; men preen and posture, and society is the war of all against all. And all the women fold their arms under their breasts, a maneuver whose effect Jordan does not seem to considered.
The one character who does progress over the course of the fourteen books in which he appears is Rand al’Thor. He begins as a child, not knowing that he is the prophesied Dragon Reborn, who grows into the prophesied Dragon Reborn, a man who understands that the choice between good and evil and the ability to make one’s own choices is the basis of a fully human life. His friends, Matrim Cauthon and Perrin Aybara, also make a kind of progress in the sense of becoming more comfortable with being themselves.
All of this is to say that what this series accomplishes could have been done in five hundred thousand words divided among three to five books. A competent and forceful editor could have cut away the bloat, leaving us a story that is still rich in worldbuilding while achieving what little it has to achieve without making me perform Roland Deschain’s rolling hand gesture as I quote Monty Python’s “Get on with it!” As things stand, in the clumsy phrasing of the books, “the wheel weaves as the wheel wills.” I did feel the finality, the emptiness that any sweeping story produces in me, but unlike other tales of well developed worlds in which great works may be performed, The Wheel of Time only makes me want to seek out better stories.