Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan 10/10

In anticipation of the September 2009 release of A Memory of Light, the final book in Robert Jordan's fantasy epic series, The Wheel of Time, I'm revisiting the entire series month-by-month.

All images in this series will be from the character renderings of Seamas Gallagher, whose art is the definitive WoT artwork for me.

Coming back to The Eye of the World right after finishing the 11th book in the series was like getting together with an old friend you have very fond memories of. It's been over fifteen years since I bought the trade-paperback first edition of Eye of the World and devoured it, enjoying the familiar fantasy plot conventions as an introductory book to what I then took to be yet another Tolkien clone, albeit a good one. This time I experienced the book as a literary scholar, a man approaching middle age, listening to it on audiobook, with the attention of a close read, since audiobooks preclude the option to skim or skip passages.

I'm also aware of Jordan's intentions with the series, not only of where characters will eventually end up, but also from a thematic perspective, thanks to an interview with Jordan at the end of the audiobook for Knife of Dreams. Knowing those intentions made re-reading the first book a richer experience than it might have been, despite the love I have for it.

In the interview, Jordan stated that one of his intentions was to play with the idea of what would really happen if a rural farm boy was told he was the savior of the world. How would real people, with real concerns, fears, emotions and desires do when faced with the invitation to the heroic quest? In speaking about this standard epic fantasy trope, Jordan invokes Tolkien. So the oft-complained about similarities to Tolkien are very intentional. Unlike Terry Brooks, who simply seemed to be writing "Lord of the Rings for Dummies" with his bestselling Sword of Shannara, a book which slavishly and shamelessly followed the general plot line of the Rings trilogy, Jordan employs the familiar conventional plot moments to communicate this major theme of his series: what would really happen if Gandalf came to town and told you to go on a quest to save the world?

So yes, the Two Rivers are like the Shire, the flight to Taren Ferry is very much like the race to the Brandywine River, Baerlon is a lot like Bree, The Ways and Shadar Logoth are much like Moria, Thom Merrilin's sacrificial battle with the Myrdraal echoes the Bridge of Khazad-dum, and Master Gill and the Queen's Blessing seem to have been crafted from similar muses as Barliman Butterbur and the Prancing Pony. However, all those elements are mixed into a story that is vastly different from The Lord of the Rings, as is evidenced clearly in subsequent books.

Yet even in The Eye of the World there is already a difference between Tolkien and Jordan. Tolkien wanted to write a mythology for England. Jordan wanted to write a piece of historical fiction about such mythologies. In a way, The Eye of the World is to Tolkien what Eaters of the Dead is to Beowulf. Jordan's characters experience those iconic high-fantasy moments, but they do in a fashion which always retains Jordan's rich layers of verisimilitude. This is the reason for the painstakingly detailed descriptions. It's the reason the later books can contain nearly 1000 pages wherein nothing earthshaking occurs. Because in order to present that strong sense of secondary reality, Jordan focuses on his characters, not the events they are caught up in.

Jordan's novels are a little like watching a Michael Mann film; a lot of screen-time is devoted to the building of characters, so that when the action set pieces happen, they are all the more riveting. Consider the pace of Mann's Heat: the majority of the film has the speed of drying paint. When the bank heist finally occurs, the speed with which the action is presented causes our hearts to race. Jordan's characters move through the fantasy world of Wheel of Time with similar pacing. Jordan can rest in banality for a good long while, so that when they Myrdraal, or Trolloc, or whatever shows up to threaten our heroes, we care whether or not they live or die.

The Eye of the World has a much faster pace than the later books will, but it is still primarily focused on developing characters rather than displaying grand epic battles or magical set pieces. It is largely concerned with Rand, Mat, and Perrin; Egwene and Nynaeve will not come into their own for several books yet. This was a brilliant move for the first book, given that there was no guarantee any sequels would be released. The book focuses on Rand above the other two (although it plants seeds for the multitude of plot-threads Jordan will weave in later books), and is able to reach a point of closure and conclusion so that, if Eye of the World had been the only Wheel of Time book ever published, it would have been fairly satisfying in terms of closure.

This was one of Jordan's true gifts as a writer: to bring a strong sense of closure to the end of his books while simultaneously hanging the reader over a cliff. There will always be unresolved elements at the end of each novel, but each book ties up in a relatively neat package.

From a nostalgic standpoint, it was nice to tread familiar ground once again, and find it loaded with new surprises, the result of seeing where the multitude of plot and character threads end up playing out.

I love the opening chapters of the book for the way in which Jordan plays up the parallels between the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring and Eye of the World, all the while presenting these somewhat tired conventions in fresh ways. I think my love for it stems from having been roughly Rand, Mat and Perrin's age the first time I read Eye of the World. The three boys are like college age hobbits, minus the diminutive statures. I could resonate with hobbits better before I stood six foot and was interested in girls. But as a young man just out of high school, it was a joy to read the same plot line of leaving the Shire, with young men who were my age, who had the same sorts of concerns I did.

Reading through reviews on Amazon, you'll likely find many who complain of Jordan's use of the Tolkienesque formula followed by so many other major fantasies before Wheel of Time. I don't think Jordan is using it as a template however. In an interview with Audible.com, Jordan revealed that he wanted to explore what the "Hobbits fleeing Black Riders" template would look like if it were dealing with real people. So while Eye of the World follows many of the conventions employed by Terry Brooks, and more recently, Christopher Paolini, it is my opinion that Jordan was using these familiar fantasy tropes to clearly set forth his thesis. What would happen, Jordan is asking, if the wise wizard (in this case Aes Sedai) showed up to reveal the savior of the world, and he refused to cooperate? Further, Jordan's use of Tolkien's plotline from Fellowship of the Ring further underscores one of the series' other major themes, which is how information gets passed along in a pre-industrial world, and how that information gets changed as it passes through many hands. "In the stories" is an oft-repeated phrase throughout Eye of the World, and since the Wheel of Time has woven many other ages (including our own), it is conceivable that Jordan was giving a nod to Tolkien wanted to draw upon myths and legends, perhaps implying that it was this story which gave birth to the myths and legends Fellowship of the Ring drew upon as inspiration.

Jordan's concept of Time's weave as it regards ta'veren is a stroke of genius as well, as it effectively explains the need for sometimes nearly deus ex machina coincidences. If the thread's of Time's weave have spun the three heroes out into the weave, then it only follows the weave wants to make sure they are preserved. I had asked in an earlier post why only men are ta'veren and was glad when Moraine says that Egwene and Nynaeve are "perhaps" ta'veren. Although we never gain any confirmation of this in the first book, the subsequent novels definitely see these two strong females along with Elayne creating a secondary trinity of female ta'veren.

Still, the first book belongs to the boys: to Rand's youthful optimism, gone all together too quickly in the next book; Perrin's nearly pessimistic resignation, for which only Faile's love will be the balm; and Mat's mischief, which never really goes away in the series. In that way, Mat is somewhat like Sam, always reminding us of the place we began, so that we remember why we are enduring this long road down the pattern to book 12.

NOTE: In reading book one in such a deliberate fashion, I have settled upon some of my actors for my hypothetical television series. Please remember, that even though this is hypothetical, I want my choices to mirror some sense of reality, so most of the actors I choose will be television actors, not film ones. In the role of Rand, I would choose someone like Jared Padalecki, although he is already too old to play the role. In the role of Mat, I'd want someone like Matt Czuchry, who would encapsulate the mischief very well I think. And for Lan, I'd want Richard Burgi, who I'm positive could pull off the stone-faced warder, and who really needs a break to play a nice guy with a heart of stone. That's all for this time around, although I'm sure by the end of book 2 I'll know who's playing the ladies. And I'm very open to suggestions for a young actor to play Perrin. He's a tough one. Thom Merrilyn is also proving an incredible difficulty, since the actor must be able to sing.

See ya next month with book 2!


  1. I think that the book, and thusly the series, really grabbed me after Rand and Tam get home, that first bit. It was very suddenly, in your face, TROLLOC. I'm not sure why it just impacted me so much. From that moment, every decision is based.

    The mystique of the Aes Sedai is what drew me next, and the character, over time of Lan. I've loved Lan over the series, and I am incredibly excited for what will happen in the last book (after reading the ending of Book 11). Lan was the figure of Aragorn, but cooler, and tehre was this depth to him and his relationship with his Aes Sedai(s). That and the motif of a Kingdom lost, waiting to be regained by its king in exile is a strong one.

    Hrm, the only thing at the moment that comes to me for actors is
    Aaron Douglas. I always pictured Perrin in my head with a face like his.

  2. Nice choice on Aaron Douglas, Phil! Too bad he's as old as me. That makes him no good for Perrin, but we're definitely on the right track!