Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Review: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan 8/10

Darrell Sweet's crappy cover of the Great Hunt

Anyone familiar with Gotthammer knows that the past 5 years have been busy ones for me, and that the site always suffers when the coursework is dense. Regular guests here also know that I have determined to re-read (which means listen to the audio books) all eleven installments of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in preparation for the release of the final book in September of 2009. I lost out on October entirely, as my I-pod was co-opted by audio books for my classes. When I finished Anil's Ghost two weeks ago, I realized I'd run out of school related audiobooks for the time being, and that I could finally listen to something I wanted to for my commutes (not that my selection of texts this semester has been onerous. With any luck, I'll blog about them over Christmas break). Like comfort food, I returned to the Wheel of Time series, picking up in mid-read (listen) of the second book, The Great Hunt.

A warning to the neophytes: these reviews are full of spoilers, and are really intended as ruminations for other fans of Wheel of Time.

Cover to Part one of the Youth Edition of the Great Hunt.

Whereas Eye of the World has one of my favorite openings and what I deem an uneven final quarter, The Great Hunt starts out clunky and uneven (which is where it loses points), but finds its stride somewhere around the middle of the novel, after Rand has reclaimed the Horn of Valere and Egwene and Nynaeve are firmly ensconced in the White Tower. At this point, the narrative takes off, maintaining suspense and tension both within the chapters as well as the overall story arc, a method Jordan will perfect over the next few books. It is the basis for why I suggest that Wheel of Time would make a great television series, as the chapters are often of an episodic nature, containing conflict and resolution as well as unresolved tension in encapsulated installments. Furthermore, the Jordan formula mirrors television seasons in the way the climactic scenes both bring closure to the current novel, while leaving enough open-ended aspects to keep readers eagerly anticipating more.

Jordan has stated in an interview with that one of his goals with the series was to explore how realistic self-interest would figure into the heroic epic fantasy. Jordan develops this theme throughout The Great Hunt, laying groundwork for the three male protagonists dislike for the larger-than-life roles they will be playing in their own story by the middle of the series. It finds its apogee in this book in the scene where Rand begs Thom Merrilyn to accompany him further on his adventures. Thom's refusal is based on his acceptance of a rather domestic possible future, an entirely self-serving basis for his rejection of the heroic quest. With consummate balance however, Jordan writes Ingtar's death in the reverse of Thom's decision; his earlier self-interested motivations are what drive him to a classic fantasy trope, the flawed hero's redemption through self-sacrifice. His final moments are evocative of the Spartan 300's defensive gambit combined with the tragic hamartia of Boromir: "One man holding fifty at a narrow passage. Not a bad way to die. Songs have been made about less" (653).

What is most fascinating about a return to the beginnings of the series after having made one's way through the completed works to date, is the vast scope of Jordan's vision. It is difficult to know without access to Jordan's notes how much he knew of the narrative arc, but it is safe to say that contrary to his critics, he has never wasted time on inconsequential characters. Nearly every time a character steps into a scene and Jordan gives a lengthy, detailed description, I'm recognizing them. Many characters who will play pivotal roles in the later novels are introduced, and developed in The Great Hunt. We meet nobles from the great houses of Cairhienen who will be Rand's allies and antagonists in future volumes, see relationships which begin in animosity which will someday turn to amour, and understand Min's viewings better than she can. I am more aware in the re-reading of how monstrous the Seanchan seem to be, made all the more poignant by the knowledge of how very human some of them will be rendered in the later novels. One can also see the youthful, hopeful Rand slipping away, and the cold, calculating man he will have become by the end of book five beginning to emerge. In fact, if the first book is characterized by the phrase "in the stories," then The Great Hunt is characterized by the phrase, "we aren't the same anymore," a thought that passes through the minds of the three men from the Two Rivers on several occasions.

My theory that Egwene and Nynaeve are also ta'veren is also strengthened in this novel. Even as Rand is Forrest Gumping his way into Daes Damar, the Machievallian Game of Houses, Egwene finds herself the roommate of Elayne, heir to the throne of Andor, while Nynaeve's testing results in her doing things no other Aes Sedai has done before. The idea of ta'veren is an explanation for the contrivance of this small group from the same geographical area all having exceptional abilities, and its absence in explaining the women seems conspicuous. One wonders if it is not Jordan who overlooked the ta'veren nature of the women, but just the characters in the novel, given that the worldview regarding ta'veren seems to be that only men can be such.

I also continue to be amazed by how satisfying the idea of ta'veren, and by extension, the weaving of the Wheel as secondary world philosophy explaining why the Emond's Fielders are not only exceptional, but attract exceptional people to them, ultimately proves to be. It addresses the vast scope of the series as a weaver would a fabric - the integration of the weave into the pattern is not arbitrary, but transparently contrived, and is a justified contrivance. The ontological stability of the secondary world Jordan has created rests upon this weaving. Again, detractors would state that he never completes the weaves, but without having read the finished work (now having passed to another weaver's hands to find conclusion) none of us can state this with impunity. Most fantasy novels create such deus ex machina to explain the extraordinary amount of coincidence these narrative necessitate, but few do it in as self-reflexive and in regards to narrative, satisfying fashion. Beyond the contrived ontology, a conversation between Thom and Rand underscores the goal of Jordan's project concerning the instability of truth over distances, be they geographical or temporal. When Rand asks Thom about the Karaethon Cycle, Thom's response reads like literary theory: "The Old Tongue has music in it...Translations don't have the same sound, unless they're in High Chant, and sometimes that changes meanings even more than most translations" (386). One could write an essay on literary theory regarding Jordan's ontological loom. It's something I bat about in my head as I listen to the books this time around (Phil, maybe this should be your M.A. thesis?).

Casting call merited some new possibilities, keeping in mind I am positing a hypothetical television series, not movie: While I know this will likely be controversial, I think Eva Longoria Parker would make a decent Moirane, based on her height and ability to play a woman with stubbornly adversarial inclinations who is, nonetheless, physically attractive. I think Parker also has a certain ageless quality to her features requisite for the Aes Sedai characters.
And I've decided on a Thom Merrilyn. I would cast Richard Roxburgh, who proved as the Duke in Moulin Rouge! and Dracula in Van Helsing he possesses the diverse vocal dynamic for delivering those bardic moments; can dance; and under duress, could likely sing. As for juggling, when you've got the option for a cutaway edit, you can be made to look like you're doing just about anything. I think he's old enough to age with makeup believably, but young enough that the physical demands of the part wouldn't require a double aside from stunt work. His facial features would work as Thom, given a set of long mustaches.

One final word on the television idea: The season finale would of course involve the battle between Rand and the false Ba'alzamon as well as the women's escape, but I would frame the entire episode with intercut scenes of people telling the rumors of what happened at the battle. For example, I would show Child Byar reporting that Perrin was responsible for the double-cross, and then cut to a scene involving Perrin, or show a person in a pub talking about how Rand had appeared in the sky, and then cut to Rand fighting "Ba'alzamon".

NOTE: I did a calculation of how many listening hours it will actually take me to get through all 12 books, including prequel, before the release of The Memory of Light in September. The total time required to listen to the series is approximately 345 hours. I have all the confidence in the world that when the final installment is added, it will easily require one hour of reading out loud daily to complete the entire series. As a result, given my current course-load (I'm going into another semester of 3 full time courses, while teaching not 3, but now 4 classes), I won't reach my goal. However, rest assured that given how much I'm enjoying taking the journey back through the books leading up to the finale, I'll keep posting these reflections regularly in the year to come.

All images except covers by Seamus Gallagher, the best WoT artist ever.

1 comment:

  1. So many things to comment on!

    I'll start piecemeal by the ontological quip :p

    I think one of the strengths that Jordan's writing has over many others in the genre is the resilience and depth of his cosmology, (and ontology). The idea of the Weave and Wheel is in part echoed by Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry, but, with his trilogy, there is a lot less content that's there.

    In terms of the ontology and translation bit, I'm reminded of reading the Illiad, and having to browse through various translations to find one that I could sit and read for a while, and I ended up settling on Robert Fitzgerald's, whom seems to be able to balance modern language with a good pacing. I've read that Dan Simmons touts the Fagles translation, but I haven't looked at it yet. One could make a remark about Biblical translations I'm sure in the same vein that Thom makes. I wonder if Robert Jordan had a gleam in his eye when he (Thom) was talking about apocalyptic prophetic translations, particularly if this book was current with the Left Behind series (I'm not sure it was).