I stumbled across an incredibly interesting and humorous series of reviews of Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time by British science-fiction writer Adam Roberts. Roberts and I both agree that much of Jordan's work is utter garbage. There's a kernel of a great, epic, sweeping fantasy amid all of the unnecessary bloat that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. It is almost as if Jordan were being paid by the word in Dickensian fashion. Entire forests have been sacrificed on the altar of Jordan's The Wheel of Time, and I sacrificed approximately a year of my life in high school reading everything up to the sixth book in the series--a year I could have spent reading something else, like Don Quixote.
Indeed, I think Roberts' greatest objection to Jordan is that the reader could have spent all of that time reading something else:
This, it seems to me, has a number of deplorable consequences. One is that, since the market becomes saturated by rubbishy fat volumes issued on the strength of the authors' long corroded reputation rather than any intrinsic merit, good books get crowded out. ... The people who should be reading that are instead picking up Wotx. It's a shame for [other authors]. It's a bigger shame for [the readers], even though they don't realise it.That last bit not only should apply to burgeoning writers, but also readers. Now, some years ago, there was a huge stink on The Forge and other forms when noted game designer and intellectual Ron Edwards posited that playing certain role-playing games (specifically Vampire: The Masquerade) caused a sort of "brain damage" to the player, akin to psychological trauma, especially since the player is young and their brain is still formative. (Here's his original post on Vincent Baker's site.) He likened it to the psychological damage done through sexual abuse in a podcast interview. He got a lot of flack for his opinion, but I think, despite the bleeding-heart reactionaries who cringe at politically incorrect parlance (no matter how scientifically or logically correct it may be), he's right, by-and-large. The brain damage he speaks of in specific is the inability to perceive, understand, and appreciate stories.
... The other consequence is even more insidious: good young writers, noting the commercial success of the series, conclude that this is how Fantasy must be written. Their writing becomes infected, their originality degraded, and a kind of malign self-perpetuaing miasma of rubbishness settles over the whole field.
Similarly, I'd like to posit that reading Robert Jordan at a young age can severely damage a young person's development because, should they enjoy Jordan's work, they will naturally cultivate a taste for his style and learn that it is "how fantasy" or perhaps even "how novels/literature/English prose" should be written. The sheer volume of pages that the person would have to read so skews the representation of writing as "Jordanian" in the reader's mind that at least some of this horrifically mistaken sentiment insidiously infiltrating his/her psyche is almost inevitable.
The average reader that I've encountered who reads Robert Jordan is usually female, though often males read the series too (but more often get sick of it and throw it down). Many of them, when queried as to why they enjoy the work often respond, "I love the description."
"Her eyebrows climbed as she directed her gaze back to them, eyes black as her white-winged hair, a demanding stare of impatience so loud she might as well have shouted." --The Path of Daggers, p. 47That's... just... bad. As Roberts' blog points out, Jordan's description is unnecessarily boring and often descends into pure tedium. And what's worse, young readers enamored of Jordan's overwrought prose are being conditioned to think that his prose is ideal. But it's not. First, its a run-on sentence with numerous subordinate clauses. The imagery invoked is a study of contradictions, as Adam Reynolds points out in his review of The Path of Daggers. Her eyes are as black as her white-winged hair? A wordless stare that is "so loud she might as well have shouted" is inelegant and overly-wordy. "Brevity is the soul of wit," said Shakespeare, a man who knew when and how to be verbose far better than Jordan.
"Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.
"'Men shall die for this," he said coldly." --Robert E. Howard, "Red Shadows"
Robert E. Howard conveys far, far more in this simple paragraph. In the same amount of space, Solomon Kane stands, cleans his hands, wears an unhappy expression, and says nothing. Through his silence, Howard conveys the heavy weight of reason and self-control covering a roiling turmoil of emotions. He punctuates it by adding "Men shall die for this." This excerpt has far, far, far more impact than just about anything that Jordan writes.
But utilizing random excerpts isn't quite fair, so lets get something more specific--combat.
"He recognized the forms the High Lord used; they were a little different from what he had been taught, but not enough. The Swallow Takes Flight met Parting the Silk. Moon on the Water met The Wood Grouse Dances. Ribbon in the Air met Stones Falling From the Cliff. They moved about the room as in a dance, and their music was steel against steel.
"Disappointment and disgust faded from Turak's dark eyes, replaced by surprise, then concentration. Sweat appeared on the High Lord's face as he pressed Rand harder. Lightning of Three Prongs met Leaf on the Breeze." --Robert Jordan, The Great Hunt
"Ba’alzamon struck with the staff, as with a spear. Rand screamed. As he felt it pierce his side, burning like a white-hot poker. The void trembled, but he held on with the last of his strength, and drove the heron-mark blade into Ba’alzamon’s heart. Ba’alzamon screamed, and the dark behind him screamed. The world exploded in fire." --Robert Jordan, The Great Hunt, p. 666
"The fighting madness of his race was upon him, and with a red mist of unreasoning fury wavering before his blazing eyes, he cleft skulls, smashed breasts, severed limbs, ripped out entrails, and littered the deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood." --Robert E. Howad, "Queen of the Black Coast"
"Robb shouted, "Winterfell!" and kicked his horse. The gelding plunged downt he bank as the ragged man closed. A man with an axe rushed in, shouting and heedless. Robb's sword caught him full in the face with a sickening crunch and a spray of blood." --George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones, p. 405
"Kellhus struck first, but his blade recuiled from the mail beneath the Nonman's cloak. He crouched, deflected the powerful counter-stroke, swept the figure's legs out from beneath him. The Nonman toppled backward but managed to roll effortlessly back to his feet. Laughter rang from the helmed face.Now, this is, by-and-large, a matter of taste. But I prefer Howard's density of prose. He packs as much imagery into a brief segment of description which leaves the impression that Conan (the character in question) is a whirlwind of death and slaughter as he wades through blood across the deck of this ship. The recent writers approach combat from a more cold, tense, clinical perspective, reporting the events without any real special sense of joy or exhiliration. Howard's combat is exhilarating, while Bakker's and Martin's is gritty. Both are soaked in blood, but only Howard seems to get a rush from battle. (NOTE: The greatest irony in all of this is that Jordan got his start in fantasy writing Conan pastiche. It's not that bad as pastiche goes, but it is not Howard's character or world by any mean stretch.)
"'Most memorable!' he cried, falling upon the monk." --R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness that Comes Before, p. 29
Jordan, on the other hand, is almost totally detached from the narrative that he laboriously hammers forth. In the above excerpts, Jordan shows Rand in a fight with a blademaster, and describes the combat in the most boring manner possible, using contrived bladeforms that he dreampt up for the purposes of his story. While the bladeform names do add to the setting, he never actually describes what the bladeforms are, nor does he give us any sort of reference in his glossary.
"I tried a head-cut, which he parried; and I parried his riposte to my heart and cut at his wrist.This is a much better example of detailed combat description, using mostly real fencing terminology. The author, Zelazny, actually knew a great deal about fencing, and his description benefits from his knowledge. Each paragraph is brief, terse, and reflective of the tension in the fight. It climaxes with a series of real moves that can be looked up in a fencing book or intuited from the text, which rapidly build until first blood is drawn. Compare this to the long list of obscure move-countermove that Jordan recites during the duel between Rand and Turak. Jordan's dialogue during the above combat sequences are stilted and unimpressive, while the banter between Zelazny's Corwin and Eric is much more emotionally charged. It lacks Jordan's overwrought melodrama because the tension between the two characters feels natural, and we've been building up to this duel for nearly a hundred pages.
"He parried this and kicked a small stool between us. I set it aside, hopefully in the direction of his face, with my right toe, but it missed and he had at me again.
"I parried his attack, and he mine. Then I lunged, was parried, was attacked, and parried again myself.
"I tried a very fancy attack I'd learned in France, which involved a beat, a feint in quarte, a feint in sixte, and a lunge veering off into an attack on his wrist.
"I nicked him and the blood flowed. --Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber, p. 96
The purpleness of Jordan prose, however, may have a certain hidden source. Lets compare the following except and see what we can discern:
"...a huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot, leaped into the chamber; behind him his followers clustered in the doorway. His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red; he wielded a great spear. With a thrust of his huge hide shield he turned Boromir's sword and bore him backwards, throwing him to the ground. Diving under Aragorn's blow with the speed of a striking snake he charged into the Company and thrust with his spear straight at Frodo. The blow caught him on the right side, and Frodo was hurled against the wall and pinned. Sam, with a cry, hacked at the spear shaft and it broke. But even as the orc flung down the truncheon and swept out his scimitar, Andúril came down upon his helm. There was a flash like flame and the helm burst asunder. The orc fell with a cloven head." --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 365
Obviously, Tolkien must certainly be a source of inspiration for Jordan at some point. Tolkien's been accused of being overly descriptive, just as Jordan, but the comparison is simply not there.
To push the point home, I'm going to excerpt the entire description of Moiraine from the first book, just to demonstrate what I mean:
"Rand's gaze fell to the woman who had spoken. She, too, had been watching the flight of the raven, but now she turned back, and her eyes met his. He could only stare. This had to be the Lady Moiraine, and she was everything that Mat and Ewin had said, everything and more.Now compare this to Tolkien's introduction to Aragorn:
When he had heard she called Nynaeve child, he had pictured her as old, but she was not. At least, he could not put any age to her at all. At first he thought she was as young as Nynaeve, but the longer he looked the more he thought she was older than that. There was a maturity about her large, dark eyes, a hint of knowing that no one could have gotten young. For an instant he thought those eyes were deep pools about to swallow him up. It was plain why Mat and Ewin named her a lady from a gleeman's tale, too. She held herself with a grace and air of command that made him feel awkward and stumble-footed. She was barely tall enough to come up to his chest, but her presence was such that her height seemed the proper one, and he felt ungainly in his tallness.
"Altogether she was like no one he had ever seen before. The wide hood of her cloak framed her face and dark hair, hanging in soft ringlets. He had never seen a grown woman with her hair unbraided every girl in the Two Rivers waited eagerly for the Women's Circle of her village to say she was old enough to wear a braid. Her clothes were just as strange. Her cloak was sky-blue velvet, with thick silver embroidery, leaves and vines and flowers, all along the edges. Her dress gleamed faintly as she moved, a darker blue than the cloak, and slashed with cream. A necklace of heavy gold links hung around her neck, while another gold chain, delicate and fastened in her hair, supported a small, sparkling blue stone in the middle of her forehead. A wide belt of woven gold encircled her waist, and on the second finger of her left hand was a gold ring in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. He had certainly never seen a ring like that, though he recognized the Great Serpent, an even older symbol for eternity than the Wheel of Time.
"Fancier than any feastday clothes, Ewin had said, and he was right. No one ever dressed like that in the Two Rivers. Not ever." --Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World
"Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits." --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 177Then another paragraph of equal length involves Frodo asking Butterbur about "Strider"/Aragorn and getting some information about his comings, goings, and that he is long-legged (as the nickname might have suggested). Meanwhile, Jordan meanders for several paragraphs, describing Moiraine's appearance, clothing, and the overall impression Rand and others have of her, punctuating it with the quaint and almost adolescent "No one ever dressed like that in the Two Rivers. Not ever." Defenders of Jordan will insist that the author is trying to impress upon the reader as much as he can about Moiraine, as well as the effect she has on others without even saying a word. While I can understand this, I have to insist that the axioms "less is more" and "show, don't tell" are being completely eschewed by Jordan.
We can see through the following dialogue Rand has with Moiraine that she makes him feel nervous, stupid, and ungainly, and we can easily infer from the reactions of the characters and the richness of her clothing that no one in the rustic Two Rivers would ever dress like her. Indeed, the combat sample from The Fellowship of the Ring above illustrates my point fantastically. Tolkien, in the space of one paragraph, creates an orc chieftain, swiftly sketching him in our minds with stacatto images ("His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red."), then shows us how mighty he is by having him knock over Boromir and pin Frodo to the wall before Aragorn fells him. There's so much going on in that paragraph, and, what's more, Tolkien's writing has a rhythm and pacing that underscores the events of the narrative with a sense of urgency. Even though he's describing the events and it takes about 30-45 seconds to read the entire thing, the reader is left with a sense of overwhelming suddenness and surprise, realizing that all of that took place in two or three seconds in the story.
Comparing Tolkien to Jordan is an exercise in futility. Jordan does not possess the poetic style or skill that Tolkien exercises throughout The Lord of the Rings. Jordan's prose isn't dense, it's bloated, overwrought, and fluffed beyond all reasonable length. Length alone isn't terrible, however, so long as it carries enough weight. I must reiterate that showing trumps telling, and if Jordan wanted us to feel like Moiraine and Lan made the people of Emond's Field uneasy, doing it through dialogue (which he did, ironically) or character actions (which, again, he did, also ironically). So why heap unnecessary sentences upon one-another? It's a waste. Let the reader put two-and-two together.
This isn't the only complaint one might have about the series. As Roberts noticed, the Aes Sedai seem to be drawn directly from the Bene Gesserit sisterhood in Frank Herbert's Dune series. Herbert did little to disguise the sisterhood as anything less than a conniving, byzantine, treacherous society that sought to manipulate events from behind the scenes. It is true that Herbert's universe was certainly intrigue and realpolitik, but the Bene Gesserit were rightly feared and hated as "witches" by many because of their ability to manipulate others so skillfully. Frank Herbert was also known to be a blatant misogynist, and the Bene Gesserit were modeled after his Catholic aunts (there's a reason why "Gesserit" sounds so much like "Jesuit").
Which leads me back to Robert Jordan's Aes Sedai and his treatment of women in the series. I cannot understand how so many women fail to be insulted by Jordan's bland, flat, chauvinistic treatment of women without concluding that those women who actually identify with his two-dimensional caricatures of female stereotypes are just as flat and banal themselves. But thankfully, I'm not the only one who noticed how Jordan's work is so misogynist. At least Herbert's females were also brilliantly cunning and not simply flat, uninspired cardboard cutouts of howling shrews.
As one critic put it on everything2.com, "The Wheel of Time has collapsed under the weight of its own bloated corpse." Despite all of the defenses that have been put forth trying to justify or rationalize the incredible plethora of word bloat, there are at least three books in this massive series that don't even need to exist and do very little to advance the story, setting, or characters whatsoever. I would like to point the aforementioned attempt at defense to the works of such authors as George R.R. Martin, Steven Erickson, Tad Williams, and R. Scott Bakker, and not just J.R.R. Tolkien, as examples of fantasy in which the series are long, complex, highly detailed, densely populated with characters, but also rarely bog down and leave the reader in literary doldrums.
Jordan writes a soap opera (which may explain why so much of his fanbase is female). The characters never behave entirely rationally and quite often do things that simply make no sense. Jordan employs the idiot ball far too often, sometimes resorting to plot induced stupidity simply to keep the books coming. The end result is generally an idiot plot. Again, it's nice to know that I'm not the only one who noticed these things.
For example, it Lord of Chaos would have been far more interesting had Rand:
- Trained the Black Tower for combat against Aes Sedai.
- Told the Aes Sedai that there's no longer a need for the Red Ajah.
- Said that any Red Ajah attempting to capture/gentle an Asha'man would be summarily executed.
I mean, imagine if, in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, Stannis and Renly Baratheon never tried to confront one another through the entirety of the War of the Five Kings. That's basically what Jordan does with his plots on a regular basis--the obvious conflicts that should develop never do so Rand can sit through book and think about how Alanna Mosvani (who bonded him against his will) is off somewhere crying again.
Jordan's narrative is filled with introspection and repetitive soul-searching that could easily be left on the cutting room floor. Chapters are spent where the characters ponder their actions. For example, Rand gradually grows obsessed with all of the women who died during his adventures, deaths for which he blames himself. This angst gradually turns into melodrama because Jordan keeps revisiting it time and time again. I keep using the word "overwrought" throughout this essay, but I can think of no other word that better captures almost every aspect of his writing style. There's no meter, rhythm, or pacing to his prose. The fluffy descriptions are contradictory and nonsensical at worst, flowery and unnecessary at best.
"What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about till you find the exact words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect with come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning." --George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," A Collection of Essays, p. 169Jordan definitely let the words flood into his prose and overwhelm it. The narrative suffers from word bloat of such ostentatious enormity that it is literally programming an entire generation of readers into thinking that such work is good. After spending a year in high school reading Jordan's laborious prose, I actually and bemusingly had difficulty getting into writers like Moorcock and Howard because their writing was so rapid-fire, terse, and too the point. The writing styles of Tolkien, Melville, Joyce, Orwell, and Hemingway were only rescued for me by age and distance from fantasy, a heavy dose of remedial instruction in college courses. To think I had once found writers like Hemingway or Steinbeck boring when, a decade later, I would find myself teary-eyed at the end of A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, and Of Mice and Men... .
Jordan's turgid prose also spells everything out for the reader, as if he/she was an imbecile. Perhaps it would be helpful to remind ourselves of Hemingway's Iceberg Principle. If a writer is good, he can omit 90% of what he's trying to say, and the reader figures it out. Hemingway illustrated this when challenged to write the shortest short story ever and responded with: "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn." To twist Jordan's own quote above, it is silence that may as well have been a shout. This also reflects back to the principle of showing, not telling. Jordan basically explains everything to the reader, leaving nothing up to their imagination or their own thought processes, tremendously lessening the emotional impact of the series.
Rand's isolation as Dragon Reborn could have been a fantastic study in the sort of alienation experienced by those who acquire vast amounts of power. But Jordan never allowed it to be so. He submerged all of the literary merit that his books could have had beneath a sea of purple prose and uneventful narrative. When the entire series is finished, I would actually love to see someone go through the series, combing carefully, separating the wheat from the chaff, and excising all of the unnecessary fluff, chapters that meander and go nowhere, and pointless conversations that fail to develop the characters or advance the plot. Somewhere inside Jordan's 11,000-page mistake is the 2,500-page heroic epic and meditation on the alienation and responsibility that comes with ultimate power. It's just a darn shame that it's not really all that worth digging through the other 8,500 pages to reach it.
I don't hate Robert Jordan as a person. Indeed, I sympathize with him. I found the initial volume, The Eye of the World, to have been rather epic, self-contained, and well-resolved. It felt like events were moving apace, and I imagined that the following novels would be just as good. At the point that I first discovered him, only The Shadow Rising (volume four) had thus far been released. But he is, in a way, a victim of the same trends that had been developing in fantasy fiction since the Tolkien-craze of the 1970s.
The New York Times' cover blurb on The Eye of the World states that "Jordan has come to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal." Locus also compared Jordan to Tolkien on the gender issue in the cover blurbs, and their statement that Jordan took "familiar elements and make them his own" is doublespeak for saying that the book was derivative. Indeed, Adam Whitehead over at The Wertzone said review of The Eye of the World, "The first half of the novel is modeled very closely on the opening of The Lord of the Rings, but the novel stretches the line between tribute and parody to the breaking point." Indeed, between The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Shannara, and The Belgariad I had come to believe that it was actually a key element in fantasy fiction that a small, rustic provincial be forced to face down a monolithic force of cosmic evil that wanted to cover the world in darkness beneath a tide of goblinoid creatures. But tropes and cliché aside, Jordan's opening volley was fun and felt like it was going somewhere.
I imagine what happened to Jordan is the same thing that happens to so many other fantasy authors--they can't stop writing stories set in their own world. They become trapped. As I wrote in my essay on Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, much of the blame must be placed on the fans and on the publishing companies that feed the demand for more Middle-Earth. The fans of Tolkien in the 1970s didn't want the story of the Hobbits in Middle-Earth to end, although Tolkien had pretty definitively put the lid on its coffin to focus on The Silmarillion. This disease has led to book-bloat for some authors (such as Raymond E. Feist, who just can't seem to leave Midkemia alone), Terry Brooks, and Terry Goodkind. Tad Williams, thankfully, chose not to return to Osten Ard, but to explore different vistas. R. Scott Bakker's The Second Apocalypse series is, supposedly, planned out, and his forays into science-fiction and suspence/thriller attest to his ability to resist getting locked into one single series.
The rank-and-file fan wants the story to continue forever. Yes, I admit that when I first read The Lord of the Rings, I was sorry that it ended because I had enjoyed it so much. I was also in fourth grade and highly impressionable. Tolkien's tale was escapism, but it was an enriching form of escapism, and his prose was challenging. Jordan's books, in a large number of places, devolve into adolescent fantasy (another thing that Reynolds discusses in his reviews). By identifying with the young-adult protagonists, teenagers will find themselves indulging in escapism; as an adult, however, I find the over-sexualized and yet paradoxically overly-puritanical tensions throughout the books to be annoying at best, frustrating at worst. But the addiction to the escapism and the association of purple prose with good writing will damage the readers' ability to appreciate actual good writing and distract them from all of the other things they could be reading.
And that's the tragedy. You could be reading William Morris' The House of the Wolflings, E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, Robert E. Howard's Hour of the Dragon, and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (including The Hobbit) and still not have reached the final page-count that Jordan's series will eventually achieve once A Memory of Light is released. There is a lot of stuff out there that one could be reading that is great fantasy, and when you realize that there's so much philosophy, history, and other literary works that a reader could be absorbing, it becomes absolutely criminal to waste one's time on Jordan's drivel. The reader will become accustomed to Jordan's style, and come to think that is how prose should be written. It would be enough to kill George Orwell with apoplexy had he not already been dead.
Had I never recovered from the trauma that had damaged my appreciation of literature, I would never have been able to read, comprehend, or appreciate books like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Harold Bloom should not be leveling his criticism against J.K. Rowling. Her fad took only about five years to reach its zenith and is now rapidly receding. Robert Jordan's fanbase has grown for two entire decades, and its readers are fanatic and prostheletyzing.