Robert Jordan created the most complex, detailed, and intricate fantasy world in the history of literature, but few people outside the genre know his name. As Amazon’s The Wheel of Time prompts comparisons to Game of Thrones, it’s worth considering the extent of Robert Jordan’s genius and whether audiences have the patience to see it through.
Spanning fourteen books and a prequel, The Wheel of Time runs for over 11,000 pages and 4,000,000 words. There are 2,792 named characters that appear throughout, and 148 different points of view, all in service of a single, cohesive story. This story takes place across some fourteen primary nations, and two largely uncharted territories. Each nation has its own system of government, unique rulers, and culture. There are at least three additional peoples, making it a ground total of over 14 different ways of life presented in meticulous detail. The world is also defined by its own unique physics, a complex yet logical magic system based on the primary forces that are responsible for the forward direction of time and the weaving of fate. The interplay of these forces and the outcome of the fundamental laws is both integral to the social, economic, and political life of each country and the unfolding story itself. One change to these laws, and the entire edifice comes crumbling down.
The story told across these 15 volumes occurs over a span of several years and thousands of miles, describing hundreds upon hundreds of interlocking events and characters, many of which are based on equally detailed histories of events that occurred thousands of years before. The world in the present is still reeling from a catastrophe in the past, one which both entirely changed the fate of nations and the nature of magic itself. Magic in the present can only be wielded by women; men who possess the ability go mad with devastating consequences. In an earlier age, however, men and women used magic together, creating wonders known as the Age of Legends. The inhabitants of the current era often live in the shadow of a better time, surrounded by mysteries they do not fully understand, some that use powers that were completely lost or forgotten. Even many of the powers still in use are no longer fully known.
Magic itself remains a potent force, however, and the women who wield it, known as Aes Sedai, are both revered and feared, serving as councillors to kings and queens, even as they are not completely trusted. The Aes Sedai are divided into different orders, each with their own goals, histories, traditions, and politics. Some are devoted to healing, others learning or logic. Some are fighters, and some hunt men with the ability to wield magic, neutralizing them before they become threats. Aes Sedai can be bound to a protector, known as a Warder. This magical bond connects them near and far, sharing feelings and pain, and granting special powers. The gift of magic can also be taken away in this world, a process known as gentling for men and stilling for women. It is the ultimate punishment for an Aes Sedai, leaving them without hope for the future. It is believed to be irreversible, but no one knows for sure.
The Aes Sedai are sworn to a code of conduct, bound by an ancient magical artifact that makes oaths unbreakable, though know one knows how. They cannot lie, or make weapons, or use magic to kill unless their own life is in danger. These oaths are the result of a great war that shook the world sometime between the Age of Legends and the present, when a powerful mortal king, Artur Hawkwing, emerged to briefly unite the world. Hawking himself possessed a different kind of magic, one entwined with fate itself. The universe of The Wheel of Time is imagined as a tapestry woven by an unknown power, the wheel turns and forever spins out new threads from old. Human and other lives are threads in this tapestry, but some people have more influence than others. A ta’vern is a person whom the Wheel weaves around, literally pulling other people’s lives in new directions, dragging history itself along with it. The charismatic leader who summons people to their cause or the incredibly lucky gambler, could be ta’vern and not even know it.
There are other races, each with their own magic, as well. The Ogier feature prominently, larger and gentler the humans. The Ogier can sing to trees and work stone. There are more fell races created by the Dark One, Trollocs and Fades, and other, more primal kinds of magic. Forces that can break oaths and bind people to their own dark will. There are women outside the order of Aes Sedai that wield magic on their own. often in secret, unbound by any oaths. There is an entire separate reality of dreams with its own mysteries and rules, intertwined with the waking world yet separate. There’s a lost continent on the other side of the sea, the inhabitants of which enslave women who can use magic and plan and invasion. There’s even a magic of wolves and other creatures. Everywhere you look in this world, there is something to behold.
By combining this and far more together, the reader gets the feel of witnessing the real history of a real people unfold, one where a minor change to an event far in the past could have ramifications decades later. Missing an important chapter, much less an entire book, is like skipping World War I in history class, impossible to understand what came after without a thorough knowledge of what came before. The characters that drive the story, especially the most prominent five, are as distinctly and minutely drawn as any biography of a real historical figure. In a sense, the Wheel of Time is the biography of Rand, Perrin, Matt, Egwene, and Nynaeve. It chronicles their journey from a small town known as the Two Rivers to the center of historical, political, and magical events that will shape the future of the entire world. They discover the world as the reader does, constantly learning more and reevaluating all that has come before.
The announcement that Amazon was adapting The Wheel of Time for the small screen necessarily prompted comparisons to the mother of fantasy television, Game of Thrones. In fact, former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is said to have specifically demanded Amazon create its own Game of Thrones, prompting the e-commerce giant to procure the rights to both The Wheel of Time and The Lord of the Rings, due out next year. The Wheel of Time, at least as told by Robert Jordan, however, has very little in common with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. For starters, the first volume was published in 1991, five years before the release of A Game of Thrones. The Wheel of Time was already halfway completed, on its seventh volume, A Crown of Swords, by that point, meaning Martin likely owes a lot more to Jordan than the other way around. At the same time, questions about who came or did what first are largely irrelevant when the two works share very little save for being in the fantasy genre. There are, in fact, precious few similarities between their respective fantasy worlds, their histories, the characters, the story, and the underlying themes.
In that regard, Martin can be seen as a deconstructor and Jordan as a fulfiller. Game of Thrones prides itself on deconstructing fantasy archetypes and storylines, hence main characters encounter sudden, unexpected deaths, people we were led to believe were good turn out to be evil or at least morally compromised beyond redemption, and those that were thought to be evil are not nearly so black and white. Martin places his saga firmly in the grey area between right and wrong, exploring the messy, compromised reality that underpins history and legend. The Stark family, Jon, Sansa, Arya, and Bran, are generally good at the start of the story, but Martin isn’t content to leave it that. He turns Arya into an assassin and Bran into something not even human. Jon is “forced” to kill not one, but two lovers and is essentially lost at the end. Sansa’s transformation from innocent teenager to schemer is brutal and complete. Further, Martin enjoys playing with conflicted loyalties. The Starks are loyal to the family first, each other second with Jon as an outsider bastard even then. Jamie’s affections are for his sister, Cersei, first and family second.
Jordan takes a different approach. The five main characters are inherently good people, though flawed like everyone else. Rand can be headstrong and impatient, blinding by his own sense of right. Perrin is slow to anger, but explosive in his rage. Matt is too clever and curious for his own good. Egwene is ambitious, frequently overestimating her abilities. Nynaeve is stubborn to a fault. These flaws will cost them dearly as they struggle against their personal demons for literally thousands and thousands of pages, but at heart each of them is what the average person would likely consider a good and just person. All things being equal, they are fair in their dealings and have a firm sense of right and wrong. Moreover, none of them are from powerful families or with any entrenched interests in the wider world. Their loyalties are to each other and those they make on their journey. They are tested frequently. They make decisions that result in catastrophe, and moral compromises, but the inner core of goodness remains. Their promise is fulfilled, instead of warped beyond recognition.
This positive inner core is contrasted against a classic good and evil struggle. In Game of Thrones, Martin places the supernatural threat, the White Walkers, far outside the civilized world, a remote, implacable evil, largely unknown and not even believed by most people south of The Wall. The Wheel of Time features a far more active evil, known as the Dark One and many another name. The Dark One, or Sightblinder, Heartsbane, Soulsbane, Heartfang, Leafblighter, etc. if you prefer, is depicted as a malevolent, eternal force, somewhat outside the main world, but with its own armies and agents, including human “Darkfriends” that seek to bring about the world’s destruction. Putting this another way, Martin makes it clear that the average peasant may not care much whether the Starks or Lannisters prevailed in Game of Thrones, but if the Dark One should prevail the world itself would be completely broken. The main characters, at least the good ones for there are some evil points of view, must oppose the Dark One at every turn or the world is lost.
The Dark One and certain sisters of the Aes Sedai are searching for the fulfilment of a prophecy. The rebirth of a powerful wizard who will either save or break the world. This wizard was once known as Lews Therin Telamon and he was chiefly responsible for ending the Age of Legends and breaking the world a thousand years earlier. In that age, he was able to defeat the Dark One, sealing the evil force in an extra-dimensional prison, but not without turning male wizards into crazed monsters and destroying most of what was left. Who he is and what he will do in this age remains to be seen, but on the main continent he will be referred to as The Dragon Reborn, among the Sea Folk he is the Coramoor, the desert people call him the Car’a’carn or He Who Comes With the Dawn, even wolves have a name for him, Shadowkiller. Each group, of course, has their own unique spin on the prophecies, making it near impossible to separate fact from fiction. At some point, choices will be made and those choices will have consequences. The character of the Dragon Reborn matters as much as his might.
The Amazon show itself has only released three episodes of the first season so far to very mixed reviews. They haven’t gotten to much if any of these details yet, and — though a second season is on its way — who knows if they ever will. The showrunner, Rafe Lee Judkins, and his team have a daunting task before them. There is far too much material of far too many kinds for a TV show, and much of it won’t even make sense on screen. Personally, I started reading The Wheel of Time around the same time as Game of Thrones in the late 1990’s, and it was obvious even then that, of the two, Game of Thrones was ripe for a TV adaptation. The combination of morally ambiguous anti-heroes and endless twists and turns in a relatively low magic world was tailor made for the small screen. The Wheel of Time, on the other hand, has none of that, even as it offers a lot more in many ways.
In fact, much of the first two books themselves, The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt, only make sense in retrospect. I thought they were merely decent books until the identity of the Dragon Reborn is revealed in the third volume, nor is the complexity of the world building and the physics of the magic readily apparent in the early going. In short, Jordan’s genius is in the totality of all the parts, the world as a whole, its physics and metaphysics, its history, its peoples and cultures, its characters. Somehow, he makes thousands of intricate pieces fit in hundreds of surprising ways. As the series neared its conclusion, with Brandon Sanderson taking over writing duties after Jordan’s untimely death at age 57, I was repeatedly astounded at how small details and seemingly insignificant scenes kept combining to have a major impact on the ending. There was one particular instance where the ultimate key to victory over the Dark One’s forces was revealed inadvertently and unknowingly in a dream thousands of pages earlier. The reveal and the realization of it’s importance combined the unique personalities and gifts of two major characters, the unique physics of the dream world, the unique workings of magic in the real world, and the history of that magic. One change to any of those factors and the ending would be radically different.
For me, the conclusion is inescapable: Jordan saw this all in advance and meticulously plotted each detail over fourteen books. Contrast this with Martin, who rather admittingly makes most of it up as he goes along. In fact, Mr. Sanderson said Jordan had entire sections of the ending already written when he died. He saw it all, even though it seems impossible one man could see so much, so far in advance. The question now: Will modern TV audiences have the patience to let the series build the world and the story unfold or will they tune out when the first season likely ends with something of a whimper? The first three episodes have done an admirable job setting the stage. Less than three hours into the story, at least a dozen characters of major importance have been introduced, along with major factions and players, but the audience isn’t likely to know that for several more seasons. Instead, it seems like the heroes are on a road trip, accidentally bumping into people likely never to return again as the main story doesn’t move very far or fast. Whether the audience will wait for all this to come to fruition remains to be seen, but if Mr. Judkins can somehow get it right, your patience will be rewarded and it will be well worth spending more time in Mr. Jordan’s sprawling, brilliant world. There is no doubt that he created the most complex, detailed, and intricate fantasy universe in the history of literature, and more people should know his name.