Robert Jordan’s megalithic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, holds a special and complicated place within my heart, like it does for many modern writers of fantasy. It’s a series which I love, but never dare recommend due to its length and inconsistent pacing. Michael Livingston’s recent release, Origins of the Wheel of Time, is an engaging first step into criticism describing how Jordan created the series. It combines a biography—much expanding upon the notoriously sparse blurbs on Jordan’s novels—and a description of Jordan’s creation process. The second half of the book contains a glossary which points out the intentional resonances between Jordan’s fiction, and our world.
It was the first half which most strongly engaged me in Livingston’s study. Jordan’s life prior to writing was a sobering read, a read which did exactly what it intended. It put his characters and their experiences into the grim context of Jordan’s experience in the Vietnam War. This is where the book shines the most, and if you’re a Wheel of Time fan like myself this section makes the book well worth its price of admission.
As both a fan and writer, I also found the description of Jordan’s creative process fascinating. It’s not that this section was revelatory, or even intended to educate in the way something like King’s On Writing or Le Guin’s Steering the Craft are. The description was just plain interesting; hearing about Jordan’s daily habits and routine, how the names of characters and how plot points morphed and changed over time. Including while he was writing the series! It was also wonderful to discover the series’s somewhat mystifying ending was planned from the early synopses, even if I do feel Jordan lost track of his own work while discovery-writing the middle books.
While I’m striving to keep this review more or less free of spoilers for The Wheel of Time, do note that the book itself is, of course, completely filled with spoilers.
One major theme of Jordan’s creative process was consciously weaving allusions to modern life and stories we know into his epic. I knew from the series that Artur Paendrag Hawkwing is transparently analogous to our King Arthur, and it was clear that these sideways names contribute to the notion that The Wheel of Time exists somewhere in our future, or our past, or indeed, both simultaneously. Yet, I had not comprehended the depth to which these allusions go into the plot structure itself until I’d read Livingston’s exposé.
Two major connections grabbed my attention: Le Morte d’Arthur, and Lord of the Rings. As I understand Livingston’s description of Jordan’s creation process, The Wheel of Time begins in his thought as riffs upon traditional Arthurian themes, but interwoven more complexly with additional mythologies—both European and non-European—than other modern Arthur or Merlin tales. This then intersects with Lord of the Rings in particular when sculpting the first novel, The Eye of the World. The extent to which Jordan consciously alludes to Tolkien in order to help the reader familiarize themselves with Jordan’s own story is fascinating. Livingston’s account makes it clear this process wasn’t subconscious, or a lazy derivation, but clearly and cautiously thought through.
Throughout the front half of the book, Livingston does an excellent job providing his analysis alongside the words of Jordan himself, and the members of “Team Jordan” who finished The Wheel of Time. He does a really good job letting the others words speak for themselves, and then using his own voice to discuss further, or introduce additional concepts and connections.
The wealth of mythology and modern history (such as an allusion to the astronaut, John Glenn) which pervades The Wheel of Time as revealed by Jordan’s archival notes is astonishing. This left me with great hopes for the details which would be revealed by hundred-odd pages of this book’s glossary. Rather, I was quite disappointed here. Many entries felt, to me, quite simple, with a focus on how Jordan’s linguistic process. Often this is fairly simple, and occasionally the allusions are quite obscure. But ultimately, I hoped for more something meatier than a description of the word-transforming exercises which ended up with the names of The Wheel of Time.
In the end, though, if you like The Wheel of Time, you’ll like this book. If you’re not a fan, there’s not some hidden wisdom which will change your life. If you’re a writer, the book might be interesting on its own, but I wouldn’t put it high on your list. While the slightly voyeuristic pleasure of learning how another writer creates is indeed interesting, I don’t know that Origins of the Wheel of Time provides that sensation strongly enough for me to recommend the work to all fantasy writers.
What I’d really love, though, is a hefty 400 or 500 page academic volume on The Wheel of Time from Livingston. At times, I get the hunch that he’d like that too. This release is definitely targeted at a broad audience, and I think that was correct (especially publishing through Tor). I’m probably in a minority, in that I’d love to read a thoroughly academic breakdown of the series.
In full honesty, after I’d finished the book, I started feeling a bit of a compulsion to explore this on my own…
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