Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thoughts On The Eye of the World

After reading the first book in the Inheritance series a couple of years ago, I wrote a scathing review in the form of a parody entitled "Boy-Turned-Hero and the Epic Battle". As much a general parody of epic medievalist fantasy as of Eragon, the review would be appropriate for hundreds of novels, and through the first two hundred or so pages of Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World, the first novel in his Wheel of Time series, I thought that a reposting might be in order.

The novel's first proper chapter introduces us to unassuming young male hero of uncertain parentage Rand al'Thor. The setting is a secluded community of farms and villages on the eve of the most exciting event of these poor yokels' lives, the annual Bell Tine festival. The festivities are disrupted by the attack of horrid cloaked figures, Myrddraal, and belligerent dark creatures, Trollocs, apparently pursuing Rand and his young friends. Their escape, facilitated by a wise magic-wielder, leads to a lengthy quest narrative that lacks a quest beyond self-preservation. The characters run through a series of repetitive encounters with Trollocs, Myrddraal and other allies of dark overlord Shai'tan. For the first 500 pages, nearly every character, location and plot point appears to be stolen from Tolkien.

What kept me intrigued through these 500 pages was the promise of the novel's prologue, detailing the aftermath of Lews Therin Telamon's crazed violence against his family and encounter with the dark overlord some 3000 years prior to the novel's primary narrative. The prologue's opening paragraphs are deliciously overwritten: "The place still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air...Lews Therin Telamon wandered the palace, deftly keeping his balance when the earth heaved. "Ilyena! My love, where are you?" The edge of his pale gray cloak trailed through blood as he stepped across the body of a woman, her golden-haired beauty marred by the horror of her last moment, her still-open eyes frozen in disbelief." I was initially attracted to The Wheel of Time because I hoped for precisely this sort of titanic scale, not the routine cat and mouse game that the novel becomes.

Fortunately, the novel's lousy first half does begin to reveal the tremendous metaphysical contrivances of Jordan's world, which seem to draw equally from Mayan and Gnostic influences. The series title derives from an actual wheel that weaves the threads representing living creatures into a great pattern of interactions. The wheel weaves in several reoccurring ages, each of which is characterized by a certain type of events - great heroics, madness, decline of grandeur, etc. The universe, the work of a deistic Creator, plays out as a continuous conflict between the Light, a goodness that seems to be more aura than person, and the dark one, Shai'tan. The metaphysics seem fundamentally materialistic - Shai'tan is physically imprisoned, the prison sealed by physical substances, and his *spoiler* temporary defeat at the novel's end comes about by defeat in a battle that occurs in the same domain as other world events. Matter, at least in the age of the novel's events, is sometimes inherently evil.

The novel's mythology is impressive, and when it is finally brought into play alongside the primary plot in the last 200 pages or so, the results are impressive. It seems that Jordan wanted to introduce the strangeness of his world slowly, first acclimating readers with familiar fantasy trappings, but this backfires, because he is much more comfortable in his own skin than in Tolkien's. The prose itself is unexceptional, only occasionally empbarassing, as in "Her horse slept, too, head down and legs spraddled in the manner of horses." Try as he might, Jordan never gives his world the sense of wonder or beauty that Tolkien gave Middle Earth. However, the final segments of the novel prove that he can tell a compelling story, and I look forward to reading the next novel, The Great Hunt, sometime soon.

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