Robert Jordan has been recognized as one of the most famous fantasy writers of his time. He passed away on September 16, 2007, before he was able to finish his magnum opus. Nevertheless, the Wheel of Time still turns. October 27, 2009 marked the publication of The Gathering Storm, the first of three posthumous novels planned to conclude the series. It was written by Brandon Sanderson with the approval of the Jordan estate and the editing assistance of Jordan's widow, Harriet McDougal.
Becoming an Author
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose over plains in the USA. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
The wind blew through South Carolina. It passed over valleys and hills, crossed rivers, until it reached Charleston. It was October 17, 1948 when the Light sent Robert Jordan to this earthly world. His real name was James Oliver Rigney Jr., but he was mainly known by his pen name and this fact will be honored here.
When he was twenty, he went to Vietnam where he served for two tours as a helicopter gunner. During the service, his helicopter was under fire numerous times. One of his missions ended with the helicopter blowing up and Jordan having to run 25 miles thought the jungle to safety. He was considered good luck—everyone who was with him in a helicopter always returned alive—earning him the nickname Ganesh (a Hindu deity associated with luck and success). Jordan returned to his homeland with some decorations and was admitted to The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. Shortly after graduation he started working for the U.S. Navy as a nuclear engineer.
There was more than just one side to him. He was a devoted history lover and collector. He owned a collection of tobacco pipes as well as a variety of small arms and old firearms, which hung on the walls of his office like paintings. He was also a man of deep Christian faith as a practicing member of the Episcopal Church.
He had wanted to be a writer since he was a child. However, he didn't start writing until he was almost thirty years old, after he survived a serious accident. After the accident, he totally committed himself to the vocation of writing.
His first novel, entitled The Fallon Blood, was published in 1980. During the next two years, Jordan wrote two additional books in the series. The story is set between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the birth and early ages of the USA. It is a mix of adventure and history, with a slight taste of romance. The trilogy narrates the lives of three succeeding generations of Fallon men. The first book introduces an Irishman named Michael Fallon, who comes to a British colony in North America in search of a better life. The second book (The Fallon Pride) tells the story of Robert (Michael’s son), who spends his youth fighting Barbary pirates. The last book (The Fallon Legacy) is about James (Michael’s grandson), who travels through the antebellum American South in search of adventure and finds himself face to face with his family’s old enemies. The trilogy was published under the pen name Regan O’Neal, the first of three different pen names. The author never actually published any book under his birth name.
The second name he used was Jackson O'Reilly, under which the author published Cheyenne Raiders in 1982—a western which was the sixth part in a fourteen-part series written by different writers and dedicated to American Indians. The story of Cheyenne Raiders is set in 1837 and tells the story of a young man from Boston who runs away from civilization and finds happiness living among the Cheyenne (just like John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves). Of course, when Jordan’s name became famous and easily recognizable in the mid-'90s, the books mentioned above were reissued, and their covers stated that the books were written by the bestselling author Robert Jordan, writing as Regan O’Neal and Jackson O'Reilly respectively.
1982 also marked the year that he began publishing in the fantasy genre under the name Robert Jordan. The book was titled Conan the Invincible—the first of seven stories that Jordan wrote about the famous hero from Cimmeria, created by Robert E. Howard. This work represents the beginning of the author’s lifelong adventure within the genre of fantasy literature.
During the following three years, Jordan also wrote Conan the Defender, Conan the Unconquered, Conan the Triumphant, Conan the Magnificent, Conan the Destroyer, and Conan the Victorious. The book Conan the Destroyer was based on the movie of the same title. It was the second of two movies about Conan, in which the character was depicted by Arnold Schwarzenegger (a third movie is scheduled to start filming this year). Jordan also compiled a Conan chronology in 1987, which included more than seventy items written about the famous barbarian.
The Wheel of Time
Although his early works did not lead Jordan to fame, writing stories about Conan convinced the author to stick with fantasy. Thus, Jordan’s greatest work was born, which destined him for the fantasy hall of fame. It was The Wheel of Time, the first part of which was published in 1990. The author invested almost 20 years of his life in the saga.
The magnificence of The Wheel of Time is manifested in many ways. The first aspect of its greatness, which is easiest to observe, is the size. If you think that seven books about Harry Potter or Roland Deschain is a lot, Jordan’s series includes fourteen books (of which twelve have been printed), in addition to a prequel, a short story, and a guide. For a relative comparison, where the Harry Potter books have more than one million words, the complete The Wheel of Time saga will probably exceed four million!
The size of Jordan’s work makes it incredibly complex with regards to both the number of plots and the appearing characters, as well as their relations. Of course, the saga has a protagonist, but apart from him there are many secondary characters (for many, this term surely undervalues their importance in the series) from whose perspective the whole story is told. They all have their individual goals, desires, friends, and enemies. Summa summarum, in the whole saga there are nearly two thousand characters who are at least mentioned by their first name.
The greatness of The Wheel of Time is also manifested in its epic history, which provides the background for all of the plots. From the very first page, the reader is thrown into the prelude to the Last Battle, where the forces of good and evil will fight against each other in a final encounter and where the future of their world will be decided.
The world created by Jordan is very diverse. The author puts a great deal of effort into describing the lands and their underlying diversity of cultures, traditions, customs, fashions, and so forth. People from Mechoacan have fair hair while the ones from Pujili have dark eyes and wear narrow beards; Illianer noblewomen typically wear dresses cut low in the bodice and golden slippers while Tairen High Lords wear silver-worked boots; it is against Shienaran law to wear a hood or to cover the face within the city walls while Aiel allow themselves to take one fifth of everything (except food) from their conquered enemies. The saga portrays the characters in great detail—how they look, what they wear, their habits. Each city has its own unique architecture, while armies of different kingdoms have their unique soldiery, formations, and armaments. For example the Seanchan have helmets resembling heads of insects, while the Whitecloaks have long, pure white cloaks with an embroidered golden sunburst on the left breast.
One of the many other important qualities of The Wheel of Time is the importance and strength of women. In many cases the traditionally weaker sex becomes the stronger sex. It can be seen through numerous female characters who have power, might, or various uncommon skills, powerful and well-organized female organizations, as well as plenty of stronge female characters who simply tell men what to do. For example, the Aes Sedai is a well-known and respected sisterhood whose leader is more powerful than many kings and queens. In many villages the Women’s Circle is the equal of the Village Council. And even Rand al'Thor, savior of the world who has vast armies at his command, is not immune to the influence of women—the Maidens of the Spear (his elite all-woman guard) counsel him in some key military decisions, while Nynaeve (his childhood friend) tells him more than once to mind his language unless he wants his ears boxed.
By some reviewers Jordan was viewed as the best successor of the Tolkien tradition. It is true that there are some analogies between The Wheel of Time and Tolkien’s works that are easy to find: a hero who becomes the only one who can save the world and must do so against his own desires (Rand/Frodo), an evil that returns after a long absence in order to conquer the world forever (The Dark One/Sauron), a companionship that starts on a common journey and is broken along the way. It is worth mentioning that in a few places, Jordan pays a tribute to his great predecessor and makes a direct link to his books: one of the characters of The Wheel of Time travels incognito under a cover name of Underhill (just as Frodo does in The Fellowship of the Ring), while one of the inns is called "The Nine Rings."
If one is considering analogies between the saga and other books, it should be underlined that the world created by Jordan is also similar to the one created by Frank Herbert in Dune. It includes a near invincible desert people who become fanatic followers of the main hero (Aiel/Fremen), and a mysterious and manipulative sisterhood (Aes Sedai/Bene Gesserit).
However, it would be a great mistake to accuse Jordan of mere mimicry. The author was able to create his own original and unique vision. Let us look at the saga’s magic system, for example. Jordan’s magically skilled characters do not simply cast spells. They control the flow of the One Power drawn from the True Source (which has male and females halves). This process is called channeling and consists of using five elemental threads—Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit.
Jordan's skill is evidenced by the fact that more than 44 million books from The Wheel of Time series have been sold worldwide. This result makes Jordan the sixth bestselling fantasy writer, just after J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, and Terry Pratchett. The saga was translated into more than 20 languages, and consistently finds itself ranked highly on best fantasy book lists. The Wheel of Time as a brand includes not only books but also graphic novel adaptations, a computer game, a MUD, a trading card game, a role-playing game, as well as jewelry and reproduction weapons—all developed based on Jordan’s series. Recently, a deal has been signed with Universal Studios for the production of feature film adaptations.
Writing as an Occupation
Robert Jordan treated writing as his job. He wrote systematically. He devoted himself to it seven days a week. He woke up early, ate breakfast, and after morning exercises and answering letters he wrote for at least eight hours (sometimes even without a lunch break).
He used a computer in his daily work. The entirety of The Wheel of Time was stored on his hard drive, in countless smaller and bigger files concerning different characters, places, organizations, events, and so forth. For the record, Jordan was not fond of MS Word and used the much simpler WordPerfect.
He was always open and friendly with his numerous fans. During conventions and book-signings he was often surrounded by crowds of people. Fan-created websites about his saga have proliferated on the Internet. He even had his own blog where he conversed and disputed with his readers, as well as patiently answered even their most-detailed questions.
Jordan thought that fantasy books were the best means of indicating black and white directly, showing the conflict of good and evil, duty, honor, and clear moral boundaries. He felt that other genres of literature often lack true and clear values, making the world depicted in them gray and depressing.
He was also capable of self-criticism. After publishing the tenth book of the series, he wrote the following on his blog: "The only thing that I wish I hadn’t done was use the structure that I did for Crossroads of Twilight with major sections beginning on the same day. Mind, I still think the book works as it is, but I believe it would have been better had I taken a more linear approach. When you try something different, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t."
In one interview he stated that the guiding question that made him write The Wheel of Time was the idea of what it would be like if one day someone came to you and told you that you had been born in order to save the world and that no matter what you did, you would not escape your destiny.
In March 2006, Jordan announced that he had been diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis—a rare blood illness. The doctors told him that the median life span for a person with amyloidosis was four years assuming that proper treatment was undertaken. In his case, doctors gave him less than a year to live.
Jordan did not give up, he took his medicine, and he went to therapy. Although in the last days of his life, due to pain and treatment, he could only devote himself to his passion of writing for no more than two hours a day, he kept at it just the same. He constantly shared with his fans information about his health status and his current medical test results. He did not lose hope, nor optimism.
A month before he died, in his last entry in the blog, he wrote that he could not wait for the moment when he would be able to concentrate fully on writing again. Unfortunately, the illness thwarted this desire. He died on September 16, 2007. He always said that he would write until they nailed his coffin shut. He was right about that.
The fans valued his achievements so much that they built him a monument in the virtual world of Second Life. In April 2009, a special convention dedicated to Jordan’s work, JordanCon, was held in Atlanta. And the organizers are planning to continue the convention in April of 2010.
A documentary on Jordan, entitled The Wit of the Staircase, is currently in production. It will be released sometime in 2009 (for trailers and current information visit http://wots.spiralent.com).
A Memory of Light
Although he had conceived the final scene of the final chapter of the last book before he even began writing The Wheel of Time, for a long time he did not know how long the entire saga would be. Only after publishing the eleventh book, he announced that it was the last but one part. Later, he joked that the twelfth book would be the last one, even if it had to contain 1,500 pages and the publishers had problems printing the book.
When death came to him, he had only finished a small part of the book. Happily for the readers, Jordan made precautions for such an eventuality. Towards the end of his life, he made plenty of notes and audio recordings, in which he explained how the book should end and how the different plots should be resolved. He often talked about it with his wife (who was also his editor), family, and staff.
It was his wish for the book to be finished and published in case of his death. However, he left the final decision to his wife. Shortly after his death, Jordan’s widow announced that the last book definitely be published. At the end of last year, she chose an author who would finish the series with her support. It was Brandon Sanderson, known from such books as the Elantris and Mistborn series.
Sanderson began his work by rereading the entire saga. He shared his opinions of each book on his website (www.brandonsanderson.com). He received an almost complete frame of the book, with the most important plots (including the ending) explained, and a small fragment already written. However, there are plots that he has had to develop on his own from scratch. He started working on these plots first because, he said, if they turned out to be bad, Jordan’s widow would have enough time to correct them. However, the very first words that he wrote were the same words that begin the each book of the series. Although Sanderson will be responsible for a great deal of the finale, Jordan wrote the final paragraph himself and left it with the notes.
Due to the number and depth of plots that need to be resolved, a decision has been made to break the finale into three separate novels: The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light. The Gathering Storm was published on October 27, 2009. The latest news about the book can be found on Sanderson’s blog. The future of two other prequels to The Wheel of Time that were planned by Jordan has yet to be decided. The same as regards his other projects. Sanderson has commented that the decision to finish and publish Jordan's other works is in McDougal’s hands. At the same time, he indicated that he would work on them if he was asked to do so.
As a consequence, it is possible that Jordan’s unfinished works will be still published long after his death just like Tolkien’s and Herbert’s. After all, even the mighty Wheel of Time and the Pattern it weaves must take into account the powerful desires of the readers.