I’ve read The Lord of the Rings, but I’ve never perused the fantasy section of a Barnes & Noble. I’ve notched the first three books in A Song of Ice and Fire, but that was only after I was years late to the party on HBO’s Game of Thrones. And while I never miss out on a chance to go to a Renaissance festival, I’ve never donned a puffy shirt or sheathed a sword on my belt.
In other words, no one would mistake me for a fantasy geek, but I’m open to the general, magical idea.
Until recently, I — like most people who consider themselves not just well read but literary — dismissed the genre as akin to the grocery-store bodice ripper; the gimmicky, cartoonish covers on most fantasy paperbacks certainly suggest as much. The only books in the domain I deemed worthy of a wholehearted recommendation were by J.R.R. Tolkien, and I know how cliché that sounds, but I also know many people feel the same. That all changed after I went to a wedding.
The nuptials took place a little over two years ago at a sprawling mansion in New Jersey between two of my friends, both of them avid readers. On the way out, guests were encouraged to stop in the foyer around a large circular table piled high with books. The bride and groom had each chosen their 10 favorite reads and inscribed them, and they were offering them as wedding favors. For whatever reason, I beelined for the biggest of the bunch, a 722-page doorstopper inscribed this way: “Read this book at your own peril; it’s a looong — but totally worthwhile — journey.”
That book was The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, the first in a 14-book high-fantasy series (not including a prequel) called The Wheel of Time.
After doing that thing where you stop and start a daunting book 10 times before finally reading it all the way through, I finished it. I’m now eight books and about 2.5 million words into the series (up from just four books when I first published this story last year, and I plan on finishing by November, for reasons I will explain momentarily), and I have none of the qualms I had with Game of Thrones in saying this is going to be the next Lord of the Rings. Nor am I the first person to make the connection.
After the release of A Crown of Swords in 1996, the seventh book in the series, The New York Times finally took Jordan seriously, writing that “Mr. Jordan has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal.” While you’ll see that sentence emblazoned across every Wheel of Time book today, the article is referring to the sales numbers, which were then in the millions (today, more than 90 million copies of the books have been sold worldwide), not the inventiveness of the prose. And while the Times does go on to praise the actual craft of Jordan, whose real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr., it falls short of putting the author on Tolkien’s level.
If this constant comparison to the reluctant father of fantasy has wearied fans of Jordan since The Eye of the World debuted in 1990, their annoyance is about to increase tenfold, as Amazon Studios and Sony Pictures Television are co-producing a television adaptation of The Wheel of Time. After COVID-related delays, it was recently announced that the show will debut sometime in November 2021, though a specific date has yet to be revealed. In the style of HBO, it’s projected to be a one-hour-per-episode series premiering on Amazon Prime Video. Apparently, Jeff Bezos is not only determined to produce his own Game of Thrones, ostensibly without the acclaim-killing final season, but make Amazon the king of fantasy streaming, with a new Lord of the Rings series following this show in 2022.
Yes, that means you — the person who doesn’t want to miss out on the next big book-to-TV cultural phenomenon (as this is turning out to be, considering it’s already been renewed for a second season) — have your work cut out for you in facing down this 14-tome epic. The good news is that the first season will likely focus on the first book for the most part, so you could simply read The Eye of the World between now and November and you’ll be better prepared than 99% of viewers. However, showrunner and executive producer Rafe Judkins has also suggested the first season will include elements from other books, so the more you take down between now and then, the better. That’s why I’m focused on finishing the final six books in the next three months, just in case.
When you do decide to crack open the first volume, you’ll find the similarities between The Wheel of Time and the works from Tolkien and Martin go beyond form; they’re woven into the plot and character details. The hero of Jordan’s tale, Rand al’Thor, begins as an unassuming farm boy in a sleepy pastoral town, but heads off on his adventure after Moraine, a woman who can do magic (and played in the upcoming series by Rosamund Pike), arrives and opens the floodgates of the outside world. One mystical character who joins the merry band is a 10-foot-tall Ogier whose people live in mystical forests called steddings and sing to trees. And one of the many pitfalls Rand must navigate in his quest to defeat the “Dark One” is “Daes Dae’mar,” or political maneuvering among nobles more commonly known as the “Game of Houses.” I’m really not exaggerating here.
I point these common threads out because it’s easy to latch onto them as evidence that all modern fantasy is derivative, uninspired, and part and parcel in “genre fiction,” a designation many steer clear of in their local bookstores. However, the main reason I’ve found myself turning to The Wheel of Time to decompress from the daily psychic turmoil that is a coronavirus-ravaged world is not because it offers the untethered, action-packed, medieval-erotic escape many look for in fantasy, and it’s not because I’m looking for the next Thrones like Bezos — it’s because what Jordan has achieved defies the constraints of a genre, going beyond even the upper-echelon “high fantasy” label that most authors can only dream of achieving.
“I just wanted to write books I wanted to write,” Jordan told CNN in 2000 when presented with questions both about his place in the fantasy canon and the nerd culture that had blossomed (or festered, depending on your view) around it. In working from that starting place, Jordan unwittingly created the perfect story for the 21st century, one that reads like a bingeable TV show instead of a literary chore (the kind where you’ll find yourself staying up late by promising yourself “just one more chapter”), while also eschewing the heavyhanded political themes that are baked into everything being churned out of the streaming factories in this day and age.
The Wheel of Time caters neither to the insatiable offspring of Tolkien, nor to the left or right. For those who are looking for the next Rings or Thrones, Jordan outwits both in many respects. One of the enduring criticisms of Tolkien is how his archetypal works fail women (and not just on the Bechdel test), while the Thrones HBO adaptation sparked repeated worry that the numerous rape scenes were veering from contextual necessity (as Martin justifies them) into a kind of backwards approval of sexual abuse.
Jordan, meanwhile, finds himself not needing to reckon with dated writing; complex female characters are essential to the plot (and not just Rand’s whims) from the beginning, and the story never stoops to the level of offering them up to the horrors of historical precedent. As my now-married friend who gave me the book in the first place explained to me, it’s definitely considered a PG series in the fantasy world, but you know what? So is Tolkien.
Unfortunately, Jordan won’t be around to bask in the mainstream success that likely awaits him. The author passed away in 2007 before finishing the books, though unlike Martin, he never had a 10-year-plus gap between releases, and after he died, the prolific fantasy author Brandon Sanderson swooped in to finish books 12 through 14, to the delight of fans.
In that 2000 CNN interview, Jordan had a prescient view of his situation: “I’ve been warned that if I died before I finished the books, they were going to desecrate my grave.”
On the contrary, if The Wheel of Time breaks out of the bonds of fantasy — as I suspect it will once the Amazon series premieres — they’ll have to stop literary pilgrims from rubbing his grave like a portal stone. Guess you’ll have to read the books to figure out what that means.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.