The late James Oliver Rigney, Jr. aka Robert Jordan
Zach Baron, in Believer magazine, commemorates the impending publication of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series’s penultimate, and second posthumous, installment, Towers of Midnight with an appreciative essay.
Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, in my own view, is the only fantasy series that could sensibly be described as a worthy successor to Tolkien’s LOTR. Jordan produced an epic tale, astonishingly entertaining and rewarding and filled with persuasive invention, aptly grounded in traditional myth and story, that became simultaneously also a colossal literary train wreck which somehow spun completely out of control, while remaining compelling reading.
Readers who followed along were happy but thoroughly frustrated by the author’s refusal to wind up plot line arcs that had readers perched on the edge of their chairs within the succeeding volume arriving after an interval of years. Jordan’s readers suffered terribly from Epic interruptus.
Blood, salvation, eternal life in posterity. Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, Jordan had written his own mortal predicament into the Wheel of Time. The series’s most poignant paradoxes—the taxing wear of responsibility on those who influence the weaving of the world, death as precondition for redemption—seeped into Jordan’s real life at its end, as he belatedly faced a mockingly close approximation of the same ambivalently grim fate as the characters he wrote about. ...
[I]t’s Rand’s path that Jordan ultimately walked. Both men labored to succeed in spite of bearing an affliction that would presumably kill them; both faced an uphill battle to the finish—Rand, to unite the Wheel of Time’s various nations and peoples against the forces of evil, and Jordan, in his last eighteen months, to get Rand’s story on paper before it was too late.
Most heartbreakingly, Jordan slowed the pace of his novels down to a crawl toward the end, as if keeping his imaginary world alive might keep him alive, too.
Weaving the ever more complex strands of plot and characters was a task that increasingly defeated the Wheel of Time’s author. Simultaneously, his fictional proxy’s early triumphs (pulling an Excalibur-like sword from a fortress called the Stone, killing about one bad guy per book) shaded, in time, toward the ambivalent, the incomplete, and the downright disastrous. As the series wore on, the pace of the installments became sluggish as Jordan’s attention divided. His main characters, Rand foremost among them, began disappearing from the books in which they were ostensibly the heroes.
This moment—roughly, books seven through ten (A Crown of Swords, The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, and Crossroads of Twilight), plus the prequel—is arguably one of the most bizarrely boring stretches in any kind of contemporary fiction. Rand dallies with a lover, and deals with various tepid rebellions, humdrum political complications, and distant foreign incursions. Mat, a lothario and gambler who at this point has emerged as the books’ most entertaining character, gets stranded in a city and hangs out there. Perrin, whose wife is captured by an unfriendly army in the eighth book, spends the next 1,600 pages or so trying to get her back. Together, the four books are a study in inertia, and they prompted many to suggest that Jordan was intentionally drawing out the series for cash or, worse, that he had absolutely no idea how to end what he’d begun.
But though it is absolutely true that these two-thousand-plus pages could’ve been compressed by an editor less kind than his own wife into a single book, it would be wrong to suggest Jordan dilated out of avarice, or lack of preparation. The problem was that Jordan’s strengths as a writer were also his weaknesses. He abhorred instrumental characters, the stock pawns of the genre, there to be set up and knocked down to move the plot along. And he hated being obvious, choosing instead to subtly foreshadow plot developments whole books in advance (then ridiculing readers who couldn’t quite put the pieces together). Most of all, Jordan loved his own creations, good and evil alike, and wrote circles around them, developing their respective psychologies and romantic entanglements at what became a laughably immersive, infinitesimal pace. The rest of the world, he seemed to be saying, would just have to wait.
In fact, it ended up outlasting Jordan himself.