It has been said that Tolkien is the Grandfather of modern fantasy. I suspect if he were alive today he might be appalled at such a label. He had no desire to write modern fantasy. He wanted to create something old and timeless. The other reason that I think he would disagree with the title is that he did not create fantasy. Fantasy has been around for a very long time and Tolkien, in the tradition of the myths and stories that he studied created a vast mythology of his own.
Tolkien did not create fantasy – he inspired it. For decades after Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was released every author interested in fantasy converged on what he had done, trying to copy it. (This happens constantly with electronics – every phone now is trying to look like an iPhone, the number of Sony Walkman rip-offs probably reaches into the uncountable infinite.) It wasn’t until the last decade that authors started to question the Tolkien template, not to ask what he did wrong (which by now most authors have figured out was nothing) but how can we do something different that is still compelling and entertaining.
The evolution of the genre to this point where fantasy is trying to step maybe just a couple of steps away from Professor Tolkien’s work has been a continuum when looked at with the whole of the last fifty years in perspective. However there are pivotal authors and series that have helped to progress that evolution.
The first of which was probably Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in which there are no hobbits, dwarves of elves – or even things that look like them. There are a lot of poignant thematic elements that came from Tolkien, however.
The next major step is probably Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Looking at the first book this might be surprising. The beginning resonates so closely with The Lord of the Rings that certain passages seem to be taken directly from that work. What Jordan did, however was veer off in a completely new direction. The beginning characters that seemed so much like Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin turned out to be nothing at all like them. The story evolved and gained a power and strength of its own – as well as several weaknesses.
Lord of Chaos is the sixth book in the Wheel of Time series and has one of the most accurate names of all the books. The seeds of chaos and disaster are so cleverly woven into human nature and pride and sprinkled throughout the themes of the book that the ending seems almost inevitable and sickeningly horrifying at the same time. Jordan orchestrates the little bits of misinformation, happenstance, lost communication (or just plain lack thereof), character reactions and pure arrogance into a seething critical mass that can’t help but trigger a meltdown. In fact one of the themes of these books is the damage that can be done by not communicating. Characters rarely tell each other their concerns or questions or plans and disaster reigns around them. Jordan is quick, however, to show instant payoff come to characters when they decide to be honest with somebody – though the characters rarely seem to make the connection.
One of Jordan’s other strengths is his ability to progress his characters realistically. (I’m not sure that the characters themselves are a strength, though many of them are truly great characters.) Jordan can make me hate a character he means me to hate like nobody else I’ve ever read. He can also make me feel scared or worried for characters that are not even real.
Nynaeve gets her Crowning Moment of Awesome about two thirds of the way through this book when she does something that will change the world forever – in a big way. Rand and Min get the second believable relationship in the books so far – Rand and Aviendha being the first. Elayne makes me think Mat is incompetent and Mat makes me think Elayne is full of herself – an example of the unreliable narrator that Jordan is the master of. I know people like Faile exist because I’ve known a fair number of them but I can’t figure out why Perrin would want to marry somebody like that. Egwene proves to be the most adaptable person ever and attains something that was both surprising but inevitable as it has been hinted and foreshadowed for six books now.
That brings me to another of Jordan’s greatest skills that also happens to be one of his greatest downfalls. That is his patience in storytelling. Robert Jordan is meticulously patient. This pays off in so many poignant ways that are made more powerful by the amount of simmer that’s been applied to them, letting the flavors seep in. His patience makes those moments that have been foreshadowed and prophesied and hinted at and built up to for volumes almost gaspingly intense. On the other hand his patience also made him turn a trilogy into a fourteen book series.
It is his patience that creates, in this book a climax that, while nearly a hundred pages long, is the most intense of any book I have ever read. Every time I read it I am drug through a range of emotions from intense anger and sadness to horror and justice. It’s an avalanche with the weight of six thousand pages behind it. Events and thoughts and misunderstandings and plots of hundreds of characters converge into a cascade of nail-biting tension that will leave you breathless, and just might break your heart. This kind of buildup is outside the scope of nearly every other author’s skill set.
Unfortunately that patience also seems to be the reason that so many fans become disillusioned. As the series progresses and the cast of characters grows into unmanageable proportions the vast and powerful climaxes become less and less frequent. Everybody seems to have a breaking point in the series where they just can’t continue.
Jordan gets compared to Tolkien a lot – as does every other fantasy author, it’s inevitable, though also ludicrously stupid to do so – which isn’t really fair. They’re completely different things. Jordan did take a page from Tolkien’s modus operandii, however. He wove myths and legends into his story in order to make them resonate with his readers. The difference is that Jordan decided to use every myth and legend that he could find. Arthurian legend, Norse mythology, Greek, Roman and Mesopotamian as well as multiple Asian influences from across China, Japan and India all make an appearance and are tied in so subtly that they just sound like history or background or character.
In my opinion The Lord of Chaos is the crown on the peak of a series that started out very high to begin with. Even if you don’t read any farther in the series getting this far is worth the journey. As the Buddhists say “the journey is the reward.” If memory serves it’s all downhill from here.