For as much as I love fantasy, my introduction to the genre is not typical for someone who was born in the 90s. My dad read me Tolkien as a child, rather than many of the more accepted children’s books of the time. I fell in love with the book (and linguistics, but that’s an entirely different story) and started reading everything I could get my hands on with a voracious appetite.
Oddly enough, most of the books I read were 19th century English literature. Yes, I read fantasy, but it was mostly Anne McCaffrey and Tamora Pierce, as well as the Harry Potter books, with very little else except English literature for a while. (From English literature, I graduated to murder mysteries, but that’s not really relevant to this discussion.)Then, I started reading Jim Butcher, and finally leapt into the fantasy genre full tilt by means of the indie author world.
This non-standard start means that I was completely unaware of the big name fantasy books for years. The entire Brandon Sanderson catalogue? Still haven’t read. George R.R. Martin? I’ve read a couple, but not many. Robert Jordan? I hadn’t even heard of him until Amazon came out with their Wheel of Time television show.
But, as with many things in my life, curiosity got the better of me. So I watched the television show, pulled my reading brain out of the world of indie fantasy (which I love), and read the first book of the Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World.
And I was intrigued.
In this deep dive, I thought I would explore that book as someone who has never read it before, examining what I think works well, and what doesn’t, and why it’s so popular. To begin with, though, a slight deviation into the history of fantasy is necessary. Namely: Tolkien.
The catalogue of Tolkien’s works really introduced the fantasy genre into the modern world, moving it from myths and legends and folklore into something more tangible to the mass audience. As is the way with pretty much any popular book trend, other authors then wanted to replicate the success of those books, so they wrote something very similar.
From what I understand, a good portion of the big name fantasy books do their best to emulate Tolkien. (I cannot confirm this, as I haven’t read all that many big name authors, but other authors I know have told me this, and I believe them to be fairly trustworthy regarding book style.) That epic style, the battle of light and dark, the hero up against impossible odds, even the relative prose style that is signature to Tolkien, are all threaded throughout modern fantasy.
Certainly when I started to read The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan I could tell that the style was Tolkien-esque. It delved into the minutae as story devices, either for character development or plot points. It used a style of language that is not often found in such books as romance or murder mystery or anything but epic fantasy. And from the start, it used the fight between good and evil, light and dark, as the basis of the book.
Now, to analyse this story as something entirely separate from Tolkien’s works, I think that the story is fairly functional. There is certainly an epic journey and many perilous adventures along the way. The characters get themselves into many scrapes with the forces of the Dark One and scrape by due to the good graces of Moiraine Sedai and the Light, but they are forever changed. They discover that creatures and things they thought were legend are not, and their vision of the world expands.
This is all fairly typical plot for an epic fantasy these days, but given the book was published in 1990, it is still fairly novel. (Excepting Tolkien, of course.) And though it looks a lot like Tolkien, it is enough different that it shaped the fantasy genre almost as much.
Now, personally, I found that there were a few plot holes in this book that made comprehension a little more difficult than it needed to be. For one, there were aspects of the world that were never explained, or at least not to any degree of thoroughness, such as what the eye of the world actually was. (This was sort of explained at the very end of the book, but even then the information was imprecise.) Also, the reason why Rand, Perrin and Mat had to flee Two Rivers was never really explored, only that they were being sought and they needed to go. The whole book, the Dark One was after them, but no one ever really bothered to explain why.
(This is one place where I think the television show did a much better job of story coherence. It certainly has its own issues, but it is a bit more coherent regarding story.)
There were several things like this that were theoretically small details never explained, but they were numerous enough to be a bit confusion. What an Ajah was, the gentling, etc. I knew these things because of the show, but as I haven’t read the next books in the series yet, I had to extrapolate based on my knowledge of the show alone. The book was not adequate for complete knowledge.
Now, all these details aside, I did like the book. I think the symbolism was a bit heavy-handed, but then that is often the case in epic fantasy. (Grimdark and dark fantasy, on the other hand, tend to be more subtle. As this book falls into straight up epic, or even noblebright, then it has a bit more starkness to its symbolism. If you want an exploration of all the fantasy genre subtypes, do let me know!) I liked the character variety, the adventures they experienced, and the general triumph over evil. (Though, I will say that the ending was less than coherent in its execution, partly because of all those details that were not explained earlier. The battle was not foreshadowed well at all.)
The interesting thing about this book, though, is why it, and the rest of the series, is so popular. Popular enough for Amazon to spend millions upon millions of dollars to make a television show. I haven’t read beyond the first book yet, so I cannot answer to the later series, especially the parts where Brandon Sanderson takes over the writing following Jordan’s death, but I do have some thoughts on the first book.
The first thing is that it is about a battle between good and evil. The world is an increasingly dark place; modern fiction tends to mirror that and a lot of dark stories are quite popular. However, I think that people still want to have a story where good triumphs, where the Dark One is vanquished and good wins the day. This book does that, through grit and hard times. The characters may be in mortal danger, but over and over the Light triumphs.
The second thing is that it is highly influenced by Tolkien. The language is similar (though not precisely. Tolkien tends to be a bit more poetic, while Jordan tends to be a bit more exacting). The stories are similar: a band of companions ventures forth to vanquish evil. I won’t go into the parallels I could draw between specific characters (Moiraine as Gandalf, for example) but they are most definitely there. And Tolkien really took the world by storm. People craved more of that, so Robert Jordan managed to fill a need and fill it well.
The fact of the matter is, though, that sometimes people just want a good story. And though I had my issues with the book (being a writer, reviewer, and editor I am particularly picky), I did think that it was a good story. I’m glad I read it. I’m going to read the rest of the series.
I may, crazy as it sounds, even rewatch the television show, though we all know that it’s never quite the same. A good book indeed.