October 2010
Zach Baron

The End of the Story

Robert Jordan died before he could finish his sprawling, thirteen-book fantasy epic, so his widow hired a thirty-one-year-old fantasy novelist to finish it for him.

Discussed: Comical Hats, Tertiary Characters, Conan the Barbarian, The Dark One, Typologies Within Typologies, Moral Predicaments, Braid-Yanking, Rhapsodies Over Brocaded Silk, Arcane Metaphysical Theology, Clark Gable

Robert Jordan, born James Oliver Rigney Jr. in 1948, sold more than 40 million books in his lifetime. His Wheel of Time series, a still-unfinished multivolume epic spanning, at last count, thirteen books, more than 10,500 pages, and approximately 3,734,312 words, is among the world’s most popular fantasy series since J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You would have every reason to expect this level of authorial accomplishment to be accompanied by an onset of false modesty—the one-sentence life story, say, graven casually on the back flap of a dust jacket. Yet in nine of the eleven Wheel of Time novels Jordan wrote before his death, in 2007, we’re presented with the portrait of a man looking to get lucky at a Renaissance Faire:

Robert Jordan was born in 1948 in Charleston, South Carolina, where he now lives with his wife, Harriet, in a house built in 1797. He taught himself to read when he was four with the incidental aid of a twelve-year-older brother, and was tackling Mark Twain and Jules Verne by five. He is a graduate of The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, with a degree in physics. He served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Army; among his decorations are the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star with ‘V,’ and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry. A history buff, he has also written dance and theater criticism. He enjoys the outdoor sports of hunting, fishing and sailing, and the indoor sports of poker, chess, pool and pipe collecting. He has been writing since 1977 and intends to continue until they nail shut his coffin.

Jordan’s biography is typical of his work: verbose but vivid, tendentious but still somehow charming, and threaded throughout with equal parts valor and invention. (Pipe collecting, after all, was not a sport until Jordan made it one; nor, for that matter, was Robert Jordan a fantasy author before Rigney rescued him from a prior career as an explosives expert in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.)

Real-life combat experience is something that Jordan, a former helicopter gunner (he claimed to have once shot a rocket-propelled grenade out of midair), shared with Tolkien, who witnessed all but one of his closest friends die in World War I. But where the don of modern fantasy boasted a dusty, Oxford-certified facility with language, philology, and the Middle Ages, Jordan made himself over after Vietnam in the classic mode of the American genre-fiction author. A bearded man with a penchant for elaborate canes, chunky rings, and comical hats, he favored the look of a Southern general. He admitted to being a Freemason. At Q&A sessions, he would not hesitate to interrupt a small child’s incorrect pronunciation of a tertiary character’s name. He wrote the series for which he became famous in an old carriage house cluttered with swords, axes, crossbows, spears, knives, and a human skeleton.

In 2006, Jordan became sick with a rare blood disease called cardiac amyloidosis—a condition in which misshapen proteins, produced in bone marrow, come to be deposited in the walls of the heart. Faced with a median life expectancy of only four more years, Jordan channeled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s Eli Wallach, writing on his blog: “Don’t talk to me about no stinking odds, gringo. I’ve got promises to keep.”

What promises? After a post-Vietnam career that included a stint as a nuclear engineer, an early foray into historical fiction, under the pen name Reagan O’Neal, for publisher Tor (where he was first edited by Harriet McDougal, who would later become his wife), and three books’ worth of pinch-hitting in the house’s Conan the Barbarian series, Jordan began the Wheel of Time in 1984. He’d pitched Tor on a six-book cycle. A little over twenty years later, when Jordan received his diagnosis, he was at work on the Wheel’s twelfth volume, and seemingly no closer to finishing the series than he had been a decade earlier. Rigney’s bio suddenly looked all too prophetic. They nailed shut his coffin the next year.

“I can almost feel that moment, standing and holding the book in my hands, listening to someone play an antiquated upright of Cadash in the background,” read the online eulogy penned by a then-thirty-one-year-old Brandon Sanderson, a burgeoning fantasy novelist and former Mormon missionary. He was talking about his first encounter with the Wheel of Time, which he stumbled upon in a comic-book store. “The cover screamed epic,” he recalled. McDougal, now a widow, was in the midst of a search for a replacement when she read Sanderson’s tribute online.

In this, as in most matters relating to the couple’s happy marriage and the books it produced, she had her husband’s blessing. Jordan, who once spoke so cavalierly about dying with a pen in his hand, had come to realize, at the end of his life, that his series needed a resolution, whether or not he was around to write it. His treatment left him strong enough to work two hours a day, and Jordan skipped ahead, wrote the series’s final paragraph, then began working backward. In his last weeks, when his strength failed him entirely, Jordan summoned his family to his deathbed and narrated aloud the fate of a world he knew he wouldn’t live long enough to realize. They made tapes for posterity.

In September 2007, eighteen months after first receiving his fatal diagnosis, Jordan was buried at Charleston’s St. Stephen’s Church. McDougal wore one of her husband’s black, wide-brimmed hats to the ceremony. The Citadel sent a bagpiper. In the graveyard parking lot, his family gathered around Jordan’s Porsche and listened solemnly to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The memorial program read, “He came like the wind, like the wind touched everything, and like the wind was gone.” Once Jordan’s assembled friends, family, and admirers finally cleared out past her home’s dragon-carved gates, McDougal grieved. Then she went looking for a writer to finish what her husband had started.

After stumbling across Sanderson’s wonkily sincere paean to Jordan (“You go quietly, but leave us trembling,” the younger author had concluded), McDougal picked up one of his books, read forty-five pages, and fell asleep. But when she awoke, she later told the Charleston City Paper, “All the book’s elements were perfectly clear” in her mind. Sanderson had the job.

Brandon Sanderson was born in 1975. His young-adult exploits, as he recalls them now, consisted mostly of piling up rejection slips for the seven fantasy novels he wrote while at Brigham Young (where his roommate was the soon-to-be famous Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings), and serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Seoul, South Korea. His dense first novel, Elantris, was brought out by Tor, Jordan’s publisher, in 2005; Mistborn: The Final Empire, the book that McDougal read, came out in 2006, and was followed by two sequels, another stand-alone epic, Warbreaker (2009), and a series of books written for the young-adult market. A Wheel of Time reader since age fifteen, Sanderson initially reacted to McDougal’s offer with skepticism, followed by stuttering. Later, he wrote her an email that began: “Dear Harriet, I promise I’m not an idiot.”

His first spoke in the Wheel of Time, and the series’s twelfth, came out in 2009. To write it, Sanderson had to contend with a character count that, by the time McDougal handed over the books to him, had climbed well into the high double digits. Jordan’s heroes were spread out across more than fifteen different nations, each with its own intricate cultural mores, political systems, styles of dress, and ways of speaking, occupying regions vaguely recognizable as feudal England, eighteenth-century France, contemporary Tibet, and imperial Japan. (In a letter, Jordan once instructed a correspondent to read the slurry accents of one warlike people from across the ocean as if they came from Texas.) Knights in body armor straight out of the Middle Ages ride to battle alongside Native American–style warrior societies that shun horses and swords in favor of stealth and spears. In a city called Bandar Eban, citizens eat with chopsticks (sursa); in the nearby state of Tarabon, the men favor fezzes.

Not content with the standard dwarf-elf-mage fantastic calculus, Jordan also invented Green Men and gentle giants, ferocious desert clans, roving pacifist bands of Gypsy-like Tinkers, a magic-wielding female-centric nation-state, foxes who wear human skin, and a race of people who look and sound like snakes. Arrayed against the Wheel of Time’s heroes was an almost comically infinite variety of evil: half-human Trollocs, eyeless Myrddraal, vampiric Draghkar, slavering Darkhounds, soulless assassins called Gray Men, thirteen Forsaken (powerful humans who serve the Dark in exchange for eternal life), and, perched above them all, the Dark One himself, sealed away at the moment of creation, and trying to break free ever since.

Then there were the still more esoteric kinds of knowledge a Wheel of Time author was expected to be fluent in. A scene involving magic might include gateways, balefire, skimming, shielding, inverting, delving, “Deathgates,” fireballs, and lightning. That most basic unit of the fantasy novel, the sword, developed in Jordan’s hands every bit as many codified forms as it did in twelfth-century Japan: “The Falcon Stoops,” “The Creeper Embraces the Oak,” “The Moon Rises Over the Lakes,” and so on. Even Jordan’s typologies had typologies.

Proust, you imagine, would’ve been spared the indignity, should he have expired after La Prisonnière, of having someone else attempt La Fugitive. But Sanderson’s Jordan imitation, when it was published in 2009, wasn’t bad. Like most writers in his genre, Sanderson’s own books tended to fly by in a blur of action and curt, expository dialogue. Consequently, despite the complexity of a world the author had had very little time to master, Sanderson’s Wheel of Time debut, The Gathering Storm, accomplished in 765 pages what it typically took the more garrulous Jordan three or four books to do.

For those who had grown attached to Jordan’s characters, the emergence of a successor was a mixed blessing: It was a relief to find ourselves on our way to something recognizable as an ending, after two decades of waiting. At the same time, it was hard not to wish we were headed there with the people with whom we started the journey—Jordan very much included—and not their sometimes indifferently written, fast-talking facsimiles.

In the early going, Jordan explicitly patterned his story after Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. In place of the Shire, Jordan created a town called the Two Rivers, an allusion to the two real-life tributaries, the Ashley and the Cooper, that meet in Charleston near Jordan’s South Carolina home. His Frodo was a teenage shepherd named Rand al-Thor; his Merry and Sam, Rand’s two best friends, Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara. In the first book, The Eye of the World, a Gandalf figure named Moiraine Damodred—an Aes Sedai, in Jordan’s parlance, gifted with the ability to “channel” the One Power, a mystical force that underlies all life—arrives just ahead of the forces of evil and takes our heroes away from home, likely for good. Rand, as he comes to find out, can channel as well, though the male half of the One Power is tainted, and thus fated to make those who use it go mortally insane. This would become the series’s defining theme: the poison needle lurking inside the gift.

To create his main character, Jordan drew from a long and varied history of fantastic archetypes: Jesus, King Arthur, the Fisher King, Luke Skywalker, the one-handed Norse god Tyr. In the books’ mythology, Rand emerges as the latest iteration of a soul that’s immortal, a hero destined to be spun out again and again as the light’s champion in times of need. Known as the Dragon Reborn—after his immediate predecessor from an earlier age—Rand is, like those who have come before him, fated to die in order to save the world. From the bit of prophecy Jordan uses to open the series’s second book, The Great Hunt: “Like the unfettered dawn shall he blind us, and burn us, yet shall the Dragon Reborn confront the Shadow at the Last Battle, and his blood shall give us Light. Let tears flow, O ye people of the world. Weep for your salvation.”

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.

Throughout the novels, Mat, the trickster and gambler of the group, favors the same sort of funny hats—and pitched battles—that Jordan did. Perrin, with his stolid temperament, beard, blacksmith’s shoulders, and fierce, proud wife, can be read as the series’s closest physical and romantic analog for its creator. But it’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. In one notorious instance, the tenth book in the series, Crossroads of Twilight, began, chronologically, in the middle of the ninth. Jordan then followed those two volumes with 2004’s New Spring, a prequel.

At the time, this combination of events nearly sparked a full-scale reader rebellion in the millions-strong community of people who were used to waiting patiently for up to four years for the emergence of the next book—and who in exchange expected the series to move forward, not backward. Said one typically disaffected critic, SFSite.com’s William Thompson, on the release of Crossroads of Twilight: “After several thousand pages of buildup, Robert Jordan has arguably abrogated his side of the bargain, leaving his audience stalled in details and descriptive sidles that have done little to move his primary plotlines forward, despite promises that the series is nearing a conclusion…. One must assume that the author had desired something more than being remembered only as having written the longest story in genre history.”

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.

Despite the Wheel of Time’s impressively vast mythological scope (Christianity, Arthurian legend, Buddhism, Norse mythology, and Japanese samurai culture, for starters) and strange, emergent parallels between its author and his characters, there remain a few major barriers to entry. Some of the bulk of Jordan’s novels can be attributed to the breadth of the storytelling; much of it is the result of sheer, mindless, infuriating repetition. In the Wheel of Time, people tend either to faint, vomit, or burst out laughing at any significant dramatic turn. A big nose is pretty much the guarantee of an evil man. Literally hundreds of wine cups are inadvertently destroyed as characters receive bad news and then look down to see liquid slopping over the ruins of the goblet they’ve just crushed. Tics—braid yanking, maintaining an expressionless face, dry-washing of the hands—harden into characterizations by sheer virtue of being mentioned so many times.

Even more problematic, Jordan possessed an understanding of women so bankrupt it would make a seventh-grade boy weep. It was admirable that he tried: Jordan’s heroes were as liable to be female as male—more so, even—and most of the societies he depicted were either matriarchal or, at worst, equal opportunity.

But Jordan’s women do a lot of “sniffing,” usually loudly. They cross their arms under their breasts. Men to them are “wool-headed lummoxes” or “wool-brained mules.” (A disproportionately high number of women in the Wheel of Time are also lesbians—make of that what you will.) Jordan was not above describing rivals for the same man as “two strange cats who had just discovered they were shut up in the same small room.” That is, when he wasn’t making Borscht Belt jokes about their bad cooking, or spending pages describing their dresses. (In this respect, Jordan put romance novels to shame: the Wheel of Time without a doubt holds the record for inexplicably extended rhapsodies over brocaded silk, embroidery, hemlines, and necklines.) Mostly, what Jordan’s women are is the same: some combination of cold, willful, quick to take offense, and—around the right man—weak in the knees.

Jordan was never anything but unapologetic. “I’ve seen a lot of comment, apparently from men, that my female characters are unrealistic,” he once wrote. “That’s because women are, for the most part, consummate actresses who allow men to see exactly what they intend men to see. Get behind the veil sometimes, boys, and your hair will turn white. I’ve been there, and mine went white and didn’t stop there; a great deal of it actually turned dark again, the shock to my system was so great. Believe me, I mild it down so as not to scare any males into mental breakdowns.” This is as indicative as any other passage Jordan penned regarding women: he seemed to regard a healthy mix of fear and condescension as a decent proxy for respect, and left it at that.

Sanderson, once he decided to take the job, was a blessing as far as females in the Wheel of Time went. His own Mistborn trilogy has a woman as its main character, and Sanderson is patently more familiar with a feminine psychology that flesh-and-blood humans might actually recognize. In Sanderson’s hands, Jordan’s women stop scolding each other and their men so much, fuss less about their wardrobe, and generally behave like rational adults rather than spoiled children. It is a relief to finally like the other half of the characters you’ve spent twelve books with.

So why read 4 million words about arcane metaphysical theology, battle after battle, the mundane, angst-ridden thoughts of hundreds of people you don’t now know, and sex scenes that involve sentences like “He cupped the back of her head and barely had the presence of mind not to finger her ear”? The vast majority of Wheel of Time fans will wax nostalgic for the first three novels of Jordan’s trilogy, each of which is a comparatively compact, self-contained marvel of storytelling. The fourth book is the first to carry an ongoing arc into the next volume. After that the characters begin to spread out and, in some cases, stop accomplishing all that much; the pacing grinds to a halt entirely by the time we reach the infamous seven-through-ten stretch. But that still leaves the eleventh book, Knife of Dreams, the last Jordan wrote before his death. And it’s this final volume, according to one devoted reader—who has lived with the Wheel of Time since childhood and the series’s first book, and who has bought each successive sequel on the day that it came out—that is Jordan’s unlikely masterpiece, and justification enough for what’s come before it.

The book is the Wheel of Time’s most frankly romantic installment: Mat, who has emerged from the last four novels to make an escape from an invading army, has taken Tuon, the heir to that army’s throne, hostage. Both were told separately, long ago, that they were fated to marry one another. But they fight prophecy and each other with all the verve of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Mat calls Tuon “Precious”; she calls him “Toy.” They exchange gifts, insults, and test one another relentlessly; eventually, they save each other’s lives and, at the end of the book, wed.

The absurdly huge scope of Jordan’s series delivers on its promise at the exact paradoxical moment it starts taking seriously the individuals at the heart of the books. Mat and Tuon’s belated union trumps the furious battles, widescreen set pieces, and epic clashes between Dark and Light it takes place among, precisely because of how long it took to arrive—through all the delays, detours, and dallying their creator increasingly couldn’t resist. Part of the magic of Jordan’s last effort derives from sheer relief at the resolution of several long-running plotlines. (Perrin finally recovers his wife; Rand finally moves to forge peace with the army he’s been battling for the past three books; and so on.) But there is also, in the microcosm of Mat and Tuon’s romance, the thrilling rekindling for readers of a long-dormant wish: that the books never end at all.

Once so focused on the end and the coming cataclysmic clash between an overarching good and a gathering, implacable evil, Jordan came to write his most stirring scenes with just one or two people in the frame. The end readers have anxiously awaited for twenty years is revealed to be a kind of MacGuffin—better a perpetual present in which Jordan, his characters, and his world live on than a speedy resolution and the subsequent loss of it all.

This, of course, is not an option: Jordan is gone. With him go the finely detailed characters it took thousands of pages for their own author to even begin to understand. The books roll on—Towers of Midnight, the series’s thirteenth and penultimate book, is due in November. Sanderson will then sprint to have the last installment, A Memory of Light, out before the end of 2011. Inside the novels, time is circular: “There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time,” goes the incantation that has opened each book of the series since Jordan began it more than two decades ago. But outside the Wheel of Time, time is an arrow headed only one way—into a future in which Mat, Perrin, Tuon, Rand, and the rest of Jordan’s characters must live on without their creator. The ending will mean less without all of them there to see it.

Zach Baron is an editor at the Village Voice.

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