Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Eye of the World - Robert Jordan

As Adam over at The Wertzone points out, it has been twenty years since the release of The Eye of the World, a landmark in the fantasy genre. I haven't been reading the series that long of course. I was 13 at the time and had barely begun to learn English. The first Dutch translations didn't appear until 1994. I picked up my first Wheel of Time book in the summer of 1999 and read all available titles as soon as I could get my hands on them. The Wheel of Time got me into online communities and ultimately into book reviewing as well. To say it has been an influence on me is understating its importance. I'm ashamed that almost missed it.

To mark the occasion I posted a review of
The Eye of the World I wrote in late 2008 as part of a reread of the entire series in preparation of the release of The Gathering Storm. I've fixed a few minor errors but other than that the review is unchanged. At the time the title of the book Brandon Sanderson was completing had not been announced so I am referring to it as A Memory of Light.

The Eye of the World is the first book in Jordan’s hugely successful Wheel of Time series. I don’t know of any other book that has gets so many “this book got me into fantasy” comments as this one. This isn’t true for me. I had already read Tolkien, Feist and Hobb by the time I arrived at Jordan’s work. He had me hooked right from the prologue though and I keep coming back to this book in particular. I must have read this book half a dozen times now. My ever expanding library has put it’s qualities a different perspective over the years. It is definitely not without its flaws, in fact, for such a hugely influential work The Eye of the World is a surprisingly mediocre book. But I love it anyway.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Thus Jordan introduces us to the Wheel of Time and the Two Rivers. The Two Rivers area is a very isolated corner of the world. It is nominally part of the Kingdom of Andor but that nation, like so many others, cannot control the territory it claims on the map. Two Rivers folk have looked after themselves for generations now. Many of them do not know they have a Queen. On the evening before the festival of Bel Tine, the spring festival in the Two Rivers. Rand al’Thor and his father Tam are travelling to the village of Emond’s Field to deliver apple brandy to the local in. Spring may officially be beginning but winter’s hand still lies heavy on the land. It has been a very hard winter and Rand is looking forward to the festival.

Before they reach the village Rand spots a rider cloaked in black behind them on the road. He vanishes when Rand alerts his father. Rand doubts whether the rider was actually there but when they arrive in the village his friends Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara have also seen the rider in the past few days. And there is more news, a mysterious lady by the name of Moiraine has arrived, accompanied by the warrior Lan. A Gleeman has also made an appearance at the inn in Emond’s field. And to top it all off the peddler Paddan Fain has arrived with disturbing news from outside the Two Rivers. All of this makes Tam uneasy. They decide to go back to their farm and return to the village for the festival the day after.

That night the farm is attacked by Trollocs, creatures of the dark who have not been seen so far south in millennia. Rand thought them stories only. Both Rand and Tam survive but Tam is wounded and unable to travel. Rand manages to get him to the village only to find it in ruins as well. The Trollocs have raided it too. During the attack Moiraine has revealed herself to be an Aes Sedai, a wielder of the One Power, the force that drives the Wheel of Time. For Moiraine it is clear what the Trollocs were after, Rand, Perrin and Mat. Aes Sedai are much feared and mistrusted throughout the land but she manages to convince the boys the only way to prevent the Trollocs from returning and completely destroying the village is leaving the Two Rivers. She plans to take them to the city that houses the White Tower, Tar Valon, the seat of Aes Sedai power and one of the most beautiful cities west of the Spine of the World.

Tam gives Rand his blessing and in the night a party consisting of Rand, Perrin, Mat, Lan, Moiraine and the innkeeper’s daughter Egwene al’Vere set out for Tar Valon. The gleeman, Thom Merrilin decides to travel with them, for a while at least. During their flight from the Two Rivers they are hunted by Trollocs and worse. When they ford the river Taren, the only place into the Two Rivers they seem save for a while. The boys and Egwene know very little about the outside world but going back does not appear to be an option. In fact their journey has just begun. Meanwhile, the village Wisdom of Emond’s Field will not stand by idly while the four youngsters are being taken away. Nyneave al’Meara sets out in pursuit and thus begins a long journey of her own.

The firs thing many readers will notice about The Eye of the World is that a large part of the novel is basically a retelling of The Felllowship of the Ring. There are the hobbits (Emond’s Field youngsters), Gandalf (Moiraine), the uncrowned king Aragorn (Lan), the Black Riders (Fades) and even, although not immediately apparent, a Gollum. Jordan never denied this, he set the beginning of his tale in familiar territory for fantasy readers before branching out into his own world. In a way this is an understandable choice. Jordan sets out to tell a highly complex tale, he needs to get his readers on board before really taking off. In another epic fantasy series I like, Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, the author throws you right in the middle of the story and leaves you to piece things together on your own. Erikson’s books are very rewarding but a lot of readers will not make the effort required to get into the book. On the whole I think I prefer Erikson’s approach. Jordan doesn’t really leave familiar territory for the first 300 or so pages of the book. Not until the party (or should I say fellowship) splits up does the story get really interesting.

Of course there’s still a few rough spots further along in the book. Rand and Mat’s adventures travelling down the road to Caemlyn are narrated in what is basically a big flashback. It has been known to confuse readers. Especially the bit right before they reach the city. Personally I think the climax of the book isn’t a marvel of clarity either. After reading a couple Wheel of Time book it starts to make more sense but Jordan’s world and it’s history is so complex that at a first reading it’s pretty hard to grasp the significance of what happens at the Eye of the World.

Jordan has the prologue going for him though. He’s written one of the most intriguing prologues in fantasy (I am referring to the original prologue here, not the Ravens prologue added in the YA edition of The Eye of the World). It deals with Lews Therin Tellamon’s last moments and the creation of the Dragonmount. It’s this prologue and not so much the first part of the book that had me hooked from the very beginning. It hints at a lot of things we’ll learn about in subsequent novels. It’s also the only bit of writing in the entire series to be set well before the main story. It’s one of those bits of writing where you can already see that Jordan is going to take the story far beyond the trilogy format.

In later books it becomes obvious the story has grown way beyond what Jordan planned, originally it was supposed to be six books, now it looks like book 12 is going to be so big it has to be split up in two volumes. The seeds of this expansion are sown in The Eye of the World. I don’t think I noticed it so much in previous reads but Jordan does leave an awful lot of questions unanswered. Apart from introducing us to a number of main characters Jordan also mentions a lot an awful lot of back story and hints at things that will become important later in the books. To give you an example:
“I will give you justice then, Rand al’Thor,” she said. “First, because I have the advantage of Elaida and Gareth in having heard Two Rivers speech when I was young. You have not the look, but if a dim memory can serve me you have the Two Rivers on your tongue.”

Morgase passing judgement on Rand’s trespassing of the Royal gardens, chapter 40.
The only person we know of who has left the Two Rivers before Rand is Tam al’Thor. In later books it becomes clear Tam had quite an adventure during the Aiel War. So there is a possibility Morgase and Tam met. Whether or not they have is still not cleared but I am pretty sure Jordan meant to pursue this at one point or another in his story. Both Morgase and Tam are in Perrin’s company in Knife of Dreams. Maybe we will find out. On the other hand, Jordan could have meant to use it in one of the prequels he intended to write.

Another example:
“Breyan fled with her infant son Isam, and was run down by Trollocs as she rode south with him. No one knows their fate of a certainty, but it can be guessed. I can find pity only for the boy.”

Lord Agelmar telling Lan’s story, chapter 47
We still don’t know Isam’s fate for a certainty but there have been hints (in The Great Hunt in particular). Death in the conventional meaning of the world can be ruled out I guess. It is another one of the riddles Sanderson should shed some light on in A Memory of Light. It has been said that the story grew too large for Jordan to handle because he kept adding characters and story lines. I would argue that a lot of what makes the story branch out so much has it’s roots in the first two books in the series. It’s what makes rereading the early Wheel of Time books so much fun. You keep noticing these little things that will become important in later books.

The Eye of the World is not the best Wheel of Time book in my opinion, but it is the beginning of an epic journey. A journey that, despite all the criticism of Jordan’s later books, is still one of the biggest achievements in modern fantasy. After half a dozen reads this book doesn’t bore me and I very much doubt it will after half a dozen more. All things considered it is remarkable how this book, that uses a lot of standard fantasy themes and has a few flaws in the writing, grew to be so popular. I think the of the scope of Jordan’s vision has something to with that. This book makes it clear there is a lot more to discover, this sense of anticipation appeals to me, and most likely to a lot of other people as well. Even though I have read and reread the entire series, I still look forward to watching the story unfold again.

Book Details
Title: The Eye of the World
Author: Robert Jordan
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 670
Year: 1990
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-312-85009-3
First published: 1990


  1. It is not the best series I read, but it has a certain flavor that appeals to me greatly. And every time I think about it, it is with pleasant memories. I will re-read it with delight every time I'll get the chance :)

  2. You mean after you complete this other landmark in epic fantasy, the Malazan book of the Fallen, of course ;)