The Eye of the World (Book Review)

Welcome! After a long and arduous chapter-by-chapter re-read of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World – the first book of his The Wheel of Time series, we have reached the end of the first book. You can find my chapter recaps HERE.

Now I will provide a review of the book in its entirety. There will be no spoilers beyond this book in my review. There will be spoilers for *this* book, though. Read ahead with caution.

“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.”

The Eye of the World is the first installment of Robert Jordan’s fourteen book epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. The series also includes a prequel novel, A New Spring.

The core plot of the story is straight-forward and familiar to a fantasy reader. A small rural village is attacked by mythical monsters that appear particularly interested in three boys from said village. A small party, including among them those three boys, is led from the village by a magic-wielder in search of answers. As they journey farther from home, the world gets increasingly larger and more complex. The scope of their danger also increases in size accordingly. As the book ends, we learn that one of the three boys, Rand al’Thor, is the chosen one figure, The Dragon Reborn, and that through him prophecies regarding future events will be fulfilled.

If the basic story feels like a standard fantasy fiction plot, well, that’s exactly what it is. What makes The Wheel of Time unique is that to a large degree, Jordan was first. He reformulated the fantasy fiction genre, post-Tolkein, and the last thirty years have given us too many copycats to count. The other thing that makes Jordan’s work unique is the almost too generous world-building detail he provides in his work. Jordan describes the history of his world, over three thousand years, in increasingly great detail as you move through his work. He also describes seemingly less important details, such as the patterns present on a rug or the fabric type and hem of a village woman’s dress.

The genius of Robert Jordan as a writer is that he crafts truly enjoyable info-dump. To a large degree, The Eye of the World is a book of info-dump. When Moiraine Sedai explains to a group of villagers that their village is named after a two thousand years gone battle, the prose does not read like dull recitations from a history textbook. Instead, the history comes alive.

“Is this what Aemon’s blood has come to?” The Aes Sedai’s voice was not loud, but it overwhelmed every other sound. “Little people squabbling for the right to hide like rabbits? You have forgotten who you were, forgotten what you were, but I had hoped some small part was left, some memory in blood and bone. Some shred to steel you for the long night coming.”

No one spoke. The two Coplins looked as if they never wanted to open their mouths again.

Bran said, “Forgotten who we were? We are who we always have been. Honest farmers and shepherds and craftsmen. Two Rivers folk.”

“To the south,” Moiraine said, “lies the river you call the White River, but far to the east of here men call it still by its rightful name. Manetherendrelle. In the Old Tongue, Waters of the Mountain Home. Sparkling waters that once coursed through a land of bravery and beauty. Two thousand years ago Manetherendrelle flowed by the walls of a mountain city so lovely to behold that Ogier stonemasons came to stare in wonder. Farms and villages covered this region, and that you call the Forest of Shadows, as well, and beyond. But all of those folk thought of themselves as the people of the Mountain Home, the people of Manetheren.

The first several chapters of The Eye of the World strongly evoke Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Egwene are human teenagers but in many respects they feel like hobbits being led from their ideal home by a wizard. As was the case in The Lord of the Rings with Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, the teenagers here leave home without explanation. And as was the case in Tolkein’s story, a powerful and long dormant enemy is in the backwater village looking for something. In the case of The Wheel of Time, the enemy is actually looking for someone. In Jordan’s world though, rather than an old gray haired male wizard guiding our know-nothings, we get an ageless beautiful female Aes Sedai. That change aside, the story still feels familiar. We are even presented with black hood wearing bad guys who give chase. In Jordan’s novels, these creatures are called Myrddraal rather than Nazgul. Piling on with the similarities, the first major escape from these black cloak wearing pursuers occurs at a ferry crossing.

From here, though, Jordan’s world begins to diverge with Tolkein’s. Rather than our young villagers remaining hobbit-like, small, and helpless, they show signs of growth into something significantly more. Egwene learns that she can wield magic – referred to within the novels as channeling the One Power. The Emond’s Field community healer, Nynaeve, called a Wisdom, tracks down their party after it leaves to keep an adult eye on the teenagers who left with strangers. She learns that she too can use magic. Rand, Mat, and Perrin display unusual skill with their weapons. In fact, we learn that the entirety of The Two Rivers, the region from where the story begins, might be something of a sleeping giant with respect to fighting-prowess. Community wide standards for hunting and tracking wild animals are unusually high.

Each of the three boys evolves in a unique way. Perrin – the brawny blacksmith’s apprentice – grows in skill with a battle ax. He is forced to use it on a few occasions in the story and he does so successfully. Along the way, Perrin also learns that he can communicate with wolves. Mat is the mischief maker in their group. When we meet him, he has just set loose a badger on the village green to scare the girls. His mischief gets him into severe trouble while the group explores an abandoned city called Shadar Logoth. However, Mat is also the member of their party that most frequently displays his adeptness at using a bow and arrow when facing danger. On more than one occasion, Mat speaks in the dead language of his long forgotten ancestors – something Moiraine their Aes Sedai guide explains as The Old Blood being strong within him.

Most of the story is told from the perspective of the Emond’s Field youth Rand al’Thor. He is the third of the village boys. He is one of the first to see a black cloaked rider. Just before danger arrives in earnest, his father gives him a special sword long kept hidden beneath a chest under his bed. Rand soon learns just how special the sword is and he learns to use it. Ultimately, Rand learns that despite the special qualities of all his village comrades, he is the one The Dark One is after. Rand al’Thor is the reborn Champion of the Light, known within the story as The Dragon Reborn.

The Chosen One trope is subverted within the story, though. The previous iteration of The Dragon is viewed as nothing less than evil personified by most people. After saving the world from The Dark One three thousand years ago, the previous Dragon, Lews Therin Telemon, went insane. In fact, in securing a victory over the Dark One, he doomed all men who wield The One Power to insanity. In order to imprison The Dark One, The Dragon touched him. When he touched the Dark One, he irreparably tainted all of the male magic within the universe. The taint leads to madness. Lews Therin Telamon, in his insanity, murdered every one who loved him and earned the title Lews Therin Kinslayer. He and other men who wield the One Power nearly destroyed the planet, moving continents, changing topography. Within the context of the story, being named The Dragon Reborn is not unlike what it might be like for a Westerner to be named The Antichrist.

And yet the prophecies state that the Dragon must be born again to save the world.

Jordan’s world draws from many different sources. As mentioned earlier, it overtly pays homage to Tolkein as it begins. It also draws heavily from Arthurian themes, Celtic and Norse mythology, eastern worldviews, as well as familiar western religious motifs.

Rand al’Thor’s surname is a reference to Arthur. Egwene al’Vere is a reference to Guinevere. Lan, the Warder and protector of Moiraine, refers to Lancelot. Thom Merrilin, the gleeman and sometimes mentor to the Emond’s Field boys has a name which refers to Merlin. Nynaeve refers to Nyneve, the Lady of the Lake. We meet a Gawyn and a Galad. The story visits the grand city of Caemlyn – which is a nod to Arthur’s Camlann. Tar Valon, the grandest city in The Wheel of Time universe, is derived from Avalon.

Perrin refers to the Slavic god Perun. Moiraine refers to the Moirae or Moirai. These are the three Fates of Greek mythology. Norse mythology becomes more evident in later books but even in The Eye of the World, the Horn of Valere bears some resemblance to Heimdall’s Horn.

There is a strong undercurrent of Eastern and Asian themes within the story. Jordan’s novels exist in a world where religion is at best loosely defined. However, all the people in this world believe in reincarnation. They believe in cycles of existence. The Wheel of Time, to a character in the novel, symbolizes circular time. The Wheel has seven spokes which represents the seven repeating ages of the world. The major visual symbol of the series is the symbol of the ancient Aes Sedai and it looks like the real world yin and yang. The banner of Lews Therin Telamon is a dragon whose description is closer in appearance to the Chinese stylized dragon than a Middle Ages European depiction.

However, intermixed with an Asian influence is a dualism that will be more familiar to western or Abrahamic readers. There is a Creator God. There is an evil opponent, Shai’tan, whose name is not coincidentally similar to Satan. Many of the principal bad guys have names familiar to those of Abrahamic adversaries.

Ba’alzamon is a reference to Be’elzebub, or perhaps Baal more generally.
Balthamel seems to refer to Balthazar – a Babylonian bad guy from the Bible. 
Ishamael refers to Ishmael – the son of Abraham who was cast out.
Sammael refers to Samael, which is the name in Rabbinic writings of the Angel of Death.

In total, the brilliance of the world-building is in the tremendous detail provided and the unique way that Jordan blends those details together into something that is both familiar and completely new.

One of my favorite Jordan reinventions are the Ogier. Ogier are a race of humanoid giants who live for many hundreds of years. They keep primarily to themselves and are famed as crafsmen and lovers of trees. The name of their race appears to have been inspired by King Og, an alleged real world giant, as described in the Bible and other ancient writings from the Middle East and adjacent areas. Loial is the first Ogier we meet in The Eye of the World though Loial refers to others – his mother and Elder Haman in particular. Despite his giant size, he is mild-mannered, self-doubting, and a devout book lover.

The sources of Jordan’s non-human intelligent life are of varied origin. Ogier appear to be a race of humanoids who simply appeared on the earth at some point in the deeply remote past of his story. Trollocs, myrddraal, dragkhar, and other Shadowspawn are creatures which were created by evil members of mankind, particularly Aginor, during previous age of humanity (The Age of Legends) before male channelers broke the world. These Shadowspawn were made as chimeras using human stock, animal stock, and evil magic. The Green Man, who we meet near the end of the book, is a giant creature made of vegetation with the apparent magical power to aid in the growth of vegetation. The Green Man is thousands of years old, the last of his kind on earth, and Loial refers to him as Treebrother.

The book, and the series, are not without critics. Some readers view the homage to Tolkein in the early chapters as derivative. I find that criticism to be quite unfair inasmuch as the story does not resemble Tolkein much at all beyond the early elements. Other people just do not enjoy the immense detail provided. In my opinion, that is a stylistic preference. Personally, I enjoy the detail. I find that the descriptions help to immerse myself into the text. Still more people do not enjoy the character arcs – particularly those of the female characters. This is a criticism more relevant to later books, in my opinion, but I also disagree. I will not spoil you here but Nynaeve’s character arc is one of my favorite… ever… from any book. If the characters are themselves occasionally imperfect, and irritating, well, in my opinion, those flaws make their great moments all the more enjoyable.

The most recent criticism – one that stings me personally – is that the story is dated. When I hear that I feel attacked for being old. Is it valid, though? The Eye of the World was first published in 1990. THIRTY YEARS AGO. As I have mentioned, it has numerous copycats – some of which actually improved on ideas Jordan created. Other copycats are relatively forgettable. That said, what does it mean to be “dated?”

  • Are there strong female characters? Yes.
  • Is the “magic system” well thought out? For the most part… yes.
  • Are my expectations occasionally subverted? Yes.
  • Is the story sufficiently and realistically violent? Do people die? Yes.

One area wherein the story might feel dated is that it is not an overtly “gritty” story with respect to the way he tells it. The substance is certainly gritty, though, occasionally even horrifying if you put thought into what is happening. However, Jordan’s story is an effort to reinvent high fantasy. The series itself is a love letter to the genre. If Tolkein’s LOTR felt distinctly European, and particularly British, Jordan’s novels feel comparably global – drawing from history, myths, and beliefs from around the world. If Tolkein was a zig, Jordan was not trying to zag. He was attempting to be ziggier.

We now live in a world where attempts at the zag are more commonplace. George R.R. Martin’s novels are what I would consider a zag. Substantively, his novels are familiar. Like Jordan, he draws from all kinds of global sources and blends them together brilliantly. The differences is in the execution of his story. If Jordan is an attempt to elevate high fantasy, Martin is an attempt to ground high fantasy on something that feels more solid and realistic. That said, I suspect that the transition to the visual medium for The Wheel of Time, on Amazon, will make differences in style, between Jordan and Martin, harder to distinguish for non-readers.

If you cannot tell from what I have said thus far, let me say more succinctly. Jordan’s world has a lot going on. If you are interested in an immersive fantasy fiction experience, this one is worth reading. I have read and enjoyed The Eye of the World, repeatedly, since the mid 1990s. I suspect, if I live long enough to pull it off, that I will continue reading this series over and over for another quarter century, too.

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