The Wheel of Time Turns: Over 30 Years of Robert Jordan's Epic Fantasy Series
I'm rereading the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Maybe you are as well? With a TV adaptation currently airing on Amazon Prime, Wheel of Time is in the spotlight again. I've been meaning to reread the series ever since the last book came out in 2013. It has taken a while, but I'm finally diving back into the books I adored as a teenager.
I first encountered Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in the used bookstore at the end of my street. The fantasy section was in a little wooden cube with two shelves on either side. Each shelf had two rows of fat fantasy novels jammed into it. I used to sit on the floor and dig through that treasure trove to find a new world to jump into. As I sifted through the battered paperbacks, my hand landed on The Eye of the World, the first book in the Wheel of Time series. The cover showed an imposing knight with two swords astride a large black horse. Beside him rode a straight-backed woman on a white horse holding a wizard's staff. Perfect.
In his introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of The Eye of the World, Brandon Sanderson recounts a similar story. Like me, he was in middle school when he first saw the book in his local comics shop. Intrigued by the cover, he picked it up, little knowing it would follow him for the rest of his life. Sanderson became a big fan. He even wrote the finale to the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan.
At first glance, the Wheel of Time has many similarities to The Lord of the Rings. A group of simple villagers is targeted by evil trollocs and Nazgul-like "Fades." They must flee their home and set off into the wide world. Led by a wise sorceress and an enigmatic warrior, they must figure out why the lord of evil, the Dark One, is hunting them. From there, though, the story heads off on paths all its own.
Jordan's worldbuilding is detailed and engrossing. In a 1991 interview with Starlog magazine, he identified a central theme of the series as, "the struggle between the forces of good and evil. How far can you go in fighting evil before becoming like evil itself? Or do you maintain your purity at the cost of evil's victory?"
Robert Jordan is a pseudonym (or pen name) for James Oliver Rigney Jr. He was born on October 17, 1948, in Charleston, South Carolina. After high school, he served two tours in Vietnam, from 1968-1970, as a helicopter crewman. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star for his service.
After his stint in the army, Jordan enrolled at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. He graduated in 1974 with a degree in physics and went to work for the US Navy as a nuclear engineer. In the late 1970s, he suffered a severe knee injury that landed him in hospital for an extended stay. Tired of reading, he started writing to pass the time and decide to pursue it as a new career.
The first book Jordan published was The Fallon Blood in 1980, a historical novel that became a three book family saga. He wrote it under the name Reagan O'Neal. Jordan also wrote a Western, Cheyenne Raiders, under the name Jackson O'Reilly. Jordan liked to use different names for the different genres he wrote in, as he wanted his fans to be able to tell his books apart. He was saving his own name, Jim Rigney, for contemporary fiction. The first book that Jordan ever wrote was a fantasy novel called Warrior of the Altaii. It was published in 2019, after his death.
He began using the pseudonym Robert Jordan when Tor Books asked him to continue the Conan series. Originally created by Robert E. Howard, many authors have since written the adventures of Conan the Barbarian. Starting with Conan the Invincible in 1982, Jordan wrote seven Conan novels for Tor.
Jordan published The Eye of the World in February 1990. It quickly became a bestseller. Jordan planned it to be the first in a six book series called The Wheel of Time. From the start, he knew how the series would begin and end. He had an outline of the story he wanted to tell. All that was left to do was write it. But, he found that he couldn't fit as much story into a book as he thought he could. The number of volumes in his series expanded accordingly.
Robert Jordan visited the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy on a book tour for his third Wheel of Time novel, The Dragon Reborn. On October 25, 1991, Jordan read to a crowd of 63 people and signed the Merril Collection's copies of his books.
Robert Jordan published Knife of Dreams in October 2005. His next book was to be the final, twelfth volume of the Wheel of Time series. The tentative title was "A Memory of Light." He was working on it when, in March 2006, he made a grave announcement. In a letter to Locus magazine, he revealed that he had been diagnosed with a rare blood disease called amyloidosis. Doctors said his life expectancy was about four years. But, Jordan was optimistic. He stated in the letter, "I have thirty more years worth of books to write even if I can keep from thinking of any more, and I don't intend to let this thing get in my way." He kept in touch with fans via his blog and posted about the progression of his treatment. He also laid out extensive notes for "A Memory of Light," just in case someone else would have to finish it.
Jordan planned to write an unrelated trilogy called Infinity of Heaven as well as two more Wheel of Time prequels after he finished Wheel of Time series. That was never to happen. Robert Jordan died on September 16, 2007 at age 58 of complications from amyloidosis.
After his death, a search began for the author who could complete his great work. Harriet McDougal, Jordan's editor and wife, read through the works of several authors recommended by Tor Books. She picked Brandon Sanderson, partly because she liked his books and partly because of his writing about Jordan. Sanderson had never met Jordan, but he was a big fan. He wrote a short eulogy for Locus magazine and a longer one for his website. In late 2007, Sanderson signed on to finish the final book of Wheel of Time. But, the outline for book 12 was of such vast scope, Sanderson found he could not contain it all in one volume. It was split into three: The Gathering Storm, The Towers of Midnight and, finally, A Memory of Light. This brought the total number of books in The Wheel of Time series to 14.
Brandon Sanderson visited the Merril Collection on his tour for A Memory of Light in 2013. A description and pictures of the event were written up in the Friends of Merril newsletter, SOL Rising. It was a celebration of the completion of Wheel of Time and the impact it has had on its many fans.
In his 1991 interview with Starlog magazine, Jordan said, "If you're lucky, people will be reading your books 20 years after you're dead. If you're very lucky, they'll be reading them 50 years later, 100 years later if you're extraordinarily fortunate." It has been 31 years, and Wheel of Time is as beloved as ever. He has been lucky indeed. Maybe one day he will be extraordinarily fortunate.
More About the Wheel of Time
Robert Jordan created a highly detailed world for his Wheel of Time series. The following books will help you dive deeper into his creation.
The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Teresa Patterson
An illustrated guide to the world of the series.
The Wheel of Time Companion: The People, Places, and History of the Bestselling Series by Robert Jordan, Harriet McDougal, Alan Romanczuk and Maria Simons
A detailed encyclopedia of everything Wheel of Time.
If you want to take your immersion in Wheel of Time to the next level, the Merril Collection has a copy of the Wheel of Time roleplaying game, released in 2001 by Wizards of the Coast.
To see other visual representations of Wheel of Time, check out the graphic novel adaptations of Eye of the World and the prequel New Spring.
For fantasy fans interested in worldbuilding, join us for “How Do You Build An Imaginary World, Anyway?” Ed Greenwood, author of The Forgotten Realms, will be doing an online talk on Wednesday, December 15 at 7pm. You can register now to get an email reminder, tune in live, or watch the recorded replay after the event.