The Eye of the World, the first novel in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, was published in 1990. By this point “fantasy literature” had, for much of the general public, come to mean series of doorstopper novels that owe their existence to The Lord of the Rings. The book does little to buck this conception.
We are taken to another little village, where young friends Rand, Mat and Perrin – heirs to Frodo, Sam and Pippin – are carried off on an adventure. Their party comes to include a vaguely Aragon-like warrior named Lan and a magician named Moiraine – although the latter character is a woman, which at least gives her a degree of sepearation from Gandalf. Together, the band foes up against the forces of a Sauron-esque Dark One, including Trollocs and Fades (clear counterparts to orcs and ringwraiths).
The novel also reflects the fact that, for some time, The Lord of the Rings had not been the only go-to inspiration for fantasy epics. The story kicks off with the heroes’ village being attacked by Trollocs, a scene that contrasts with Lord of the Rings (where the closest comparison, the Scouring of the Shire, occurs much later) but does recall Star Wars, plus various post-Star Wars epics like the first Conan film where the opening attack on the protagonist’s home is a reliable plot device. This convention likely entered the genre via the Western films that George Lucas watched in his youth; Tolkien’s closest comparable influence – the adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard – defined English hometowns as places destined to receive the wealth of foreign treasure, rather than places to be defended from Apaches, Sand People or Trollocs.
It would be unfair, though, to write off The Eye of the World as nothing more than a Tolkien imitation with added Star Wars. While Tolkien did provide an easily-imitated template for a distinct set of archetypes, he did not invent those archetypes: Jordan has as much right to use them as anyone else. Sauron is merely a Satan-figure, something Jordan acknowledges by giving his villains names like Shai’tan and Ba’alzamon. Meanwhile, the Trollocs and Fades are, at the end of the day, simply the two main categories of fantasy monster: corporeal and non-corporeal. Looking at the wider cast, it becomes clear that imitating Tolkien point-by-point was not Jordan’s intention. The main characters include trainee sorceress Egwene and bard Thom, neither of whom have counterparts in Lord of the Rings; nor does the Green Man, who is derived from the medieval artistic motif of the same name and would have fitted into Oz as much as Middle Earth.
All that being said, The Eye of the World does suffer from one of the negative attributes associated with post-Tolkien fantasy: long-winded descriptions of characters travelling from point A to B to C. Rather too many of the novel’s plot points amount to protagonists staying at an inn, attracting the attention of a suspicious customer, and moving on to another in so that the process can be repeated. If Tolkien conjured up an epic journey across a mythic English landscape, The Eye of the World all too often feels more like a wearing crawl down a highway from one motel to another.
This is unfortunate, as Jordan shows a flair for describing his heroes’ thinly-spaced encounters with the supernatural. A good example is where the characters explore a ruined city and meet a treasure-hunter, Mordeth, who turns out to be a weird shapeshifting entity:
Mordeth nodded, and for the first time his fleshy eyelids opened all the way. His sleek face suddenly appeared pinched and hungry. “So.” He stood straighter, seeming taller. “It is decided.” Abruptly there was no seeming to it. Like a balloon Mordeth swelled, distorted, head pressed against the ceiling, shoulders butting the walls, filling the end of the room, cutting off escape. Hollowcheeked, teeth bared in a rictus snarl, he reached out with hands big enough to engulf a man’s head.
Mordeth threw back his head and wailed; dust sifted down as the walls trembled. “You are all dead!” he cried. “All dead!” And he leaped up, diving across the room. Rand’s jaw dropped, and he almost dropped the sword as well. As Mordeth dove through the air, he stretched out and thinned, like a tendril of smoke. As thin as a finger he struck a crack in the wall tiles and vanished into it. A last cry hung in the room as he vanished, fading slowly away after he was gone.
“You are all dead!”
It could be said that these outbreaks of weirdness clash with the novel’s blandly suburbanised fantasyland, but when looked at from the right angle, they fit perfectly. Intentionally or not, Jordan’s story evokes the world as imagined by religious cranks like Jack Chick, Chad Ripperger and Michael Dawson, all of whom portray the barrier separating mom-and-apple-pie America from the realm of demons as a thin one – thin enough that it can be violated by a kid playing Dungeons & Dragons or listening to heavy metal.
The climax to The Eye of the World pits Rand and company against two of the Forsaken, evildoers who had been bound in the underworld but are now free:
Hands pushed back hoods, and Rand goggled. The old man was older than old; he made Cenn Buie look like a child in the bloom of health. The skin of his face was like crazed parchment drawn tight over a skull, then pulled tighter still. Wispy tufts of brittle hair stood at odd places on his scabrous scalp. His ears were withered bits like scraps of ancient leather; his eyes sunken, peering out of his head as if from the ends of tunnels. Yet the other was worse. A tight, black leather carapace covered that one’s head and face completely, but the front of it was worked into a perfect face, a young man’s face, laughing wildly, laughing insanely, frozen forever. What is he hiding if the other shows what he shows? Then even thought froze in his head, shattered to dust and blew away.
These figures suggest the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser at least as much as they do anything in The Lord of the Rings. This is appropriate, given that Hellraiser is set not in a complete fantasyland but in a modern urban milieu that happens to have a Christian vision of Hell running beneath it.
Whatever criticisms can be directed at The Eye of the World, the novel has moments in which the fog accumulated across the genre by decades of Dungeons & Dragons sessions is blown away, allowing the unearthly glow of weird literature to shine through. It has to be said, though, that a remarkably similar atmosphere of weirdness can also be found in the speeches of televangelists warning us about the danger of role-playing games.