With the TV show coming out, I finally, after 20 years of reading, buckled under the pressure and picked up The Eye of the World (1990). I knew a bit of what I could expect, notably the similarities between this first book and JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Nevertheless, I was about to quit this novel at around 60% because of cumulative boredom and general frustration, but persevered through sheer mastodonic willpower to its messy final act.
First, the Tolkien thing. That wasn’t even the reason that did me in, but let’s address it. I’ve often heard the excuse that is made for these similarities with Tolkien and that is that the publishers at the time wanted epic fantasy to resemble Tolkien for greater sales. But I don’t really understand that and it goes against what Jordan himself has said. Surely there has been fantasy published before the 1990s that was unlike Tolkien? Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane was published in 1977, and, while also inspired by Tolkien, was not nearly as blatant in it as The Eye of the World… Jordan said that he wanted to present the readers with something familiar and comfortable, before branching out on his own ideas of epic fantasy, and I take it that he was not coerced into making this decision. To shine a more positive light on it, Jordan’s book acknowledges the roots of the epic fantasy genre, before subverting that structure and pushing it into newer directions. In that sense he followed the same footsteps as Stephen Donaldson’s series and Tad Williams’s The Dragonbone Chair (1988). It would only be a few years later when George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996) completely flipped the table.
The Eye of the World may be so heavily inspired by The Lord of the Rings that it has copied not only the general structure of the plot but also has the equivalents of its locations, character groups and races, down to a Mountains of Dhoom and fireworks in the Shire – but that doesn’t mean that Jordan didn’t put any effort into making something nice out of it. In the opening chapters, for example, we find ourselves in Emond’s Field, the little village where Rand and his Merry- and Pippin-equivalent friends are gathered for a big party before the adventure really starts, and Jordan makes this a quaint and sweet little village with quaint and sweet villagers, using a bit of comedy here and there. And when Rand’s life is upended and his call to adventure begins, the events are suitably harrowing. Jordan gives himself free reign within the framework he co-opted.
Jordan’s style and prose are quite unlike Tolkien’s. In a dramatic prologue he already shows that his approach to dialogue and drama has a more modern, theatrical feel. The same goes for the arguments between villagers in Emond’s Field and, very notably, the interactions between men and women. Their constant confrontations are grating. Every conversation between a man and woman, or between two women, has a sickly undercurrent of a power struggle about who is in charge, who is bossing around who and about scoring points against the other. Otherwise, Jordan’s writing is smooth and clear, easy to follow, but wordy though. He repeats the characters’ thoughts a lot, sometimes literally. He’s heavy on descriptions of everything – clothes, farmsteads, villages and forests, and never seems to focus on the point of a chapter. Every action needs to be worked towards with elaborate descriptions of surroundings and thoughts. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, reading entire paragraphs sometimes feels optional for following the story. It’s a choose your level of immersion novel.
The key to enjoyment lies in accepting what Tolkien’s plot structure aims for: a slow escalation of danger and stakes, a slow build-up of dread, while slowly weaning away the characters from their safe home and collecting them together for a necessary adventure. And Jordan does a couple of things well here and some things not so well. For a standard farmboy-to-hero story, the characterisations of Rand, Mat, Moiraine, Lan and others feel solid, distinct, if rather crude, and promise good character arcs over the course of the series. I appreciated Moiraine as a coolheaded, female Gandalf. Rand is for the moment a bland, wide-eyed, drooling youth, but it is easy to feel for him and we follow his every step and thought, whether we want to or not… Unfortunately, a promise is all that it remains. We also get enough hints about the history and races and the intricacies of magic, which again gives a promise of a rich world to discover. Although, a lot of that seems influenced by Arthurian legend, which sounds a bit cheap on top of the Tolkien framework (naming something an “angreal” isn’t exactly the peak of imagination), but the book stands out by a very heavy take on prophecy that Jordan wields to make the book grow above the homages and into its own take on fantasy.
That slow escalation of dread that Tolkien’s structure does, doesn’t come out well. The entire book follows a repetitive cycle of long travel followed by a bit of action. Once you notice the pattern, each cycle gets more annoying as it keeps asking you to work through stretches of unexciting travelling, arguments and side-quests from inn to inn. Basically, nothing of interest happening in excruciating detail. And this interrupts the build-up of dread, dropping the excitement to zero again and again. The severity of the attacks by the enemy also leave little room for escalation later in the story. There’s a general lack of goals and motivations among the characters and the stakes are not clear. In The Lord of the Rings we have at least the goal of trying to get a ring to Mordor, but the reasons why anything is happening is far from clear in Jordan’s book. The final act about the mysterious “eye of the world” feels tacked on to the travel story and doesn’t feel like a logical continuation of the episodes of danger that preceded it.
In summary, it is a long travel story with lots and lots of walking and riding from one village to the next, with a couple of teenagers who argue, never pay attention, wander off, touch things they shouldn’t touch. A bit like trying to go camping in France when your kids are just about old enough to go off on their own with friends, if I should believe my parents. And with Orcs and Nazguls chasing you, which is not uncommon in France.
Fantasy has come a long way since The Eye of the World and the farmboy-to-hero travelogue and Arthurian references make it feel positively ancient, and not in a good way – makes it feel much older than it actually is. There was nothing about the story that filled me with awe or wonder. A lot of it shows promise, but that is all that it remains: a show of promise. The characters remain bland and the story and mythology remain derivative. It takes a lot of energy to push through without getting much back. But I have to admit: towards the end I started to like this group of characters a little bit. The three young guys started to differentiate a little bit, Moiraine and Loial became interesting and even the insufferable Nynaeve began to feel like a character. Maybe I am clutching at a piece of string to drag me through the muck, but there’s hope.