FANTASY AND THE LITERARY LEGACY OF ROBERT JORDAN
A speech written for the occasion of the induction of James Oliver Rigney, Jr. into the South Carolina Academy of Authors on 8 March 2008. (A write-up of the event can be found here .)
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
These are the first three lines of Beowulf, the oldest — and perhaps still greatest — epic in the English language, a story of mere-creatures come from the mists to terrorize the pre-Viking Danes, of a vengeful dragon threatening the very existence of a nation, and of the one man of incomparable strength who must fight them all. Beowulf is, in a word, Fantasy.
When the monstrous Green Knight stoops to retrieve his own head from the stone floor of King Arthur’s court, when he holds it out before the terrified, astonished, and brutally ignorant knights and ladies, when it speaks, we know Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the Fantasy that it is.
The tale of Geoffrey Chaucer’s delightful Wife of Bath is nothing if not a Fantasy. So, too, the tale of his Nun’s Priest.
To the realms of Fantasy belong the fairies both noble and nefarious in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the spirits of his Tempest, the witching sisters of his mighty Macbeth.
Virgil’s Aeneas under the onslaught of vindictive gods; Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight and the serpent Error; Dante’s descent through the terrors of the Inferno; Tennyson’s Idylls of the King; Homer’s heroes at the gates of distant Troy: all of them, Fantasy.
Despite this kind of history — a history of literature itself, I daresay — there has been an unfortunate tendency to belittle Fantasy in our modern world. Talking about this problem, George R. R. Martin, himself a writer of Fantasy, is reported to have quipped “that fiction reached the parting of the ways back with Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. Before that, there weren’t any real genres. But now you’re either a descendent of James … a serious writer … or a descendent of Stevenson, a mere genre writer.” Martin’s differentiation is perceptive: one needs only to step into Barnes and Noble to see the separation between the Jamesian “serious” stuff — it’s labeled “Literature” and includes luminaries such as Danielle Steele beside Fitzgerald and Hemingway — and the Stevensonian “mere genre” stuff, which is variously labeled “Horror,” “Science Fiction,” or “Fantasy” (Simmons).
This is a strange fate for genre fiction, though, especially given that in their time James and Stevenson were the very best of friends, and that they recognized the truth shared in their work, divergent though it was in form. It is stranger still given the fact that Fantasy, at least, is arguably the oldest, most widely read mode of literature. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Nibelungenlied, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a genre that has done more to shape the very thinking of the human species. As Professor John Timmerman describes it: “Fantasy literature as a genre has the capacity to move a reader powerfully. And the motions and emotions involved are not simply visceral as is the case with much modern literature — but spiritual. It affects one’s beliefs, one’s way of viewing life, one’s hopes and dreams and faith.” J.R.R. Tolkien, writing in defense of the genre he had chosen for commenting on our own, all-too-real, perilous world, states that “Fantasy remains a human right: we make it in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker” (75).
And so to James Oliver Rigney, Jr., whose works — whose Fantasies — have sold more than 30 million copies, in 20-some languages, all around the globe. These incredible numbers speak for themselves: writing as Robert Jordan, he has been one of the most popular modern Fantasy writers, a verifiable master of that most difficult but impacting of genres, an American heir, it has been said more than once, to the legacy of Tolkien himself. As Edward Rothstein noted in a glowing review in The New York Times (1998): “The genre’s … masterworks by Tolkien, who fought in World War I, were begun on the eve of Britain’s entry into World War II and are fraught with nostalgia. Jordan, the Vietnam vet, is creating an American, late-20th-century counterpart. … where nostalgia is replaced by somberness. … It is as if, in the midst of spinning his web, Jordan has turned fantasy fiction into a game of anthropological Risk, played out in the post-modern age.”
There is nothing simple, nothing small, in this work. The Wheel of Time is the height of seriousness, a vision that cuts to the heart of our cultural, political, and religious worldviews in the way only a Fantasy can: it is not in the mirror, after all, that we see the truth of ourselves; it is in the eyes of strangers in unfamiliar lands.
Rigney revitalized a genre edging on stagnation. He changed the publishing landscape. His influence on this and future generations, measured in the fullness of time, will be nothing short of enormous. 30 million copies. Over 20 languages. And still more to come.
But, truth be told, I don’t think it’s the numbers that are important. Literature is not a popularity contest. It’s something more. Something far more difficult to define. It is sweep and song, power and possibility. It is more about influence on a personal level than it is about bestseller lists and reviews in The New York Times. So I hope you’ll indulge me for another couple minutes to say something more personal.
I was an avid reader in 1990, just entering high school, when I walked into a bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and saw, just there to my right, The Eye of the World, the first book in The Wheel of Time, a new Fantasy series by an author whose name I did not recognize. It was a trade paperback, a bit more expensive than I would have liked, but I picked it up and stood in the aisle to read a page or two just the same. The words I read were these:
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.
I was, in those few lines, hooked. I took the book and my crumpled bills to the counter. I bought it and read it on the bus, every day, for the next few weeks. Soon enough my friends were reading it, too, and they joined me in anxiously awaiting the sequels over the years. I own 11 of those 30 million copies. I am one of Jim’s millions of readers worldwide. And, like many of the others, I can say that I owe much to the experience of consuming his words, his world, his Fantasy. Even if my own fiction career, inspired by his, amounts to little enough, I can say I owe my job here at The Citadel to him: Jim was a proud graduate, and it was within the “About the Author” statement on his books that I first heard the name of this institution, a place of such apparent mystery and mystique that it was the sole bit of biographical information to make it to the back flap of most of his books.
This past spring I had the surprising opportunity to meet him in person at last. Though in poor health, he was nevertheless warm and funny, passionate and giving. I have in my office a photo of him that evening: he’s wearing a dashing black hat on his head, talking to me and some cadets. Looking at the photograph, I cannot help but smile at the way that we are, all of us, riveted on what he is saying. If my memory serves, the moment captured was his declaration that writing Lan, a deeply impressive character in his Wheel of Time series, was easy: “Lan is simply the man I always wished I could be,” he said. Though I knew him for far too short a time, I do not think Jim gave himself the credit he deserved.
Tonight I am most glad that some of that much-deserved credit is at last coming to rest.
Jordan, Robert. The Eye of the World. New York: Tor, 1990.
Simmons, Dan. “February-March 2008 Message from Dan.” www.dansimmons.com. 29 February 2008.
Timmerman, John H. “Fantasy Literature’s Evocative Power.” Christian Century, 17 May 1978: 533-37.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.