Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Robert Jordan vs. J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 1

Having just finished Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, I can finally look back over the whole thing and compare it to the trilogy that started it all, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (considering The Hobbit as prelude). Lest this seem like simply an "ugliest orc" and "sharpest sword" type comparison, I'm going to focus on the more fundamental aspects of their work. How do the authors see the world? Having the chance to "sub-create" (in Tolkien's terms), how did they craft their worlds? In essence, what is the natural theology of the worlds they have made? It's interesting how I could not make a real comparison between the two until Jordan had finished his story. So much depends on the ending.

Theology is not an accidental or artifically imposed term. Both were commited Christians, Tolkien a Catholic and Jordan a self-described high-church Episcopalian (almost like Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis?). There are distinct differences, the biggest being that Tolkien grew up in the first half of the 20th century while Jordan grew up and wrote in the second half. But they both imagined worlds that are attractive just for the level of detail in them, worlds with magic and swords and evil monsters and heroic deeds.

Sometimes I'm disappointed looking around with the level of detail that is present in, say, an ordinary church built 100 years ago vs. one built (or more likely, repurposed) today. Tolkien and Jordan give evidence that the faithful detailing that used to go into the stone through a craftsman's chisel may now be evident in the interior spaces carved out by our authors. The keyboard as the new chisel. Both worlds are certainly as intricate as a vast mosaic or a cathedral's statuary.

Since I'm convinced that this fantasy genre is indeed valuable (convinced enough to have spent hundreds of hours reading about people and places that don't technically exist), I think it's valuable to dig down into it. Since this introduction is long enough in itself for a blog post, I'll split it up into parts and work my way through the comparisons over the next month.

It should go without saying in huge letters: SPOILER ALERT. Part of the whole tension of waiting for an ending is seeing what it reveals about the author's beliefs, intentions, and view of the world. So, yeah, I'll be talking about how it all ends. The Internet sort of forces immediate consumption of any new media for spoilerphobes at any rate. (But my recent review of the last book is indeed spoiler-free!)

1 comment:

Christopher Leary said...

Instead of comparing the two universes of these authors (assuming they are two separate universes and not simply a continuation of the same one), consider that Tolkien and Jordan explored two different aspects of the same reality. Tolkien constructed a rich, detailed universe of theology and culture. The Silmarillion is essentially the Pantheon of the Tolkien universe, and his use of constructed languages and societies throughout the trilogy lend it a depth that resonates on a certain level of human shared experience.

But Jordan didn't simply reuse the same tired cliches that less talented writers like Terry Brooks and countless others tried to recycle: he plumbed depths that Tolkien left unexplored. Tolkien left it up to his audience to suspend disbelief to an extent that Jordan didn't: we were expected to just accept that magic was something that happened and its supernatural origins should be accepted on merit. Jordan, however, constructed a completed and whole system through which magic functioned and could be explained in the context of his universe; furthermore, this highly structured system was central to his rather convoluted plot and he managed to incorporate it elegantly despite a rather simplistic original outline.

Also, Jordan incorporated many aspects that Tolkien omitted; namely, Eastern philosophy and contemporary world history. Scattered references throughout Jordan's work to legends such as the giants Mosk and Merk dueling with lances of fire (the Cold War) and the wise counselor Anla (Anne Landers) advising the queen Elsbet (Queen Elizabeth) lend a certain poignancy to current audiences, connecting their own present to the timeline of the series.

In summary, I don't think this subject should ever be approached as "Robert Jordan vs. JRR Tolkien"; they approached the subject matter from entirely different perspectives, yet managed to immerse the audience equally in separate aspects of the same universe.