Monday, February 4, 2013

Robert Jordan vs. J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 3: People and Heroes

One huge difference, perhaps the largest, between Tolkien and Jordan is in the way they write people. The differences are evident in the population of the world: Jordan's is clearly more "human" in focus. Of non-humans, the evil creatures are the diverse ones (Trollocs, Myrddraal,  Draghkar, Gray Men, the entire ecosystem of the Blight), although we understand more of Tolkien's orc society than we ever do of the evil non-humans in Jordan.  Don't even start about the Aelfinn and Eelfinn, they're just plain weird. As for good creatures, you have the Ogier, and I suppose the weird Seanchan beasts, but really all the diversity is in the human culture itself. Jordan's people are truly distinct, almost a little too distinct in that if you've seen one Domani, you've seen them all, and there's so many permutations of hairstyles that I lost count. Two of Jordan's greatest creations are the social structures of the Aiel and the Seanchan. And then there's an entire other people, the Shara, who drop in without warning to make the Last Battle a fair fight for the bad guys. Only in Robert Jordan can the reader forget an entire subcontinent.

This societal diversity in Jordan's world is mirrored by racial diversity in Middle-Earth: elves, dwarves, two (three?) kinds of orcs, trolls, dragons, Balrogs, and of course hobbits. There's a few nations of humans but who can tell them apart? One of them likes horses and mead-halls. The interesting thing here is that there's more fluidity between Tolkien's races than there is between Jordan's societies, in that you have the half-elven and the fact that orcs were made in imitation of (and if I recall correctly, FROM) elves. The Rohirrim and the Gondorians have many deep connections. Much of Tolkien's emphasis on race rubs 21st-century sensibilities the wrong way, but the barriers are not as strong as they seem on first glance, even between species. I do wish we knew more about the Harad men and Easterlings, because after all my Tolkien study they still seem like crudely drawn stereotypes to me, in a way that even orcs do not. Of course, we spend time with orc companies on two occasions and we never see the other human countries except in battle.

As for the "made male and female" form of diversity, Robert Jordan clearly has the edge in obvious, strong female characters. All the wizards are women, at least at first, and they do fine at taking care of themselves, thank you very much. One of the most resonant parts of Jordan is the limitations on men, the "taint" on male saidin magic that means all the magic power goes to the women of his world. This "taint" is like its own substance and is driven out with power. This is quite the opposite of Tolkien's version of corruption (the ring, but also the dragon-sickness and the dwarvish greed for vengeance), which is more a subversion of the will and seems to come from within rather than be imposed from without.

Jordan clearly has the edge on female charcters that are believable and important. Yet I still want to point out that in the context of Beowulf, the kind of story Tolkien was trying to write, the female characters in Lord of the Rings stand out from that just as much as Jordan's women stand out from Tolkien's! And for all the strength of the female characters, in Jordan, it's really the male characters that we follow and that run the show: Rand, Mat, and Perrin. One of the aspects of the Wheel of Time that continues to bug me is Rand's harem, that somehow he's such a ta'veren that he makes three different, strong women fall in love with him and share him without issues. I remember when that kind of thing happened in the Old Testament and I don't believe it was too stable of an arrangement.

But there's another but to this but: Egwene. I would never have predicted this, but in the last 4 or 5 books of the series, basically since she became Amyrlin, she became my favorite character. And (I TOLD YOU THIS WOULD HAVE SPOILERS) it seems incredibly fitting that she dies in the end. She is the youngest Amyrlin seat, and believably wields authority. She fights back against incredible odds, politically, in taking back the White Tower. My biggest surprise from Jordan is that my favorite sequence involves how this young magic-user negotiates the politics of sacrifice and endurance to plausibly defeat her enemies from within, without "firing a shot" of magic power in her own defense. I thought my favorite sequence would be the last battle, but it was Egwene winning the White Tower. Even her role in the Last Battle is one of my favorites, as she figures out anti-balefire and self-immolates in the light, stamping the entire ending with an entirely appropriate sense of loss. I thought that would be Rand, and perhaps it should have been Rand too. But in that scene, I think Egwene did what Rand also should have done. At least someone did it.

Which brings us to the heroes of the Last Battle. Jordan gets what Tolkien also got: battles are about heroism, not tactics. The key part of the Battle of Pelannor Fields is the charge of the Rohirrim and the arrival of Aragon in the ships of the Corsairs, the thrilling turns of the tide. There's enough of that in Jordan but it's more on the personal level, at least in the Last Battle, than it is on the level of surprise tactics. (The surprise tactics in the Last Battle include ambushing people with gateway cannon, which just seems unsporting and downright non-heroic, though still kind of a cool idea.) The sequence of attacks against Demandred, beginning with Gawyn riding off on a doomed march with the bloody Seanchan rings, and running through Galad, Logain, and finally Lan, is just what heroism is about. I do wish more of them had died, actually. Lan's ending move to defeat Demandred was obvious but perfectly fitting in that obvious kind of way. I only think it would have been more perfectly fitting if he had indeed lost his life in taking Demandred's. For a series that is fully ending, A Memory of Light was a little light on the body count. But, really, so was Lord of the Rings.

The best moment of the Last Battle? Olver blowing the Horn (something no one expected, thinking it would have to be Mat), all alone, almost ended, and then ... his old friend rides up as one of the resuscitated Heroes of the Horn, back from the grave to save him one last time. That little moment with that (literally) minor character, perhaps because it caught me off guard, was my favorite of that 200-page chapter. That's what heroism is about.

On the whole, I think Jordan's people resonate with me more, but I also have to remember that, while Jordan took all the time he could to make his characters detailed and relatable, Tolkien was looking for a bit of distance in his people and how he wrote them. Tolkien deliberately made his characters stilted (except for the hobbits, of course) and made them say things like "alas" and "behold" and all that. Tolkien just didn't place as high a priority on humanizing his characters, because he was consciously writing an epic, not a novel. So there's certainly more humans in Jordan, but I do wonder if, in 50 years, that will seem as archaic and odd as Tolkien's -- only not deliberately so. And all those heroes did what they did, but none literally walked through the valley of the shadow of death like Aragorn on the paths of the dead. Hard to be more heroic than that.

[Next in Part 4: Plot and Endings]

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