Sunday, February 10, 2013

Robert Jordan vs. J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 4: Plot and Endings

[Back to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]

And now we come to the real spoiler-filled part: what does the ending say about the compare and contrast between Jordan and Tolkien?

As was shown in one way with the heroic charges at the end, always coming when all hope (or some amount of said hope) is lost, a formula that Tolkien even formalized as the "eucatastrophe": both books are eucatastrophic in multiple ways, which requires dense, precise plotting. It's one of the joys of the genre. Tolkien obsessed over making sure that his entire plot fit together neatly, so that when, for example, Frodo and Pippin are looking "at each other" across the expanse between them without knowing it, the time and phase of the moon work out precisely. Again, for all his historically-based fulmination about industry, Tolkien has a place for detail and even mechanism in his stories. Jordan's story is, if anything, even more mechanical. Min, for example, seems like a fairly useless character who becomes elevated to a particular role in the Seanchan all of a sudden and then is able to use her "fortune-telling" power to out a spy. Even the non-warriors, the Ogier and the Tinkers, have a role in the Last Battle. Some of the build-up is incommensurate to the pay-off -- I'm looking at you, Padan Fain -- but how could it be truly commensurate? After all, Sanderson's already expanded Jordan's timeline by three books that are all faster-paced than the 11 previous books. I'm just happy to be done and gain surprises like Min's where appropriate. That was fun.

In fact, Jordan's mechanisms are, if anything, too obviously mechanical at the end. I don't blame Sanderson for this; I blame Jordan for imagining he had only one book left to write when he truly had four or five, "condensed" into three by Sanderson. I would have loved to see Jordan's full treatment about how all the nations could be brought together by Rand as a treaty, for example, or the Seanchan realizing they owe fealty to Rand (although I really wonder why they didn't figure this one out before, it's awfully obvious to me). One of the hidden joys of these books is the very detailed procedure that at first glance looks boring, which is presaged famously in Tolkien by The Council of Elrond. This happened when Egwene was elevated to the Amyrlin Seat and in some ways in Elayne's ascent to queenhood as well, but there just wasn't time for it when it mattered most. This is not Sanderson, because Jordan himself did not allow time for it in his own 12-book plan. Another testament to just how amazing Tolkien was in orchestrating his storylines in three books: on an overall basis, it's a close call but I judge that Tolkien is still the king of plot.

Earlier I mentioned how I didn't really know how to assess Jordan's entire work till I saw how he ended it. I would have loved for Jordan to have "pulled a Tolkien" with his ending, with an element of Tolkien's world that not many people know about. Let me explain, and yes, this does involve the Silmarillion. Wake up, now!

The way I read it, Tolkien's world used to be flat and is now spherical like ours. It happened like this: Numenor was the great continent of men that could see all the way to the Blessed Lands in the West (if you squint). But Sauron preyed on their pride and they tried to assult the Blessed Lands by force, which of course failed, but to make the failure really concrete, the Valar literally severed the Blessed Lands from the rest of the world and made the world wrap around itself. They made the world spherical, so I guess the directions to the Blessed Land change from "go west young man" to "go west and UP." This is one of the way the Fall happens in Middle Earth.

Since in Jordan, time itself is circular, I was hoping Rand would throw a fast one by literally breaking the Wheel of Time and making it linear again. Is this unexpected enough? It would have been to me (at the point at which I began to half-expect it, that is). Instead of the world breaking, the cycle of revolutions would be broken and redemption would be possible. The cycle of re-births would also be broken, making each life more independent and in my view, important. I like the theological implications of all this too.

Despite my detailed and well-reasoned plans, Jordan didn't do any of this. He kept time in a wheel and the Dark One in a bottle. The only moderately interesting theological "debate" was whether the Dark One should be destroyed or not. Leaving aside the implications of how a human could destroy a god, the only question seems to be, would a world without evil be any good? The scenes of a world with too much evil, and with too much good, are mildly interesting but nowhere near as richly realized as the world itself. Some passages says Shai'tan is a personified force, but the whole confrontation depends on Shai'tan being a force-bearing personality. The whole philosophical side of this has the complexity of a late-night bull session in a dorm. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Because evil is necessary it must be imprisoned rather than destroyed, and, um, what does that really mean? Death is ultimately a friend, not an enemy, and in my opinion no true redemption is possible. Which fits because time is still stuck in a wheel. Alas. Conversely, in Tolkien, evil is defeated by the humble, the patient, and the suffering as was as the noble and heroic. In fact, the heroes come to the point of sacrificing themselves so that the hobbits may sacrifice themselves! This carries a deep echo that maybe, in real life, evil can be defeated with the same spiritual judo move. That's a better ending than Jordan's solution: returning to square 1 while, this time, actually caring about all these people who are dying for you while you get off just fine in your enemy's mortal flesh. The death of Lews Therin is more resonant for me than the post-battle life of Rand al'Thor.

So that's the ending, but it's not the very ending in Tolkien. In the very ending,Tolkien has the scouring of the shire, one of the most enduring parts of the book (at least in my experience of multiple readings) in which the hobbits truly grow up and Frodo's persistent wound and unfitness for the world is clear. In its place, Jordan ends abruptly instead of lovingly. I have this vision of Sanderson collapsing on the floor with exhaustion unable to write another word. Rand rides off into the sunset alone with three women contentedly pining away in the background. After all the wounds that won't heal and taints and tragedies inherent in power in Jordan, it's all washed away by reversion and we are back where we started, and the wheel continues to turn. I guess saidar is cleansed, that's something. But how was it cleansed? Some very powerful magic that has no emotional or personal equivalent beyond requiring male and female cooperation and a really big ter'angreal. In Jordan, the world is saved to be back where it was. In Tolkien, the world is saved for the new healer-king to rule and the one who saved it is not fit for it anymore. I have to tell you, one of these resonates more with me, and it's not the one with the women left behind. It's the one with the women ruling alongside their spouses and healing the land itself. Jordan's ending is, indeed, too happy. It does not ring true, and I only teared up a little, once. When reading Tolkien I couldn't even finish when Frodo sees the white sands at the end ...

So, in the end, the very end, a very good place to end: as I've grown up Robert Jordan has grown in my estimation and is now my second-favorite fantasy author. First place used to be Tad Williams but as you can tell, with time and seasoning he dropped to third place (I still don't think he's topped To Green Angel Tower). As you can tell, in my reading, Tolkien's genius endures and grows with depth the more it is explored. Long live the tweedy king.

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