While the rest of the world was growing up at Hogwarts, I grew up in Middle-Earth. But once you’re bitten with the fantasy bug, you rarely just stick with the first novel. And don’t worry, I got into the delightful world of Hogwarts eventually. Those books are in the pantheon of greatness, but they’re not integral to my story. Just one more way I’m slightly different than the most.
The year is 2002 and I remember using Yahoo!—you know it’s dated and if you’re willingly searching on Yahoo—to find other big fantasy stories. Terry Brooks’ Shannara books showed up quite a bit, usually with the caveat of “Tolkien-ripoff.” For years, this kept me away from Brooks’ writing, though I did eventually end up reading The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy at the behest and influence of my cousin Kelsey. Ever since, I’ve been open to Brooks, but never quite done it.
Kelsey was also a huge Anne McCaffrey fan, and I read the first three Pern books at some point in this period of time, too. Most things prior to moving to Tennessee in 2007 are vague notions on a timeline at this point.
George R.R. Martin was around, but I’m also really glad I didn’t discover these until I was seventeen. A Song of Ice and Fire is not a book series to read at twelve. And I know the original, canon Dragonlance books by Weiss and Hickman came after the discovery below. Same with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
Enter: Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.
This series is as sprawling as it is epic, to the point that the author actually passed away and they had to pick another author—at the time one little newcomer named Brandon Sanderson—to finish the series based on first drafts and notes. It was only supposed to be one book, but it ended up being three because of how much remained to be finished. I’m getting off track.
What Robert Jordan did well is to establish the sense of hobbitry needed at the beginning of a series. In Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin we had a collection of unqualifieds arriving on the global stage and shaking and changing the history of the world. In the introduction of Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Nynaeve, Jordan followed his greatest influence Tolkien’s steps.
An Aside: The introduction to Eye of the World is among the greatest fantasy chapters ever written. Seriously. It’s up there with the first time Harry visits Diagon Alley and every chapter of Frodo and Sam once they’re in Mordor. And whatever chapter in the Dragonlance series that involved gnomes using catapults to get around. I laughed so hard I cried reading that chapter.
A Second Aside: There are a few other chapters in the series in this echelon as well. Rand’s trip to Rhuidean. Aviendha’s second trip to Rhuidean. The battle at the Stone of Tear. Nynaeve vs. Moghedien. I could go on. For all the difficulty of getting through some of the sections, there were always insanely amazing chapters worth the effort in every single book.
For most people in my life, the Wheel of Time series was boring, drawn-out, and overly dense. At times, they’re one hundred percent correct. But I don’t care. That series was filled with literally dozens of diverse cultures and I wanted to visit every single one of them. The characters grew and changed and wrestled and lived and moved through and remained loyal and loving in different ways.
In a lot of ways, I’ve always wanted the friendships of Randland. (The fact Jordan never named the continent has always amused me because naming things is the worst.) They could be separated, go through some intense things, then be reunited and work together and help each other and then separate again and repeat. Now, at twenty-seven, looking at my best friends, I got my wish.
Now, looking at my passport stamps, I know my desire to see all these different fantasy nations drove my desire to see more and more real nations. But whereas Tolkien’s nations were very much grounded in the world he knew, Jordan’s sprawl. Andor rings true, but I also know I could never visit a place that reminds me of it, not like I can with Assisi.
But isn’t that the fun of traveling on the page and traveling in real life? The journey—the search—for the experience, the Aha! Moment that says, “This story is taking you places and you can’t return once you’ve been there, at least not the same.” Because that’s also exactly what traveling does. When you shatter the walls of normal and engage with the world, you can’t go back.
And people want you to come back. But the ones who truly love you, won’t ask you to come back the same. Hopefully, if your band of adventurers is anything like mine, you’re all changing but still reuniting just the same. You can’t face the battles of life alone, not even if you’re Rand al’Thor. But if you’re anything like me—like Rand—it takes a while to acknowledge that. Trust the squad, and eventually the ones who won’t let you down will be the only ones left. Then hold tight.
No wonder the books we re-read seem like the closest friends. They’re chosen the same way.