The Wheel of Time has been 11,916 pages over the course of half of my life. There aren’t many things that can make me feel like this story has. I don’t often feel as sad as I do now that I’ve read the last words of the last chapter. Not brutally sad as merit death or disease. Sad like the memories of a childhood friend—a true friend who is now a different person in a different life. Sad like the ache for a beautiful place that you know you’ll never see again.
I’m not trying to be melodramatic, and I’m not trying to talk about an epic fantasy series like it’s a great work of literature. I can be a snob about quality when the moment is right. The present moment, though, is about the conclusion of a journey that has been a beloved part of many, many moments of my life. For sci-fi/fantasy readers, there isn’t much to explain, even if you’re not a Wheel of Time fan. So I suppose I’m writing with others in mind, who might not get what it’s about. C. S. Lewis wrote about it in his little introduction to George McDonald’s Phantastes:
Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all. But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius—a Kafka or a Novalis—who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can co-exist with great inferiority in the art of words—nay, since its connection with words at all turns out to be merely external and, in a sense, accidental. Nor can it be fitted into any of the other arts. It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored. It may even be one of the greatest arts; for it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry or at least to most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth.’ It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. (MacDonald, George (1981-05-18). Phantastes (Kindle Locations 108-118))
This is the genius of fantasy—to break out of that normal mode of consciousness into a world of delight and unexpected joys, to somehow get in touch with another part of life that is inexplicably out of reach otherwise. With his typically uncanny grasp of truth, Lewis goes on to make an extraordinary claim about “mythopoetic” (fantasy) literature such as McDonald’s:
There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through. The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my ‘teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all the other way round—in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from ‘the land of righteousness,’ never reveals that elusive Form which if once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire—the thing (in Sappho’s phrase) ‘more gold than gold.’ (MacDonald, George (1981-05-18). Phantastes (Kindle Locations 133-139))
It is the thing itself, the unfolding, the journey through that strange land—not some particular abstract principle or truth behind the prose—that makes it so enchanting, even revelatory. But it is especially the kind of world that, for whatever reason—no doubt due in great measure to McDonald and Lewis and Tolkien—became the enduring aesthetic of modern fantasy. As Lewis notes, that aesthetic is basically Romanticism, but it has a different quality than that in which he “had already been waist deep . . . ; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity” (MacDonald, George (1981-05-18). Phantastes (Kindle Locations 123-125)).
This reminds me very much of the loss I feel with the end of the Wheel of Time. Currently, I very much enjoy the darker, grittier sub-genre of fantasy that is becoming, more and more, the industry norm. But it is a drastic contrast with the innocence of Robert Jordan’s world, and fantasy after Lewis and Tolkien, in the peculiar mold they cast, was about the reduction of life to the clarity for which we so often long: light and dark, love and hate, valor and cowardice, right and wrong. Not that they wrote out moral complexity, but they did put swords in the hands of heroes of pure heart so they could cut down evil where it stood. The romantic in the core of my being will never be finished listening for that story.
The Wheel of Time holds a special place in my heart, though, because it is a coming of age story that unfolded as I was coming of age. It’s a story about young friends—confronted with a world that is suddenly far darker and more threatening than they imagined, called reluctantly to hold fast to their goodness while doing what they must to survive and to fight, always bewildered by the opposite sex in the process, faithful in friendship unto death—who eventually become the men and women they needed to be. There will be other stories, but I have the sinking feeling that few will ever match the breadth and depth of simple pleasure I found over these last fifteen years as Jordan’s characters grew into humble, fretful, loving heroes.
Lewis said it best:
“I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let the villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.” (On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature)