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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

As The Wheel Turns - A Robert Jordan Memoir

As The Wheel Turns - A Robert Jordan Memoir
By: David Craddock

On September 16, 2007, James Oliver Rigney Jr., known as "Robert Jordan" to his legions of fans around the world, succumbed to cardiac amyloidosis. I have spent the past month in shock, stopping to stare at my Wheel of Time hardback collection and wondering what can possibly be said--or rather, what hasn't already been said--about this author that readers of fantasy literature have placed on a pedestal along with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien. What did this man, who could craft 800 page behemoths with such depth and history that one could almost consider them richer in culture and civilization than our own planet Earth, mean to me as a reader? A writer?

In short: everything.

I have been a reader all my life. I started with picture books before quickly and eagerly graduating to "chapter" books, digesting the likes of Judy Blume, R.L. Stine, and Roald Dahl faster than my parents could buy them. I would read for fun, I would read to complete my local library's summer reading program, and when incentives such as Pizza Hut coupons from my elementary school were involved, I would read for competition. I loved meeting new characters, and I loved discovering new authors that served to introduce me to their characters, and their worlds.

Fantasy literature was relatively unfamiliar to me in 1996, my freshman year of high school. It wasn't that I didn't like it, or had no interest in reading it, but simply hadn't gotten around to testing those particular literary waters. During Christmas of that same year, my Uncle Brad bought my sister a hefty paperback entitled The Eye of the World. He thought she might enjoy it, but my sister didn't show interest, so my Uncle decided to hand the book over to me. I turned it over in my hands, examining the cover, as well as the praises of book critics littering the back cover and the first several pages. So this is a fantasy book, I thought. Haven't read one of these before. Might as well give it a shot.

Within minutes, I was obsessed. I quickly latched onto Rand al'Thor, who had to flee his village with his friends Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara after their village, the Two Rivers, was attacked by Trollocs, goblin-like creatures, late one night. When Rand's love interest, Egwene al'Vere, and the village nurse, Nynaeve al'Meara, decided to tag along, the characters' relationships began to blossom, and my interest grew parallel.

Each character had their own unique histories, their own storylines with their own ambitions, and I came to care about each and every one of them. The best moments in any Wheel of Time novel, at least for me, came when the characters would all end up in the same place at the same time. For me, and for so many other fans of Jordan's work, those meetings became family reunions, and I would not miss attending them for anything--not even schoolwork.

When the 1997 spring semester began, I was almost finished with The Eye of the World. So enraptured was I with "Randland"--to my knowledge, Robert Jordan never officially named his world, so fans took it upon themselves to call it the aforementioned--that I would take my seat in one class, read until the bell rang, race to my next classroom, and read there as well. As soon as I finished one book, I would beg my mother to drive me to the nearest bookstore--I couldn't drive yet--so that I could pick up the next volume. She encouraged my reading, and was always willing to purchase me a new book when I wanted one--of course, I don't think she knew I read in school from first bell to last. Reading during school was perfect, because I didn't have distractions such as setting the table, washing dishes, or taking out the trash to interfere with my reading.

Inevitably, school presents its own set of "distractions," and though I knew that a teacher would, eventually, comment on my lack of attention in his or her class, I just didn't care. All I wanted to do was read.

One day during my freshman English course, just such an event occurred. I was, of course, wrapped up in a Wheel of Time novel, so I didn't hear the class start to snicker until I looked up and saw my teacher, Mr. Christine, standing over me. He was completely straight-faced: no grin, no frown. What could this mean? "See me after class," he said. I closed my book and waited for the bell to ring. After all the other students had departed, I trudged across the room to Mr. Christine's desk. He sat back, studied me for a moment, and said, "I notice you've been doing a lot of reading in my class."

"Yes, sir," I said.

"What are you reading?"

"It's a fantasy series called The Wheel of Time."

"Do you like fantasy?"

"I've never read it before. I got the first book as a Christmas gift."

Mr. Christine nodded, studied me for a few moments longer, then got up and rummaged through one of the small bookshelves he kept in the classroom, each of which was stuffed with novels for students to read once they'd finished their assignments. This was a rarity, for high school kids generally prefer to pass notes, whisper among themselves, or spit wads of paper at one another until they're finally allowed to go home at the end of the day.

After a few minutes, Mr. Christine turned to me and handed me a slim, yellow book--literally, for not only was the cover itself yellow, but the book's 250 pages had also yellowed with age. "My wife got me this for Christmas in 1982," my teacher said. "I haven't read it in years. Why don't you take it? If you like it, you can have the rest."

I stared wide-eyed at the book. Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings. Wow! A teacher who had not punished me for reading during his class each and every day for almost two weeks, but who had instead given me something new to read. I came back the next day and said, "I really enjoyed the book."

He blinked at me. "You finished it already?"

I nodded. "Yeah. It was great."

Mr. Christine smiled, and said, "I'm not too surprised. Here." With that, he reached under his desk to withdraw a plastic bag with four other books, the last four of the series.

Though Jordan's Wheel of Time series remains a favorite of mine to this day, the waiting time between book releases sometimes extended to as long as two and a half years, which meant I was inevitably forced to seek out other reading material. I found my way to Terry Goodkind, Sara Douglass, Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis, Tracey Hickman, Trudi Canavan, and countless other authors--but the day a new Robert Jordan novel came out, I was at my local bookstore the moment it opened for business, literally bouncing on my toes to get the newest installment to take home and read straight through without interruption.

Although my Uncle is the one who gave me my first fantasy book, Jim Rigney is the man not only responsible for introducing me to high romance, but persuading me--through the use of excruciating waits between releases--to branch out and read other material. Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Elayne, Min, Nynaeve, Lan, Moiraine, Siuan--all of these characters and so many more were all of Jordan's creation, and all of them were responsible for starting me on a reading and writing path that will never end.

Thank you, Robert Jordan. May the Creator shelter you, and the Light illumine you always...


John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Wow. Well written.

Robert said...

Just wait until you see his interview with Mr. R.A. Salvatore ;)

Anonymous said...

Lovely. I had similar experiences reading through my classes at school. My English teacher in year 11 kept scoffing at my fantasy novels so I made him read Magician - he stopped scoffing.

I always love hearing how people got into reading fantasy and who was their first major author. After Tolkien mine was Eddings then Alexander, Lewis, Harrison, Brin, Brooks... the list goes on and on.

Nice to see a mention of Sara Douglass, she's all class. I used to moderate on her board and my fellow moderators and I are thanked at the start of Wounded Hawk. I love bragging about something as silly as that. :-)

SQT said...

I had a teacher hand me "Watership Down" when she saw me reading a Terry Brooks book in school. I love to hear stories of teachers passing on the tradition.

Robert said...

No such experiences for me I'm afraid. Not only did my parents hardly read, my friends didn't either (except one), and I went to a tiny school (graduating class of 40) that had a library about as big as what I own right now ;) So I really have no clue how I became such a bookworm!!!

kels. said...

I love hearing about how other people discovered RJ's books. It's also great to hear about teachers encouraging kids to read:)


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