The Wheel of Time totals fourteen novels (plus a prequel novel, plus two companion guidebooks), 11,916 pages in paperback and 4,410,036 words. The audio book version of the series is 461 hours and 25 minutes long. 22 years, 11 months and 24 days elapsed between the first and last volumes of the series being published. The series has sold over 56 million copies in North America alone, with a conservatively estimated 90 million sales worldwide.
James Oliver Rigney, Jr. was born on 17 October 1948 in Charleston, South Carolina. At the age of 20 he was drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam as a soldier and helicopter gunner. He served two terms of duty and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and two Vietnamese Gallantry Crosses. His colleagues nicknamed him "Iceman" for his cool and collected demeanour under fire, and his ability to attend to vital tasks (such as eating and sleeping) even with dead bodies around. Returning home to the USA, Rigney had to deal with the stress of re-adapting to civilian life, which he later said he accomplished by metaphorically "killing" the soldier he'd had to become on the battlefield.
He studied at the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, and got a degree in physics, graduating in 1974. He worked for the United States Navy as a nuclear engineer, serving at the Charleston naval shipyard. During a routine assignment, he suffered a serious fall and developed a life-threatening blood clot. Although he survived and recovered, he had to use a cane to walk. Deciding that life was too short to not pursue his dream of being an author, he switched careers to writing and began penning articles for local newspapers and magazines.
James Oliver Rigney, Jr. whilst serving with the 68th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam, 1969-70.
In 1977 he tried to sell his first book, a stand-alone fantasy novel called Warriors of the Altaii. Renowned genre editor Jim Baen considered the novel but left it unpublished when he switched publishing houses. Rigney vented his frustrations to a local bookshop owner, who relayed the story to Harriet McDougal, a former editor who'd worked with Jim Baen and Tom Doherty and set up her own imprint, Popham Press. McDougal and Rigney met and she read Warriors of the Altaii. She rejected it, but asked him for something else. He submitted a historical bodice-ripper, called The Fallon Blood. This was published in 1980.
During the process of writing, editing and publicising the book, Rigney and Dougal began a relationship, marrying in March 1981. When it came time to put his name on the novel, Rigney hesitated. His experiences in Vietnam had left him with the idea of one day writing a definitive novel about the war. He decided he only wanted to put his real name on that book, and would use pen names for everything else. The first pen name he used was Reagan O'Neal, which was used on the cover of The Fallon Blood and two sequels, The Fallon Pride (1981) and The Fallon Legacy (1982). He also used another pen name, Jackson O'Reilly, for a stand-alone Western called Cheyenne Raiders (1982).
Whilst this was taking place, Tor Books had acquired the rights to publish new material about Robert E. Howard's famous hero, Conan the Barbarian. Wanting to capitalise on the imminent release of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie for his new Tor Books imprint, Tom Doherty needed someone who could bash out a Conan novel very quickly. He turned to McDougal, who put him in contact in turn with Rigney. Rigney was faster even than Doherty expected, turning in Conan the Invincible and Conan the Defender in time for both to be published in 1982. Five further short novels in the series followed, eventually collected in two omnibuses. Working in a different genre, fantasy, Rigney decided he needed a new pen name. After playing around with new combinations of his initials (and taking no inspiration from Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, despite reports to the contrary), he came up with the name "Robert Jordan".
The Conan books had been quite successful for Tor, although the relative failure of the second film, Conan the Destroyer, in 1984 meant that they decided to wrap up the series whilst they were ahead. Impressed by Rigney's work rate, Tom Doherty asked what else he was working on.
Rigney had been a big fan of fantasy, including Howard and Tolkien, and had begun considering his own epic series in the late 1970s. He had gotten involved in roleplaying, serving as the Dungeon Master for his stepson Will's Dungeons and Dragons games. Through his wife Harriet he also saw how the rest of the field was developing, with Harriet editing both Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and Glen Cook's The Black Company, both published to significant acclaim in 1984/85.
Rigney gave an outline of his proposed fantasy story to Tom Doherty. This outline was set in a world both in the distant future and distant past. It was the story a "chosen one", Rhys al'Thor, who has to defeat Sa'kahn, a being from another universe who had previously waged war on Earth through a transdimensional portal. Sa'kahn was abetted in his mission by the Forsaken, half-human, half-demon hybrids. The outline was fairly plot-dense, so when Doherty asked how many volumes the story would cover he was surprised when Jordan said three. Doherty, having a feeling this might go longer than initially thought, proposed they make a contract for six books instead.
Rigney began writing The Eye of the World in 1984. It took over four years to complete the novel. During this time he radically reconceptualised his original plan for the series. His primary hero, the Dragon Reborn, had originally been an older man, a war veteran and soldier when he was tapped on the shoulder by fate. This was changed so the Dragon Reborn was the veteran's son, and the former hero instead became Tam al'Thor. The main character's name was changed from Rhys to Rand. Realising he'd piled too much material on Rand's shoulders, Rigney split his story responsibilities between three other characters: Mat, Perrin and Dannil. Later still, he realised he'd then split the story too thinly and removed Dannil as one of the major characters, instead sending him off to be a minor character in the Two Rivers (hence Dannil became The Wheel of Time's Fatty Bolger, or Pete Best). The primary villain went from being a powerful (but not omnipotent) alien being to the primal force of evil in the universe. The main force of magic in the setting, simply called "Power", became the "One Power", divided into its male and female halves.
In a fresh outline that Rigney provided Doherty closer to finishing the first novel, many of these changes had now been made and a storyline closer to that of the finished books emerged.
The cover art (by Darrell K. Sweet) for the "preview booklet" of The Eye of the World, released in August 1989.
Oliver Rigney, writing as Robert Jordan, completed The Eye of the World in 1988. He sent the manuscript to Tom Doherty at Tor. Doherty got very excited, believing he had in his hands a fantasy novel that was a gamechanger. He ordered a print run of 40,000 copies - colossal for a debut novel - and sent an advance reading copy of the book to every single listed bookstore in the United States. He took out major advertisements, sought blurbs from top authors (Orson Scott Card, Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey, among others, obliged) and even had a pre-released booklet published, consisting of the first few chapters of the book. This was released in August 1989, followed by the novel itself in January 1990.
The lengthy gestation period for the book helped Rigney build up a head of steam on the following books. He already had some of the second volume in the series, The Great Hunt, finished when he delivered The Eye of the World, and finished the second book and was into the writing of the third volume, The Dragon Reborn, before The Eye of the World even came out. This allowed Tor to adopt an aggressive one-book-a-year release schedule. In fact, they did better than that and got six volumes out in less than five years.
It became apparent early on that six books was not going to be enough. The story had expanded in unforeseen circumstances, with the introduction of invaders from beyond the western ocean, and many more characters than first envisaged becoming important to the plot. Rigney had also become concerned about issues of style, consistency and background. He had numerous maps to keep track of the action and was keeping copious notes about his world, invented languages and cultures. With some reluctance, he hired an assistant (and later another one) to help with research and note-keeping. As this need for consistency grew, the writing speed began to drop off. Some health concerns raised by the stress of completing the seventh volume in less than eighteen months caused a rethink of the author's working practices. After the seventh volume, the series fell back to a book every two to two and a half years, which was more sustainable.
The more familiar (and iconic) cover art for The Eye of the World itself, released in January 1990.
The critical and popular reaction to the series was (mostly) highly positive. Sales started out strong and soon went through the roof, reaching the tens of millions within half a decade. Every book in the series from the eighth onwards hit the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Rigney found himself swamped at book signings across the United States and around the world. Fan mail grew and Rigney found himself particularly praised for his unusual worldbuilding and magic system, which allowed only women to use magic safely and as a result created a (somewhat) gender-reversed world where women mostly had more power and prestige than men. During one book signing Rigney was confronted by several fans convinced that he was a front for the real author, who was clearly a woman (he seemed to take this as a compliment).
Fans also took advantage of emerging technology. They gathered on early CompuServe and GEnie networks to talk about the books, changing to more familiar, modern forums as technology improved and the Internet came of age. Some of the biggest early forum for discussing science fiction and fantasy were based around The Wheel of Time, including Dragonmount and Wotmania. Fans met, talked about the books and characters, became friends and in some cases married and had children. Technology also allowed the fans to talk directly to the author: after some initial reluctance, Rigney began hosting a regular question-of-the-week feature for Tor Books and later established his own blog where he would post news and also chat to the fans about the books, music or life in general.
Success also brought with it the inevitable backlashes. The series enjoyed (generally) positive reviews up until around the seventh novel, but both fans and critics began to ponder how long the series was going to run on for. Rigney replied that he could now see the series running for ten books, but when the tenth novel, Crossroads of Twilight, was published in 2002 it was roundly criticised for featuring minimal character or plot development compared to the previous volumes in the series (and the eighth and ninth novels had not featured a lot of events either). Rigney's decision to expand an old short story into a full prequel novel, New Spring, slightly delaying the eleventh book in the series also attracted opprobrium from some commentators. The advent of fresher fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire (of which Rigney was a huge fan, giving A Game of Thrones a generous blurb in 1996 that George R.R. Martin has credited with boosting its sales) and The Malazan Book of the Fallen, with grittier characters and more focused storytelling, also started to make The Wheel of Time look like it was yesterday's news.
Robert Jordan in 2005.
Rigney responded with surprising style. Published in late 2005, the eleventh book in the series, Knife of Dreams, scythed down a huge number of subplots, redundant characters and secondary locations. The latter half of the novel was packed with incident, featuring dramatic rescues, reversals of fortune and huge battles. The life that had seemingly started draining out of the series returned and things seemed to be set for a dramatic and satisfying finale, which Rigney promised would follow in the twelfth and final novel in the series, which would be the last even if it was 2,000 pages long in hardcover and fans had to cart it out of the shops with wheelbarrows.
Just a few months later, Rigney announced that he was suffering from cardiac amyloidosis, a vanishingly rare blood condition that causes a thickening of the artery walls around the heart. His fans sprang into action, donating generously to the research hospital where he was being treated. Rigney confirmed that he would finish the final book no matter what, but as his condition worsened he had to acknowledge that this was less likely. He instead began writing notes, dictating tape after tape of outlines and information on how to bring the series to a conclusion. The treatment for his disease was devastating and debilitating, but whenever he had the strength to blog, send a message to fans or work on the outline for the final novel, he would do so. In his final messages, he castigated a rights-holding company, Red Eagle Entertainment, for failing to achieve anything with the Wheel of Time TV and film rights he had sold to them years earlier. But he also thanked his fans for their support.
James Oliver Rigney, Jr., known to the world as Robert Jordan, passed away on 16 September 2007. It was expected that there would be a lengthy period of grieving and mourning before any decisions were made about the future of The Wheel of Time, but that wasn't what the author had wanted. Before the year was out, Harriet McDougal had convinced up-and-coming fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to take on the Herculean task of finishing the series. Sanderson, a fan of the series since its beginning, was daunted but knew it was a task that he could do. Assessing the notes left behind, he realised that finishing the series in one more volume was not possible, so split the planned final volume into initially two and later three: The Gathering Storm (2009), Towers of Midnight (2010) and A Memory of Light (2013). The three books consisted of passages written by Jordan, along with material written by Sanderson but based on Jordan's notes.
Cover art by Michael Whelan, after Darrell K. Sweet sadly passed away before painting the final book in the series.
The three books were all well-received (despite some tricky timeline issues and hoops caused by the chronologically tricky split between the twelfth and thirteenth volumes) and Sanderson congratulated for achieving the impossible: finishing a work of immense popularity and success started by another author, and doing so well. The history of fantasy and science fiction is littered with "sequels by other hands", almost all of them unremittingly awful. Sanderson instead brought The Wheel of Time to a conclusion, not flawlessly, but with respect and skill.
It wasn't quite the end. In November 2015 The Wheel of Time Companion will be released, consisting of vast reams of Robert Jordan's notes that didn't make it into the series itself. And there are signs that a long-running legal dispute over the Wheel of Time TV and film rights is close to being resolved. With companies such as NBC, Universal and Sony having previously expressed an interest in the series and The Wheel of Time being easily the highest-profile and most successful fantasy book series not under some kind of development deal, it looks likely that the series will soon be heading to the screen as well.
So that was how The Wheel of Time was written, but what did it do? How did it change epic fantasy, and was it for the better or the worse?