Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Genesis of the Wheel of Time

With some signs that the Wheel of Time TV adaptation may be moving forwards, it may be worth a look at how Robert Jordan came up with the book series in the first place. Back in 2014 I had the opportunity to read some of Robert Jordan's original notes for The Wheel of Time in some detail. Subsequently I also had access to some additional information, along with of course Jordan's public statements and interviews (print and on the net) going back to the 1990s, not to mention his Tor blog. The results should allow us to put together the genesis of the story and setting.

As I noted in my History of Epic Fantasy entry on Robert Jordan, the genesis of the series went back to the late 1970s. Oliver Rigney, Jr. (to give him his real name) had been a soldier in the Vietnam War and a nuclear physicist working for the US Navy in Charleston, South Carolina. A bad fall had left him with a life-threatening blood clot. Although he survived that, it left him reliant on using a cane to walk whilst still only in his late twenties. Figuring life was too short not to do what he loved, which was writing, he began penning fiction. His first fantasy novel, Warriors of the Altaii, was considered for publication in 1977 by Jim Baen but ultimately he rejected it. Jordan complained to a local bookstore owner, who put him in touch with Harriet McDougal, a local editor who'd worked with both Baen and another well-known editor, Tom Doherty. McDougal could see why Altaii had not sold, but rather than suggest rewrites she asked Jordan for something else. He submitted a period bodice-ripper, The Fallon Blood, which was far superior and was published in 1980.

By that time Jordan and McDougal had begun a relationship, eventually marrying in March 1981. During this period Jordan got to know McDougal's son, Will, who played Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. Jordan agreed to play the role of the Dungeon Master in several games for Will and his friends, circa 1978-79. Around this time Jordan would later report that he had the first ideas for The Wheel of Time.

Jordan didn't start work on the fantasy series immediately, however. The Fallon Blood sold well and sequels were requested. He wrote two more books in the series and a stand-alone Western called Cheyenne Raiders. He had the idea of writing the definitive novel of the Vietnam War under his own name, so used pen-names for everything else: Reagan O'Neal, Jackson O'Reilly and others. When Tom Doherty, who'd just set up his own imprint at Macmillan, Tor Books, asked Harriet McDougal to suggest someone who could write some new Conan the Barbarian books in a hurry for them, she recommended her husband; choosing the pen name "Robert Jordan", he quickly produced seven short novels in the setting.

Impressed with the short turn-around, Doherty asked Jordan if he had ideas for anything else. Jordan said he'd been developing ideas for an epic fantasy series and started discussing it with Harriet, who would edit it, and Doherty, who would publish it.
"HOW MANY TRADITIONAL FANTASY ELEMENTS DO WE HAVE?...GIANTS? ELVES?...[No f***ing unicorns, that's for damned sure!]" - Robert Jordan, early 1980s
The First Idea (aka the "Death Metal Wheel of Time")

The first idea for Wheel of Time that Robert Jordan had was what can be best described as "a bit crazy". It was essentially George R.R. Martin on acid. This story contains some crumbs of the final Wheel of Time narrative but also significant differences.

In this version, the ultimate enemy is a humanoid creature called Sa'khan. Unlike the later Shai'tan, the Dark One, Sa'khan was not a godlike being. Instead, Sa'khan was a powerful and apparently immortal alien warlord from another dimension. He could cross into other worlds via portals. During the First Great War - later the War of the Shadow or War of Power - he attempted to invade Earth but was halted. During this war he was served by half-human, half-demon minions called the Forsaken. At the end of the war the gateway between his world and Earth was sealed shut and all was well. Periodically the Forsaken, some of whom had survived, would try to reopen the gateway, leading to the Second Great War (which later became the Trolloc Wars) but ultimately they failed.

The story itself would begin with Rhys al'Thor being tapped by destiny to oppose the Forsaken and their new attempt to open the gateway and allow Sa'khan to invade Earth (I get the sense that the setting is somewhat more obviously post-apocalyptic Earth than in the final version). Critical to this plan were evil servants of the enemy, warriors from the eastern deserts and plains who had been subverted to Sa'khan's cause and lived in a village near the enemy's primary stronghold. These villains were known as "Sightblinders" and it was their destiny to find and destroy the Seven Eyes of the World. It might be that the Seven Eyes were the devices which prevented Sa'khan's entry into Earth. The Sightblinders evolved into the red-veiled Aiel, so one of the earliest conceptions in Jordan's mythology was one that would survive to become one of the last; the red-veiled Aiel and their village did not actually appear in the story until A Memory of Light in 2013, about thirty years later.

Other elements were present at this time, although in some cases somewhat different. There were multiple small Blights rather than just one big one spanning the globe. The Stone of Tear was called the Stone of Stair. There was a large Blight just north of Stair which took the form of a rotten, fetid swamp (this evolved into Haddon Mirk instead). The Westlands were much smaller: Rhys and his allies travel from the Two Rivers to the Spine of the World to Tar Valon in a matter of days or weeks. There also seems to have been some confusion if the action was restrained to one large kingdom or a collection of nations as in the final books (or a fusing of both, since the single kingdom of Artur Hawkwing collapses into independent nations in the final version of the story). The Aiel Waste was present, but was called "The Wastelands" and was home to two to four Aiel clans rather than twelve.

One significant subplot, which may have lasted a book or two, sees Rhys shipwrecked on a series of massive reefs far across the ocean. He makes his way through the reefs and finds himself on a mysterious supercontinent ruled by women. This storyline, after radical rewrites, inspired Seanchan. It appears Jordan really loved this original idea as he recycled it many years later for his planned Infinity of Heaven series which, alas, he never got around to writing.

The One Power was called just "Power". There were naturally-occurring angreal, which worked like stedding but instead of blocking Power they instead enhanced it. The sa'angreal were so rare that each one had its own individual name (an idea which seems to have crept back into the later books with the naming of the Choedan Kal).

The Ogier - "Ogyr" to start with - had arrived on Earth via The Book of Changes (later The Book of Translation). Their origin point - a wholly alien planet or a Portal Stone world - remains a mystery, as it did in the final series.

In the original notes, Morgase was the name of the queen of a remote city-state who was more of a seductress and schemer. This character seems to have evolved into Berelain. Galad and Gawyn were still her children, but Elayne (under a different name, Elyn) was the daughter of the Queen of Andor, who was a different character altogether. In a surprising move, Rhys actually slept with Morgase. This drives the furious Galad into the camp of the Shadow. He then becomes a channeler and one of Rand's main enemies. It would have been revealed that Lan was Galad's father (plot twist!). A character called "Kadsuane" is also mentioned in the earliest drafts (an important point, for those who claimed that Cadsuane was introduced on the fly in A Crown of Swords as a deus ex machina).

In this version Tar Valon was built directly on the volcanic slopes of Dragonmount itself, with a number of Aes Sedai permanantly assigned to keeping the volcano quiet and the city inhabitable. This changed later on for reasons of practicality.

The white-hot iron viewing Min has of Rand in the books was a storyline RJ abandoned, possibly because it was rather grim: Rhys gets his hand cut off and is blinded by the Queen of Andor (both would later be Healed). Oddly, RJ seems to have abandoned the viewing idea some time before finishing Eye of the World, so it's unclear why he left the viewing in there.

The first-draft Wheel of Time outline is much, much more grimdark than the series we got, with rape, mutilations and graphic violence being more prevalent than anything in the series-as-published, and also a lot more sex. Male channelers were gelded as well as gentled, to prevent spreading the spark onwards, and gentling/stilling was a procedure more akin to lobotomising, leaving the victim insensible.

Moiraine and Siuan also appear to have originally been the same character, and were split when it became clear that Moiraine-as-Amyrlin didn't make sense. 

Originally Rhys al'Thor was the principal character and he seemed to do everything: he had relationships with Morgase, Elyn, a proto-Tuon character and as-yet-unnamed Aiel warrior, and may have had the wolf dreams and bending of chance. Eventually Jordan realised this was too much material to give to one character, so he split his story responsibilities in four, creating the characters of Mat Cauthon, Perrin Aybara and Dannil Lewin (the infamous "fourth Beatle" of The Wheel of Time) to take on some of the workload.

A very interesting worldbuilding point given the criticism it has received over the decades: Jordan dedicated substantial amounts of material to building a series of religions for the Wheel of Time world, with extensive notes on customs, beliefs and priesthoods. However, when he changed the idea of Sa'khan being a powerful-but-not-omnipotent being to becoming the Dark One, it appears he changed his mind. The religions were reworked to become, with varying degrees of direct transition, the Way of the Leaf, the Children of the Light and the Red Ajah (among others).

This outline, more or less, is what Jordan presented Tom Doherty in 1983 or 1984. Doherty asked him, "How long do you think this will last?" Jordan replied, "Three books, tops." Doherty looked dubiously again at the outline and suggested they sign a six-book contract, just to be on the safe side.

The original Eye of the World cover art concept by Darrell K. Sweet, focusing on our heroes riding out of Baerlon. The "fourth Beatle" Dannil Lewin can be discerned, as the artwork was commissioned before his cutting from the book. This artwork was later changed for the novel itsel,f but this was used on a special preview book sent out in August 1989.

The Evolution of The Eye of the World

Robert Jordan started writing The Eye of the World in 1984 and did not finish it until late 1988 or early 1989, a surprising amount of time given his later fast production rate. The reason for this slowness is apparently that few of Jordan's original ideas survived direct contact with the word processor without being changed, adjusted or completely thrown out.

For example, the main character of Rhys was at one stage envisaged to be an older character, a war veteran and hero who was now in middle age when history tapped him on the shoulder and told him he was the chosen one. Jordan seemed to enjoy this as both subverting the fantasy cliche of the farmboy or lowly servant who saves the world (which had already become cheesy after its used by David Eddings and Raymond Feist, among many, many others) and also allowing his main character to already be a capable fighter without having to have long training montages. However, it created other problems. Eventually Jordan submitted to the suggestion that he make the main characters all younger and more relatable to the audience, who were expected to mostly be young. Rhys became Tam al'Thor and his younger "son" Rand replaced him in the story.

This idea - that fantasy fiction had a lot of young readers - also seemed to inspire Jordan and his publishers to radically dial down on the violence and sex. A lot (but not all) of the darkness was drained out of the series to make it more palatable for a mass audience. Jordan also spent a lot of time working out the details of the cultures of the kingdoms involved in the first book - Andor and Shienar, with some mentions of Cairhien and Illian - but left other nations under-developed. He was surprised when Tom Doherty asked him for a map and dashed one off in a hurry. This explained the curiously straight and right-angle mountain ranges which dismayed fans of the cartographic arts, although Jordan later invoked the Breaking of the World to explain the geographic anomalies.

During this time a lot of other changes were made: Power became the One Power, Morgase became the Queen of Andor and Elayne was changed to her daughter. Sa'khan the interdimensional devil ninja (or whatever he was) became the Dark One, the primordial force of evil and chaos, although some of the original Sa'khan character may be found in Ba'alzamon (and his eventually-revealed true identity, Ishamael, not to mention his reincarnated aspect as Moridin).

One idea that survived quite late in the book's development process was that there were four Two Rivers boys: Rand, Mat, Perrin and Dannil. Rand, Mat and Perrin had POV chapters but Dannil didn't, and just appeared to be hanging around. Reading a draft of the book, Harriet asked her husband what the point of him was. "Aha! He will become important somewhere around Book 5." Harriet suggested that rather than having the character just hanging around until he was needed, he could be dumped and reintroduced later on. Jordan agreed, and found it "embarrassingly" easy to cut him out of the book altogether. Dannil was instead left behind in the Two Rivers, becoming the Fatty Bolger of the story, and instead fulfilled his story function later on, showing up with the Two Rivers bowmen at Dumai's Wells. Brandon Sanderson, who completed The Wheel of Time after Jordan's untimely death in 2007, was fascinated by this "might have been" storyline and gave Dannil some lines in A Memory of Light where he muses on what would have happened had he left the Two Rivers with the others.

However, this change happened late enough that there wasn't enough time to change the cover art, which depicts nine characters in Baerlon rather than eight. This artwork was used for the special preview edition of The Eye of the World sent out to bookshops in August 1989 to rustle up interest for the book. The final cover art depicts the correct number of characters, although it introduces another error by showing eight characters riding away from Emond's Field when it should have been seven (since Nynaeve didn't catch up with the characters until Baerlon).

There are also many other changes in this time (such as angreal orginally being called cris). This period is exhaustively detailed in this thread at Theoryland. Some of the other interesting things to emerge from this is the revelation Jordan originally planned to end the First Age in a nuclear war and also had other "gods" (besides Sa'khan) in the story who were capricious and unpredictable, but later removed these from the story.

Oh, and the best (and most hilarious) bit from the notes: Mazrim Taim was Demandred and he killed Asmodean. Jordan wasn't expecting this to be rumbled as early as it was, so he changed it to Graendal once a fan proposed a convincing alternate theory (Jordan printed out this theory and wrote "THIS IS RIGHT!" on it, in a dramatic display of retconning). This is actually interesting because it suggests that Shara would not have been involved at all in the Last Battle (since Demandred wasn't supposed to be there) and the Graendal-in-Shara scenes were a red herring.

The Later Series

Whilst wrapping up work on The Eye of the World, Jordan gave a revised outline to Tom Doherty. This outline is much closer to the series we know, although significant differences remain. Rand is said to try to unite the world by force if necessary and then attempts to outright destroy the Dark One. This fails and allows the Dark One to escape its prison and inflict misery and pain on the world. Rand then confronts the Dark One again and seals it away in its prison, aware that destroying the Dark One will remove evil from the universe but will also destroy passion, creativity and unpredictability: a world without evil is as intolerable as a world without good, for it leads to the loss of free will. This idea remains remarkably intact in the final end to the series.

One idea that did change was that the Last Battle would be fought at Caemlyn, a reference to Camlaan, the crowning battle of the King Arthur cycle. It would be interesting to learn if Jordan later changed this to the Field of Merrilor, or if it was a decision taken after his passing.

Other changes came about due to external factors. For example, although Jordan decided not to set any of the primary narrative on the Seanchan home continent, Jordan still envisaged it as a vast supercontinent spanning a huge chunk of the world. But the maps created by John Ford show it as much smaller than originally planned. Southern Seanchan was supposed to extend much further eastwards into the southern Aryth Ocean, with the whole continent (which is already completely massive, maybe three times the size of the Westlands) being maybe 75% bigger than what appears on the world book maps. However, it was too late to change it before the map appeared in The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time (1997), so thus Seanchan became much smaller than originally planned.

One of the more interesting things to emerge from this study was that Jordan's notes was to learn that the notes were originally much looser and less-detailed until the writing of The Path of Daggers (1998). Between A Crown of Swords and The Path of Daggers Jordan seems to have written the majority of the most detailed notes on the series, including his exhaustive list of every single Aes Sedai character and her Power level (although he'd started this process earlier), the Old Tongue dictionary (which eventually exceeded 1,000 words and phrases) and voluminous notes on dress, customs and military matters. These seem to have expanded from the notes that he'd provided Teresa Patterson for the world book and the glossary notes he'd been keeping since the first book in the series. 

It would be interesting to see a more detailed study of The Wheel of Time and the writing process behind it, perhaps in the mode of Christopher Tolkien's work on The History of Middle-earth, but alas it does not look like this is on the cards at the moment. Still, I hope this overview is of interest.

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  1. I hope the TV series get off the ground though I do worry about it. WoT is one of those strange series where the middle part is the best part of the series. The start of WoT is a pretty standard farmboy-on-a-quest story. Only when Rand became king and goes mad did I really get into it. The end...well, I say thank god for Brandon Sanderson. I do worry if the TV series can last till the middle part of the series.

    1. Books 1-5 awesome; 12-14 good; the middle... treading water could have been collapsed into a single book. Disagree.

  2. Thanks for writing this. I found it very interesting. I would have read pages and pages of it.

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to write about this. This is still my favorite book series of all time. Any info, write-ups on Jordan and his work, or looks back at the material as it was originally written envisioned fascinate me to no end. Is there a possibility we'll get a more detailed look at Jordan's notes or concepts at some point? Not sure what else there is left to work with but I'd love to be able to dive farther in to his ideas and notes.
    Thanks for the great article!

  4. Makes so much more sense that Mazrim Taim was Demandred. Demandreds location was one of the things that bugged me from the last book. It just didn't make sense in context of his comments to the Dark One in Lord of Chaos.

  5. Considering how badly they butchered the Sword of Truth series, I have no desire for a Wheel of Time series. These books just aren’t translatable to other mediums.

  6. LOL,cadsuane was a deus ex machina?she was more like a diabolus ex nihilo.
    robert jordan storywise decision making leaves a lot to be desired.

  7. Thank you for laying this out. The Worlds Of If are endlessly fascinating.

  8. Oh, and the best (and most hilarious) bit from the notes: Mazrim Taim was Demandred and he killed Asmodean. Jordan wasn't expecting this to be rumbled as early as it was, so he changed it to Graendal once a fan proposed a convincing alternate theory (Jordan printed out this theory and wrote "THIS IS RIGHT!" on it, in a dramatic display of retconning).

    omg, we spent so much time fighting about how it HAD to be Taimandred who killed Asmodean. VINDICATION

    1. Lol...i know right? Kind of disappointing that he changed it just because some fans figured it out or didn't come up with a better alternative.

    2. Right there with ya, buddy. I was Lancelot on rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan. I screamed Taimendred killed Asmodean to hide his infiltration of Rands inner circle loadly and for many years after it had been "debunked". It was an obvious retcon. Vindicated indeed.

  9. Hoping that the Wheel of Time tv series gets off the ground and is done correctly. I think CBS All Access may be a better landing spot than people think. I'm really impressed with Star Trek Discovery. Also SpikeTV is being rebranded to Paramount Network later this month and depending on how much they want to spend on a show.

    1. Spike really did a crappy job with the second season of the Shannara Chronicles (which wasn't exactly amazing when MTV did the first season,) so I'd hope they don't end up with WoT. I'd like to see it in the hands of Showtime or (if they wanted to avoid premium cable) FX. A streaming service like Netflix with no restrictions would probably be ideal.

  10. I would think to do the series justice, an premium network would logically be necessary (HBO, Showtime, etc). Without the freedom to show what is necessary (violence, death, what trollocs eat, etc) it would lose the visceral impact and dumb down the story. You need to be afraid of the what trollocs will do and talking about it (vs. seeing it) doesn't have the same impact.

    I would love to see more fleshing out of the back story on the Golden age (maybe at the end during the breaking) and the Sea Folk and their back story.

    Bear in mind, I would LOVE to see the series come to the screen but movies would not necessarily be the best answer; too much story to tell.
    I would however like to see a somewhat darker turn to the series; more development on the Forsaken for example.
    As much as I LOVE the series, I feel like he Forsaken were a little underdeveloped, specifically Semirhage. She was supposed to be so bad even the other Forsaken were actually afraid of her on a higher level.

  11. Great read as usual! :)

    Al info about WoT is welcome.... I love those books.. :)


  12. Ritchie Valentine Smith10 January 2018 at 00:46:00 GMT

    Fascinating research. The original ideas didn't seem exactly George R R Martin on acid, though: maybe original? The start of the series is indeed 'farmboy on a quest', and I also agree that the middle books are best - 'Lord of Chaos' really impressed me...
    What a pity Robert Jordan didn't live on!

  13. Really interesting blog. One of things I am most interested in is any Celtic influence(especially arthurian) .

  14. yeah I watched that series and couldn't help but laugh when the characters used modern vernacular and in tense moments I remember someone saying 'dude'
    I couldn't take it serious anymore.
    no it will have to be pay channel to make sure the story is taken seriously and have the needed elements and hopefully, a darker tone.

  15. Thank you for the fascinating article. I agree the Demandred 180 was clumsy; on first read way back when I thought he'd already given it away--like that was the big reveal at end of LoC. That was the latest book when I first picked up the series so I had to wait for an age for CoS to confirm, and didn't. Until now I thought I was crazy.

    But the far more fascinating bit here is the idea of Rand trying to force a last battle somewhere in the midpoint of the books and then having to regroup and start over. I thought that element of his final battle with the Dark One was not given enough space. I am also one who thinks the middle of the series got bogged down and if they ever turn it into a TV series I think it would be a good idea to try RJ's original plotline there. Release the Dark One on the world and the Bowl of the Winds storyline becomes far more dramatic: proof that even after losing the "Last Battle" that you don't have to surrender. It could be that victory which inspires the world to try again, on their own volition. It also would give the third season an epic finale, keeping the main story intact while making it fresh for the fans.

  16. Great read! Thank you for your time in assembling this!

  17. Great read! Thank you for all of this detail