The Wheel of Time is an epic fantasy series written by American author Oliver Rigney Jr. (1948-2007) under the pen-name “Robert Jordan.” Jordan completed eleven novels in the series before his untimely passing; the remaining three books were completed by Brandon Sanderson using Jordan’s notes, outlines and dictated cassettes. The Wheel of Time was, until this year (when it was overtaken by George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series), the biggest-selling post-Tolkien fantasy series, with over 85 million books sold worldwide.
The books are set in a fictional version of our world in the distant future (but, due to the circular notion of time in the books, also our remote past). The books are set in the Westlands, a collection of fourteen kingdoms and assorted city-states, and depict a struggle between the forces of the Light, led by the Dragon Reborn, and the Dark One, led by the Forsaken. A key theme of the series is duality, particularly the dichotomy of male vs female, expressed in the fact that men and women use differing forms of sorcery (known as the One Power in the books). The male form of sorcery is tainted and any who use it are doomed to go mad and die. Women therefore hold the magical balance of power in the world when the series opens, but prophecy states that a male channeler will be needed to unite the world and save it from the Shadow…but in the process he will go mad and destroy it.
The titular Wheel of Time is based on the Buddhist and Hindu concepts of time as a circle ever tuning and returning, with reincarnation a recurring (if minor) theme.
As well as the fourteen-volume main series, Robert Jordan wrote a prequel novel and co-wrote a companion volume. A second companion book was published by Robert Jordan’s widow and writing assistants after the series concluded.
Adaptations of the series have been somewhat limited, with a comic book, video game, CD soundtrack and pen-and-paper roleplaying game being released in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Last year it was confirmed that Sony Television was working on a TV adaptation of the series. This year it was confirmed that they were developing the project for Amazon Studios, with Rafe Judkins (Agents of SHIELD) and Amanda Kate Shuman (The Blacklist) on board as writers.
The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
- The Eye of the World (1990)
- The Great Hunt (1990)
- The Dragon Reborn (1991)
- The Shadow Rising (1992)
- The Fires of Heaven (1993)
- Lord of Chaos (1994)
- A Crown of Swords (1996)
- The Path of Daggers (1998)
- Winter’s Heart (2000)
- Crossroads of Twilight (2002)
- Knife of Dreams (2005)
- The Gathering Storm (2009, with Brandon Sanderson)
- Towers of Midnight (2010, with Brandon Sanderson)
- A Memory of Light (2013, with Brandon Sanderson)
- The Strike on Shayol Ghul (1996, online; later published in The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time)
- New Spring (1998, in Legends ed. Robert Silverberg; later published as part of New Spring: A Novel)
- River of Souls (2013, in Unfettered ed. Shawn Speakman; a cut chapter from A Memory of Light, canon)
- Journey into the Ways (2019, in Unfettered III ed. Shawn Speakman; a cut chapter from A Memory of Light, non-canonical)
- The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1997, with Teresa Patterson)
- New Spring: A Novel (2004)
- The Wheel of Time Companion (2015, with Harriet McDougal, Alan Romanczuk & Maria Simons)
- The Wheel of Time (1999, video game by Legend Entertainment)
- A Soundtrack to The Wheel of Time (2001, album by Robert Berry)
- The Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game (2001, by Wizards of the Coast)
- The Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game: The Prophecies of the Dragon (2002, by Wizards of the Coast)
The backstory of the Wheel of Time is long and extensive. More than 3,400 years before the events of the novels, humanity had achieved a level of utopian civilisation in a golden period known as the Age of Legends. The memory of war had been eliminated, famine and suffering was unknown and almost all diseases had been cured. This golden age had been achieved through science and technology, but also through the use of the One Power.
The One Power allowed great feats to be accomplished through the manipulation of the five elements (earth, wind, fire, water and spirit). Injuries could be Healed, vast distances could be Travelled in the blink of an eye and illusions conjured. For all its potency the One Power was limited by the True Source. Both the Source and the Power are divided into two halves: saidin, which only men can use, and saidar, which is only accessible by women. The origins of the One Power were obscure, originating in the remote First Age, the age before the Age of Legends.
Channelers of the One Power in the Age of Legends were known as Aes Sedai, the “Servants of All.” The Aes Sedai spent their lives in the service of humanity, working as doctors, teachers, scientists and in many other fields. Although they achieved stupendous feats, they were limited by the division in the Power. Uniting the two halves, or finding an undivided source of the Power, became the obsession of certain Aes Sedai researches. Finally, they succeeded. Detecting an undivided source of the Power, the Aes Sedai drilled a dimensional hole – or bore – straight into it.
This proved unwise. The undivided source of the Power they had detected was actually a prison containing the primeval force of evil in the universe: Shai’tan, known as the Dark One. The Dark One’s influenced seeped back into the world, unleashing chaos. Murders, bloodsports and depravity, crimes unknown in thousands of years, became commonplace once more. In the space of a single century, the peace and tranquillity of the Age of Legends was shattered forever. Finally, those sworn to the service of the Dark One, aided by monstrous creatures created by genetic engineers, made war in an effort to free the Dark One freely from its prison. They were opposed by the Aes Sedai, now led by Lews Therin Telamon, the man history calls “the Dragon.” After a brutal ten-year war, Lews Therin finally found a way of sealing the Dark One’s prison. His plan was too risky, so he was only supported by male channelers in a final assault on the volcano known as Shayol Ghul, the early connection to the Dark One’s prison. The plan succeeded, the Dark One’s prison was sealed and victory achieved.
But, in the last possible moment before the seal came crashing down, the Dark One tainted saidin, placing a rotting curse on the male half of the One Power. Every male channeler of the Power went insane on the instant, channelling uncontrollably (including Lews Therin, who immolated himself). In their insanity, the male channelers destroyed the world, plunging entire continents beneath the waves, tearing up new ones from the ocean floor and killing millions. The Breaking of the World almost destroyed humanity altogether, but a small number survived, reduced to a pre-technological state.
A small number of Aes Sedai, now all women, also survived. They killed or “gentled” (cut off from the Power) every male channeler they could find. After three centuries of chaos and destruction – the Breaking of the World – the chaos finally subsided. Humanity recovered from the ashes, under the guidance of the Aes Sedai. After a thousand years it appeared that mankind might rise again to great heights, but hordes of Shadowspawn attacked out of the far north in a massive war engulfing the continent known as the Westlands. Humanity rallied and drove them back, but the effort almost shattered the human kingdoms altogether. Centuries later, the High King Artur Paendrag Tanreall arose and united the entire continent under his leadership, creating the greatest human empire since the Age of Legends. The civil war that followed his death was unrelenting and brutal, plunging the continent into anarchy for over a century.
More than a thousand years have passed since the time of the High King. The battered Westlands are in decline. Fourteen human kingdoms now exist, but they are less than the great nations of the past. Even the Aes Sedai are less powerful and influential than they once were. But time grows short, for the Prophecies of the Dragon state that the Dark One was only defeated, not destroyed. The seal on its prison is failing and the Dragon shall be Reborn to lead humanity in the fight against the Shadow. But the Dragon, as a man who can channel still-cursed saidin, is doomed to go insane and destroy humanity in the process.
The Wheel of Time is the story of the search for the Dragon Reborn, his discovery and his struggles to unite the nations against the Dark One in the face of opposition from both enemies and supposed allies, including the Aes Sedai who are divided on whether to use him, gentle him or kill him.
The world at the time of the Wheel of Time novels (click for a larger version).
The setting for The Wheel of Time is our world at a remote point in the far future, many thousands of years from now. The Breaking of the World has altered the world beyond all recognition. The primary setting is a continent (or subcontinent) known as the Westlands (a name Jordan doesn’t seem to have been too keen on, but was the only official name he ever gave to it). Other continents are known to exist and play a tangential role in the story, particularly the enormous western continent of Seanchan and the mysterious eastern land of Shara, but the Westlands is the setting for almost all of the action in the saga.
The Westlands contain fourteen notable kingdoms. At the outset of the story the sagas are as follows:
- Andor, ruled by Queen Morgase Trakand from Caemlyn.
- Cairhien, ruled by King Galldrian Riatin from the city of Cairhien.
- Tear, ruled by a council known as the High Lords of Tear, from the city of the same name.
- Illian, ruled by King Mattin Stepaneos den Balgar from the city of Illian.
- Murandy, ruled by King Roedran Almaric do Arreloa a’Naloy from Lugard.
- Altara, ruled by Queen Tylin Quintara Mitsobar from Ebou Dar.
- Ghealdan, ruled by Queen Alliandre Maritha Kigarin from Jehannah.
- Amadicia, ruled by King Ailron from Amador (at the sufferance of the Children of the Light).
- Tarabon, ruled by King Andric and Panarch Amathera Aelfdene Casmir Lounault from Tanchico.
- Arad Doman, ruled by King Alsalam Saeed Almadar from Bandar Eban.
- Saldaea, ruled by Queen Tenobia si Bashere Kazadi from Maradon.
- Kandor, ruled by Queen Ethenielle Cosaru Noramaga from Chachin.
- Arafel, ruled by King Paitar Nachiman from Shol Arbela.
- Shienar, ruled by King Easar Togita from Fal Moran.
Also of note are several independent city-states:
- Tar Valon, location of the White Tower, the seat of power of the Aes Sedai.
- Falme, an independent port located on Toman Head at the far west of the continent.
- Far Madding, a trading city located in the south, noted for the inability of anyone to channel in its environs.
- Mayene, a great trading city located at the very south-eastern tip of the continent.
- The Seanchan Empire also plays a major role in the story, but its homeland on a distant continent to the west is only briefly visited in the series.
The Wheel of Time and the One Power
The word “magic” is never used once in the entire Wheel of Time series. The One Power is instead treated like a science, with carefully set-out and logically-worked-out rules which are expanded upon in every novel. The One Power is one of fantasy’s most deeply-thought-out “magic systems” and is a primary influence on the numerous magic systems worked out in Brandon Sanderson’s novels.
The One Power is drawn from the True Source, the energy that drives the Wheel of Time. Time is a wheel made up of seven spokes, each spoke representing one of the seven Great Ages. The Wheel weaves the Pattern of the Age from the lives of everyone who lives through that age; when the Wheel completes a revolution and the same Age comes again, the same lives are woven, but they have free will and can change things if they wish (although such changes are minor from one turning of the Wheel to the next). Those who are so gifted can read the Pattern and sense (if imperfectly) future events. Once every few centuries special people known as ta’veren are born, people who can warp chance and probability around them. They seem a self-correcting mechanism, spun out of the Wheel when it appears that the Pattern of the Age is going off-course.
The Creator and the Dark One both exist outside of the Pattern, with the Dark One striving to influence events so it can break free from its prison and remake all of time and space in its own image. The Creator plays no role in events, having started the turning of the Wheel and stepped back to let each world live and die on its own.
The True Source and the One Power are divided into two halves, saidin and saidar. Ostensibly only men can use saidin and women saidar. According to most, the link to channelling is genetic (and possibly, at least originally, artificial). However, at a key moment in the series a woman who is the reincarnation of a man is able to channel saidin, suggesting that the link is more spiritual in origin.
There are two types of channeler: those with the inborn talent and those who can learn. Those with the inborn talent will start channelling whether they want to or not. Learners will never tap the Power unless shown how. Those with the inborn “spark” seem to make up between one-quarter and one-third of the potential channelling population.
Both men and women can vary wildly in how much of the One Power they can channel safely. Each channeler must discover the limits to their power: draw too much and they risk “burning out,” destroying their ability to channel, or even killing themselves.
During the original War of the Shadow, the Forsaken, the most powerful Aes Sedai who defected to the side of the Dark One, created monstrous creatures to fight against the forces of the Light.
These creatures include: Trollocs, bestial blendings of humans of animals; Myrddraal, eyeless humanoids created in the same fashion as Trollocs but considerably more dangerous; Draghkar, winged creatures which can suck out people’s souls; Darkhounds are lethal wolves corrupted into something far darker; Grey Men are humans stripped of their humanity to such an extent that they become almost unnoticeable, making them near-perfect assassins; gholam are shapeshifters; and jumara are monstrous, worm-like creatures.
Conception and Development
I previously provided a very detailed account of the genesis of the Wheel of Time series here.
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