Robert Jordan, A Tolkien Successor?

Robert_Jordan

Robert Jordan, by Jeanne Collins, [CC BY 3.0] via Wikipedia

I fell in love with the Lord of the Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien as a college student and have read it several times since. I have always wondered, could this ever be matched? Recently, I’ve begun reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, the first of a fourteen part series known as The Wheel of Time. (The last three volumes of this series were completed posthumously from Jordan’s notes and his completed first and last scenes.) The series is on the Great American Reads list of 100 great books or series, which is how I learned of it. I’m only 120 pages into the first book so I cannot yet compare the two works, except to say that Jordan has also created a world, an epic conflict between good and evil with a Dark Lord, a boy-hero, a woman counterpart to Gandalf, Moiraine, and the equivalent of orcs, trollocs. I don’t know whether I will make it through–each book is over 600 pages, 3 million words in all.

All this made me curious about who Robert Jordan was. It turns out that “Robert Jordan” was the pen name of James Oliver Rigney, Jr. He used several pen names for different works, all playing off his initials (note J and R, and J.O.R. of Jordan). He was born in Charleston, South Carolina October 17, 1948. He served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star. After serving, he completed a B.S. in physics and worked as a nuclear engineer. A blood clot from a fall that was nearly fatal turned him toward a career as a writer when he reportedly threw a book across the room he was reading in the hospital, shouting, “I can do better.”

Writing as Reagan O’Neal, he completed a series of historical fiction novels centered around the Fallon Family in the early 1980’s, at a time when similar novels by John Jakes were popular. He tried his hand at a western, Cheyenne Raiders, under the name Jackson O’Reilly. It was at this time that Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian was turned into an Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster. Writing for the first time as Robert Jordan, he wrote seven more Conan books beginning with Conan the Invincible.

Following this, he turned his hand to creating The Wheel of Time series, which he originally envisioned as six books. The first, which I am reading, he published in 1990. Ten more volumes were written by 2005. Michael Livingston, in a Tor.com article, compares Tolkien and Jordan, considering their war experiences, as well as the fantasy worlds the two men created and reaches this verdict:

“James Rigney was not the first heir to the Tolkien legacy—and by no means will he be the last to follow him—but he might just be the most complete interpreter of that legacy. Rooted in mythology and history, founded in philosophy and spirituality, forged of war and the American experience, his Wheel of Time has easily earned its place alongside the British master fantasist. Even more, given the academic status Tolkien’s work has managed to achieve, the work of Robert Jordan has earned its place on any list of turn-of-the-millennium literature, whether the majority of critics like it or not.”

All of his books were edited by his wife Harriet, an editor with Tor Books. In early 2006 he announced his illness, amyloidosis, on his blog. It is a rare blood disease that causes a thickening of the heart walls, weakening the heart. He was optimistic about beating it, undergoing a form of chemotherapy. He wrote:

“Don’t get too upset, guys. Worse comes to worst, I will finish A Memory of Light, so the main story arc, at least, will be completed. And frankly, as I said, I intend to beat this thing. Anything can be beaten with the right attitude, and my attitude is, I have too many books to write yet for me to just lie down. Don’t have time for it. Besides, I promised Harriet I’d be around for our 50th, and that means another 25 years from this month right there. Can’t break a promise to Harriet, now can I?”

He hoped to finish what he saw as his final volume. He was able to write the beginning and end and outline and compile notes for the book. A Tor video recounts the decision during his last weeks to entrust the completion of the series to fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson. As it turned out, the final volume turned into three more books, the last of which was completed in 2013.

James O. Rigney, Jr. died on September 16, 2007. The post on his blog site the next day reads:

“It is with great sadness that I tell you that the Dragon is gone. RJ left us today at 2:45 PM. He fought a valiant fight against this most horrid disease. In the end, he left peacefully and in no pain. In the years he had fought this, he taught me much about living and about facing death. He never waivered in his faith, nor questioned our God’s timing. I could not possibly be more proud of anyone. I am eternally grateful for the time that I had with him on this earth and look forward to our reunion, though as I told him this afternoon, not yet. I love you bubba.

Our beloved Harriet was at his side through the entire fight and to the end. The last words from his mouth were to tell her that he loved her.

Thank each and everyone of you for your prayers and support through this ordeal. He knew you were there. Harriet reminded him today that she was very proud of the many lives he had touched through his work. We’ve all felt the love that you’ve been sending my brother/cousin. Please keep it coming as our Harriet could use the support.”

Rigney described himself as a “high church Episcopalian” and his funeral service took place at St James Church in Goosecreek, South Carolina. He is buried in the churchyard. It is interesting that his work combines both Christian and eastern religious influences–a view of time that is cyclical and yet a universe of good and evil (Shai’tan=Satan).

Obviously, I’m not in a position to make the comparison with Tolkien yet. What is apparent is that Jordan created a powerful epic fantasy world. At very least, it is the best selling fantasy series since Lord of the Rings, selling over 80 million copies. Sony Pictures is adapting it for television. I have at least two friends who have completed the series, so there is hope. I’ll keep you posted. For now, I’m enjoying getting immersed in his world.