Revisiting the Eye of the World

I first read Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World six years ago when I was near the top of our own world. My wife and I were hiking outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, and on a clear day, you could see the Artic Circle from the top of the ridges we were walking along.

Eye of the World, the first book in Jordan’s epic (the unkind might say bloated) Wheel of Time series, was my umbilical to the geek world left behind when we boarded the plane back in Allentown, Pa. Hiking through the endless Alaskan day provided an overly-realistic backdrop for my reading — it was all too easy to empathize with Rand Al’Thor and his band of refuges fleeing evil in the Two Rivers when my own feet ached from a day’s hard hiking.

I found the book an engaging, if not overly exciting read — I enjoyed it, but it didn’t rock my brain the way the best books do. (Read my original review of Eye of the World). Once I returned home, I rented the rest of the series as audio books, and over time, developed a real affection for it. Yes, Jordan can write overlong, and I do sometimes wish he’d cut to the quick, but it’s a world I’ve come to love visiting.

Recently, added unabridged versions of Eye of the World and its immediate sequel, The Great Hunt to their library, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to return to the Two Rivers.

“An Age Yet To Come, An Age Long Past”

Eye of the World opens, as so many fantasy epics do, in a small rural town. In this case, it’s Emmonds Field, a backwater town in a region known as the Two Rivers, which is in turn part of a larger kingdom known as Andor. Don’t tell the Two Rivers that though — it’s been generations since they’ve seen a tax collector, and the self-reliant, strong-willed sheep herders and farmers aren’t about to bow to any queen, no matter how noble.

The protagonists are a group of young people who grew up in Emmonds Field. Rand al’Thor is a dependable, confident young man who’s tall frame, red hair and grey eyes set him apart from the brown-haired, brown-eyed folk around him. His friends are Matrim Cauthon, a fun-loving prankster and Perrin Aybara, a soft-spoken, powerfully-built blacksmith’s apprentice.

Unfortunately for the boys, an ancient evil known as “The Dark One” has taken an interest in them. This evil outsider was imprisoned long ago by the forces of good, but the bonds on his prison are slipping, and he has gained the ability to “touch” the world … and his touch is toxic. As the book opens, he has sent a small legion of his followers to capture the boys for unknown reasons.

The Dark One’s plans are opposed by Moiraine, a member of an exclusive, female-only order known as the Aes Sedai. As an Aes Sedai, she is capable of wielding the One Power, a magical energy that drives the very heart of the world. This power is divided into two halves — female and male. The Aes Sedai wield the female half and once, thousands of years before, they had male counterparts who could wield their half of the One Power.

Unfortunately, when the Dark One was imprisoned, he tainted the male half of the One Power, causing anyone who wielded it to inevitably go insane. From time to time, men capable of wielding the one power still appear, and its up to the Aes Sedai to keep them from hurting anyone as the madness consumes them.

Moiraine arrives in the Two Rivers aware of the Dark One’s interest in the boys and strives to protect them. When the forces of evil — half-man, half-animal warriors known as trollocs and dark wraith-like “shades” — attack, she is there to help the boys escape the ensuing trap. She takes with her a young woman named Egwene Al’Vere, who just might be able to wield the one power herself.

What follows is a chase story, with the band of reluctant adventurers constantly striving to stay one step ahead of the Dark One’s troops, while at the same time avoiding all the dangerous the wilderness and civilization have to offer.

Even Better the Second Time Around

I wasn’t sure how much I’d like reading Eye of the World for a second time — my original reading was now a dim memory that held the book’s high points, but that was all. Would the book be as compelling the second time around, now that I knew what was coming? Like most good books, the answer was yes. While I was able to anticipate much of the book, my memories served as an enjoyable form of foreshadowing, made all the more potent because of the prophetic hints Jordan included even in this first book.

It was fun catching up with these characters before they accumulated years worth of responsibility and power. This is the book when Rand really was just a sheep herder, when Perren hadn’t met the wolves, and where Mat has yet to hear those old familiar dice forewarning against danger.

An oft-heard criticism of the book is that it is too derivative of Tolkien at first glance, that argument does bear some weight. We start with a small band of reluctant heroes who are chased out of their home town by the forces of evil, led by wraith-like creatures. The chase covers half the world, and sees the party split up into three groups before rejoining again.

But the further you read, the clearer it becomes that Jordan’s attempting something different. Rather than rely on typical sorcery, he has created the concept of the One Power, with its pure female half and its corrupted male component. The very fact that men can go mad using magic — and that in their madness, they can slaughter thousands, is very different from typical sword-and-sorcery. Further, the relics of history also help to differentiate the series.

Most notable of these, at least in the first book, are the Ways, which were grown using the male half of the One Power, and which were eventually corrupted by it. The Ways allow near instant travel across the continent, but are guarded by a gibbering, Lovecraftian monstrosity. Relics such as this provide a great sense of history and a feeling of familiarity, as the reader notices echoes of our own world in Jordan’s creation.

Another complaint is the book starts too slowly. Eye of the World certainly has a leisurely ramp up, not fully hitting its stride until about 1/3 of the way through the book. This slow pace didn’t bother me the first time around, nor the second — not every adventure has to plunge into the action right away, and there was certainly enough (in the forms of the escape from the Two Rivers and the occasional fights along the way) to keep me turning pages.

The ending was more disappointing. It strikes me as being overly contrived, as though Jordan’s editors were forcing him to tie things up too neatly so that the novel could stand by itself. Further, Rand’s final battle with the forces of the Dark One is overly dreamlike and undefined. He does something but we don’t have a clue how he’s doing it. Of course, Rand is just as ignorant as we are, but that doesn’t change the fact that the writing describing the event is overly vague. Jordan had similar problems at the end of Book 10, and its all the more frustrating with this read because I knew that Jordan could do better.

As far as Audible’s audio version of the book, it’s sterling. It’s a massive recording, lasting 29 hours, but I never grew tired of listening to it thanks to Kate Reading and Michael Kramer’s competent reading. Reading and Kramer have read all of Jordan’s books, and Audible’s version (as well as the newly re-released CD version) draw from their original audio book recordings. Neither speaker has developed the familiarity with the characters that they will later on, and as a result, some of the character voices are a little too similar. For the most part though, they lay down a firm audio foundation that they capably build upon in subsequent recordings.

Final Analysis

I enjoyed my second reading of this book more than the first, largely because of the foreshadowing that ties the book into the mammoth series that follows it. As a standalone book I’d rate it 7/10, but as part of a larger series, I’ll give it 8/10.


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