It’s one of the biggest fantasy series of all time—and not just in popularity. Robert Jordan’s 15 books span more than 11,000 pages of adventure, lore, and world-building that can be incredibly intimidating to start reading. Maybe it’s even made you wary of Amazon’s upcoming TV adaptation of the series. If that’s true, don’t be afeared—this io9 Guide is ready to tell you everything you need to know. Admittedly, it’s still kind of a lot, but it’s way shorter than 11,000 pages.
Welcome back to the io9 Guide series, where we take an introductory but comprehensive look at the myriad universes of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. These guides are aimed at laypeople in search of a quick refresher, as well as seasoned fans who want to debate the meaning and essential knowledge of a subject.
To put it simply… honestly, OK, there’s no good way to put it simply. In a world where magic is almost exclusively used by women, there’s a legend of a male sorcerer who will be reborn to fight and defeat Shai’tan, aka the Dark One, a god of evil and desolation. That sorcerer is called the Dragon, and the problem is that the first time he stopped Shai’tan, the Dark One poisoned the male side of the One Power, causing the Dragon to go mad and shatter the world. The Dragon Reborn is prophesized to finally imprison Shai’tan for good, but also to destroy the world a second time because he’ll be tainted by the same corrupted magic. That’s just the prologue. The Wheel of Time truly begins when Moiraine—a member of the Aes Sedai, an organization of women who wield powerful sorcery and political power throughout the world—believes that the Dragon has finally been reborn near the small town of Emond’s Field in Two Rivers. Once there, she spirits away the three teenage boys she believes could be the Dragon’s reincarnation after their village is attacked by the Dark One’s forces.
This sets off an epic fantasy that encompasses several kingdoms, cultures, societies, countless characters, multiple wars, several continents, and somehow much, much more (and we do mean epic, as even the publication of the series spanned nearly 30 years). Jordan began writing the first volume, The Eye of the World, in 1984. After it was published in 1990, he followed it up with The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, The Shadow Rising, The Fires of Heaven, Lord of Chaos, A Crown of Swords, The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, Crossroads of Twilight, a quick prequel called New Spring in 2004, and Knife of Dreams before passing away of terminal heart disease in 2007. The final three books—The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and the final volume published in 2013, A Memory of Light—were completed by best-selling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson according to Jordan’s notes.
It’s the central part of the series’ elaborate mythos. The omnipotent Creator created the Wheel to imprison his destructive counterpart, Shai’tan. The Wheel spins through seven ages of very indeterminate length and importance and then, presumably, restarts. The original Dragon, whose name was Lews Therin Telamon, ended the Second Age by defeating Shai’tan and “breaking the world,” as the people term it. The novels take place near the end of the Third Age, which will end when Shai’tan is either reimprisoned or takes total control.
The Wheel is rotated by the One Power, the magical energy divided neatly into male and female halves called saidin and saidar, respectively, and is represented by the yin-yang symbol (except without the alternating dots). In the Second Age, both men and women could channel their respective part of the power, but when the Dark One tainted saidin, all male sorcerers went mad and started a rampage. The women of the Aes Sedai were forced to kill their male counterparts, which is why only female Aes Sedai exist when the books begin, and why the Aes Sedai are so concerned about the reincarnation of the Dragon.
There are more than 2,700 named characters in the books, so many of which hold major roles that it becomes hard to keep track of them, especially since Robert Jordan just keeps piling important ones up as the series goes on. But here are the core characters from The Eye of the World, the first volume in The Wheel of Time, which presumably also forms the basis for the first season of the upcoming Amazon TV series.
Moiraine Damoded—A powerful Aes Sedai who has spent years searching for the Dragon Reborn. (She’s played by Rosamund Pike in the TV show.)
Rand al’Thor—A shepherd who Moiraine has concluded is one of the three possible reincarnations of the Dragon. He’s tall, stubborn, and has reddish hair. (played by Josha Stradowski)
Nynaeve al’Meara—The Wisdom of Emond’s Field, which makes her the village healer and leader of the women’s circle—the youngest ever chosen. She’s very obstinate and hot-tempered. (played by Zoë Robins)
Perrin Aybara—The village’s blacksmith, Rand’s friend, and one of Moiraine’s potential Dragons. As befits his profession, he’s heavily built and quite strong but has a very calm, thoughtful demeanor. He also has golden eyes. (played by Marcus Rutherford)
Mat Cauthon—The third of Moiraine’s Dragon candidates, and a close friend of both Rand and Perrin. He’s a consummate mischief-maker and gambler and considered lazy, immature, and untrustworthy by the people of the village, but he’s also incredibly loyal. He also had oddly good luck. (played by Barney Harris in season one but already recast with Dónal Finn for season two)
Egwene al’Vere—The daughter of the mayor of Emond’s Field and Nynaeve’s apprentice. She’s very close with Rand, Mat, and Perrin. She’s also a voracious learner who longs for adventure and new experiences. (played by Madeleine Madden)
al’Lan Mandoragan—Moiraine’s Warder, one of the traditionally male protectors Aes Sedai are bonded to and accompanied by. He’s stoic, stony-faced, and utterly devoted to Moiraine. He’s also an extremely talented swordsman. (played by Daniel Henney)
It doesn’t seem likely. While Amazon is spending an absurd amount of money on each episode, with its primary focus on magic, fate, and monsters, The Wheel of Time is much closer to the high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings than the devious-politics-plus-occasional-monsters of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, at least during its early books. But in those later books, things get so complex and sprawling it’s extremely difficult to keep track of everything going on—far more than byzantine than Thrones ever was, believe it or not. Plus, there end up being so many main characters and storylines that the main narrative, the fight against the Dark One, moves forward at a glacial pace. A lot of things would need to be cut to make the TV series easier for audiences to follow (and get invested in, to be honest).
That’s not to say the show can’t do it—in fact, it almost has to do it, unless Amazon is planning on making 14 seasons of The Wheel of Time, which seems unlikely. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine actors like Rosamund Pike would actively sign themselves to a project that would require that much time and forced them to basically move to Prague. (Even Robert Downey Jr. only spent 11 years as Iron Man.) There’s plenty of material that can be cut, and it seems to everyone’s benefit to remove it, or at least update it.
Quite a lot in regards to its characters and characterization if it wants to stand next to other modern TV creations. If you haven’t picked it up yet, The Wheel of Time is a highly, highly gendered story with rigidly defined ideas about masculinity and femininity. While women must submit to saidar and allow it to flow through them to use its power, those men who can channel saidin must fight it and conquer it, and are more powerful than women as a result. To Jordan’s credit, there is binary gender equality in most of the world of The Wheel of Time, and the setting even leans to the matriarchal given the power and influence of the Aes Sedai.
However, many people feel Jordan’s skill at depicting female characters was often lacking (myself included). Their personalities oscillate between domineering, angry, childish, jealous, or coquettish. Regardless of whatever power, influence, or initial independence they have, they’re happily dominated by their male romantic interests. Jordan rarely describes his characters’ skin color in a way that feels like it’s irrelevant to him, given the many different peoples and cultures populating the book. However, given the abundance of romantic relationships in the books, the lack of LGBTQ+ representation is inescapable. Very few of those 2,700 characters are homosexual, and they’re primarily made up of a certain portion of Aes Sedai who are also misandrists. There are no trans characters but there is a womanizing man who the Dark Lord reincarnates in a female body as a cruel joke. Suffice it to say, the TV series has a lot of room for improvement in these areas.
You should, and not just because the show has already addressed these problems to some extent, especially with its extensively diverse casting. But even more notably, the show’s official synopsis says Moiraine “embarks on a dangerous, world-spanning journey with five young men and women, one of whom is prophesied to be the Dragon Reborn”—heavily implying that Egwene and Nyneave are also considered possible reincarnations. If this is true, this should have massive ramifications for how the show will treat gender, especially in terms of the magic underpinning the story’s framework.
Plus, there’s still a lot to enjoy about The Wheel of Time, but I can’t explain it without technically mentioning things that are introduced later in the books, so if you’ve not read them and want to go into the TV series fresh, time to turn away.
Despite the books’ flaws, there’s an interesting, compelling, and still extremely epic fantasy tale inside The Wheel of Time. While Jordan borrows ideas from many other fantasy series—Shai’tan is Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, the Aes Sedai are Dune’s Bene Gesserit—he gives them all unique twists, and adds plenty of his own ideas, too: Ta’veren, focal points of the Wheel of Time with the innate power to manipulate the Pattern of fate. Several sects of Aes Sedai with very different philosophies. False Dragons, who claim they are Lews Therin reborn. The Forsaken, Shai’tan’s 13 most powerful disciples who escape from the Dark One’s weakening prison. Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams. Wolfbrothers, who have special powers and are considered by wolves as one of their own. The Land of the Madmen. Sniffers, who can smell violence. Balefire, powerful magic that not only kills people but can erase their existence.
This is to say nothing of the many continents, kingdoms, other lands that populate the world of The Wheel of Time, each with their own unique cultures, politics, goals, and sometimes even powers. And at its heart is Rand’s struggle to maintain his sanity as the Dragon Reborn—which you surely guessed after reading his very bland character description—while using tainted magic to fight the Dark One’s many minions, which is a hell of a hook when no one knows if he’s going to save the world, destroy the world, or both. Honestly, the limitations of a TV series could be exactly what The Wheel of Time needs because it will force the creators to condense the story into a more concise, focused narrative. The novels have their flaws, but The Wheel of Time series has a real chance to make the epic fantasy great and that’s definitely something to be excited about.
Yes. Amazon Studios has already renewed the fantasy series ahead of its season one premiere on November 19, 2021. Showrunner and executive producer Rafe Judkins said: “The belief Amazon Studios and Sony Pictures Television have shown in The Wheel of Time has been incredible to see throughout the entire process of making this show. Getting a second season order before the first season has even premiered is such a vote of confidence in the work we are doing and the property itself, and we couldn’t be happier to be able to continue to live and work in the world Robert Jordan created. This property is one I’ve loved since I was a teenager, and seeing it brought to life with the resources to make it truly worthy of what’s on the page is something I can’t wait for the other fans of the books to see.”
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