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Kings of Fantasy
Readers of fantasy novels are probably familiar with both J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy introduced the genre back in 1954. Many consider Robert Jordan the reigning king of fantasy, and his Wheel of Time series the best fantasy series since Tolkien. I have read the works of both men. Here are my thoughts.
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The Lord of the Rings
The first time I read JRR Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was in 1977. 'Rings' was recommended by numerous college friends as a great antidote to the drudgery of textbooks. I had more than one friend with a cat or dog (or Volkswagen) named after "Gandalf," the powerful wizard from the 'Rings' series. Today, Tolkien's epic fantasy is still popular, with yearly world-wide sales in the 10s of thousands. It is a testament to Tolkien's classic works that they have a huge following, even 40 years after publication.
With the new movie version of "Fellowship of the Ring" being released in December, 2001, and the other film editions of the 'Rings' novels due out each of the next two years, it is doubly important that you READ these books. Movies are great, especially in this day of high-tech animation, but nothing beats the thrill of reading these great books, and imagining your own images of the heros and villains of the 'Rings' trilogy.
Set in "Middle-earth" during the "Third age," book one of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy is The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), followed by book two, The Two Towers (1954), and book three, The Return of The King (1955). Early in '97 I decided to re-read the series and found them even better, and more meaningful, the second time around. I also read for the first time Tolkien's novel, The Hobbit (1937) .
Rather than wait 20 years like I did, read "The Hobbit" first. While not officially part of 'Rings,' "The Hobbit" introduces the reader to many of the characters, races and themes that are revisited in the trilogy. A very satisfying read all by its self, "The Hobbit" also provides background that will make it easier to understand the continuing series.
"The Hobbit" and 'Rings' novels are classic stories of good versus evil, filled with elves and dwarves, warriors and wizards, and a race of little people called "hobbits." This epic revolves around a set of magic rings called the "Rings of Power."
"The Hobbit" introduces "Middle-earth" and tells of how the "Ruling Ring" is obtained by a clever hobbit named "Bilbo Baggins." 'Hobbit' also introduces the previously-mentioned wizard, "Gandalf," and the very-creepy character called "Gollum." Gollum loses his "precious" ring in 'Hobbit' and endeavors throughout the 'Rings' trilogy to recover it. In the end he finally does, with surprising results.
In the 'Rings' novels the people of Middle-earth are set against the rising power of the evil "Sauron the Great," the 'Lord of the Rings.' Sauron seeks the 'Ruling Ring' as the key to unlimited power, and final domination of Middle-earth. The trilogy tells of the quest of Bilbo's nephew, "Frodo," to journey to 'Mt. Doom' in the heart Sauron's domain. Frodo must destroy the "Ruling Ring" by casting it into the mountain's the volcanic fires. Joining Frodo in his quest are his loyal hobbit-friends "Samwise," "Merry," "Pippin," and a band of representatives of the other "free peoples."
Throughout 'Rings' Gandalf fights alongside the forces of good to foil Sauron's rise to dominance. Other heroes include "Strider" a mysterious man and 'Returning King,' "Gimli" the Dwarf and "Legolas" the Elf. Heroines include "Galadriel," the powerful Evlen-queen and "Eowyn" the beautiful and courageous 'Lady of Rowan.' Among the many villains are the "Nazgul," nine powerful and deadly servants of Sauron, the "Orcs," a race of cruel and cannibalistic soldiers, and "Saruman" a wizard seduced by the powers of darkness. The heroes, villains, and a memorable cast of supporting characters on both sides face off in the battle for "Middle-earth."
The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, Book 1)
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The Wheel of Time
I was introduced to Robert Jordan's novels, called collectively "The Wheel of Time," by a clerk in my favorite bookstore. I had finished The Eye of the World (1989) before I realized the series had six more books, with another on the way. That's when it hit me that the clerk had set me up. I HAD to know what happened next, so I purchased the books back-to-back. Booksellers must love compulsive readers.
The other eleven books in the 'Wheel' series are:
The premise of this fantasy saga is that time passes like a "wheel." As the wheel turns "what was, will come again." 'Wheel' tells the story of the reincarnation of the "Dragon," a powerful warrior-wizard who returns to Earth for the final battle against the "Dark One." The conflict between good and evil had been waged time and again through the passing ages. The Dark Lord's intention this time around is to win final victory over the forces of good. The "Dragon reborn" with a band of friends and followers faces myriad dangers in their battles to defeat the Dark One.
This epic saga is populated by what seems like hundreds of characters (I didn't make a formal count) that line up on one side or the other of the conflict. The characters described below are the "leads" of the story.
The "Dragon-reborn" is Rand al'Thor , a young man who learns of his importance after a band of 'Trollocs' (nasty half-human/half-animal minions of the Dark One) try to kill him. After this attack Rand sets out on a quest that will ultimately lead to the final conflict with the Dark One. He is guided by "Moiraine," an 'Aes Sedai' (Aes Sedai have magical powers to manipulate earth, air, fire, water and spirit) and trained in the arts of war by "Lan," Moiraine's 'Warder' (Warders are warriors bonded for life to individual Aes Sedai). They are joined by Rand's boyhood friends "Mat Cauthon" and "Perrin Aybara." Refusing to be excluded from the adventure are two girls, "Egwene al'Meara" and "Nynaeva al'Vere." Rand's friends all play important roles in the developing story.
Other important characters include "Thom Merrilin" (a traveling entertainer with a shadowy past) and three women with a love-interest in Rand al'Thor: "Elayne Trakand" (heiress to the throne of 'Andor'), "Min" (who has the power to see the futures of people she meets), and "Aviendha" of the 'Aiel' (the Aiel are a society of desert warriors who ally themselves with Rand in the war against the Dark One). There are also "Loial" the 'Ogier' (Ogiers are a race of large, human-like beings renown for the abilities as builders), "Faile" of Saldaea (the fiery love of Perrin's life), the 'Wise Ones' (the Aiel equivalent of the Aes Sedai); and 'The Sea Folk' (Rand's seafaring allies).
Minions of the Dark One include 'The Forsaken,' (The Dark One's his inner circle), 'Darkfriends' (people sworn to worship and serve their evil master), the 'Black Ajah' (a group of evil Aes Sedai), "Ordeith" (a truly nasty character who serves the Dark One, but has his own hidden agenda), the 'Myrddraal' (human in appearance, but with no eyes and whose black cloaks hang limply even in a high wind), and the previously mentioned 'Trollocs.'
This summary doesn't scratch the surface of the cast of the characters, both "good" and "evil" in this epic saga. You will find plenty more characters to love and hate within the pages of the 'Wheel' series.
"The Wheel of Time" is a rich blend of drama, humor, horror, and social commentary. Finishing "Crown of Swords" and finding the conflict far from resolved, I await Jordan's "The Path of Daggers" with anticipation.
'Rings' and 'Wheels' and 'Courage' - A Comparison
The dictionary defines courage as, "The quality of mind which meets danger or opposition with bravery, calmness and firmness." Both these series emphasize the virtue of courage.
It is often the limits we accept for ourselves that keep us from achieving our desired ends. You may remember confronting a situation you thought was hopeless, whether simply learning a new skill or facing a life or death situation in the course of your profession. If you completed the task successfully it was probably courage that saw you through. There may have been times when someone else's courage in the face of adversity influenced you to press on to overcome your own challenges.
Both of these fantasy series contain numerous situations where courage wins the day. The central characters in both 'Rings' and 'Wheel' set off on dangerous missions where they must overcome intense fear, and act in the face of overwhelming odds. They experience moments of truth where they are required to have the courage to leap beyond their "self-imposed" limits -- just like in real life.
Other Similarities and Differences
'Ring' and 'Wheel' share a number of plot and character features: good pitted against evil; similar heroes and villains; strange artifacts with magic powers. Both series feature reluctant heroes from quite villages, thrust into world-rending events, and targeted for death by a dark lord ('Frodo' - 'Rand' vs. "Sauron' - 'Dark One'). Both heroes are accompanied by close friends ('Merry' and 'Pippin' - 'Mat' and 'Perrin'), guides with magic powers ('Gandalf' - 'Moiraine') and fearless warriors ('Strider' - 'Lan'). Both series have evil characters who share common characteristics ('Nazgul' - 'Myrddraal'), ('Orcs' - 'Trollocs'), ('Gollum' - 'Ordeith').
The most striking difference between 'Wheel' and 'Rings' lies in the role of women. In Tolkien, women are often set on a pedestal. Most of the action is dominated by men, and few of the central characters are women. Perhaps this is a reflection of the era in which the books were written. 'Wheel' is quite the opposite. The relationship between the sexes is much more equal, reflecting the status of women in much of Europe and America today. Many of the central, and most powerful characters, are women.
The very size and scope of the 'Wheel' series provides a vast canvas upon which Jordan portrays his characters and their complex relationships. For the most part this added to the enjoyment of the experience. On the other hand you might find some of the sequences and characters superfluous. There were times when I found myself saying, "What does this person or event have to do with the central story." The opposite is the case with 'Rings.' There is no fluff in Tolkien's books. Each character and scene is critical to the developing story.
There is no denying the quality of Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. I must, however, rate J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" higher on the literary scale. Jordan's work scores well when compared to other popular fantasy series, but Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" will be remembered as the greatest classic of the fantasy genre.
I highly recommend both of these fantasy series. I suggest you start with Tolkien, primarily so you can appreciate the evolution of the genre from its inception to Jordan's state-of-the-art.
First Published: August 5, 1998 | Copyright © 1998-2007 Robin Chew