Wheel of Time and Philosophy
How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Originality and Love Robert Jordan
Jacob M. Held
Roughly six years ago, a friend of mine asked if I was familiar with the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I wasn’t, but I was informed by others that I should be. “Jake, you’re a fan of fantasy, I can’t believe you don’t know the Wheel of Time.” So I picked up a copy of Eye of the World, not knowing what I was setting myself up for, namely, a five year journey through 14 nearly 1000 page books and a prequel.
I began reading one evening in Paris. I was leading a study abroad trip, it was late at night, I couldn’t sleep, and I had the Eye of the World with me. My initial response, if not hostile, was dismissive. Oh, a tale of a sleepy, rural community suddenly beset by the outside world. A wandering wizard (Aes Sedai, same difference) aided by a would-be king without a kingdom, whose mission is to help these hapless, yet chosen, rubes use their unique gifts to overcome a grave evil. The rural kids are dragged across the country side attacked occasionally by half-human, half-animal abominations created by some evil master who resides in an isolated mountain in a wasteland far away. I’m a fan of Tolkien. This sounded a bit familiar. And it didn’t help that I was confronted with place names like the Mountains of Mist and Mountains of Dhoom. But I kept reading, because it was a well written story. But it kept happening. Now Trollocs attack. You mean Trolls or Orcs, or Trollorcs. Oh, Trollocs. I get it. Now you’re looking for the Green Man? Do you mean an Ent? Then some bard named Merrilin starts singing about King Artur Hawkwing (Whose alternative name is Paendrag, seriously). Ugh. But I kept reading. I finished the first book and started the second, The Great Hunt. By the time I was into The Dragon Reborn I was hooked; hooked enough to read all 14 plus the prequel. So what happened? How did I go from disgust at the obvious Tolkien rip offs to truly enjoying and appreciating this series? Somewhere along the line I had an epiphany, or two.
I say, “or two,” because there were two distinct awakenings I had upon completing the 14th book of the series, Memory of Light. First, after reading the final words of that book, after having traveled for years through Jordan’s world following Rand, Perrin, and Mat and the myriad other characters I couldn’t help but feel let down. There was so much that hadn’t been explained, concluded, or done. As I was lamenting this fact it struck me, it could never be done. Jordan had created a world, and worlds are never done. You can’t study history and then ask how it ends, or expect every loose end to make sense. Worlds are too messy, and Jordan had made a real doozy. So it would never be done. I needed to deal with that and move on. I did. But the most important epiphany was this: Jordan’s Wheel of Time series couldn’t but be derivative in some sense. He was writing in a tradition that he couldn’t ignore and couldn’t avoid. If I sought originality, truly something novel that had never been done before I’d always be disappointed. There’s something else that gives work like Jordan’s its value, there’s something more to art than just originality. But what?
Briefly, authenticity is what matters in art, not originality. Art is a performance, a human, expressive activity, whose meaning is derived from the relationship it engenders between the artist and the recipient. (I won’t say consumer. I really dislike the idea that we consume art. It’s like saying we consume our lovers in the act of love making. Art is a reciprocal relationship of giving and receiving, a fundamental act of meaning making. It’s not consumptive.) And how one approaches art is informative of how one ought to approach life. But let’s begin with the first point, that in art it’s authenticity that matters, not originality.
While bemoaning that Jordan wasn’t original as I worked through the first few books, I was looking for similarities between his characters and world and Tolkien’s as if were I to find enough similarities it would be proof that I ought to judge Jordan harshly. But consider all the fine art in the Louvre and the museums of the world. How many Madonnas did Raphael paint? Are they less spectacular because they aren’t original? Consider how much art is derivative, a variation on a theme, in standard styles according to conventions of geography and time. Is Da Vinci, Matisse, or Signac truly original, unlike anything before? Is anything? Nothing can be separated from its tradition, from its history. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot says, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” Every work of art, every human creation and activity occurs in a time under the constraints of extant conventions. This doesn’t detract from them, it defines them. The myth of novelty, of originality, had to be shattered so that I could appreciate Jordan, so that I could appreciate art.
It’s not originality that makes greatness, but something else. Let’s call it authenticity, a genuineness of the artist in communicating a human experience to his recipient via the artistic performance. This would also explain why forgers are so reviled. A forger can create a visually stunning, technically beautiful piece of art, but it’s a lie. It’s parasitic on the reputation of the true artist. (Dutton 1993) Forged art lies to us about its origin, about its context, about its meaning. It’s a deceitful practice that exploits our trust and faith in the artist. We are humiliated by the forgery, we feel duped by the forger. Perhaps this is where my initial hostile reaction to Jordan came from. Was he playing me for a chump? Did he think I wouldn’t notice? But that’s not what he was doing at all. He wasn’t mimicking Tolkien. He wasn’t a forger. Even if there are similarities to Tolkien, there’d have to be. And it’s not about the end product, it’s not about whether or not a Green Man looks like an Ent, it’s about Jordan’s performance as an artist, as an author. He knew what he was doing and his readers knew what he was doing. There was no deception, no trickery. There was only creation, the creation of a world within constraints of the genre. This shift of perspective made it possible for me to appreciate the Wheel of Time for what it was.
Art has been described by some as a reciprocal experience between artist and art appreciator, an experience predicated on trust and good faith. (Dutton 1998) In this way the artwork facilitates recognition. In the artist’s work I see something of the artist, I appreciate their humanity, their vision. They are sharing something with me, namely a vision of the world. Art is thus profoundly personal and profoundly communicative. This is why mere imitation, or forgery, are so problematic. They take a relationship built on trust and openness and exploit it. Imitators and forgers make a fool of the art appreciator, they taint and sully a profoundly intimate relationship. This is why derivative works offend so greatly. We want to say to the imitator, don’t try to fool me I know where all of this came from, this isn’t yours. We look at the cheap imitation as an affront to us, a lie, a promise denied. When I first started to recognize all the similarities between Jordan and Tolkien I was offended. Jordan was a cheap imitator. If the artwork is a copy, an imitation, if it is not the artist’s own, then the recipient isn’t receiving the truth of that artist. I could digress into a Marxian account of labor and alienation, and point out how Marx saw in Hegel’s theory of art the clearest presentation of a philosophy of labor, but I’ve already hit the high notes above. Art is about recognition. Through art I see the artist, I am offered a vision, a perspective that is his own. I esteem this experience and respect the artist that provides it. These types of experience are valued highly. But this brings us back to the idea of the original.
In any artwork, if one looks hard enough for similarities between it and what came before they will appear. No artwork occurs in a vacuum, they all occur in what Arthur Danto calls the artworld. There is a context to each piece of art, the background of the artist, their training, their relationship to art history and the artworld. There is no way to separate an artist from their time, from their influences. So if one is seeking originality, one must recognize it is a fool’s errand. Even Tolkien had influences, such as Norse mythology, and legends of a ring of power. Plato’s ring of Gyges springs to mind as an obvious example, a magical ring that turns the bearer invisible and leads to abuse. Originality as novelty, as the idea of being entirely unique, like nothing else before, can’t possibly exist. So it’s an unreasonable standard, an inhuman one that would actually be counterproductive. How could I truly appreciate a work of art, after all, if there was no context in which to understand it, no past against which to measure it, no traditions in which to situate it? With this I can look at Jordan with new eyes, I can look at the relationship Jordan had to his tradition, to his readers, to his fans. And in this regard I can also appreciate the work of Brandon Sanderson in relation to Jordan.
What took me a while to appreciate with Jordan is that it’s not originality that matters, because originality, in the sense of true novelty, is impossible. But if we focus on that delusional goal of perfect novelty we will not only lose the capacity to appreciate beauty and great art, but we’ll be paralyzed in our own lives as we continually compare ourselves to those that have come before. For everything we want to do, if we hold out the ideal that it must be totally unique we’ll never accomplish anything. If I compare everything I do to those that came before, I will be paralyzed by the realization that whatever I do won’t be good enough, novel enough, it will have been done in some regard by another already, and better. I will never out aristotle Aristotle, or out kant Kant. And I shouldn’t try. I shouldn’t care. In all regards the one thing that is always true, is that whatever you do, if you do it with integrity then regardless of what else might be true, it is yours, pure and simple. And in that creation others will see you for who you are, they will recognize you as unique in how you perform your life. You can avoid plagiarism, forgery, and mimesis, but you can’t separate yourself from your context, you can’t be other than a child of your times and a result of your influences. How you choose to appropriate, incorporate, and manifest those is your choice. Jordan had his own voice within the fantasy genre, and it was a beautiful voice that communicated an amazing world, and it showed his influences. But it was his, and only Jordan could do the Wheel of Time the way he did. And the same goes for Brandon Sanderson. I think this lesson is needful. We need to remember that only we can be ourselves, our way. And that we needn’t shy away from our pasts, from our influences. We shouldn’t seek to be original for the sake of originality, or novel for the sake of novelty. But we need to be authentic for the sake of our sanity. Life is art, life is a performance, and so long as you do it authentically, with your own voice, then whatever you create, whoever you are, you’re at least always you, not a cheap copy, a forgery of someone’s image of beauty. The wheel weaves as the wheel wills, but you do control at least one thread in the pattern.
Jacob M. Held is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Arkansas. His areas of specialty include legal and political theory and applied ethics. He has published broadly on issues related to popular culture and philosophy including his recent contributions Roald Dahl and Philosophy: A Little Nonsense Now and Then (2014), and with James South, Philosophy and Terry Pratchett (Forthcoming). Although he openly mocked those who’d read the Wheel of Time series multiple times while he was struggling to complete it, he must admit, he’s contemplated picking it up again, if only his job, family, and life weren’t such horrible distractions.
Dutton, Denis. “Art Hoaxes,” from the Encyclopedia of Hoaxes, edited by Grodon Stein (Detroit: Gale Research, 1993) http://denisdutton.com/art_hoaxes.htm (Accessed 04/28/2014)
Dutton, Denis. “Forgery and Plagiarism,” in Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, edited by Ruth Chadwick (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998) http://www.denisdutton.com/forgery_and_plagiarism.htm (Accessed 04/28/2014)
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