Revolutionary tales

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Winter is the perfect time to settle down with a new box set.  This week, Amazon are hoping their lavish production of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time will catch our imaginations.  Does their adaptation mean that this fantasy series is destined to be remembered as a classic?

Copyright: © Macmillan publishing / Amazon Content Services LLC and Sony Pictures Television Inc.

For many fans of fantasy fiction, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time ranks alongside J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as one of the major achievements of the genre.  But how does the multi-volume epic really compare to the greatest stories of adventure?

Despite its popularity – the series has sold tens of millions of copies around the world – Jordan’s novels are frequently criticised for being too similar to Tolkien’s landmark trilogy.  The author himself acknowledged the resemblance, saying he wanted to give the reader a sense of familiarity before taking them somewhere new.  The books are also sprinkled with playful references to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

But does this disqualify them from classic status?  While many respected novels are remembered for their innovative qualities, originality isn’t always a prerequisite for greatness.  Shakespeare, of course, borrowed many of his plots.  Authors of all kinds weave familiar themes and images into their stories – often drawing on many of the same religious and mythological sources from which Tolkien and Jordan drew inspiration.  T. S. Eliot – a critic as well as a poet – even went as far as to argue that the most original parts of a work can be those in which literary ancestors ‘assert their immortality most vigorously’.

However, authors are often judged on the way in which they take familiar elements from older texts and present them in new ways.  When Margaret Atwood drew on characters and events in Homer’s Odyssey her novel The Penelopoiad, she rewrote the story from the point of view of one of the minor  to offer a different perspective.  Likewise Angela Carter’s rewritten fairy tales challenge the values of the original stories.

For many critics of The Wheel of Time, it is not the allusions to Tolkien that matter in themselves, but the fact that Jordan does little new with them.  For Damien Walter, writing in the Guardian, the books are a ‘clichefest’, in which ‘laughter breaks the air, light spills, [and] heads are, of course, thrown back’.

However, it could just be this very familiarity that explains the series’ appeal.  Two years ago, we asked the BBC audience to tell us about their favourite adventure stories as part of their The Novels That Shaped Our World season.  Of the top eleven authors that featured among the public’s recommendations, nine are best remembered for their trilogies or series.  Participants reported that they loved the scope of long fiction to explore complex moral and ethical issues – but that there was also something comforting about returning to familiar worlds and re-uniting with old friends.  It may be that balance of originality and convention in Jordan’s work is one that readers enjoy.

The Wheel of Time shares one more attribute with The Lord of the Rings.  When Tolkien died, his son Christopher revised and edited his unpublished notes to provide readers with more stories of Middle Earth.  Similarly, upon Jordan’s death, Brandon Sanderson provided another three volumes to complete The Wheel of Time saga.   Innovative or derivative, plenty of readers wanted to spend more time in Jordan’s world.

What do you think makes a classic? Tell us what you think of recently published fiction by completing the Big Book Review.

Find out which are the nation’s favourite Adventure writers.

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