THE END OF THE STORY
ROBERT JORDAN DIED BEFORE HE COULD FINISH HIS SPRAWLING, THIRTEEN-BOOK FANTASY EPIC, SO HIS WIDOW HIRED A THIRTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD FANTASY NOVELIST TO FINISH IT FOR HIM.
DISCUSSED: Comical Hats, Tertiary Characters, Conan the Barbarian, The Dark One, Typologies Within Typologies, Moral Predicaments, Braid-Yanking, Rhapsodies Over Brocaded Silk, Arcane Metaphysical Theology, Clark Gable
Robert Jordan, born James Oliver Rigney Jr. in 1948, sold more than 40 million books in his lifetime. His Wheel of Time series, a still-unfinished multivolume epic spanning, at last count, thirteen books, more than 10,500 pages, and approximately 3,734,312 words, is among the world’s most popular fantasy series since J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You would have every reason to expect this level of authorial accomplishment to be accompanied by an onset of false modesty—the one-sentence life story, say, graven casually on the back flap of a dust jacket. Yet in nine of the eleven Wheel of Time novels Jordan wrote before his death, in 2007, we’re presented with the portrait of a man looking to get lucky at a Renaissance Faire:
Robert Jordan was born in 1948 in Charleston, South Carolina, where he now lives with his wife, Harriet, in a house built in 1797. He taught himself to read when he was four with the incidental aid of a twelve-year-older brother, and was tackling Mark Twain and Jules Verne by five. He is a graduate of The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, with a degree in physics. He served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Army; among his decorations are the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star with ‘V,’ and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry. A history buff, he has also written dance and theater criticism. He enjoys the outdoor sports of hunting, fishing and sailing, and the indoor sports of poker, chess, pool and pipe collecting. He has been writing since 1977 and intends to continue until they nail shut his coffin.
Jordan’s biography is typical of his work: verbose but vivid, tendentious but still somehow charming, and threaded throughout with equal parts valor and invention. (Pipe collecting, after all, was not a sport until Jordan made it one; nor, for that matter, was Robert Jordan a fantasy author before Rigney rescued him from a prior career as an explosives expert in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.)
Real-life combat experience is something that Jordan, a former helicopter gunner (he claimed to have once shot a rocket-propelled grenade out of midair), shared with Tolkien, who witnessed all but one of his closest friends die in World War I. But where the don of modern fantasy boasted a dusty, Oxford-certified facility with language, philology, and the Middle Ages, Jordan made himself over after Vietnam in the classic mode of the American genre-fiction author. A bearded man with a penchant for elaborate canes, chunky rings, and comical hats, he favored the look of a Southern general. He admitted to being a Freemason. At Q&A sessions, he would not hesitate to interrupt a small child’s incorrect pronunciation of a tertiary character’s name. He wrote the series for which he became famous in an old carriage house cluttered with swords, axes, crossbows, spears, knives, and a human skeleton.
In 2006, Jordan became sick with a rare blood disease called cardiac amyloidosis—a condition in which misshapen proteins, produced in bone marrow, come to be deposited in the walls of the heart. Faced with a median life expectancy of only four more years, Jordan channeled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s Eli Wallach, writing on his blog: “Don’t talk to me about no stinking odds, gringo. I’ve got promises to keep.”
What promises? After a post-Vietnam career that included a stint as a nuclear engineer, an early foray into historical fiction, under the pen name Reagan O’Neal, for publisher Tor (where he was first edited by Harriet McDougal, who would later become his wife), and three books’ worth of pinch-hitting in the house’s Conan the Barbarian series, Jordan began the Wheel of Time in 1984. He’d pitched Tor on a six-book cycle. A little over twenty years later, when Jordan received his diagnosis, he was at work on the Wheel’s twelfth volume, and seemingly no closer to finishing the series than he had been a decade earlier. Rigney’s bio suddenly looked all too prophetic. They nailed shut his coffin the next year.
“I can almost feel that moment, standing and holding the book in my hands, listening to someone play an antiquated upright of Cadash in the background,” read the online eulogy penned by a then-thirty-one-year-old Brandon Sanderson, a burgeoning fantasy novelist and former Mormon missionary. He was talking about his first encounter with the Wheel of Time, which he stumbled upon in a comic-book store. “The cover screamed epic,” he recalled. McDougal, now a widow, was in the midst of a search for a replacement when she read Sanderson’s tribute online.
In this, as in most matters relating to the couple’s happy marriage and the books it produced, she had her husband’s blessing. Jordan, who once spoke so cavalierly about dying with a pen in his hand, had come to realize, at the end of his life, that his series needed a resolution, whether or not he was around to write it. His treatment left him strong enough to work two hours a day, and Jordan skipped ahead, wrote the series’s final paragraph, then began working backward. In his last weeks, when his strength failed him entirely, Jordan summoned his family to his deathbed and narrated aloud the fate of a world he knew he wouldn’t live long enough to realize. They made tapes for posterity.
In September 2007, eighteen months after first receiving his fatal diagnosis, Jordan was buried at Charleston’s St. Stephen’s Church. McDougal wore one of her husband’s black, wide-brimmed hats to the ceremony. The Citadel sent a bagpiper. In the graveyard parking lot, his family gathered around Jordan’s Porsche and listened solemnly to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The memorial program read, “He came like the wind, like the wind touched everything, and like the wind was gone.” Once Jordan’s assembled friends, family, and admirers finally cleared out past her home’s dragon-carved gates, McDougal grieved. Then she went looking for a writer to finish what her husband had started.
After stumbling across Sanderson’s wonkily sincere paean to Jordan (“You go quietly, but leave us trembling,” the younger author had concluded), McDougal picked up one of his books, read forty-five pages, and fell asleep. But when she awoke, she later told the Charleston City Paper, “All the book’s elements were perfectly clear” in her mind. Sanderson had the job.