Origins of The Wheel of Time
Looking back at the JordanCon2022 Q&A session with Michael Livingston, author of Origins of The Wheel of Time: The Legends and Mythologies that Inspired Robert Jordan.
The first part of this article is spoiler-free for The Wheel of Time books and TV show. It then switches to Full Books spoilers after an appropriate bold warning.
Earlier this year, Tor Books announced the acquisition of a new book called Origins of The Wheel of Time: The Legends and Mythologies that Inspired Robert Jordan. Its author, Michael Livingston, is a professor at The Citadel, from which Robert Jordan graduated in 1974, and has received multiple awards for his work on military history. The announcement was followed by a moving letter from Livingston, in which he shared how he got into the world created by Robert Jordan and what led to the writing of Origins of The Wheel of Time.
Last weekend, halfway through JordanCon2022, many Wheel of Time fans attended the Origins of The Wheel of Time panel, in a room buzzing with excitement. This Q&A with Michael Livingston and Maria Simons, editorial assistant to Team Jordan and personal assistant to both Robert Jordan and Harriet McDougal, was led by Rhed Morgan, Toastmaster of this edition of the convention.
It was an emotional and instructive panel, and is among some of my favorite moments of JordanCon2022. The article below is an attempt to transcribe what was said during this hour-long discussion. This is far from a word-by-word transcription, as my written notes were not that detailed, but I tried to stay as close as possible to the ideas shared during that Q&A.
Michael Livingston fell in love with The Wheel of Time when he first started reading The Eye of the World in high school. Since then, he learned a lot more about what Robert Jordan was doing with his fantasy book series. In March 2008, a few months after Robert Jordan’s passing, Livingston was asked to give a speech at The Citadel for the induction of Jordan into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. During the panel, Livingston recalled the difficulty of giving such a speech (which you can find here, along with a summary of the event). His nerves and emotions prevented him from giving more than a few glances at Harriet McDougal, Jordan’s widow, seated in the front row. Later that day, she asked him to speak at a panel discussion at The Citadel with Brandon Sanderson and David Drake, about Jordan’s work.
Many years later, the opportunity to write a book about the real world in the Wheel of Time came up. To Livingston’s amazement, he got access to everything, even to content that had never been shared before. This access extended to people. Everybody was gracious and open to discussion, from members of Team Jordan to Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books. Several times during the panel, Livingston commented on the absolute freedom he was given to write this book: at no point was he told that something could not be shared or said. The lack of gatekeeping was an amazing experience as a scholar.
Origins of The Wheel of Time will focus on how our mythology and the modern world influenced the world and characters created by Robert Jordan. While there were many things he was not allowed to mention during this panel, Livingston did provide a basic outline of the book:
Its first part goes through Jordan’s biography, with his life story from beginning to end, using inputs from every witness Livingston could talk to.
A second section develops the association between Robert Jordan and J. R. R. Tolkien. Jordan understood the core and foundation of what Tolkien was doing with his writing, and he built on this model.
The third part focuses on how Jordan created The Wheel of Time. This section should contain many notes, early drafts, and quotes, including some that had never been publicly shared before.
Finally, the book ends with a glossary of entries about characters, places, objects, and where they came from.
Robert Jordan got inspired by many sources to create The Wheel of Time. Origins of the Wheel of Time is meant to contain only what Livingston could be confident about, based on the notes and work left behind by Jordan. As a result, the book will not mention elements or theories that could not be defended.
Maria Simons also contributed to the making of Origins of The Wheel of Time. During the panel, she mentioned having learned a lot from the book: she has read it four times already and still loves it (“It’s fabulous” she commented). She provided many annotations during her reads. Livingston shared that Simons was “a crazy good editor”. Once, she gave him a capital and underlined NO. That was a tough blow but she was right. As souvenirs, he has kept many of her written notes.
Simons was also essential in giving Livingston access to Jordan’s notes. Origins of The Wheel of Time was ordered by Tor in the middle of the Covid pandemic, at a time when the Special Collections of the College of Charleston were closed. Due to the short requested timeline for the book, Livingston needed quick access to the collections, where Jordan’s notes are stored. Maria Simons facilitated the process. He also asked whether he could take pictures of the notes, for faster and easier access, which is usually impossible, but Simons made it happen. Livingston commented that he owns a huge debt to the Special Collections for their collaboration.
It is well known that Jordan’s notes are… Awful, to say the least. They must have made sense to him, but it is a struggle to understand them from an outsider’s perspective. Livingston commented on the impressive quantity of notes, which contain more words than in the full book series. Jordan saved many things. For example, many files had multiple versions: whenever updating it, Jordan would rename the new version with a different number and keep the older version. This can be problematic in some instances, especially for elements that Jordan changed his mind about, as it was harder to figure out what had been put aside and what had been kept in the final book series. But to Livingston, this was also an amazing opportunity to understand Jordan’s creative process. As a scholar, he knows the rarity of being able to see the stages that led to a written work. For example, Beowulf, the greatest poem in the Old English language, only survived through a single manuscript, which itself was a copy of the original poem.
The rest of the article contains spoilers for all the books. First-time readers and show-only viewers, please be careful…
During the panel, Michael Livingston read several extracts of the glossary of Origins of The Wheel of Time. Those excerpts contained many names that I, as a French person with little to no knowledge of mythology, was not able to fully catch. As a result, what follows below may contain several mistakes or approximations. I am hoping this will still be interesting. If you were at the panel and caught something that I did not, please mention it in the comments and I’ll update those paragraphs.
The first extract was the entry on the Eye of the World as a concept.
The Seven Seals of the Dark One’s prison were directly correlated to the Seven Seals of God, from the Bible’s Book of Revelation. It is said in this book that the breaking of each seal would lead to the release of a judgment or the occurrence of an apocalyptic event. Livingston mentioned “slaying the Lamb”, which could refer to the death of the Lamb of God, a title for Jesus, which some historicist views associated with the breaking of the First Seal. The Seven Spirits of God was also mentioned, although I do not remember the context. As expected, there is a direct connection between Tarmon Gai’don, the Old Tongue name of the Last Battle, and Armageddon, the Last Battle between good and evil in the New Testament.
As a result, the Wheel of Time was originally supposed to have seven Eyes of the World, each one of them associated with a seal. In the books, the Dark One would have tasked the Aes Sedai following him to find and destroy those seals. The notion was abandoned early, replaced by a pool of Saidin, guarded and to be used when the need would come. This itself can refer to several Arthurian myths:
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the best-known Arthurian stories, Sir Gawain is expected to hold on to the Green Knight’s ax for a year and a day, as part of a bargain the two made.
In the Vulgate Mort Artu, when King Arthur is on the brink of death, his sword Excalibur is cast into the enchanted lake, which is also given to him by the Lady of the Lake in the Post-Vulgate Cycle.
This could also be related to Arthur being taken to Avalon to recover from his mortal wounds following the Battle of Camlann.
In the Wheel of Time, this leads to Rand being taken to the Eye of the World to “recover from his sleep”, which in our case would correspond to Rand figuring out that he is the Dragon Reborn.
The second extract was the glossary entry about Nynaeve Al’Meara.
Nynaeve appears in some of the earliest notes from Jordan and was part of the story from the beginning. Only Rand gets as much attention as her in the notes. Her story is correlated to the Lady of the Lake in the Arthurian myths, which was already expanded on in the 13th depository blog (which also develops some explanation regarding the surname al’Meara). I vaguely recall Livingston mentioning a White Goddess, but I have no idea what this is referring to.
In her original plotline, Nynaeve was supposed to trap Moiraine below ground, halfway between life and death. This led to the Tower of Ghenjei plot. This had already been revealed in a Dusty Wheel video from almost two years ago.
Before being called Nynaeve Al’Meara, our Wisdom had a different surname. All I can say is that it started by B. Personally, I heard something close to Bayard, but it could have been a name like Baldr, Byal, Beira, or even Bel’al, as Brian from Barside Chats Podcast commented. All I know is that this surname later inspired the name of another character, either Bela or Bel’al (the struggle of not being a native English speaker!).