Welcome to the first article in my ongoing series critically analyzing The Wheel of Time. It made sense to start with the big broad view: Robert Jordan’s world design. It is common to see people doing what I think is just confusing ‘breadth’ for ‘quality’. The world is real big, there’s a bunch of countries, people dress differently, speak differently, hate each other, what incredible world design! But there are a few pretty significant issues I have with the way this world is structured. Obviously a good amount of what follows is supposition on my part, it’s supposition on anybody’s part because we can’t accurately model what happens to a world that has magic and a physical manifestation of evil and several post-apocalypses, but we CAN look at some historical analogues to what’s going on and make some reasonable conclusions. Let’s get started.
There are nowhere near enough people living here
For those who aren’t aware, the area of the world where the books take place is never given a formal name in the fiction, so has come to be called RandLand by the fans. RandLand is a portion of a larger continent bounded by the ocean to the west and south, and mountains to the north and east. A few of the maps provided in the novels include a scale, but the general conclusions of the size of RandLand come from the Wheel of Time Companion which establishes a few things like the straight-line distance between several points on the map. This gives us a pretty accurate idea of what we’re dealing with: RandLand is a little larger than the continental United States.
In this context, one wonders what it would be reasonable to expect the world population to be. On the one hand, Jordan has described that he was aiming at a 16th/17th century level of technology, pre Steam-engine, and functionally sideways developed away from Gunpowder. To get a sense of real-world populations around that time, we can look at something like this:
Which puts the population of just Western Europe at around 50 or 60 million people. RandLand is much larger than this, you’d expect a RandLand that had a similar course of development to Western Europe to therefore be in the 200-300 million range. But then we have to look at the development of the societies, the events which have occurred, but honestly this has the opposite effect to one justifying a lower population in RandLand. To start, we look at the timeline. The Age of Legends is described in such a way as to indicate an advanced high technology society. There were skyscrapers, space travel, sentient AI, use of building materials that survived through multiple ensuing catastrophes. This was a society more advanced than ours, and it had access to magic. I have to imagine that allows for a much larger population.
But then towards the end of the Age of Legends, when the Dark One has been freed, we have ‘The Collapse’ with the impact of the Dark One’s influence on people, society starts to crumble. All of this leads to ‘The Breaking’ which brings humanity ‘to the brink of extinction’ though exactly what that means isn’t described anywhere. In any event, let’s assume a comprehensive disaster. Millions dead, cities destroyed, technology lost, something on the Black Death scale of impact. The problem with this is that it happened about 3700 years before the events of the novels.
After the breaking, there’s a period of 1350 years, followed by the Trolloc Wars, another major catastrophic event which saw nations conquered, millions dead and so on. Even after that there’s 1135 ‘free years’ during which we saw Artur Hawkwing’s empire rise and fall, and then 1000 years of the ‘new era’ leading to the events of the novels.
This is a VERY LONG TIME in terms of how a population would grow and recover. When you add in the number of buildings and structures that persisted all the way since the age of legends, the existence of an extremely well-built road system that existed the whole time and so on, the idea that after a solid 2000+ years of what is, essentially, pretty standard empire-style war happening like it happened in our time, almost the entire continent is just -empty- makes pretty much zero sense.
The books are also very light on details of populations, perhaps they don’t have census takers in RandLand, but turning again to Jordan’s interviews and the Wheel of Time companion, let’s talk about Andor.
First: The note which reads ‘Not all buildings and other features were extant at the same time’ which means they’ve labelled things on this map that didn’t exist at the same time as one another, some came earlier or later than others. Second, the scale. The city of Constantinople at this time was about 5 square miles. Historical Constantinople is now the Fatih district of Istanbul, which is similarly, about 5 square miles. Thirdly, notice how NOT completely chockablock with structures this city is. It’s quite dense on the Eastern tip on the First Hill, but the density drops off substantially. This is 5 square miles that at one time, housed as many as 1,000,000 people and was considered ‘deserted’ when it was reconquered in the 1200s with a population of about 50,000.
Now lets look at Caemlyn:
Boy, that is one extremely densely built city. If it’s got 300,000 people it must be way smaller than Constantinople was right? The Wheel of Time Companion says that the city of Caemlyn is enclosed by 50-foot tall stone walls, and holds an area of fifty-three square miles. It is over ten times the size of Constantinople, and densely populated throughout. There is basically no way this city has any fewer than say 2 million people living in it, quite probably more, and as you can see, plenty of people spilling to the outside of the wall as well.
That many people need a LOT of farmers to supply them all with food, and a lot of farmland to grow it on. Luckily for them, they have a huge grassland called the Caralain Grass to their north on which to have developed all these farms to feed everybody.
3 thoughts on “It’s a Small World After All – World Design in The Wheel of Time”
Great article. Although I would argue the Amazon TV series did little well. If the Amazon WoT was half as good as the Boys, I would have been happy.
If I’m not mistaken, in Episode 5 of Season 1, there is a One Month Later sign on screen. That would put the travel time from Emond’s Field to Tar Valon at about a month and a half in the Amazon series.
That aside, this article was awesome to read! I always felt like the world that Robert Jordan created felt real and lived it, but something felt off, and I think this answers my questions!
There’s a lot of implication and not a lot of detail in the books, the world just sort of does what he needs it to narratively moment by moment, which is fine. And lots of authors do that. It’s just in comparison to how much his world building is constantly praised that the weirdness of some of the choices really stands out. Thanks for reading!