It’s a Small World After All – World Design in The Wheel of Time

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.

Reddit user /u/tgbkinger posted this map of the political boundaries of RandLand by basically adding some higher contrasting colours to the existing borderlines on maps you can see in the books. A few obvious things jump out. First of all, MOST of the landmass is just unclaimed. Considering we’re presented with things like ‘most people who don’t live on the borderlands don’t even think Trollocs are real’ most of the unclaimed land seems like it would have been snapped up by somebody some time in the last several THOUSAND years, since the only threats would come from other nation-states who also haven’t bothered claiming any of this land. Another thing that jumps out is the apparent lack of any cities of any real size besides ‘the capitol’ and 0-5 other cities. Obviously you’d say that the map doesn’t include any of the bunch of farming villages and small towns they pass by and that’s fair enough. But I once again want to look at Andor.

Here’s a few things we know about Andor: The Caemlyn Road is an extremely good road, and it extends on that map for well over a thousand miles, passes through a bunch of non-pictured small towns but has heavy enough traffic along it that our protagonists often have to run off the road to hide from people, despite the fact that Baerlon, at the west end of the road, is a ‘wilderness city’ with log walls, and adjacent mostly to small farming villages. We also know that Caemlyn, the capitol city, is one of the Great Cities and might be the largest, or second largest city besides Tar Valon. I’ve seen a few sources quoting Jordan about the population of Caemlyn, but they mostly all fall in the range of 300-400,000 people, perhaps as many as 500,000.

That’s a lot of people. Or is it.

This is a map from Wikipedia of Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire. For most of its existence, it was the largest city in Europe, and at the time roughly similar to the era Wheel of Time represents, had a population somewhere in that same 300,000 range. Notice three things about this map:

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.

Eeexcept that land is all unclaimed. When Artur Hawkwing had his empire, he was going to build his capitol in there, so presumably, it’s nice land to build an empire around, but then it became part of a nation-state that formed after Hawkwing’s empire collapsed, and then that nation-state split into some smaller ones that just sort of…faded away to nothing and now there’s just this giant grassland full of area you could keep animals and plant crops to feed the millions and millions of people in your giant super city with 50 foot tall walls, but instead they just…dont.

You’ll notice a similar plains, the ‘Plains of Maredo’ down in the bottom right between Illian and Tear. Remember the scale of these maps, the Caralain Grass is like…a giant empty field the size of Iowa and Nebraska put together, and just…nobody bothers to go there.

Now, there are some extremely vague attempts at a canon explanation for why a city that is ten times the size of the largest city in Europe at the time, and incredibly densely populated might have the same population instead of, as would make sense, at least 5 to 8 times the population. Mostly it’s the idea that somehow the general influence of the Dark One on the land is just…making the population gradually decline for…reasons… Personally, looking at our world, if I were the embodiment of evil and was able to mess with people, I’d probably push for rampant overpopulation instead. Really strain those resources before you hit us with a super long winter at the start of the first novel, but here we are.

But then you meet farmers like the Grinwells. They’ve got 9 kids, and they’re all alive, healthy, fed, clothed, obviously that family’s doing pretty well. Now imagine as each kid becomes an adult and gets married, they go out to the edge of the old property line, and build a farm, and some fields. Remember, all this land north of Andor is just a big empty grassland. Then each of them has even 4 or 5 kids each (Seems like a pretty fertile family anyway) and then imagine families besides them can do the same, and then imagine they’ve had 1000 years since the last major war, and over 2000 years since the last massive catastrophe. There are nowhere near enough people living here.

Why would Robert Jordan opt to make the world so physically large? I feel like a somewhat flip but honestly pretty correct answer is somewhere between ‘He thought it would be cool’ and ‘He needed a large world to justify being able to pull together an army of hundreds of thousands into the millions for the Last Battle because it would be cool’ and there’s really nothing fundamentally wrong with that. Big armies ARE cool.

The problem comes in when you combine the desire for a huge sweeping battle with your desire to include all these scenes of the protagonists traveling for days passing only the odd farm, or having an entire large ruined city just sort of…chilling there within a couple days walk of existing cities except basically nobody even knows it exists (Shadar Logoth, I’m looking at you)

You need this huge landmass, so you can hide all of these lost and secret things far enough away from everybody to lend them an air of mystery and discovery, but you gave them all too long to live there. If the idea of the Breaking was that it left humanity isolated in the far corners of the continent, with no way to communicate or travel, all advanced technology lost so everybody had to re-learn from scratch how to do things like plant crops to not starve, there’d be an argument for a comparatively small population say 200 or even 300 years later. But just from the fact that everybody on the continent speaks “Randish” with nothing but a few changes in tone or some mild syntax shifts suggests isolation couldn’t have lasted that long. If they’d fallen out of contact for 500 years, they could definitely have their languages drift into an inability to communicate with outsiders, but the fact that everybody speaks Randish, and the fact that the frigging lost empire of Artur Hawking that was across an entire ocean for centuries comes back ALSO still speaking Randish (but with a ‘drawl’ that was apparently meant to evoke Texas, so think about that next time you read about the Daughter of the Nine Moons, Pardner) it either requires ties to have remained pretty much unbroken the entire time, or the Age of Legends being such a cultural monolith that most of its features were basically ‘locked in’ despite several thousand years having passed. And when you look at how vernacular shifts even across a decade, the latter case seems pretty absurd.

I think Jordan realized that making the world so large was a mistake too. There’s a reason almost every major character eventually learns how to fast travel, including moving large numbers of people around. The distances between cities are way too big for how quickly he needs to move armies.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that you can’t write a fantasy world without carefully accounting for enough farmers to feed the soldiers, and enough farmers to feed the farmers, or that you need to model every city to count physical houses to make sure your population makes sense, but when it comes to being off by an entire order of magnitude? It’s just lazy design. Giving us a city ten times larger than the largest city in Europe, advanced enough to have constructed fifty foot tall stone walls completely around the city, packed it in with houses and businesses and inns, and then said ‘Oh yeah, it’s 300,000 people’ feels mostly like he just doesn’t actually know how big cities are, and couldn’t be arsed to check. It didn’t take long to find population charts for the time in question.

There’s a paradoxical situation where you can find as many people saying the world has too MANY people, who find the idea that Andor as a nation-state has 10 million people to be somehow absurd, like you’d just be falling all over people constantly if there were 10 million people, but there’s no remotely reasonable way for Caemlyn to be less than at least 2 million people, and the army that Elayne raises of 150,000 would need millions of people to support it with food and materiel. There aren’t nearly enough people in view to support how many people need to be there.

This is one of the biggest issues plaguing Epic Fantasy, especially Epic Fantasy that wants to have a global scope. Most people can’t picture what a million people look like, let alone think about all the infrastructure that would be needed to support them. They definitely don’t know how many people are needed to support a single full-time soldier in that era, multiplied by an army 100,000 strong.

I don’t even think it’s enough to have a reasonable history background to put this kind of thing together properly. You need to be including the work of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, when you’re giving us a 5000 year history, archaeologists even, and there’s just…none of that here.

Far be it from me to be one of those “Oh, no Wheel of Time? Let me tell you about the Malazan Book of the Fallen” people, but honestly, the difference between “Written by a physics major” and “Written by an archeologist/anthropologist” is extremely stark in terms of how well developed these kinds of details are.

This is actually one of the things that the Amazon Prime series has, possibly intentionally possibly inadvertently, done well. It squashed the world down much smaller. They get from Emond’s Field to Tar Valon in like…what a week? Maybe two? It’s not super clear how much time passes, but it’s nowhere NEAR as much time as it takes them in the books, or would take on the roads in the books, even on Bela the wonder horse.

I hadn’t planned on this running so long, there are actually a number of other pretty broad world building elements I want to touch on, that I was hoping to cover in their entirety in this one article, but I don’t even know how many words this is right now besides “a lot” so I think I’ll wrap it up here. Tune in next time for probably either “It’s absurd that everybody from [Country] seems to look, dress and speak exactly the same” or “Leaning on introducing a prophet with completely unique powers to build your mystery and suspense is bad storytelling”

Hopefully this has been interesting, please leave comments, or DM me on Twitter if you’d like to talk about this or any other Wheel of Time related topic!

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

3 thoughts on “It’s a Small World After All – World Design in The Wheel of Time

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

    1. 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!

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