If You Can’t Make Your Own Setting, Store-bought Is Fine.

It’s surprising to me just how many people who’ve read the Wheel of Time didn’t realize the amount of signposting that the story takes place in our world. Whether it’s far ahead or far behind the present day is confounded by the cyclical nature of the story. It could in fact be both. But for all that Jordan gets praised for his world building, I think there’s a significant difference between having your story take place in the ‘real’ world and therefore have little Easter eggs here and there to signpost it, and almost explicitly lifting many many characters and ideas from existing mythology and history.

This could easily be an entire article just listing off all the obvious references to preexisting historical and mythological figures in the history of the world. Anla the Wise Counsellor is Ann Landers. Materese the Healer is Mother Teresa. Merk and Rusk, the giants who fought with spears of light that could reach around the world are America and Russia. There’s a huge list of these kinds of references scattered throughout the story.

But it goes further than simply having the history of their world reflective of ours. Most of the characters and settings of the story contemporary to Rand’s time are themselves thinly veiled knock-offs of existing people, places and things.

Let’s consider Caemlyn in Andor. Caemlyn is Camelot. Involved with such very creative characters as Morgase (Morgause), Galad (Galahad), Gawyn (Gawain), Tigraine (Igraine), Thom Merrilin (Merlin), and of course my favourite, Egwene Al’Vere (Guenivere). Elayne is just Elayne without even needing to change the spelling. Nynaeve is another spelling of the Lady of the Lake. Basically everybody connected with that story is somewhere between lightly and explicitly based on Arthurian legend. And of course, Artur Hawkwing needs no explanation.

It doesn’t stop there, and in some cases the names are unrelated so they might be harder to spot even though they’re extremely obvious in context.

Consider a character who was hanged from a legendary tree, lost an eye, threw lightning, is an excellent general and tactician, with a trickster streak, with an association with ravens. This is of course Odin. Or I guess also it’s Mat. 

Or how about a character with a hammer, an axe, a connection to wolves, and an association with bulls? Why, that’s the Slavic deity Perun who is often seen as a Slavic version of the Norse deity Thor, who we also recall had a hammer Mjolnir. Perrin Aybara ends up with a power-wrought hammer named Mah’alleinir, which in the story means ‘he who soars’ and is named after the wolf Hopper.

To be honest, I’m less interested in continuing to list off all of the references since there are both very very many of them (including also a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament in a museum, from which Egwene could sense ‘pride and vanity from ten paces away’) and that’s sort of what wikis are for. Instead I want to talk about the consequences of making this kind of choice on your world building and your storytelling. 

There’s a common criticism of more ‘modern’ SFF like near-future sci-fi and urban fantasy, that dating yourself with pop culture references too much can be a mistake. Outside the range where your main demographic is the right age to remember and understand the references, they’re going to just be confusing. It could be seen as negatively impacting the longevity of the popularity of your books if new readers are going to bounce off references you were relying on them understanding.

Having most of those references be myths from ancient times bypasses a lot of that problem. The characters themselves have no idea who John Glenn is, so when they talk about ‘Lenn who flew to the moon in the belly of an eagle made of fire’ we as readers don’t need to pick up that this is John Glenn in an American spaceship to carry on with the story. But what this causes me to wonder is why even bother in the first place? 

If the goal is that it’s important we know or come to know that this story is taking place on Earth, you could have picked some more culturally relevant figures for the 16-29 year olds of 1990 than Ann Landers and Sally Ride. Or else just stick with the figures that are already old mythological concepts for us like you did with Caemlyn and all the Arthurian knockoffs.

I can see an argument that there’s no real way to know which things would survive to pass from common knowledge to history to legend to myth, but I mean…these are broadly not even names and events that were all that famous at the time outside things like the Cold War and Moon Landing. A lot of the time I can only even pick up on them by seeing any historical reference in the story and just stopping, and thinking and even doing some googling around the name to see if it connects to anything else. 

The scattergun approach to which things persisted even hits a lot of problems in the general world design too. They’ve got cows, chickens, sheep and pigs. In Andor they know what leopards are, but there’s a display of a giraffe skeleton in a museum and nobody has the faintest clue what it is. Now, how they managed to either preserve an intact giraffe skeleton through the Breaking of the World, or had any idea how to put it together into what is very obviously a correct giraffe shape but not any ability to put a card beside it that says “This is a giraffe” is sort of the problem with this approach to which things survived and which didn’t.

Whichever way the timeline runs between us and the events of the story, it’s thousands of years of time. Yet everybody’s speaking English, or at least everybody is speaking one single unified language that is common in construction and vocabulary across the entire world. You see some attempts at linguistic drift in some grammar differences, such as “I do be” emphatic tense in Illian, and the fact that the Seanchan drawl is supposed to be Texan/Southern US, but they’ve been across the ocean for thousands of years and besides finding them slow-talking and hard to understand, they are essentially fluent with each other.

So at the same time, we have some monumental accomplishments of preservation and continuation for thousands of years where there aren’t only still chickens, they’re still -called- chickens and everybody knows what a chicken is, and on the other hand, whisky has become oosquai, coffee has become kaf, and in one place, they know what a leopard is but not a giraffe, indicating giraffes have been extinct for a very long time, but then the Sharans have elephants, which have survived basically unchanged while the poor giraffes are just gone. So maybe it’s just that Shara is an environment where elephants would have survived, and the main lands of the story wouldn’t have giraffes. Except that they -do- all know what Lions are.  

I think the place I land on this is that there’s just enough evidence that this is ‘our’ world to make all the ways the rest of the setting suggests it’s impossible to be our world work against it in a pretty serious way. 

It’s implicit in the cosmology of the world that the Dark One was sealed away from the world at the moment of creation by the Creator, and that the cycle of the turns of the Wheel of Time have gone on since that point. 

So if our world is the same world, why don’t we have the One Power? Saidin and Saidar are universal constants, they simply exist as forces. And if the Aes Sedai all had to be trained, we could explain the lack in our recorded history as simply never having had anybody figure out how to do it. But there are ‘wilders’ who simply manifest access to the One Power on their own. So to make this work, we now have to also come up with a reason why we’ve had no wilders either. 

And it might be cute to point to the witch trials, and various recorded instances of people ‘doing magic’ that we didn’t believe were real, but the way the One Power works is not even a little bit congruent to ‘somebody claims to have ESP’ and I simply deny there’d be any way this has never happened in a way we’d understand to be something other than fakery.

The Age of Legends was also clearly advanced beyond our modern level of technology. They had flying cars, laser blasters, mood clothing, and any number of other things that were technological and not related to the One Power meaning that it’s either in our future, or we are also the products of a collapsed futuristic society too.

Except thousands of years later, in Randland, some of these marvels persist. There are structures, and objects and remnants of ancient disasters that persisted through thousands of years, and the Breaking. We haven’t got anything like that. We have written records going back through the creation of pretty much every ancient marvel that is still sticking around, and while in some cases it took us a long time to ‘discover’ some of the techniques used by indigenous populations before we conquered and genocided them, we pretty much know how to do all of those things again now.

If you’re going to lift so many elements from our actual history and mythology, and portray them in a way that makes it extremely heavily implied if never explicitly stated, that this IS our world somewhere very far ahead or behind on the overall timeline, you really need to take the time to account for the consistencies and inconsistencies, and try to make it coherent. It feels as though Jordan didn’t really do that much at all.

And of course, it’s his world, he can do as he likes, and maybe he just thought it would be funny to make Ann Landers an enduring mythological figure that was still being remembered in some form thousands of years later, and if people figured it out, neato, and thought no more on it.

But it’s a lost opportunity, and worse, it indicates inattention and lack of care more than anything I could cast as positive. It feels like he got as far as “Wouldn’t it be cool if this was actually subtly OUR world?” and just sort of dumped in as many references as he could fit without ever really sitting down to think through the second order consequences of it.

So is this, therefore, “bad” world building? I mean…not REALLY, like…I’ve absolutely read fantasy worlds with dramatically worse world building than this. But it’s one of those things where once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it. Once you have the awareness of this story being our world, all the ways he then undercuts that idea with things that contradict the very point he’s trying to make become glaring.

It’s like once you make a conscious awareness of how often he uses the word ‘bosom’ (This features in a whole other article coming soon) or how every single market in every single town in the whole series includes ‘hawkers crying their wares’ you can’t help but see them constantly.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘our world but also magic’ but all of the very mundane and very specific ‘relevant to a 42-60 year old American white man in the 1990s’ references are so grounding that they drag the whole thing down. They expose the cracks in making the choice to base things on our world in a very unflattering way. He didn’t need to do that, he didn’t need to constantly make allusions to their mythological figures which he based on random real things. Those legends don’t go anywhere or have any real relevance to the story. Basically all the references of relevance are to things that are already mythological to us, and those are all fine.

Store-bought settings are fine, but with this much mixing and matching, it makes for a disjointed meal that might taste good, but you can’t help but be constantly aware of the fact that it was thrown together from 10 different things, most of which don’t go together at all. It’s enough to make me need a shot of oosquai.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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