Welcome to the Family: An Open Letter to Old and New Fans of The Wheel of Time

“History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off into a mystic rhyme; ages are prototypes of other ages, and the winding course of time brings us round to the same spot again.”

—James Burns, The Christian Remembrancer Vol 10, 1845

“If what I get is what they did in Merlin, I’ll be perfectly satisfied.”

—Robert Jordan interview, 1999

Fans of The Wheel of Time are conditioned from its earliest moments to respect the power of prophecy and to analyze the tiniest minutiae of word choice. The story’s characters perceive their foretold Breaking of the World with a mix of fear and hope…and now we fans have mixed feelings about our own coming cataclysm. Long whispered in real-world prophesies, the Wheel of Time TV show will be upon us in a matter of days.

Rational viewers (which I admittedly am not) will anticipate an hour’s entertainment, one episode after the other. But for some of us, this is a moment of transition, a Breaking of what The Wheel of Time is, essentially, and a reforging of what it means to be a WoT fan. It is as though many of us are at a feast—we existing fans huddled around the table anxious to dig in, while curious but unfamiliar people peek through the windows, waiting for Amazon to let them in. A minority of fans already seated at the table are looking nervously at those people outside, and they are being noisy about them. Why? Their problem is not really the new guests. Their problem is with the feast itself.

 

Waygatekeeping

Worrying about new fans—and any talk of gatekeeping around the series—is historically out of character for the Wheel of Time fandom. I’ve participated in many sci-fi and fantasy franchise fandoms in the past 40 years, and I remain amazed at how open, inclusive, and downright familial the Wheel of Time fanbase is. I have been an active fan since cramming pages between junior high classes in 1992. After I finished my friend’s copy of The Shadow Rising, our friend group fell into a hole of geeking out over these books. I never made it out of that hole. Shortly thereafter, in the days before the World Wide Web, I discovered the Robert Jordan USENET newsgroup and its population of Darkfriends who modeled rational, good-natured, respectful debate online.

It took many years before I realized this was not how the rest of the Internet was going to turn out.

These fans talked forever about topics both firmly Jordan-based and tangential; they met in real life in Darkfriend Socials sometimes hosted at their own houses, and upon a foundation of love of The Wheel of Time they fostered a burgeoning sense of chosen family. The rules were simple: you were accepted into this family as long as you were not a jackass and showed some common courtesy. As the fandom grew and the Internet evolved, the center of gravity moved onto the web as Dragonmount.com, TarValon.net, Theoryland.com, and other websites reached critical mass. These subcommunities developed their own perspectives on what elements of the fandom excited them the most—general discussion, highly social real-life events, going deep on speculation and the metaphysics of the series, etc. A little over a decade ago, the first WoT-themed convention, JordanCon, was started by fans and it has prospered even amidst a global pandemic. Fan-made podcasts and YouTube videos have added new dimensions and levels of fan engagement, and now more fan conventions are coming. Over thirty years, there has been a consistent Pattern of chosen extended family eagerly embracing new members.

Some fandoms (and here I look directly at you, my beloved Star Wars) have a reputation for being a bit aggressive, even occasionally venomous. The opposite has been true, in my experience, of the WoT community. By nature of the worldview Jordan wrote into the fabric of his story, the WoT fanbase has been very inclusive since the beginning. It still is, but with the new TV series in the works, an impulse toward possessiveness, a temptation towards gatekeeping seems to have crept in here and there, if just for a minority of fans, as if “show people” would somehow be lesser versions of “book people,” less deserving of the experience and community WoT brings.

 

An Age Yet to Come, An Age Long Past

We are told that there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time, but this moment is a beginning, and it is an ending. For much of the fandom this is the End of an Age, a Breaking of what defines our secondary world, and a threatening of our interpretations of this work by a new Definitive Way That Things Are.

In some ways I think the WoT fandom is facing a second passage through what folklorist Arnold van Gennep and anthropologist Victor Turner called “the liminal experience.” A liminal experience is one in which the participants, regardless of their backgrounds, give up some facet of their identity, go through an identical process, and then emerge from the experience as members of a shared new identity or status. Under some definitions, a true liminal experience requires a prescribed and uniform understanding of two things: what you have to do in the experience, and who will oversee it. The archetypal example of a liminal experience is a wedding ceremony. Before the ceremony you turn your back on your identity as two single individuals, and then you exchange vows, and now you are a married couple, and the officiant oversees all of it.

I submit that people who self-identify as part of the Wheel of Time fan community have also undergone a uniform ritual—reading the series as given to them by Robert Jordan—and by nature of that ritual are accepted members of the extended family of Darkfriends (or whatever we call ourselves these days). But some sections of the fandom are now bothered by two disruptions that the new show brings. The first is an invalidation of the idea that the original story is the exclusive definition of what The Wheel of Time is… The second is an alternative ritual, perceived by some as illegitimate, by which people can now enter the fandom: watching the show, which on some level must mean experiencing an inherently different story. Both schism and a new land of opportunity lay before us at this crossroads, and many in the fandom are feeling nervous, angry, or excited, or hurt, or rapturous, or cautiously optimistic. No matter what the emotion at facing this future, there is a shared understanding that what once was is ending.

On a practical level, no longer will every fan’s head-canon of appearances and sounds and accents and pronunciations be equally (in)correct. Why does that matter so much? Because our minds have created these mental constructs of these characters, and we have identified with their struggles and their conflicts and their bad choices and their heroic moments, and we have sentimental attachments to those associations built, for some of us, across as many as 30 years. And now those mental constructs are being disassembled and are dying out by replacement. With each clip of promotional material Amazon releases, our perceptions of Emond’s Field, of Nynaeve’s braid, of Lan’s taciturn face, of Thom’s moustaches, of Mat’s laugh, and countless other details that made this world and these characters captivating to us—those pillars that underlie the foundations of our fandom are being overwritten. This is, admittedly, not a grave loss in the scale of the human experience. But it is a loss.

This is the pre-liminal phase, as we are asked to surrender a particular part of our previous identity and join the new liminal experience—no longer reading a book, but watching a show, and a world no longer overseen by Robert Jordan’s sole vision, but by showrunner Rafe Judkins. Like a kid who thinks that because Mom has a new boyfriend they’re being told to reject Dad, some fans are pre-emptively rejecting Amazon’s new telling of the story as illegitimate, wrong-headed trespassing that is going to happen whether they like it or not—and because they are dedicated to the family they will not be able to escape the changes.

I have a lot of sympathy for this view. As a teenager in the ’90s I would play the casting game of who could be a good Moiraine and who would be a good Lan, until it was announced that NBC had the license to film The Eye of the World and I suddenly realized I never wanted these books on screen. These books are unfilmable, I said, and the depth of story that makes me love them so much will by necessity be lost. When we were blown away by the previews for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King swept the Oscars, I said that even though the Lord of the Rings adaptations were successful, The Wheel of Time could not and should not be made. When I finally closed A Memory of Light I still said it. If you cannot do the work justice, don’t do it an injustice.

But there is an old Vulcan proverb, “Only Nixon could go to China,” and now, I have come to Amazon. The reality of the show is an established fact, or it will be in a few days, and the new Age is upon us. And now that there is something real to look at, I have to say—I think it looks pretty good. I am cautiously optimistic. I have quibbles but no real quarrels with the deviations we know about as of this writing. I have known for 30 years that story changes would be necessary, and I am convinced this crew at least understand the spirit of the work they’ve chosen to adapt.

I am ready—excited, honestly—to see if they succeeded, and to watch the doors open for an entirely new group of fans. They won’t come in from the same starting point that we did, but I see this as an exciting opportunity for a new, second liminal experience that all of us old fans—and all the new ones—can experience together. That has me more excited even than seeing this story, which more than any other single story has affected my life, shaped my friendships, and redefined what a family could be. The Wheel of Time extended family is about to get a whole lot bigger—again—and I genuinely can’t wait to geek out with new people about new things in the new Age that’s about to begin.

Billy Todd is a Starfleet officer stranded in the 21st century who escapes notice by hiding in plain sight as a corporate attorney. He further advances his cover identity by serving as the track director for the Brandon Sanderson Track at JordanCon. He occasionally violates the Temporal Prime Directive by posting on social media at Facebook and on Twitter  @Billy_Todd.

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