Robert Jordan

Science-fiction writer
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James Oliver Rigney (Robert Jordan), writer: born Charleston, South Carolina 17 October 1948; married Harriet McDougal (one son); died Charleston 16 September 2007.

The overwhelming presence of J.R.R. Tolkien blighted the careers of many writers who could not escape his shadow. It did not blight the career of James Rigney Jnr who spent the last decades of his life creating, in the 12-volume "Wheel of Time" sequence of epic fantasy novels, a work deeply evocative of Tolkien's; because Rigney, who wrote fantasy as Robert Jordan, did it right.

The problem with imitating Tolkien is that it is a full-time job. His central epic, The Lord of the Rings, resounds throughout with a sense that what is being told here is only the tip of the iceberg; but the only way to convey that sense fully is to have also created the iceberg beneath. Tolkien spent almost his entire life secreting that iceberg; Jordan – Rigney was universally recognised under that pen-name – shaped most of his career around a similar enterprise. The end result had little of the mesmerising melancholia or mythic glamour of Tolkien; but the "Wheel of Time" is so solidly, painstakingly and honestly constructed that it has become deeply addictive for its millions of readers.

James Oliver Rigney was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and died there. It is a place which is hard to leave: a small, tree-choked city on an intimate peninsula all its own which gives an impression that its deep ante-bellum past is far more present than our own world: not perhaps a bad environment for a writer whose greatest achievement was to create a vast, bustling epic tale which seems less real than the deep past which governs it, and determines its outcome.

Rigney did not come immediately to writing, however. Before attending university, he enrolled in the US Army, doing two tours in Vietnam between 1968 and 1970, and earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. After his discharge, he attended a South Carolina military academy, the Citadel, taking a degree in physics and working for the US Navy as a nuclear engineer until early success in his writing career, which began in 1977, enabled him to become freelance.

He never wrote under his own name, always using pen-names whose first initials replicated his real ones: as Reagan O'Neal he wrote several historical romances, beginning with his first book, The Fallon Pride (1980); as Jackson O'Reilly he wrote a western; and as Robert Jordan he wrote several novels set in the hectic "Conan the Conqueror" universe originally created by Robert E. Howard, a series of make-work epics culminating in his novelisation of a Conan movie, Conan the Destroyer in 1984. Then, after several years of Tolkien-like preparation for the task, he published The Eye of the World (1990), and the rest of his life began.

The "Wheel of Time" is immensely complex on the surface, though every major event was pre-planned before a word was published, and Jordan once claimed that, if published, his notes and indices would fill thousands of pages. These surface complexities can be reduced to a fairly simple underlying conceit. After completing his task, the Creator of the world is forced to lock his antithesis, the Dark One, into an impenetrable "otherworld", which is duly penetrated, letting the taint of evil thrust humankind into history. The resulting war between good and evil governs the 10,000 pages of the sequence, which remains not quite complete.

In March 2006, Jordan announced that he had been diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis, a rare and incurable blood disease which gave him a life expectancy, he said, of about four years. This, he thought, would be enough to finish the "Wheel of Time". But the disease advanced more rapidly than he had hoped; and the final volume, "A Memory of Light", proved too immense an undertaking for his failing powers. The details of the plot are apparently known – he said once that he knew what he was doing so thoroughly that he could have written the final chapter 20 years before – but the text stops short.

Jordan was a comfortable and generous host and colleague, and maintained unfailingly good relations with his publisher, Tor, an unusual situation perhaps made more likely by the fact that his wife was an editor with the firm. Like Tolkien, he was a devout Christian. Also like Tolkien, his intense faith was never made explicit in his work, but infused its enormous expanse, almost subliminally, with light.

John Clute