Freemasons have long cherished the power of the written word. Not just as a method for documenting our rituals, statutes, history, and bylaws, but as a way to debate, share fraternal news, and conduct analyses of our teachings. It’s part of how we connect across geographies and the ages. Writing inspires and moves the spirit, deepening our bonds to each other, our creator, and the universe.
James Oliver Rigney Jr., better known by his pen name Robert Jordan, was an accomplished wordsmith, and an author of epic fantasy. Those that don’t know his name may still be familiar with his work, as he was the mind behind the bestselling fantasy series: The Wheel of Time. This series, which has sold over 100 million copies, spans 15 books and over 10,000 pages therein. As a Freemason, and a descendent of Freemasons, he wove themes and imagery from the craft into his works.
Early Life and Service to Country
Robert Jordan, born James Oliver Rigney, Jr. was born on October 17, 1948, in Charleston, South Carolina. He spent most of his life in South Carolina, graduating high school and going on to attend Clemson University. With the country increasingly locked into the Vietnam War during the 1960s, Jordan dropped out of college after one year to enlist in the United States Army.
He served two tours in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 as a helicopter gunner. His time in the military was marked with distinction. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with bronze oak leaf cluster, the Bronze Star with “V” and bronze oak leaf cluster, and two Vietnamese Gallantry Crosses with palm.
In 1970, Jordan returned home from Vietnam and enrolled in The Citadel to study physics. After graduating in 1974 with his Bachelor of Science degree, he took a job as a nuclear engineer for the United States Navy. While working in the Charleston Naval Shipyard, he fell off a submarine and sustained a knee injury that left him hospitalized for a month.
Writing Career and Personal Life
During his recovery, the medical staff had to reconstruct his knee, and he suffered a near-fatal blood clot. His brush with death inspired him to try something new with his time. Jordan was always an avid reader, and after a friend who managed a bookstore revealed that a famous romance writer made $3 million on two books, he decided to try his hand at it.
He began writing in 1977 and soon met his wife Harriet McDougal, a book editor from New York (later becoming Jordan’s editor) who had moved home to Charleston. At her suggestion, he began writing historical novels, publishing several under the name Reagan O’Fallon. They married and moved in together in a house built in 1797.
Over the next decade, it became clear his true calling lay in the crafting of fantasy books. He continued cutting his chops by writing a series about Conan the Destroyer. While the character of Conan was first created in the 1930s by Robert E. Howard, the Arnold Schwarzenegger films had increased in popularity during the 1980s, prompting Jordan’s spin-off novels. He is one of several writers to publish their own original Conan the Barbarian stories, and his works are considered by fans to be some of the best outside of the original. In addition to Howard’s books, Jordan listed John D. MacDonald, Jane Austen, Louis L’Amour, Charles Dickens, Robert A. Heinlein, Mark Twain, and Montaigne as his favorite authors.
Religion played a major role in Jordan’s life, describing himself as a “High Church” Episcopalian and taking communion more than once a week. He was also deeply interested in history, and filled his time outside writing with hunting, fishing, sailing, poker, chess, pool, and pipe-collecting.
The Wheel of Time
Jordan’s big breakout as an author arrived on January 15, 1990, with the publication of The Eye of the World, the first book of The Wheel of Time series. It was met with critical and commercial applause and has since been named by PBS’s The Great American Read as, “one of America’s best-loved novels.” Initially, Jordan had planned The Wheel of Time to be a six-book series, but eventually grew to 14 volumes, and included the addition of a prequel novel and two companion books.
Following the positive response to the Eye of the World, Jordan put his full effort towards finishing the series, working nonstop for several years until he completed the seventh volume, A Crown of Swords. With the series already growing longer than intended, he was unable to sustain the breakneck pace and slowed his writing, opting to deliver a book every two years.
In his writing, Jordan drew heavily upon elements of European and Asian mythology, most notably the cyclical nature of time found in Buddhism and Hinduism. He also pulled in the metaphysical concepts of balance, duality, the respect for nature found in Taoism, the concepts of God and Satan found in the Abrahamic religions.
A Third-Generation Mason
As he wrote his books, he built an ardent fan following, as often happens with the best fantasy novels. In the midst of creating this series, fans noticed that some of the concepts found in the Wheel of Time books reflected concepts found in Freemasonry. In response to questioning, Jordan admitted that he was a Freemason “like his father and grandfather.”
Indeed, Brother Jordan was a celebrated third-generation Mason, and a member of Fidelity Lodge No. 304, Johns Island, South Carolina. While he chose not to publicize his position as a Freemason, he felt, in his own words, “no man in this country should feel in danger because of his beliefs.”
Illness and death
By the turn of the century, Jordan still hadn’t closed the curtain on his world-famous series. He published new installments, each met with different degrees of success and acclaim. Unfortunately, fate would not allow him to complete this series. On March 23, 2006, Jordan revealed that he had been diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis. Despite the fact that, even with treatment, the median life expectancy was four years, Jordan said he intended to beat the statistics and continue his long and fully creative life.
He began chemotherapy treatment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in April 2006. Sadly, despite his efforts and cutting-edge medical treatment, Jordan was called home by the Supreme Architect on September 16, 2007. He was cremated and had his ashes buried in the churchyard of St. James Church in Goose Creek, outside Charleston.
While Jordan was unable to finish The Wheel of Time, he took copious notes and mapped out the final volume in the series. Fellow fantasy author Brandon Sanderson used Jordan’s posthumous direction to finish writing the final book, which, fittingly, grew into three volumes: The Gathering Storm (2009), Towers of Midnight (2010), and A Memory of Light (2013).
Following Jordan’s death, his wife Harriet took over The Wheel of Time copyright and continues playing a highly active role in the fandom, attending many conventions and book signings with Sanderson.
Over 30 years since he published the first installment of The Wheel of Time, the series has connected with audiences around the world. The eighth through fourteenth books each reached number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. The series was nominated for a Hugo Award and, with over 100 million copies sold, ranks among the best-selling epic fantasy series of all time.
Today, its popularity has blossomed, giving rise to a collectible card game, a video game, a roleplaying game, and a soundtrack album. A TV series adaptation produced by Sony Pictures and Amazon Studios premiered in 2021 and JordanCon, a fantasy literature convention, was founded in the late author’s honor. Additionally, Jordan also published historical fiction under the pseudonym Reagan O’Neal, a western as Jackson O’Reilly, and dance criticism as Chang Lung.