I grew up reading fantasy novels from my early junior high years, mostly the Dragonlance series by TSR and books in that orbit. I enjoyed my share of JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, perennial favorites, but toward the end of highschool had gone into a fantasy/fantastical dry season. I was preparing for the next season of my life, college, and the pile of traditional books required by my English teacher to finish up my coursework. I was reading more about submarine life, the career field I was anticipating going into, and read many biographies and military-fiction books in preparation.
I started at the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) in the summer of 1998 and finished up my basic training, known as Plebe Summer, by August. The pace of Plebe Summer is such that there is little time (or opportunities) for personal reading, only trying to keep up with the vast amount of professional knowledge (ProKnow) that our upperclassmen expected us to memorize. For a farm kid from Cochranton, PA, it was quite overwhelming.
As I entered the fall semester of my Plebe (freshman) year, I struggled. I was doing some of what I loved: playing in the Drum and Bugle Corps (D&B, Mello Life Forever!), learning naval history, building some of the early knowledge and skills that would serve me later in my Navy story. Yet, it was also extremely challenging. English, one of my favorite subjects throughout highschool, was the opposite: all my earlier “gold stars” meant little and I had to grow immediately after getting my first F’s and D’s. I was tired all the time (like all Plebes!) and just felt overwhelmed. My “fun” activities like D&B were time sinks that, while a lot of fun, were also tapping into my emotional power tank and draining it slowly. I had decided to continue reading submariner biographies as a leisure activity, but it wasn’t leisure at all; it was just an extension of the military lifestyle I was being inculcated into.
Within a month, I realized that what got me here won’t get me there, and I needed to do something different. My mental resiliency was too strained to be sustainable. I was walking through the on-campus Mid[shipman] Store, and I saw a rack of novels as I was looking for school supplies. I saw a dragon.
Somewhat on a whim, I picked up Terry’s first novel in The Sword of Truth series, Wizard’s First Rule. It had the great fantasy covers we grew to love in the 90’s. It was thick for a paperback. Since I was taking in a whopping $50/month of stipend, a $7 novel was a relatively big purchase, but I jumped on it. It fit in the front pocket on my soft-side blue and gold midshipman “briefcase” that I took to class, bulging just a bit, but whatever. I credit that book with changing the trajectory of my story.
I sure folks understand the difference between reading for pleasure versus for school. No matter how much I wanted to like Ivanhoe, it wasn’t the same when papers and analysis were included. Wizard’s First Rule was nothing like that. I made a commitment to take care of myself in small moments: whenever I had a free period between classes, I would set aside 10-15 minutes to read a few pages of Terry’s writing. I read before falling asleep at night after a marathon of calculus homework and essay writing. I grew to appreciate this as a midshipman (and much later as a faculty member) that there are plenty of places to sneak away, sit in a chair or couch next to some piece of naval history (cannons, battle flags, and marble all play a prominent role at USNA) and get a few chapters in.
I resonated with Richard Cypher (Rahl). I grew up running around the woods that surrounded our farm in Pennsylvania. Like most kids, I wished for the opportunity for an adventure popping up in front of me, pulling me into a world of danger and heroic deeds. To use John Eldridge’s words, I longed for “a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.” Reading the story drew me into the world of D’Hara, into the struggles Kahlan and Richard faced, into an epic struggle bigger than any one person. Truly, Wizard’s First Rule was a portal and gateway to a wild, beautiful, and wonderful place that Midshipman 4th Class Chapman could escape to.
My 6 weeks grades were poor. Not a surprise for new freshmen who are learning how to do college. By 12 weeks and the end of the semester though, I was getting back on track. My spring semester was excellent. My resilience was building itself back up. I kept going with Stone of Tears and beyond, finishing the series well into my active duty Navy career.
Terry’s work wasn’t without controversy. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve matured in my reading and interests and such. I’ve tried to go back and reread but my attention has been drawn to different works these days. That’s life and how we are as people. Yet, I know for a fact that had I not picked up that novel in the fall of 1998, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Maybe things would have worked out as well, maybe just different, maybe much worse. No one is ever told what might have been. I know I was living in an unsustainable rhythm right at the very beginning of my college life, and I credit Terry with helping me break out of that rut and getting on a more sustainable path. For that, I’m thankful and privileged. I benefited from his creativity and diligence to produce excellent work. He’s an example and guide for authors like me!