1977: Hero and fool

Review: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson


J. R. R. Tolkien perfectly summed up the critical reaction to his fiction in a clerihew:

The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like you do:
if you don’t, then you boo!

You could say the same for the most ambitious of his early imitators, Stephen R. Donaldson, and his first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Readers and critics are just as divided in their opinions of this trilogy as of Tolkien’s masterwork, though the division is on wholly different lines. Tolkien is dismissed out of hand by critics who sneer at fantasy in general, loathed by the Moorcock-Miéville school of fantasy nihilists, and of course praised to the skies by a third group. The dispute about Donaldson cuts right across these divisions, and is unusually acrimonious even by the standards of the genre ghetto. By a curious kind of foresight, one of Donaldson’s own verses aptly describes the critical reaction to his work:

And he who wields white wild magic gold is a paradox—
for he is everything and nothing,
hero and fool,
potent, helpless—
and with the one word of truth or treachery,
he will save or damn the Earth
because he is mad and sane,
cold and passionate,
lost and found.

It is, I think, worth taking a moment to examine the battle lines, for that may tell us something about the fantasy field itself as well as Donaldson’s place in it.

Donaldson began writing the Thomas Covenant books with a specific purpose in mind, a polemical purpose, almost a political purpose. Biographical details are of unusual importance here. He was born in 1947, in the first wave of the Baby Boom. His parents were Presbyterian missionaries, his father a surgeon who worked extensively with lepers in India. The family moved there when Stephen was three and stayed there thirteen years; he grew up in a sort of missionary enclave, carefully isolated from the dangerous splendour and squalor of pagan Hindustan. He grew up, in effect, between two fantasy worlds, the exotic fairyland of India and the sombre phantasmagoria of Calvinist theology. Donaldson has never said anything publicly about his own religious beliefs, if any, except that he found his parents’ Calvinism and strict Biblical literalism impossible to accept; but his work shows an ethic built firmly upon the rock of Protestant dogma. Good is Good and Evil is Evil, Man is fallen but God is far away: that is a note that his work strikes again and again.

From this knife’s edge between wild visions he was transported to a third fantasy world, the smugly affluent America of the middle 1960s. He imbibed liberalism and skepticism, majored in English, became a conscientious objector, and was at Kent State, working on his M.A. in English, when the National Guard opened fire. But also, like many of his contemporaries, he discovered and fell in love with The Lord of the Rings. In those days, that was a dangerous thing for an English major to do; for a graduate student, almost unheard-of. Modernism still ruled American literature with a chromium-steel hand. That age above all others was hag-ridden by what C. S. Lewis (in the persona of Screwtape) mockingly called ‘the Historical Point of View’:

When a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (especially by the learned man’s own colleagues), and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question’. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge . . . would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.

The antipathy of Donaldson’s professors to Tolkien was immediate and complete, and it put Donaldson in a difficult, almost untenable position. With one side of his mind he had to be a good Modernist, and sneer at the tall tales of the ancients as the work of childish primitives; but with the other he was keenly and imaginatively alive to the power of those ancient tales and their modern successors. Not only Tolkien but Wagner moved him with tectonic force. In later life he would write a sprawling five-volume novel, The Gap, as a space-operatic homage to Wagner’s Ring cycle. But for now he felt the overriding need to answer his professors (and most of his fellow students) on their own ground. Not indeed by academic argument, for that would have been fruitless and might well have cost him his M.A., but by example.

So he began to write a very curious fantasy story, about a man who stubbornly refuses to believe in fairy-tales even when he is plunged into one himself. Harking back to his father’s work, he made his protagonist a leper, and with an eye on Kent State he made him a bestselling author, a Modernist and realist, facile rather than deep. The one quality crushed out the other: the Modernist imagination was no match for the stringent demands of Hansen’s disease, which forced this man, Thomas Covenant, to focus all his wits and energies on the daily struggle for survival. Tuberculoid leprosy damages peripheral nerves and makes the extremities numb; a small cut or contusion, unfelt and therefore neglected, can lead to infection and gangrene, and even bruises can be dangerous. It was thus only natural that Covenant, transported from his ‘real’ life to the fantasy world called ‘the Land’, should cling desperately to the medical disciplines that kept him alive, and strive to deny the exotic temptations of an environment instinct with magic and miracle.

Now this is a very different method from Tolkien’s, and many misunderstandings have arisen among those who confuse the two. Tolkien’s was a mythopoeic fantasy, a direct successor to Beowulf and the Kalevala, the Eddas and sagas, informed indeed by his own experience of modern life, but not primarily intended as a commentary upon it. One of his first stories, The Fall of Gondolin, was written while he was on sick-leave from the trenches of the Great War; and though it is the story of a battle, the battle of Gondolin is as remote from the Battle of the Somme as a blooded warhorse is from a military railway. Gondolin is written in an extremely archaic style, heavily reminiscent of Malory. The young Tolkien takes great and sometimes clumsy pains to emphasize the glory and chivalry of epic warfare, where fate turns on the skill and courage of heroes and not on the drill of divisions and the supply of artillery shells. This is, if you like, a reaction against the squalid and seemingly pointless fighting Tolkien had actually seen; but it is neither an allegory nor a satire of it. It is simply an escape, or rather, a quest: a desperate attempt to rediscover, in the practices of a simpler and nobler age, the need and cause of courage, the spirit that makes men willing to fight and die defending their homes and loved ones.

Donaldson, too, was susceptible to this appeal. Although a conscientious objector and in some measure a pacifist, he recognized that even a hopeless war may be preferable to mere surrender. In The Illearth War Hile Troy, another man from Covenant’s ‘real’ world, compares his former work at the Pentagon with his new role as the commander of the Land’s army, the Warward:

‘I’m useful to something worth being useful to. The issues at stake in this war are the only ones I’ve ever seen worth fighting for. The life of the Land is beautiful. It deserves preservation. For once, I can do some good. Instead of spending my time on troop deployment, first- and second-strike capabilities, superready status, demoralization parameters, nuclear induction of lethal genetic events, I can help defend against a genuine evil. The world we came from — the “real” world hasn’t got such clear colors, no blue and black and green and red, “ebon ichor incarnadine viridian.” Gray is the color of “reality.”’

This is a fine example of the likeness and difference between Tolkien and Donaldson. It is the very likeness that points up the difference: the difference is that the likeness is made explicit. In all Tolkien’s descriptions of battles, at Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields and the rest, there is no reference to modern modes of warfare; the contrast and the criticism are mute and implicit. A man of Malory’s time could read Tolkien with understanding and recognition, though some of the vocabulary would be strange to him. But Hile Troy is utterly modern, and can only be understood by one with a knowledge of the modern world.

Incidentally, Donaldson has earned a lot of disrespect for his vocabulary, which ranges from the rococo to the bizarre. ‘Ebon ichor incarnadine viridian’ is a particularly concentrated example. Ursula K. Le Guin has called the word ichor ‘the infallible touchstone of the seventh-rate’, which ‘bores the bejesus out of everybody’. It is certainly not one of Donaldson’s more felicitous word-choices. The prose of the Covenant books is liberally strewn with such questionable jewels as coigned, orieled, threnody, theurgy, unhermeneuticable (!), sibilating, chrysoprastic, irenic, and the ever-popular roynish. This last word is used as a sort of Homeric epithet to describe the ur-viles, the ‘black roynish’ kindred of the Demondim-spawn. Ur-viles are one of Donaldson’s more memorable and original inventions, eyeless, wizardly, sinister, and thoroughly inscrutable. But I never could discover what was particularly roynish about them; indeed, from Donaldson’s usage of the word, I could never figure out what roynish meant at all. The OED gives it as a variant of roinish, defined thus: ‘Covered with scale or scurf; scabby, scurvy, coarse, mean, paltry, base.’ The smooth skins and austerely evil magics of the ur-viles do not seem to suit the word well.

Donaldson also has a strange tendency to use clench as every part of speech under the sun. To my knowledge he has not yet used it as an interjection or a definite article, but one must not set arbitrary limits to his genius. And he gives a strange sort of value to imprecise, which is usually a Donaldsonian understatement for ‘utterly wrong or bogus’. These peculiarities give his prose somewhat of the aspect of a magpie’s nest, cluttered with bright shiny objects of unknown or forgotten use. This is not an unfair criticism; he has said himself that he keeps lists of rare words encountered in his reading, and does not always look them up in a dictionary before attempting to use them. In consequence his usages of such words are, in his own personal acceptation of the term, ‘imprecise’. When I first read the Covenant books at fourteen, I merely skipped over the words I did not know, or tried to interpret them from context. This is probably the best way to approach Donaldson’s prose; those who have a dictionary at their elbow as they read are likely to get rather angry.

On the other hand, it must be said that Donaldson is capable of wonderfully lyrical passages, relying heavily on the sound of words, even when their meaning sheds no light on his intent. He is a very considerable prose poet, a quality not much appreciated by most modern readers. Like Tolkien, he decks his fiction with verses, though as a rule of a very much lower quality; he descends to vers libre and doggerel, as Tolkien never did. A little later he developed some real facility with formal and metrical verse. Two verses in particular from the later Covenant books, ‘My heart has rooms that sigh with dust’ and ‘Let those who sail the Sea bow down’, have some claim to be called poetry even by snobs.

But let us leave Donaldson’s prose and return to his Method. Tom Shippey has put his finger on the cardinal difference between Tolkien and the Modernists:

Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used ‘mythical method’ not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. . . . He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment.

In this, Donaldson is very much on the Modernist side. His characters and situations do not exist for their own sake but because they are effective as symbols. Here, in the ‘Gradual Interview’ on his website, he describes a method antithetical to Tolkien’s:

My general view of the kind of fantasy I write is that it’s a specialized form of psychodrama. Putting the issue as simply as I can: the story is a human mind turned inside out, and all of the internal forces which drive that mind are dramatized as if they were external characters, places, and events. This is easier to see in the first ‘Chronicles’ because the story is simpler: the Land and everyone in it is an external manifestation of Covenant’s internal journey/struggle. Everything is more complex in ‘The Second Chronicles’ because there are two minds being turned inside out. Which means that there are actually three stories at work: Covenant’s, Linden’s, and the interaction between the two.

With the two words ‘as if’, Donaldson rejects the genuine epic; and when you analyse what remains, it all comes down to that old friend of the literati, the pathetic fallacy. He writes of battles fought with swords and spears (and wizards’ staffs) because that is an interesting way to comment on the spiritual battle in the hero’s mind. He makes that hero a leper because he wants to point out how many of us suffer from a leprosy of the soul. If you strip away the voluptuous flesh of the Land and expose the bare bones of the plot, you will find that Covenant is satirical and symbolic and bitingly topical. None of these things are true of Tolkien’s major works. You cannot strip away the voluptuous flesh of Middle-earth to expose the bones of the plot, because the bones themselves are Middle-earth. As Tolkien said in a letter to a reader: ‘The story is really a story of what happened in B.C. year X, and it just happened to people who were like that!’ With Donaldson one never forgets that the people to whom the story ‘just happened’ are carefully constructed to be ‘like that’ in the service of his theme. It is the tradition not of Beowulf and the Eddas but of Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels.

Some of Donaldson’s most vociferous critics have simply missed this aspect of his work. They accuse him of aping Tolkien, and then lambaste him for doing it badly. Such critics nearly always begin with the unfortunate fact that both Donaldson’s hero and Tolkien’s happen to have a magic ring. Some of them never get any further than that: as if Tolkien were the inventor of magic rings, and the one in Frodo’s pocket was the ur-Ring from which all others were copied. Of course earlier critics in the same vapid tradition accused Tolkien of plagiarizing the ur-Ring of Wagner. But in fact magic rings go back to very early tradition; you will find them in Norse sagas and Arabian folktales. What matters, or ought to matter, is the use that each author makes of this primordial device. The fundamental difference between Tolkien and Donaldson appears precisely here, where critics are apt to see only a superficial resemblance.

Tolkien’s Ring is a ring because, as everybody knows, rings are often magical, or magic things are often ring-shaped. Bilbo put his hand on it in the dark on his way to Gollum’s cave, and it was only gradually that either he or his creator came to realize its power and its peril. Indeed, in the first edition of The Hobbit Gollum actually offered to wager the Ring against Bilbo’s life, a thing that would have been utterly impossible to the enslaved and addicted Gollum of The Lord of the Rings. The Ring, like the story of Middle-earth, ‘grew in the telling’.

Donaldson’s ring is a ring because it embodies all kinds of symbolism significant both in Covenant’s ‘real’ world and in the Land. The essence of Donaldson’s method is to hypostatize his hero’s hopes, fears, and ‘inner demons’ in more or less allegorical form. He has said explicitly that Lord Foul the Despiser ‘is’ a facet of Covenant’s personality, his own death-wish or self-hatred reified and personalized. This is a weak and inadequate approach to the heady stuff of fantasy, which demands to be treated as real, not merely as if it were real; and Lord Foul himself knows it better than the author. To step out of chronological bounds, in White Gold Wielder (not published till 1983) Foul makes short work of that argument:

‘We aren’t enemies. That’s just another lie. . . . You’re just another part of me. Just one side of what it means to be human. The side that hates lepers. The poisonous side.’ His certainty did not waver at all. ‘We are one.’

His assertion made Linden gape at what he had become. But it only drew another laugh from the Despiser — a short, gruff bark of dismissal. ‘Do not seek to bandy truth and falsehood with me,’ he replied. ‘You are too inane for the task. Lies would better serve the trivial yearning which you style love. The truth damns you here. For three and a half millennia I have mustered my will against the Earth in your absence, groveler. I am the truth. And I have no use for the sophistry of your Unbelief.’

Sophistry is a very good word for it; but I shall return to that later. For now let us return to Covenant’s ring. Those who call the Covenant books a mere imitation of Tolkien always begin by equating Covenant’s ring with the One Ring. I have previously pointed out how most of the characters and incidents in The Sword of Shannara correspond simply and exactly to characters and incidents in The Lord of the Rings: Shea Ohmsford = Frodo, Allanon = Gandalf, Orl Fane = Gollum, and so on; and of course the Sword of Shannara itself = the One Ring, though the object is to recover rather than destroy it. Brooks follows Tolkien’s template down to quite small details. Now some have tried to draw a similar list of equivalencies for the Covenant books: Lord Foul = Sauron, Stonedownors = Dwarves, Woodhelvennin = Elves, Giants = Ents, the Council of Lords = the White Council or the Wizards, etc., etc. In each case there are resemblances, but in each case they are outweighed by differences. And there are many elements in Donaldson that simply do not have counterparts in Tolkien at all: for example, the Oath of Peace, the Earthblood, the Ritual of Desecration, and the bizarre relationship between the two branches of the Demondim-spawn. But it all begins with the ring: that is to say, it all begins with a false premise.

In the first place, Covenant’s ring is a convenient plot-engine, with obvious symbolic functions in both worlds. Donaldson wanted Covenant to be an utterly ordinary American, except for his leprosy and his consequent bitterness and isolation; in his own world he has special weaknesses and tribulations, but no special powers. In the Land Covenant had to be at least potentially a great hero, with a magical power that the natives of the Land could not aspire to. Since the people of the Land are represented as human, biologically indistinguishable from Covenant himself, his power in the Land must be represented or hypostatized by something exterior to himself: something he brings to the Land with him: something easily identified with magic.

When you look at the kinds of things that have magic powers in folklore, most are obviously unsuitable. American men do not commonly carry swords, helmets, suits of armour, torcs, necklaces, staffs, wands, phylacteries, phials, stone tablets, arks, or their grandfathers’ shrunken skulls. Most of the things they do carry and sometimes fetishize, like credit cards, car keys, or wristwatches, would have no relation to anything in the fantasy world, and no aura of enchantment that most readers would readily accept.

But a ring is different. Millions of Americans wear wedding rings, and other kinds of rings as well. And a wedding ring is not only a common piece of jewellery; it is the symbol of a sacrament. Give Covenant a wedding ring, a divorce, and an appallingly self-centred ex-wife (whom he nevertheless still loves, for reasons best known to the Deus Ex Machina), and the ring becomes a focal point in both worlds. In the ‘real’ world it symbolizes lost love, broken vows, impotence, despair; in the Land, ‘the wild magic that destroys peace’.

It is exactly this dual symbolism that reifies Covenant’s impossible conundrum. He cannot accept that the ring means power, because to him it means powerlessness. Even the fact that it is white gold is significant. In the Land, white gold is a kind of unobtainium or handwavium, an alloy not found in the earth and known only to prophets and mystics. In the ‘real’ world it is an alloy, and Covenant’s wife prefers it to yellow gold because she likes the colour better. That it is her choice and not his serves to emphasize her fundamental falseness. The ring is not what it appears to be, and neither is Joan, nor her marriage to Covenant.

Many of the other apparent borrowings from Tolkien are purely illusory. For instance, Stonedownors and Woodhelvennin are not Dwarves and Elves with the serial numbers filed off, but the most normal and representative human inhabitants of the Land. A Woodhelven is a village built in the bole and branches of a single mighty tree; some of the living arrangements hark back to the Silvan Elves of Lórien, but the culture and the people themselves are quite different. A Stonedown is simply a village built of stone. Woodhelvennin use wood for an improbable variety of purposes, even making wooden knives; Stonedownors do the same with stone, even using as fuel an incombustible mineral called graveling. At one point Trell, a Stonedown lore-master or Gravelingas, is shown making an enormous magical effort to mend a broken earthenware pot. Covenant feels as if he comes from a poorer world, where nobody cares about healing crockery; he does not reflect that it is a poor world indeed where a man must work himself to exhaustion over a pot rather than make or buy a new one.

This extremely reverential attitude of the Land’s inhabitants towards their materials bears examination, for it is most revealing. The peoples of the Land are almost a caricature, though an approving caricature, of extreme environmentalists of the 1970s hippie type. They use almost no artificial materials, hardly even any metals; they have no money; they swear an ‘Oath of Peace’ at sixteen, and are almost as reluctant as Jainists to take life, though they do appear to raise cattle for meat. The Council of Lords has been trying for centuries to repair the ecological catastrophe caused by the Ritual of Desecration, which was itself merely a misguided attempt to destroy Lord Foul before he could wipe out all life in the Land. Except for the obvious villains, nearly everyone seems to have the purest of motives, in a fashionably Green and Leftist way. There is a sort of pantheistic worship of the Earthpower, and a vague belief in the existence of a Creator, but no religion of a kind that anyone would get worked up about. It is all rather reminiscent of the Houyhnhnms, with Nature taking the place of Reason as the summum bonum.

The Lords in particular are dedicated to the highest ideals, and so improbably pure that the three thousand years since Berek Halfhand, their founder, they have only once deviated from the strict and selfless pursuit of their principles. That one deviation, of course, was catastrophic. It was Kevin Landwaster (Donaldson’s gift for names is marred by an occasional sour note), the mightiest of all the Old Lords, who gave in to despair and invoked the Ritual of Desecration in an impossible attempt to destroy Lord Foul. But the lesser and humbler Lords seem to have no politics, no disputes over principle, hardly even any disagreements about tactics from day to day. Having chosen Covenant’s illegitimate daughter Elena as High Lord (in The Illearth War, when forty years have elapsed in the Land since Covenant’s first visit), they follow her unquestioningly to the brink of utter destruction; and with equal alacrity they follow Hile Troy’s idiotic plan to defeat Foul’s army by leading it hundreds of miles away on a wild-goose chase while the strongholds of the Lords stand defenceless. Just as the Houyhnhnms never argued about anything except how to deal with the Yahoos, the Lords seem to agree on everything except what to make of Covenant.

Granted that critical thinking is not among their powers, the Lords are more virtuous than any collegial body of powerful men and women has ever been in the history of this world. We have, as it happens, at least three outstanding examples of such bodies that have persisted for comparable lengths of time. From Berek Halfhand to the time of Lord Foul’s Bane is a span of three thousand years. The priesthood of ancient Egypt maintained its power pretty continuously from the First Dynasty to the time of Cleopatra. The mandarins of imperial China and the Catholic Church each lasted two thousand years or thereabouts, and the Church is with us still. Two of these bodies were explicitly religious, and the third dedicated to a secular philosophy so reverent and refined that it approaches religion asymptotically. They can fairly be taken to represent the highest aspirations, the purest intentions, to which large numbers of human beings have ever dedicated themselves for centuries at a time.

Yet each one of them failed and fell, not once but many times. The Egyptian priests were notoriously selfish and often tyrannical, and their administration often reduced Egypt to a state of enervation in which it could not resist foreign conquest, despite its large and industrious population and its formidable natural defences. The mandarinate, originally a meritocracy, degenerated into a gigantic patronage machine: the candidates who scored highest on the examinations were promoted to the public offices where they could command the biggest bribes. As for the Catholic Church, several times it has been degraded to a condition that seemed antithetical to the faith it still professed. The spectacle of a Borgia pope selling indulgences to finance palaces was a scandal to the world and an embarrassment to Christianity. G. K. Chesterton has even argued that the Church’s capacity to recover from such a nadir, not once but repeatedly, is nothing short of a miracle. If the survival of Catholicism can only be explained by divine intervention, what power must we invoke to explain the Council of Lords?

But I am afraid we are not meant to ask such questions seriously. The Lords, and indeed all the inhabitants of the Land, do not exist in their own right, but merely as foils for Thomas Covenant. It is not quite allegory, for there is no easy correspondence between the states of Covenant’s mind and the people he encounters; but it is not quite real, either. The Secondary Reality is severely limited, and easily broken if you ask yourself the wrong questions. It helps that in Lord Foul’s Bane, Covenant lets himself be swept along with events, refusing to question what is (in his cynical view) obviously a fever dream; this encourages us to do likewise.

Donaldson has said that in the Covenant books, he was trying to invert the story of The Idylls of the King. Instead of writing about a pure and virtuous hero (King Arthur) who was brought down by the corruption of the people around him, he wanted to write about a corrupted man who is purified and ennobled by the company and example of the good. It is for this reason that he afflicted Covenant with purely psychosomatic impotence. When he first appears in the Land, he is befriended, and to some degree rescued, by Lena, a sixteen-year-old virgin. When his leprosy is apparently cured by the magic earth called hurtloam, the sudden onrush of sensation overthrows his reason, and he rapes her.

It is at this point that many readers give up on the books, and many others have never forgiven Covenant for his crime, or his author for describing it. In truth, this is perhaps the most nearly Christian point of the trilogy, the point at which the moral code Donaldson absorbed from his parents makes itself most fully felt. It is a story of sin and redemption. By his suffering, and still more by his eventual victory over Lord Foul, Covenant earns absolution for his crimes. This is not quite the Christian absolution, but it comes close. Saltheart Foamfollower, last of the Giants, sacrifices himself to make that victory possible; and it is very significant that Foamfollower is called ‘the Pure One’ by Lord Foul’s misbred and rejected slaves, the jheherrin. It is perhaps as close as Donaldson could come to the atoning sacrifice of Christ while still rejecting his parents’ theology.

Because of his crimes (and his later offences largely spring from his horror and self-loathing because of the first), and still more because of his rough manners and refusal to commit himself, Covenant is in many respects an intensely unlikable character. This is a significant failure of Donaldson’s art. He has confessed that he himself liked Covenant, and took it for granted that others would like him, too. In fact Covenant has a good many admirable qualities — loyalty, persistence, and a keen critical intelligence, to name a few — but it is his faults that we meet first and with greatest force. He is distrustful, cowardly, insensitive, rude, and sometimes meanly dishonest; and not all these faults are cured before the end. Of course, his greatest fault is his stubborn Unbelief, his refusal to accept the Land. But as Hile Troy proves by example, it is that Unbelief that saves him from hubris. Troy embraces his role as the Land’s defender, fails against hopeless odds, and is destroyed. Covenant’s Unbelief may not be wise, but it is at any rate providential.

It fits with Donaldson’s symbolic and psychological approach to fantasy that we are never quite told whether or not the Land is real. Right through Part I of The Illearth War, the narrative is carefully confined to Covenant’s own point of view. After that Hile Troy takes centre stage for a time, but he, too, is from the ‘real’ world; so is Linden Avery, who appears in the Second Chronicles and eventually becomes the principal viewpoint character. A couple of chapters in The Illearth War are told from Lord Mhoram’s point of view, which seems to indicate that the Land is real; but as Donaldson has been careful to point out, at all times in those chapters Mhoram is in the company of either Covenant or Troy.

But it is clear that Donaldson was losing control of his epistemological assumptions. The story, I think, was taking on life of its own, insisting upon being told in a broader and more vivid way than Covenant’s solitary perspective could provide. In the second half of the trilogy the pretence breaks down completely. The original Part II of The Illearth War, a detailed account of Korik’s mission to save the Seareach Giants, was cut down to a bare-bones retelling by the survivors, partly because the manuscript was too long for Lester del Rey’s liking, but also because the use of Korik as a viewpoint character starkly violates the terms of Covenant’s Unbelief. The central story is about a man who does not believe that his environment is real. If that environment is shown to be real, he ceases to be a conflicted hero and becomes merely an interesting madman.

In The Power That Preserves, matters become even worse. That book contains four chapters from Lord Mhoram’s point of view, almost entirely in Covenant’s absence, and another from the point of view of Triock, a minor character. Donaldson has said, in effect, that Covenant’s Unbelief remained plausible long enough to justify itself. I disagree. By the end of The Power That Preserves, we know that ‘the sophistry of your Unbelief’ is sophistry indeed, for we have seen the story carrying on in Covenant’s absence and without his knowledge. Nobody ever tells him what happened during the siege of Revelstone, but those four chapters from Mhoram’s point of view are there in the book. That tells us, the readers, that the Land is in fact ‘real’; that Covenant has staked his life on a falsehood. Just when his actions raise him up on Northrop Frye’s scale from an ironic to a romantic character, the falsity of his Unbelief threatens to degrade him to the ironic again. Ordinarily it does no harm for the reader to know things that the hero does not. But when the hero insists that there can be no such knowledge, it damages him gravely in our eyes.

It is this structural looseness, this wavering between two sets of epistemological standards, that makes the first Covenant trilogy such a puzzle for many classes of readers. The self-consciously literary reader, who is most likely to appreciate the elements of psychodrama and ‘as-if’ dream-narrative, is also likely to turn up his nose at the fantasy elements. The fantasy geek, on the other hand, is often repelled by the unheroic hero, the gaping holes in the world-building, and other flagrant departures from the template so successfully established by Tolkien’s mere imitators. There is considerable reason to think that Lester del Rey himself did not know what to make of the books.

Certainly the rest of the publishing industry did not. Lord Foul’s Bane was rejected forty-seven times; every fiction publisher in America turned it down. By the time Donaldson had tried every house on his list, the rest of the trilogy was essentially complete. He then started in on new imprints and editors that had appeared since he made the list. One of these was Lester del Rey, who was serenely confident that he had a blockbuster in The Sword of Shannara, and wanted a stable of other Tolkien clones so he could exploit the category he was creating.

Del Rey was an old-fashioned pulpster, and his definition of fantasy was not broad. He seems to have been genuinely impressed by The Lord of the Rings as an adventure story, and to have thought that all the poetry and philosophy and ‘depth’ that distinguish it from its imitators were merely gas and filler. I have been told by persons who knew him that he did not, in fact, like the Covenant books at all; but he needed material, and was not about to look three gift horses in the mouth. And he did observe what he called the ‘crypto-Christian’ elements of sacrifice and redemption in the books, though he seems not to have understood them. Del Rey seems to have despised his market for its poor taste, but he was a shrewd judge of what would sell. Like Phil Spector churning out singles for AM radio, he knew what was ‘dumb enough to be a hit’. The elements of the Thomas Covenant books that were not ‘dumb’ he regarded as regrettable but not fatal.

A year or two later, when the first Covenant trilogy was a runaway success, casting even del Rey’s pet, Terry Brooks, in the shade, Donaldson was duly called upon for a sequel. He had some difficulty in coming up with one, as he had never intended to go beyond the original trilogy. To solve this problem, he introduced a new character from the ‘real’ world, a physician named Linden Avery. And to increase her importance, and also to help along those readers who might not have read the first three books, he made her the chief viewpoint character of the second trilogy. Del Rey was outraged. He threatened to reject the new books outright, saying: ‘You can’t tell a Tarzan story from Jane’s point of view!’ (His superiors at Ballantine Books, rather than lose Donaldson and his undeniable earning-power, took him away from del Rey and gave him an editor he could work with.)

That del Rey could think of the Thomas Covenant books as Tarzan stories, or of the Shannara books as superior to them, says some very unflattering things about his judgement. He was, it seems, a pretty thoroughgoing philistine, and in the end his bad taste undermined even his commercial acumen. After 1982, when he introduced David Eddings with great fanfare, he never ‘discovered’ a major author again, and by the time of his death Del Rey Books was well on its way to becoming a minor and little-respected player in the genre.

Perhaps del Rey’s peculiar variety of ignorance worked in Donaldson’s favour. In any given year since 1977, fantasy publishers have released a lot more books like The Sword of Shannara than like Lord Foul‘s Bane. In fact, Donaldson has the curious distinction of being perhaps the least imitated major author in the genre. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series shows the hallmarks of Donaldson’s influence — which is not surprising, as they are fellow New Mexicans and personal friends, and began their writing careers almost simultaneously. And I have heard that a publisher of Christian books has put out a fantasy series that is very nearly a plagiarism of the first Covenant trilogy; but I have not procured any of those books and will not condemn them on hearsay. But that is a very small circle of influence for a series of books that made Stephen R. Donaldson, for a short time in the early 1980s, the best-selling author in the world after Stephen King.

In effect, Lester del Rey’s influence outweighed that of any of his protégés. He encouraged a generation of fantasy writers to imitate the showy and meretricious features of The Lord of the Rings without trying to emulate the substance; and he encouraged them not to imitate the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant at all. Donaldson’s books are a mixed bag, and at least one of them is a curate’s egg; but they were written with a degree of care and ambition rare among the authors that have succeeded him. Few writers would spend six years of unremitting and unrewarded toil to complete a 600,000-word trilogy before the first book is sold. In fact, so far as I know, only one other writer compares with Donaldson in this respect; and curiously enough, he, too, was a fantasy writer from the crop of 1977. To him, therefore, I shall turn next. Continue to Part 4 . . .

Comments

  1. Dmitriy Tarasov says:

    Thank you for your reviews! Although fond of Tolkien, I am otherwise not much of a fantasy fan. Nevertheless, this review, along with a less eloquent one found at http://www.members.tripod.com/~wotiscrap/comp.html, just made me read Lord Foul’s Bane. I don’t regret it. The experience did make me want to read more of Donaldson’s work, though I doubt I will have time for all three Covenant books. Your observation about Donaldson’s style improving over the years especially makes me want to read his most recent works, i.e., the two novellas that came out this month.

  2. Nicholas Arkison says:

    So I asked Thomas Covenant why modern liberals all seem so shallow. He said, “Because the wild magic *they* use to destroy peace is only white guilt.”

    …Well, *I* thought it was funny.

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