To the end of the world (and back again)

This past Friday I received two books from Amazon, and passed the whole night and most of Saturday morning in an orgy of reading. First, as an hors d’oeuvre, I read C. S. Lewis’s collection The Weight of Glory, which is much less known than it ought to be; it contains some of Lewis’s best work. The main course was The Last Dark, the tenth and absolutely last of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books.

Mr. Donaldson has been insisting for more than twenty years that this book would be the last; he was saying so even in the 1990s, when he was insisting with equal vigour that it would never be written. He was asked about a sequel to the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in a 1991 interview:

I want to be able to make my writing decisions from conviction and strength, not from pressure and need. If my writing career collapses and the only way I can feed my children is by writing Covenant books then I will go become a plumber because I do not want to write on that basis.

This is a sound and responsible attitude for a writer to have. Unfortunately, it is severely frowned upon by publishers and old-style booksellers, to the point where a writer’s integrity can cause his career to collapse. That is approximately what happened with Donaldson. In 1983, when White Gold Wielder brought the second Covenant trilogy to a harrowing conclusion, Donaldson was one of the best-selling writers in the English language – exceeded, I believe, only by Stephen King in that particular year. Since their publication, the first two trilogies have sold an aggregate of more than 10 million copies. From such a height it is difficult to go anywhere but down. Mordant’s Need, Donaldson’s next series, sold only about one-fifth as well. Lester del Rey had been feuding with Donaldson for years, but his bosses at Random House had flatly forbidden him to reject a million-selling author. The Mordant’s Need books actually had a very good sale – several hundred thousand copies apiece – but the trend was down, and that gave del Rey an excuse to get rid of Donaldson. (So much the worse for Del Rey Books, which has been a minor player in the genre since.)

Donaldson moved to Bantam, and his Muse moved on to space opera. Through no fault of his own, his next series, The Gap, sold only one-fifth as well as Mordant’s Need. For more than thirty years now, fantasy has been hugely outselling science fiction; and within SF, space opera was out of fashion in the 1990s. The Gap books sold about as well as anything of their kind, but Bantam had invested in them with the naive expectation that they would sell as well as Donaldson’s fantasies. They, too, dropped him; and after that, none of the major publishers in the genre would touch a Donaldson book.

For this, the booksellers are even more to blame than the publishers. That was the heyday of the big chain bookshops, when Barnes & Noble and Borders between them accounted for nearly half the trade books sold in the U.S. These chains left most of their ordering decisions up to a computer program, and like all too many computer programs, it was written by an idiot.

Returns in the book trade at that time averaged about 30 percent for hardcovers, as much as 50 percent for mass-market paperbacks. If a chain ordered 5,000 copies of an author’s first book, it could reasonably expect to sell 2,500 to 3,500 and return (or pulp) the rest for credit. A sale of 4,000 copies beat the odds and represented a solid success. But the computer, seeing that only 4,000 copies sold, would order only 4,000 of the author’s next book – and if that book had the same percentage of returns, 3,200 of the book after that. The only way out of this death spiral was to be such a big seller that your books got the personal attention of a human being who could override the computer’s decision.

All this was bad enough; for writers who switched genres, it was often much worse. Take the case (fictitious, but not atypical) of Sally Sweetstory, a romance writer. A Sweetstory romance could be counted on to sell 100,000 copies, a big enough number for the chain buyers to tell the computer to go and interface itself. One time, for a change of pace, Ms. Sweetstory wrote a fantasy novel; it sold 50,000 copies – a respectable sale for a fantasy. But that number dropped her below the horizon; she was no longer on the magic list that got the chain buyers’ personal attention. When she wrote her next romance novel, the computers ‘ordered to the net’, and would only take 50,000 copies of that book and all her books thereafter. That one excursion outside her usual genre permanently cost Ms. Sweetstory half her audience, not because her readers didn’t want her books, but because the bookshops would not carry them in sufficient quantity.

This is exactly what happened to Donaldson. Sales of The Gap, while respectable for science fiction and excellent for space opera, were commercial death for a fantasy writer. The computers would order his next fantasy novel based on the sales of his last SF novel – that is, in such small quantities that it was guaranteed to fail. The human buyers were no more receptive: they looked at the steady downward march of Donaldson’s sales since the early eighties, and dismissed him as a has-been. In the end, he had to go right outside the genre and sell the Last Chronicles to Putnam. The Runes of the Earth was released with very little fanfare, and largely overlooked by genre publications and reviewers: like the chain stores, most of them considered Donaldson a has-been, and none of them looked to Putnam for a major fantasy release. To make matters worse, Donaldson is a slow writer, and has grown slower with age; the Last Chronicles appeared with a three-year wait between books, so that any momentum or ‘push’ developed for one book was thoroughly dissipated and forgotten by the time the next came out. Some of the new books appeared on some of the more obscure bestseller lists, but there was never any hope that they would break out and catch the attention of the big public as the first two trilogies had done. To this day, as I believe, there are many thousands of readers, enthusiastic fans of the first two series, who have never even heard of the third.

This is a great pity. Donaldson’s craft has improved with age; he has learnt from his mistakes. The first two Covenant trilogies are full of Sturm und Drang, purple prose, and eccentric diction, and marked by a pitiless violence that makes redshirts out of entire species. You can almost hear the author in the background, cackling with glee at his latest genocide. It is generally his best creations that get the worst treatment; and that, too, is a pity, because Donaldson’s best creations are very good indeed.

I have written about the first two Covenant trilogies in a piece called ‘Hero and fool’, but I have not previously said much about the quality of his imaginative invention. Donaldson is one of those writers whose minor characters are often more engaging than his protagonists: ‘rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles’, as George Orwell said about Dickens. Donaldson’s reputation as a fantasy writer rests largely on his ability to evoke a sense of numinous beauty; he does a good secondary line in eldritch weirdness. Those who accuse him of plagiarizing Tolkien, I am afraid, have never bothered looking beyond the fact that both Thomas Covenant and Frodo have magic rings – the same error made by those who thought Tolkien plagiarized Wagner. Actually, Donaldson is an immensely inventive writer in minor details; he almost never uses a creature out of stock fantasy or well-known folklore. Just to give you an idea, here is a bald list of some of his inventions, taken from the Covenant books alone, that do not powerfully resemble anything found in ordinary commercial fantasy:

Amok, Andelain, Anele, the Appointed, the Arch of Time, the Bloodguard, caesures, Cavewights, the croyel, the Demondim, the Earthblood, the Elohim, the Feroce, Forestals, Glimmermere, the Haruchai, the jheherrin, the Lost Deep, the Lurker of the Sarangrave, the Ravers, Revelwood, the Sandgorgons, the skest, the skurj, the Staff of Law, the Sunbane, the ur-viles, Vain,  the Viles, the Waynhim, the Wraiths of Andelain.

Each of these inventions is vivid and interesting enough to write a book about, a temptation that Donaldson has wisely resisted; I cannot begin to do justice to them all here. The only other well-known fantasy writer I can think of with a comparable fertility of invention is L. Frank Baum; and Baum’s creations tend to be rather jolly and childlike, without the hidden depths and dangers that Donaldson’s are wont to have. The Land is a much more dangerous place than Oz, and correspondingly more interesting.

Every so often, especially in the earlier books, Donaldson used a creature straight out of folklore – the griffin in The Illearth War, for instance. The kresh are fairy-tale wolves on steroids, rather like Tolkien’s Wargs. But even when he borrows most shamelessly, Donaldson puts so much of himself into his stolen goods that they are effectively transmuted into something original. Three examples will serve to demonstrate the point: the white gold, the Council of Lords, and the Giants.

Donaldson has said that he tried long and hard not to give Thomas Covenant a ring, specifically because it would remind people of Tolkien’s One Ring. He failed, and has said ruefully of Tolkien, ‘I needed the damn ring more than he did.’ The trouble is that rings are magical, and everyone knows it, even in our debunked and disenchanted world. Wedding rings in particular are fraught with symbolism. Nothing else that a twentieth-century American man was at all likely to carry would be recognized as magic in a fantasy world. But Donaldson redeemed his ring and made it original by using it to emphasize and justify Covenant’s self-protective Unbelief. In the Land, the ring represented unlimited power, ‘the wild magic that destroys peace’; but in Covenant’s ‘real’ world, it stood for broken promises, impotence, and futility. Covenant simply could not think of it as powerful: to him, it symbolized the faithless wife who left him when he was stricken with leprosy. At the beginning of Lord Foul’s Bane, he actually tried to give it away to a beggar.

The Lords are a group of wizards, and as such, a stock fantasy trope. But these particular wizards are interesting because they have a double allegiance. They have dedicated their lives to the ancient magics known as Kevin’s Lore, after the ancient Lord who compiled them; but because Kevin nearly destroyed the Land with his Ritual of Desecration, the Lords have also sworn the Oath of Peace. Before the end of the first trilogy, they are faced with an awful realization: the Oath and the Lore are incompatible – obeying the one precludes the full use of the other – and they have to choose between them. This is just the sort of internal conflict by which Donaldson gives life to even his minor characters and makes them unpredictable.

The Giants are great seafarers and tale-tellers, bluff, hardy, immensely strong, devoted to their children and to good humour. Their credo (which is a good one as fantasy philosophies go) is, Joy is in the ears that hear, not in the mouth that speaks. Because Donaldson is not a particularly funny writer, Giantish jokes tend to fall rather flat; but the Giants are at their best when they don’t trouble to make jokes, but simply laugh in the face of disaster and despair. The first Giants we meet are the Unhomed, the descendants of shipwrecked sailors, who certainly need all the help they can get to resist the despair of their own slow extinction. The most harrowing and tragic scene in the first trilogy, to my taste, is the slaughter of the Unhomed in The Illearth War; the most moving scene in the second trilogy occurs in The Wounded Land, when Giantish sailors of a later generation discover the long-abandoned city of the Unhomed, and learn how they lived and died. Donaldson is (justifiably, as I believe) proud of his Giants, and it is hard not to believe that Covenant is speaking for his author in this passage from The Last Dark:

‘I can’t help it. I’ve always loved Giants. Any world that has Haruchai and Ranyhyn and Ramen and Insequent and even Elohim in it is precious. But there is really no substitute for Giants.’

A few imperceptive critics have suggested that Giants are a substitute for Ents. Both races are large, strong, and given to long-winded speeches; there the resemblance ends. The Ents are solemn stay-at-homes who look after their trees and mourn their vanished mates; the Giants sail every sea, delight in their spouses and children, and seldom stop laughing. It would be nearer the point to compare the Ents to Donaldson’s Forestals, but there again the differences outweigh the similarities. At least the Forestals and the Ents are both in the same profession.

The comparison between Baum and Donaldson is, I think, apt. Both men are known for their fecundity of invention, and neither one bothered much about consistency. There is nothing in the Land, or in Oz, like the long and tragic history of Middle-earth, or the carefully worked-out relationships between the different kindreds of the Eldar. Tolkien invents fewer creatures than Baum or Donaldson, but tells much more detailed stories about them.

The most blatant inconsistency in the Covenant books concerns the creation myth of the invented world. The early books refer often to the Creator of the Earth, who actually appears briefly at the beginning of Lord Foul’s Bane and again at the end of The Power That Preserves. He makes another cameo appearance in The Wounded Land; but thereafter, a wholly different myth supervenes. The Elohim explain that the Earth was accreted around the Worm of the World’s End, and will be destroyed when it awakes – sort of a cross between the Norse Jörmungandr and the Hindu myth of the sleeping Brahma. After this story is told, the Creator drops out of the story for the remaining books, though some of the characters still mention him from time to time. Donaldson never really makes any effort to reconcile these two stories.

The original Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever was a slam-bang affair, full of physical action and adventure, fast-paced in spite of the frequent longueurs of Donaldson’s prose; it ended fairly conventionally with what gamers call a ‘boss fight’, in which Covenant confronts the satanic Lord Foul. (‘Lord Foul the Despiser’, by the way, is surely the most perfect name for a pulp villain since Ming the Merciless.)

Donaldson never intended to write any sequels, but Lester del Rey, he recalls, kept badgering him to do so. Del Rey kept suggesting worse and worse ideas for sequels, until one day something snapped in Donaldson’s head, and he came up with a good idea for a sequel just to shut del Rey up. There are no great battles in the Second Chronicles, which are concerned with evils that sheer force can never overcome. The theme of the second series is summed up in Covenant’s bleak aphorism:

There’s only one way to hurt a man who’s lost everything. Give him back something broken.

The story opens in the ‘real’ world with Covenant trying to take care of his wife, who has gone hopelessly mad; he is the only one who recognizes that she is in fact a victim of demonic possession, her mind having been taken over by Lord Foul. Donaldson likes to make the exterior action in the Land mirror the psychodrama of his leading characters; he is, I am afraid, wedded to a theory of fantasy that demands it be constructed allegorically. (This is one reason why his gargoyles are so much better than his architecture, and his subsidiary characters so much livelier than his heroes.) The destruction of Joan Covenant’s mind is mirrored in the corruption of the Land, which is dying under the influence of the Sunbane. This is one of Donaldson’s best inventions, though it comes at the price of destroying nearly everything that made the Land so enchanting in the first trilogy.

The Sunbane is a kind of mad parody of the seasons, in which the Land is successively wracked by fertility (jungles growing from bare ground in a matter of hours), rain, drought, and pestilence, succeeding one another at random every few days. All life has been perverted and ruined by the necessity of adapting to this hideous substitute for the natural law. Even the Council of Lords has turned into the Clave, which ostensibly fights the Sunbane by magical power derived from the blood of human sacrifice, but actually works for Lord Foul to increase the Sunbane’s power. Covenant is accompanied by a physician from his own world, a woman named Linden Avery, almost as damaged by her own past as he is by leprosy. After many travels and travails, she cures the Sunbane by making a replacement for the destroyed Staff of Law, and he defeats Foul, not by force this time, but by letting Foul kill him so that his spirit, cleansed of leprosy and mortality, can defend the Earth as a being of pure wild magic.

The Last Chronicles begin with a slow pace and an elegiac tone, as Linden Avery returns to the Land in pursuit of her autistic foster-son, Jeremiah, who has been abducted by the servants of Lord Foul. Joan Covenant is there, too, along with her unbalanced and vindictive son Roger, and the ghost of Thomas Covenant is still at large in the Land. (When I found out just how many people had been translated between the worlds, I reacted with the exact words of Digory Kirke in The Magician’s Nephew: ‘My hat, what a picnic.’) In the course of her quest to rescue Jeremiah, she time-travels through the whole length and breadth of the Land’s history, resurrects Thomas Covenant, wakes the Worm of the World’s End, and threatens the Arch of Time (which is exactly what Lord Foul wants: he is offended by the very idea of the Earth and wants to destroy it so he can escape). This series, too, has a Leitmotiv, which various characters try to drum into Linden’s head, but she never listens:

Good cannot be accomplished by evil means.

Linden comes to her senses far too late, when the Worm is already awake and heading for the Land, devouring the stars as it goes. The Last Dark begins with the shores of the Land blasted by the tsunami of the approaching Worm, and with the disappearance of the sun; for the few remaining days of the Earth’s existence, ‘daylight’ means a weird twilight with neither sun nor stars. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Fimbulwinter in the Norse myths.

After three fat volumes of often slow-paced setup, events rip along towards their conclusion at breakneck speed. For a book of over 500 hardcover pages, The Last Dark is astoundingly spare. We still see the occasional purple passages, and Donaldson’s trademark use of strange or archaic words, sometimes with meanings not to be found in any dictionary; but this is done to preserve a consistency of style with the older books, not because of any incapacity on the author’s part. He has, as I said before, learnt from his mistakes.

Covenant is alive again, but his leprosy is consuming him; Jeremiah has come out of his autistic fugue, to be revealed as a natural-born wizard with great but unpredictable powers. Linden is aghast at the consequences of her own heedless actions, and half out of her mind with fatigue. Together, these three damaged people (with a rag-tag assortment of humans, Giants, and other creatures of the Land) must try to stop the Worm before it breaks up the Earth, prevent Lord Foul from breaking the Arch of Time, and incidentally, defeat half a dozen other attackers that threaten to destroy the Land. Among these are the Sandgorgons, desert creatures of animal cunning and unspeakable violence, one of the best creations out of the second series, and the skurj, the most frightening new arrival in the third. Skurj (the name speaks for itself, to those who are hukt on foniks) are giant fire-serpents – not fire-breathers, but creatures so hot that their passing ignites the very soil; they breed by feeding on their own dead, so that they multiply like the Hydra’s heads when you try to fight them.

The story tears along for 400 pages, during which the heroes do not actually solve any of the Land’s problems, but at least cobble together enough force and magic to go after the worst attackers one by one. The Worm seems unstoppable; anyway, stopping it will do no good if the Arch of Time breaks and the universe itself is destroyed. So the plot becomes a race to reach Lord Foul and stop his machinations before the Worm breaks the Earth to pieces. The stage is set for a magnificent climax to the whole ten-book series – a battle royal with all of creation at stake.

It is precisely then that the whole book goes off the rails.

I don’t know what happened to Donaldson at this point. Maybe he lost confidence in his own abilities, or maybe he was under time pressure from Putnam. The last chapters are rushed and mishandled, as if someone had told the author, ‘We don’t want it good, we want it Tuesday.’ Several chapters are consumed in a chaotic and rather unnecessary series of battle sequences, a kind of military Perils of Pauline in which the heroes repeatedly fight against hopeless odds, are all but exterminated, and saved at the last moment by the arrival of a convenient force of redshirts. Confusingly many of the new arrivals are given names and histories, only to be slaughtered within a few pages, and many of the characters who have been built up over the previous three and a half books are summarily killed off.

By the way, one of the most charming bits of invention in the Covenant books is in the matter of Giantish names. The personal names of the Giants owe something to the Ents, perhaps (Treebeard, Quickbeam), but more to the Narnian giants with names like Rumblebuffin and Wimbleweather. The first Giant we meet in Lord Foul’s Bane is named Saltheart Foamfollower. In the second trilogy there is a whole ship’s company of them, with names like Gossamer Glowlimn, Cable Seadreamer, and the magnificent Grimmand Honninscrave. This gloriously rococo tradition carries on in the Last Chronicles, with names like Lostson Galewrath, Cirrus Kindwind, and the formidable Rime Coldspray, known as the Ironhand. But we begin to get the idea that Donaldson was getting tired of naming Giants; and we are pretty sure of it when he introduces a short-lived character with the awful handle of Baf Scatterwit. To make things worse, Baf is a woman, a sailor with more enthusiasm than skill, so lame-brained and accident-prone that she actually loses a foot without noticing it. If the Giants have blonde jokes, Baf Scatterwit is a living punchline.

While the author is introducing characters by the dozen and casually snuffing them, Covenant and his principal friends, bloodied and not unbowed, are slowly advancing towards Lord Foul’s lair in the heart of Mount Thunder. This is where the climactic battle of Lord Foul’s Bane was fought, and where Covenant was killed in White Gold Wielder. Now the arena is hurriedly prepared for the rubber match; and hurriedly is the key word. After several chapters of battles that could profitably have been made half the length and with half the names, the book concludes with three short and perfunctory chapters, one each for Linden, Jeremiah, and Covenant himself. Covenant’s confrontation with Lord Foul begins four pages from the end of the final chapter. His victory is glossed over in a single sentence.

We know, because we have seen it several times, that Lord Foul is capable of possessing human beings (and some not so human); he did it to Joan, among others. His three oldest servants, the Ravers, are demons who specialize in possession, having no bodies of their own. We have seen a Raver try to take over a victim and fail, whereupon its spirit was trapped in the victim’s body and could be killed along with him. The world-building has been done; the ground has been laid. Lord Foul enters Covenant and tries to take him over; and according to rumours circulated outside of the books by Donaldson’s closer fans, and hints dropped in interviews by the author himself, this encounter was ‘the test of acceptance’, in which Thomas Covenant would acknowledge his own inner Despiser, and he and Lord Foul would become one. I had been looking forward to this scene for years—

—And I got one sentence. That was it. Lord Foul disappears and the battle ends in fewer words than there are in this paragraph.

In The Weight of Glory, which I read at the beginning of Friday evening, C. S. Lewis talks about the mythology of ‘the Scientific Outlook’, which has been more aptly named ‘Wellsianity’. As in the Norse myths, the end of the world is an integral part of the Wellsian view of history, and the knowledge of inevitable extinction lends poignancy to the whole story. As Lewis puts it in ‘Is Theology Poetry?’:

Man has ascended his throne. Henceforward he has nothing to do but to practise virtue, to grow in wisdom, to be happy. And now, mark the final stroke of genius. If the myth stopped at that point, it might be a little bathetic. . . . The last scene reverses all. We have the Twilight of the Gods. All this time, silently, unceasingly, out of all reach of human power, Nature, the old enemy, has been steadily gnawing away. The sun will cool – all suns will cool – the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished, without hope of return, from every inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness, and ‘universal darkness covers all’.

This, approximately, is the end of The Time Machine, and of Wells’s general plan of cosmic history. It is also the end of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, and of many another British SF story of the earlier twentieth century. Lewis himself was not afraid to end his worlds. He did so twice in the Narnia books: when Charn was destroyed by the Deplorable Word, and when Narnia itself came to an end in The Last Battle. He knew the power of the Wellsian ending; he had thrilled to the stark poetry of Ragnarök, and felt the eschatological wonder of Armageddon. If you are really going to end a fantasy series once and for all, the end of the world is a good place to do it. I thought – all the evidence pointed towards it – that Donaldson was going to do that with the Land. But at the last minute he chickened out; he bought a return ticket.

For with Lord Foul out of the way, the rescue of the Earth is discussed (but not accomplished) with equally indecent haste. Covenant has absorbed all of Lord Foul’s knowledge of the Arch of Time and the nature of creation along with Foul himself, and Jeremiah, in dealing with the last surviving Raver, has had a crash course in the higher magic himself. Together with Linden, they have enough power and knowledge to repair the Arch of Time and reassemble the Earth; but we never actually see the process by which they did so. The advice ‘Show, don’t tell’ is given (and taken) in many a place where it does not apply; but in the ending of The Last Dark, Donaldson does neither. His heroes set out to confront the ruin of the Earth and the ending of all things, and the next thing you know we are in the Epilogue, with bunnies and light and glowing numinous figures greeting the first sunrise of the recreated world. The Creator himself did not even get a chance to walk on and take a bow.

I had often imagined to myself how the Last Chronicles might end. I pictured Covenant and Linden (and Jeremiah, when I came to know about him) escaping from the ruined Arch of Time into the void beyond all worlds, taking a moment to mourn the passing of all that had been. Perhaps they would reassemble the broken pieces of creation; perhaps it would take the Creator’s help to start the world anew. Perhaps Covenant would become the Creator, as he had become his spiritual brother, Lord Foul, so that creation and destruction would at last be brought into harmony. Perhaps they would simply recognize that all things must pass. But at any rate they would do something. It may be that such ideas crossed Donaldson’s mind, but he found himself unequal to the task of describing them. As a result, the single most important event in the whole history of the Earth – its rescue and reconstruction on the brink of total dissolution – is simply skipped over. We see only the cloying aftermath.

And cloying it is. In most of Donaldson’s books, there is something just describable as a happy ending, in which the surviving heroes scrape themselves off the ground and find that they have survived the cataclysm, and can carry on the unending struggle. The original Covenant trilogy ends with the words, ‘He smiled because he was alive.’ The second trilogy ends with Linden Avery returning to the ‘real’ world holding Thomas Covenant’s white gold ring, now her ring. The Last Chronicles—

Think of the ending of Return of the Jedi, where all the happy Jedi Knights, alive and dead, grin at one another through their ghostly haloes while the people in the background dance to hideous Ewok music. That is roughly the emotional tone of the Epilogue. Now imagine that the final confrontation between Luke Skywalker and the Emperor was left out of the movie – that Luke simply went to the Emperor’s command ship and popped him like a bubble with a quick Jedi mind trick. I fancy you would feel that the celebrations afterwards were hollow and unmotivated. That is precisely the feeling I was left with by the ending of The Last Dark.

Poor Lena, the village girl whom Covenant raped in Lord Foul’s Bane (just before thousands of readers threw the book against the wall) – the crime for which Covenant would spend the next nine and a half volumes trying to atone – in the last moments of her innocence, sang a song for her visitor from beyond the world. It ran:

Something there is in beauty
which grows in the soul of the beholder
like a flower:
for many are the blights
which may waste
the beauty
or the beholder—
and imperishable—
for the beauty may die,
or the beholder may die,
or the world may die,
but the soul in which the flower grows survives.

The title of the Epilogue is ‘The soul in which the flower grows’. That was fitting, that was poignant; that title would have done very well if the world really had died – if we were, so to speak, in the afterlife of the Land. But the Land, it appears, has no afterlife. There is no escape from the Arch of Time for any of its inhabitants; not even, in the end, for Lord Foul, who came from outside in the beginning and spent the whole of Time desperately trying to break out.

It would seem that Donaldson, who long ago rejected his parents’ Calvinist theology, in the end rejected the Christian Weltanschauung even on the level of fiction and imagination. Perhaps that rejection occurred during the composition of the Second Chronicles, when the Creator abruptly disappeared and the Worm took his place in the myths. I do not know. But where Lewis could let ‘the soul in which the flower grows’ survive, and be redeemed, and go ‘higher up and further in’ to the Creator’s own country, Donaldson could not. In the end, he could envision no better fate for the Land than its eternal continuance – more of the same, per omnia saecula saeculorum, for ever and ever, Amen. There is no escape from the wheel of maya, no redemption, no eternity; only an interminable continuation of the same mortal life, while the haunting spirits of the dead pile up and up like old magazines on a shelf.

So, after reading four-fifths of a book that was the best thing Stephen R. Donaldson has ever written, and one-fifth of a progressive train wreck, I find myself mourning. Not because the series is over; not because there will be no more Covenant books; but because in the end there is no ending, and the resolution was a mirage and a cheat. He drew to the very brink of transcendence, and then drew back again, in rejection or in fear; he violated the whole inexorable logic of his own plot, rescuing the world by an off-stage subterfuge – a deus ex machina without even a deus. The Land was saved; but the soul in which the flower grows was lost.



  1. It’s good to see you back writing at length, both for your sake and mine.

    I should have said so at the time, but when I read your piece about your injury and illness, I was torn between sympathy for your suffering and admiration for how well you turned it into a humorous essay.

    As for the Covenant books, you’re bringing back how much I liked the Land and Donaldson’s endless power of invention (I read the first six books and got bogged down at the beginning of the seventh)– and you’re right that fantasy author’s quality of invention should be a major part of how they’re reviewed.

    I might even take another look at Lev Grossman, who seems to specialize in worlds full of delightful detail combined with main characters who are emotionally incapable of appreciating it.

    As for Covenant committing rape, I can see how it puts people off from the books, but I think there’s something to be said for the occasional character like that vs. the just-for-flavor off-stage criminality of Han Solo and Northwest Smith.

    Correcting a flawed ending is what fanfiction is for, though that doesn’t mean any particular person is obligated to write it.

    • I nearly dropped The Magicians in the middle when the story stopped dead with all the characters acting shallow and narcissitic and not needing to do anything. No delightful detail there!

      Nothing will lure me back to Grossman’s later works.

      • Mary, the narcissism and immaturity of the characters in Grossman’s Magicians series is the POINT! Do you refuse to read A Clockwork Orange because Alex is a violent, psychopathic product of his time? Then why refuse to read Grossman’s Magicians just because the protagonists are shallow, jaded, disaffected, entitled brats – products of our time?

        • Yes. Never even tried Orange. Never will.

        • Speaking purely on my own account, I have had more than enough experience of immature and narcissistic people in real life to want more of them in fiction. ‘Shallow, jaded, disaffected, entitled brats‘ are not the only products of our time, or even the most characteristic products of our time; such people have been produced in every time.

          More to the point, they are among the least interesting products of our time. I can put the reason for this in two ways. I could say that they are uninteresting because they are products, and scarcely rise to the dignity and vividness of animate objects. But upon a little reflection, I should prefer to say that they are uninteresting chiefly because they have not been ‘produced’ nearly enough. There is not enough craftsmanship in them; not enough work has been put into their making, least of all by themselves; they are, in the exquisitely exact meaning of the old idiom, half-baked.

          The most that such figures serve for, when made the principal characters of a story, is to give the reader something to point and laugh at – something to sneer at – something to look down on, and by implicit contrast, to congratulate himself on his own superiority to. ‘Ironic’ fiction (in Northrop Frye’s usage of the word) is a sort of distilled temptation to uncharity.

          • Way too much generalisation in your assesment. Covenant can be that way but is also deeply caring. Other characters are not like you said at all. I think you are confusing a deep exploration of a characters mind with narcissism.

  2. Weight of Glory is a great book.

  3. Sarah McCabe says

    I couldn’t get past Lord Foul’s Bane when I read it some years ago at my husband’s recommendation. I’ve often wondered whether or not I should give the series another try, now that I’m an older and more patient reader. You’ve convinced me not to, which probably wasn’t your intention. But considering that I never really liked the Land or any of the people it in, and the shortcomings you’ve described would certainly irritate me, it seems like the right choice.

    Still, I enjoyed reading your critique of it. Your essays are always so enlightening, especially to someone like myself who considers herself an amateur fantasy scholar.

  4. Stephen J. says

    The Covenant books are, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, the main reason why my own wedding ring is white gold rather than plain gold. But I always did like silver better than gold anyway. (My wife, fortuitously, shares the same taste, so we match.)

    • Seems perfectly sound to me. (As long as you didn’t cut off two of your fingers to match Covenant. That would be carrying fanhood considerably too far.)

  5. Deiseach says

    Ah, I’m going back and forth whether to get this last volume. I devoured (it is no exaggeration to say) the first two series of the “Thomas Covenant” stories, to the point where I severely embarrassed my brother when we were both walking into a bookshop: seeing that the newest volume of the second series was finally on sale, I grabbed his arm, pointed at the display and squealed out loud, to his mortification and the amusement of the rest of the customers.

    I have to disagree mildly with this one point: I never got the feeling that Donaldson was cackling with glee at the genocide of his characters. He wrote with fury (and yes, bucketsful of the purple, amethyst, amaranthine, perse, and violaceous prose), and yes, I got very strong echoes of Tolkien in his work, but the ferocity of his world and the fate of his characters was not a cause of pleasure to him (unlike the similar impression I get from Philip Pullman, that he likes having a set of designated victims to kick around) – rather, it was the natural working-out of the laws governing his universe.

    Good people making tragic mistakes through the best intentions; ordinary people being burdened by what is unfair and undeserved, and the perennial problem of evil are his topics.

    Ah! Lord Mhoram! Ah! The Giants! I still to this day weep over the Giants!

    The next books he wrote caught my interest less; the “Mordant’s Need” duo were good in parts, and I think the character of the King was very interesting, but they do betray a kind of burning-out on fantasy. The “Gap” series again had some unusual and interesting characters, but even as Space Opera, it failed to catch my tastes.

    I’ve been waiting and waiting for the “Runes of Earth” series to finally come out, and I’ve read the first two volumes. As I say, I don’t know that I will read the last one, though I suppose I should, just for completion: it seems to me that he’s really said all he needed or had to say in the six original “Thomas Covenant” stories – unlike Tolkien, whose universe is so deep and rich that I slogged even through the ‘shopping list’ volumes in “The History of Middle-earth” put out by Christopher Tolkien, just for the jewels amongst the fifty dozen pages of notes and variants of one paragraph of an abandoned story.

    Seeing how “The Lord of the Rings” developed, with Strider originally being a Hobbit called Trotter, for instance, is well worth it 🙂

    • I agree completely with your assessment– expect my roller coaster of disappointment trends even farther. I think the 1st and 2nd Chronicles are the greatest epic fantasy saga *ever*. Conversely, I believe that the Third Chronicles are barely mediocre, mostly re-hashing previous ideas from his own work and from other popular series. Like you I found the ending a profound disappointment– and consequently: the entire endeavor somewhat tarnished.

      Compare the remarkable ending that Frank Herbert gave his equally cosmic saga. Really, how else can you end it if not with a wink to the unknowable extent of the cosmos? Instead we get a hollywood ending, with the resolution cut out. Should the book have been retitled The Gap Into Denouement?

      This all leaves me vacillating between shocked disappointment and thinking that there is no way such an accomplished author could drop the ball like this. I keep wanting to go back and try to find evidence that SRD cleverly embedded, within the final chronicles, evidence that it truly *was* all just a dream. It would seem to be the only way to salvage it. In fact, if that is what he did, it would then transform Thomas Covenant’s “Last Dark” into an a genius, Andy Kaufman-esque departure from pop culture.

      But it will be a while before I go back and look. Must. Heal. First. 🙂

      Anyway, thank you for your amazing review. You sum up my feelings– and likely the feelings of some of SRD’s more disappointed fans. I will definitely check out your works.



  6. > “exceeded, I believe, only by Stephen King in that particular year [1983]”

    This reminds me of an amusing trivium connecting those two.
    Thirty years ago, enrolled in a summer camp, I headed straight for the D&D elective where at one point sat entranced listening to two of the group leaders (they were ancient greybeards, as old as twenty) debating whether “Stephen R Donaldson” was or was not a pseudonym for… Stephen King.
    Obvious, said one budding dungeonmaster. They both write huge novels about the supernatural. Stephen King’s father – who walked out on the his wife and young sons one evening, without warning – was named Donald. And “R” stands for “Rex/ Regina”, like the “E II R” (for “Queen Qlizabeth II”) one sees on mailboxes in the UK. QED.
    Ridiculous, said the other. It is plain that Stephen King did not write the Thomas Covenant books, because (a) King writes horror set in Maine, not epic fantasy set in alternate worlds; and (b) why would King publish books under a pseudonym and lose the guaranteed millions of sales that his own name would bring?
    Talk about being right for the wrong reason. This was a few years before King was outed as Richard Bachmann and a decade or so before he decided that all of his horror novels were connected to the Dark Tower.

  7. … Also, as my “informant” pointed out, both Stephens were born in 1947. (True, but several months apart). I mean, what are the odds…?! (What you mean, “post-war baby boom”…)

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  9. This is beautifully elaborated, and crystallized some of my ideas after my recent reread of the first six Covenant novels. After reading this, they are likely to remain “The Covenant Novels”, emphasis on the definite singular, as watching a writer of Donaldson’s capacity fumble to set his greatest creation down gently sounds excruciating; the idea alone makes me cringe. Thank you for this; I’ll certainly be reading more of your essays.

    • Still definately worth reading the final 4. The depth of the entities history is facinating. As deep as tolkien almost. You find out about origins of ur viles, lords etc. I won’t spoil. Serious I just finished. Very very end could be a bit better but altogether is still wonderful. Read it trust me. And read the gap series it’s actually his best. Best sci fi ever easily.

  10. I would have loved if the 3 lindon covenant and Jeremiah had healed lord foul!
    It was hinted as a possibility by the old unfettered one a lady in morinmoss who saved covenants life when impossibility damaged in the white gold wielder I think. From the first series. She had dreamed when young of healing foul but her method wouldn’t have worked. I’m sure lindon makes some mention of doing it. And the fact of fouls own deep down despair is revealed. He doesn’t acknowledge it. Imagine if the big 3 from our world, through their different traumatic experiences (leprosy, rape, suicide, murder, disasspciation and possesion) plus lindons healing, which she had returned to after giving up killing, Jeremiahs knowledge of foul gained from moksha raver and covenants full understanding of foul after multiple interactions and mind and body battles, had been used together with 2 rings and the staff of law returned to clean yellow fire health and power – they could have done it. And the scene could have been amazing!!! Then the 4 and maybe the creator too could have saved the land by rebuilding it and pacifying the worm. So good!! If only he did it, I’m certain he thought of it. Covenant taking foul into him was a mini mini way of doing it (Also left open that still all was in his head…)

  11. Aaron Baugher says

    I loved the First and Second Chronicles when I got them from the SF Book Club in high school, and have re-read them several times in the decades since. I name my computers and characters in games after Haruchai. I used to want a film version, before I understood how badly Hollywood would surely ruin it. The hardest thing about trying to write stories of my own is looking at the Covenant books and seeing original ideas used as side pieces that are better than anything I’ve come up with for a main idea. I also love the Gap series, though I think it’s a harder read. The Man Who books are also great, taking Donaldson-ish characters into a very different genre.

    So I was excited when the Third Chronicles came out, but Runes of the Earth just didn’t click for me. Linden was *so* dour and depressing, even compared to first-series Covenant, and he could have trimmed dozens of pages of her repeating how frightened and frustrated yet determined she was. I thought I’d come back to it later, maybe after the series was finished so I wouldn’t have to wait three years between books; but now I was wary, almost afraid to read it and be disappointed. The first part of this article convinced me it was time, and then the end set me back to wary. I suppose at some point I will finish it, just to know. Disappointing Donaldson still has to be better than most of what’s out there. But not before I re-read the first six books again.

  12. I finally got around to reading the third Covenant Series. Whoof. Yes, the ten-dollar-words where dime-words would do was clearly quite deliberate, and even more annoying for that reason.

    Linden’s endless capacity for self-pity was also so grating as to eject me from the story a few times. And… sure, I get the “necessity of freedom”, but would it have killed anybody to mention that repeating Elena’s mistake might be a really bad idea?!

    Given your sensitivity to names, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the most on-the-nose one I’ve seen in a long time: Mahrtiir. As soon as I saw it, I said, “Yep, he’s doomed to a noble self-sacrifice of some sort.” (Though what it proved to be was very unexpected and satisfying.)

    (Liand’s death, on the other hand, was really disappointing – completely pointless. I thought for sure that the prophecy about him was about something more than just making it rain at an opportune time!)

    And everything you say about the ending is true… but I’m still glad I read the books. There was a lot of really good stuff in them, even if it didn’t quite gel. And I am delighted at the ending the ur-viles and Waynhim got, even if it was palmed off too fast.

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