I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency. The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’. For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.Three times in the last sixty-odd years, a work of fantasy has come along that redrew the whole map of the field; that banished the limits of the publishable, as then understood, as suddenly and thoroughly as Columbus banished the ‘ne plus ultra’ from the Pillars of Hercules. Lately I have been thinking hard about these works, seeing what they had in common with one another, and what set them apart from the other fantasies of their times, to see whether I could account for the magnitude of their success. All three of these breakthrough fantasies can be described in terms of Aldiss’s ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’. Each, considered thematically, is a collision between two great, or at any rate large, ideas. And when I began to look at them in this light, I found a curious thing: which idea was ‘the exotic’ and which was ‘the familiar’ was not as obvious as it seemed. Indeed, the works themselves tended to familiarize the exotic and exoticize the familiar, so that those whose habits of mind were formed afterwards would never quite see the ideas as their first audiences saw them. Let me see if I can explain what I mean. First, in 1954–55, came The Lord of the Rings. At the heart of Tolkien’s magnum opus is a collision between two ideas as starkly opposed as life and death. Life, in this case, is the life of Middle-earth: a life deeply rooted in tradition and legend, close to the soil, based upon a deep and vivid understanding of nature in all its modes and moods. Death is the One Ring – the super-weapon with the power to destroy everything. To all the generations of man before the Industrial Revolution, Middle-earth would have been a familiar setting. The peculiar peoples, their customs and languages, would have seemed strange, but no stranger than the common run of travellers’ tales; and nothing like so strange as a world in which custom and tradition were openly sneered at, and millions of people hared off every day in the frantic pursuit of this year’s fashion and this year’s technology. A single weapon that could blast the whole world to ruin was something out of myth – religious eschatology or morbid fantasy. But in the aftermath of the two World Wars, the landscape of our own world was strangely reversed. People in the 1950s lived in grim daily knowledge of the super-weapon; and many of them lived in hive cities, far larger than anything known before the twentieth century, in which woods and open fields were exceptional sights, and the stars were largely banished from the night sky. And they had been carefully taught – propagandized is not too strong a term – that the ways of the past were dead and worthless, as irrelevant as last year’s motorcars or last year’s hemlines – that tradition was a dirty word. To such people, it was Middle-earth that was ‘the exotic’, the Ring of Power ‘the familiar’. The Lord of the Rings, which treated tree and leaf, seas and mountains, as normal, and the Ring as a deadly exception, was a specific remedy for the characteristic malaise of those times. Much has been said about the way Tolkien’s work inspired the New Left (with whom he had so little else in common) – the pacifist and environmentalist movements of the sixties. But the counterculture was merely the foam on the shores; the real sea-change occurred in the deep waters of Western society. Quite ordinary and conservative people began to think that mere technical progress was not automatically good. And while people of both sense and sensitivity had always known that nature was worth having, many of them awoke for the first time to the notion that nature needed saving: that the human race had conjured up forces capable of destroying vast and priceless things. Today, we have come some distance towards correcting the topsy-turvy world-view of 1954. More people than ever live in big cities, but most of them have at least an ignorant and sentimental regard for ‘the environment’. Wars have not ceased, but all nations, and most of the freelance extra-national combatants, have got it through their heads that some ways of fighting are simply out of bounds. The Ring and the H-bomb are once more becoming ‘exotic’, and the natural world ‘familiar’. Only a small part of this change, of course, was brought about by The Lord of the Rings, or by literature generally. But the change is real, and because of it, we can no longer quite appreciate how startling Frodo’s story was when it appeared, or why it seized so many hearts and minds with the force of revelation. Twenty-odd years passed: years in which modern and Modernist people assimilated the themes of Tolkien’s work without being contaminated by the work itself. The prophets of the new counter-industrialism – Rachel Carson, Bertrand Russell, Ralph Nader, among many others – were real; one could engage their ideas without risking anything as dangerous as imagination. One could accept nature and reject the H-bomb in a perfectly mundane way. Many people thought the Tolkien ‘fad’ had passed, that fantasy would once more be relegated to the ghetto of children’s literature, or (better yet) abolished altogether. A few quixotic publishers kept trying to make a buck out of the genre; they dimly supposed that there must be more than one way to make money out of this fantasy thing, whatever it was. In 1977, Lester del Rey published a group of highly successful books that proved it was so. Those books included The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, referred to above; but the second breakthrough fantasy came from a wholly unexpected source. (Continued in Part 2.…)
—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Real Story
- The Land. This place, the setting of the series, is virtually a character in its own right; the whole country is almost sentient. It is a place where good and evil, health and sickness, are as plainly visible as red and green; where every tree and river, every rock and patch of soil, is alive with the organic magic called Earthpower.
- The Council of Lords. This is not merely a collection of wizards, but a kind of church or mandarinate of wizardry, in which the leaders are linked by telepathy and by a common vow to serve the Land.
- Kevin’s Lore. Not just a ‘magic system’, but a very complex and weird set of what you might call magical scriptures. It was encoded by its creator in the Seven Wards, each of which contains the clues that will help you find the next. These Wards range from a locked box full of scrolls to a living being constructed out of pure Earthpower.
- The Giants. These are not ordinary fairy-tale giants, not monsters or villains. They are a race of long-lived seafarers, who love to tell long stories, and to laugh even in the face of tragedy. Their motto is, ‘Joy is in the ears that hear, not in the mouth that speaks.’
- Stonedowns and rhadhamaerl. About half the humans in the Land live in Stonedowns, villages where all the tools and utensils of everyday life are made of stone, and manipulated by the stone-lore called rhadhamaerl. Even the fires are fuelled by a magical stone called graveling.
- Woodhelvens and lillianrill. A Woodhelven is a village built in the branches of a single giant tree. As the Stonedownors use stone for every ordinary purpose, the Woodhelvennin use wood. They even have wooden knives, which work because of the lillianrill magic that awakens the Earthpower in the wood.
- Lord Foul the Despiser. The principal villain of the piece, Lord Foul is trapped in the Land, and wants to destroy it so that he can escape. Failing that, he seeks to torment the Land’s people so horribly that they will destroy it themselves, just to put him out of their misery. He hates every form of life and existence, possibly including his own, and is very good at laying the kind of double-bind trap that TV Tropes calls a ‘Xanatos Gambit’.
- The Ravers. These three malevolent spirits have no bodies of their own, but work their will by possessing others. They can flit from host to host, using their stolen bodies to kill, destroy, and wreak havoc. The people of the Land call them by (Hebrew) names that refer to different aspects of Hell, but the Ravers name themselves by the (Sanskrit) words for different forms of enlightenment.
- Ur-viles and Waynhim. These two strange races were created by a mysterious people known as the Demondim. They are outside the Law, since they were constructed, not born; their DNA, so to speak, is entirely artificial. The ur-viles are black, eyeless, and sorcerous, and serve Lord Foul because he gives them lore and genetic material to continue the Demondim breeding program. The grey Waynhim have renounced all that, and devote their lives to serving the Land in their own peculiar way.
- The Staff of Law. This rune-carved staff both embodies and controls the laws that govern the Earthpower. It has, roughly, the power of life, death, and transformation over anything that exists by Law – that is, anything that has its own determinate nature. (Later on in the series, the Staff is destroyed, and Very Bad Things Happen.)
- The Illearth Stone. A source of almost infinite power, the Stone warps and diseases everything it touches. It is a kind of Instant Mordor in a can.
- White gold. This metal, not found in the Land, contains ‘the wild magic that destroys Peace’. It is right outside of the Law; it is ‘closed’ to the second sight of the Land’s people, so that they cannot perceive it as either good or ill, but only as an enigma.
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:
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.
Something there is in beauty which grows in the soul of the beholder like a flower: fragile— 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.
Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life.Fantasyland, as the late Diana Wynne Jones showed in her seminal Tough Guide thereto, is an irksome place. It irks me, at any rate, because it is not a world but something more like a film-set; it does not have the working parts to do what it pretends to do. Tolkien was confessedly ignorant of economics, but he at least tried to make sure (for instance) that the Shire was in a naturally fertile clime that could support a large population of hungry hobbits, and that the ‘townlands’ surrounding Minas Tirith were adequate to feed the people of the city. He even threw in a sentence or two about slave plantations in the South of Mordor, around the Sea of Núrnen, to show how Sauron supplied his horde of evil minions. Many fantasy writers don’t even take that much trouble. Whenever I read about a Glorious Imperial City of Gold™ on top of a high mountain, or a Decadent Palace of the Evil Sultan™ in the midst of a trackless desert, I always find myself asking: ‘But what do these people live on?’ A writer could, by mere fiat, say that they get their food by magic; yet the magic is never there. Not only do we not see it onstage, we also do not see any of the probable consequences and (as fools and mortals say) ‘side-effects’ that such magic would have on all other areas of life. One day I shall probably write a snarky and contumacious tract on the economics of Faërie, but for now I want to leave most of that subject on one side and tackle one particular issue. That is the attitude of almost religious awe that fantasy writers have for societies based on subsistence agriculture — an attitude that, in my wide experience, only occurs among people who know nothing about agriculture and precious little about subsistence. This attitude is not only prevalent in fantasy; some people hold it in real life as well. Among these we must number the ‘locavores’, the well-meaning fools who think it somehow unethical to eat any food grown more than, say, 100 miles away. This is nonense, and easily proved to be nonsense; but a hundred proofs are not worth as much as one plausible story. That is why it is so dangerous that so many of our storytellers don’t know the facts of the case and do not seem interested in learning them. People, consciously or not, are forming their views of life from stories that are not based on life at all. I hope you will bear with me, then, while I tell a little story, and if it is not a hundred-proof story, I hope it may be strong enough drink for the occasion. And if it is drink that we want, I had better put wine in the story, since wine is the drink of the storyteller, except in those far Northern climes where the skalds sing in mead-halls. I have simplified the details, but everything I say about the simple diet of Eucharia applies to our own more complex society as well.
—George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’
No foreigner could ever quite pronounce the name the locals give to their country in their own language. The most striking thing about the country is its people, and the most striking thing about the people is that they have the world’s simplest diet; they live on nothing but bread and wine. It is for this reason that the country is called Eucharia by everyone but the natives; and even they use that name when they speak to us tongue-tied outlanders. The geography of Eucharia is almost as simple as the food. Apart from a few mountains and forests, the country consists of a single broad river valley, very fertile and arable, bordered on either side by a range of sandy hills. The valley land has the perfect soil and climate for wheat, and the hill-country is ideal for grapes. It would seem that a diet of bread and wine is only logical in such a place. But in ancient times, the country was divided amongst scores of hostile clans, and things were not so easy. In those days, each village had to feed itself entirely on its own produce. There was a mort of trade between clans, when they were not busy killing each other, but basic foodstuffs were not traded, because nobody could trust the neighbouring clans to deal honestly in something as vital as food. Each clan numbered about a hundred people, all living together in a village. Our story concerns two villages in particular — one in the valley, one in the hills; they were only a few miles apart, but there was no road between them, and because the clans hated each other, each village was to the other as inaccessible as the moon. In the valley, so rich was the soil, an acre of ground could grow enough wheat to supply five people with bread; but vines did so poorly that an acre of vineyard would only yield enough grapes to supply one person with wine. To keep the hundred members of the clan fed, then, took 100 acres of vineyards and 20 acres planted in wheat. Up in the hills the soil was poorer, so that the yield of wheat was very low. In a very bad year, the land did not grow enough wheat to replace the seed; the average was only about two bushels of wheat for a bushel of seed. Taking the good years with the bad, it took two acres of land to grow enough wheat for one person. On the other hand, the sandy soil and excellent drainage meant that grapes grew very well indeed; an acre of vines produced enough wine for ten. So that clan required 200 acres of wheat fields and 10 acres of vineyards to sustain it. One year there was a war between foreign kings, and the army of a distant Empire marched through Eucharia on its way to the battleground. The Empire put military efficiency above everything else; that was how it had got to be an Empire in the first place. In a place like Eucharia, military efficiency meant building roads. The Empire built a magnificent highway right across the country, cutting through the hills and the valley in a straight line with haughty indifference, for the passage of its troops. And since the highway had to be protected and maintained, the Empire sent a Procurator and a garrison to keep order in Eucharia. Even when the war is over, the Procurator and the garrison stayed on, because that is what Empires do. As it happened, the highway ran straight through the lands of our two villages. For the first time, there was a road between them that could bear heavy loads; for the first time, they could trade together in bulky goods like wheat and wine. Not only that, but the Procurator made it his business to judge disputes between the clans, and if necessary, call out the garrison to enforce his judgements. It was no part of the Empire’s plans to have the country boiling over with continual squabbles amongst the natives. What the Procurator dealt out was not exactly justice, but it was at least decision. Whether he ruled for you or against you, that was an end of the matter and you could get on with your business. In the old days, a dispute between clans generally ended in twenty years of blood feud. So while, at first, the people of the hill village still did not trust the people of the valley village to make an honest bargain, both sides trusted the Procurator to break heads when necessary. They began to trade food with one another. The wine from the hill-country tasted so much better than the sour vintages of the valley, the valley people were very glad to trade their wheat for hill-country wine; they even ploughed up some of their vineyards to grow extra wheat for the purpose. The hill-people, for their part, were happy to let someone else grow wheat for them, and be spared the dreadful drudgery of slogging up hill and down dale to plant a crop that was more likely to fail than grow. They even planted new vines on some of their old fields. After a few years, when the new vines had begun to produce and the new fields had been properly cleared, the people of the two villages noticed a curious thing. All the wine that the valley people drank was being imported from the hills; the wine-growers in the valley were all out of work, and calling down the curses of the gods on the hateful heathens up yonder who took away their livelihood. On the other hand, all the wheat that the hill people ate came from the valley, and the hill farmers were cursing the valley just as loudly. All the wheat that fed both villages came from 40 acres of ploughland in the valley; all the wine came from 20 acres in the hills. The rest of the land lay fallow — 270 acres in all. Yet everybody was fed just as well as before. A few more years, and they began to notice something else. Every year, there were more children being born than old people dying. Every time there was a bad year for either wheat or grapes, Mother Nature came in and audited her books with a sharp red pencil — and the surplus children starved. It used to be quite as common to die of starvation as to live to old age. But that did not seem to happen anymore. When the population grew, the villagers simply used the extra hands to plant some of the idle acres. In time, all the valley land was planted in wheat — 120 acres — and 60 acres of the hills were planted with vines; and this was enough to feed, not 200 people as before, but 600. They could even pay a tenth of their crops to the Procurator and still feed all the villagers. Another of the valley villages began trading with the hill-people for wine, and then another and another. In time all the territory of the hill village — 210 acres altogether — was planted in vines, and 420 acres of valley land in wheat; and the five villages, which used to support 100 people each, had a combined population of nearly 2,000, with enough surplus to pay the Procurator’s taxes. Other clans all over Eucharia began to hear of the district’s success. They began to build roads of their own, and in the blink of an eye, as it seemed, the whole country had trebled its population; yet nobody was going hungry. In fact, they were less likely to suffer famine than before. If one village lost its wheat to a swarm of locusts, or its vines to a blight, some other village had a surplus that it could not get rid of, and was only too happy to give to the stricken community. A family’s bread and wine might travel the whole length and breadth of the land to reach their table, but reach them it did. Starvation became a legend of the bad old days. The people began to trust one another. They began to settle their own disputes, and not go crying to the Procurator about every squabble. In the fulness of time, they became so numerous, so used to managing their own affairs, and so mutually friendly from helping one another through lean years, that they were able to raise their own army and chase the Procurator’s troops right out of the country. When the Emperor heard that he had lost this rich and valuable province (as it now was), he thundered, ‘Send in my legions! What was mine must be mine again, though the rivers run with blood!’ But the last of the Procurators had not risen to his high office for nothing. He was an observing man. ‘Majesty,’ he said, ‘it is not your legions that you must send.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Majesty, there is good land yet in Eucharia, in hill and valley both, but they use it to pasture their sheep. There is a certain plant that grows well in your provinces across the sea, but the Eucharians have never seen it; it gives no edible fruit, but grows white fluff like a kind of vegetable wool. You must send in your cotton; they will trade you their bread and wine, and you can run their sheep out of business. Then they will be yours for ever.’ And so it proved. All that was many centuries ago. The Empire has passed away into history and legend, and Eucharia is a kingdom in its own right. But to this day it sends wheat and wine to every country where the Empire built its roads; and the Eucharians wear nothing but clean white cotton, and call those people unclean barbarians who still dress in wool.
This is a simplification, to be sure; but in essence, that is what happened, not in Eucharia but in our own world, in the basin of the Mediterranean. It was trade, as much as the legions, that built the Roman Empire; and when the Empire fell, trade fell with it, and the nations were ruined by famine and desperate war. In the early stages, the smallholding farmers of Italy were ruined by the rise of Empire, because their poor crops of wheat could not compete with cheap grain from Sicily and Africa. For a time, under the late Republic, their abandoned lands were taken up into huge cattle ranches, not so much because the Romans wanted beef or even leather, but because these latifundia were a handy place for Roman senators to invest their wealth. Still later, the ranches were parcelled out and rented to tenant farmers, who chiefly grew vines and olives for export. Italian wine and Italian olive oil were staples throughout the Empire until the crisis of the third century AD, when pirates returned to the seas and trade began to decline. In the East, the process continued much longer. In Palestine, for instance, archaeologists have found proofs of a large and growing population, increasing wealth and improving culture, right down to 600 AD, the eve of the Persian and Arab invasions. The wines and oil of Palestine took the place of Italian products after Italy fell to the barbarians, and the country prospered mightily — until the conquerors came and the trade routes were disrupted. In all, it has been calculated, the Roman Empire at its peak, about 150 AD, supported about three times the population that the same territories, broken up into barbarian kingdoms with little trade between them, could support about 750, when the collapse was complete. (The Byzantine Empire still struggled on, a tiny fragment that remained under Roman law, but it, too, suffered from the loss of its old trading partners.) The Roman Empire was not the first case of its kind, or the last. The wealth of classical Athens was largely founded on its navy, which kept open the shipping lanes of the Aegean and the Black Sea. Those shipping lanes brought wheat from what is now Ukraine to Athens, which paid for it with home-grown wine and olive oil — and with Syrian dyes, Arabian incense, Egyptian papyrus, and all the other foreign goods that were freely traded on the docks of the Piraeus. When Athens was defeated, first by Sparta, then by Thebes, and compelled to dismantle its ships, the wealth and trade of the Greek world passed to Rhodes and Alexandria. Carthage was another maritime power. The Romans were far more numerous and warlike than the Carthaginians, but at that early date, they were not traders. It took them three great wars to defeat all the mercenaries that the wealth of Carthage could hire, and at one point Rome itself appeared certain to be destroyed. In modern times, England played the role of Carthage or Athens, except that instead of hiring mercenaries, it tended to buy alliances with entire foreign kingdoms, and sometimes bought the kingdoms themselves. The United States built a continental empire chiefly through trade on the rivers and railroads; the settlers would never have gone West if there had been no transport to carry off their crops in exchange for the products of industry. Yankee clippers on the high seas built up a maritime trade to rival the domestic one; and in the end, the U.S.A. took over from Britain the job of keeping the sea-lanes open. (That partly accounts for the ruinous cost of the American defence budget. A navy is far more expensive to build and maintain than an army of the same numbers.) Curiously enough, it seems to be precisely the American writers who are most often enamoured of the idea of autarky, the romance of the subsistence farmer; perhaps because it appeals to the ‘born in a log cabin’ bit of the American national myth. Then, too, the actual ways that preindustrial societies were usually organized were much more hierarchical than Americans like, and had a nasty tendency to incorporate features like serfdom, slavery, and absolute monarchy. A pioneer family alone in the wilderness, or a little village democracy that takes no orders from the outside world: these are archetypes that an American can accept imaginatively, without calling up the ghosts of George III or Jefferson Davis, and without having to reflect on the extraordinary good fortune that allowed his country to develop in its unprecedented way. Lloyd Alexander, in his Chronicles of Prydain, gives a fair example of the tendency I am talking about. His imaginary country is filled with kings and high kings and princesses, mediaeval castles and bickering cantrev lords; some of them are likable, and many of them are lovable, as one would expect from fairy-tale heroes lifted from the Mabinogion; but as soon as any of the common people appear, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie. He gives you the impression that his whole country would be the better off for a round of Jacqueries. Then he strays into what he calls the Free Commots, self-governing villages that pay only a token of lip service to the High King, and otherwise rule themselves in peace and harmony, without any hierarchy at all. It is a mediaeval answer to the self-image of small-town America. Naturally these villagers, who have never fought even among themselves, make heroic soldiers when the final battle comes. And they live in a smug, isolated comfort that seems more Swiss than Welsh. The Valley Cantrevs are impoverished and the Hill Cantrevs are almost depopulated, but the Free Commots are quietly prosperous, though there is no hint that they do any kind of trade except with one another. It is the fantasy of the locavore, plopped down incongruously in the midst of a story steeped in Celtic clan law and early British feudalism. But the real dream-image of our Eucharian villages, before they were ‘spoilt’ by trade — the myth of autarky in its most naked form — is to be found in Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, with his Stonedowns and Woodhelvens. These are essentially self-contained hippie communes, nearly indistinguishable, except that Stonedownors are short and can do nearly anything with stone, and Woodhelvennin are tall and can do nearly anything with wood. The Stonedownors introduce Covenant to graveling, a stone that burns like fire but is never consumed — kind of a cross between coal and the burning bush, presumably without any carbon emissions. Then he travels on to a Woodhelven, where he finds that even the knives are made out of wood. He is gravely informed by his guide that there is trade between the two kinds of villages, but ‘stone and wood are not traded’. In other words, they trade the things that are found in both places, but not the things in which each kind of village has a unique advantage. It is reminiscent of the Flainian Pobble Beads in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which, we are mock-solemnly informed, are only exchanged for other Flainian Pobble Beads. It is a curious kind of culture that limits its trade precisely to those things which neither party benefits by trading. But this, I am afraid, is part of the myth. Writers as a class are notoriously inept at business; this may be why they have been so easily exploited by publishers, a group of people who would be hard pressed to exploit anybody with ordinary horse sense. Writers also, not coincidentally, have a greater than chance tendency to believe in Marxism and other forms of economic nonsense. In Marx, Flainian Pobble Beads would make a kind of topsy-turvy sense; for in Marx, there is no such thing as a mutually beneficial trade. The only thing that produces value is labour; as soon as anybody exchanges the products of that labour, whoever ends up better off is exploiting the other party. Nobody gains anything by trading Flainian Pobble Beads, so there can be no exploitation: only a silly waste of time. But in real life, that is not how trades happen, or why; and in this matter, fantasy has no reason to differ from reality. A wooden knife is not as good as a stone knife; a magic wooden knife is not as plausible as a magic stone knife. (I am sure there have been countless magic stone knives in human history, whether the magic was real or not; they would be the very thing for a Stone Age culture to conduct sacrifices with.) Mutatis mutandis, a wood fire that burns but is never consumed feels right; it does not offend our sense of the fitness of things. A stone fire, we feel, would never be consumed, but it would never burn either. If Donaldson had not been so committed to the myth of autarky — at bottom, to the Marxist fallacy that all trade is exploitation — he might have let the Woodhelvennin use Stonedownor knives, and the Stonedownors use Woodhelvennin firewood. His characters explain that the stone-people lack the lore to make wood-magic work, and vice versa; but in almost the same breath, they say that this was not true in former times, when both kinds of lore were practised all over the Land. It has the odour of special pleading — a rule of magic invented on the spot to shore up the idea that these people are more virtuous than we are because they do not trade for mutual gain. Even a child, we learn, can keep a Woodhelvennin fire burning; surely a Stonedownor could learn that much, without learning all the magic that went into making it. It is a tribute to Donaldson’s skill that we can slide through his books for some time without ever thinking about these problems; they fall into the realm of what is called ‘fridge logic’. Once examined in the cold light of reason, the myth of autarky falls apart; we can see that the people of the Land are impoverishing themselves for nothing. Yet even this setup is a model of economic wisdom compared to some of the assumptions one often finds in fantasy. Young and inexperienced readers are liable to take those assumptions as truths, commonplaces, things that everyone knows and no sane person would question. As I said, a story is worth a hundred proofs. Before we ladle our notions into the minds of the young, it might perhaps behove us to make sure that we are not filling them up with lies.
Good fantasy (and science fiction) correct an imbalance which exists in most realistic fiction. A man named Pelz (if memory serves) once wrote, ‘Beauty is controlled passion. Passion without control is destructive. Control without passion is dead.’ This is the essential paradox of what Blake called ‘reason’ and ‘energy‘: ‘Reason is the circumference of energy.’ Neither means anything without the other. Well, to put Blake in my terms, ‘Intellect is the circumference of imagination.’ I believe that most realistic fiction these days has lost its potential beauty by sacrificing imagination to intellect. Control crushes passion; reason squeezes out energy. In good fantasy and science fiction, the imagination regains its crucial, energizing role. The result is the single most human thing in the world: beauty. (This is the argument from conviction.) My intellectual grad school friends used to denounce Lord of the Rings because it had no relevance to the ‘real world’. They were wrong. LOTR is intensely relevant to the human heart because LOTR is beautiful. I believe that the ‘escape’ into fantasy is an escape from materialism, dead intellect, and cynicism into humanity. However, to avoid being misunderstood, I should go on to say that people who sacrifice intellect to imagination are making the same mistake which is killing realistic fiction. ‘Passion without control is destructive.’ The person who uses fantasy to avoid dealing with reality is in as much trouble as the person who uses intellect tou avoid confronting the inner dragons.
—Stephen R. Donaldson, interviewed in Fantasy Crossroads (1979)
Prigs, by and large, are euphemists. Although it was Heinlein who invented (or at least publicized) the term speculative fiction, it was the prigs of the field who fastened upon it as their preferred substitute for the indecently descriptive name science fiction. Thirty or forty years later, the prigs of another field, shrinking from the straightforwardness of the word horror, cast about for a suitably pretty substitute and came up with dark fantasy. Millions of ordinary readers like stories about science, or stories about things that frighten them; they seek them out. To a prig, this will not do; and so he must demonstrate his superiority to the rabble (as Ted Nelson put it) by calling a spade a muscle-powered terrain disequilibration system. Both terms, thankfully, have gone rather out of fashion since their first vogue. ‘Speculative fiction’ was simply too ugly for anyone but a prig to use, and in any case it clashed violently with the older and more useful term ‘writing on speculation’, or ‘on spec’, meaning the nearly universal practice of writing a story before it is sold. ‘Dark fantasy’ was eclipsed for a less encouraging reason: the adjective no longer draws a distinction. ‘Darkness’ is now a quality that pervades the whole fantasy field, so that what used to be the exclusive business of horror writers is now expected of fantasy writers generally. The field has been overrun with detailed and loving description of grotesque acts of torture and villainy, of a kind that used to be found almost exclusively in ‘psychological’ horror, and in the kind of films that the British used to call ‘video nasties’. I have discussed David Eddings’ Grolims in this connection, but they are poor and feeble things of their kind, crippled in their villainy by the editorial standards of Del Rey under its founders. Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey knew well that teenagers were their primary audience, and that enormous numbers of their books would be sold or given to pre-teen children. They also knew that the usual contingent of book-burning fanatics of both the Left and the Right were likely to form an angry mob if they caught the del Reys polluting the minds of those children with obscenities and horrors. Fantasy was just beginning to be accepted as part of the American literary landscape in the 1970s; when the del Reys replaced Lin Carter at Ballantine, the ink was scarcely dry on Le Guin’s essay, ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ So they trod carefully; too carefully, some said. The late Jack Chalker used to regale audiences at cons with the story of how Judy-Lynn doggedly prevented him from using the word ‘hard-on’ in a Well World book, and how he eventually broke his option clause by writing a book so ineradicably pornographic that she had no choice but to reject it. At that house in 1982, Aztec human sacrifices were about as graphic as anyone was allowed to be. Since then, the fantasy genre has shared in the general coarsening of manners and sensibilities; but as a general thing, it did not begin to plumb the depths of mindless gore until the near-total collapse of the horror market in the early 1990s. Since then, the tropes of horror have been tricked out in new clothes, and much that would once have been called ‘dark fantasy’ was rebranded to avoid the commercial stigma of a genre in eclipse. So we see the spread of horror stories set in Secondary Worlds — and, inevitably, their degraded coattail riders, ooga-booga splatter tales set in the dark underbelly of Fantasyland. As with one of my previous complaints, the New Mexican school of Stephen R. Donaldson and George R. R. Martin have done much to blaze this infernal trail. Donaldson’s space opera, The Gap, contains some fine old Gothic gross-outs, many of which are justified by their effect in the plot; but in several places he crosses a line that I could wish he had avoided by a generous margin. The first book of the series, The Real Story, is largely concerned with the serial rape, torture, and brainwashing of Morn Hyland, an interstellar police ensign, by Angus Thermopyle, a thoroughly disgusting small-time space pirate. Compared to some of Angus’s other crimes, his destruction of Ensign Hyland is almost a trivial excursion into kink; but the obsessive detail that Donaldson lavishes upon these degrading scenes is something disturbingly new to his oeuvre. Thomas Covenant committed rape, but he believed that he was dreaming at the time; a jury would probably find him not guilty by reason of insanity. And he spent the rest of the six-volume series striving extravagantly to expiate that crime in any way possible. Angus Thermopyle made rape an art form, and indeed was so repulsive in both appearance and behaviour that he would probably have died a virgin if he had waited for a partner’s consent. His sociopathic love affair with Morn begins with this:
She was still unconscious, perhaps because of his beating, perhaps because of the drugs the sickbay computer gave her. She had no idea what was happening as he undid her shipsuit and peeled it off her limbs. He couldn’t stop trembling. After all, it was a good thing that he’d hit her. The darkness and swelling of her bruises made her bearable: if she’d remained perfect, he would have had no choice but to kill her. So he paid no attention to the firm lift of her breasts or the velvet curve of her hips. He concentrated exclusively on the livid hurt of her bruises as he climbed on top of her. His orgasm was so intense that he thought for a moment he’d broken something.He goes on breaking her for the next forty pages of a book that barely weighs in at two hundred all told. Now, Donaldson specializes in drawing his heroes from the dregs of humanity, showing them at their worst, and then following their long, painful trajectory into moral awareness and redemption. The description of Angus’s crimes can be justified as necessary to establish the plot, though many readers have stopped cold at the first rape scene, and I myself find the detail painfully excessive. But Angus is not the only murderous misogynist in The Gap. Indeed, there is such a frequent strain of brutality towards women among Donaldson’s villains that a good Freudian critic could probably have the author himself up on charges. He reaches nadir in the third volume, A Dark and Hungry God Arises, with one of the most disgusting scenes in recent literature. Various characters are conferring privately in a bar where a stripper is performing. She comes on stage already naked, and her act consists of cutting off her own breasts and then disembowelling herself — with a dull knife, to increase the pain. Electronic valves have been surgically implanted in her arteries to prevent her from bleeding to death, and as soon as her intestines hit the floor, she is rushed off for reassembly so that she can perform again when her wounds have healed. But there is no necessity for any of this in the plot. We never see the woman again, and in fact the planetoid where she lives and suffers is blown to atoms at the end of that book. It is merely a bit of lurid background, intended to show what scum frequent the bar where Donaldson’s characters have chosen to meet. And Donaldson has already given us copious evidence of that. In short, the whole scene is dragged in by the heels for pornographic value, like the lovingly crafted splatter scenes in Z-grade horror movies, to see which members of the audience are jaded enough to find it titillating, and which are still sensitive enough to vomit. The title character of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho cuts off a woman’s breasts and eats them, and Hannibal Lecter captures Clarice Starling’s boss and feeds him bits of his own brain. In a perverse way, Donaldson is keeping distinguished company, but it is not a distinction worth coveting. Those who perpetrate this kind of diseased splatterporn always make excuses for themselves, and it is generally the same excuse, for their apologias are even less original than their fiction. In 1990, when the horror genre was in the final throes of the same death by obscene hyperbole, Harlan Ellison answered this excuse with the derision it deserves:
When a literary form begins to run out of ideas, the last stop before the abyss is the escalation of the elements, the coarsening of the themes, the amateur’s belief that simply to shock is enough. And so, if we begin with the discreet shadowing of the scene as the vampire bends to the throat of his victim . . . and we move a little further into the light with each succeeding vampire story . . . then we come, at last, to the crude writing that describes in detail every spurt of blood, every diseased puncture hole, every last bit of minutiae of bodily functions, abhorrent perversion, disgusting child molestations, exploding heads, morsels for rodents, overstated and purple-prosed phobias. In short, the salting of the land. And that is where the “horror” genre has come to a death rattle. I choose not to name the names, because some who perform in this manner are friends of mine; but you know who they are. They say they are only writing thus to “awaken” us, to “bring us in touch with our nerve -ends.” What a load of horseshit. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They obfuscate with that sad, sorry song about how they need to shock us into awareness. In medicine, they only use shock treatment when the patient is insane, cataleptic, or dead. Just as the horror genre is dead. Or insane. Or cataleptic. (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan. 1991)Donaldson posits that on a planetoid with a population of a few thousand (including transient ships’ crews), enough people would share this particular kink to make it a regular show-biz attraction. Among the billions of humans now living, I suppose, there must be a few twisted souls who have the peculiar combination of sadism and voyeurism required to get off on the sight of a woman doing such things to herself (as opposed to the woefully larger number who might be excited by seeing them done to her), but hardly enough to pay for her surgery after every show. Angus Thermopyle & Co. didn’t even pay a cover charge. This scene is objectively disgusting, in the etymological sense that it is carefully designed to make us lose our appetite if not our lunch. Of course, if something is disgusting enough, someone is bound to defend it as ‘realistic’, ‘gritty’, or ‘edgy’. But a more accurate description would be ‘revolting twaddle’. About the time Donaldson introduced this ‘gritty, edgy realism’ into neo-pulp SF, Terry Goodkind was making the selfsame detribution to fantasy. (Detribution is a word I coined a while back to describe the act of contributing something of clearly negative value, like putting two bottles of lighter fluid on a charcoal barbecue, or pissing in a pot of soup. It is really depressing how often I find occasion to use it.) The torture scenes in Wizard’s First Rule occupy only a small percentage of the book, but it is such an enormous book that Richard Cypher ends up being sexually abused and traumatized for the length of a young novel. After the book appeared, a wag suggested that Goodkind should cut out all the padding in the sequel, and show his hero being tortured all the way through the book. The character of Princess Violet, the little girl who has been systematically trained to torture and execute her servants and playmates, is if anything even more disturbing. Goodkind’s prose is written on a level suitable for early adolescents, but if these scenes were committed to film, they would guarantee an NC-17 rating. There is no need for this degree of loving and obsessive detail. Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings was of necessity, given the nature of his medium, more graphic than the books. But even he stopped far short of the grossness that Donaldson and Goodkind seem to take as a norm. There is only one scene in the films that is actually set in Barad-dûr. It is a brief flashback, in which Gollum is tortured into revealing the whereabouts of the One Ring, or as much as he knows about it. We never see the tortures themselves, only his hands writhing and clawing the air while he screams the fatal words: Baggins and Shire. And yet it is enough, and more than enough. I have never heard that any viewer found the scene less convincing because we were not shown the torturers’ apparatus at work. But in print, where there are no ratings or censors to worry about, it seems that such restraint is passé. George R. R. Martin is a brilliant and accomplished writer, but A Song of Ice and Fire is largely a paean to just the kind of pornographic violence and untherapeutic shock treatment that Ellison so caustically derides. Almost at the beginning of A Game of Thrones, a brother and sister commit incest in full view of a small child, and when they discover that they have been observed, throw him out of the window of a tall tower to get rid of the witness. That book and its sequels do not abound in sex scenes, but when sexual acts are portrayed they are nearly always instances of one perversion or another. We see huge numbers of characters slaughtered, maimed, mutilated, lavishly tortured, assassinated, betrayed to their deaths by their closest allies — a regular litany of ‘realism’. Martin’s plot is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses, but in some respects those wars were singularly genteel. Henry VI was carefully shuttled back and forth, a prisoner but alive and undamaged, from one side to another, for over a decade before the Yorkists felt secure enough in their hold on the throne to do away with him. The armed and titled hosts of the rival Plantagenets slaughtered one another with great gusto, but compared with the devastation of the Hundred Years’ War, the civil war in England sat lightly on the civil population, and the country in general was seldom despoiled and never lastingly impoverished. Scorched earth and Schrecklichkeit are not viable tactics for a combatant who intends to live off the taxes of the country he is trying to conquer. Winston Churchill has called the Wars of the Roses ‘a conflict in which personal hatreds reached their maximum, and from which mass effects were happily excluded.’ A fair verdict, but not in the least applicable to Martin’s circus of horrors. Not until the Second World War did it become routine practice in this world to wage a war with such bloody-minded malice. But a generation that has been taught to think of every war as another Vietnam can scarcely be expected to know that. One signal difference between the historical wars and Martin’s fantasy version is the role of religion. The Catholic Church, and still more the mediaeval ethic of chivalry, steeped as it was in Christian sentiment, held an unquestioned supremacy in fifteenth-century England. Certain things were simply not done, and public revulsion and swift retribution followed the criminals who breached the code. It is far from certain that Richard III executed his young nephews in the Tower of London, but many Englishmen at the time believed it, and that belief helped to fuel the fresh round of rebellions by which the apparent victor was finally overthrown. Some of Henry Tudor’s partisans at Bosworth Field were motivated by political gain, but others by moral revulsion against a usurping and murderous King; and the ranker soldiers, who did not stand to gain by a change of sovereigns, must largely have had the latter motivation. But in A Song of Ice and Fire, the rather colourless gods of Westeros and their priests, the ‘septons’, neither restrain the slaughter nor even cry out in vain against it. Stannis Baratheon, one of the innumerable pretenders to the throne, imports an outlandish cult of his own, and the more primitive paganism represented by the Targaryens is always on the verge of recrudescence. Religion is nothing more than the complaisant handmaid of politics, and politics is pursued only by the most brutal of means. There is no Parliament, no Kingmaker, no truce that the various sides will honour even for the blink of an eye; only ceaseless war and cynical betrayal. Robb Stark, the most nearly heroic of the rival kings, is put to death with all his retainers at a wedding meant to secure a valuable alliance, and by the bride’s family — the supposed ally — at that. In feudal Europe, no sane nobleman would have violated the laws of hospitality and marital contract so grossly and glibly. Not only was it among the worst of sins to murder guests under one’s own roof, it was colossally imprudent as well. When diplomacy was conducted largely by marital alliances, to commit a massacre at a wedding was an excellent way to ensure that no one would ever ally themselves with your family again. But Martin’s murderers and betrayers seem to escape retribution and even censure. Nobody appears to expect them to behave any better than they do. I started reading Martin’s series because it had been lavishly praised and had sold enormously well, and I wanted to keep myself posted on what the best of my prospective competition was up to. I followed the story through three fat volumes, at which point nearly every character who had ever been known to do a decent or unselfish deed had been brutally killed, and Westeros was in the hands of as pretty a collection of homicidal maniacs as one should ever find outside a maximum-security prison. By the time the fourth volume appeared after a long delay, I found that I just couldn’t care anymore. It was the salting of the land. Harlan Ellison correctly predicted, in the essay quoted above, that the horror genre would implode and all but vanish within two years. My interest in Martin’s carnival of obscenities has already imploded and vanished. No doubt the public taste for this kind of monstrosity will last until the last book of his current series appears in paperback. But here, too, we see ever-increasing gore for ever-diminishing shock value, and the end is already in sight. Either the fantasy genre as a whole will turn away from this obsession with the minutiae of slaughter, or it will follow horror into virtual extinction as a viable commercial category. No trend lasts for ever; and those who bet that it will, and race far ahead of the bandwagon to stake out their places as future parade marshals, are sure to be disappointed when the parade never gets that far. As Harlan Ellison said of the hack writers who drowned horror in its own barrel of fake blood: ‘They won’t desert the ship . . . the ocean will dry up.’ When I wrote the above in 2006, I predicted that
two or three years from now, a 5,000-page novel featuring the danse macabre of an exaggerated mock-mediaeval war, a cast of thousands, a body count almost as high, and every detail of suffering and cruelty drawn out endlessly with loving and obsessive lubricity — such a book, before 2010, will be as hot a property as dot-com stocks were in 2001. Or ooga-booga horror novels in 1993.I still believe I was right in the general tenor of my prediction, but I fear I was over-optimistic in the timing of it. The general taste for splatterporn among the public seems to have peaked several years ago: the Saw films, for example, faced steadily declining box-office receipts after Saw II, and in 2010 precisely, the producers ruefully acknowledged that their cash cow was dead. In fiction, there has been a large exodus in recent years from the blood-sodden fields of commercial epic fantasy to YA fantasy, which, for the moment at least, is a rather less gruesome and degraded subgenre. But splatterporn is still what publishers like to publish and reviewers like to praise, especially in the U.K. As recently as November, 2012, Eric Brown was able to write in the Guardian in praise of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, saying that Abercrombie was
continuing his mission to drag fantasy, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century with his characteristic mix of gritty realism, complex characterisation, set-piece scenes of stomach-churning violence and villains who are as fully rounded as his flawed heroes.Please note that this is intended as praise — unmitigated praise — even the bit about ‘stomach-churning violence’. Stomach-churning, it happens, is a good physiological description of what I referred to above as ‘objective disgust’. Being revolted until you puke, you see, is good for you now: it is something that you ought to want from a book, and if you don’t, you need to be ‘dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century’ yourself. The horrors of the 20th were not enough; Hiroshima and the Holocaust are, like, so five minutes ago. We shall outdo them all, and you shall like it. That is the gospel according to the up-to-date critic. But perhaps, if we pause a little for reflection (a perilous habit for those who would be up to date, for fashion is a Red Queen’s race and you can never afford to stop running), we may find some value in an older and contrary school of thought. Long ago, the necrophilic works of the then young Salvador Dalí forced George Orwell to come to terms with the stark opposition between ‘progressive’ aesthetic sensibility and morals; and he decided, rightly as I believe, in favour of the latter. In ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí’, Orwell wrote:
One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.The touchstone of Elfland — the most characteristic characteristic of fantasy — is the eversion of symbolism. The One Ring is not merely a symbol of power; it is power. Excalibur is not merely a symbol of kingship; it confers kingship. In these terms, we can say that the recent novels of Martin and Abercrombie (among lamentably numerous others) not only symbolize but are the walls around a concentration camp in Faërie. This is the camp of ‘edginess’, where the gaolers are grimly determined that no memory of sun or moon, tree or flower, stone or sea, goodness, truth, or beauty, shall remain to the inmates, but only the unending, ever-increasing, bloodshot craving for the pleasures of torture and the pornography of pain, suitably euphemized as ‘moral ambiguity’. For the really striking thing about splatter fantasy is not its dreary multiplication of pornographic violence, but its abject inability to describe much of anything else. Every reader of The Lord of the Rings remembers the scenery of the Shire and Lórien; Tolkien’s reputation as a writer, as I have said before, rests largely on his skill at describing nature. But there are no Shires or Lóriens, no ordinary life, and not much scenery of any kind, in Camp Edgy. Instead there is the dystopia of 1984, dressed up as utopia: a place where ‘a boot stamping on a human face for ever’ is a good thing — good to contemplate, and good for rousing wholesome entertainment; anybody who objects to it merely because it makes him vomit (let alone moral reasons: what on earth are those?) is damned as a philistine who has not yet discovered what century he is living in. Orwell was fundamentally right about walls; and the walls of Camp Edgy, even if they are the best walls in the world, deserve to be pulled down. I will not go so far as to say that Martin’s and Abercrombie’s books should be burnt by the public hangman: that would give an unearned halo of martyrdom to the authors, and an unholy taste for publicity to the hangman. But we need to recognize that splatterporn is a beast that will devour our souls if we let it; and we need to stop feeding the beast, and instead feed our souls on something that will sustain them. We shall need such sustenance in an age where the obsessive description of acts of despicable evil is routinely mistaken for art.
As I said earlier, the choice of an appropriate prose style for a fantasy tale is a decision fraught with peril. We are tempted to choose a style that will convey the proper sense of wonder and adventure, and the air of old times and alien cultures; or would, if we only had the skill to pull it off. If we lack that skill, our stories will sound rather like an untrained singer trying to do the lead in Rigoletto — ambitious, but inept. And this will get us laughed at. It is safe to say that none of us enjoy being laughed at. So for perhaps forty years past, there has been a reaction in the opposite direction; and I am afraid that is an even worse error. The sensible reaction would be to learn how to produce the effects that we wanted; the real reaction, for far too many writers, has been simply to give up trying and settle for a bland quotidian style. Their stories are inept without being ambitious. And this is worse, for unless they are very lucky, it gets them ignored and forgotten. They may truly be hearing the horns of Elfland in their heads; but they cannot play that music. What they do play is a tuneless mishmash compounded of slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog. Most of what I could say about this has been said with magnificent wit and force in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, which I referred to earlier. The language of fantasy should be appropriate to fantasy; the speech of heroes should be heroic; the sound of the lame excuse should not be heard in that land. This is the law and the prophets: all else is gloss. But I should like to dwell upon the gloss awhile, as the fantasy field has changed enormously since ‘Poughkeepsie’ was published, and by no means all for the better. After some preliminary rumblings, the field of fantasy became a real commercial genre very suddenly. I have written about the Fantasy Big Bang of 1977, when the field as we know it emerged full-grown, swinging a sword and swashing a buckler, from the dog-eared notebooks of the late J. R. R. Tolkien. This is an exaggeration, but not a very gross one. Besides The Silmarillion, that year marked the appearance of three first novels and a film that permanently changed the commercial and critical climate in fantasy publishing. It also marked the official annexation of Elfland by Poughkeepsie, though the elves have been fighting a valiant rearguard action in the remoter parts of the country. In short, 1977 was when Fantasyland opened for business at its present location. And one of the signal qualities of Fantasyland is the utterly pedestrian tone of its prose. Some fantasy authors are simply inept with language, which would have disqualified them in the old days; others, alas, have quite deliberately stripped all the magic and grandeur out of their writing, coldly and deliberately, to make the newcomers from suburbia feel perfectly at home. In Northrop Frye’s taxonomy, as propounded in Anatomy of Criticism, the plots and characters of fantasy normally occupy the levels of Romance and High Mimesis, with occasional excursions into Myth. But from 1977 on, it became usual to write their stories, and still worse their dialogue, in the ordinary novelistic language of Low Mimesis and Irony. The strain is too much for the structure to bear. Where Aragorn and Gandalf, or Eddison’s four Lords of Demonland, spoke like heroes and behaved accordingly, too many of their successors come across as over-aged adolescents playing at knights and dragons. It is no calumny to say that the tone of the average commercial fantasy novel nowadays is not much above the tone of the average Dungeons & Dragons campaign. This is no accident, for D&D players are the most identifiable and exploitable demographic for fantasy publishers. I have played a lot of D&D in my time, as it happens, and what I observe time and again is players who Just Don’t Get It. They are ostensibly playing heroes, or at least quasi-heroic adventurers, but they give these characters a kind of life that betrays their utter unfamiliarity with either heroism or adventure. Some time ago, I dabbled in Third Edition D&D after an absence of many years. One party in which I participated was, or rather played, a group of irregulars in the service of a baron whose domain was beset by ogres, pirates, and assorted menaces from the omnium gatherum of the Monster Manual. The Dungeon Master was an ex-serviceman, familiar with the bureaucratic organization of modern armies, and utterly ignorant of the deeply personal and emotional loyalties that characterized the feudal system. Though we were, sword for sword, the most valuable retainers the baron had, we were never actually permitted to meet him, and seldom even saw the captain of his men-at-arms. We were dealt with summarily by a mere lieutenant, briefed, debriefed, conferred with in map-rooms, and generally treated with less courtesy and ceremony than a mediaeval king would have shown to the merest beggar. Kings touched commoners for the king’s evil, but our lord the baron did not touch commoners at all. Corporate Poughkeepsie, with its disgusting rudeness and indifference, and the layers of insulation built up to protect every person of importance or even self-importance from the importunities of the public, was in full possession of an ostensible fortress of Elfland. All this showed in our DM’s use of language, which I shall mercifully spare you; and the like attitude, with much less excuse, shows daily in the pages of modern commercial fantasy. At about this point in her argument, Ms. Le Guin gave some more or less random examples of dialogue in great works of fantasy, and one less great. I should like to offer some beginnings, since that is where the modern, groomed, workshopped author is taught to display his very finest wares:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth. ‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’This is Tolkien’s version of Poughkeepsie, but already in the distance we can hear the horns of Elfland tuning for their first fanfare. The events described are entirely pedestrian, a birthday party and some small-town gossip, but they are fraught with significance. In a way, the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings is merely the rigorous and complete exploration of the ‘trouble’ that came from Bilbo’s ‘unfair’ lease of youth and riches. Note that Tolkien, whose literary influences were nearly all dead before 1900, is not at all afraid to begin with sixty years of backstory, pithily summarized, or to burden the reader with récit instead of a cinematic ‘teaser’. This is how such things were normally done in the days when literature was not deformed by the perceived need (and impossible desire) to compete with television on television’s home ground. I believe that we shall yet see a return of the novelistic novel, as opposed to the novel that tries to be a faithful replica of an unmade movie. But that is not, generally speaking, what we are getting at present:
The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland. Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior.That is the opening paragraph of The Sword of Shannara, one of the Big Bang fantasies of 1977. Or rather, it is part of the opening paragraph, for we are treated to several more lines of visual description of the mysterious Mr. Ohmsford. Although Brooks’s first novel has been mercilessly derided as a mere pastiche of The Lord of the Rings, it is in fact something very much more (and less): a translation of LOTR from epic English into modern pedestrian novelese. It is the Fantasyland version of Tolkien. See how the story opens with an attempt at cinematic description. Everything is seen through the camera eye, beginning with a long establishing shot of the countryside, then closing in on the weary figure trudging through the landscape, ending with an extreme closeup focused tightly on the eyes. It is true that everything is seen as through a gel filter, darkly, for Brooks’s descriptive powers are not great, and if we form a vivid image of a countryside from these vague cues, it redounds to our credit and not his. ‘Touching the corners of the land’ is strictly meaningless, as nasty a bit of mock-poetic trumpery as you could hope to find among the sham beams of a Tudor pub in Peoria. The bit about the restless energy revealed by Flick’s wide gray eyes is simply a cheat, and a cheat of a particular kind that I should like to discuss in more detail. For this is the very essence of the Fantasyland style: to swaddle the reader in visual description, engaging her mind (I assume a female reader for convenience’ sake, as the writer I am dissecting is male) in the mild trance state most conducive to escapist reading, while communicating the real gist of the matter in windy abstractions. Nobody could possibly see restless energy burning in a man’s eyes as he trudges wearily down a hillside trail, even if there were somebody there to look for it. (There is not; Flick is alone at this point, except for the omnipresent camera eye.) What we have is a purely subjective and fanciful opinion about Flick’s character, passed off as physical description and therefore as fact. If a character formed such an impression of Flick’s eyes, the reader would know where she stands. She would know it was an opinion, no more reliable or well-informed than the person who made it, and from this she could learn not only about Flick but about his observer, and the relationship between them. As it stands, she learns only that Terry Brooks wants her to think of Flick as a dynamo of hidden energies, without showing him doing anything remotely energetic, let alone dynamic. Le Guin observed that a fantasy writer’s true quality shows best in his dialogue. It takes three full pages of Flick’s solo trudgery before we come to the first line of dialogue in the story:
The dark figure was almost on top of the Valeman before Flick sensed its presence looming up before him like a great, black stone which threatened to crush his smaller being. With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long, thin dagger at his waist. Even as he crouched to defend himself, he was stayed by a commanding arm raised above the figure before him and a strong, yet reassuring voice that spoke out quickly. ‘Wait a moment, friend. I’m no enemy and have no wish to harm you. I merely seek directions and would be grateful if you could show me the proper path.’When two strangers cross paths in a wood, and one wishes to ask the other for directions, he does not customarily introduce himself by sneaking up within arm’s length and doing his best impression of a Black Rider. No indeed: accosting the other man from a distance and asking the way to Poughkeepsie is the generally accepted thing. It’s a fake scare, followed by fake reassurance. Again we have the cloudy attempts at description (‘great, black stone’), merely to give the author a plausible defence against the charge of ‘telling, not showing’. And again the meat of the matter, such as it is, is told and not shown, an opinion enforced by pure auctorial fiat. ‘A strong, yet reassuring voice’ could sound like anything. We are told that Flick was reassured by it, but we really have no idea why. By the bye, at this point, four pages into The Sword of Shannara, we have got considerably less distance with the story than Tolkien took us with the three short paragraphs that begin The Lord of the Rings. The Fantasyland writer is nothing if not verbose. Another of the Big Bang fantasies was Circle of Light, by Niel Hancock. It is difficult today to believe that Hancock’s overgrown fairytale was highly acclaimed in its day and sold over a million copies. It is very much a book of the Seventies, and you can hear deliberate echoes of Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the opening:
On the morning of his leaving, he erased all his tracks from that part of heaven, carefully stacked new star branches in a neat pile behind the entrance in the dark mouth of the universe, and sadly began the thousand-year trip down the side of the sky that closely resembled a large mountain. If you looked at it that way. If you didn’t, it might seem very much like walking out your own front door and down the steps.It is an accomplishment, I suppose, to be both twee and portentous at the same time, but that combination is Hancock’s speciality. Our unnamed character is a Bear, the Bear in fact, a stock anthropomorphic fairytale Bear of the sort that has been familiar to everyone since Robert Southey seeded Elfland with three of the species; but he is also the reincarnation of an ancient hero. So we are told in the subsequent pages, though we never learn just what he did that was so heroic that it would still be remembered in the twilight of the ages. Again we see this curious tendency to show trivialities and baldly tell (or even omit) essentials. In this case, it is overlaid with a New Age mystical conceit, for the Bear’s journey is, of course, his reincarnation to fight the good fight once more. The tone is more juvenile than that of Shannara, but the cinematic pretensions and windy vagueness are much the same. Now, I do not mean to give the impression that a cinematic, novelistic technique (derived, by the way, from Hemingway’s successful experiment referred to earlier) is always inappropriate for fantasy. Special circumstances can justify it, as in the third of the Big Bang novels:
She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way. The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!” Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded, Ashamed? Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean!Stephen R. Donaldson, by his own admission, is a notorious over-writer, but there are no wasted words here. Nothing is spent on the setting, beyond the mention of the store and sidewalk; we recognize this as a street zoned commercial, part of our own world. We have immediate action, immediate conflict, and are faced at once with an urgent question. Why is Thomas Covenant subjected to such execration merely for walking down the street? What ought he to be ashamed of? Just as Bilbo’s neighbours adumbrated the whole plot of LOTR in a sneering line of dialogue, the woman from the store (whom we never see again) sets up the essential conflict that drives The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. It is a powerful and engaging opening, though Covenant soon squanders the capital of sympathy that his author laid in for him. The action is described cinematically, if you like, but it is action and not impressionistic claptrap about the countryside. Like Tolkien, unlike Brooks and Hancock, Donaldson puts his subjective judgements where they properly belong, in the minds and mouths of characters who are capable of making those judgements inside the story. The narrator does not intrude at all. But this exception, after all, works because Thomas Covenant really is a man from Poughkeepsie, or somewhere distressingly like it. The apparatus of the twentieth-century novel is appropriate to his tale, because he is a twentieth-century man, and his tale is about the head-on collision between Elfland and Poughkeepsie. Donaldson has described the Covenant books as a kind of inverse of Idylls of the King. Tennyson’s masterpiece is the tale of how King Arthur was destroyed by a world full of petty and self-seeking men; Donaldson’s debut is about a petty and self-seeking man who finds redemption in a world full of King Arthurs. The tone is often ironic, in Frye’s usage of the term, because Covenant is an ironic hero. He speaks fluent Poughkeepsie, and the characters of the Land to which he is transported speak a highly idiosyncratic dialect pregnant with the unmistakable tones of Elfland. One more example, and I shall leave the matter alone. This is not from the Big Bang, but from the monstrously long Fantasyland novel that fully assimilated and imitated all its predecessors. All the yardwork and busywork, all the Extruded Book Product from the Old Baloney Factory, is summed up in this one encyclopaedic tale, and the beginning strikes the note with uncanny accuracy:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning. Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow. Gusts plastered Rand al’Thor’s cloak to his back, whipped the earth-colored wool around his legs, then streamed it out behind him. He wished his coat were heavier, or that he had worn an extra shirt. Half the time when he tried to tug the cloak back around him it caught on the quiver swinging at his hip. Trying to hold the cloak one-handed did not do much good anyway; he had his bow in the other, an arrow nocked and ready to draw.This is Fantasyland in a nutshell. We have the cod philosophizing of Hancock, perhaps improved upon, certainly intensified, by the Liberal Application of Capital Letters. We have the blatant cribs from Tolkien, the Third Age and the Misty Mountains. We have a panoramic camera shot of some very unsatisfactory and out-of-focus scenery, the burden of which is simply the screenwriter’s ‘Exterior Fantasyland, day’. We do not yet, it is true, have any auctorial opinions about Rand al’Thor fobbed off on us as physical description, but we may confidently guess that we will not be deprived of that amenity for long. Robert Jordan has rounded up all the usual suspects, and they all do exactly the Poughkeepsian duty that every right-thinking reader has learnt to expect. And he has done it without getting us any distance at all with the story. It takes him a full page to tell us that Rand’s cloak is flapping in the wind. That may not be good writing, but at least it is an authentic sample of the long, slow slog to come. If nothing else, we can praise Jordan for truth in advertising. He has not only clipped Pegasus’ wings, but broken his legs as well, and will spend the next ten thousand pages teaching him to crawl. It would be so unacceptably Elflandish to let him soar.
Most readers like formed stories; I have this taste to an unusual degree. I have never lost, or as the sophisticates would call it, ‘outgrown’ the taste for a well-turned plot that I drank in — not with my mother’s milk, for I was raised on cheap commercial substitutes — but at any rate with the oldest stratum of my father’s teaching, with the earliest books (after Dr. Seuss) that he gave me to read. A child is not subtle; a child likes stories to be marked by clear signposts, and would rather have five spoilers than one ambiguity. Partly this is because a child has not formed a pattern of expectations about stories. Grown people dislike spoilers, I suspect, largely because they have read (or watched) so much fiction that they generally know what to expect: a real surprise, to them, is a rare and precious thing, and if you deprive them of one, you do them a real injury. Every turn in a story is a surprise to a child, and the suspense can become too hard to bear. It was a master-stroke when William Goldman, in the film version of The Princess Bride, had the grandfather interrupt his telling of the tale to reassure his grandson that Buttercup ‘does not get eaten by eels at this time’. To an experienced reader, any peril that threatens to kill off the heroine a third of the way through the book is an obvious bluff. A very young reader has to find out the hard way. Nowadays, even the average six-year-old has imbibed enough stories, chiefly through the medium of television, to be wise to the obvious tricks; in sad consequence, even a six-year-old may be angry at spoilers. But there are less naked ways to signal the phases of a story, ways that can be made subtle enough (and misleading enough) to please the palate even of a very old and sophisticated reader. One of the best devices for this purpose is the chapter break, with or without a title. Some readers profess to be indifferent to chapters in fiction, and some, I believe, honestly are. (Sherwood Smith has told me that she is one.) I have written elsewhere about the difference between analytic and immersive reading. Some people read so immersively that they sweep right past analytic details like chapter breaks. They are so entranced by the picture that they do not even notice the frame. But as Chesterton said, the frame is an integral part of the picture; the vision is no vision at all unless it is limited. The human eye and the human brain are not capable of seeing everything at once; we have to look at particular things in order to see anything. Chapters are framing devices; they signal to us, ‘Here is a particular vision; here is a thing for you to look at.’ A chapter does not stand alone, but it presents an object for separate consideration, and invites you to pause for thought, to integrate that object into your understanding of the whole subject, before you move on to the next bit. Selah. This is obviously useful in non-fiction, and even the most immersive reader is liable to be flummoxed by (say) a fat reference manual with no chapters or table of contents. But it is useful in fiction as well; I would even say it is a minor art in itself. At any rate I think it is worth looking at some of the principal functions of chapters, and the ways they can be used effectively or badly. If you will bear with me, I shall deal with this matter in my own way: by telling a story about it. Among the ancient Greeks, the fundamental unit of literature was the βιβλος or ‘book’, by which they meant a single papyrus or parchment scroll. These scrolls were mass-produced in more or less standard lengths; a regular-sized scroll held about 20,000 words in the handwriting of a trained scribe. Writing to this length became a standard skill expected of all authors. If you wanted to write something longer, you had to break it up into several books; and then, if you were at all clever, you made a virtue of necessity by taking up a different part of your subject in each book. You would divide your opus into as many topics as the number of books it would fill. Often, though, you would find yourself dealing with topics too small for a 20,000-word book. In that case, you would put several topics together in one scroll, and to help your readers find their way, you would introduce each new topic with a heading. The word for heading is κεφάλαιος in Greek, capitulum in Latin, chapitre in Old French — hence the English word chapter. This was useful for more things than just subdividing topics. There were no pages in a scroll, and no two copies were ever exactly alike; so the only good way to point to a specific passage in a book was to cite the chapter it occurred in. This ability was so spectacularly useful to scholars that they began putting chapter breaks into all their books, even those that dealt with one topic in an unbroken chunk of text. In such cases they would not trouble to name the chapters, but only number them, just as we number the pages in printed books. Often these arbitrary chapters were as short as a page in a printed book, or shorter; so you could give quite accurate citations by this method. With the advent of printing, it became possible to use page numbers for this purpose, and by the twentieth century it was an academic faux pas to give references by anything but page number. But in the last few years we have come full circle: the mass-produced printed book, with the same text on page 43 of every copy, is slowly giving way to the electronic book, in which ‘page 43’ is defined on the fly by the amount of text that happens to fit on your particular screen in your preferred font size. Some learned publications are already falling back on chapter references for citations in recent books. Indeed, this has become the de facto standard in citing authors like Dickens or Tolkien. Their books have been reprinted in so many different editions that references by page number are virtually useless. You can say the same of ebooks, with the ‘virtually’ left out. An ebook reader ordinarily saves your place in a book; even with printed books, you can use bookmarks or dog-ear the pages. But these methods are not infallible. Most recreational readers have no need to make citations to a text, but we have all had the experience of losing our place in a book. Numbered chapters are about the best tool ever invented for dealing with this difficulty. I think it safe to say that this is a basic function of chapters: if a book has chapters at all, we can reasonably expect them to do that much. The other main function of chapters, referred to earlier, is to identify topics within a book. This is a plain necessity in most kinds of non-fiction; in fiction it is a luxury, but often a useful one. Chapter titles can help the story along by building expectations, like ‘Slavery and Escape’, from Robinson Crusoe. They can help to set a mood, like ‘The Shadow of the Past’, from The Lord of the Rings. A real virtuoso like Dickens can even use fictitious chapter titles to give us the feeling of having read an entirely imaginary book. This is from chapter 6 of Our Mutual Friend:
‘This, sir,’ replied Silas, adjusting his spectacles, and referring to the title-page, ‘is Merryweather’s Lives and Anecdotes of Misers. Mr Venus, would you make yourself useful and draw the candles a little nearer, sir?’ This to have a special opportunity of bestowing a stare upon his comrade. ‘Which of ’em have you got in that lot?’ asked Mr Boffin. ‘Can you find out pretty easy?’ ‘Well, sir,’ replied Silas, turning to the table of contents and slowly fluttering the leaves of the book, ‘I should say they must be pretty well all here, sir; here’s a large assortment, sir; my eye catches John Overs, sir, John Little, sir, Dick Jarrel, John Elwes, the Reverend Mr Jones of Blewbury, Vulture Hopkins, Daniel Dancer—’ ‘Give us Dancer, Wegg,’ said Mr Boffin. With another stare at his comrade, Silas sought and found the place. ‘Page a hundred and nine, Mr Boffin. Chapter eight. Contents of chapter, “His birth and estate. His garments and outward appearance. Miss Dancer and her feminine graces. The Miser’s Mansion. The finding of a treasure. The Story of the Mutton Pies. A Miser’s Idea of Death. Bob, the Miser’s cur. Griffiths and his Master. How to turn a penny. A substitute for a Fire. The Advantages of keeping a Snuff-box. The Miser dies without a Shirt. The Treasures of a Dunghill—” ’ ‘Eh? What's that?’ demanded Mr Boffin. ‘ “The Treasures,” sir,’ repeated Silas, reading very distinctly, ‘ “of a Dunghill.” ’The best chapter titles at once set up our expectations and play with them; they are just misleading enough, or incomplete enough, or vague enough, to excite our curiosity without spoiling the surprise. Dickens knew this technique forwards and backwards, and ‘The Treasures of a Dunghill’ is, by this standard, a brilliant title for a chapter. The phrase is, on the face of it, an oxymoron; we trust that the author means something clever by it; but what? We read on all the more eagerly to find out, as we do after finding a clue in a mystery novel. At their best, chapter titles can heighten tension in much the same way as prophecies. Indeed, the two techniques can be combined. Stephen R. Donaldson did just that in White Gold Wielder, the sixth Thomas Covenant book. Lord Foul, the villain, has prophesied that Covenant will freely and voluntarily give him his magic ring, the white gold of the title, to the ultimate ruin of the Land; and by this time we know that Lord Foul’s prophecies, as a rule, really do come true. It gives us a feeling of honest jeopardy, and ramps up the tension. As Covenant journeys towards his final confrontation with Foul, Donaldson heightens the sense of dread and fatality with chapter titles like ‘The Last Bourne’, ‘Enactors of Desecration’, and ‘No Other Way’. These little flourishes emphasize the mood without giving any clue how, or whether, Covenant can escape his prophesied doom and save the Land. This is a difficult art, and it is not surprising that in a subsequent series, his space opera The Gap, Donaldson gave up and did without chapter titles altogether. Unfortunately, he flew to the opposite extreme, to the detriment of his work and the confusion of readers: he adopted a system that does not fulfil any of the usual purposes of chapters. This method has since caught on; George R. R. Martin made it famous (or infamous) in his monster epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin, it would seem, borrowed the device from Donaldson; Donaldson may have got it from Asimov, who used something like it in The Robots of Dawn; Dorothy L. Sayers did the same sort of thing in Five Red Herrings. Beyond that, the pedigree becomes obscure. The system I am referring to is this: to introduce each chapter, not with a title or even a number, but simply with the name of the point of view character for that section of the text. The author simply slaps a name at the top of a fresh page, followed by that character’s inmost thoughts and experiences in gruelling detail, until it comes time to interrupt the story with a cliffhanger and go haring off after the next victim. Now, this is not a bad idea in itself. It does take rather a lot of work to come up with titles like ‘The Treasures of a Dunghill’ or ‘The Shadow of the Past’, and still more to ensure that they help the story along without acting as spoilers. If it will ease a writer's passage through this vale of tears to call his chapters ‘Tyrion’ or ‘Angus’ or ‘Daneel’, or even ‘Jim-Bob’ or ‘Hey, you!’, he can do it with my blessing. But Donaldson and Martin, especially Martin, use it in a confusing and self-defeating way. To begin with, they don’t number their chapters. This is a serious offence against the reader, particularly in the size of the books in which they are doing it. If I am reading an 800-page doorstop, a task I do not routinely accomplish at a single sitting, I want a foolproof method of remembering my place in case the bookmark falls out between times. For this purpose, as I said above, chapter numbers are the perfect aide-mémoire. Chapter titles, without numbers, can be unhelpfully hard to find when the book (like most novels) has no table of contents. When there are twenty-three chapters with the same name, and not even the dignity of a Roman numeral to tell t’other from which, Madness beckons from its twitchy horse and takes me for a gallop. I could fairly easily find my way back to Jon IV, or Jon X, or Jon CLXXVI, Dei gratia capitulum, but Messrs. D. & M. do not accord me even that exiguous courtesy. There is no way to tell one ‘Jon’ chapter from another at a glance. The only thing for it is to pick a likely-looking chapter at about the right place in the book, read a bit of it, and then cast backwards or forwards a chapter at a time until I find where I last left off. And that is not foolproof, for I often find the characters agonizing over the death of somebody who was alive and well when last I saw him, and wonder if I have missed a crucial stretch after all. This brings me to the other defect of this method, which is not intrinsic to the method itself, but is so often associated with it that I wonder whether they are really separable. Authors, it seems, do not commonly name their chapters after their viewpoint characters unless those characters come in regiments and battalions. I once counted all the POV characters in A Song of Ice and Fire; I believe I lost count somewhere around three thousand, but my memory may be at fault. Probably it was more. The result of this is that a character’s story arc will be interrupted in mid-scene with a glorious cliffhanger, well worthy of the old Doctor Who at its cheesy best, and then nothing more will be heard of him for two or three hundred pages. In the later books, Martin took to driving his characters in two sets abreast, so that some of the cliffhangers in the third volume are not taken up again until the fifth. There comes a point at which mere suspension of disbelief is no longer enough. What is wanted is suspension of memory, and it takes a steel cable of Verrazano-Narrows gauge to carry the load. It was this, more than any other fault (except the infamous ‘Red Wedding’), that caused me to give up on ASOIAF after three volumes. Yet one seems to get very little meat out of this method, no matter how much the plotline of these books resembles something filmed in an abattoir. For once we have caught up with Pauline still in her peril of a thousand pages ago by our time, or two hours ago by hers, and see her suitably extricated, we are then obliged to sit down and listen while she soliloquizes about what all the other characters are doing, and where they are now, and whether they can be counted on to have done what they set out to do, and whether they are dead or only shamming. There is a certain amount of this in many good books. The Lord of the Rings derives great poignancy from the constant uncertainty of Frodo’s position, as Aragorn and Gandalf and the rest strive superhumanly to perform heroic deeds that will be wasted if Sauron recovers the Ring. But there are only eight (surviving) members of the Quest, not eighty, and they do not all sit around between battles and wonder what all the other seventy-nine are up to. In both The Gap and ASOIAF, the enormously complicated plots are largely driven by groups and knots and claques of characters trying to second-guess each other, and generally getting it wrong. There must be a better way to construct a five-volume novel, and there certainly are better ways to maintain narrative tension. But both Donaldson and Martin appear to have become inebriated with the exuberance of their own ingenuity, as well as their verbosity. Their books would be shorter, neater, and more effective if they could resist the temptation to chase up side-issues and minor characters in the same detail as the deeds of their principal heroes. They set out to be architects, but spend most of their time and skill carving gargoyles for their drains. The least they could do is have a table of contents, and put numbers on the gargoyles.
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 . . .