04 May 2014

Stephen R. Donaldson and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

It was 1983 when author Stephen R. Donaldson released White Gold Wielder, the third and final book of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (The first 3-book series, Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War and The Power that Preserves, thus making up The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, was released in 1977, 78 and 79 respectively). The late 70’s and early 80’s was the Golden Era of High Fantasy, as writers who read The Lord of the Rings trilogy came of age and began building on what Tolkien had started some thirty years before.

I read a lot of those books back then, but the Thomas Covenant series was very different from the fantasy tales by Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony (two authors who continue to this day to publish novels set in the universe they created back in late 70s). I’m not sure, but I think Donaldson could be credited with creating the first anti-hero of fantasy. Thomas Covenant was not in any way a likable character, yet the way Donaldson writes him, the reader can have sympathy for him, even if you get angry at his actions. 

The premise of the series is this: Thomas Covenant is a young, best-selling author with a wife (Joan) and an infant son (Roger), whose world is turned upside-down when he is diagnosed with leprosy. After six months' treatment and counselling in a leprosarium, he returns home to find himself divorced, alone and an outcast in the community. On a rare trip into town, he is accosted by a beggar who makes a number of cryptic pronouncements. The beggar refuses Covenant's offers of charity, including his white gold wedding band, leaving Covenant with the admonition to "be true." Confused and disturbed by the encounter, Covenant stumbles into the path of an oncoming police car and is rendered unconscious.

He wakes to find himself in the Land, a classic fantasy world. He first meets the evil Cavewight Drool Rockworm, wielding the magical power of the Staff of Law, who summoned him to the Land. Drool is guided (manipulated) by a malevolent, incorporeal being who calls himself "Lord Foul the Despiser." Foul reproaches Drool for his arrogance and transports Covenant to Foul's demesne. Addressing Covenant as "groveler", Foul taunts him with a prophecy that he (Foul) will destroy the Land within 49 years; however, if Drool isn't stopped, this doom will come to pass much sooner. He tells Covenant to deliver this message to the rulers of the Land, the Council of Lords at Revelstone, so that they can make preparations to combat Drool Rockworm and recover the Staff of Law.

Once again, Covenant is somehow transported and wakes on Kevin's Watch, a tall finger of rock attached to a mountain overlooking the Land's southernmost region. He meets Lena, a young girl who uses a special mud called hurtloam to heal some minor cuts caused by his fall. To his astonishment, Covenant discovers, albeit somewhat later on, that the hurtloam has also cured his leprosy. This is only the first example Covenant will see of the Earthpower: a rich source of healing energy present throughout the Land. Covenant's loss of two fingers on his right hand, a consequence of the failure to promptly diagnose his leprosy, causes him to be identified by Lena as the reincarnation of Berek Halfhand, an ancient Lord who saved the Land from Lord Foul during a war which occurred in the Land's distant past. His special identity is seemingly confirmed when Lena's mother Atiaran identifies Covenant's white gold ring – in his world a plain wedding band, which he had been emotionally unable to discard notwithstanding his divorce – as a token of great power in the Land.

Believing that he is unconscious from his collision with the police car, and therefore experiencing a fantastical dream or delusion, Covenant refuses to accept the reality of the Land. Appalled and indignant at the expectations the people of the Land have for him as their new-found saviour, he gives himself the title of "Unbeliever."

Also, in one of the most harrowing scenes in the first book, the cure for his leprosy also cures his impotence. Driven by mental anguish and the thought that while he feels, he still does not believe, he is driven into frenzy and rapes Lena –an act that is so horrible yet will prove pivotal for the rest of the series. And while her family and friends learn about the rape and fail to comprehend Covenant’s crime, they are forbidden to take vengeance due to their Oath of Peace.

From here on out, the series takes a dark tone, something that seems to go against the fantasy genre of the time (and long before anti-heroes would be the rage in the media of TV and movies). Our hero is flawed, mean, angry and destructive, yet you still feel some sympathy for him. And for me, this was made the series stand out besides the other sword and sorcery tomes that came out between 1975 and today.

After White Gold Wielder was released in 1983, Donaldson went on to write other books, including the two-book Mordant's Need series, The Mirror of Her Dreams (1986) and A Man Rides Through (1987). He also penned the science fiction themed Gap Cycle (The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story -1991, The Gap into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge -1991,  The Gap into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises -1993, The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Order -1994, The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die -1996). He also wrote a series of mysteries, The Man Who Killed His Brother (1980), The Man Who Risked His Partner (1984), The Man Who Tried to Get Away (1990) and The Man Who Fought Alone (2001) under the pseudonym of Reed Stephens, which was derived from his full name, Stephen Reeder Donaldson. According to Donaldson, who "always hated" writing under a false name, he was forced to by his publisher, Ballantine Books. Back then, apparently, the publisher felt “that readers would feel betrayed if books of such different genres were published under the name of a single author” (though, ironically, when the books were released under Donaldson’s real name in later years, they never caught on with the readers of either fantasy or mystery. While I don’t think this proves Ballantine right, it does reflect the thinking of that time when publishers made sure their bestselling authors stuck to what made them famous in the first place. But every writer must go where the muse takes them and sometimes they just have to bust out of the category publishers sometimes force them into -see Ann Rice and J.K. Rowling, both modern day authors faced with challenges of their evolutionary writing life –breaking out of the “brand” that made them household names).

Then in 2004, twenty-one years after White Gold Wielder, Stephen R. Donaldson released The Runes of the Earth, the first book of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Part of me wondered why, after two decades, Donaldson felt the need to revive this series (he was quoted at the time saying he always planned to continue the series, but felt he needed to become a "better writer."). While he was, by all accounts, a successful full-time writer, he also seemed to understand (unlike Brooks or Anthony) that all series must come to an end, and when I read White Gold Wielder, I felt he concluded the series. Sure, maybe I wondered what became of Linden (a character that became prominent in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), his son Roger and his ex-wife Joan, but I never lost sleep over it. 

And for me personally, I had moved on from reading the genre. I spent so much of the 1980s trudging through it, I grew bored with the endless quests, plus by the 1990s, those series of books began to expand into multiple volumes (I still think that series in this genre should be no more than three books per cycle. Of course, there were –as always- a few exceptions to my three book rule, Harry Potter being one of them ), which meant spending years waiting between books. By the late 90’s and into the ‘naughts, I was expanding my reading beyond just fantasy and science fiction.

But when The Runes of the Earth came out in 2004, I pledged I would not read this new four book cycle until all the books where out so I could read them in one fell swoop.  But as thing always happen, I kept putting the series off. Though I bought the first two books in the new series, I stored them away, always pondering if I should go back and re-read the first six books in the series again (this is something I struggle with, much like Stephen King, I feel re-reading books is a bad use of my time –it means I’m missing out on other things). I missed book three in 2010 and since being out of the book business since September of 2011, I was unaware Donaldson completed the series last October with book four, The Last Dark.

So that brings us to today. While I have so many other books on my shelf –some as recent as The Goldfinch and the paperback version of Gone Girl –I’ve decided to forgo re-reading The First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and plunge into these next four books that make up the final chronicles. Of course, Donaldson does give readers like me a “what’s gone before” synopsis of the first six books and I’ve decided that is all I need.

Now I hope to spend at least most of May and early June reading this series (I’ve got the new Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes and the next book in The Expanse series, Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey coming then).  The sad part of my life is that I will never have enough time to read everything I want because work, TV, the internet and friends will distract me. I hate it, but the reality is, as Lemony Snicket said “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read.”

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