Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

So, I finished re-reading (for the first time in many years) Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. I must have enjoyed them to a certain degree, because I'm starting in on the Second Chronicles. My opinion is not uniformly positive, though. Here is what I observe:

Donaldson's language does occasionally become a painful impediment to enjoying the books. While his metaphors sometimes crackle and pop, but sometimes they just like there and ooze like... like... well, like something that lies there and oozes. I guess this is known as "overreaching." But all it really proves is that Donaldson had ambitions his writing wasn't always able to live up to.

Readers have roundly mocked his vocabulary. The use of "clench" is definitely noticeable. The Ur-Viles are always "roynish." It has been over twenty years and I still haven't looked up that word to see what it means. I just don't want to be bothered; it doesn't seem like the payoff will be worth the effort. I like the way Donaldson uses rare and unusual words sometimes. But, yes, it can get a little tiresome.

It would be simple if I could say the same thing about Covenant -- that his character, his philosophy, and his approach to life are tiresome, and two-dimensional. He certainly is ripe for parody. However, looking closely at what is actually there on the page, as opposed to what I might remember from my first reading, or take away from watching the girls gripe on Fantasy Bedtime Hour, I can't actually say very many bad things about Covenant, the character. If you are willing to walk with Donaldson and take the story at face value, you will uncover within the fantasy storyline a work of serious moral philosophy. Covenant is not, in fact, self-parodying, although at times he comes perilously close. He's more complex than that. His character is self-aware, and keenly aware. He knows that his attitude is hostile. He knows that the people he meets in the Land don't like him, even if they do pin their hopes and futures on him. He doesn't know how to use his white gold ring to save the land. It isn't any fun to know that you simply can't meet the expectations others place upon you.

But it's more complicated than that. Covenant's approach to the land is constantly changing. He engages in, and then breaks, a series of internal contracts, or bargains -- he's go along so far, but no farther; he'll believe in X, but not Y; he'll follow this rule, but not this other one. It's a story of a mind actively engaging with an impossible situation, and a struggle to keep up with changing circumstances. It is, to me at least, quite philosophically interesting. It also strikes me as, strangely, a realistic portrayal. The fact that he says "hellfire and damnation" all the time, and that the descriptions of his misery start to sound the same after a while, doesn't erase that.

There is a lot of minor homage (or whatever you may wish to call it) to Tolkien -- more than I recall from my first reading. Covenant and Foamfollower travel together to Hotash Slay and Foul's Creche where they are separated. Like Frodo and Sam. Covenant thinks Foamfollower is dead, but it turns out he isn't. Like Sam and Frodo. Covenant is eventually captured and separated from Foamfollower. Like Frodo and Sam. There's some hot lava involved. A magic dingus is destroyed. These critical events go on while a big battle and taking place elsewhere. Donaldson also must have been very taken with Treebeard and the other Ents and Old Man Willow. He doesn't copy them, but we have Forestals, magical beings, perhaps human once, who care for the enchanted forests.

The way that the storylines separate and reconnect, in both The Illearth War and The Power that Preserves -- is quite reminiscent of Tolkien. That technique -- leaving one storyline for many pages, leaving the reader to wonder what is happening -- seems to have fallen out of favor. A lot of novels I read these days seemas if the separate storylines were written as completely separate narratives, edited, and then interleaved in short segments like shuffled cards. Stephen Baxter's recent novel Coalescent is structured this way. The results sometimes don't work all that well -- it is hard for the story to build momentum. Donaldson builds momentum, although a bit unevenly.

It's a relentlessly grim tale. Some chapters drag a bit, but there are some that really sing. In particular, in the middle book, The Illearth War, the narrative leaves Covenant for a while and we follow Hile Troy. This is a bit of a relief, frankly. The storyline then becomes quite fast-paced. We leave Covenant's relentless pessimism and follow along with Troy, who has a different problem -- he has made a plan of battle, but the plan requires nearly superhuman endurance and speed on the part of his army.

Troy's plan is in trouble from the very beginning -- he doesn't get as much notice that Foul's army is attacking as he hoped for, and when he gets a chance to perceive the size of the army, he finds that it is much larger than he anticipated. In other words, his plan is unrealistic and hopelessly optimistic, the result of thinking in terms of ideal conditions and mathematical models. But unfortunately it is also pretty much the only possible course of action. To Troy, the land is all too real; he wants desperately to do the right thing. Unfortunately the circumstances of make success only a marginally better outcome than failure.

Troy is supposedly also from our land, although at the start of The Power that Preserves, Covenant calls the Department of Defense and tries to find out if they have, or had, an employee by that name. The results are inconclusive. We're left wondering if the Creator recruited Troy from our world, or some other world. If I recall correctly we will meet Hile Troy again in the Second Chronicles.

Besides Troy's story, the account of the Bloodguard's mission to Seareach to find out what has become of the giants is quite a wonderfully horrible story. I would put Donaldson's writing in this section of the story up against just about any fantasy writing out there. If you liked this part of the story you can find a deleted chapter from this story in the separately published book, Gilden-Fire. It is also included in Donaldson's story collection Daughter of Regals.

Donaldson raises the stakes in the third volume, The Power That Preserves. The chickens come home to roost as we find out what became of Lena. Covenant's rape of Lena in Lord Foul's Bane is not without consequence. The consequences of that action in fact pervade every aspect of the later story. The Land in this part of the story seems like a physical manifestation of Covenant's guilt and self-hatred. The consequences are perhaps even more terrible a punishment for Covenant, because they are all so indirect. Covenant is not the only one made to suffer for his actions. But all our actions have consequences, and at some point the consequences pass beyond the point where we are still responsible for them. And often times the hardest part is learning to forgive ourselves.

Covenant doesn't forgive himself, exactly, but he does, finally, give everything he has to the Land, even though he both does and doesn't believe in it. I submit that if you really consider hard just what would happen to you, were you transported to an impossible world where magic works and evil is tangible, you would be hard-pressed to do better. Does the story and the telling of it have its weaknesses? Of course. But I submit that the moral depth to the work, and the uneven beauty of its writing, gives the Chronicles its lasting value.

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