Saturday, March 15, 2014


I had read the first six books in the CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT some time ago, and recently considered trying to work through the last four books in the series.  To refamiliarize myself with the series, I reread the first two books in the series, LORD FOUL'S BANE and THE ILLEARTH WAR, but then got distracted by other reading-demands and tabled that idea.

What still impresses me about Donaldson's epic-- spoilers ahead for anyone who doesn't want to see endings discussed-- is that both his central character and his story have something of an "anti-Tolkien" tone to them. 

To be sure, Tolkien's "Middle-Earth" is almost completely cut off from anything resembling the modern world, while the Covenant books involve a modern Earthman voyaging to a magical land.  In this the CHRONICLES show a greater resemblance to C.S. Lewis' Narnia book than to LORD OF THE RINGERS, or even to Joy Chant's RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN.  At a convention I happened to ask Donaldson if he'd read RED MOON, and he said that he had.

But to pursue the RINGS connection anyway-- Tolkien's cosmos, far more than Narnia, appeals because it transmits the view of a pristine pre-industrial world.  Donaldson also gives the reader such a world, called simply "the Land."   However, the presence of outsider Thomas Covenant immediately calls its perfection into question by introducing an outsider who doubts the Land's veracity, because Covenant is a leper who constantly fears losing control of his own senses and/or sanity.

Book 2, THE ILLEARTH WAR, is particularly interesting with respect to one of the Land's characters, High Lord Elena.  Her magic nominally protects the Land from the satanic influence of the story's villain Lord Foul, but she has a psychological weakness one won't find in Tolkien and Lewis.  Without going into too many details, Elena was the offspring of Covenant, who united-- under less than ideal circumstances-- with Lena, a woman of the Land.  The long absence of her father results in what a psychologist might call an "overvaluation" of the father, so that when Covenant returns, she falls in love with him.  Happily, Covenant does not reciprocate, but Elena's father-complex crops up at the climax.  She uses her vast magical powers to revive the spirit of one of the Land's foremost defenders, Lord Kevin, intending to pit against Lord Foul's forces.  Instead, this "father-spirit" proves utterly unable to overcome the evildoers, and instead is turned against Elena, killing her.

I try to avoid analyzing characters too much in terms of sociological developments of the period, since I believe that it's generally wrong to see fiction as a direct representation of those developments.  But I do think that the 1970s, when Donaldson wrote and published these books, was dominantly a time when many of the cultural narratives had broken down, whether as a result of the counterculture or the Vietnam War or what have you.  This concluding scene in ILLEARTH WAR, whatever it meant to Donaldson in terms of his overarching theme, suggests to me an eroison of the idea of a stable savior-figure-- specifically, that of a benign father-figure who rides in and conquers the bad guys.   However, without my having read the entire ten-book series, this is at best a rough hypothesis.

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