The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

S. R. DonaldsonThe final book in the Thomas Covenant series will be published this October, and I’m looking forward to reading it. It will be the tenth book in the series (an initial trilogy (1977-1979), a second trilogy (1980-1983), and a final tetrology (2004-2013)). Somebody asked me why the author would write another series after so many years had past, and why he wrote so many Covenant books. I answered that, like Agatha Christie, who wrote dozens of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple books,  he probably thought of more ideas to explore and he likes to write and make money at it; and, if readers enjoy it, why not?

Stephen R. Donaldson’s books are not for everyone; in fact, if I picked up Lord Foul’s Bane today, and read it for the first time, I would not make it to the end of the book. But in 1977, when the novel was first published, I was spellbound by the magic inherent in The Land, the peoples it was populated with (Stonedownors, Woodhelvennin, Ramen, Giants, Lords, and Haruchai/Bloodguard), the creatures that roamed it (Forestals, Ranyhyn, Waynhim, Cavewights, Ur-viles, and others), and the many memorable characters in the books (Saltheart Foamfollower, Lord Mhoram, Bannor, Atiaran, High Lord Elena, Brinn, Grimmand Honninscrave, etcetera). It is a series that must be accepted with its faults and appreciated for its virtues.

The protagonist of the series, Thomas Covenant, is a bitter man, a leper who is shunned by the people in his (our) world, but he is transported to, and adopted by, an alternate reality, The Land, a place he cannot believe in because it will break down his careful guarded defenses, the belief system he must maintain to survive as a leper. Covenant has been referred to as an anti-hero, but I think he is a flawed man who is unable to cope with his situation; as the series progresses, he grows, and ultimately transcends his faults and limitations. He was characterized with too much recursive pathos, but Donaldson’s other characters provide a sense of balance.

The Illearth War; cover detailThe Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

The series had a rough start: the writing was uneven and the beginning of the series was shocking (especially the behaviour of the protagonist when he first enters The Land); nevertheless, once I was immersed in the book, Donaldson’s imagination and world-building provided a pleasurable reading experience. I read these books while in college (over thirty years ago) and they haven’t aged well, but that shouldn’t detract from my original experience.

Lord Foul’s Bane (1977) is the weakest novel in the series and Thomas Covenant performs a deplorable act that has repercussions throughout the books. There are some insipid sections, and I had a difficult time warming to Covenant’s character, but managed to find enough interest in the novel to convince myself to read the next installment when it came out. Donaldson did a remarkable job of world building, and I was able to overlook the flaws inherent in the writing (and the annoyingly repetitive self-loathing of the main character) in order to revel in the stunning beauty presented in the best passages. I even began to like  Covenant a little.

The Illearth War (1978) is my favourite Covenant book. Some of the unevenness is still present, but I could see The Land in my mind’s eye. I could smell it and taste it, and I felt what the characters felt. I disliked Hile Troy at first, but he was instrumental to the success of the story, and his transformation was fitting. When I re-read The Illearth War years later, I found that the writing hadn’t aged well, but I still felt the emotions of the younger me.

The Power that Preserves (1979) was an appropriate end to the trilogy. I sometimes wish Donaldson had stopped here.

White Gold Weilder; cover detailThe Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the first book of this series in the bookstore window: I had very little money, but shelled out the full asking price for a hardback edition. Donaldson’s writing had improved, but he still produced the same agonizingly repetitive patterns of despair in his central characters (Covenant, and a new character from his reality, Linden Avery).

The Wounded Land (1980). At first I disliked the novel and what had been done to The Land, but after a while I settled into the tale and enjoyed it. The novel was, in many ways, superior to Lord Foul’s Bane, and possibly better than The Power that Preserves. Linden Avery might be even more angst-ridden than Covenant was in the first trilogy, which annoyed me, but Donaldson’s imagination overcame my frustration (once again, I was able to accept the book’s faults and appreciate its virtues).

The One Tree (1982) is my favourite of The Second Chronicles (interesting: in both trilogies I enjoyed the second book the most). Donaldson’s imagination was stretched to new heights and several new beings were introduced; the Sandgorgons, in particular, were inspired creations.

White Gold Wielder (1983) was, again, a fitting end to a trilogy; it wasn’t the best in the series, but it was successful and provided a satisfying ending.Against All Things Ending: cover detail (the Harrow)

  

The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

Twenty-seven years after the first book was published, Donaldson decided to write a third series. I tried to be ambivalent, but the series was apparently too important to my inner geek to ignore, so I stepped back into Thomas Covenant’s world for one final set of adventures. I was both thrilled and disappointed: Donaldson’s writing had improved, but his worse tendencies remained (repetitive, over-the-top angst and despair). I also had a difficult time warming to the new characters in the series: they are heroic, but they didn’t hook me like the characters in the previous series (perhaps this has more to do with my age than the material). Donaldson put a lot of craft into the series: he used more thesauric language than ever before; he tends to use a handful of archaic/obscure words too often, as always, and the story drags at times. Even so, I persevered…

The Runes of the Earth (2004). There is a lengthy (>100 pages) explanatory section at the beginning of the book that is an attempt, I assume, to make this a standalone series, though I think it may fail in that regard. Thomas Covenant has a very small part in this book (he doesn’t appear until late in the novel); Linden Avery is the protagonist. Unfortunately, her character is too angst-ridden to maintain the story throughout: it bogs down in a few sections, and the plot is a bit convoluted for a casual reading experience. I was not a big fan of what the Haruchai or The Land had become; but, all-in-all, a decent start to the series.

Fatal Revenant (2007). This offering is an improvement on the first book, and the introduction of the Insequent is intriguing. A heavy layering of detail obscures the story at times, and the angst is over-the-top, but I felt that the series was finally getting some legs (although I kept wondering if Donaldson really requires four books to tell the story).

Against All Things Ending (2010). There were sections that were excellent, and others that dragged; but, after the salvos at the conclusion of the book, I think Donaldson is finally getting to a point where the series will open into something excellent. I haven’t decided whether this or Fatal Revenant is the better book, but I’m hoping that the final installment will knock my socks off and make me re-read the first three.

The Last Dark: cover detailThe Last Dark (October, 2013). I’ve pre-ordered it, and will share my thoughts after reading it.

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