Fantasy Chronicles

Earlier this week I posted about all the TV (5.0!) that I watched while dog-sitting Bentley. There I mentioned how days were allocated to reading in hopes of reducing what has grown to be a rather long To-Read list. (Not to mention the books in my To-Buy list; I really do need to spend more time reading.)

Central to the plan was, at long last, finishing The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Specifically, finishing The Last Chronicles, the third (presumably final) set of the series (“set” because while the first two were trilogies, the third is a tetralogy, with four books).

Unfortunately, for various reasons (or various naps), I only managed to get halfway through the second book.

I wrote about this dark, complex series back in 2012, a year before the last book came out. It’s one of the more challenging tales I know, in good part due to a love-hate relationship with various aspects, but most especially the main character, Thomas Covenant.

Honestly, the first time I read the first trilogy, I was constantly torn between hurling the book across the room in disgust at this world-saving “hero” or continuing with one of the best damn fantasy novels I’ve ever read (to this day).

Yet, if you can get past the behavior of Thomas Covenant, and to some extent the melodramatic writing and arcane vocabulary, it’s beyond worth the price of admission.

For one thing, the world-building is extraordinary, easily standing out from the Gold Standard of Tolkien. (Most fantasy seems in reference to, if not actually derivative of, Tolkien. More on that in a bit.)

It’s also very intense on the human psychology axis. Donaldson’s writing generally is. His hard SF series, The Gap Cycle, is no exception, and is among the strangest hard SF I’ve ever read. (Again, totally worth it!)

The only fantasy I would say is all around better is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. But many other fantasies are more fun to read. Possibly nearly all of them.

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Anyway, I’ve had the first two sets in hardcover for a very long time, been a fan, but never got around to buying any of the third set. I switched to ebooks around 2016 and finally bought The Last Chronicles about a year ago.

Problem one is that they weigh in around 2000 epages each (roughly three times the hardcover page count, I think), so it was gonna take a chunk of time to read them.

Problem two is that I don’t read as much as I used to; I tend to fall asleep more readily, so those eight-hour read-fests just don’t happen. (I’m thinking new glasses might help. Eye fatigue might be an element. I’m due, anyway.)

I’ve also discovered that holding a thin iPad isn’t as good as holding a thicker book, even if the book is sometimes heavier. (And the iPad isn’t all that light, either.)

So I didn’t progress as far as hoped, and I’m still struggling with conflicts between the writing and certain aspects of character behavior or plotting, but despite all that I would still give it a Wow! rating.

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If you didn’t read that 2012 post I linked to above, you should now, because it provides a basic description of the series that I won’t repeat here. Alternately, you could read the Wikipedia entries.

With regard to spoilers, I’m inclined to think they aren’t really an issue with something like this. The hero wins, of course.

Here the story is more about the telling of the tale, and it’s that telling that makes The Chronicles such a rich tapestry. The plot has a lot going for it at a detailed level, but ultimately it’s a Hero’s Journey to Save the World.

Epic Fantasy as general popular literature is largely defined in reference to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, but has roots in fairy tales and mythology. The Medieval framing, along with elves, fairies, and other creatures, plus the element of magic, are all common fantasy elements.

The Chronicles, in some regards, are almost anti-Tolkien while at the same time paralleling key aspects of that great work.

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Both Tolkien and Donaldson center their tale around a singular ring of ultimate power. In Donaldson’s case, it’s the white gold wedding ring worn by Thomas Covenant. (His ex-wife, Joan, wields another, a major problem in The Last Chronicles.)

Both tales feature the Big Baddie, the Final Boss. Tolkien has Sauron, Donaldson has Lord Foul, The Despiser. A difference is that Sauron wants to rule; Foul wants to destroy everything (including our world). Only in doing so can he be free from his prison.

Companions are important in both, and they vary in each of Donaldson’s sets, and I think one place Donaldson really shines is with the inhabitants of The Land. There are Stonedowners, Giants, Haruchai, Ramen and Ranyhyn. Most such are human, although different “races” have different powers, and there are non-human races as well.

In Tolkien, Middle Earth; in Donaldson, The Land. Of course, there are maps. Most fantasies take place in a new place magically detached from our reality (Discworld being, I think, the Best of Breed).

A key distinction here (one used in other fantasies) is that our world does exist, and people from our world can be transported to the fantasy world. (The Spellsinger series, by Alan Dean Foster, for one example.)

Thomas Covenant is from our world, and so is Linden Avery, a co-hero in the second trilogy. In the third set, where Avery is the main character, even Covenant’s ex-wife and son end up in The Land (serving Lord Foul, who has kidnapped Avery’s adopted son).

An interesting aspect of the first trilogy is that it’s not entirely clear whether Covenant is, as he believes, hallucinating his experiences in The Land, or really there and it’s all real. The first set can be read either way (although there are some compelling clues it’s real).

In the second and third sets, it’s very clear that it’s all real.

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There is one huge difference between the themes of Tolkien and Donaldson.

Tolkien holds that power corrupts and cannot be wielded for good, ever.

Donaldson believes otherwise, that power, even ultimate power, can be wielded for good (although it’s a challenge that likely grows in proportion to the power; absolute power, absolute challenge).

One issue of the exercise of power is unintended consequences. It is almost impossible to do anything that is purely good; there are always collateral effects.

The more powerful the action, the greater the potential good, but necessarily the greater the potential side damage.

FWIW, I tend to side with Donaldson over Tolkien on this.

(The problem is it requires intelligence, understanding, and compassion, in the wielders, and strong combinations of those qualities seem rare. In a deep way, Donaldson is demanding we seek those qualities, a pursuit I wholeheartedly endorse.)

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I mentioned a kind of love-hate thing with both the main character, Thomas Covenant, and the writing style.

The problem with Covenant is that he’s a complete prick. He does have some reason for it, given his leprosy in the real world, and how his wife took their son and left him because of it. And how the people in town shun him (delivering free groceries just so he won’t come to town to shop).

He’s bitter and outraged at the world, and (in the first set) he believes he has slipped into hallucination to escape his woes.

He is faced with the challenge that his hallucination insists on its own reality and insists Covenant is the only hope of its survival. His doubt dooms The Land; his acceptance, he believes, dooms himself (by sinking into a fantasy from which he may never escape).

His humiliation and shame are only increased by how benevolently everyone in The Land treats him, seeing him as their savior, although Covenant often treats them with disdain or contempt.

Thomas Covenant is very probably the least likeable “hero” ever. It does add some challenge to reading the books. (It gets much better in the second and third sets with Linden Avery.)

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The other challenge is how melodramatic and generally lurid the writing is, often in the extreme. The first set, especially, seems to contain way too much (luridly worded) description of place and people.

It does add a certain flavor that’s kind of interesting, but it can get cloying, like a heavy sweet fragrance.

In this third set, I’ve gotten overly aware of frequent (and I think often suspect) use of “as if” to indicate moods and traits.

The other thing about the writing is the vocabulary. Lots of arcane and rare words (usually picked for being more melodramatic and lurid than the more ordinary words). The frequent use of “etiolated” rather than the pedestrian “pale” for one instance.

I can’t fault his use of them; it’s not like it’s blind use of a thesaurus. The words are well-chosen for his purposes. It’s just that it’s a high level of lurid, and you better bring a dictionary.

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Bottom line, a bit of a challenge (especially at first), but an extraordinary work well worth the effort. The world-building alone is good enough to bother.

It’s also one of the richest stories I know in terms of delving deeply into the psychology of its main characters. (Almost too much so for me, sometimes. Get on with the story, damn it!)

It also deals a lot with moral issues, fidelity, belief, courage, and compassion.

Truly adult science fiction!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “Fantasy Chronicles

  • Wyrd Smythe

    And now, back to the adventures of Linden Avery and her companions!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    My cousin read the first trilogy when we were teenagers. His description of it, particularly of Covenant, has always kind of kept me away. And I’m not a giant fan of florid writing that bogs the story down.

    But your description is enticing. If I get interested in fantasy again, I may check it out.

    I thought leprosy was curable now. Or does the real world part take place in the past?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The first trilogy came out in the 1970s (and the writing may have been even earlier). The real world settings are rural and timeless enough that they could easily date even earlier than the 1970s.

      Donaldson’s father was a medical missionary who worked with lepers, so no doubt Donaldson is leveraging that past for his main character, and certainly leprosy is still viewed with mistrust by most.

      I’m not big on fantasy typically. It takes something special, something that goes significantly outside of Tolkien, which is why two of my favorites are the comedies, Pratchett’s Discworld and Asprin’s Mythworld. (Also Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series, which is hugely tongue-in-cheek.)

      The Chronicles aren’t funny. At all. I don’t think there is any humor therein. But they are definitely something special, if you can get through them.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It’s been a while since I read fantasy. I was much more into it when I was younger. I spent years studying Tolkien in particular, reading a lot of the Lost Tales and History of Middle Earth books his son put out. And also read diverse stuff from Howard, Vance, and Burroughs, as well as later writers like Eddings, Hobbs, and Martin.

        Tolkien definitely had a huge influence on the genre, although it doesn’t feel as pronounced today as it did 30 years ago. Martin’s story, for instance, while epic and medieval, is radically different from Tolkien’s, more in line with Howard’s themes than anything.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Fantasy doesn’t have that great a share of shelf space in my library, either. The notable exception is Pratchett’s Discworld with The Chronicles and Spellsinger to place and show. Tolkien’s Ring and Hobbit, of course, though I never glommed on to them as my peers did. (Let alone how you did!)

        Other than that, it’s mostly some Zelazny and some Saberhagen. Some of the Asprin Myth Adventures books, too. (I did go through a Conan and Tarzan phase in grade school. I still have those paperbacks. Also the first dozen Man From UNCLE books! 🙂 )

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Well,… I finished it.

    The last 500 pages were a bit of a slog and the ending was something of a let down. (Some part of me was hoping Donaldson would let the Worm destroy everything and thus definitively end the series.)

    But, damn, that man can write. Not at all sorry I took the trip.

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