A few weeks ago I plunged into a blast from the past: Lord Foul’s Bane, the first novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson. Between now and then I re-read the entire series. All ten books. I’ll admit that my interest flagged a bit by the last novel, but I enjoyed the experience and probably won’t repeat it any time soon.
Donaldson has characterized the series as a Jungian tale of swords and sorcery: first you defeat your enemy, then your enemy defeats you, then you become him. In the first trilogy, Thomas Covenant, the least-likely protagonist in fantasy fiction, defeats Lord Foul the Despiser because of his leprosy: there’s no horror that Foul can inflict on him that he hasn’t already experienced, no amount of loathing the Despiser can heap on him that he hasn’t already inflicted on himself. His numbness, impotence, and self-hatred became his armor, and his wedding ring, which he still wore despite his wife’s divorcing him for being a leper, became a talisman of incredible power. In the final pages of The Power That Preserves, the third book in the trilogy, Donaldson ends the question of whether or not Covenant has imagined his experiences by having the Land’s Creator save his life in the so-called “real” world. Covenant has conquered his demons, saved something larger than himself, and developed some integrity along the way. He learned how to forgive and accept forgiveness. Cowardice is no longer an option in his life. Alienation isn’t something he has to embrace. His travails, one would assume, are over. He’s defeated his enemy.
Except he hasn’t. Not really. In The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Covenant is stabbed in the real world to save his estranged wife’s life and, instants later, returns to the Land with a companion: an emotionally-damaged doctor named Linden Avery, who becomes a co-protagonist in the series. In the first book, The Wounded Land, we learn that Lord Foul has recovered from the injury done to him by Covenant, and has altered the Land in horrific ways. Instead of the natural cycle of the seasons, the Land goes through rapid successions of drought, pestilence, torrential rain, and accelerated fecundity. If the Land’s independent existence was proven in the first trilogy, in this second trilogy we learn, however obliquely, that the Land’s fate and condition nevertheless hinge upon the subconscious of people like Covenant and Linden. The Land’s plight is an echo of Linden’s injured psyche. The second book, The One Tree, is arguably the best in the series, not least because it takes us far away from the Land to see other cultures, other strange beings. Here, Linden finds that, like all of us, she’s capable of both terrible evil and selfless acts of healing, which sets her on the road to becoming a whole person. The plot reverses the standard fantasy trope of a quest to save the world, because in the end they fail (or think that they failed), and everything turns out wrong. By the time they return to the Land in the third book, White Gold Wielder, Covenant has a plan, and executes it. What makes this interesting in a meta-sense is that the conflict in the book doesn’t arise from Covenant’s plan failing, or even coming close to failure: it’s that Linden is afraid of what will happen if he succeeds. Pleasantly for everyone involved, Covenant does succeed, and even though Foul kills him, Foul is subsequently defeated and Linden heals both herself and the Land. Linden’s tragic, awful history doesn’t have to define her. She can love and accept love, she can be vulnerable without being killed.
I’ll wrap up this analysis of the Thomas Covenant series another time, and will address the Last Chronicles then.