Friday, May 11, 2012

The Reading List: The Thomas Covenant Trilogy

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever
by Stephen R. Donaldson

I. Lord Foul's Bane  (The Red One)
II. The Illearth War   (The Blue One)
III. The Power that Preserves  (The Green One)

This is neither here nor there, but one of my strongest memories related to the Thomas Covenant Trilogy is from maybe sixth or seventh grade. I was reading it on a school bus to or from some event, and a grown-up I didn’t know looked over the seat, saw the cover of Lord Foul’s Bane, and asked “Why don’t you read children’s books?” I found this a difficult question to answer. I remember the moment vividly. Having been asked why I didn’t read below my abilities – essentially, having had it pointed out as peculiar that I wasn’t taking an intellectual dive – was my first intimation that there were fully functional and even fully competent adults around me, who were basically dummies.

An alternative explanation for this incident, looking back at it now, is that the woman had herself read the trilogy and, surprised to see it in the hands of a young person, sought impulsively to protect him from the relentlessly grim world view that the Thomas Covenant books embody. Eh, maybe. But if that was the case, she was too late on the scene. I was already on my second time through the books.

I read them a third time in graduate school, basking on a sunny rock in the Alaskan summertime. The current reading was my fourth foray.

You know how there are books that you really want to like, in which you recognize true excellence, but that you can just never quite warm up to? The Covenant books, for me, are not quite like that. It’s the other way around. I really kind of want to dislike them, but can’t quite seem to get there. The writing, plotting, and alien ecology are not great, but they are consistently good. None of the characters are convincing enough that you feel you should care what happens to them, but you find yourself (by which I mean “I find myself”) continuing to press all the way through, consuming the red one, the blue one, and the green one in turn.

The Plot: So there’s this dude in small-town American named Thomas Covenant who contracts leprosy. He loses half of his hand along with his family and friends, and everybody in town hates his guts. He’s very bitter. And then, he is transported to another world, a place of magic, health, and country folk who are obnoxiously (to him and us both) decent and wholesome. Recognizing an escapist fantasy, he is initially very careless in his behavior. As the fantasy begins to prove oddly persistent and convincingly detailed, he becomes angry, remorseful, confused, and riven with self-loathing. It doesn’t help matters that he’s kind of a jerk by nature.

This dream-world in which he finds himself is in the midst of a titanic struggle between the powers of good and evil. The good guys see in Covenant a reincarnation of a legendary figure of the past, and recognize his “white gold” wedding ring as an instrument of mammoth magical power. They want his help in fighting the bad guys, who are indeed very, very bad. He doesn’t want to get involved, however, because he feels that to acknowledge the reality of his dream world would be to abandon himself to insanity.

Tom Covenant v. Tom Bombadil

I think the reason why the Covenant books appealed to me as a kid was that they were so unlike Tolkien. Which is not to say that I didn’t love Tolkien, but rather that the fantasy genre was, at that point in time, completely saturated by The Lord of the Rings and its many lesser derivatives. There was not much I had read that wasn’t a bunch of selfless, virtuous guys (elves, dwarves, wizards, what have you) on a quest for weapons of power to use against some version of the dark lord. In this context, the character of Tom Covenant was bracingly different: not virtuous, not all that interested in questing, and a real-world human to boot. Tolkein’s Frodo and Donaldson's Thomas Covenant both walk hundreds and hundreds of “leagues” on ring-related missions, but where Frodo does it out of his love of right and trust in Gandolf’s wise authority, Covenant does it because he’s basically spineless and, although an inveterate complainer, he doesn’t know how to say “no.”

With fantasy having had thirty more years to develop, I’m less impressed now by Stephen Donaldson’s rebuttal to Tolkien than struck by his failure to fall further from the tree. For as much as the mood and characters of this trilogy are different from Lord of the Rings, the underlying bones are awfully similar. A bucolic land must resist the encroaches of an overinflated figure of pure evil, and only the power held in a ring – a ring! – which is in the possession of a naïve nobody can turn the tables. Even the narrative arc through the three volumes is nearly identical. Behold:
  • Book I: A diverse questing party under the leadership of a magic-user forms around the ring-bearer; they run into trouble in underground caverns but escape in the end.
  • Book II: As war erupts, the party divides in two parts; one will directly confront the enemy, while the other will endure strange perils in the mountains.
  • Book III: Things look pretty grim at the siege of the last remaining city of the Good Guys. Fortunately, the ring-bearer more or less accidentally destroys the dark lord’s source of power!
In retrospect, it’s just a really interesting comment on fantasy literature up to that time that such a faithful reiteration of the Tolkien story, which incidentally also packs close allegories of elves, dwarves, wizards, and Nazgûl, was initially seen (and not just by me, mind you,) as the first radical departure from Tolkien. Even the writing style imitates Tolkien’s dusty, faux-archaic presentation and vocabulary, although without really attaining his dry (Donaldson would say “sere”) epic gravitas. Also like Tolkien, Donaldson throws in whole pages of dreadful poetry and songs, but I skip over that stuff and I assume that you do too.

The Real Problem of Thomas Covenant

Many people have trouble getting past the character of Covenant, and this is understandable. He is – I can’t really think of a better word – surely one of the more dickish central characters in all of literature. His continuous frettings and grumblings and callousness are certainly grating to that part of you that wants to “identify” with a “likeable” character. Then too, his reaction to leprosy and to his treatment by the world seem completely overcooked and unrealistic – until, irritatingly, we learn that Steven Donaldson’s father was a doctor who devoted much of his career to the treatment of leprosy, so maybe Donaldson Jr. knows what he’s talking about.

My own pet peeve about the Covenant character is that, through three books of being told that his wedding ring is the most powerful object in the world, and even when he begins to buy into the reality of that world, he never expresses the slightest interest in how it might work. What it might be used for. And that doesn't ring true to me. Even someone who doesn’t have any interest in power, even someone who actively wants to avoid the responsibility of power – I think that if enough people mentioned to them that the most powerful artifact in the world happened to be attached to his hand, he would eventually say “Huh. How does that… work, exactly?"  I can deal with ol’ Tom as an unlikeable character, because that’s how his artist intended him. As such an oddly uncurious character, he doesn’t seem fully human somehow.

There is at least one additional trilogy of books about Thomas Covenant and his adventures in "The Land," as it’s called. I read it as a kid, but disliked it for what I remember as a depressing mood of pervasive despair. Since this first trilogy is nothing if not suffused with a depressing mood of pervasive despair, it’s almost hard to imagine how the second series managed to up the ante.

The Covenant books are, despite their flaws, essentially a pretty good genre read. They were probably important, too, in helping the genre start to escape the shadow of its too-dominant twentieth century master. But I suspect this reading was my last go-around, and I don’t think I’ll wade into the second series. Other worlds await.


Cartophiliac said...

I thought the ending of the third book was very satisfying. I loved the way the bad guy was defeated... but then it was ruined when I learned he'd be back for the second trilogy. So it wasn't an effective win after all... I couldn't finish the fist book of the second trilogy.

You assessment of Covenant as the "anti-hero" is spot on.

Elizabeth said...

I can't remember if I made it all the way through the three books in my youth - junior high or high school, and also probably on the bus - but do remember feeling pretty 'meh' about them, and if I did finish them, I certainly didn't read the second set. Thanks for the recap! Now I don't have to wonder if I should re-read them.

Voron X said...

Never got to this series as a kid.
My first post-Tolkein fantasy series was David Eddings' Belgariad. I really liked that. After that got "On a Pale Horse" by Piers Anthony, and proceeded to make my way through the rest of The Incarnations of Immortality, The Apprentice Adept (Phase/Proton) series (though I missed the last addition) and about 13 Xanth books.

Jenners said...

I KNOW I read Lord Foul's Bane as a kid but I never kept going. I barely even remember it. I recognized the title right away though. I'm not a big fan of rereading so I don't know if I'd check them out again … especiallly as I'm getting ready to embark on a modern fantasy journey with this whole Game of Thrones phenomenon.

Michael5000 said...

Jenners: Oh, the Ice and Fire books are much, much better than Covenant. I am in fact on record as saying that they are better than Tolkien, a statement I will stand by three years later. You are in for a treat, but... don't get too attached to anybody.

I happened to read I&F in tandem with Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror," which is a history of the 13th Century in Western Europe that even I, Mr. I-Don't-Read-NonFiction, loved. They resonated so well that I wrote to George Martin and asked if he was cribbing. He said he wasn't.

Michael5000 said...

E: I think Tom Covenant is only especially interesting at this point if you are thinking about the historical development of the fantasy genre. For a better read, I suggest you join Jenners on her modern fantasy journey! So to speak.

Elizabeth said...

I read the Game of Thrones series, at least as far as it had gotten, back in 2005/2006-ish, and remember enjoying it but also remembering its insanely complicated plot/character arcs and so when the last one came out I didn't have the energy to go back and get my mind wrapped around everything again. However, if I had HBO, I think I'd be watching the series; I hear it's pretty good, and more or less faithful to the books.

Voron X said...

The Ice and Fire books are on my to do list, too, and Season One of the HBO series is phenomenal. And a friend of mine who has read the series gives the adaptation good reviews.

Anonymous said...

Covenant is kind of dependent on the reader's personality to a larger degree than most as to whether the story is satisfying or not. The things you mentioned, for example, didn't bother me and the character made sense even if I thought he was an ass in the first trilogy -- I had a negative reaction to him, but I always understood him. I think the real heroes of the first trilogy are Mhoram and Foamfollower, tbh. It's too bad you weren't motivated to read the second series; I felt like Covenant redeemed himself in some ways, and the story was very thought out with a lot of tie-in to history from the first series. Sacrifice, redemption, Covenant finally learns something and moves beyond his unbelief. A lot of my own personal journey has been walking through the paradoxical eye of faith vs skepticism, though, so for me personally it was instructive.