One thing I’ve appreciated about winter break throughout my university career is the freedom to read anything my fickle bibliophile heart desires. As the pace of my life has increased over the last couple of years, winter break is often the only time between September and April that I enjoy such autonomy, and I’m always eager to make the most of it.
A few months ago I picked up two books that are each collected trilogies (so actually six books) with the intention of reading them at some future point. Between my job, my schooling, and a dozen other responsibilities, I didn’t so much as peek within either of their covers until last night, when, finally on vacation, I determined to make up for lost time.
I’m 31 pages into the first one, and I’m already upset that I have been toiling so long and dreaming so little. A good book is a terrible thing; it makes you celebrate the human soul, mourn the human condition, and spoil yourself for anything of lesser quality.
The books are collectively known as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, written by Stephen Donaldson. The first was published in 1977, the last in 1983, and they are considered some of the best epic fantasy to be published in the period between Tolkien and the early 1990s.
I first read all six when I was 16 or 17 after I discovered them on the shelves of my high-school library. At the time I enjoyed them, but cared little for the deeper theological and philosophical discussions that made them best-sellers internationally. Thomas Covenant is not a classic fantasy protagonist, and his story has both a great and terrible power. It was not a power greatly appreciated by teenage me, who was more interested in magic, swordsmanship, and romance. While the Chronicles has all of these things, it is a difficult read for those stuck on the conventions of the genre.
At the beginning of the series Covenant is not a young farm-boy with mysterious parentage, and a yearning for adventure. Instead he is a middle-aged man in small town America (a fantasy writer, ironically), recently divorced and profoundly bitter. Shockingly (at least for fantasy buffs), he is not some kind of misunderstood and incredibly handsome genius, but is instead afflicted with a horrific disease: leprosy. He can’t feel his toes, nor his hands, and he has already lost two fingers to a gangrenous infection. Covenant, as the carrier of something disgusting, terrifying, and potentially contagious (this is 1977, remember), is almost universally reviled by his town. In the first scene his mere presence reduces a young mother to hissing insults, and Covenant reacts with a mantra that echoes throughout the book:
“Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded. Ashamed? Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean!”
To those with some knowledge of the history of leprosy, or of the ‘leper colony’ (a practice that was nigh global in an earlier age), the disease elicits an almost primeval fear (“In country after country culture after culture around the world, the leper has been considered the personification of everything people, privately and communally, fear and abhor”). Until very recently, leprosy could strike almost without warning, was untraceable and nearly untreatable, and consequently turned the sufferer into an instant pariah. Leprosy was the end of your career, your aspirations, your social status, and often your family. It created a social alienation so intense that sufferers often became self-destructive.
Covenant survives by cutting off the part of himself that dreams, that yearns, that rebels against the injustice of his affliction:
“He felt involuntarily ashamed to be the cause of such dismay. For a moment he could not recollect the conviction which had brought him into town. But almost at once he began to fume silently. Shame and rage were inextricably bound together in him. I’m no going to let them do this to me, he rasped. By hell! They have no right. Yet he could not so easily eradicate the lawyer’s expression from his thoughts. That revulsion was an accomplished fact, like leprosy—immune to any question of right or justice. And above all else a leper must not forget the lethal reality of facts” (10).
So when Covenant is transported to a fantastical Land, healed, and given the chance to change his fate, he faces a shattering dilemma. He believes he is in a coma, and that he will awake at any moment. If he sheds the rigid discipline and pragmatism required by his leprosy, he will destroy himself when he awakes; if he doesn’t, the magical Land before him will be destroyed. Still, if it’s all a dream, why does it matter?
Apparently, there is never a scene in the first trilogy in which Covenant is not present, so the audience never conclusively learns whether the Land does exist. Instead they must content themselves with the fact that the turbulence within Covenant’s character does matter, and the choices he makes will haunt him long after he awakes into the “real” world. The author, Donaldson, makes it very clear that Covenant’s character is incredibly important to the story of the Land, and Covenent is, in some sense, the Land personified.
“Put simply, fantasy is a form of fiction in which the internal crises or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they were external individuals or events,” says Donaldson in his 1986 publication Epic Fantasy in the Modern World. “Crudely stated, this means that in fantasy the characters meet themselves – or parts of themselves, their own needs/problems/exigencies – as actors on the stage of the story, and so the internal struggle to deal with those needs/problems/exigencies is played out as an external struggle in the action of the story. “
This is the secret to the success of Donaldson’s book. Good and evil are not external, predictable agents, but instead intimate and subtle aspects of the same persona. Covenant is chosen as the Land’s protector, but he hides the seeds of its affliction within himself. As Donaldson explains, “The villain of the piece, Lord Foul, is a personified evil whose importance hinges explicitly on the fact that he is a part of Thomas Covenant. On some level, Covenant despises himself for his leprosy … so [because fantasy externalizes the internal he meets that Despite from the outside; he meets Lord Foul and wrestles with him as an external enemy. “
To Donaldson, evil begins with self-loathing, since an individual who hates himself or herself must inevitably begin to reflect that hatred to others. Evil is an act of self-destruction, since one who tries to destroy himself or herself must inevitably be willing to destroy everything. Evil is within all of us, and all of us, like Covenant, are required to fight it into submission.
I have always loved the inter-connectedness of Donaldson’s books. Events have consequences that spread like ripples throughout the series. Covenant’s actions, for good or ill, return to haunt him again and again in a way that few authors have been able to imitate. A potent but messy example is a rape that Covenant commits in the first few chapters of the first book, an act that Donaldson labels as the ultimate sin, an “act of negation” against life itself. At the time Covenant still believes that he is dreaming, and his actions have no consequences. As well, for a man who believes survival depends on never dreaming of being healed, the healing of his leprosy within a dream reality nearly destroys him. Later in the series, once he accepts responsibility for the Land, he will meet his daughter through rape, as well as attempt reconciliation with her mother. His atrocity will influence his life and he carries the guilt forever, just as the consequences of his actions reverberate through his Land.
Obviously, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are not a light read, nor books that can be easily categorized. Some stop reading after the rape, unable to care any longer about a tortured Covenant, but that, I think, reflects a desire for an easier, simpler, and less powerful book. Donaldson, in writing a redemption story for a man who has deeply wounded, and has learned to wound in return, expresses something true about humanity. Donaldson argues for acts of creation, rather than acts of negation, acts that create beauty, truth, community out of internal joy, rather than fire, rape, and violence out of internal loathing.
I’ll end with an argument of Donaldson’s for why his works are ultimately tools of hope rather than futility:
“The approach of modern fantasy is to externalize, to personify, to embody the void in order to confront it directly. The characters in fantasy novels actually meet their worst fears; they actually face the things that demean them; they actually walk into the dark. And they find answers. Reasons for hope would be priceless at any time, but now they have become especially valuable because they are so rare. When we are farthest down in the void is when we most need to be reminded that, ‘Man is an effective passion.’”