Saturday, December 24, 2011

The most important failure in modern fantasy fiction Pt 1

Yes, as part of my attempt to reboot my reading habits by going back to the old school, I've tackled the First Thomas Covenant trilogy by Stephen Donaldson. This is part one of a four page sanity-preserving peace I'll be writing over the Christmas break. :-)

Warning: this is more reflection than review - but here nonetheless be massive spoilers.

For a proper plot synopsis, see the Wikipedia articles for:


I have the impression - rightly or wrongly - that the Covenant books are something of a Marmite proposition for fantasy fans. For some, they seem to inspire the kind of intense love you can witness at the Kevin's Watch discussion board. For others, the flaws in the series prove impossible to overlook.

But let's start with why Covenant still matters to anyone who takes fantasy fiction seriously.

"Comparable to Tolkien at his best"

The editions of the First Chronicles I cut my teeth on came with this millstone of a quote. In the best traditions of back cover blather, it is, inevitably, completely right and utterly wrong at the same time.

Covenant is many things, but it's most obviously a subversion (and sometimes a celebration) of the clich├ęs of high fantasy which had grown up in the decades post Lord of the Rings. Quests miscarry their purpose. Magic McGuffins lare turned against their users. Sometimes the cavalry doesn't arrive in time.

In particular, the Chronicles takes aim at the John Carter power-trip in fantasy fiction. The all-too-common plot of a modern man finding himself (literally and metaphorically) in a fantasy world, becoming the champion of light against the dark, victorious and loved, is adolescent wish-fulfilment in print. A book has to be very good these days for me to tolerate this trope.

In contrast, Thomas Covenant is a very reluctant champion for the land (named, with endearing/infuriating literalness, The Land) to which he finds himself transported. A grieving writer suffering from leprosy, with intense distrust of himself and others, who has no desire to be the prophesied saviour of another world he barely believes in, Covenant retains his complex modernity in a world of apparently simple moral choices.

To an extent unique in fantasy, Donaldson is concerned with ethics and the problem of acting rightly and is using the Chronicles as a vehicle for exploring his views. Where the comparison with Tolkien holds true is that they are both deadly serious about their respective literary projects.

In the Chronicles Covenant is presented with a very Buddhist or existentialist conundrum: is an illusory but oh-so-seductive world something worth fighting for or a threat to one's integrity as an individual?

Time and time again, the supporting characters of Good - the Lords (think less feudal barons, more medieval Jedi) of the Land and their allies either ask him for aid or present him with yet more evidence of the beauty and virtue of the world to which he has been summoned.

This weight of prophetic expectation is doubled by the 'fact' that Covenant is walking around with the fantasy equivalent of the Pershing missile on his hand - his white gold wedding ring - and has no idea how to use it.

Everything he can do is overwhelmed by its potential significance and his potential responsibility for the Land and the lives of those who live in it.

“And he who wields white, wild magic gold is a paradox For he is everything and nothing Hero and fool Potent, helpless And with one word of truth or treachery He will save or damn the earth Because he is mad and sane Cold and passionate Lost and found”

At this stage in his writing career, Donaldson's prose poetry varies wildly, but I like to think that Albert Camus would approve of this statement of Covenant's potential.

Another recurring factor here is the insistence in The Chronicles - again, rendolent of Buddhist thought - that we are undone by our passions, however noble. The supporting characters in the trilogy may have simplistic motivations in the tradition of heroic fantasy - loyalty to the cause of good, love of nature, pride in service. But Donaldson makes the point - repeatedly - that the extravagance of their virtue leads them into defeat and turns their own best weapons against them.

Got warrior monks (the Bloodguard) in the service of the Land who draw power from their unbroken vow for example? Then have the big bad (a largely shapeless force of corruption rejoicing in the name of Lord Foul) cause them to break their vow and dissolve their order. Simples.

In a situation of such moral hazard, can Covenant be blamed for his caution?

Coming up later in the Christmas break

- Part 2 - Psycho-geography
- Part 3 - Towards a progressive idea of fantasy
- Part 4 - The Many Flaws of the First Chronicles

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