The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Thomas Covenant

Stephen R Donaldson became a successor to JRR Tolkien, some would say, when he published the first two "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever" in the late 1970s. This is one of a short list of fantasy series that I have read twice; the first time while I was in the "Third Form" (Amer. transl: 8th grade) and the second time last November.

I didn't understand the gravity of some of its themes as a 14-year-old; in particular I didn't understand why Thomas Covenant couldn't come to terms with the fantasy(?) world into which he had been transplanted. I was reading it for the twist on Tolkien, for the other ideas which Donaldson brought to bear, and for the action sequences.

But there were points of this book with which I could identify: namely, Covenant's initial situation. In the two Chronicles, he starts out as a leper, and a number of attributes flow from that. First, he cannot fix the source of his problems. Second, he must periodically search his own flesh for blemishes. And third, he is an outcast. As an acned American-voiced eighth-grader just starting a five-year slog through the British public-school system, I knew this all too well. I'd have given anything to get transported to some place where I could be cured and where people cared about me - which is what happens to Covenant.

I've since discovered that Donaldson's books are an easy way to start flamewars on fantasy websites. The problem with Covenant is that when he gets to the Land he commits a rape. He doesn't believe that the Land is real (hence: "Unbeliever"), and people do all sorts of strange things in dreams when they want the dream to end (c.f. Groundhog Day). But many readers think that it says something bad about Covenant - and about Donaldson - that Covenant chooses this means to that end (which doesn't work anyway - again, c.f. Groundhog Day). If I had read this when I understood what rape meant, I wouldn't have finished the book. Fortunately (although it's no excuse) Covenant doesn't do it again, but we're left with the other muleheaded things that Covenant does along the way for the rest of the first two books.

Covenant eventually decides to stand up for himself, and by extension for the Land and for people in the real world, and in the third book he defeats Lord Foul after a journey through a wintry and polluted heart of darkness. Even though he's still a leper, and even though winning would mean that he had to go back to the real world.

I took from that that it didn't matter if I was unpopular or blemished or sickly. It didn't matter how damaged I was or thought I was. I still was going to beat Lord Foul, El Guapo or whatever the hell I was calling my obstacles that week. Bugging out of that hell-hole of a school was not an option.

It is not too much to say that Stephen Donaldson's books saved my life, or at least my school career (which started my life).

posted by Zimri on 20:20 | link | 0 comments

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