Stephen R. Donaldson,
The Second Chronicles of
Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever
The Wounded Land (Del Rey, 1980),
The One Tree (Del Rey, 1982),
White Gold Wielder (Del Rey, 1983)

Thomas Covenant returns to the Land after 10 years in his own world; since his last visit, several millennia have passed in the Land. Lord Foul has returned, holding the ruined Land under sway with a power called the Sunbane. Although still unable to reconcile himself with the possible reality that another Earth exists, Covenant once again joins forces with the High Lords against their foe.

The first book in the second trilogy, The Wounded Land, opens with Covenant setting off on the usual quest, this time in the company of Dr. Linden Avery, a woman from his world with messy baggage of her own. This time, Covenant does not possess the Earthsight power that he once had: it now belongs to Avery, who feels, sometimes exquisitely, the pain of the Land. Most of the book is a setup for the story to come.

In The One Tree, a band called The Search, composed of Giants, humans and huruchai, seeks to remake the Staff of Law and reinvoke the Laws of the Land. Covenant's control over the White Gold is growing along with the power of the wild magic itself, which, if left untethered, will open up time itself and spread Foul's power into the universe. Shifting emotional alliances here make for some spellbinding drama and fantastic, edge-of-the-seat tension.

The ultimate confrontation ensues in White Gold Wielder. Covenant has to extinguish the Banefire and face the Despiser himself, providing two climaxes to a complex and intriguing series.

Towards the end, the action becomes more melodramatic and harder to follow. The finely wrought intensity of the first series evaporates in the face of too much purple prose, and the overfocus on description ends up sinking the delicate writing. Also, much of the imagery and plot slides into rather generic fantasy fare. Comparisons with Tolkien are not unfounded; however, to be fair, there are many influences in Donaldson's work including Richard Wagner and Mervyn Peake. Donaldson could do worse than base his story on a framework of commonly accepted fantasy cycles.

It's the lead character who ends up being the most problematic aspect of the story. Covenant never really resolves himself into a hero or even a proper anti-hero. While most of Donaldson's characters shine with psychological complexity and a depth rarely seen in fantasy stories at that time, Covenant himself is still a bottomless well of self-loathing and despair, a quality Donaldson elucidates with Tolkien-like intensity -- though it's a state of being that's never really alleviated by a real redemption. At the end of the day, Covenant never reclaims his essential humanity. Covenant is not a flawed hero as much as a spiritually diseased man whose soul has become reflective of his body; he accepts the hero's role and rises to the occasion, fighting for principles like truth, justice and honor because those principles exist regardless of time or place and are worth fighting for.

He takes action, but never really grows as a character. Covenant's angst is unrelenting, his inner torment unleavened by any insight at all. His self-loathing is so ingrained that he ends up a flat, one-note character of little depth and complexity; indeed, at the end, it's hard to say if anything at all has moved him. There is no real sense that he overcomes any of the challenges that he faces, many of which are self-imposed.

While it may have been a difficult choice to use a rapist as a protagonist (or, perhaps, as the ultimate anti-hero) and while it may have given the sci-fi world the shakeup it needed at the time, the story's attempts to handle mature themes such as violence, degradation, self-loathing and redemption don't really shine through as anything more than pure concept. The character of Covenant becomes, by the close of the Chronicles, more iconic than realistic.

Mistakes notwithstanding, the Covenant books are still amazingly complex and quite detailed in their insight. Despite the hero's lack of real redemption and a slowness towards the end of the final book that almost sinks the story, the series is a fascinating ride that's better than most fantasy fare.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 21 August 2004

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