Stephen R. Donaldson Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Stephen R. Donaldson 1947-

(Has also written under the pseudonym Reed Stephens) American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Donaldson's career through 1998.

Stephen Donaldson is a bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever is one of the most popular works of fantasy since J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The first trilogy in the series, which details the adventures of Thomas Covenant in the magical realm known as “the Land,” took Donaldson five years to write. Although it was turned down by almost four dozen publishers, the trilogy was a huge success when it first appeared in 1977. Donaldson has also written several other science fiction and mystery novels.

Biographical Information

Donaldson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 13, 1947. He spent twelve years of his childhood in India where his parents, who were medical missionaries, worked with lepers. Donaldson graduated from the College of Wooster in 1968. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he then worked at Akron City Hospital from 1968 to 1970. Donaldson became a teaching fellow at Kent State University in 1971. He then worked as an acquisitions editor and a writing workshop instructor before publishing the three volumes of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever in 1977. Donaldson won the British Fantasy Award in 1978 and the World Science Fiction Convention awarded him the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1979.

Major Works

Many readers and critics compare Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever to classic works of fantasy such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis. However, Donaldson's work is acknowledged as being much darker in tone. Thomas Covenant is a bitter, misanthropic leper who is magically transported into the world of “the Land” after being struck by a car. In the Land, Covenant is acclaimed as a long-lost champion in a titanic struggle against the evil Lord Foul. In The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever (1980–83), Covenant is accompanied by a female companion, Dr. Linden Avery, to the Land. In the second trilogy, several thousand years have passed since Covenant's last appearance. Covenant is forced to return when Lord Foul, once thought vanquished, reappears. Donaldson also wrote a series of three mysteries in the early 1980s, beginning with The Man Who Killed His Brother (1980), authored under the pseudonym Reed Stephens. Additionally, Donaldson has published a two-part fantasy, Mordant's Need (1986-87). Like Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever, Mordant's Need features an unusual protagonist. The heroine, Terisa Morgan, is so psychologically numb that she surrounds herself with mirrors to prove that she exists. A bumbling apprentice from the land of Mordant (where magic is done with mirrors) rescues Terisa from her depressing existence by bringing her with him back to his world. Donaldson's science fiction series, The Gap Cycle, began in 1990 with The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story (1990). The series concerns the adventures of the beautiful and clever Morn Hyland of the United Mining Companies Police. Hyland battles space pirates, internal political intrigue, and an ominous race of aliens through the five books of the series.

Critical Reception

Critics, for the most part, admire the imagination, vivid characterizations, and fast pace of Donaldson's fiction. “Though it's marred by a lot of breast-beating about leprosy and its seemingly unsympathetic hero's lack of humor,” writes Sam Frank, “[The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever work] because of colorful, cinematic imagery, exciting action scenes [and] epic and arcane language.” Some critics, including Frank, believe that The Second Chronicles was repetitious and that one “feels relieved rather than fulfilled when the whole arduous journey is finally over.” Academic criticism has been primarily limited to the comparison and contrast of Donaldson's work with the classics of fantasy and the psychological analysis of his characters. For example, Baird Searles, Beth Meachem, and Michael Franklin describe Covenant as “one of the most unusual protagonists in modern fantasy. He is a leper, bitter at the way fate and friends have treated him, and definitely not your typical hero.”