Stephen R. Donaldson Criticism - Essay

Christine Barkley (essay date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Donaldson as Heir to Tolkien,” in Mythlore, Vol. 10, No. 4, Spring, 1984, pp. 50-7.

[In the following essay, Barkley examines thematic similarities between the fantasy works of Donaldson and J. R. R. Tolkien, focusing on issues such as the thematic importance of community, the need for a changed view of death, and the role of heroes.]

Writing in the tradition and genre of J. R. R. Tolkien, Stephen R. Donaldson is the foremost epic fantasy writer of our time. Both Tolkien and Donaldson share many similar concerns: the importance of community; the necessity for recapturing the wonder of nature, of time, of space, of life itself; the ability to perceive in new ways, through heightened senses; the need for a changed view of death and immortality and of the role of heroes. Most important today, in our world which has lost faith in itself, is the emphasis both Tolkien and Donaldson give to our need for a sense of purpose, our desire to believe in an overarching universe controlled by a Divine Being with a plan not only for the world as a whole but with an individual purpose for every common man. Though the role of the artist and the duties of the hero have changed, the purpose for writing or reading fantasy remains clear: to alleviate our sense of alienation from each other, to restore the wasteland of our private lives and world, and to recapture a sense of wonder and purpose. Donaldson carries on the task Tolkien had begun, to reeducate a world that had lost sight of its past, to provide hope for an eventual catastrophe. Thomas Covenant, Donaldson's usually reluctant hero, is the logical heir to Frodo Baggins as the unlikely common man upon whom the fate of the world rests. There is a logical continuum between Bilbo, Frodo, and Covenant which explains the changes in their personalities as reflections of the changes in the world view of the different time periods of their creation. Following that progression helps to explain why Stephen R. Donaldson should be considered J. R. R. Tolkien's heir apparent.

Bilbo had luck, wit, sharp eyes, and also the moral characteristics of pity, fidelity, and courage. … He ran off to encounter his adventures without even a pocket handkerchief. But in his world no forethought was needed. His dangers were physical ones: trolls, goblins, wargs, spiders, unsympathetic elves, a dragon. In the world of The Hobbit one could avoid danger, as in the Battle of the Five Armies, by disappearing or just not getting involved. His encounters can all be safely called “adventures” for though he learns by them—for example, he uses on the spiders the disembodied voice trick which Gandalf had used to save them all from the trolls—they are not a necessary part of his psychological growth except to give him confidence. He doesn't have to learn or recognize anything about himself.

But by the time of LOTR, [The Lord of the Rings] Middle Earth had changed. Between Bilbo's time and Frodo's much had happened to the world. The “small business” Gandalf left the Company of dwarves to accomplish—driving Sauron from his strongholds in Dol Guldur—had become an open declaration of war. Though Bilbo was an admirable character in many ways, he was not the proper hero for the new age. Thus Tolkien created an heir for Bilbo in the person—or rather the hobbit—of Frodo. Frodo's qualifications were his perseverance, endurance, ability to inspire strong friendships—especially in Sam and Gollum, strong will power, a sense of moral obligation to the world—despite his innocence he took responsibility for situations not of his own causing (this was a quality Bilbo also exhibited, but on a smaller scale, as he often had to rescue the dwarves). Frodo was also totally innocent in acquiring the Ring.

Neither hobbit was a great fighter or warrior, yet certainly Bilbo was more accomplished than Frodo in physical combat; poor Frodo hardly ever does more than hack at his enemies' feet. But the dangers in Frodo's world are more than physical, though some physical ones remain: orcs, a cave troll, a Balrog, Gollum, distrustful elves or men, Sauron's armies. However, the most serious dangers are not physical: the Black Riders, the undead in the Barrow Downs or on the Paths of the Dead or in the Dead Marshes, the magic of the Old Willow or the power of the Huorns, Saruman's voice or Sauron's ability to compel responses through the use of the Palantir, and of course the power of the Ring, especially its power to corrupt the Bearer (and even those of the Fellowship) into desiring its power, into desiring the supposed safety of its “gift” of invisibility. From this we might conclude that physical prowess is becoming less important in the world-view of Middle Earth, though it still has a place. Moral or spiritual strength seems to be taking its place.

Bilbo, the food-and-cheer-loving hobbit, was not introspective enough to deal with the seriousness of Tolkien's new world-view for Middle Earth. Frodo, on the other hand, was the perfect hero for LOTR: he was aware enough of the outside world to feel concern and pity for the Shire should it lose its innocence; he was innocent of desire himself (even for gold or “adventures”); he was more cautious than Bilbo, procrastinating rather than rushing bravely forward (which may also have saved him some of the temptation Gandalf and Galadriel felt, wishing to use the Ring for good, when it cannot be used so). But Frodo's attributes are important not just because they were the ones needed to accomplish his quest, but because his new characteristics were needed to survive in the new world. His will power saves him at times that Bilbo's bravery would have gotten him in trouble.

And here we come to a fundamental question: why would Tolkien change the world-view of Middle Earth? He was the subcreator; he had control. The Hobbit was successful—so why tamper with success? Tolkien, of course, subscribed to the Declining World theory so deterioration was a necessary element of any change he would incorporate. But why the change from physical to spiritual dangers? I believe Tolkien's subcreation, Middle Earth, also changed in response to his recognition of changes in his real world and his acknowledgment (possibly unconscious) of something I consider axiomatic about great literature: any work of art—film, drama, but especially literature—must not only be universal, and in fantasy this means mythic, echoing age-old conflicts, but must also speak most particularly to its own time-bound audience to be great. It must address the issues, the concerns of its day. It must have something to say to its audience that has not been said before (possibly because it has not been needed), as well as studying in more detail earlier themes, problems our generation has not resolved yet. Each new age has its own fear. Tolkien recognized this in LOTR and Donaldson, I think, does this best of any fantasy writer today. This is the main reason that I claim Donaldson is Tolkien's spiritual heir. To show how Donaldson's works are not only universal but also reflective of our age, I would like to suggest the changes in our world-view from the time of Tolkien's creation of The Hobbit to LOTR and finally to Donaldson's of the Thomas Covenant trilogies. I also would like to suggest how these changes are incorporated into the subcreations.

Before World War II (the war to end all wars) completely shattered the illusion that World War I had been the war to make the world safe for democracy, at least one world-view with some prominence was the idealistic view that industrialized countries had a responsibility to spread civilization (some thought this meant Christianity) and commerce (prosperity) to the underdeveloped areas of the world via the Commonwealth (or “foreign aid” as we called it). This view was an outcropping of the idealistic 19th Century view of progress which stated that in some Darwinian manner the world was constantly improving, becoming some ideal state (the Advancing World theory). Tolkien is reacting against this. Though Tolkien was born in a Commonwealth country, South Africa, and was undoubtedly exposed to its tenets, he certainly didn't accept them all. However, just as Bilbo was certainly in favor of spreading the wealth of lonely mountain among the men of Dale, the elves of Mirkwood, and the dwarves, so England said it wanted to bring the standard of living in the third world countries up closer to their own level. And, Tolkien admitted the interdependence of groups upon each other (as seen in the trade barrels which traveled from the elven king's halls to Long Lake). In other words, many of the characteristics of the Commonwealth (simplified, of course, and without the political trappings) existed in The Hobbit.

But even before the publication of The Hobbit, the ideals of the Commonwealth era were being eroded and this is reflected in The Hobbit as well. E. M. Forster and Joseph Conrad were forcing us to acknowledge the ulterior motives which corroded such benevolent enterprises—the abuses possible—and the heart of darkness hidden within even the most idealistic Kurtz among us. Thorin's awareness of having done wrongly softens his death for us (as later Boromir's will as well), but it hasn't the same effect as Frodo's recognition of his own lust for power at the Cracks of Doom. Thorin's obsession for gold and especially for the Arkenstone is an exaggerated vice, but it isn't as fearful as the desire for power to dominate others, to control their will promised to the Wearer of the Ring. A heart of darkness was evident in Thorin, but it was not fully explored by Tolkien at that time nor was it as powerful as the force which threatened Frodo. So even in The Hobbit we had the beginning of Tolkien's recognition of the importance of facing the shadow-self. But in The Hobbit it was not the point-of-view character who underwent the soul-searching, and Thorin obviously did so off-stage. Frodo wasn't even the point-of-view character while his inner conflict was taking place—Sam was, but we see an outward expression of it filtered through Sam. Covenant, however, is center screen and in close-up when he must not only face the fact of his rape of Lena but must also recognize how similar his own act was to the obvious evil choreographed by Lord Foul (the attack on the wraiths at the Celebration of Spring, for example). So, the concerns of the first world-view incorporated into the Secondary World of that time, Bilbo's Middle Earth, are carried over to Frodo's and later to Covenant's time and are examined more fully each time. Each fantasy builds on the other and introduces new elements: new elements appropriate to its time period.

The time period of the creation of LOTR, slightly before and during WWII, found us in the real world concerned with the possibility of being dominated and controlled by a group of people calling themselves the Master Race and claiming superiority over us (and for a while exhibiting superior physical prowess). We weren't as concerned with the hoarding or redistribution of wealth (as in The Hobbit) as we were with the possible destruction of groups of people (the Jews) or ways of life (separate countries in Europe). These concerns are echoed in LOTR through Boromir's desire for aid for Gondor lest it be conquered by Mordor and the concerns of the hobbits and elves that life in the Shire and Lothlorien will not be as before.

In the Covenant trilogies there are similar concerns, especially in Illearth War and Power That Preserves, when Foul's armies headed by Giant Ravers attack the people of the Land. The destruction of (most of) the wraiths and hence the abandonment of the Celebration of Spring ritual and the diminution of the Ranyhyn herd seem to carry out the fear of a changed world, dreaded but not realized in LOTR. And, of course, the genocide of the Giants at Coercri fulfills our worst fears about the destruction of a whole people and an important culture. But the Declining World theory (for which the fading of Lothlorien was a poignant but gradual example in LOTR) is even more devastatingly exemplified by the changes that take place in the Land between the end of the first Chronicle and the beginning of the second. The fear of new generations losing the wisdom and beauty of the old (like the loss felt by the Fellowship in Hollin, Moria, and at the pillars of the Argonath, and by the ents in Fangorn) is shockingly realized in The Wounded Land when Covenant revisits Mithil Stonedown which has lost not only reverence for stonework but reverence for life as well. And, of course, the Clave can be seen to represent a successful domination of the Land by a “Master Race.” Once again, some of the concerns of the world when LOTR was written are examined within the fantasy world of that time and continue to be explored in fuller detail in the Thomas Covenant trilogies.

Our central concern today is no longer that we recognize within ourselves a secret desire for domination over others, over our environment, over death itself, in essence over God—and that we fear in others the capability for control over us. Not that these concerns no longer exist; they do. Experience is cumulative. We cannot go back to a previously possessed innocence. So any literature...

(The entire section is 5547 words.)

Gordon E. Slethaug (essay date Autumn 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “No Exit: The Hero as Victim in Donaldson,” in Mythlore, Vol. 11, No. 2, Autumn, 1984, pp. 22-27.

[In the following essay, Slethaug argues that the Covenant novels defy the traditional modes of “escapism” related with fantasy, as his protagonist is never truly allowed to “escape.”]

And he who wields white wild magic gold
is a paradox—
for he is everything and nothing,
hero and fool,
potent, helpless—
and with the one word of truth or
he will save or damn the Earth
because he is mad and sane,
cold and passionate,
lost and found.(1)

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” J. R. R. Tolkien counters the typically Freudian...

(The entire section is 5382 words.)

Matthew A. Fike (essay date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Hero's Education in Sacrificial Love: Thomas Covenant, Christ-figure,” in Mythlore, Vol. 14, No. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 34-8.

[In the following essay, Fike charts Thomas Covenant's growth as a character throughout the six novels of the Thomas Covenant series, highlighting the scope and quality of human love in Donaldson's fiction.]

Although Stephen R. Donaldson has begun to receive critical attention, much remains to be said about the major themes of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever. Gordon E. Slethaug, for example, rightly identifies Covenant's need “to go beyond himself so that he can perceive beauty and experience love in the...

(The entire section is 4419 words.)

W. A. Senior (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Significance of Names: Mythopoesis in The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 31, No. 3, 1990, pp. 258-69.

[In the following essay, Senior discusses the misleading nature of the seemingly simple, transparent use of names in The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.]

Although its protagonist is a diseased writer drawn from the twentieth century, and many of its inhabitants we associate most closely with the enchantment and magic of Faerie and with the romance genre, the world of The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever is primarily a mythic one. On one hand, Stephen R. Donaldson adopts and employs...

(The entire section is 5072 words.)

Matthew A. Fike (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nature as Supernature: Donaldson's Revision of Spenser,” in Mythlore, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 17-22.

[In the following essay, Fike argues that Donaldson parallels Edmund Spenser's pattern of “mercy tempering statute,” but adds that Donaldson “redefines law and examines its role in an earth-centered universe.”]

Once Edmund Spenser's knight of justice, Sir Artegall, has visited Mercilla's court and become attuned to the mercy she represents, he complements and qualifies the letter of the law, personified by the iron man Talus. Insofar as mercy participates in grace, Artegall now embodies the way in which a divine quality mitigates the...

(The entire section is 4559 words.)

William Senior (essay date Autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Donaldson and Tolkien,” in Mythlore, Vol. 18, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, pp. 37-43.

[In the following essay, Senior argues that despite Donaldson's debt to Tolkien, his works differ from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings “in their intent, in their use of the shared materials of fantasy, and in their contemporary, American vision as opposed to Tolkien's medieval British ethos.”]

John Clute claims that “Donaldson's use of Tolkien's mythopoeic method and plot structures” and his “heavy-handed paraphrases” of Tolkien's names demonstrate Stephen R. Donaldson's excessive dependence on The Lord of the Rings; yet he also admits that Donaldson's work...

(The entire section is 6937 words.)

Gordon E. Slethaug (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Discourse of Arrogance,’ Popular Power, and Anarchy: The (First) Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 34, No. 1, 1993, pp. 48-63.

[In the following essay, Slethaug explores Donaldson's “systematic, and very complex, explorations of various social systems of power” in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.]

One of the first epic fantasies to depart from J. R. R. Tolkien's high fantasy technique and its clearly articulated preference for values more medieval than modern was Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Fantasy buffs seemed instantly appreciative of Donaldson's new mode of...

(The entire section is 7055 words.)

Ray Olson (review date 15 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die, in Booklist, Vol. 92, No. 4, February 15, 1996, p. 1071.

[In the following review, Olson offers a negative assessment of the fifth volume of Donaldson's “Gap” science fiction series.]

The reliably best-selling Donaldson concludes his sf saga about threats within and without to the universe-spanning United Mining Companies and, ultimately, to all humanity with a book [The Gap into Ruin] that is more talk than anything else. Gone are the nasty S & M high jinks of the saga's early volumes. Gone, for the most part, too, are the intramural brawling and bashing (friends in this epic seem...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Roberta Johnson (review date 1 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Reave the Just and Other Tales, in Booklist, Vol. 95, No. 7, December 1, 1998, p. 655.

[In the following review, Johnson offers a positive assessment of the short story collection, Reave the Just and Other Tales.]

Judging from his recently concluded Gap series, pain and death fascinate Donaldson, so why doesn't he write more obviously in the genre of horror? This new collection of eight stories [Reave the Just and Other Tales] is occasionally grim, especially the title story, but more often exciting, moving, and even comic. The calm and courage the characters possess lend the tales depth and thoughtfulness, and working in shorter...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 14 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Publishers Weekly (review date 14 December 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Reave the Just and Other Tales, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 50, December 14, 1998, p. 61.

[In the following review, the critic offers a generally positive assessment of Reave the Just and Other Tales.]

Collecting one SF and seven fantasy stories and novellas, this volume [Reave the Just and Other Tales] presents the short fiction Donaldson has written in the 14 years since the publication of Daughter of Regals and Other Tales. The best pieces are the novellas “The Woman Who Loved Pigs,” which vividly depicts the cunning of dueling...

(The entire section is 234 words.)