Stephen R. Donaldson

Start Free Trial

Christine Barkley (essay date Spring 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 5547 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 which helps us deal (subconsciously, allegorically, symbolically) with our fears (of a secret self, of being dominated) will be universal from now on. For example, today we fear a Mideast oil embargo or Soviet missiles too close to our mainland or some bloodthirsty group in possession of nuclear weapons or nerve gas: those fears still are very real. So one nation, one tyrant could threaten us as Hitler did England or Sauron did the Free Peoples or the na-Mhoram did the people of the Wounded Land. We must continue to learn to deal with this kind of threat. And that is why today's fantasies must continue to examine yesterday's problems as well as our own. Now, in the time of the creation of the Thomas Covenant trilogies, as our global interdependence increases—our economic, political, and environmental interdependence—the possibilities of coercive control (like that exerted magically by the One Ring) increases geometrically. Today in order to destroy each country's possible level of control over us, we'd need dozens of Frodos to make several trips each to the Cracks of Doom. Therefore, the fantasies which will touch this generation most forcefully, which will not seem more naive or innocent than we are, will need a new hero, one who can operate in a world in which the dangers cannot be destroyed or unmade, no matter how brave he is, no matter how he perseveres, no matter how strong his personal willpower is.

Now, the concept of unmaking the bomb, like dropping the Ring into the Cracks of Doom as a solution to all our problems, thus destroying not only the object of the threat but the knowledge to recreate it, is a simplistic solution to the problem and would have been recognized as such by Tolkien. But in fairy tales we find ways to accomplish the goals our hearts desire most, and we suspend our disbelief if the result is at least somewhat credible within its own context (following the laws of the Secondary World). So the spokesman for our age will not have to come with a foolproof plan for alleviating our fears, destroying those things which threaten us, solving the world's problems, but must only help us to feel hope again that this too shall pass away—we will survive this era. In other words, he doesn't have to show in scientific (or magical) detail just how the wasteland will be cured, but only give us the assurance that it is.

So what are the fears which plague us today (besides those already mentioned connected with military power and aggression)? Among our central concerns are the possible irreversible pollution of our ecology, the depletion of our energy sources, the possible extinction of endangered species and the way that might affect the rest of the animal and plant kingdom, and military aggression gone haywire, or in other words, total annihilation. We cannot fight these dangers—pollution, extinction, a wasteland created by atomic war—using physical means, or even spiritual control over our own wills (though that might help stop the deterioration). And ideological controls—talking, arguing, even ad campaigns—are not working so well either. One major dilemma is that today's problems are not centralized. These problems would seem undefeatable (but then WWII's problems seemed so at the time). We need a hero who can defeat the undefeatable, preferably not through conventional means (or we should have tried it already). A nice epic hero would do, someone with control over the environment. But, unfortunately, though we cheer such a hero on, our “realistic” world-view is too experienced: we like superheroes but we can't identify with them so we cannot believe theirs is a legitimate solution to our problems. Besides, that is just one other excuse for not acting ourselves, waiting for someone else to solve our problems for us. We must find a way that the common man, the hobbits of the world, the readers of the fantasy, even the lepers can hope to cope themselves. Covenant, believe it or not, is the perfect hero for our age.

Covenant brings with him to the fantasy world all our knowledge, the painful experience we've acquired in learning to face our own capabilities, our loss of innocence. He also embodies our sense of alienation, our disillusionment with the view of a future utopia, our feelings of impotence in the face of the world's problems. Actually, he was undoubtedly created as a leper precisely to be able to exaggerate these characteristics. As a leper he has “lost touch”—he has lost a way to connect himself to his world, and, second only to sight for us, we rely more on touch than on any other sense to validate the world. And, in fact, in the second trilogy, Covenant loses his land-born sight and does not regain his sense of touch (still has his leprosy) so he is doubly bereft. (Luckily for us, through Linden and also through the Giants teaching us to value more highly another sense—sound, especially via stories—we the readers learn new ways to compensate for this loss.)

Covenant begins as an anti-hero reluctant to act at all, for whenever he involves himself in the Land's fights either he causes pain (to Lena or to Elena or to the Unfettered One and the small animals or to countless others who have to save him—the Ranyhyn, for example) or he does evil himself (the killing at Soaring Woodhelven). Even when he finally understands the nature of the power he possesses through the white gold, like Mhoram with his knowledge of the power to cause desecration, he is still reluctant, restraining his power like a Superpower in our world sitting tightly on the lid of its arsenal capable of destroying the world ten times over. If Bilbo's world valued bravery and cunning, and Frodo's moral fortitude and dedication, Covenant's advocates restraint and acceptance.

Covenant, as a descendant of Tolkien's fantasy tradition, also possesses many characteristics Frodo needed to cope with the spiritual or ideological dangers of his world: endurance, strong will power, sense of moral obligation and rightness, and in addition, he has already recognized his own heart of darkness (so we won't have to worry about that test coming at the end where failure might occur with no Gollum around to save the quest). The rape of Lena occurs early in the story and, therefore, throughout his entire sojourn in the Land he must be wary of the destruction he knows he is capable of or what his failure to perform might cost others (not that he's always willing to admit responsibility, but there's always that nagging thought that if this is his dream, then he—or his subconscious—is in control and is therefore responsible). So in a sense, Covenant begins at a point Frodo doesn't reach until the end. He loses his innocence and must learn to function without it, with no Grey Havens to sail from or time to heal the wound of its loss. But Covenant eventually goes beyond the recognition state—he learns to integrate both sides of himself (innocence and knowledge, impotence and power, anger as power and compassion as wisdom, venom and wild magic, dependence on others and independence, disbelief and commitment, life and death).

Donaldson's insistence on the total acceptance and integration of opposites sets him apart—in a major way from Tolkien. As Tolkien's dialectical world of pure good and evil in conflict with each other was Medieval in nature, Donaldson's world of unified oppositions, of juxtaposed contraries is Renaissance. Throughout most of LOTR, even when good and evil exist within the same character, Gollum for instance, they are battling for dominance. The juxtaposition of opposites in Tolkien is more external—it has more of an oxymoronic quality—a vision of the fiery darkness of the Balrog or the union of youth and age in the countenance of Arwen or Elrond. Both qualities exist but they are not fused; they are separate opposites. Finally, in Tolkien towards the end, the binary oppositions become more internalized and are seen as emotional qualities and hence much of the joy of the final sections is bittersweet; Frodo is both hero and failure within himself; though Middle Earth is saved, it is also lessened by the passing of the elves. The very last line of the book, Sam's “Well, I'm home,” has always seemed both joyful and sad at the same time to me. In Donaldson the juxtapositions are emphatically internal, not just outward shows of superimposed opposite images but fused together as deliberately as the venom and wild magic were by the Banefire. The Giant's two symbols, Stone and Sea, permanence at rest and permanence in motion, are another good example of this.

And this, in essence, is what is also exemplified by Covenant's differing role in the two trilogies, necessitated by the different views of the Land. Donaldson is saying that opposites are needed to balance each other. In the first trilogy Covenant is the ironic anti-hero in a Romantic/heroic world. In the second, because the world is now ironic, he tries to be a Romantic hero—and might have the power, the ability to control his environment, if it weren't for the venom and that he is hampered by the ironic world that even his new power cannot cure. But obviously both awarenesses are necessary at the same time. This may also explain the original need for the frame tale literary device. And the need for the heroic vision as well as ironic awareness is what both Tolkien and Donaldson are trying to convince our world of.

One other way to show the progression from Bilbo to Frodo to Covenant is to examine each hero as he would be defined by Northrup Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism, since integral to his theory is the concept of change or progression from one level to the next in a specific order. (Please see the summary of Frye's argument at the end.) The epic hero is superior to man in kind (he is a god, for example) and also has control of his environment (stories from the Valaquenta of the Valar would fit this category.) The Romantic hero is superior by degree and also possesses the virtue of some method of controlling the environment—a magic sword, a shield of invulnerability, knowledge of Earthpower (Beren and Kevin are obvious examples). Bilbo would fit into Frye's High Mimetic mode; he is superior by degree, but only to the dwarves for he is the one who must rescue them. The Ring gives a kind of superiority over his environment but it is limited since he can still be found, bumped into, or starved through lack of food in his invisible state. Nor does it protect him from a common cold or a bump on the head. Frodo belongs on the Low Mimetic level. He is clearly the common man hero, chosen as protagonist over more likely (more powerful, more Romantic) heroes. His heroic characteristics are not those learned in battle or even in the great council seats but strengths possibly found in even the humblest of hearts. He is mostly equal to his environment, though in Mordor the wasteland of Gorgoroth threatens to overpower him and he almost slips into the ironic mode. Covenant clearly begins in the ironic mode. Even within his “real” world, as a leper he is relegated to a position subservient or at least socially inferior to others. Though in the Land he is acclaimed a Romantic hero with a potential power over the environment greater than that of the Lords, and though he even somehow inexplicably uses the power occasionally, his lack of knowledge about the wild magic and his lack of conscious control of the white gold relegate him to the ironic mode still. Even at the beginning of the second trilogy, when the wasteland he traverses and cannot cure is so evident and he is hampered by the venom just as he may be about to learn control of his power (Donaldson's Catch 22), Covenant is still the ironic hero unable to break into the epic of romantic modes, even though now he yearns to. However, as the story progresses, Covenant grows in stature.

Frye suggests a progression from Epic to Romantic to High Mimetic to Low Mimetic to Ironic and then back to Epic. He claims literature has existed in the ironic mode since about 1920 with publications by James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. Within the ironic age most writers (mainstream and fantasy writers also) deal with certain modern themes: the effects of alienation, the devastation of the wasteland, and especially the loss of purpose. Tolkien strove for a vision of Cosmic Harmony; Donaldson's “unified sensibilities” attempt the same sort of recapturing of that sense of purpose. In mainstream literature, the ironic age seems to spark two dominant views about the seemingly inevitable futility of this age. In both cases we see that in the past, meaning existed but that it has been lost and we either 1) bewail the depth of our fall, say “woe is me” and question or satirize 20th century values. James Joyce's Ulysses is the epitome of this view where nothing is heroic, and the modern world is tawdry in comparison with the past but there is nothing to be done. Covenant seems to embrace this philosophy when he first arrives in the Land—in reaction to Lena's report of Atiaran and Trell's marriage or in describing the poverty and crime of his “real” world to Mhoram, the “real” world always suffers in comparison and seems unredeemable. Or 2), the other major approach to the loss of meaning in our ironic world is found in works like D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love. There some harmony or pattern or meaning or purpose for living still exists but we have to find it within our own experiences. Here we must try to create a free and useful life despite the industrial, dehumanizing atmosphere. Usually meaning is best found by getting back to nature. Obviously Tolkien subscribes to this view. His pastoral ideal, the myth of the carefree country life, sustains not only Frodo and Sam as they eat rabbit stew on the border of Mordor, but also Theoden when Merry wishes to share the pleasures of pipe weed with him, or Aragorn when he rejoices at the discovery of the white tree. Tolkien's obvious symbol or standard of the Pastoral ideal is Lothlorien, just as Andelain is for Donaldson. For Covenant is “rescued” from his early despair based on his depth-of-our-fall view and given a more optimistic belief that perhaps redemption, rediscovery of meaning is yet possible through the beauty of the Land. And when he accepts this he changes from an ironic anti-hero to a romantic hero. It is the memory of the unspoiled Land which motivates him when he must cope with Lord Foul at the end of both The Power that Preserves and White Gold Wielder. Thus Donaldson acknowledges both dominant views of our ironic age but chooses the one, also advocated by Tolkien, which provides the most hope. In fact, both authors are saying that the purpose of fantasy is to help us in the ironic world recapture or recover meaning through a view of the Golden Age (necessarily in the past or separated by space or available only in our imaginations). Imagination provides the link from realistic beauty (still found if sparsely in the ironic world) to Idealized Beauty—in the Renaissance sense of that word.

However, if we are in an ironic age now and if Frye's progression continues to hold, then the next step is to return to the epic mode. Frye says,

irony descends from the low mimetic; it begins in realism and dispassionate observation. But as it does so, it moves steadily toward myth, and the dim outlines of sacrificial rituals and dying gods begin to reappear in it.

Anatomy of Criticism, p. 42)

This is the direction Donaldson seems to be heading. Covenant's self-sacrifice for Joan's sake and eventually his martyrdom when he had become larger than life and so powerful that with little effort he could have destroyed the Arch of Time fit better into the mode of epic tragedy than ironic. Clearly he is no longer the hero completely dominated by his inferiority to other men or to his environment. But he has also learned not to try to dominate.

And at last we come to another major function of the artist to both Tolkien and Donaldson, that of mythmaker, epic writer. We need a mythmaker to lead us out of our ironic age and to reestablish that sense of purpose we are lacking.

And the other progression we would like to make is from tragedy back to comedy, thus alleviating another we of our modern world: our sense of alienation. Using Frye's definition of comedy as the integration of the hero back into his community or society at the end of the tale and tragedy as his alienation from his community, we can see that Bilbo's story is clearly a comedy throughout. In fact, though he leaves the Shire physically, he is never alienated from any society the way Rosalind is banished from the Court in As You Like It, for example. Even on his journey he is with the Company except when he is with Gollum, and even then he was not deliberately abandoned. Bilbo doesn't feel any alienation. Frodo doesn't at first and has companions for most of his journey (though their number dwindles), but despite the happy ending to the quest, there is no fairy tale “and he lived happily ever after” for Frodo. His tale ends in tragedy with a self-imposed sense of alienation. Covenant begins alienated from those in his own world (though it was not always the case) and he also feels set apart from the inhabitants of the Land. But by the end of the first trilogy he has been accepted into a community within the Land and also won a place in his own “real” society through his rescue of the little girl, though he still chooses to remain outside of it. When he chooses to go back to the Land at the beginning of the second trilogy he actively seeks a community which includes Sunder, Hollian, the Haruchai, and eventually the Search. He earns an important place in the society of the Land, as does Linden when she heals the Sunbane. Linden also has learned that there is love in the world and would be more ready to fit into her “real” world as well. So the pendulum has begun to swing back from tragedy to comedy.

It seems clear that one reason fantasy (especially epic fantasy) is so important today is that we desperately need to escape from our ironic view of the world and its depressing side-effects: a sense of alienation, the sterility of the wasteland, and the loss of meaning in our modern world. Only imagination seems to be able to provide the necessary vision, usually arising from a sense of the importance of the past and of the idealistic beauty of nature. Seen as a continuum, Tolkien's and Donaldson's works trace a history of the modern ironic age. Actually the progression is not quite complete, though it is clear that it is heading in the direction of epic or romantic comedy with a reemergence of the sense of the importance of the community or unity, a recovery of wonder, and the rediscovery of purpose through service to something worthwhile. Both Tolkien and Donaldson leave us with the feeling that this is not only achievable but inevitable.

Gordon E. Slethaug (essay date Autumn 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 slur at escapist fantasy by distinguishing between the “Flight of the Deserter” and the “Escape of the Prisoner.”2 The Deserter is one who cannot cope with the world and so wants to escape, but the prisoner is he who needs a reprieve from diseased vision, the charnel house of life, long enough to recover a fresh, untainted, prelapsarian view. Tolkien, of course, implies that he himself, his fantasy heroes, and his readers are among the escaped prisoners, fleeing from the primary to the secondary worlds for that fresh vision.

It is for this reason of escape—momentarily abandoning the decayed world and recovering fresh vision—that Tolkien's heroes so clearly follow the pattern of the hero as described, for instance, by Lord Raglan in The Hero.3 According to this view, the hero comes of honorable and royal lineage, but he must escape from his home and go to a foreign location where he gains his education and maturity among strangers. Within this formulation, the innocent, noble origins of the hero are essential mainly to establish a kind of hereditary access to heroism, though the hero is seldom able to effect any heroic accomplishments where he is born. His birth place serves mainly as a springboard to admit him to a secondary location, the first having little significant bearing on the second. After trials and contests that test his implicit nobility and manhood, giving him the opportunity to suffer, grow, and prove his heroism, the hero is given suitable rewards and allowed to return to his starting point, although he may have been touched in such a way by the secondary world that he becomes a sort of victim. Consequently, the interpenetration of the home environment, or in fantasy the primary world, into the secondary world is limited. In fact, it has almost become de rigueur within fantasy that the primary, often “real,” world will not intrude in any significant sense into the secondary. The charm, coherence, and integrity of the quest in the secondary world—the very foundation of escape—depends upon the innocent hero's marked superiority to his primary world.

In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever Stephen R. Donaldson transforms this view of fantasy based on escape by writing of a diseased man who can neither be cured of his leprosy nor put off his despair as he enters the secondary world. Thomas Covenant is paradoxically the weakest, most culpable of men, subject to the severest limitations of his real world as he is thrust in the role of hero in the secondary world. In the real world, he is the victim of disease, social bigotry, and self-pity. In the secondary world he additionally perceives of himself as the victim of metaphysical sources beyond his control. His refusal to abandon feelings of victimization in order to accept pure responsibility for the well-being of others in the secondary world ultimately turns him into a victimizer, not just a victim. He is both escaping prisoner and deserter in flight. But as victim and victimizer, he comes to realize his essentially human dimension, and it is through an acceptance of his own weakness and evil that he is finally able to transcend them and subdue, but not defeat, Lord Foul. Within this series, the author Donaldson never allows himself the luxury of a complete escape nor does he allow that for hero and reader. It is this refusal to permit escape which gives The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever its special message, interest, and distinction. It is this quality that separates it from Tolkienesque fantasy. And it is this factor which gives it an especially American cast, in the manner of Hawthorne, Melville, Ellison, and Barth where innocence cripples, leading to despair over the knowledge of pain, suffering, and evil.

Although little is said of Covenant's early life, it is clear that he has not suffered. Once a golden boy—a healthy, creative, and successful novelist, innocent of pain, suffering, and real evil, husband of the beautiful Joan, father to Roger, and owner of a nice home—Covenant's childlike innocence of illness and ignorance of despair do not prepare him for the trauma of painful and certain death. Rather than assisting him in coping with life, innocence cripples him when he is confronted by the larger issues of disease, death, and evil. While such innocence and success have been the essence of his American dream, they are not the pith of the human condition—pain, suffering, and evil combined with struggle, joy, love, and self-sacrifice. His adherence to innocence creates a climate in which frustration, disbelief, and despair easily grow.

When Covenant is diagnosed as a leper and taken to a leprosarium for treatment, he meets a hermit from the West Virginia mountains who manifests the most tragic consequences of Covenant's leprosy: “His hands were swollen stumps, fingerless lumps of pink, sick meat marked by cracks and ulcerations from which a yellow exudation oozed through the medication” (I, 15). Since neither this mountain man nor Thomas has a personal or familial history of leprosy and no exposure to it, the source of and reason for the disease is an absolute mystery, as Hawthorne might put it, the very mystery of iniquity bearing with it guilt and social ostracization. As Donaldson expresses it, “… virtually all societies condemn their lepers to isolation and despair—denounced as criminals and degenerates, as traitors and villains—cast out of the human race because science has failed to unlock the mystery of this affliction” (I, 17).

Although Covenant seems blameless, his community takes the disease “ … as proof of crime or filth or perversion, evidence of God's judgment, as the horrible sign of some psychological or spiritual or moral corruption or guilt” (I, 18). Like most other offenders against accepted social values such as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Covenant finds himself the source of ridicule, the butt of jokes, and the target of prejudicial treatment. After learning of the disease, he is stripped of everything he considers valuable and left only with social retribution and punishment: his disease robs him of his sexual potency, self-confidence, and even his self-respect—when he sees his body rotting and when others shout “Outcast” and “Unclean,” then he feels guilt, shame, and betrayal; his wife leaves him, taking his son Roger with her because she fears his illness and wishes to protect the boy against this contagious form of leprosy; his neighbors shun and persecute him, trying to drive him away by putting a razor blade in his food because they irrationally fear the disease; the law turns against him, and he is threatened with suits and legal moves to rezone his farm for industry so that he will have to move (even the police car that hits him suggests the force of the law victimizing him); religious leaders will not tolerate him at their gatherings; and his farm begins to decay, since he can not care for it properly and the neighbors put the torch to the barn and defecate and urinate in his writing studio. Even his creative literary ability wanes; so obsessed is he with disease and so bitter is he toward the world that he can neither accept the blithely optimistic tale he has published nor sit down to write a new novel. Until he accepts his weakness, all he can write is a banal, grotesque poem with the darkness of some lament by one of Edgar Allen Poe's characters:

These are the pale deaths
which men miscall their lives:
for all the scents of green things
each breath is but an exhalation of
the grave.
Bodies jerk like puppet corpses,
and hell walks laughing—.

(I, 10)

In a very real sense leprosy becomes a disease of his flesh and mind, a physical and psychic illness: cursed with a festering, incurable disease without origin or cause, he conceives of the world as a gaping wound, the projection of his own “great raw wound of emptiness” (I, 18), governed by a sickly and capricious power of fate. He can not accept it as part of the natural order and so grow despite and because of it. In this respect Covenant is heir to the same legacy of bitterness as other stunned tragic heroes such as Melville's Pierre or Ahab who have been disastrously disillusioned of their youthful idealism and belief in a benevolent universe.

Betrayed by his body and dead to his family and community, Covenant feels denied any significant freedom of choice except that of life or death, and he consequently considers himself absolved of responsibility to others. He refuses to grow beyond his wish to regain a primal innocence of outlook. Responsible only to himself, he often despairs, but once he makes his existential decision not to be an early victim of death, he narcissistically turns inward, protecting himself by trying to submit to the regimented, therapeutic care that his doctor prescribes for him: “‘Whichever way you go,’” advises his doctor, “‘one fact will remain constant: from now until you die, leprosy is the biggest single fact of your existence. It will control how you live in every particular. From the moment you awaken until the moment you sleep, you will have to give your undivided attention to all the hard corners and sharp edges of life. You can't take vacations from it. You can't try to rest yourself by daydreaming, lapsing. Anything that bruises, bumps, burns, breaks, scrapes, snags, pokes, or weakens you can maim, or even kill you. And thinking about all the kinds of life you can't have can drive you to despair and suicide. I've seen it happen’” (I, 18).

The doctor means for this advice to serve as a warning and reservoir of strength for Covenant, and in a way it does: he dwells on his disease, daily confronting his condition, disciplining himself to remember his VSE (Visual Surveillance of Extremities), avoiding hazardous circumstances, and maintaining his mental alertness. But at the same time this absorption with the disease allows him to flee from the human community, making him a victim of his own self-consciousness: he resents having to do anything which might take his mind off himself and his disease, whether in the primary or secondary worlds. Retrospectively, in The Wounded Land, Covenant explains this state to Linden Avery. He attributes this self-victimization to his self-hate: “‘The things buried in us are powerful and violent, and they are going to come out. The darkness in us—the destructive side, the side we keep locked up all our lives—is alive here. Everybody has some self-hate inside. Here it's personified—externalized, the way things happen in dreams’” (IV, 63).

Because Covenant refuses to accept his victimization and go beyond the resultant narcissism, Hile Troy of The Illearth War despises him. Hile himself has been the victim of a birth defect, his eye sockets “empty, orbless, lacking even lids and lashes” (II, 66), but that fact has not made him bitter, resentful, and self-absorbed. Indeed, he is productive on Earth as a member of a military think-tank, and he becomes elated and thankful when, in the secondary world, he is given sight and the opportunity to employ his war-games skill in a meaningful cause: Hile fully accepts his personal impotence and believes that the severance of binding personal, social, and legal ties can actually encourage responsibility. “‘The only person in life who's free at all,’” he claims, “‘is a person who's impotent’” (II, 128).4 Only the man free of those restraints can in an Emersonian sense be true to himself, and Hile demonstrates that premise by first sacrificing his life for a victory over Foul's forces at Garroting Deep, and again by encouraging Sunder to kill him, creating the means by which the Law of Life is broken so that Covenant's shade can eventually subdue Foul. But Covenant, given the same opportunity for responsibility, becomes even more distrustful, morose, and introverted, a victim of his own suspicion, mortification of human feeling, and self-loathing—the failure to reconcile his innocent preconceptions with a more realistic assessment of the presence of evil.

Covenant's narcissism means that he can no longer distinguish between his own image and the world or between dream and objective reality. Accordingly, he will not admit to the validity of any actions other than his own or any worlds other than the one he is accustomed to inhabit, for to admit to those is to suggest that he is mad, insane, or dreaming—that he has completely abandoned all the recommendations of the doctor and taken a vacation from reality. Although awestruck when he wakes up the morning after his initial foray to the Land and discovers that his leprosy has disappeared and his wounds healed, he must disbelieve it; to believe otherwise is not only to “deny the reality of his disease,” something which in the real world will be fatal, but also to encourage responsibility, something he has given up. So he continues to hold the view of himself as the victim of both leprosy and his own dream.

With an effort that made him grind his teeth, he averred, I'm a leper. I'm dreaming. That's a fact.

He could not bear the alternative. If he were dreaming, he might still be able to save his sanity, survive, endure. But if the Land were real, actual—ah, then the long anguish of his leprosy was a dream, and he was mad already, beyond hope.

(I, 118)

Consequently, he will not surrender the view that this world is a mere projection of his unconsciousness or rationalization of “‘a struggle inside me. By hell, I've been a leper so long, I'm starting to think that the way people treat lepers is justified. So I'm becoming my own enemy, my own Despiser … Catharsis. Work out the dilemma subconsciously, so that when I wake up I'll be able to cope’” (II, 159).

So preoccupied with his status as victim is he that if he admits this secondary world to be real, then he believes he will become a prisoner of someone else's dream. Whereas Hile Troy has accidentally been pulled into the Land by means of the mistaken summoning of Atiaran Trell-mate who wishes to wreak vengeance on Thomas Covenant, Covenant believes himself summoned by the cavewight Drool Rockworm who unwittingly acts for Lord Foul in trying to control the magical, if unpredictable, white gold. When Covenant confronts Drool and Foul on Kevin's Watch, he is met by horrible, blood red flames and fog and the nauseating odor of rotten flesh, deathly decay, and funereal attar, the signs and emblems of Lord Foul, the Despiser, Satansheart, Soulcrusher, Fangthane, Corruption, and Gray Slayer. To be called into the Land, to be doubly victimized by strange foes and evil beings, is absolutely intolerable and calls for a renewed sense of escape back to some ideal.

Equally intolerable is the thought that the ideal force to which he might escape, the positive powers of the Land, may also victimize him. Foul himself first suggests this unsavory alternative: he tells Covenant that he has been called by Foul's own opponent, the Creator, that Covenant is the victim of the positive expectations of the Land (I, 35). Consequently, if the Land is real, then Covenant is an expendable pawn, the victim and prize of forces that rage and war against each other and which are extraneous and harmful to the personal interests of Covenant himself. He is the unwitting bull in some hideous, metaphysical bullfight where the picaro is an unidentifiable and unconquerable foe thrusting “dark violence” in his ribs (I, 22). He dreams that as the victim of a horrible and unjust God “he danced and wept and made love at the commands of a satirical puppeteer” (I, 363), and he envisions himself as the divine victim, a kind of purposeless Christ on the cross. To Covenant's way of thinking, the only means by which he can protect himself from victimization and brutalization is to disavow the heroic role thrust on him by others. He must protect his vertigo, his symbolical fear of heights, his fear of heroic responsibility.

Then, too, if he is so shocked out of innocence by corruption that he can not believe in himself, his society, or in a system of human, poetic, or divine justice, he will not accept the inherent value of the war for the Land. What might be an ethical dilemma for others who must decide between serving the Land or Foul is not the same for Covenant because he sees his choice as between involvement or non-involvement, commitment or escape. He simply says to Foul, “‘Forget it’” (I, 35), and that is his initial attitude to the Land as well. In this respect, his attitude within the two worlds is the same. In the “real” world he wants to escape his disease and return to a prelapsarian state of innocence; in the secondary world where he has a chance to effect the workings of justice, to be an active, if not precisely gallant, hero who can risk his own life to help others, he still wishes to flee. As he notes after denying aid to the Wraiths at Andelain: “… he had been deaf, blind, numb. He had been so busy moving ahead, putting madness behind him, that he had ignored the madness toward which the path of his dream tended. This dream wanted him to be a hero, a savior; therefore it seduced him, swept him along—urging him forward so that he would run heedless of himself to risk his life for the sake of Wraiths, the Land, illusion” (I, 169).

What he must finally learn is that his wish to retreat to innocence will only cause grief and hardship to others. By refusing involvement within the secondary world he may save his own palsied skin, but he jeopardizes the lives of others. When he sees the urviles eating the Wraiths at the Celebration of Spring, he refuses to intervene, permitting their destruction, and this same passivity is responsible for bringing down destruction on Soaring Woodhelven. Similarly, when his daughter, the High Lord Elena, fights Kevin's evil shadow, he refuses to help her, thereby becoming indirectly responsible for her death. He must fully learn that his litany of refusals is ultimately more destructive than any error he might make in helping the Land. He must learn what the Lords of the Land know, that passivity or escape must not be confused with pacifism in the quest for peace. Passivity is a failure to take responsibility for anything, whereas pacifism is a gentle way to approach a difficult problem.

Covenant is not, however, only the victim who maintains a detrimental passivity. He himself becomes an active, irresponsible aggressor and victimizer: by basing all his actions on the bitterness of not being able to escape, he condemns others to bear similar burdens. Old Saltheart Foamfollower understands that, despite the most deadly troubles, without trying to help others, and without rising above the tragic through laughter and the creative desire to tell tales, all creatures, especially Covenant, will doom themselves and others to savage unkindness. These softer emotions may be dreams or illusions, but, like the giants of old launching ships and “lost in the labyrinth of a foolish dream” (I, 188), Covenant needs to launch himself into these dreams. As his wish to escape reinforces his isolation, loneliness, and introversion, he grows ever more violent and incapable of maintaining control of himself. When he is offered compassion by Lena, he has grown so used to feelings of victimization and violence that he beats and rapes her, an utterly despicable action whether in the primary or secondary world: here is a hero who breaks the bans of culture and violates the dictates of human decency, one who is not only victim but also victimizer as soon as he enters the Land, so that he has no initial chance to experience the merit of the Oath of Peace:

Do not hurt where holding is enough:
do not wound where hurting is enough;
do not maim where wounding is enough;
and kill not where maiming is enough;
the greatest warrior is one who does not need to kill.

(I, 280)

Yet, he learns that such acts of hostility carry a heavy price: although he thinks he can defend himself against the darkness with “his own capacity for darkness, his violence, his ability to kill” (I, 423), those are the ways of coping that cripple him and bring on the destruction of the Land. As he discovers of the rape, it has innumerable injurious repercussions. The great hurt and resentment in Lena's fiance, Triock, and her parents, Atiaran and Trell, result in Triock's losing his youthful enthusiasm, contentment, and joy so that he learns to hate, eventually trying to kill Covenant and coming under the sway of Foul; in Atiaran's heart becoming a “wilderland” so that she loses her life seeking to gain revenge on Covenant by trying to summon him back to the Land; and in Trell's breaking his Oath of Peace, first in attempting to kill Covenant and later in trying to set fire to Revelstone. This act of rape also makes the people of the Land distrust and resent Covenant, though they generally regard him as a necessary tool in their struggle with Foul. This resentment is especially characterized by Pietten who sees the Ranhyn dying because of the promise Covenant extracts from them to come to Lena once a year, and so he tries to kill Covenant. Covenant's killing him lays still one more crime at his door. By suppressing his feelings, damming his “emotional channels” so that they emerge in acts of violence, and trying to retreat into his innocence, Covenant causes more injury to those who protect and help him than he can ever repair or repay. He continues to commit such crimes until he fully assimilates the implications of his statement to Linden that “‘Freedom doesn't mean you get to choose what happens to you. But you get to choose how you react to it’” (V, 87).

The result of Covenant's infliction of harm on others is a mighty sense of shame and guilt, a crippling loss of freedom to act, and a need for mercy. He cannot finally escape the understanding that, for whatever reason of self-preservation and unwillingness to get involved, he has destroyed the comfort, hope, freedom, and lives of others. This understanding temporarily undermines his sense of balance after the deaths of the Wraiths and the destruction of Soaring Woodhelven, so that he cannot save Elena in The Illearth War. But it is this blood-guilt that begins to clear the way for him to assist responsibly in The Power That Preserves and the later volumes: It is this sense of guilt which allows Covenant to recognize that he can not escape, that he can never return to innocence, and that he must work toward positive personal and social goals, employing victimization against itself. Of course, he must also understand that guilt may likewise have negative consequences. He knows that “Lord Foul wanted him to perceive the fetters of action and consequence which bound him to his guilt, wanted him to blame himself for the destruction of the Staff, and for the Sunbane, and for every life the Clave sacrificed” (IV, 362). He also sees the destructive effects of guilt on others when in The Wounded Land he experiences the negative religiosity of Joan who tries to atone for having divorced him, or the loveless duty of Linden Avery who works out her own sense of guilt over the deaths of her parents. Still, guilt is a crucial stage in his growth from narcissism into social responsibility.

One of the first to see guilt as a potentially constructive factor in Covenant's development is Lord Mhoram who tells Hile Troy that the burden of Covenant's “‘crime hurts him. I believe he will seek atonement at the High Lord's [Elena's] side’” (II, 322). Covenant, of course, does not seek atonement at the side of Elena, but he does later accept Mhoram's position when Mhoram himself is High Lord, especially as a result of Lena's continuing love, Triock's “own harsh sense of mercy,” and Saltheart's friendship. Because of their enduring affection, he comes to feel a need for atonement and pride in a growing sense of usefulness. Consequently, The Illearth War begins on a slightly positive note, softened by Covenant's satisfaction at helping stem Foul's drive for power, and The Power That Preserves opens on a substantial note of heroic commitment. He even volunteers to enter the Land after he has helped save the girl from snake poisoning. In The Wounded Land Dr. Berenford speaks frankly to Linden about Covenant's discussion of the positive effects of guilt in his novel: “‘If you had a chance to read Or I Will Sell My Soul for Guilt, you'd find him arguing that … Guilt is power. All effective people are guilty because the use of power is guilt, and only guilty people can be effective. Effective for good, mind you. Only the damned can be saved’” (IV, 23). This function of guilt is hardly the quintessence of the normal heroic fantasy, whether the guilt derives from a problem in the primary or secondary world. The hero is usually the one who desires to assist the cause of the good and is not generally driven to it, Jonah-like, through his realization of great inadequacy or failure. Guilt is not ennobling, but it is the stuff of our world, from which Covenant is never distant.

But guilt in itself is still not enough to effect the ultimate heroic deeds. As Covenant tells Triock, “‘I've got to give up guilt and duty, or whatever it is I'm calling responsibility these days. I've got to give up trying to make myself innocent again’” (III, 306). When Covenant begins to give his own life meaning, to be responsible for all his failures without thought to duty or guilt, without even the motivation of hate and anger, then he can put away his thoughts of victimization and become wholly useful. When he realizes that everyone is a victim, especially so under the influences of the Sunbane, then he can see the necessity for his help. When he can go beyond the moral poison of victimization by employing disease and death against themselves, by recognizing that guilt, hate, and retribution by themselves are only masks of Foul, and that he shares in the very essence of Foul, then he can effect miracles for himself and others. When he fully understands that nothing can save him from death by disease or murder either in the primary or secondary world, and that, whether mere human or immortal hero, he will make mistakes, regardless of how much attention he pays to himself, then he discovers the capacity to be a hero: “He laughed at the immense prospect of his futility. The folly of his attempts to survive alone amused him” (III, 275). He needs to go beyond himself so that he can perceive beauty and experience love in the most hideous humans and devastated landscapes. The recognition of the folly of escape and the immanence of death free him to risk his life in order to save the girl near his farm from the rattlesnake poison; to strive with the shadow of Elena for the Staff of Law; to defy Lord Foul at Foul's Creche when he rejects the temptation of healing; and finally to surrender the ring to Foul. When he overcomes his foolish clinging to life, the destructive potential of hatred and retributive feelings, and the ultimate futility of slaughter, then he can risk all in order to help others in a peaceful way. Indeed, at the end of The Power That Preserves, he opts not to try to destroy Foul by force but intuitively begins to laugh at him. This laughter, joined by Saltheart and the dead Lords, resonates through Foul's Creche, crippling Foul, and allowing Covenant to embrace the Illearth Stone, reducing it and Foul to impotency. And in White Gold Wielder, by surrendering the ring to Foul and accepting his own death, he instills in Foul a false sense of victory and unlimited power. It is ironically Foul, not Covenant, who is finally defeated by his urge to escape—to escape the prescription of the Creator symbolized by and embodied in the Arch of Time. The knowledge and acceptance of death, the recognition that escape is impossible and undesirable, elevates Covenant above his dilemma and gives him creative ways to cope with evil.

The real significance, then, of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever lies in the way in which Covenant is not allowed to flee the circumstances and problems of either world, the way in which his human failings and guilt become his weakness and strength. The conditions within the primary world which deprive Covenant of his health, creativity, and social responsibility are exactly those that limit him in the secondary world. And only when he can live with these weaknesses in both worlds, drawing disease and death to him like cherished lovers, will he function as a genuine human being—with social commitment and human involvement despite a knowledge of weakness, shame, and guilt.

Unlike Tolkien's fiction where the hero can move from his home environment into a new and wonderful world where his senses and spirit are reinvigorated, neither Thomas Covenant nor the reader is allowed that respite. What is paralyzing in the “real” world is doubly paralyzing in the secondary world, and from that paralysis arises the foolish desire to escape. Although there is no exit, paradoxically there is recovery through an awareness and acceptance of the victimization at the heart of the human condition, the acceptance of the fact of mortality.


  1. Stephen R. Donaldson, Lord Foul's Bane (New York: Ballantine Books [Del Ray], 1978), pp. 258-259. Henceforth, references to this edition as well as the other Chronicles will be cited with the text. Lord Foul's Bane will be cited as volume I; The Illearth War (New York: Ballantine Books [Del Ray], 1978) will be cited as volume II; The Power That Preserves (New York: Ballantine Books [Del Ray], 1978) will be cited as volume III; The Wounded Land (New York: Ballantine Books [Del Ray], 1980) will be cited as volume IV; The One Tree (New York: Ballantine Books [Del Ray], 1982) will be cited as volume V; and White Gold Wielder (New York: Ballantine Books [Del Ray], 1983) will be cited as volume VI. Since most readers will have access to the paperback editions, rather than the hardcover, I have chosen to use them. The only exception is White Gold Wielder which is available only in hardcover.

  2. Tree and Leaf (London, Boston, Sydney: Unwin Paperbacks, 1975), p. 61.

  3. For a summary of the important characteristics of the hero see Lord Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama, Intro. Walter Kaufmann (New York, London and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, 1979), p. xii.

  4. Linden Avery, of course, is as much victim and victimizer as Covenant. Her father has committed suicide at an early age, an act for which her mother blames her; when her mother is hospitalized in the last stages of cancer, Linden kills her, both to end her suffering as well as to prevent her recrimination against Linden for not stopping the father's act of suicide. As long as Linden flees from her guilt, she is enmeshed in a loveless life. When she acknowledges the guilt, she is further along on the road to self-awareness and human love; but not until she goes beyond both escape and guilt can she love Covenant fully and carry on the quest.

Matthew A. Fike (essay date Summer 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 most hideous humans and devastated landscapes,” but his treatment of the title character as victim and victimizer does not pursue the theme of love or the complementary relation of love and beauty (26). By exploring these issues in the six Chronicles, this essay charts Thomas Covenant's growth, and thus makes possible an extended view of the scope and quality of human love in Donaldson's universe.

In the first trilogy, an old man—the Creator Himself—gives Thomas Covenant a tract urging belief in the Land, and fortifies his body against a fatal allergic reaction to antivenin. And when Linden Avery comes to Haven Farm to meet Thomas Covenant in the second trilogy, she first encounters the same fetid-mouthed old man, who collapses by the road. After she revives him with CPR, he enigmatically counsels, “‘Ah, my daughter, do not fear. … You will not fail, however he may assail you. There is also love in the world. … Be true’” (IV, 15).1 Such intervention in human affairs, however eldritch or enigmatic, reveals not only that the Creator is concerned for His worlds but also that He is, like the Christian God, a God of love.

While He counsels Covenant and Linden on Earth, He cannot intervene after they are transported to the Land lest he break the Arch of Time, freeing Lord Foul to ravage the universe. The Creator cannot even incarnate Himself as he does at Haven Farm to counsel the Lords. He depends, as much as Foul, on fallible beings who retain free choice. Unlike our world, then, the Land seems void of actual grace—God's sudden intervention for a specific purpose.2 But the love of which the Creator speaks is a cardinal value in the Land, and Thomas Covenant, in his journey through the six Chronicles, matures toward self-sacrificial love whose paradigm is Christ's death on the cross.

Thomas Covenant's name, of course, directly implies the paradoxical nature of his presence in the Land. He is at once the doubting Thomas of the Gospel of John—the original “unbeliever”—and an embodiment of the term “covenant,” first mentioned by a faith healer who quotes Revelation 21:6-8:

‘To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the unbelievers, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.’

“Marvelous, marvelous Words of God. Here in one short passage we hear the two great messages of the Bible, the Law and the Gospel, the Old Covenant and the New.”

(III, 17)

A moment later he remarks, “‘Never mind murder, fornication, sorcery, idolatry, lies. We're all good people here.’” Ironically, Covenant himself is an unbeliever, polluted by leprosy, who has murdered, raped and lied. The hypocritical preacher has him thrown out—the salvation he offers is selective, not for the likes of Covenant—in contradiction of the words of Isaiah 55:1: “‘Ho, every one who thirsts, / come to the waters;’” the words of Christ Himself in John 7:37: “‘If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink’” (italics mine);3 and the preacher's own claim that Christ “‘hung on the cross erected in the midst of misery and shame to pay the price of our sin for us’” (III, 19). The preacher's words affirm the new covenant open to anyone, but his actions embody the spirit of the old.

Although Thomas Covenant rejects, and is in a sense rejected by, religious doctrine, he nevertheless journeys, in a Land touched by God's hand since the creation, toward the meaning of his name. The word covenant incorporates three Greek concepts: mesites, mediator, intermediary, guarantor; engyos, guarantor; and diatheke, irrevocable decision (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 365-73). Though reluctantly at first, Thomas Covenant clearly mediates between the Creator and the Land, between the Creator and Foul, between Foul and the Land, and finally between Foul and the Arch of Time, as Christ Himself mediates between God and man. And the Lords of Revelstone clearly view him as the possible guarantor of their deliverance from Foul, as Christ guarantees salvation. The word engyos, in suggesting legal obligation carried out even at the hazard of one's life (New International Dictionary, 372), approaches the following spirit of diatheke:

A prerequisite of its effectiveness before the law is the death of the disposer. Hence diatheke must be clearly distinguished from syntheke, an agreement. In the latter two partners engaged in common activity accept reciprocal obligations. Diatheke is found only once with this meaning. … Elsewhere it always means a one-sided action.

New International Dictionary, 365)

A covenant, then, involves self-sacrifice, which is the essence of the divinely enabled agapic love Christ embodies on the cross. Christ's sacrifice seals the new covenant (A Theological Word Book of the Bible, 318). To such sacrificial love Thomas Covenant matures, though his death does not participate in the divine.

Covenant's journey, however begins with eros, not as the Platonic desire for transcendent beauty, but as the love of the earthly beautiful for the perceiver's own sake, particularly the desire for sexual union with a woman. In the Chronicles Covenant's eros manifests itself in two main areas: passion and beauty.

As Lord Foul's Bane opens, Thomas Covenant finds himself alone and impotent, longing for the passionate communion he lost when his wife Joan divorced him. A leper, he struggles to deny the past and the body, and “to crush out his imagination … a faculty which could envision Joan, joy, health” (I, 20). To overcome his genuine need for human love he steels himself against all reminders of his erstwhile erotic relationship in a denial of passion itself. But despite concretizing his denial of eros in actions like burning his best seller, “an inane piece of self-congratulation” (V, 327), which arises from and reflects the rapture of his early marriage, the revitalization of his leprous nerves in the Land takes him quite by surprise. Healed by hurtloam and awash with sensation, he rapes Lena—the ultimate crime of passion and self-possession.4 In addition, he visits The Door in The Illearth War, a night club described “as if he were entering the first circle of [Dante's] hell,” where lust abides (II, 17). Singer Susie Thurston churns out in terrible verse the same shallow denial of love that he received from Joan:

Let go my heart—
Your love makes me look small to myself.
Now, I don't want to give you any hurt,
But what I feel is part of myself:
What you want turns what I've got to dirt—
So let go of my heart.

(II, 22)

The song burns him, and he makes for the door, determined to deny the hurt and loss that the song evokes in him.

Covenant's appreciation of beauty is a second mark of eros. Lena sings:

Something there is in beauty
which grows in the soul of the beholder
like a flower:
for many are the blights
which may waste
the beauty
or the beholder—
and imperishable—
for the beauty may die,
or the beholder may die,
or the world may die,
but the soul in which the flower grows

(I, 57)

In other words, the soul which appreciates beauty—Covenant's soul—survives the heartbreak of beauty's passing. At this point in the narrative he would deny that he has such a soul, but later the Land's beauty and health are palpable to him: “All the colors—the trees, the heather, and bracken, the aliantha, the flowers, and the infinite azure sky—were vibrant with the eagerness of spring, lush and exuberant rebirth of the world” (I, 117). Covenant is equally struck by the beauty of Andelain, described as “the heart-healing richness of the Land” (I, 149), “the bright Earth jewel of Andelain” (II, 54), and “‘priceless Andelain, the beauty of life’” (I, 399). There, unable to act, he watches the ur-viles destroy the Wraiths which “had been so beautiful” (I, 169). Earlier, when he asks why the Hirebrand of Soaring Woodhelven trusts him, the Hirebrand replies, as if to confirm the implication of Lena's song, “‘You are a man who knows the value of beauty’” (I, 147). In the second trilogy, with a more developed view of the Land and himself, he explains to Linden why he cared so much for the Land during his earlier visits: “‘The Land was incredibly beautiful. And the way the people loved it, served it—that was beautiful, too. Lepers,’ he concluded mordantly, ‘are susceptible to beauty’” (IV, 83-84).

Passion and appreciation of beauty enable and define Covenant's first victory over Foul. Passion not only corresponds with lust but also enables power. In The Power That Preserves, Covenant and High Lord Mhoram, independently of each other, discover the link between passion and power. For ages the Oath of Peace, designed to restrain violent emotion that could conduce to despair and Desecration, handicapped the Lords' ability to understand Kevin's Lore, simply because it denied the very key to the Seven Wards: passion itself. Armed with his new understanding, Mhoram awakens Loric's krill and slays the Giant raver whose army assaults Revelstone. Meanwhile, Covenant defeats Foul, a victory motivated by the Land's beauty and enabled by passion. When Foul asks why Covenant refuses the offer of health, mastery and friendship, he replies, “‘Because I love the Land’” (III, 454). When Foul torments him with a vision in which his friends appear “mortally ill, rife and hideous with leprosy,” he erupts. “Fury at their travail spouted up in him like lava. Volcanic anger, so long buried under the weight of his complex ordeal, sent livid, fiery passion geysering into the void. … Fury exalted Covenant” (III, 459). When he touches the Illearth Stone, wild magic, rising from his passion, burst from his ring:

The wild magic was passionate and unfathomable, as high as Time and as deep as Earth—raw power limited only by the limits of his will. And his will was growing, raising its head, blossoming on the rich sap of rage. Moment by moment, he was becoming equal to the Despiser's attack.

(III, 462)

The passion that defines and limits Covenant's love enables his initial victory. True to the nature of eros, it is a selfish act, motivated by the beautiful. Says Covenant, “‘I'm going to do it for myself. So that I can at least believe in me before I lose my mind altogether’” (III, 135). Thus, in the first trilogy, Covenant journeys from passionate abuse of the beautiful in the rape of Lena to passionate desire for beauty's preservation.

Though still far from the pinnacle of sacrificial love, Covenant learns philia, a love which does not exclude but enlarges and enriches eros. Philia is essentially selfless “social love, affection of friends,” and sometimes suggests warmth and endearment (Theological Word Book, 133-34). The term also embraces qualities such as courtesy, goodwill, forbearance, honesty and greatheartedness, which nurture friendship.

When Lord Foul's Bane opens, Covenant's leprosy separates him from the townspeople; his denial of joy and his conviction that he is outcast and unclean create a “moral solitude” as well (I, 22). He finds that his bills are paid for him and that groceries are delivered without his request. Donaldson speculates, “if he did not resist this trend, he would soon have no reason at all to go among his fellow human beings” (I, 4). In a dream the townspeople torment him with his isolation:

“You are dead. Without the community, you can't live. Life is in the community, and you have no community. You can't live if no one cares.”

“ … Take him to the hospital. Heal him. There is only one good answer to death. Heal him and throw him out.”

(I, 191)

Covenant's “need for people became unendurable,” driving him to attend the faith healing service (III, 13). And so with his visit to The Door: while the bar radiates all the lust of the first circle of Dante's hell, it also provides companionship, sordid but genuine. In the same manner, Covenant's first victory over Foul is not only the apotheosis of his passion for the Land's beauty but also the product of Foamfollower's greatheartedness and a sign of the companionable love they share. Instead of trying to kill Foul, an action he realizes would make him a despiser of Foul's image, he asks the Giant to laugh. Soon the wraiths of the old Lords laugh along with him, and their laughter reduces Foul's form to nothingness. Unknowingly Covenant thus acts on Lord Osondrea's earlier words to the Giant: “‘When many matters press you, consider friendship first’” (I, 265).

In the first trilogy part of what makes Covenant an isolato—his acerbic personality—is partly cast off in favor of forbearance, which is particularly noteworthy in several episodes. “He had lived without tact or humor for such a long time. But he had promised to be forbearant” (I, 382). Consequently, he speaks gently to Manethrall Lithe in Book I, and he is later kind to the insane Lena in Book III. Even more to the point, he refuses Elena's offer of marriage. Although she is beautiful and he desires her, he appreciates her qualities without succumbing to lust. Instead he loves her for what she is: his daughter and his companion. But though his actions suggest philia, his motivation bears the selfishness of eros. He manipulates her, as he finally admits just before Amok leads them to the Power of Command: “‘I watched you and helped you so that when you got here you would look exactly like that—so you would challenge Foul yourself without stopping to think about what you're doing—so that whatever happens to the Land would be your fault instead of mine. So that I could escape!’” (II, 494).

For Donaldson, eros and philia are not mutually exclusive, and nowhere are they more complementary than in Covenant's relationship with Linden Avery. “He was a hungry man who had at last tasted the aliment for which his soul craved” (V, 381): namely, “‘a living love. For as long as I can get it’” (VI, 275). He deceives her, however, by not telling her that experiences in the Land do not affect one's physical condition in our own world. In the second trilogy, he lies with a knife in his chest in the woods near Haven Farm, and he cannot return to his body without rending the Arch of Time. In effect, he allows her to love a dead man, selfishly savoring her love while he still can, because he does not want to return to “the hungry and unassuaged life he had lived before he had found Linden's love's” (VI, 15). But as he finally explains himself to Elena, so he also explains the true nature of his condition to Linden, and his honesty not only marks, in each case, the philia he achieves throughout the six Chronicles but also ultimately heightens the value of his lovemaking with Linden—they love that well which they must leave ere long.

Covenant's death, in fact, fulfills his walk through the Land, for in it he achieves a self-sacrificial love akin to agape. Paul says of agape, “Love does not insist on its own way” (I Cor. 13:5); and “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ dies for us” (Romans 5:8). Thus it is selfless love of the unlovable, involving “total self-surrender,” made possible by the participation of our love in Christ's (Catholic Encyclopedia VIII, 1044). Agape, then, is not only the love which compels Christ to the cross (A Handbook of Christian Theology, 97) and which He embodies in his death, but also the selfless sacrificial love in which one may participate through His sacrifice.

Thomas Covenant's two deaths—the first in the woods near Haven Farm when he dies in Joan's place; the second in Kiril Threndor when Foul impales him with wild magic—capture the spirit but not the essence of agape. Each death is self-sacrificial, but neither is enabled by divine love. The Lords are ambivalent even about the Creator's existence. Mhoram, for example, remarks that “‘we do not know a Creator lives. Our only lore of such a being comes from the most shadowy reaches of our oldest legends. We know the Despiser. But the Creator we do not know’” (I, 292). Tamarantha offers a Blakian objection, “‘Of course the Creator lives … there can be no Despite without Creation’” (I, 293). Whether or not the Creator exists, the people of the Land do not have a personal relationship with him: “‘Worship?’ Prothall seemed puzzled. ‘The word is obscure to me’” (I, 345). Covenant himself makes the definitive denial of divine grace: “‘Creators are the most helpless people alive. They have to work through unsufferable—they have to work through tools as blunt and misbegotten and useless as myself’” (III, 130). Ultimately, Covenant's death in the Land serves the Creator's purpose, but the Creator does not empower or participate in Covenant's sacrifice.

Although Covenant is appalled by their self-sacrifice, people throughout the Chronicles willingly lay down their lives for him and bear his burdens. Lena stays silent about the rape until Atiaran and Covenant have begun their journey. Foamfollower exhausts himself to draw power from the boat on Covenant's first journey to Revelstone. A Ranyhyn allows itself to be pierced by a spear intended for Covenant. Kelenbhrabanal, the legendary Father of Horses, naively sacrifices himself to Foul in hopes of stopping a war. A healer takes Covenant's pain, wounds and madness upon herself. Melma places herself between the company and the na-Mhoram's Grim. Seadreamer places himself between Covenant and the One Tree. And the Bloodguard continually serve the Lords, sometimes for centuries, until death consummates their service.

Three sacrifices stand out from the rest. First, of course, Foamfollower allows himself to be immolated in Covenant's conflagration, a sacrifice that assures the Land's continued health. Hamako, the Stonedowner who has dedicated his life to the Waynhim, defeats an arghule which bears a croyel on his back. Linden rails at the needless loss of Hamako's life, but Covenant replies, “‘You let him achieve the meaning of his own life’” (VI, 152). And Caer-Caveral (the former Hile Troy) allows Sunder to strike him with the krill, a sacrifice which breaks the Law of Life, allowing not only Hollian's rejuvenation but also Covenant's final victory over Foul. In each case, true to the meaning of the word covenant which involves the death of the disposer, a character finds in death the meaning of his life.

Though Covenant does not realize it, he is himself moving toward a sacrificial death. As Christ dies to overcome sin, Covenant will die to overcome Foul. Throughout the Chronicles, in fact, Donaldson describes Covenant by allusion to Christ's life and crucifixion. Christ's return is prophesied in Revelation, and the return of Berek Halfhand, whom Covenant resembles, is a favorite legend in the Land. People wanted Christ to be a martial savior, and the Land expects Covenant to wield his power for its benefit: “These people [Mithil Stonedowners] wanted him to be a hero” (I, 83). Christ is associated with the cross; Covenant, with Loric's krill, which “stood in the dirt like a small cross” (VI, 381), but ultimately he achieves, willing sacrifice, “deliberate acquiescence to death” (VI, 401).

Donaldson frequently describes Covenant's physical condition with imagery of the crucifixion. At the end of Lord Foul's Bane his doctor draws a connection between the crucifixion and leprosy:

“It must be hell to be a leper,” he said rapidly. “I'm trying to understand. It's like—I studied in Heidelberg, years ago, and while I was there I saw a lot of medieval art. Especially religious art. Being a leper reminds me of statues of the Crucifixion made during the Middle Ages. There is Christ on the Cross, and his features—his body, even his face—are portrayed so blandly that the figure is unrecognizable. It could be anyone, man or woman. But the wounds—the nails in the hands and feet, the spear in the side, the crown of thorns—are carved and even painted in incredibly vivid detail. You would think the artist crucified his model to get that kind of realism.

“Being a leper must be like that.”

(I, 473-74)

When Covenant awakens on Easter morning at the end of The Power That Preserves, “His right wrist was also tied, so that he lay in the bed as if he had been crucified” (III, 478). When he saves the little girl who has been bitten by a timber rattler, “Despite the nails of pain which crucified him, he lurched onward” (III, 66). His condition in the Land is described in similar terms. When he frowns “he wore the healing of his forehead like a crown of thorns” (II, 79). Later “the pain in his ankle held him down as if his foot had been nailed to the ground” (III, 223). Covenant remembers how Marid bit him: “Marid had nailed venom between the bones of Covenant's forearms, crucifying him to the fate Lord Foul had prepared for him” (VI, 164). In Seareach, the sight of the Giant Raver's slaying “pierced Covenant's eyes, impaled his vision and his mind like the nails of crucifixion” (IV, 483). When the Elohim touches him to unlock the location of the One Tree, “Covenant knelt with the power blazing from his forehead as if he were being crucified by nails of brainfire” (V, 144). In the Cavern of the One Tree, “Covenant stood with his arms spread like a crucifixion” (V, 454). With his power alight, he sends Linden back to the woods by Haven Farm where “He lay as if he had been crucified on the stone” (V, 460).

These descriptions of Covenant's physical condition suggest that his two deaths in some way capture the spirit of Christ's. Dr. Berenford tells Linden at the end of Book VI what the fanatics mistakenly thought when Covenant offered himself in Joan's place: “‘When he was forced to offer himself for sacrifice, the whole world would be purged of sin’” (VI, 474). While the Land is still not purged of Foul at the end of White Gold Wielder, Covenant's sacrifice greatly reduces him. To Linden's horror, Covenant hands Foul his white gold wedding ring and then manipulates Foul into killing him. Foul builds up a blast to rive the Arch of Time and sends it upward through Mount Thunder, but somewhere inside the mountain the power is shattered by Thomas Covenant, “A man who had placed himself between Lord Foul and the Arch of Time” (VI, 449). When his wraith becomes visible in the cavern, instead of fighting as he had in his earlier victory, Covenant says, “‘I wouldn't dream of fighting you’” (VI, 450). He allows Foul to fire wild magic at him: “Blast after blast, he absorbed the power of Despite and fire and became stronger. Surrendering to their savagery, he transcended them” (VI, 451). In other words, as Christ takes upon his head the sins of all men, Covenant absorbs hatred and fury so that Foul goes out like a light—defeated but not destroyed.

Yet Covenant is not Christ. He “could not bear to be treated as if he were some kind of savior; he could not love with such an image of himself” (IV, 75). Although his sacrifice fulfills the meaning of his name and expresses his agape-like love for a once beautiful Land where even Andelain has not escaped the blight of the Sunbane, his ultimate act is not motivated by participation in divine love, and it is not totally selfless. Rather, in his two deaths he seeks to expiate his guilt: for being a leper, his crime against Joan; and for all the deaths he has caused in the Land. Whereas Christ pays mankind's debt of sin, Covenant pays his own. But in showing that on his own one can achieve self-sacrifice, a quality of love thought possible only through divine grace, Thomas Covenant's death fulfills the covenant best expressed by Atiaran: it is the responsibility of the living to justify the sacrifices of the dead (III, 42).


  1. All quotations are from Stephen R. Donaldson, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Books I-VI (New York: Ballantine Books): Lord Foul's Bane, The Illearth War, The Power that Preserves (1977); The Wounded Land (1980), The One Tree (1982), White Gold Wielder (1983).

  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia2ae Q III Art. 2.

  3. Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.

  4. Slethaug writes, “When he is offered compassion by Lena, he has grown so used to feelings of victimization and violence that he beats and rapes her …” (25). But as Covenant himself explains, the rape is an uncontrollable response not to victimization but to beauty and sensation: “‘After my leprosy was diagnosed, and Joan divorced me, I was impotent for a year. Then I came here. Something I couldn't understand was happening. The Land was healing parts of me that had been dead so long I'd forgotten I had them. And Lena—’ The pang of her stung him like an acid. ‘She was so beautiful. I still have nightmares about it. The first night—It was too much for me. Lepers aren't supposed to be potent’” (IV, 91).

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Oxford: Blackfrairs, 1972.

Brown, Colin, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. I. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.

Donaldson, Stephen R. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Books I-VI. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977-1983.

A Handbook of Christian Theology: Definition Essays on Concepts and Movements of Thought in Contemporary Protestantism. New York: Meridan Books, Inc., 1958.

New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1967.

Lindsell, Harold, ed. Harper Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1982.

Richardson, Alan. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. New York: Macmillan, 1950.

Slethaug, Gordon E. “No Exit: The Hero as Victim in Donaldson.” Mythlore: A Journal of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, General Fantasy & Mythic Studies 40 (1984): 20-27.

W. A. Senior (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 various traditional myths and mythic figures, albeit in altered form, as a device to establish both the tenor of the novels and the structural underpinning of the action. His trilogy incorporates a creation story in several versions: opposing gods and demons (some of whom assume human form), a vegetative myth with accompanying magical creatures, metamorphoses, a lost Eden, a descent to the underworld, and so forth. On the other hand, he transforms many of these conventional figures and narratives to produce an internally consistent mythology for his fictional universe. Within its mythic patterns exists a range of archetypal paradigms which call to common human responses so that this modern fantasy epic, as Donaldson terms it, presents an expression of our unconscious urges, desires, conflicts, and needs—all of which constitute a powerful mythic appeal. Indeed, Harry Levin explains this when he comments that “the most powerful writers gain much of their power by being mythmakers, gifted—although they sometimes do not know it—at catching and crystallizing popular fantasies” (112). Northrup Frye echoes this assessment, and states that “in terms of narrative, myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136). Thomas Covenant's summoning to the Land and the nature of its need endow him with mythic status because of the role he, as a leper, must play in that world. His desires, which ours come to mirror, become hostage to the conflict he encounters and are played out concomitantly on physical, psychological, and spiritual levels. As Donaldson himself comments, “Fantasy is a form of fiction in which the internal crises or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they were external characters or events. … and so the internal struggle to deal with those needs/problems/exigencies is played out as an external struggle in the action of the story” (Epic 3-4).

Since internal characteristics assume the forms of individual and identifiable characters and events, we must examine how many of their names function in the first three books to create and support in diverse ways the fiction's mythic framework.1 The very simplicity and seeming transparency of names and terms such as the Land, the Lords, the Creator, and the Despiser are initially misleading and can induce readers into assuming limited, referential, allegorical meanings, if they assume any at all.2 However, instead of simply borrowing or deriving place names, gods, and heroes from extant myths to insert into his secondary creation, Donaldson has applied common terminology and names in conjunction with a particularized fantasy landscape; he thus accretes meaning through a juxtaposition of the familiar with the exotic and transcends each term's normal boundary. Instead of emulating Professor Tolkien in inventing his own languages, etymologies, and semantics, or following someone like C. S. Lewis and limiting himself to Christian typology and Biblical nomenclature, Donaldson has taken another approach to mythopoeia.

John Timmerman pays tribute to Donaldson's talent by pointing out that the “significance of names in fantasy literature should not be underestimated” and by citing Donaldson's “linguistic ease in naming”:

The names of characters and places are apt and often archetypal. For example, the names of Lord Foul's three demons are resonant of Hebrew malediction. The Illearth stone, Lord Foul's source of power, is in fact ill earth. A number of portmanteau words such as Hearthrall and Heartthew are used, along with evocative sound names. … Donaldson's names hold and home us with familiarity on distant shores.


It is this familiarity, this naturalness of the names in context, which in great part allows us to become immersed so deeply in the three novels and to accept Donaldson's vision.

A final observation is that many of the names in the Chronicles extract their potency and ultimate vitality from the simple root of mythology itself: the telling of a word or story, the vehicle, both divine and human, for the expression of creation. In Genesis 1:1-8, God speaks and names what he is creating in terms as uncomplicated as day and night, both of which certainly possess mythic import. In some translations, we are told that in the beginning “was the word, and the word was with God.” On a humbler level, David Bidney informs us that “word and name do not merely designate and signify objects; they are the essence of the thing and contain its magical powers” (7).

I believe that many of the names in Donaldson's work project images and associations in our minds, as in Thomas Covenant's and that they embody abstractions which assume concrete significance as he becomes familiar with this alternate world which seems to him a departure into dream. As Kathryn Hume points out, “Part of the value imparted by a system is the power of naming. Naming … officially fits a phenomenon into the network of known relationships” (193). Here, such naming helps create the system. Although the Land possesses a similar topography and geography to our world, between the inhabitants of that world—umbilically linked to it in a way we are not to ours—and their names exists an evocative, organic connection which elevates them to another plane of existence and significance. Ernst Cassirer, in his seminal study Language and Myth, comments that

the essence of each mythical figure could be directly learned from its name. The notion that name and essence bear a necessary and internal relation to each other, that the name does not merely denote but actually is the essence of the object, that the potency of the real thing is contained in the name—that is one of the fundamental assumptions of the mythmaking consciousness itself.


Donaldson's naming methodology produces a metaphoric, connotational lexicon for understanding the quintessence and role of the individual or thing; each name fulfills a primarily ontological function which unfolds the significance and import of the name itself, because each name contributes to the organization of a carefully crafted historical plexus of beings. Such an articulation of relationships allows us “to see the myth below the surface of literature … to plunge more deeply into the human condition, and to see the very way in which literature intensifies, concentrates, and reveals the human depths” (Righter 323).

This concentration and magic potency find a clear focus in two symbiotic forces, the Land and Earthpower, which signify in metaphoric, mythic fashion the primal, concealed nature of the physical world. Each represents a hypostatization of an idea or ideology which informs the life and behavior, for good or ill, of the denizens of this world, and which is inseparable from those who live there. Because the Land, which is not localized and is thus applicable to any land (as both object and place), has no regional, geographical, or national associations or origins, the name participates in the expression of an independent entity and esse3: that of a self-aware, morally conscious power striving to regain its original design and lost edenic, unsullied state. As Mhoram explains to Thomas Covenant, Landsdrop was created when “the Earth heaved with revulsion at the evils it was forced to contain” (Foul's Bane 393). The Unfettered One who aids Triock answers his question about Earth-rock: “Stone is alive. … Yes, alive—alive and alert. Attentive. Everything—everything which transpires upon or within the Earth is seen—beheld—by Earthrock” (Power 79).

The Land's force, that of the earth itself, harks back to such nature and creation myths as those surrounding Gaea, the earth mother of the Greeks. The Land and Earthpower function as would such a figure, being sentient, operative, and ethical. As their names gradually come to indicate, the two invoke, both physically and metaphysically, incarnate health and strength. During his trek to Revelstone with Atiaran, Covenant feels the numbness of his leprosy receding as the force of the Land restores him. He finds that he can “transubstantiate his flesh into the keener essence of Andelain” (Foul's Bane 151) and sees that “the real difference was transcendent … the aura of right here was so powerful that he began to regret he belonged in a world where health was impalpable, indefinite, discernible only by implication” (Foul's Bane 152). Although no cure for leprosy exists in our world, the spirit evidenced in the Land exerts a potent, curative effect and shows itself capable of inducing a pure state of health simply through proximity. As Covenant grimly tells Elena, “Where I come from, there is no ‘Land.’ Just ‘ground.’ Dead” (Illearth War 146). Thus, “the Land” comes to articulate everything that land should and could be at Frye's “conceivable limits of desire”; it represents verbally a palpable condition of active health in all its diversity, possibility, and strength. Its efficacy is established by the combination of the normal denotative associations we have with land in general, and by the implication of greater possibility and perfection, one of the underlying assumptions embodied in much fantasy literature.

To demonstrate such linguistic capacity (and to take issue with Max Muller's hypothesis that myth is a disease of language that arises from faulty etymology), J. R. R. Tolkien, a noteworthy mythmaker in his own right, comments in his essay “On Fairy Stories” that

language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but also sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar.


Using a contemporary example, Richard Chase reiterates this argument by pointing out that the phrase “Red Menace” has a mythical component that the more political “international communist expansion” lacks “because it contains an image (red), because the word ‘menace’ makes us think of something living and terrible, a dragon or a scourge, and because the phrase as a whole is obviously calculated to play strongly upon the passions” (3). Inextricably linked to the Land,Earthpower contributes to such a mythical grammar through assimilation; it presents the ideation of the participation of a living and life-sustaining world in the events which transpire upon it. Earth assigns it a massive, solid association and suggests the scope of this resource, while power injects a serious, purposive dimension. If the Land offers a general frame of reference, Earthpower signifies the particular agency at work, an active principle, life force, or moral urge, which is capable of enormous energies because it draws upon the natural fecundity and productivity whose source is the soil, loam, and rock of the earth itself. Covenant, faced with riding a Ranyhyn, is reluctant because of what they are: “the great, dangerous, Earthpowerful horses quintessenced the Land” (Foul's Bane 363). The people of the Land can, therefore, tap into and harness this natural power through a communion with it, and by understanding its nature. Because the two are mutually dependent upon one another for action, the study of Earthpower is requisite for one to channel its wholesome forces. The implication of the cooperation between man and nature forces us to redefine our conceptions of land and earth and to create a new view of them. This process ultimately endows the words themselves with a brimming application and a more developed identity within the fiction—thus they become extensions of what they represent, not simply labels.

The logical antagonist to these two forces is the Illearth Stone, the negation of health, vitality, and growth. A sick, putrid green, the Illearth Stone incarnates and transcends the limited concepts of pollution and disease because it becomes a physical power to be used against the state of Earthpower and all that implies. Accordingly, Illearth denotes the perversion of the Land and Earthpower through their own weaknesses. Its malefic nature is revealed in its effect on Drool Rockworm as it saps away his life and consumes him, an action which produces the direct opposite of the Land's effect on Covenant. The Illearth Stone is the antithesis of the fabled Philosopher's stone: before it, even the vow of the Bloodguard and the spirit of the Giants are poisoned and transmuted from gold to lead, the inversion of the usual alchemical process. However, because it is only a stone, we understand the nature of its limitations as a part and can readily perceive that it lacks the unifying, productive nature of those things it exists to contaminate. It is separate and singular, something not meshed into or governed by the organic forces of Earthpower.

Other names undertake the same constructive, informing role. For instance, the suffix -al indicates the act or process of becoming and is usually appended to a verb to create a substantive form (i.e., to avow, refer, betray), but in the term Forestal, it is added to the noun forest. In The Illearth War, we see Hile Troy metamorphosed into a tree (an action with Ovidian resonance), ultimately to become the next Forestal, and we implicitly understand how Forestal comes to indicate the fusion of the chthonic elements we associate with forest and the numinous properties of human life, adding mythic foundation through the merger of the state of being forest, its embodiment into human form, and its design or function as a branch of Earthpower. Troy is not a forester, a doer of things in a forest; he has merged his being, which is part of the forest, into a greater whole, perhaps punningly suggested by the -al at the end of the title.

In similar fashion, the term Gravelingas invokes the spirit which defines those who follow that particular commitment to Earthpower. The suffixing, which in Anglo-Saxon is a patronymic ending, recalls the heroic mode and such legendary figures as Scyld Shefing or the Scylfingas of Beowulf fame; moreover, it alloys the concepts of rock (gravel and graveling as nouns) and the process of working with rock (graveling as a present participle) with human participation in this process to produce a whole whose essence is expressed through the indivisible admixture of meanings within the name. Trell, whose name bears an affinity to troll, an elemental creature associated with rocks and caves, can insert his flesh into stone as he works with it, as though the communion exists because those elements which constitute rock are also components of his being. Similarly, Bloodguard succinctly denotes the essential meaning of the lives of these men who surpass men, who live by an incarnate Vow, which in itself ideates the absolute nature of vow as an expression of service; because of their two-thousand-year-old fidelity and sacrifice, they can “speak with authority about the exigencies of an implacable law” (Illearth War 448). Furthermore, Bloodguard summons images of the fluid which is life and all that it connotes while the term also intimates the gravity and fatality of the Haruchai's self-appointed function, to ward the lives of the Lords, and of their nature, which surpasses mere flesh and blood in its concentrated, hyperbolic posture.4

As a final example, I would cite the Colossus, “the ancient stone figure guarding the upper land.” Physically, it is a massive stele, “an obsidian column upraised on a plinth of native rock, and gnarled at its top into a clench of speechless defiance” (Power 358). Chase describes such a sentinel in one of Auden's poems as “a demigod, an awful symbol watching over the unruly and disastrous continent” (16). The term clearly has mythic precursors from antiquity, and in the third book of the trilogy, the promise of its massive power and moral task is fulfilled when it intercedes for Covenant. In his novel Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock borrows from the Jungians in identifying the mythago, an archaic primary image which has remained in our collective unconscious to reappear in altered, yet still recognizable, forms over periods of time (42). The Colossus, a figure of ancient might which floats in and out of legend, inheres to the same mythic model as its name suggests.

In addition, the Anglo-Saxon habit of defining something by negation to indicate and to emphasize its true character participates in Donaldson's onomastics. Despite their reverence for and mastery of stone and sea, regardless of their enormous size and strength and their capacity for great joy and sorrow, the primary ethos of the Giants, that which endows their lives with a dominant purpose, is that they are unhomed. Certainly these giants, these titans, invoke other myths for us, but their longing for home, their persistence, and their vast patience in recovering their ancestral lands transcend mere longing. Indeed, their desire for home, rendered through the emphatic concept of unhomed, deepens the expression of their cultural, ethnic, and spiritual bereavement, as well as their physical yearning, and indicates a loss of much more than just a geographic location. In them is the reification of this loss, the state of all “lost voyagers of the world,” which propels them beyond metaphor to mythic stature. Each stanza of the song Foamfollower sings to Covenant begins with the refrain “We are the Unhomed,” and the third stanza announces the complexity and scope of what “unhomed” conveys:

We are the Unhomed—lost voyagers of the world.
From desert shore to high cliff crag, home of men and sylvan sea-edge
faery lands—
from dream to dream we set our sails,
and smiled at the rainbow of our loss.

Foul's Bane 184)

We might note that part of Covenant's plight is circumscribed by that of the Unhomed: he, too, is searching for a way to go home and is caught in what he considers a dream which moves him from one loss to another. In fact, this state encompasses the plight of all those engaged in the battle against Foul, because each must leave his or her home in some way to confront and repel Foul's pervasive, universal evil, and no sure return exists. Many are unhomed because their homes will have been destroyed—not merely lost or left. Thus, names operate as guidelines and help the author to “integrate … mythological values (or some of them) … to get quite different resonances than would be available in a story without the mythological component” (Hume 191).

Of another sort are the Unfettered, those who left the Loresraat and its physical, emotional, and intellectual limitations to go beyond human study to immerse themselves in a vision or service with teleological implications. Their title signifies a thorough detachment from the human world and an assumption of a private quest of a different order, and they:

Dream that what is dreamed will be:
Hold eyes clasped shut until they see,
And sing the silent prophecy—
And be

Foul's Bane 171-72)

This refrain, in fact, embodies the mythmaking consciousness of their dreams through what the dreams make them in a reciprocal liberation. Unfettered assumes profound implications because it encompasses that pure state of sacrifice and study which merges the Unfettered themselves with something extra- and supra-human. Triock, upon meeting the Unfettered One in the mountains, discovers that the Woodhelvennin “must have been out of touch with the Land for four- or five-score years” as he tried to read the messages of the millennium in rock (Power 160); like the miraculous Healer Covenant meets at about the same time, his life is not governed by the time of the world of cause and effect, but by a metaphysical calendar that frees him from the dictates of time as we measure it and links him to the archetype of the wise man or ascetic common in literature and folklore. The paradox embodied in the refrain quoted above (one cannot sing a silent prophecy or see with eyes shut) demonstrates the way the Unfettered understand the physical world in a radical way; the term itself is thus wrenched and uncoupled from its normal meaning and is concentrated to create a verbal approximation of the abstract, unknowable, inexpressible.

At the center of the action, of course, is the ironically named Thomas Covenant. The term covenant has religious, ethical, and legal implications, all of which are fused into the protagonist to amplify his character and his function in the Chronicles. In his nature and dilemma we see those of the other characters: the Oath of Peace and its contradictory demands, the flawed service of the Bloodguard, even the fatal self-abnegation and service of the Ramen for the Ranyhyn. Donaldson himself says of the epithet Unbeliever that

I liked that term, because it allowed me to suggest various other possibilities: for instance, another word for unbeliever is infidel, and that gets into religious questions and other things that I like to deal with by suggestion, rather than by explicit statement. The term “unbeliever” raises Biblical questions; it ties into the idea of Thomas, the doubter or unbeliever, and covenant. (Rich 24)

A reluctant savior, Covenant both conforms to and deviates from the pattern of the mythic hero. His variance from the heroic paradigm is explicated by the contradictory concepts of both unbelief and covenant which expose for us his ongoing predicament and internal struggle. As a leper, Covenant cannot allow himself any hope or belief of improvement beyond the present because of his immedicable condition. It is not just his preliminary rejection of the Land and acceptance of the mythic dimension of dream (which in addition creates a thematic link to the others whose names follow the pattern of -un) that warrants his Unbelief, but rather the metaphor of his mental being exposed through his names. To deal with his disease and what the Land is doing to him, Covenant must constantly refute the Land's existence, because deprived of its roborant effect, he would die; thus, he makes pacts, deals, and agreements, from his instilled habit of the VSE (Visual Surveillance of Extremities) to his attitude toward and reactions to the inhabitants of the Land who affect him most deeply: Mhoram, Lena, Atiaran, Elena, Trell, and even the Ranyhyn. This procedure of covenanting proclaims the absoluteness of his nature and the severity of his afflictions; in fact, his covenants find a mythic counterpart in the Vow of the Bloodguard because each is stringent and exigent beyond human possibility and yet is still borne by humans, although at superhuman cost.

Finally, we come to the two nonhuman antagonistic forces of this tale: the simply-named Creator and his enemy Lord Foul the Despiser, called Corruption by the Bloodguard.5 Donaldson has aptly named his demon, because the nature of the evil in the world he has created is corruption and despite, both internal and external. Obviously, any demonic figure or force summons mythic associations, but Lord Foul's titles are purposive because Foul, as signified by such epithets, challenges any covenant, any belief, any service or commitment, and strives to contaminate it. Despite commingles malice, contempt, scorn, and injury, and has kinship to the verb “to despise.” Moreover, these negative qualities also form the basis of corruption, of which leprosy, disease, ignorance, and despair are all forms. So, those qualities Lord Foul ideates as Corruption present a diametric contradiction to that which the Land and Earthpower embody. Because despite and corruption are also tendencies in human nature, Lord Foul assumes mythic potency in two ways: first, as a demiurge; second, as the hypostatic image of an internal, spiritual quality that is timeless and amorphous, individual and general, conscious and inadvertent, all of which points to the paradox of Covenant's situation. Covenant was chosen by the Creator, providing yet another of his cognomens, because he can understand the nature of despite and corruption as a result of his leprosy and what it has taught him about coping with life: “he alone in the Land had the moral experience or training for this task” (Power 135). He can overcome these intangible forces, here embodied in an external menace, because he has had to fight within himself to overcome them, a battle which is not so much physical as spiritual and intellectual:

He knew more completely than any native of the Land could have known that Lord Foul was not unbeatable. In this manifestation, Despite had no absolute reality of existence. The people of the Land would have failed in the face of Despite because they were convinced of it. Covenant was not. He was not overwhelmed; he did not believe that he had to fail. Lord Foul was only an externalized part of himself—not an immortal, not a god. Triumph was possible.

Power 462)

In the end, Despite and Corruption are defeated not by battle or armed might, but through Foamfollower's laughter, a dialectic in which a constructive power of life defeats a destructive one. Foamfollower defeats Lord Foul because he has been purged of his own corruptions and ills and can assume the sacrificial, prophetic role as the Perfect One of the jheherrin, thus fulfilling another type of covenant and invoking another myth.

As Ernst Cassirer informs us, myth and language spring from the same basic mental activity: “a concentration and heightening of simple sensory experience” (88). The deceptively simple names of Donaldson's choosing conform to this demand for concentration and act to sift together the thing, its essence, and its purpose, so that in these names we find holistic expressions of the ontology of each person or thing, not mere attributions or characteristics. Through this procedure, Donaldson's strategy for assigning names complies with Herbert Read's asseveration that “myth persists by virtue of its images, and this imagery can be conveyed by means of verbal symbols of any language” (Ruthven 57). For the denizens of the Land, such language does possess power, for their names produce a synergy of associations which enrich their world and expand both its significance and its appeal.


  1. I do not mean to suggest that each name plays a role in this nomenclature or that each harbors some special meaning. Many of the names are, as Timmerman notes, evocative because of their sounds: for Instance, the pairing of lillianrill and lomillialor. Also, Elena is the Spanish form of the name Helen, which originally meant torch in Greek. Garth, the name of a Warmark at Lord's Keep, is a medieval term which refers to an enclosed garden, but both are also names one meets occasionally.

  2. In fact, the title of the first book, Lord Foul's Bane, was imposed by the publisher and was not Stephen Donaldson's choice. The term bane is not accurate, at least not when applied to the first novel. However, the titles of the sequel do, in fact, answer to the action and theme of each novel.

  3. The Latin esse indicates an abstract state of being, the concept or idea of which the thing itself is a concrete figuration and of which the physical state is a representation.

  4. Another clear example of this lies in the term Revelstone, the great mountain fastness of the Lords. Covenant's first sight of it “almost took his breath away,” and he notices the life that seems to emanate from the stone itself: “It shone from behind the wall as if the rock were almost translucent, almost lit from within like a chiarascuro by the life force of its thousands of inhabitants” (Foul's Bane 212). This is indeed a place which celebrates and is celebrated for what it contains and signifies.

  5. Lord Foul has a number of other names: Fangthane to the Ramen, the Gray Slayer to the people of the plains, Satansheart and Soulcrusher to the Giants. Each name indicates something about the nature of those who give the name. Certainly, Fangthane the Render calls to mind the kresh, the mortal enemies of the Ranyhyn and Ramen, whose lust and capacity for devouring is unnatural; it also serves to remind us of the sacrifice of Kelenbhrabanal, the Father of Horses in the Foul's jaws (Illearth War 481) and of the throne in Foul's Creche “in the shape of jaws, raw hooked teeth bared to grip and tear” (Power 449). The Giants' appellations for Foul declare that they fear most of all his attempt to kill the spirit and vanquish the soul, a fear which proves all too true when they learn the fate of the three brothers and lose their desire to live. Foamfollower tells Covenant that “the Unhomed became the means to destroy that to which they had held themselves true” (Power 384). Also, Lord Foul is actually the Lords' name for him and would seem to indicate that they perceive of him as their opposite, not the Creator's, since they endowed him with their own rank and title, and since he represents everything the Oath of Peace works against.

Works Cited

Bidney, David. “Myth, Symbolism, and Truth.” Myth and Literature. Ed. John Vickery. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. 3-13.

Cassirer, Ernst. Language and Myth. Trans. Susanne K. Langer. New York and London: Dover, 1946.

Chase, Richard. “Myth as Literature.” English Institute Essays, 1947. Ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. New York: AMS Press, 1965. 3-22.

Donaldson, Stephen R. Epic Fantasy and the Modern World. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Libraries, 1986.

——— Lord Foul's Bane. New York: Ballantine, 1977.

——— The Illearth War. New York: Ballantine, 1977.

——— The Power that Preserves. New York: Ballantine, 1977.

Frye, Northrup. The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1957.

Holdstock, Robert. Mythago Wood. New York: Berkley, 1984.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Levin, Harry. “Some Meanings of Myth.” Myth and Mythmaking. Ed. Henry Murray. New York: George Braziller, 1960. 223-31.

Rich, Calvin, and Earl Ingersoll. “A Conversation with Stephen R. Donaldson.” Mythlore XLVI (1986): 23-26.

Righter, William. “Myth and Interpretation.” New Literary History 3 (1972): 319-44.

Ruthven, K.K. Myth. New York: Methuen, 1976.

Timmerman, John H. Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U Popular Press, 1983.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 33-99.

Matthew A. Fike (essay date Spring 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 structure of human law. Spenser's pattern—mercy tempering statute has a parallel in Stephen R. Donaldson's trilogies. In The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant it is Vain whose powers and limitations call Talus to mind, but Donaldson redefines law and examines its role in an earth-centered universe. In Law, as in other details which will be considered first, the human substitutes for the divine, so that nature becomes supernature.

Displacing the sacred onto the natural is a technique Donaldson uses most frequently in his portrayal of Thomas Covenant as a Christ-figure.1 Covenant's physical condition is frequently described by allusion to the crucifixion, as in his awakening on Easter morning with his wrists tied to the sides of his hospital bed. In addition, he performs actions that are distinctly Christ-like. At Revelstone, walking on the waters of Glimmermere, he retrieves Loric's krill, which Donaldson describes as a cross, and at Kiril Threndor he descends into the bowels of the earth in order, like Christ, to defeat yet not destroy a Satan-figure, Lord Foul. It is in the sacrifice of his own life for the sake of others' that Covenant becomes most like Christ, who died to redeem humankind and who said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).2 Covenant's sacrifice, however, is without the aid of divine grace. A Creator exists outside of nature but is unable to assist beneath the Arch of Time, for to do so would rend it, freeing Foul to ravage the universe. Instead, as Atiaran points out, “The Earth is the source of all power” (I.108).3 Or as Foamfollower puts it, “There is life and power in the Earth in stone and wood and water and earth” (I.196). More importantly for Covenant and for Linden Avery who inherits his ring, that power is the “wild magic graven in every rock,” not the hand of divine grace (258).

As Covenant achieves Christ-like sacrificial love without being divinely enabled, a natural phenomenon such as the advent of evil in the Land captures the spirit but not the essence of the Genesis story. Although Donaldson presents creation myths at several points in The Chronicles and human beings prove themselves fallible at every turn, their imperfect nature does not proceed from a couple like Adam and Eve. There is no original error of free will. In the Land humans are—and they always have been aware of good and evil, just as the banes, the result of Foul's desire to spite his “enemy,” the Creator, were buried deep in the Earth at creation. Unlike the Genesis account, then, Donaldson's myth holds the creation and the fall to be simultaneous. For his offense against the Creator, Foul is imprisoned beneath the Arch of Time on Earth, where a mirror-effect results. Foul becomes an externalization of each person's own imperfection, and one's own tendency to evil echoes the Despiser without, an idea to which Covenant is attuned when he says, “We all have Lord Foul inside us,” (V.378), much as the old Adam, for St. Paul, is part of everyone.

Although Donaldson's portrayal of human nature and of the Earth's corruption is thus somewhat consistent with a theological understanding of creation, he does not use “Fall” to describe these conditions. Instead he uses the word in a distinctly non-theological way. The Colossus of the Fall, an ancient stone figure situated at Landsdrop, guards the Upper Land. At its simplest, the Fall here refers to the giant cliff where the land literally falls away. The word may also refer to the felling of trees, for in the Colossus the trees themselves bound an Appointed of the Elohim to guard against a “hate” that sought to destroy the great sentient forest (V.392). Later, when humans arrived in the Land and began to use timber, the trees created the Forestals, who toil, assisted by the power of the Colossus, to protect the forests that remain. When Covenant returns to the Land in Book IV, however, the structure has suffered a fall of its own; it no longer exists to protect the trees.

Like wild magic, the power that preserves the trees is of the Earth, for the Elohim are the “direct offspring” of its creation (V.120). Donaldson displaces a theological name Elohim is a Hebrew word for “God” onto beings whose might is supernatural but not omnipotent, in keeping with Atiaran's principle of power. “Thus,” says Daphin, “we are the heart, and the center, and the truth, and therefore we are what we are. We are all answers, just as we are every question.” His statement is reminiscent of God's “I am,” and suggests that the Elohim are the alpha and omega of the Land.

As Earthpower incarnate, the Elohim are capable of a might similar to the Seventh Ward of Kevin's Lore, the Power of Command, which one attains by drinking the EarthBlood. Amok—whose name aptly summarizes the way events run once Elena uses the Power of Command to call up the shade of Kevin Landwaster—explains one of its uses: “If any drinker were to say to Melenkurion Skyweir, ‘Crumble and fall,’ the great peaks would instantly obey” (II.489). The command echoes the words of Christ: “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him” (Mark 11:23). As with the Elohim, Donaldson omits the role of faith and displaces the sacred onto the earthly, so that the theological is diminished, and the natural made supernatural.

A more elaborate application of the same principle is Donaldson's play on “word.” One reads in the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). But as Donaldson tells it in a creation myth that differs sharply from the one in which the Creator plays an active role, in the beginning was the Worm, and the Worm was not God, just a supernatural worm, from and around which forms the Earth, once the Worm gorges itself on stars and falls asleep. It is known as the Worm of the World's End, not because Covenant nearly rouses it when he journeys across the sea to the end of the known world, but because the world will end when it awakes to continue its journey through the universe. In other words, the Worm's actions form the Earth's history, as the Christian God created our world at the beginning of time and as Christ will come again in the last days. Donaldson's sense of word play is also evident in his definition of the Word of the Earth, a “term used by the Elohim to suggest variously their own nature, the nature of the Earth, and their ethical compulsions; could be read as Word, Worm, or Weird” (VI.485). In the Waynhim tongue, for example, Vain is “the Weird of the ur-viles incarnate,” meaning their Lord but also its apotheosis (IV.281). Among the Waynhim, “Weird” has an additional meaning similar to the Old English wyrd: “It is fate or destiny—but it is also choice, and is used to signify council of decision-making. It is a contradiction—fate and choice” (IV.281-82). Their own destiny, for example, is to protect the Law in which they, as manufactured beings, do not participate. They tend an immense underground garden, where the Land's plants and trees are preserved—a prophetic creation on Donaldson's part in light of the growing need for wildlife preserves in the present day.

Possessing power and significance, then, beings associated with “word” and its variants recall but replace the Christian God. Moreover, in the Land even some human words are imbued with the power to activate Earthpower—“Melenkurion abatha! Binas mill Banas Nimoram Khabaal!” (I.165). Donaldson's use of words to create the universe of The Chronicles demonstrates in itself the power of language, but within the narrative these particular words suggest the author's substitution of the natural for the numinous, the mundane's transformation into the mighty. Instead of the omnipotent Word of Christian tradition, Donaldson offers not only a series of puns but also the Seven Words of power in a human tongue.

In keeping with this pattern of displacement is Donaldson's treatment of Law. In the Land, Law is Natural Law, “the natural order that holds everything together” (IV.65). It is “the Law of Earthpower … natural order. Seasons. Weather. Growth and decay” (IV.155). In other words, Law manifests itself as the healthful regulation of Earthpower, so that Andelain, Earthpower's last hold against the Sunbane, is a place where Law is still present, reinforced by the power of Andelain's Forestal, Caer-Caveral, the former Hile Troy. As the Land's last forest illustrates, beauty is as intimately related to Law as it is to love.4 Law enables beauty:

… the Land is beautiful,
as if it were a strong soul's dream of peace and harmony,
and Beauty is not possible without discipline—
and the Law which gave birth to Time
is the Land's Creator's self-control.


In Book VI the unity of these qualities no longer exists—under the Sunbane “the beauty of the Land and Law had been broken” (161)—because the Staff of Law, created to govern and support the Earthpower, has been destroyed; the order it ensures, wounded:

For the Staff of Law had been formed by Berek Halfhand as a tool to serve and uphold the Law. He had fashioned the Staff from a limb of the One Tree as a way to wield Earthpower in defense of the health of the Land, in support of the natural order of life. And because Earthpower was the strength of mystery and spirit, the Staff became the thing it served. It was the Law; the Law was incarnate in the Staff. The tool and its purpose were one.

And the Staff had been destroyed.

That loss had weakened the very fiber of the Law. A crucial support was withdrawn, and the Law faltered.

From that seed grew both the Sunbane and the Clave.


Into this Land governed by Law comes Thomas Covenant, a man who has been the victim of the nearby community of our world, which in the first trilogy attempts to rezone his property, to warp statute in order to ostracize him. Far from being above the law, he is its victim or, as he puts it, the law's non-beneficiary. He tells Linden Avery in the second trilogy: “ … I've been living without the benefit of law so long now I don't give a damn” (IV.30). It is Rabkin's thesis that one who is transported to a place such as the Land undergoes “a fantastic reversal of the rules of our world,”5 and so it is with Thomas Covenant. A victim of the law at Haven Farm, he quickly becomes a victimizer, breaking Mithil Stonedown's laws by raping Lena. More than that, as a native of our own world, Covenant, like Foul, is outside the Land's Natural Law, and his white gold wedding ring enables a transcendent power: “Wild magic: keystone of the Arch of Time: power that was not limited or subdued by any Law except the inherent strictures of its wielder” (V.330). Covenant is quite right when he comments, “And I'm outside the Law. It doesn't control wild magic—it doesn't control me” (III.461). He not only transcends Natural Law (as proof, his turning the storm in Book I or the blast of wild magic that shatters the Staff of Law in Book III); but insofar as he is the white gold (as Mhoram has told him) he also becomes the keystone, a process he achieves in stages. At the end of Book III he learns that the white gold is not a weapon like a sword but that it articulates wild magic, allowing it to become an extension of his own passion. In Book VI, wild magic and venom are fused into him by the Banefire, and later he is the white gold even though he gives up the ring to Foul and undergoes a physical death. “I'm the paradox. You can't take the wild magic away from me” (VI.449). Covenant, the impotent leper, has realized and accepted his role as the very keystone of the “bulwark” the Creator has raised against Foul.

The Law which Covenant transcends is itself indifferent, able to be used for good or ill. Although antithetical to Foul's purposes, it protects him during the Ritual of Desecration (I.34), and Loric's krill, a tool of the Earthpower and Law, is as apt for the preservation of order as for carnage (III.477). Foul never wields the Staff of Law himself, but instead bends the will of others to use it for his purposes. Drool Rockworm summons Covenant with the Staff in Book I, and Elena's shade is compelled to use it in creation of a preternatural winter and as a weapon against Covenant and his friends in Book III. Although Donaldson never clearly states why Foul does not take up the Staff himself, The Chronicles offer a number of possibilities. It is certainly not that he fears the Staff, for having lived before the Arch was created he transcends Law. Speaking to Covenant, Elena speculates on a more likely reason: “Have you not learned that the Staff is unsuited to his hands? He would not have delivered it to us if it were in any way adept for his uses” (II.493). Of course, her wisdom is limited, and she herself is later compelled to wield the Staff to bend the Law in harmony with his uses. Although Lord Osondrea believes the Staff is designed to resist Foul's mastery (I.267), it later seems plausible that he could wield it himself. It supports the very structure of health and beauty Foul wishes to corrupt, but it was not made to fight him in a direct way (II.156), contrary to Lord Tamarantha's claim that it is “a weapon against Despite” (I.294). Not wielding it himself indicates that he seeks the Law's perversion in the hands of his servants as well as the Staff's very destruction, an ill he knows only wild magic can achieve. By shattering the Staff, Covenant also serves Foul's secondary purpose, the spread of Despite throughout the Land and within himself. The destruction of the Staff, once he understands its consequences, feeds his own inner Despiser.

Indeed, Foul advances most mightily not when he bends others into using the Staff but after Covenant destroys it in Book III. Foul then begins to shape Law directly to his own perverted will and to enhance the negative power of the Illearth Stone, which as it sounds is “the very essence of corruption,” a bane buried deep in the Earth as Creation, as much an incarnation of evil as the Staff is an incarnation of order (IV.243). In one respect, Staff and Stone could not exist without each other—they are necessary contraries in the same way as wild magic and dreams oppose Despite (II.256). Without the Staff, the Stone would corrupt the Earth; without the Stone and other banes, there would be less need to shore up the Earthpower by creating the Staff.

Whereas Foul attempts to warp Law in the first trilogy, he attempts to become the Law in the second, as Linden Avery is aware: “Foul is trying to posses the Law. He wants to make himself the natural order of the Earth” (V.36). As Foul commands the perpetual winter which blankets the Land in Book III, he creates the Sunbane in the second trilogy, a much more corrosive tool. It is an emanation of distorted Earthpower, a filter which alters sunlight in predetermined ways. Whereas the winter, created by a misuse of the Staff, is a warping of “the Earth's most fundamental orders,” the Sunbane stems from their very devastation (III.117).

The breaking of laws, however, can have positive as well as negative consequences. There is no doubt, for example, that breaking the Law of Death is disastrous when Foul turns the resurrected shade of Kevin Landwaster against Elena. For once broken, a law is broken eternally, enabling Despite to advance. Watching a Raver build a tidal wave intended to shatter The Grieve, Lord Hyrim cries: “We must stop him! He violates the sea! If he succeeds—if he bends the sea to his will—the Law that preserves it will be broken. It will serve the Despiser like another Raver” (II.311). Yet the breaking of laws, though undesirable, may enable unforeseen opportunity. Once the Sandgorgon, Nom, does not kill Covenant and thus breaks the law binding its existence, it is not required to return to its prison and later helps him defeat the Clave at Revelstone. Since the Law of Death has been broken, the Dead can speak to Covenant when he first confronts the Despiser, and they later advise him in Andelain on the occasion when he is given Vain. Of greatest significance is the breaking of the Law of Life: Caer-Caveral's sacrifice of his own life not only rejuvenates Hollian but also enables Covenant to act after the Despiser strikes him dead.

These benefits of broken laws are small comfort, of course, in the face of great corruption. What it takes to heal and restore the Law is not just a new Staff of Law but one whose power is fundamentally different from that of the old Staff. Therefore, Covenant's quest in Book V for the One Tree, from which he hopes to make a duplicate Staff, is flawed. As Christ comes to fulfill the old law and to usher in the new, the Land needs a new Staff that will both restore the old Law and add new potential. What Donaldson offers on this score in his development of a single character, Vain, is a humanized version of the Old and New Covenants of biblical tradition.

Vain serves much the same purpose in The Chronicles as Talus in The Faerie Queene. His name, suggesting vanity or self-absorption, is apt, for he is blind to every purpose but his own, as the heartless, single-minded Talus embodies judicial statute. Both possess incredible strength and speed, especially in battle. And like Talus, Vain is merciless as he rescues Covenant at Stonemight Woodhelven. But because Vain incarnates Natural Law,6 he is vulnerable, like the Land itself, to attacks derived from a perversion of that order. Although the na-Mhoram's Grim does not hurt him, their rukhs do. Drawing on the Banefire, both violate his fundamental nature, but only the latter is aimed directly at him. For the same reason, the Elohim can hurt him with their flames, and the ur-viles can unmake him.

Vain comes more sharply into focus when contrasted with Findail, his intended complement: Law incarnate versus Earthpower incarnate. Vain is single-minded in bringing Findail into Linden's grasp, but he lacks Findail's “ethical imperative,” “the capacity for use, the strength which made Law effective” (VI.460). Vain is “a being of pure structure. Nothing but structure—like a skeleton without any muscle or blood or life. Rigidness personified” (VI.209), whereas Findail is “power—an essential puissance that seemed to transcend every structure or Law of existence” (V.116). In other words, Vain is the circuitry; Findail is the electrical current. The Elohim animates the structure of Law as easily as he undergoes metamorphoses in an attempt to escape Vain's clutches:

He was Elohim, capable of taking any form of the living Earth. He dissolved himself and became an eagle, pounded the air with his wings to escape the spouting magma. But Vain clung to one of his legs and was borne upward.

Instantly, Findail transformed himself to water. The heat threw him in vapor and agony toward the ceiling. But Vain clutched a handful of essential moisture and drew the Appointed back to him.

Swifter than panic, Findail became a Giant with a great sword in both fists. He hacked savagely at Vain's wrist. But Vain only clenched his grip and let the blade glance off his iron band. (VI.405-6)

The passage calls to mind a stanza from The Faerie Queene in which Talus grapples with Malengin, who represents guile:

Into a Foxe himself he first did tourne;
But he him hunted like a Foxe full fast:
Then to a bush himselfe he did transforme,
But he the bush did beat, till that at last
Into a bird it chaung'd, and from him past,
Flying from tree to tree, from wand to wand:
But he then stones at it so long did cast,
That like a stone it fell upon the land,
But he then tooke it up, and held fast in his hand.

(V.ix. 17)7

The stanza may be an actual source of Vain's struggle with Findail, and it serves at least as a useful antecedent, for in each work an iron man embodying strict law grapples with a Protean figure caught in his clutches—the rigidness of law pitted against a foe whose fluidity indicates that he either transcends or operates outside of the Law.

The wild magic is a fitting means to bind Vain and Findail together, for its paradoxical nature—metaphorically described by Donaldson as the rigidness of water and the flux of rock—captures an essential quality of each. Wild magic itself may make a valuable contribution—unlike Law it opposes Despite. But more fundamentally, the resulting Staff embodies newly achieved strength insofar as it is an alloy of Vain and Findail. As Covenant realizes, “alloys transcend the normal strictures” (VI.281), a principle borne out equally well by the presence of both Covenant and Linden Avery in the Land: the Creator “hopes that together we'll become something greater than we would alone” (VI.294).

Even Findail, however, is an insufficient complement to Vain, since “the Elohim were too self-absorbed. The transformation required something which only the human hold of the ring could provide” (VI460). When Linden Avery fuses them together, she adds “her passion for health and healing, her Land-born percipience, the love she had learned for Andelain and Earthpower” (VI.460). Indeed, her health sense has proven to be sensitive to Law, but what Vain receives in the transformation is in no way a divine complement, just a being who embodies what is mystical in nature and the qualities a physician holds most dear. As the agent of Law's restoration, Linden Avery substitutes for divine mercy. The resulting Staff is alive—powerful as well as purposive, almost sentient. The old Staff needed runes to define its uses, but the new Staff is self-defining, a tool to oppose not only disorder in nature but also Despite. The old Staff shored up Earthpower; the new Staff is Earthpower. Since the old Law has been restored and the new Law added to it, the breaking of the old Staff becomes a fortunate fall in as much as it enables the creation of a greater power, with which the people of the Land can fight Foul more effectively in ages to come.

For oppose him they must. As Covenant realizes, Despite cannot die, so there can only be struggle against Foul and his momentary defeat, not his final eradication. Killing the Despiser would make one a despiser in Foul's image, and the new Staff is an important means of restraining him without going to such lengths. Here Donaldson shares a fundamental principle with Spenser: an individual like Thomas Covenant can overcome Despite, an age can overcome Despite and be for awhile free of its weight, but the quality remains a part of the human condition. As Spenser's Artegall, mature in justice, does not muzzle the perpetrator of great injustice, the Blatant Beast, but leaves the task for those who follow, so Sunder, Hollian and their descendants, though they have hope for the future, will never be totally free from Foul's machinations against them.

The Chronicles also share with The Faerie Queene the presence of psychological or spiritual journey as a structural principle.8 Artegall matures in justice as Covenant ultimately achieves Christ-like love and innocence in spite of his leprosy and his many crimes against the Law when he sacrifices himself under Kiril Threndor. Since he defeats Lord Foul, the externalization of his own dark side, he has worked out in the Land the psychological renewal he could not achieve on his own at Haven Farm. But unlike a Spenserian Knight, he does so unaided by divine grace. For Thomas Covenant, then, the author's statement in his preface to “Gilden-Fire” (an original part of The Illearth War) is a fitting elegy: “In reality as in dreams, what matters is the answer we find in our hearts to the test of Despite.”9


  1. See my earlier article, “The Hero's Education in Sacrificial Love: Thomas Covenant, Christ-Figure,” Mythlore 54 (1988), 34-38.

  2. All biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version.

  3. All quotations are from Stephen R. Donaldson, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Books I-VI (New York: Ballantine Books): The Lord Foul's Bane, The Illearth War, The Power that Preserves (1977); The Wounded Land (1980), The One Tree (1982), White Gold Wiedler (1983). All references appear in the text.

  4. See “The Hero's Education in Sacrificial Love.”

  5. Eric S. Rabkin, The Fantastic in Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 59. Covenant's own explanation bears out Rabkin's point “Culture shock is what happens when you take a man out of his own world and put him down in a place where the assumptions, the—standards of being a person—are so different that he can't possibly understand them” (I.199). Hurtloam's power to regenerate Covenant's dead nerves, compared with our own world's ills, provides an apt illustration: “We have cancer, heart failure, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, birth defects, leprosy—we have alcoholism, venereal disease, drug addiction, rape, robbery, murder, child beating, genocide—but he could not bear to utter a catalog of woes that might run on forever” (I.283-84).

  6. It is a minor flaw in Donaldson's tale that the painfully introspective Thomas Covenant does not realize that Vain is Law once he puts on the heels of the Staff of Law at Revelstone in Book IV, or after ring fire partly transforms one of his arms into wood.

  7. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

  8. Roger C. Schlobin mentions but does not directly compare The Faerie Queene and The Chronicles in “The Locus Amoenus and the Fantasy Quest” (Kansas Quarterly 16 [1984], 29-33.) For a broader study, see Raymond H. Thompson, “Modern Fantasy and Medieval Romance: A Comparative Study,” in The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, ed. Roger C. Schlobin (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982), 211-25.

  9. Daughters of Regal and Other Tales (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 91.

William Senior (essay date Autumn 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 is “essentially his own, fundamentally different from Tolkien's in tone, texture, and spirit” (Clute 267). It could reasonably be said that no serious modern fantasy would be possible without Tolkien's accomplishment, so in one sense John Clute is correct. Yet, the dependence of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant on The Lord of the Rings that John Clute sees as a “critical truism” does not have the éclat of a proverb that he assigns it. Some early reviews of Donaldson's Chronicles do compare the trilogy to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Christine Barkley argues that “Donaldson carries on the task Tolkien had begun. … Thomas Covenant, Donaldson's unusually reluctant hero, is the logical heir to Frodo Baggins as the unlikely common man upon whom the fate of the world rests” (50). Michael Moorcock grumbles that he owes “rather more to Tolkien than I find tolerable” (90).1 But others reject such connections. Gordon Slethaug says that Donaldson never allows complete escape for anyone and that “It is this refusal to permit escape that gives The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever its special message, interest, and distinction. It is this quality that separates it from Tolkienesque fantasy” (22). Brian Aldiss places Donaldson among those writers, “who do not think generically; they are not received generically” (277). From another reference comes this: “This is not a Tolkien-like fantasy with a great hero eager to do service for a troubled land” (Tymn 74).

Moreover, Tolkien and Donaldson have attended on the same muse2 and use the elves, dwarves, wizards, and so on that belong to the library from which fantasy writers borrow their materials. Both trilogies are works of vast scope rooted in common traditions and inhabitants; corresponding symbolic geographies; circular voyages by unlikely protagonists; animated, vigorous, teeming worlds; rings of doom; and the power of song and tale. The leper Thomas Covenant and the hobbit Frodo Baggins are curious cousins of dissimilar background and temperament but of related quests, shared hardships, and mutual experiences. However, it would be a mistake to see Donaldson's work as merely another of the myriad—and invariably inferior—imitations of The Lord of the Rings. Donaldson's Chronicles differ from Tolkien's trilogy 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.


In Epic Fantasy in the Modern World Donaldson pays tribute to Tolkien, who “restored the epic to English literature.” But Donaldson states that in Tolkien's view we can dream epic dreams again “only if we understand clearly that those dreams have no connection to the reality of who we are and what we do.” The saga of a past and lost beauty and grandeur, The Lord of the Rings has no direct connection to our day to day world, and we can apply Eric Rabkin's assessment of William Morris to Tolkien:

Morris distances history beyond the gulf of a discontented and impassable historical gap, and thus creates a history in a fairy land so that we can escape into a history that is demonstrably not progressive because it is not connected with our own times (93).3

The historical intent of The Chronicles is the reverse of The Lord of the Rings and underscores the difference between the British and American perspectives. The weight of the history of Middle-earth lies in the past so that any actions which take place in the present of the text are continuations of a plan sprung from previous ages. Conversely, Donaldson uses historical background to establish a story in which all looks to the future, not back to the past. Since Foul is the reigning, immutable demon of the Land, we know that he will return continually. Thus, each battle with Foul exists more as a preparation for the future than as a reflection of the past. The Second Chronicles occur forty thousand years later than the First, and their resolution points to the future: Covenant's timeless battle against Foul. Donaldson has said that he has a third series in mind, although he may never write it.4

Kenneth Zahorski and Robert Boyer propose a fourfold classification of high fantasy worlds which spells out the distinction between Tolkien and Donaldson. Middle-earth belongs to the class which is “clearly set in a primary world of the very distant past” and which is mythic and legendary in nature (60). Donaldson's Land falls into those “works set in secondary worlds vaguely defined in terms of their relationship to our world and to our time” (59). To Thomas Covenant, the Land is a dream and its inhabitants attributes of his life in the “real” world; thus, its “relationship to our world and to our time” is specific in terms of the central character in a way that Tolkien's historical tales cannot be. Zahorski and Boyer further assert that fantacists set the secondary world “in some sort of more direct relationship to the primary world enabling them to further define their secondary worlds by comparison with this one” (63), while Gary Wolfe points to the “deeper belief, which permits certain fantasy works to become analogues of inner experience” (“Encounter” 13). Thus, the quintessential change between Tolkien and Donaldson is that the inhabitants of the Land and the Land itself are closer to us, more reflections of our “real world” than the mythical and folkloric characters of Middle-earth because they grow out of Thomas Covenant, the “one real man,” as exponents of his condition as a leper.

Donaldson's aim is, in part, to make us all look at the issues of our present world through the magnifying glass of fantasy. His vision is not limited to simply a spiritual refreshing; it asks us to consider the manifold ills of our world and constitutes an attempt “to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy” (Epic). Thus, The Chronicles begin not only in contemporary America but with an appeal to formal realism. At the leprosarium, a doctor impersonally educates Covenant, and concomitantly the reader, about leprosy and its more subtly scourging effects:

the leper has always been despised and feared—outcast even by his most loved ones because of a rare bacillus no one can predict or control. Leprosy is not fatal and the average person can look forward to as much as thirty or fifty years of life as a leper. That fact, combined with the progressive disability which the disease inflicts, makes leprosy patients, of all sick people, the ones most desperately in need of human support. But virtually all societies condemn their lepers to isolation and despair.

(I, 17)

Our first view of Covenant shows us a woman pulling her child away from Covenant and berating him simply for walking on the public streets while others, “the people who knew him, whose names and houses and handclasps were known to him—he saw that they stepped aside, gave him plenty of room” (I, 1). On one hand, his subsequent translation to the Land amplifies his sense of separation from others, of the unreality of his condition, and of his inability to cope; but on the other the Land presents an alternative to Covenant's world. The Land and the people he meets offer him all the things that he has lost: compassion, sympathy, a place within the community, friendship, a surrogate marriage, and even health through setting. The evil which assails them, and him, arises from the nature of his disease and achieves both numinous and cthonic substance in Lord Foul and his servants, who enact the physical and psychological violence of Hansen's disease; psychic phenomena acquire an outward, understandable form and enact their natures accordingly.

It is important to remember that Covenant rationalizes this experience as a dream (I, 48, 77, 83, 93 etc.). Rosemary Jackson points out that fantasy is essentially a literature in which the unconscious emerges through projection of desire (64), and she affirms it has the end of subverting the governing law of the world in which one lives.5 The Land's alternate reality and laws accord with Eric Rabkin's observation that the fantastic is a perspective which contradicts other perspectives (4). The monolithic demands and laser beam focus of leprosy close Covenant off from even typical daydreaming. This alternate view of reality offered by the Land counterpoints the prescribed perspective of his world, and through his experiences in the Land, Covenant is edged back to his lost humanity. Dream or not, this world provides what he lacks.


A comparison of the Lords of the Land and the wizards of Middle-earth illustrates Tolkien's and Donaldson's different uses of a common source: Tolkien's traditional hierarchic and mythic approach as opposed to Donaldson's American democracy and focus on one “real” man. From The Silmarillion we discover that the wizards are actually angelic ministers sent to oppose one of their own, Sauron (299-300).6 Among them, only Gandalf appears in any depth. Of the original five who sailed to Middle-earth, two have left the knowledge of the others entirely. Gandalf's wanderings, Saruman's isolation in his tower, Radagast's affinity for animals and solitude, and the disappearance of the others underscore their separate natures and distance from even the peoples of Middle-earth. They are archetypes of wisdom and power, mysterious and aloof agents whose role in a greater cosmic scheme is concealed from those they serve.

By contrast, the Lords of the Covenant novels are a wholly human group who function democratically and whose parents, wives or husbands, children, and homes are known to all. Each has a distinct personality, from the ascetic High Lord Prothall to the comic and cherubic Lord Hyrim, who values food and cheer above all things, to the stark, bitter Lord Verement. All of the lords have human flaws and weaknesses as well as strengths. At Manhome in a conversation with a bitter Covenant, Mhoram responds to the Unbeliever's resignation and cynicism with a laugh, and his “laughter emphasized the kindness of his lips” (I, 384). Tolkien rarely reveals such an intimate side to his wizards, and then only in glimpses of Gandalf's friendships with the hobbits and Aragorn. Gandalf does good because he is innately good. Similarly, no complexity of human personality or motive accounts for Saruman's fall from grace. Hubris, as a deadly sin, tells us all we need to know for Tolkien's purposes and allies Saruman, like the other wizards, to an archetype invested with universal significance.

Mhorham and Gandalf are similar, but Mhorham is the more human, more approachable figure. In their strength, pity for the weak, and appreciation of the quiet things in life, the two are kindred. When situations become bleak and victory seems impossible, all look to these two. But Gandalf, despite his easy laughter and flashing anger, remains a distant figure whose comings and goings are suspect to many and whose nature and purpose are hidden. In contrast, Covenant takes the measure of Mhoram and sees a man with “a crooked, humane mouth, and a fond smile” (I, 223). His love of his fellows and his compassion spell out his generous, sympathetic nature and show to Covenant something that he lost in his “real” world. When Covenant informs the Lords that he considers them and their world a dream, Mhoram, in a display of empathy which Covenant no longer expects, defends him, although they have just met: “Enough, sister Osondrea. He torments himself—sufficiently” (I, 260). Upon the death of his parents, “his eyes bled tears, and his voice wept” (I, 330). Mhoram is first a man and second a lord. Gandalf is of another order altogether, and his resurrection after his battle with the Balrog in Moria highlights his semi-divine nature. We must note that even Aragorn defers to Gandalf at all times, that he has no equals or peers except in his enemies. In Tolkien's hierarchal, quasi-medieval world, distinctions of rank and kind must be preserved because part of the wonder that infuses his creation arises from the majesty and nobility of the aristocracy, including the wizards. To become too acquainted with Gandalf, too familiar, would be to diminish him and to weaken the image Tolkien intended for him.

Furthermore, we can associate High Lord Elena with the only powerful female figure in The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel, greatest of the Eldar remaining in Middle-earth. Elena is a vibrant, young woman, a figure of the lost love and sexuality from which Covenant suffers, while Galadriel has the power and remoteness of a legendary British queen. We know of Elena's childhood, of her passion for the Ranyhyn, of her need for Covenant's love and support. She recalls to him both the lost love of his estranged wife and the lost opportunity to share his son's life. At times she seems a young, coltish girl, not the High Lord trammeled by a burgeoning and desperate conflagration. At Glimmermere, she plays tag with Covenant and ducks his head below the water. “She reappeared almost immediately, laughing almost before she lifted her head above water” (II, 145). Such simple moments sandwiched into the darkling hours of life touch him deeply and sooth his terrible distress. It is difficult to imagine the like from Galadriel, of whose gaze Sam says, “If you want to know, I felt as if I hadn't got nothing on, and I didn't like it” (I, 463); in her rejection of the Ring and of Sauron, “She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful” (473). Like Gandalf, Galadriel is of another order, like all the Elves not bound intimately to or ultimately concerned with the fate of others; she is a figure of immense age and the dignity of centuries. Elena is a woman who accedes in critical moments to immense power; Galadriel is an immense power in a woman's form.

Next, Donaldson's Giants, with their deep sadness, long lives, welling humor, and love of stories are prefigured by Tolkien's Ents: huge, powerful creatures who are slow to become roused, as Treebeard puts it, they are lethal if threatened. But in each, a gentle nature contradicts an imposing appearance. When Covenant meets Foamfollower, he observes a muscular being twelve feet high with “small, deepset, and enthusiastic eyes” which communicate “an incongruous geniality, of immense good humor” (I, 175). Treebeard studies Merry and Pippin with a similar “half-knowing, half-humorous look” in his small, well-like green eyes (II, 85). Long names in deep, sonorous languages tell their histories and character, and the dearth of children spells tragedy and doom to both. Again, though, their ultimate natures are incongruent. Treebeard is a tree on whom human attributes have been grafted, an Ent to whom the world is a distant and passing tale. Even within Middle-earth, the Ents are the stuff of legend and fairy tale. Legolas tells the others that “even among us [the Elves] they are only a memory” (131). In fact, like those very Elves, the Ents are primeval expressions of a natural good. In them reside no moral doubts, no quandaries of ethical decision, such is the legacy of their ancient memory and being.

Saltheart Foamfollower and the Giants have legendary strength and tell legendary tales which reach far back into time, but they contribute regularly to the warp and woof of life in the Land. Their source is more the tall tales of the American west, and they recall the likes of Paul Bunyon and other pioneering giants in the earth. Donaldson clearly features them as large, powerful people with recognizable human traits, chiefly booming humor. The Giants have greater size and thus more capacity to laugh or to suffer and endure the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that others, including Covenant, are heir to. Foamfollowers' understanding of Covenant, his pity for the child Pietten, his charity to the dying cavewight at the battle of Soaring Woodhelven, and his despair at his own capacity for hate and violence all bring him closer to us. Covenant finds himself awed by Foamfollower's sensitivity and charity; the Giant's “capacity for gentleness surpassed him” (I, 387). Giants offer the bereft Covenant and the people of the Land a sturdy and unquestioning alliance. Where Treebeard and the Ents battle Saruman for their own purposes and retreat to Fanghorn Forest, the Giants have actively opposed Lord Foul and aided the Lords and people of the Land for ages.

In Donaldson's Gravelingas Tolkien's frequently stiffnecked and grasping Dwarves find a more pleasant countenance, but only the love of fine craftsmanship, stone, and mountain truly links the two. Gimli's confidence and comfort in the fortress of Helm's Deep is reflected in the Gravelingas' surety of the gutrock of Revelstone even under siege. But here resemblances, including the physical, end. The Gravelingas are not Dwarves, although they take a page from the same book. The Dwarves of Middle-earth belong to their own race and, like the Ents although to a lesser degree, live isolated in their own mountain abodes; few are evident in The Lord of the Rings, and Gimli, as their representative, demonstrates the characteristics we are meant to associate with Dwarves: immense strength and endurance, obdurate loyalty and prejudice, and hidden depths of emotion. Gimli's close friendship with Legolas, an Elf of tree and green, is an anomaly, and his reaction to the caves at Helm's Deep reinforces the typical Dwarf's essence in his love of stone and mountain.

A Gravelingas, like a lord, is not a member of a separate people or race; he is a master of stone-lore who can work with rock through a communion with it. The Gravelingas are integral members of their communities and stand high in the regard of their fellows. Covenant's first meeting with Trell shows him a “bluff, hale man” whose “presence felt imperturbable and earthy, like an assertion of common sense” (I, 64). His paternal solicitude for his daughter combined with his initial hospitality and acceptance of Covenant fashion another touch of humanity that has been missing in his life. Tohrm, the Hirebrand of Lord's Keep, has a “clean and merry face” and a “voice that seemed to bubble with good humor” (II, 72), a portrait of contrast to the restrained, grave Trell. He even moves Covenant out of his dour self-absorption to “say a word to good Borillar,” who does cherish it. Thus does his light illuminate the heart and warm the spirit. To the end he remains both cheerful and optimistic, implicitly believing that the Unbeliever will save them.

Like the vague association which links Dwarf to Gravelingas, the bond between Tolkien's Elves and the Woodhelvennin is a very tenuous connection attributable to their distant but common stock. The Woodhelvennin share with Tolkien's Elves woodcraft, keen eyes, and mastery of the bow and marksmanship, as well as a passion for tree and leaf, deep wood and starlight, albeit less brilliantly or loftily. Tolkien's Elves are more elemental, sprung from a deep past with its own ancient rhythms, while Donaldson's Woodhelvennin recall people in a midwestern community. Covenant spends one night in Soaring Woodhelven where he is tested by frightened and worried guardians as children frolic among the branches of trees, playing tag and chasing one another. People come and go, performing their daily tasks and going about their usual routines. Covenant stays in the modest home of the tree's Hirebrand and eats an equally modest meal of cheese, bread, grapes, and springwine. Here is the world he has been deprived of, the activity and sense of place rent from him by leprosy. The Woodhelvennin have no superhuman powers or weapons, no exotic foods or airs to brush away the rigors of his journey; he and Atiaran receive no seemingly magical gifts, as Aragorn and the company do, to aid them upon parting. Perhaps most tellingly, the aura of sadness and antiquity that permeates Lothlórien and removes it even from the “real” world of Middle-earth does not exist here, and nothing compares to the house of Elrond and the massive power and dignity invested there. Soaring Woodhelven is identifiable as a country town, populated as any small, rural town is, and does not compare to the regal majesty of Caras Galadon in Lórien, sharing the common foundation of a tree only. But it does offer Donaldson another bridge between reality and fantasy through its quotidian inhabitants and its fantastic construction. In his world and his own small rural town, Covenant fails all tests and is outcast; in Soaring Woodhelven he finds acceptance through the Hirebrand's testing, even though he does not entirely merit—or desire—it.

We in the “real” world do not expect to meet Elves or Dwarves. Elves themselves recall a time gone by and a world which is no longer ours. Yet we, like Covenant, wish to live in and share the simple and healthy lives of the Woodhelvennin and Gravelingasses. Their communities, their sense of rightness or justice, their unity are what is denied to Covenant in his “real” world. The reaction of those in the Land stands in stark contrast to his alienation by his own fellows in his world. He is not shunned, because no one can see his illness; even the concept confuses them. He craves the acceptance and purpose or place that everyman searches for in life, but as a leper he needs it even more. The wanton, Foul-like cruelty of his neighbors—the persecution by the sheriff, the razor blade inserted in his food, the arson of his stable—has so jaundiced him that he cannot trust the Land. Gradually, his treatment by those in the Land and the position they accord him erodes his mechanical defensiveness and aloofness and will eventually propel him toward a transformed, reinvigorated perspective in his own world.

While they have certain similarities, Lord Foul and Sauron are radically different expressions of evil. The salient features of each, we note, emanate from their sleepless, unblinking eyes: the yellow greed and venom in Foul's (II, 451) balance the piercing, red malevolence of Sauron's (III, 270). Both have many slaves and servants and hide themselves in deep, remote fortresses; both wish to crush all opposition and reduce the world to a desert of nightmare. Yet Sauron, as a force, is removed physically and psychologically from us; we never see him. He represents a generic evil compounded of mindless hate and enmity. His goal is to cover all in shadow, “to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,” and to obliterate the light of goodness. An analogue of Satan, Sauron is symbolic not literal, universal as opposed to particular.7 He is the composite, traditional figure drawn from western Christian demonology and meant as the animation of the powers of hell.

Where Sauron is primarily metaphoric, Foul is basically synecdochic and operates as the active expression of a specific type of corruption. Foul does not wish to bind all in darkness; he wishes to twist and deprave, to hold something up to what it should be as opposed to what it has made itself through his machinations. Foamfollower comes to despise himself because he sees that in fighting Foul, he comes to resemble Foul. The Giants lie down and die at their own hands, in a sense, because they perceive in themselves the capacity for evil that Foul incarnates, the heart of darkness in all men. It is no accident that one of their own slays them one by one and meets no resistance, because they are actually fighting a deeply repressed part of their own being. Foamfollower adumbrates their demise in Treacher's Gorge: “It may be that hope misleads. But hate—hate corrupts. I have been too quick to hate. I become like what I abhor” (I, 408). During his temptations before Foul, Covenant comes to understand his demon's nature: “Lord Foul was only an externalized part of himself” (III, 462); he is the ills of leprosy given life and force, a disease that works unseen and unfelt until it is too late. Foul's immanence, his proximity to humanity, makes him defeatable, and Covenant's command to the Lords to heal themselves and thus purge themselves of Foul unlocks the secret of despite and overcomes it. As their laughter mounts, Foul regresses from adult to squalling infant to absence. His ending underscores his difference from Sauron: Sauron is destroyed; Foul is merely rendered impotent for a while and will return.

Foul's most powerful servants, the quasi-vampiric Ravers, lack any being of their own, much like Sauron's Nazgûl, and both share a resultant loathing for life and a lust for blood. Before the gates of Minas Tirith, Gandalf faces the Nazgûl chief, who flings back his hood to expose a crown: “and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark” (III, 125). In essence, they are extensions of the malice of Sauron and possess no individual traits or nature, not even varied aspects of evil. Although they once were men, in an age long past, they retain no scintilla of human quality and become amorphous, tenbral horrors of Sauron's nightmare reign.

By contrast, the Ravers are three brothers with identifying names, who must seize and possess human form in order to give vent to their destructive detestation of life. Like Foul, they pervert from within, using the weaknesses of those they exploit and violating them. Thus, they impinge upon our consciousness as the id gone wild. When the Raver takes Triock, he/they do to Covenant all the things Triock has dreamed of doing; the Raver uses the Stonedowner's deep-seated abhorrence and resentment of Covenant to his own purposes. Even after the Raver has left him, Triock seems possessed: “In the place of such distortions was an extravagant bitterness, a rage not controlled by any of his old restraints. He was himself and not himself” (III, 361). Hate has conquered and corrupted him, the same hate which Foamfollower is so appalled to discover within himself. Seen in this light, the possession of the Giant triplets by Ravers becomes a logical extension of this execration, a hallmark of leprosy, the natural tendency of all to understand it as a condign punishment for some moral blemish. “In the absence of any natural, provable explanation of the illness, people account for it in other way, all bad—as proof of crime or filth or perversion, evidence of God's judgement, as the horrible sign of some psychological or spiritual or moral corruption or guilt” (I, 18).

In the perversion wreaked by Foul and the Ravers is the image of the American national psyche after the Vietnam War. Its symptoms are a loss of innocence, the loss of faith in a previously assumed manifest cultural goodness, the recognition of what power can make one become, and the fear that the truths of the past were nothing but illusions, the self-serving records of the victors who write their own history. Slethaug makes a case for The Chronicles as typically American “in the manner of Hawthorne, Melville, Ellison and Barth where innocence cripples, leading to despair over the knowledge of pain, suffering, and evil” (22).

Christine Barkley distinguishes between the nature of evil in The Lord of the Rings and Donaldson's Chronicles with a historical argument (51-3). World War II threatened the free peoples of the world with domination by a Master Race, the major fear of the period. Unmaking the Ring led at one stroke to solving the problem of Sauron, just as dropping the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did the same. On the other hand, the ills of Covenant's post-Vietnam world are multiple: pollution, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons in all countries, loss of ideals, and so on. No single action can solve such decentralized threats, and Lord Foul becomes the appropriate villain and Covenant the appropriate hero for such a world. Foul returns in another guise, and Covenant represents the average person's sense of frustration, alienation, and impotence before this protean menace.

The nature of the armies of evil signals anew the difference between Tolkien's world and Donaldson's. Orcs, trolls, Shelob the great spider, Wargs, the carrion-bred steeds of the Nazgûl—all have bestial connotations and belong to the realm of the goblins, wicked wolves, and flying monsters of folklore and myth. They are not allegorical or symbolic except in that they represent the hostile powers of a minatory and mysterious world in which man must be alert at all times. They are creatures sprung from nightmare, from the recesses of the reptilian core of the brain where the dark is impenetrable, half-seen, half-imagined monsters, Grendel's lurking on the fringe of sanity and society and contemplating mindless, incomprehensible chaos. In contrast, many of Foul's sickening creatures are human in form, the product of horrible mutations. Many recall the effects of leprosy or of deformity due to other diseases, birth defects, or the radiation exposure of (generally bad) science fiction:

Most of them were vaguely human in outline. But their features were tormented, grotesquely arranged, as if some potent fist has clenched them at birth, twisting them beyond all recognition. Eyes were out of place, malformed; noses and mouths bulged in skin that was contorted like clay which had been squeezed between two strong fingers. (III, 119)

These beings are so monstrous and hideous precisely because they are, broadly speaking, human, and as lepers are perceived, sinners in the hands of an angry god. The outer vestiges of humanity remain in them, but all qualities and traits we associate with being human have been denied them as a result of the moral depravation, the parody of extreme leprosy, they have been submitted to, one which finds countenance in their forms.

Jules Zanger and Robert Wolf contend that modern fantasy has undergone a shift from an earlier, predominantly British view of magic to a primarily American perspective. In the traditional schema, the hero is everyman and the battle primarily a moral one against an evil whose magical abilities are far superior to those of the good; magic, in this view, is primarily immoral and threatening. In the emerging American outlook, magic is an amoral, neutral force, and the struggle between good and evil hinges on a hero who must master “the technology of magic” and use it better than his foe (31-3). Magic, then, is a natural resource available to anyone with the power and will to use it.

At the center of each trilogy is a ring of power whose apparent simplicity denies its hidden potency but whose natures are wholly different. Sauron's One Ring is the extension, like the Nazgûl, of his power and malice. As Roger Sale points out, “With power enough to bind everything, Sauron's world can only be destroyed with a bang” (282). Gandalf explains to Frodo, “he let a great part of his former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others” (I, 82). The ancient verses from Elven lore spell out its particular purpose:

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

The Fellowship of the Ring, vii)

Beyond abstract hatred and supernatural puissance, the Ring embodies the desire to possess, to entrap. The one year that Frodo carried it so works upon him that once it is destroyed he must seek another type of healing and so he leaves Middle-earth.

Covenant's ring is a neutral source of power, not a moral agent bent on evil. He keeps his ring because his wife gave it to him; it is the last lifeline to his old, innocent life and inspires the memory of all that a wedding ring should: “It was an icon of himself. It reminded him of where he had been and where he was—of promises made and broken, companionship lost, helplessness—and of his vestigial humanity” (I, 27). He repeatedly tells himself that he should have thrown it away but can't, for that action would indicate that he has capitulated and sees himself as damned irrevocably from his fellow beings. Mhoram whispers to Covenant, “You are the white gold” (III, 59). He cannot understand the white gold and its power because he does not comprehend himself, and he cannot control it because he cannot control himself. The ring and its wild magic incarnate all the possibility denied him as a leper, all the life and force that he craves but cannot find a way to grasp. His plight is an analogue of the post-Vietnam American distrust of power in the face of amorphous and ever changing evils. Before the direct and comprehensible evil of Sauron, a reflection of World War II's Nazi threat, Frodo has no qualms about forsaking the use of power and seeking to destroy it.

Between Frodo Baggins and Thomas Covenant lies a universe of differences. Frodo belongs to a bucolic and mythic world in which the past is alive; Covenant lives in the twentieth century where even the recent past is quickly forgotten. Frodo is cheerful, friendly, happy, and respected; Covenant is bitter, violently angry, and abhorred. If Frodo exemplifies the standard development of the protagonist moving from virtuous obscurity through tests of character to heroic achievement, Covenant provides an inverse dynamic: Frodo begins as normal and moves toward abnormality (Sauron) whereas Covenant moves from abnormality back toward normality. Frodo has plumbed his own depths and seen Sauron peering up out of the darkness of his soul; he has discovered the potentiality of evil within himself and cannot reintegrate himself into the innocent life of the Shire. He realizes the temptations of power and evil, the effect of the Ring, which Gandalf and Galadriel shunned. Hobbits are, of course, basically human in all the ways that are important, like telling tales while sitting around a fire eating and drinking. But Frodo and Bilbo travel routes of initiation, of maturity because hobbits mark a special stage of ethical development. They begin as children and grow up to self-sufficiency. Covenant begins as pariah, as unclean, as fallen adult in the “real” world. Frodo must learn that he has an inner darkness, but Covenant's is transmogrified to outer negatives in the form of leprosy, hate, rage, bitterness, and self-disgust. His progression is in a sense a healthy regression as he slogs back to normality. His rejection of hate, of Foul himself, when he tells the Lords and Foamfollower to heal themselves and to laugh Foul into insufficiency, undertakes a proportionate healing, both physically and spiritually, within himself. His recovery creates the recovery of the Land and looks to the future; Frodo's destruction of the Ring ends an era of the past.

The endings of the works raise one last difficult and abstract issue: that of atmosphere or what John Clute refers to as the spirit of each work. For the denouement of each summarizes the gap between them. Samwise returns home to a wife and rapidly growing family, accepts his child on his lap, and quietly announces in front of the fire, “Well, I'm back” (III, 385). Domestic tranquility, order, and happiness reflect the condition of the world at large. Tolkien's story has the prescribed happy ending tinctured with the sadness and sense of loss that high fantasy so often invokes, but order has been restored, the world renewed, and good rewarded. The macrocosmic scales of justice have weighted and balanced themselves, and all's right in Heaven and on Earth.

Covenant, by contrast, wakes up alone in a hospital bed and after a brief discourse with a doctor remains alone. He has caused or been implicated in so many deaths—Lena's, Atiaran's, Triock's, Elena's, Foamfollower's—that sentimentalism would invalidate his entire experience. Donaldson does not try to make the reader feel good, does not assert the universal joy that Tolkien ascribes to the consolation of fantasy (“On Fairy-Stories” 85-6). To gloss over his crimes, to deny the utter evil perpetrated by so many, to place a moral bandage on spiritual wounds—any shirking from the grim vision of the trilogy violates its intent and admits that despite appearances, things were never all that bad. But they were, and in our world they still are. Frodo lives, but Covenant survives. And that is how their creators would have them be.


  1. Moorcock complains that “not enough modern practitioners [of fantasy] pay sufficient attention to the invention of their own specific landscapes” (70), and he cites Donaldson as a follower of Tolkien who does nothing new (66).

  2. Humphrey Carpenter quotes a letter written to Tolkien by C. S. Lewis in 1949 about his first reading of The Lord of the Rings, the praise and judgement of which could fairly be applied to Donaldson's “Chronicles” and to Covenant's dark quest: “In two virtues I think it excels: sheer sub-creation—Bombadil, Barrow Wights, Elves, Ents—as if from inexhaustible resources, and construction. Also in gravitas” (204).

  3. Donaldson disavows any intention of emulating Tolkien or The Lord of the Rings. He attributes his vision to the whole process of literature and says that Tolkien is an important part of that process: “Tolkien influenced me powerfully by inspiring in me a desire to write fantasy. But when I actually began writing the Covenant books, I stayed as far away from Tolkien's example as the exigencies of my own story allowed” (153).

  4. Donaldson says, “In the First Chronicles … Thomas Covenant faces Lord Foul and defeats him. In the Second … Thomas Covenant surrenders to Lord Foul and accepts him. In the last Chronicles … Thomas Covenant becomes Lord Foul. Following the psychological paradigm through, what happens at the point that you become your own other self is that you become whole, and the universe is made new” (Personal Interview).

  5. Jackson takes as her starting point Todorov's system of the uncanny as opposed to the marvelous. When a person experiencing the fantastic hesitates, the famous moment of Todorovian hesitation, there are two possible explanations: the uncanny, which can be understood by natural causes; and the marvelous, which has supernatural causes (25-6). Donaldson's work causes a hesitation in both us and Covenant because we don't know if this is uncanny (dream), or marvelous (a supernatural translation to another world).

  6. In Unfinished Tales Tolkien sketches the history of the arrival of the Istari, or wizards, in the north of Middle-earth; “We must assume that they [the Istari] were all Maiar, that is persons of the ‘angelic’ order, though not necessarily of the same rank” (394); thus, Gandalf has no counterpart in the Land.

  7. Colin Manlove complains that there is no balance to Sauron, that he is too powerful a force (Modern Fantasy 190-93). Sauron is The Lord of the Rings's title character, but there is no opposition in Middle-earth that can stand against him. Manlove says “Tolkien has done what Milton is sometimes accused of having done: he has unconsciously let the weight of his imagination fall on the wrong side” (192). This is the point that Covenant works backwards from toward a recognition that good is more real and evil more ephemeral. Foul's layers melt away as the Lords laugh him into a non-entity. There is no mystery here, simply the refutation and defeat of despite itself. Where Sauron surpasses human nature and understanding, Foul is overcome by both because he is contained by both.

Works Cited

Aldiss, Brian. Trillion Year Spree. New York: Avon, 1973, 86.

Barkley, Christine. “Donaldson as Heir to Tolkien.” Mythlore 38 (1984): 50-7.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Clute, John. “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and the Second Chronicles.” Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1983. 266-74.

Donaldson, Stephen R. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. 3 vols. New York: Ballantine, 1977.

——— Epic Fantasy in the Modern World. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Libraries, 1986.

——— Personal Interview. March 22, 1991.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. New York and London: Methuen, 1981.

Manlove, Colin. Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1975.

——— The Impulse of Fantasy Literature. Kent, OH: Kent State U.P., 1983.

Rabkin, Eric. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1976.

Sale, Roger. “Tolkien and Frodo Baggins,” Tolkien and the Critics. Eds. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo. Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame Press, 1968. 247-88.

Searles, Baird, Beth Meacham, and M. Franklin, Eds. Reader's Guide to Modern Fantasy. New York: Facts on File, 1982.

Slethaug, Gordon. “No Exit: The Hero as Victim in Donaldson.” Mythlore 40 (1982): 23-7.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 3 vols. New York: Ballantine, 1965.

——— “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. 33-99.

——— The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Tymn, Marshall, Kenneth J. Zahorski, and Robert H. Boyer, Eds. Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide. New York: Bowker, 1979.

Wolfe, Gary K. “The Encounter with Fantasy.” The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art. Ed. Roger Schlobin. Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame p., 1982. 1-15.

Zahorski, Kenneth J. and Robert H. Boyer. “The Secondary Worlds of High Fantasy.” The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art. Ed. Roger Schlobin. Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame P., 1982. 56-81.

Zanger, Jules, and Robert G. Wolf. “The Disenchantment of Magic.” Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film. Eds. Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce. Westport, CT and New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. 31-40.

Gordon E. Slethaug (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 writing, despite daunting length and an unattractive hero—a leper and a rapist—because it courageously broke with Tolkien's model. Part of what rendered Donaldson's works so unique, timely, and poignant was their innovative inclusion of a protagonist so ambivalent (Prieto 75ff), common, unheroic, and flawed that Arthur Miller's notion of the hero as common man readily applies; he is “the weakest, most culpable of men, subject to severest limitations” (Slethaug 22). Another part of their uniqueness was the systematic, and very complex, explorations of various social systems of power. While realistic narratives had explored power in numerous ways, this attribute did not characterize the typical fantasy in other than a generalized metaphysical sense. (Of course Tolkien's books are about the forms power takes, but the roots of the abuse, and in certain respects the solutions, are said to reside in some terrible sphere apart from normal mortals.)

Donaldson's works do not simply present a one-dimensional view of political power as a general system of sovereignty or domination in which some have authority and others are subjugated, or in which the authority is either divine or infernal or the opposition of the two; rather, his books demonstrate that power is plural and that everyone is responsible. Partly in keeping with Roland Barthes's appraisal of power structures, Donaldson at first seems to hypothesize that “everywhere, on all sides, leaders, massive or minute organizations, pressure groups or oppression groups, everywhere [are] authorized voices which authorize themselves to utter the discourse of power: the discourse of arrogance” (Reader 459). Such a theory of power as repression leads to a similar conception of power as war, which regards everything in terms of conflict, resolvable only by war. Despite their inclusiveness, the discourses of arrogance and war do not allow for the more positive forms of power in Donaldson and are altogether too simple, for power, as Michel Foucault has demonstrated, is a “multiplicity of force relations” whose “process” and “strategies” are positively and negatively exercised at all levels by everyone: it is popular power (History 92). “Each individual,” Foucault argues, “has at his disposal a certain power, and for that reason can also act as the vehicle for transmitting a wider power” (P/K 72). Power is not a simple dialectical structure of ruler and ruled or oppressor and oppressed, but rather it is a system of “intentional and nonsubjective” relations, like language itself, where each element actively interacts and where everyone bears some measure of responsibility. This measure of responsibility does not mean that a system of “popular power” will lack repression and displacements, but that the “blame” is located throughout the system. As Foucault asserts, “relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations), but are immanent in the latter” (History 94). His fundamental assumption is that one is never outside power, for “power is ‘always already there’” (P/K 141). Also, like language and economic processes themselves, each system of power relations is unique to a given society. Assumptions about one system will not readily transfer to another domain. What Donaldson so effectively accomplishes is to consider the contexts of power, assess a juridical theory of power, review power as the discourses of arrogance and war, and look at the archaeology of popular power in both its positive manifestations and “resistances.” He does this by creating a hero, Thomas Covenant, who not only is forced to negotiate the cultures of two different worlds, but does so with different physical and psychological limitations in each. The series finally asserts, however, that only the anarchistic moment has the possibility of changing the instruments of power through structures of law—whether that moment is positive or negative, or a paradoxical combination. Both Barthes's and Foucault's conceptions of power are helpful in assessing Donaldson's handling of power, the extent to which Covenant confuses the bases of power, and the way in which, through anarchism, new laws—and hence power structures—can supersede the old.

Covenant's name is the first indication that these Chronicles concern law and power, for in the legal sense a covenant is a written agreement or contract under seal that binds two or more parties. In politics, the term is used to express the classic, juridical theory of political power where, as Foucault observes, “power is taken to be a right, which one is able to possess like a commodity, and which one can in consequence transfer or alienate.” He continues, “This theoretical construction is essentially based on the idea that the constitution of political power obeys the model of a legal transaction involving a contractual kind of exchange …” (P/K 88). This juridical theory in which “the language of power is law” (P/K 201) is based upon eighteenth-century humanistic notions of natural rights and social contracts. In theology, the term bears much the same meaning as in politics and resonates of human and divine contractual agreement; the Bible speaks of two main covenants between God and mankind, the first the Old Testament covenant of works and obedience to the law, and the second the New Testament covenant of grace wherein Christ fulfills the requirements of the law because people cannot. A covenant, then, presupposes that two parties consent to combine their individual power and to be mutually bound by legal, political, and/or metaphysical authority; this juridical theory of power presupposes a set of divine, natural, and human laws that interact at primary levels and that are models and reflections of each other. These are manifestations of what could be described as a Platonic or romantic set of congruities and resemblances.

In his golden days of health, Covenant cherishes this notion that power is personally possessed, benignly held, and rationally executed, and he thinks that he shares in its distribution. He has enjoyed a warm relationship with his wife, fathered a son whom he loves and protects, and participated in the general workings of society through his job and community relations. In marrying and buying a house, he has accepted the social, moral, and economic laws of his community, and, indeed, until Covenant is stricken with his disease, he feels secure within the system of legal relationships and constraints. They are part of the humanistic tradition through which, according to Foucault, “Western man is told: ‘Even though you don't exercise power, you can still be a ruler’” and which consists of the myths of “subjected sovereignties,” including the soul, consciousness, the individual, and basic freedom (Language 221).

Once Covenant's illness is diagnosed and he begins to cope with it, the first principle he questions is that of natural law. He feels that a benevolent law of healthy nature has been violated and that in its place stands “the brutal and irremediable law of leprosy: blow by blow, it showed him that an entire devotion to that law was his only defense against suppuration and gnawing rot and blindness” (Foul 19). With the initial perception of himself as the guiltless victim of a supplanting oppressive power comes overpowering despair: he bitterly resents being singled out and cannot take consolation in any view that philosophically condones the necessity of pain and death.

Compounding the physical and psychological effects of the violation of natural law is society's rejection of him—the disintegration of the social covenant. Most importantly, his wife Joan abandons him because she fears for their son's health. Thus, the marriage contract is broken and with it all Covenant's family ties. He has no one to love, and, since leprosy has made him impotent and self-loathing, no chance for another intimate relationship. Only slightly less important to him is the disintegration of the social contract at large. Abhorring his disease and trying to keep it from spreading among them, the neighbors prevent him from coming to public places and try to restrict him to Haven Farm or drive him out of the county. Perhaps, as Covenant suspects, they ultimately wish him to commit suicide. Concern for their health changes to harassment of Thomas. They go beyond condemning him to isolation and begin a surveillance of his activities. He quite justifiably feels repressed, for, as Foucault agrees, “the transition from the inflicting of penalties to the imposition of surveillance” is the central moment in the history of repression (P/K 38). Cast aside by others, Covenant perceives himself as outside the law, and in the words of Foucault, as the victim of a power coalition that “breaks his links with others, splits up community life, forces the individual back on himself and ties him to his own identity in a constraining way” (“Subject” 211-12). Thought of as society's waste and merely a “leper,” he believes himself cut off from the system of power, cast adrift from history, and refused a part in life's drama. Bitter, cynical, defeated, and forced to stand outside governing covenants, he relinquishes the juridical theory of power and accepts the view that exploitative power, power as arrogance, “represses nature, the instincts, a class, individuals” (P/K 90).

Although Covenant acknowledges power as repressive, this view itself is confusing for him, and he is unable to separate the institutional, punitive mechanisms of the power of the State from the complex interplay of other relationships that might constitute power. When he is run down by a police car while in the village to pay bills, he equates the specific actions of the police with a system of repressive laws. When he is brutally kicked out of the tent revival meeting, he not only rages against the instrumental power of the Church but also against God. He also confuses natural law, the cyclical law of growth and decay in nature, with social law and his mistreatment by the community. Equating the arm of law with a system of power or confusing natural and social law—an analogy common in earlier nineteenth-century notions of correspondence—creates expectations of divine, natural, and social harmony or of an overwhelming cosmic negativity which life does not always empirically support. Quite naturally, then, his wish for “absolute answers” (Power 35) generates an overreaction about broken laws.

Forced to accept power as arrogance and to believe in power that represses, Thomas clings desperately to life but for no reason beyond bare survival. Inwardly and selfishly motivated, his survival becomes its own autotelic law. This new law of survival recognizes no more than the fact of leprosy and community rejection: “His outcasting was part of his law; it was an irreducible fact, as totally real and compulsory as gravity and pestilence and numbness. If he failed to crush himself to fix the mold of his facts, he would fail to survive” (Foul 22). He must observe his status as leper and outcast, for to do otherwise, as he does on two occasions, brings down the wrath and punishment of the community—brings upon him the retributive power of the community that has cast him out. Relinquishing his claims to social intercourse, Covenant dedicates what remains of his life to arresting the progress of this disease. The Visual Surveillance of Extremities (VSE) and other health drills become his mode of combating the evil, and he will not allow beauty, desire, imagination, or fantasy to undermine his grip on the reality of his illness. In submitting to the ritual of VSE, Covenant hopes to curb the rate of physical deterioration and maintain a measure of control over his own life—to preserve for himself at least a small degree of power. But insofar as he tries to retard the disease through surveillance, he ironically mirrors the oppressive role of society.

Even as Covenant attempts to control his disease, he continues to seek reasons for it. At first, he seeks reasons external to himself, but later believes that he is somehow responsible for his disease and bears the blame for miscarried actions; when he shoulders the blame, he wants to be purified through “the promise of punishment” (Power 16). The existence of his guilt is, according to Roland Barthes, indicative of abusive and repressive power, for power as arrogance is “any discourse which engenders blame, hence guilt, in its recipient” (459).

Whether Covenant assumes that he is guiltless or guilty, the result is the same: he formulates a view of power as oppressive, repressive, and arrogant. This view allows no room for meaningful thought or action for the common person; all power is believed to be controlled and exploited by forces larger than the individual—the church controlled by bigots and perhaps under the dominion of evil, the community managed by a powerful minority, and nature ruled by a tooth-and-claw, survival-of-the-strongest principle. Because Covenant sees his reality as constituted by broken promises and laws and plays for power, he tends to view the same forces at work in the secondary world: he sees his alternatives as Lord Foul, the physical embodiment of the diseased law of nature, and the Lords of the Land, the extension of discriminatory political and social power. He perceives both of these as power groups that exist above “mere” individuals and initially fails to realize that one or the other could well be constituted deeply and legitimately in the social nexus. He conceives of his survival as existentially apart from either repressive force and will not participate in the play of opposing forces, whether between leprosy and the community or between the State (the Lords) and Revolution (Foul and Drool). Ultimately, Covenant alters his view of power as repression to a conviction that power is war, a contest of will and strength in which the outcome is decided by battle. Politics, he seems to reflect, depends upon a “disequilibrium of forces” (P/K 90) that is a mere extension of war.

In defining power as war, he begins to ask those questions Foucault thinks crucial: “Who wages war against whom? Is it between two classes, or more? Is it a war of all against all? What is the role of the army and military institutions in this civil society where permanent war is waged? What is the relevance of concepts of tactics and strategy for analyzing structures and political processes? What is the essence and mode of transformation of power relations?” (P/K 123). Consequently, although Covenant's choice in the Land may seem simple and obvious (the hero of fantasy traditionally supports the forces of good, defeating such evil as the malicious Foul and his cohorts, Drool Rockworm, the Ravers, or the derelict priests who provide blood to feed the Sunbane), it is not. He is first paralyzed in a new situation by drawing a strict analogy between the old and the new worlds and later by asking questions about himself and power as war that cannot be answered. Since natural and social laws have been desecrated and rendered meaningless for him in his hometown, and since he is unsure of the existence of this other world, he wants to ignore responsibility to law of any kind because he sees the battle as someone else's: “He asserts that he is either dreaming or hallucinating, and declines to be put in the false position of fighting to the death where no ‘real’ danger exists. He is implacable in his determination to disbelieve his apparent situation, and does not defend himself when he is attacked by the champion of the other world” (Foul 25).

Certainly, Covenant seems accurate in seeing Drool Rockworm, the Ravers, and Lord Foul as abusive of legal, social, moral, and natural law, for they are ugly, sinister, and repressive, equated with what Foucault designates as a pathological form and disease of power which bears recognizable similarity to fascism and Stalinism (“Subject” 209). They gain power by overpowering and enslaving the masses and can consequently secure no sure base in the interrelationships of the people. The pyramidal hierarchy with Foul at the top, Drool and the Ravers second in command, and the minions and slaves occupying the bottom defines clearly the “system of differentiations” operating within the structure (“Subject” 223). Status and responsibility as well as rewards are given to a few, but the work is done by many. This concept of power is architecturally and spatially demonstrated by the palace or Sandhold of the Kasreyn. Ruled by fear, the palace is divided into pyramidal rings with the ruler's at the apex. Next is his pleasure circle, the Tier of Riches, where certain courtiers are admitted into fabulous luxury but must in turn faun upon the Kasryn or suffer imprisonment. At the ground level exists the larger circle for slaves, servants, and guards. Beneath these are the dungeons, hidden from sight. Stone walls, darkness, and caverns symbolize a mode of operation oppressive and repressive, bent upon keeping hidden the true effects of fascist rule.

According to this paradigm, Foul, bending the will of the people by coercion and force, bases his power upon a monomaniacal consolidation of power, the objective being to wreak havoc upon the Land and destroy any opposition. Foul brings his discontent into power by desperate means—enslaving, killing, requiring blood sacrifices to sustain his authority like some Aztec god. His power extends into every corner of life, from diurnal and seasonal revolutions of the sun to the most mundane of human and animal activities. In his quest to control and rule without opposition, he molds and creates hideously misshapen creatures to do his bidding. These horrible species exemplify genetically what the Kasryn's palace does architecturally—the real abuse of power when used as an oppressive force. They are entirely “the victims of Foul's contempt” (Power 127), and Foul perpetuates this power by using penal law as a tactical weapon. Foucault clarifies this idea when speaking of the history of penal law within postfeudal Western society: “… for one-and-a-half centuries the bourgeoisie offered it the following choices: you can go to prison or join the army, you can go to prison or go to the colonies, you can go to prison or you can join the police” (P/K 23). Ultimately, no one except Foul wins: all civilization suffers, economic profits plunge, the Land cannot grow food enough for the people, and even the seasons are thrown out of order, bringing complete disaster. By capriciously destroying links with the past, by preventing the people from earning a living, and by maintaining surveillance over all activities, Foul keeps the Land dependent upon himself. He wants his law or antilaw to replace the traditional Staff of Law. But what Covenant fails to realize in his perception of Foul is that law, whether implemented by Foul or the traditional rulers of the Land, is not identical with power. Power flows from every place, not just from authorized sources of law.

The Lords of the Land differ from Foul and pose a fundamental problem for Covenant, who, having come to believe that all power is arrogant, repressive, coercive, and discriminatory, will not recognize an obligation to the Land. His opposition is understandable given his treatment at Haven Farm, but that opposition has no historical basis in the Land. He fails to understand what Foucault surmises in Power/Knowledge, that power can be shared and “popular” and need not be separated from the masses. Because the political structure of the Land seems to be a variant of feudalist royal power (a High Lord presiding over the lesser Lords), Covenant assumes this system to be archaic and ultimately oppressive. Still, he cannot see that this power needs delimiting in any fundamental way, for, with the exception of Elena, the High Lords are modest and self-effacing. As a case in point, High Lord Mhoram reflects that the other Lords' “individual greatness and courage humbled him, made him realize how small a figure he was to bear such losses and duties” (Power 45). With such leaders power in the Land has not been used to coerce wrongly or to create victims—criminals, prisoners, outcasts, “insane.” As a rule, Foucault argues, the nature and degree of resistance to authority “bring to light power relations, locate their position, find out their point of application and the methods used. Rather than analyzing power from the point of view of its internal rationality, it consists of analyzing power relations through the antagonism of strategies” (“Subject” 211). Covenant can see no individual resistance or organized opposition to the laws of the Land through insurrections, revolutions, or class struggles except from Lord Foul, Drool, and their enslaved, mechanized hordes.

The Staff of Law is the sure sign and symbol of the Lords' legal authority: it is an institutional manifestation of their power. Created by Berek who was guided by the Creator, this staff has divine and natural authority over the Earth. Although the Lords tell him of its inception and loss, Covenant at first fails to understand the staff and the legal bondings of the Land. He realizes that it contains certain “expressions of power,” but he does not perceive how it limits others or is in turn limited (Power 104). He regards it as the staff of manipulative power rather than good government, and so he is unsure how much credibility to grant the contestants. He is similarly uncertain about the way in which the Lords hope to regain the Staff in Lord Foul's Bane or about the implications of its ultimate loss in The Power That Preserves. He thinks that they will consolidate their political power and move as an army against Foul and Drool. But this Staff and Lords do not ordinarily condone force, oppression, or militancy; except for such aberrations as Troy's misguided military expedition and Elena's proud assault on Foul at Melenkurion Skyweir, they contain a simple, humane life, nourished by a pacifist philosophy: “Do not hurt where holding is enough; do not wound where hurting is enough; do not maim where wounding is enough; and kill not where maiming is enough; the greatest warrior is one who does not need to kill” (Foul 280). According to this oath, the people of the Land cannot aggressively take up arms against an opposing foe, but must let these matters be settled, where possible, by the local councils or the council of the Lords. Because of this pacifist philosophy, the Lords under Kevin did not defend themselves against the Haruchai, but greeted them with gifts and friendship. Nonplussed, the Haruchai swore to defend the Land. Analogously, although Atiaran, Trell, and Triock are devastated by Covenant's rape of Lena, the Oath forbids reprisals. The welfare of the group takes precedence over the grudges of one person.

This Oath undergirds the benevolent power structure in the Land. As Foucault says of such popular power: “what makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn't only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression” (P/K 119). Power for the Lords is not adversarial confrontation but a question of “government.” As Foucault remarks, “this word must be allowed the very broad meaning which it had in the sixteenth century. ‘Government’ did not refer only to political structures or to the management of states; rather it designated the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed: the government of children, of souls, of communities, of families, of the sick” (“Subject” 221). This consideration makes it clear that the Lords of the Land maintain a true community of power. They do not enslave or ride roughshod over the rights of individuals or groups. They support the ancient customs and privileges, and only in certain extreme cases will they try to restrain an individual. Although Covenant believes himself unfairly treated when he comes to Woodhelven and when he first visits the Lords, they only restrain him while they confirm the truth of his story. They show themselves completely forgiving at all times—as Covenant himself remarks, even “forgiving of lepers” (Illearth 196). And the certain proof of their humanitarianism is the way in which they forgive Covenant's many errors and destructive acts, including his unforgivable sacrificing of Elena to save himself from confronting Foul. Even when Trell, who can find no peace, breaks his oath and tries to kill Covenant, they do not punish him, but try to help his internal, spiritual healing. They do not maintain power through punitive means. Theirs is an exemplary record of protection, self-sacrifice, and power firmly based on the well-being of the community.

Foamfollower tries to persuade Covenant that this system is worthy of his commitment, arguing that personal independence alone provides no solution; he suggests that life is based on mutual respect and help, faith and service to mankind. For the giants this article of faith has been severely tested because, like Covenant, they have been cut off from family for ages, divorced from the rhythms of their community life:

Now we are Unhomed,
                                                  bereft of root and kith and kin.
From other mysteries of delight,
                                                  we set our sails to resail our track;
                                                  but the winds of life blew not the way we chose,
                                                  and the land beyond the sea was lost.

Foul 397).

Foamfollower argues that power divorced from the consent of the people, power that overrides law, is governed solely by passion and results in destruction and murder, demonstrated by Kevin's desecration and death. The Bloodguard also try to convince Covenant of the necessity for community: they maintain that Thomas must covenant with something, either Foul or the Lords, disease and destruction or rebirth and the Oath of Peace.

While Covenant finds blind devotion to this Oath objectionable, believing Morin and Bannor mere “prisoners of their Vow” (Illearth 448), he has difficulty incorporating the case of the Unfettered Ones. Those who are unfettered exclude themselves from the affairs of a larger social group, choosing to pursue wisdom in a quiet, unobtrusive, and detached manner. But they ultimately do commit themselves to the Oath of Peace: not participating in group dynamics does not mean failing to support the welfare of the Land. Covenant likes to think of himself as detached, as the maverick or guerrilla who bears the wild magic, and he does not want to commit himself to anything, so the lesson of the Unfettered Ones is a hard one: they graphically underscore his lack of commitment. So obsessed is Covenant with his own victimization and need for withdrawal that he does not see the benefits to everyone of taking the Oath. He fails to comprehend that without the Lords the free people would be subjugated by Foul, without the work of the Forestals the forests would cease to exist, and without man's willingness to risk life for the common good life would not endure.

The system of differentiation for the Lords is markedly different from Foul's. Following a democratic process, the Lords are elected to their positions and in turn elect a leader. This democratic procedure is repeated at all levels of society. The races of the Land meet together to debate reasonably and only execute decisions approved by the majority. As a result of this process, “all the people of the Land, Stonedowner and Woodhelvennin, trusted the Lords” (Illearth 181). This method of government offers no special powers or rewards, but judges all forms of life to be equal. Contrary to Foul's custom, increased power means increased responsibility and risk of life without greater rewards. When Foul's forces take over that Land in the Second Chronicles, it is even more obvious that the Lords have governed well and enjoy the confidence of the masses. Their resistance to Foul is an action of popular justice, an action of the masses. The masses under the Lord's guidance must act in a subversive way to oppose Foul, and Covenant must come up with “ways to create a definitive discontinuity” (Illearth 108)—“discontinuity” being a word that may indicate Donaldson's own knowledge of Foucauldian, poststructuralist terminology.

Evidence of the Lords' humility and nonacquisitiveness is presented in their attitudes to beautiful objects and works of art. When given such works for reasons of “honor and love,” they do not take them to their own homes, but rather display them at Revelstone so that no one person can be said to possess objects. This Hall of Gifts is placed at the middle of the keep, a kind of sacred enclosure open to everyone, but one that can be hidden and preserved if the fortress is taken. Revelwood, a second center of power created from banyan trees as a center of learning for the Land, is also for all the people. Unlike Foul's utterly private and grotesque lair or the Kasryn's Palace, these centers serve the masses.

Still, at the heart of the Land all is not well with popular power. Power has been abused by High Lord Kevin Landwaster in his attempt to destroy Foul, and much of the knowledge of law has been irretrievably lost. Because of Kevin's folly, the Oath of Peace was created to bind the Lords to the Land and Earthpower. While this Oath is useful in preventing man's will to war, it, too, has limitations: the fact that Hile Troy can use his knowledge of “troop deployment, first- and second-strike capabilities, superready status, demoralization parameters [and] nuclear induction of lethal genetic events” (Illearth 65) to buttress the Lords' military defense indicates that the Oath can be subverted by the military alarms of the moment. Elena's and Hile's “power of command” is more forceful than the Oath and ultimately leads to Elena's losing the Staff of Law and breaking the Law of Death when she forces Kevin's shade to battle with Foul. Even the existence of Revelstone and its fortified keep and double gates give graphic testimony that the Oath of Peace has not been as effective as hoped, and Foul himself through the priests of the Sunbane subverts its use. Lord Kevin's Lament itself points up the failure of the Oath to provide a source of security for the Land:

Where is the Power that protects
beauty from the decay of life?
preserves truth pure of falsehood?
security fealty from that slow stain of chaos
which corrupts?

Illearth 481)

Better answers must be sought to the problems of the Land. Covenant's quest for the One Tree in order to reconstitute the Staff and Law after the fiasco at Melenkurion Skyweir is fruitless; as time passes, the old systems of power and law grow irrelevant. Covenant must discover a new basis of power that is appropriate to this world and which springs in part from the Land's own history.

So, despite his growing knowledge of the benefits of the power of the Lords, Covenant must remain Thomas the Unbeliever, the wielder of the white gold ring—the icon of broken promises and the tool of wild, lawless magic—a force that cannot be wholly tied to prevailing social or metaphysical covenants. Skeptically, he chooses to remain aloof, maintaining an anarchistic opposition to all forms of law as incompatible with his own authenticity, liberty, and survival. As he warns Elena, he intuitively feels that if he learns to love her and the Land and masters the white gold, then he will be bound by laws of custom and consequently trapped by their dreams and Foul's (Illearth 419, 482). He must, as Mhoram fully comprehends, “have the freedom of his own fate” (Power 90). For him personal power is “discontinuous” with the system, and he chooses to retain “alternative power” (P/K 33). In this way he is liberated from what Foucault refers to in “The Subject and Power” as the collective aims of the State as well as the group's notion of individualization linked to the perpetuation of the State. Covenant remains firm in questioning community obligation, seeing things mainly as opposition and power. He is, as the Lords' song suggests, “not born of the Land, / nor ruled, limited, subdued / by the Law with which the Land was created” (Foul 258). For him the strategy of struggle is to contradict the main forces and conceptions of power and law. He affirms the power of primeval chaos, predating law and not determined by it. He is subject neither to the laws of time nor the community ethics in the Land. This strange power of Covenant's is, then, paradoxical. As Elena remarks, the white gold “is the girding paradox of the arch of Time, the undisciplined restraint of the Earth's creation, the absent bone of the Earthpower, the rigidness of water and the flux of rock. It articulates the wild magic which destroys peace. … It is the abyss and the peak of destiny” (Illearth 409). Amok adds to this comment, suggesting that “White gold is brought into use like any other power—through passion and mystery, the honest subterfuge of the heart” (410). This quality is his weakness and his virtue.

The principle of anarchy is his weakness because, in making the transition between the two worlds, Covenant has no guidelines for action: he locks himself into anarchistic responses that are both self-destructive and destructive of the Land. Thus, when Lena heals his wounds with hurtloam and gives him springwine, the feeling of new-found strength and the effects of the wine rage in his blood so that he rapes her, committing a heinous social and moral crime. His rape of Lena alienates him from her parents and fiancé eroding their commitment to him and the Oath of Peace, the governing law of the Land. In other ways, too, Covenant undermines this law: he tries to convince the Bloodguard that their two-thousand-year-old vow of service to the Lords is only blind duty. Ultimately, he asks them to violate their oath, to choose between serving the dead Kevin and the living Lords, when he and Elena, the product of his own broken law, meet Foul. And his failure to prevent Elena from sacrificing herself to Foul just so he will not have to confront Foul is the ultimate in selfish, uncommitted anarchy: she takes his place in the death struggle, breaking the Law of Death by requiring the spectral Kevin to fight Foul. In undermining the law he shows himself a fool, disturbing the proper use and authority with nothing useful or predictable to replace it.

His use of the white gold is significant in this respect for he is utterly inept in controlling it. The activation of the power depends entirely upon Covenant's mood: the “magic” of the white gold is the ability instantaneously to put into operation the transforming action of power which transcends the limitations of the context. When he is maddened to the point of rage and violence, the ring responds. And so, in the first use of it against the Cavewights, as the camp of the Lords is encircled for an ambush following the destruction of Soaring Woodhelven, Covenant takes the staff of Tamarantha, brandishing it with hate and fury and killing five Cavewights. So revulsed is he by his bloody action that he unnecessarily destroys the staff, taking out of circulation one of the tools of law. In breaking the staff and refusing to use the ring, he alternates between violence and stubborn passivity, equally unacceptable ways of dealing with power. This mad fluctuation indicates that Covenant and the ring contain fundamentally indeterminate raw power, which, as Foucault states in another context, is the most primitive, power that cannot function to elicit a reasoned response and will not provide a positive base for the further building and deploying of power (“Subject” 220). But at some point this indeterminate power does create a law or state that binds others: Covenant uses his power to coerce the Ranhyn into visiting Lena every year, creating an obligation or law which later prevents their saving themselves during Foul's siege. Without law as a source and channel, the power of the ring burns in every direction, creating problems whenever used. Because Covenant cannot control this power, he fears it and refrains from using it. On several occasions his reluctance to use the power of the ring jeopardizes the safety of the Lords and nearly aborts the quest for the Staff of Law. Until he makes such serious mistakes as raping Lena and failing to prevent the destruction of the Wraiths, he cannot begin to conceive of the tragic effects of inertia or the indiscriminate wielding of the white gold. He enjoys the power to naysay, and he sometimes enjoys the power generated by the ring, but he does not like being a pawn of others or having to bear responsibility for a miscarried action.

Paradoxically, though, Thomas, bearer of the white gold, is both destroyer and restorer of law and power: he is “hope and despair” for the Land (Illearth 49). When he finally is able to surrender his dedication to the law of leprosy and life, then he is truly free and capable of imaginative ways of solving problems. Such a position is first illustrated by Lord Verement who at Doom's Retreat says to the Raver: “‘I do not fear you, Raver! I am free of all restraint! No fear or love limits my strength!’” (Illearth 347). When Thomas knows that he is dying and believes that he must accept that fact without despair, and when he comprehends the desirability of limiting Foul's power and establishing a new system through the offices of Linden Avery, then the fact of his death and the love of the Land open up his mind to new and otherwise undreamed possibilities. Covenant's anarchy enables him to rise above the limitations of convention, to think of new possibilities that lie beyond the scope of others, to explore a different subjective basis for law. With power that takes him back in time before the origin of the present code of power and law to chaos and the formation of the Arch of Time, he can begin anew, alter the basic nature of power, and redirect its manifestations.

While Covenant initially fears that this unaffiliated power will be enslaving in itself (“Dreaming is like … being a slave. Your dreams come out of all the parts of you that you don't have any control over. That's why—that's why madness is the only danger” (Illearth 439]), he discovers that “dreams,” or the unconscious, which is unattached to the cultural laws of logic will free him. The Unfettered One at Revelstone tells him correctly that he dreams the truth: “‘such dreams are the true enemies of Despite—it isn't Law, the Staff of Law wasn't made to fight Foul with—no, it's wild magic and dreams that are the opposite of Despite’” (Illearth 155-56). The anarchistic response may seem destructive of law, but it opens up new avenues of thought, dreams, and utopia that can succeed.

Anarchy is an act of subversion that allows Covenant the creation of a new kind of justice, an alternative power that counters the ideology of the State. Coming from another world, he has a primal liberty that is not “co-extensive with the social body” (P/K 142). His relations of power are not “interwoven with other kinds of relations (production, kinship, family, sexuality) for which they play at once a conditioning and conditioned role” (P/K 142). He does not fit into the moral code of the Land, and that factor allows for the creation of a new way of thinking and acting. He will not simply repeat the solutions—whether they were truths or lies—of the Land but can opt for a new way of looking at the dilemma; he will not have to stop with the Ritual of Desecration. His denial of the present structure permits him modesty and circumspection so that he does not rush pell-mell into situations as Hile Troy would. His caution prevents him from falling victim to a lust for power—even in the Second Chronicles where he is severely tested. Also, suffering victimization in the “real” world makes him more sensitive to that problem in the Land; as a result he even pities Drool, knowing that he is just one more of Foul's victims. He does not make the mistake of simply reforming the dominant power structures of the Land: anarchy creates in him the capacity to be a hero, not only in rejecting the obvious malevolence of Foul but also in surpassing the inherent limitations of the culture. He is not held in check by the limitations of the legal systems, by the traditional antipathy of Foul and the Land. Consequently, Covenant can finally accept his own death and conquer Foul by relinquishing the ring and seemingly capitulating. Accepting himself as lawless and hoping to inaugurate a new system of law, he paradoxically transcends time, space, and traditional codes of law and opposition. He goes beyond conventional notions of juridical, covenanted law, beyond power as arrogance and war, and beyond popular power to accept the anarchistic moment as in itself contributing to new conceptions of law and governance.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Donaldson, Stephen R. The Illearth War. New York: Ballantine [Del Ray], 1978.

——— Lord Foul's Bane. New York: Ballantine [Del Ray], 1978.

——— The Power That Preserves. New York: Ballantine [Del Ray], 1978.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. London: Routledge, 1972.

——— The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Vintage, 1980.

——— Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

——— Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

——— “The Subject and Power.” In The Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

Prieto-Pablos, Juan A. “The Ambivalent Hero of Contemporary Fantasy and Science Fiction,” Extrapolation 32 (Spring 1991): 64-80.

Slethaug, Gordon E. “No Exit: The Hero as Victim in Donaldson.” Mythlore 40 (Autumn 1984): 22-27.

Ray Olson (review date 15 February 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 far deadlier to themselves than to enemies) of the middle parts. Instead, there is page after page of tense, beleaguered, suspicious conversation interspersed with glimpses of the various speakers' unspoken thoughts. This is presented predominantly in tiny, one- and two-sentence burps rather than sensible paragraphs; even single speeches are split into several little paragraphs that make the characters seem dyspeptic. Description of places and persons is virtually absent; the whole thing reads more like a vast script than a novel. Fans who've stuck the saga out will be pleased to know that Morn Hyland, the tough-cookie damsel either in distress or under stress in the first four volumes, gets out of it all alive. Lord knows, they might be pleased with the rest of it, too.

Roberta Johnson (review date 1 December 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 format eliminates Donaldson's tendency toward convoluted prose. In “Penance,” he gives us a convincingly repentant vampire in terrible emotional pain, and in “By Any Other Name,” a mild-mannered, lazy merchant who becomes a most reluctant but genuine hero. In other stories, Donaldson explores the power of dreams, the honor of assassins, and the bravery of a simple beggar girl. In each story, each main character grows and changes in fascinating ways.

Publishers Weekly (review date 14 December 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 magicians who alter the lives of ordinary folk, and “Penance,” which sets the redemption of a vampire in a well-drawn medieval setting. The SF story, “What Makes Us Human,” a Berserker pastiche, demonstrates that Donaldson is stronger at fantasy than at SF. Some of the other entries, such as “By Any Other Name” and “The Djinn Who Watches Over the Accursed,” use Mideastern culture, history and folklore to great effect. Though these tales do not reach the excellence of Donaldson's most famous works, such as The One Tree or The Mirror of Her Dreams, they are more succinct and their command of description is superior to that of his Gap Cycle. Donaldson's female characters will continue to irritate readers who expect more complex creations from one of the leading American fantasy writers, but, overall, the book does Donaldson proud.


Principal Works


Further Reading