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Friday, September 01, 2017

The epic greatness of Stephen Donaldson

A number of people have been surprised that I write Stephen Donaldson, and in particular, the first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant so highly on my list of Epic Fantasy authors. This excellent essay by Tom Simon may help to explain why.
The antipathy of Donaldson’s professors to Tolkien was immediate and complete, and it put Donaldson in a difficult, almost untenable position. With one side of his mind he had to be a good Modernist, and sneer at the tall tales of the ancients as the work of childish primitives; but with the other he was keenly and imaginatively alive to the power of those ancient tales and their modern successors. Not only Tolkien but Wagner moved him with tectonic force. In later life he would write a sprawling five-volume novel, The Gap, as a space-operatic homage to Wagner’s Ring cycle. But for now he felt the overriding need to answer his professors (and most of his fellow students) on their own ground. Not indeed by academic argument, for that would have been fruitless and might well have cost him his M.A., but by example.

So he began to write a very curious fantasy story, about a man who stubbornly refuses to believe in fairy-tales even when he is plunged into one himself. Harking back to his father’s work, he made his protagonist a leper, and with an eye on Kent State he made him a bestselling author, a Modernist and realist, facile rather than deep. The one quality crushed out the other: the Modernist imagination was no match for the stringent demands of Hansen’s disease, which forced this man, Thomas Covenant, to focus all his wits and energies on the daily struggle for survival. Tuberculoid leprosy damages peripheral nerves and makes the extremities numb; a small cut or contusion, unfelt and therefore neglected, can lead to infection and gangrene, and even bruises can be dangerous. It was thus only natural that Covenant, transported from his ‘real’ life to the fantasy world called ‘the Land’, should cling desperately to the medical disciplines that kept him alive, and strive to deny the exotic temptations of an environment instinct with magic and miracle.

Now this is a very different method from Tolkien’s, and many misunderstandings have arisen among those who confuse the two. Tolkien’s was a mythopoeic fantasy, a direct successor to Beowulf and the Kalevala, the Eddas and sagas, informed indeed by his own experience of modern life, but not primarily intended as a commentary upon it. One of his first stories, The Fall of Gondolin, was written while he was on sick-leave from the trenches of the Great War; and though it is the story of a battle, the battle of Gondolin is as remote from the Battle of the Somme as a blooded warhorse is from a military railway. Gondolin is written in an extremely archaic style, heavily reminiscent of Malory. The young Tolkien takes great and sometimes clumsy pains to emphasize the glory and chivalry of epic warfare, where fate turns on the skill and courage of heroes and not on the drill of divisions and the supply of artillery shells. This is, if you like, a reaction against the squalid and seemingly pointless fighting Tolkien had actually seen; but it is neither an allegory nor a satire of it. It is simply an escape, or rather, a quest: a desperate attempt to rediscover, in the practices of a simpler and nobler age, the need and cause of courage, the spirit that makes men willing to fight and die defending their homes and loved ones.

Donaldson, too, was susceptible to this appeal. Although a conscientious objector and in some measure a pacifist, he recognized that even a hopeless war may be preferable to mere surrender. In The Illearth War Hile Troy, another man from Covenant’s ‘real’ world, compares his former work at the Pentagon with his new role as the commander of the Land’s army, the Warward:

‘I’m useful to something worth being useful to. The issues at stake in this war are the only ones I’ve ever seen worth fighting for. The life of the Land is beautiful. It deserves preservation. For once, I can do some good. Instead of spending my time on troop deployment, first- and second-strike capabilities, superready status, demoralization parameters, nuclear induction of lethal genetic events, I can help defend against a genuine evil. The world we came from — the “real” world hasn’t got such clear colors, no blue and black and green and red, “ebon ichor incarnadine viridian.” Gray is the color of “reality.”’

This is a fine example of the likeness and difference between Tolkien and Donaldson. It is the very likeness that points up the difference: the difference is that the likeness is made explicit. In all Tolkien’s descriptions of battles, at Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields and the rest, there is no reference to modern modes of warfare; the contrast and the criticism are mute and implicit. A man of Malory’s time could read Tolkien with understanding and recognition, though some of the vocabulary would be strange to him. But Hile Troy is utterly modern, and can only be understood by one with a knowledge of the modern world.

Incidentally, Donaldson has earned a lot of disrespect for his vocabulary, which ranges from the rococo to the bizarre. ‘Ebon ichor incarnadine viridian’ is a particularly concentrated example. Ursula K. Le Guin has called the word ichor ‘the infallible touchstone of the seventh-rate’, which ‘bores the bejesus out of everybody’. It is certainly not one of Donaldson’s more felicitous word-choices. The prose of the Covenant books is liberally strewn with such questionable jewels as coigned, orieled, threnody, theurgy, unhermeneuticable (!), sibilating, chrysoprastic, irenic, and the ever-popular roynish. This last word is used as a sort of Homeric epithet to describe the ur-viles, the ‘black roynish’ kindred of the Demondim-spawn. Ur-viles are one of Donaldson’s more memorable and original inventions, eyeless, wizardly, sinister, and thoroughly inscrutable. But I never could discover what was particularly roynish about them; indeed, from Donaldson’s usage of the word, I could never figure out what roynish meant at all. The OED gives it as a variant of roinish, defined thus: ‘Covered with scale or scurf; scabby, scurvy, coarse, mean, paltry, base.’ The smooth skins and austerely evil magics of the ur-viles do not seem to suit the word well.

Donaldson also has a strange tendency to use clench as every part of speech under the sun. To my knowledge he has not yet used it as an interjection or a definite article, but one must not set arbitrary limits to his genius. And he gives a strange sort of value to imprecise, which is usually a Donaldsonian understatement for ‘utterly wrong or bogus’. These peculiarities give his prose somewhat of the aspect of a magpie’s nest, cluttered with bright shiny objects of unknown or forgotten use. This is not an unfair criticism; he has said himself that he keeps lists of rare words encountered in his reading, and does not always look them up in a dictionary before attempting to use them. In consequence his usages of such words are, in his own personal acceptation of the term, ‘imprecise’. When I first read the Covenant books at fourteen, I merely skipped over the words I did not know, or tried to interpret them from context. This is probably the best way to approach Donaldson’s prose; those who have a dictionary at their elbow as they read are likely to get rather angry.

On the other hand, it must be said that Donaldson is capable of wonderfully lyrical passages, relying heavily on the sound of words, even when their meaning sheds no light on his intent. He is a very considerable prose poet, a quality not much appreciated by most modern readers. Like Tolkien, he decks his fiction with verses, though as a rule of a very much lower quality; he descends to vers libre and doggerel, as Tolkien never did. A little later he developed some real facility with formal and metrical verse. Two verses in particular from the later Covenant books, ‘My heart has rooms that sigh with dust’ and ‘Let those who sail the Sea bow down’, have some claim to be called poetry even by snobs.

But let us leave Donaldson’s prose and return to his Method. Tom Shippey has put his finger on the cardinal difference between Tolkien and the Modernists:

Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used ‘mythical method’ not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. . . . He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment.

In this, Donaldson is very much on the Modernist side. His characters and situations do not exist for their own sake but because they are effective as symbols. Here, in the ‘Gradual Interview’ on his website, he describes a method antithetical to Tolkien’s:

My general view of the kind of fantasy I write is that it’s a specialized form of psychodrama. Putting the issue as simply as I can: the story is a human mind turned inside out, and all of the internal forces which drive that mind are dramatized as if they were external characters, places, and events. This is easier to see in the first ‘Chronicles’ because the story is simpler: the Land and everyone in it is an external manifestation of Covenant’s internal journey/struggle. Everything is more complex in ‘The Second Chronicles’ because there are two minds being turned inside out. Which means that there are actually three stories at work: Covenant’s, Linden’s, and the interaction between the two.

With the two words ‘as if’, Donaldson rejects the genuine epic; and when you analyse what remains, it all comes down to that old friend of the literati, the pathetic fallacy. He writes of battles fought with swords and spears (and wizards’ staffs) because that is an interesting way to comment on the spiritual battle in the hero’s mind. He makes that hero a leper because he wants to point out how many of us suffer from a leprosy of the soul. If you strip away the voluptuous flesh of the Land and expose the bare bones of the plot, you will find that Covenant is satirical and symbolic and bitingly topical. None of these things are true of Tolkien’s major works. You cannot strip away the voluptuous flesh of Middle-earth to expose the bones of the plot, because the bones themselves are Middle-earth. As Tolkien said in a letter to a reader: ‘The story is really a story of what happened in B.C. year X, and it just happened to people who were like that!’ With Donaldson one never forgets that the people to whom the story ‘just happened’ are carefully constructed to be ‘like that’ in the service of his theme. It is the tradition not of Beowulf and the Eddas but of Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels.
In my opinion, what Donaldson attempted to do, and the degree to which he succeeded, is considerably more of a literary accomplishment than anything that Abercrombie, Bakker, or any of the other epic fantasy authors have managed to do. And if his more recent work has not been of a similar level - and it has not - that does not detract from the excellence of the first series.

Donaldson may be a modernist, but he is a moral modernist, and as such, his color palette considerably exceeds that of the more nihilistic authors. So, it should be no surprise that the images he paints are rather more vivid than theirs.

Simon also rather helpfully explains why the Second Chronicles and subsequent books are mediocrities and should not be taken into account when considering Stephen Donaldson.
A year or two later, when the first Covenant trilogy was a runaway success, casting even del Rey’s pet, Terry Brooks, in the shade, Donaldson was duly called upon for a sequel. He had some difficulty in coming up with one, as he had never intended to go beyond the original trilogy. To solve this problem, he introduced a new character from the ‘real’ world, a physician named Linden Avery. And to increase her importance, and also to help along those readers who might not have read the first three books, he made her the chief viewpoint character of the second trilogy. Del Rey was outraged. He threatened to reject the new books outright, saying: ‘You can’t tell a Tarzan story from Jane’s point of view!’ (His superiors at Ballantine Books, rather than lose Donaldson and his undeniable earning-power, took him away from del Rey and gave him an editor he could work with.)
It should never be a surprise when an author's effort to turn out additional work for hire fails to rise to the level of his labor of love. Stephen Donaldson is not one of my favorite authors. He is not one of my 50 favorite authors. But, as an author of epic fantasy myself, I respect his greatest accomplishment, the original Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

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62 Comments:

Blogger Amos Bellomy September 01, 2017 11:08 AM  

I remember that essay. Really excellent. Simon is unmatched in the modern day as an essayist.

For those interested in writing high and epic fantasy "Writing Down the Dragon" is essential reading.

Blogger Dos Voltz September 01, 2017 11:17 AM  

When I was a kid around 19 or 20 I read the first trilogy. I was never a fan of epic fantasy, (still I am not), tried the Hobbit, never cared for the stuff. But a friend recommended Covenant. Precisely because it was more modern, and tied to this world, it piqued my interest. I devoured those 3 books and haven't encountered anything quite so magical since. To each his own.

I think a fairer comparison would be with the Narnia stories, as commoners with tragic lives who might question their human value (and indeed, the value of humanity itself) find themselves in another world where they can be quite useful, and reminded of their importance.

Anonymous Critically Bent September 01, 2017 11:17 AM  

Double plus recommend "Writing Down the Dragon."

Blogger tz September 01, 2017 11:30 AM  

Donaldson is also one of my favorites. The second chronicles was about as good as the first, though the third I stopped after the first book.
I have to go back and do the full gap series.

Blogger tuberman September 01, 2017 11:36 AM  

Mythic thought develops vivid imagination, and early vivid imagination in children likely speeds up neurons? Working on this in my mentor studies. This possibility comes from two different sources. One of those sources is a modern AI expert, and the other I a child learning pro from Canada, who talks about the stages of development in a child's mind recapitulating the historical development of civilizations.

Myth is an early stage, and is part of the oral stage of developing strong images in the mind.

Anonymous 2106 Things I Hate September 01, 2017 11:39 AM  

I remember absolutely despising Thomas Covenant for his obdurate stupidity, though I liked the story. Hating on him colored my take on the story.

That being said, like a movie actor who has done such a good job in a role that I go all in on hating/loving their character to the point of extending that feeling a bit to the actor themselves...Donaldson did a great job with Covenant the Unbeliever.

Anonymous Brick Hardslab September 01, 2017 11:40 AM  

He writes about the person as a symbol. It now makes sense. That's why I can see what he's trying to convey even if the way he's doing it is antithetical to what my soul says.

I think that's why I love straight up adventure and fantasy. Brian Daley may not be Donaldson but his characters are people first.

Blogger Cail Corishev September 01, 2017 11:42 AM  

It is strange that the Covenant books got pegged so much as an LoTR imitation. I suppose both were epic fantasy trilogies involving a ring of power. And both authors could write songs and myths to use as background flavor that were better than what most people could write at all. But other than that....

Blogger Ingot9455 September 01, 2017 11:46 AM  

I recall the particular brilliance of his characterization of the villain, Lord Foul. An INTJ Mastermind. UUHIQ. Plots within plots nearly every avenue gamed out and trapped. If you dare try Plan A, B, or even backup plan C, you would find he had already been there, planned them out, and put in a trap and a counter waiting for you to stumble into it. That's how he got Hile Troy, who thought he could UHIQ the UUHIQ.

The only way to escape Lord Foul's traps was out one of his few, small, but glaring blind spots - personal emotional sacrifice being the largest.

I wasn't able to finish the third trilogy but as often happens in these degenerate end-of-career additions, one hits a moment of brilliance. Linden Avery is running all over the map, back and forth in time, trying to figure things out, trying to chase down Thomas Covenant, and finally she manages to get a faint contact throught a dream and Covenant just says, "Why don't you try something he won't expect?"

And she realizes that the past two books of cyclopean vocabulary, self sacrifice, friends dying, incredible hardships, calling upon ancient powers, and hairsbreadth escapes have just been her running in Lord Foul's rat maze and she needs to totally rethink her strategy.

Blogger Jimmy Glover September 01, 2017 11:53 AM  

I too am a fan of the first 6 books. It took about a year for me to finally stick with the first book, since the leper introduction in a modern time threw me for a loop. But once I got into it, it is still my favorite series, mainly because of the supporting cast. Covenant himself is a really unlikable character. But the the giants are a marvel, and the increased time with them in the second trilogy was welcome.

I also like the Edding's books, Raymond Feist, and would also recommend the Eric Lustbader trilogy, The Sunset Warrior.

Blogger Meistergedanken September 01, 2017 11:54 AM  

I've been a big fan of Donaldson since the mid-80's, and naturally read the final batch of Covenant books, but he really succumbed to some of his worse tendencies. The last book of the series has him standing and having a conversation with various other characters in the vicinity for literally 75 pages...that's a whole lot of nothing happening at the beginning of a book. Every time I thought something was finally going to happen, Covenant once again "grimaced and sank into himself, paralyzed by the condign consequences of his past actions", or some crap like that.

For additional recommended reading, the "Gap Cycle" is quite good science fiction, with probing ruminations on the nature of order and chaos, and the interplay of the two within humanity. The two volumes of "Mordant's Need" are also worthwhile and rewarding...almost a proto-type of Game of Thrones, in a way.

Blogger VD September 01, 2017 12:01 PM  

Every author really needs to periodically remind himself that no one has ever liked books where everyone just stands around talking and being clever.

It's boring and self-indulgent.

Blogger Francis Parker Yockey September 01, 2017 12:05 PM  

Good piece. Never thought about it in that kind of detail, or knew that much background; just thought the books were great in spite of the often-unlikable nature of the protagonist. Thanks.

"I think a fairer comparison would be with the Narnia stories, as commoners with tragic lives who might question their human value (and indeed, the value of humanity itself) find themselves in another world where they can be quite useful, and reminded of their importance."

Eustace Scrubb = Thomas Covenant? Though Eustace is much quicker to let go of his unbelief, and his redemption is far more rapid and complete as well. The nature of the overall allegory in the Narnia books vs. Covenant is rather different, of course.

Blogger Mocheirge September 01, 2017 12:08 PM  

The Gap series is one of my favorites. It wins my "most memorable character names" award.

I played MUDs back in the mid-90s, and I was surprised how few (read: one) were based on the Land. Far too many used generic Tolkienesque settings.

Then I read the second Covenant trilogy and settled for a Tolkien world myself.

Blogger Cail Corishev September 01, 2017 12:17 PM  

Donaldson may be a modernist, but he is a moral modernist

Yes. I don't always agree with his morality, but it's always present, he never shies away from it. His characters don't either; they're generally harder on themselves than anyone around them is.

After a while, Covenant went on, “Bannor, you’re practically the only person around here who hasn’t at least tried to forgive me for anything.”

“The Bloodguard do not forgive.”

“I know. I remember. I should count my blessings.”


I've thought before that Donaldson's books are particularly Catholic (the traditional kind), though he would probably argue with that. Simon calls it "an ethic built firmly upon the rock of Protestant dogma," and maybe we're talking about the same things there. It's hard to define, but there's just something about the themes -- the real consequences of sin, even when forgiven; the need for absolution and the difficulty accepting it at times; the adherence to a strict personal moral code -- that reminds me of Middle Ages theologians or an older, more serious way of doing religion than most of what we see today.

Blogger Cluebat Vanexodar September 01, 2017 12:18 PM  

Thank you. It is time to read them yet again.
Absolution of the Giants gets to me every time. It really brings a tear to my eye almost as easily as Tolkein's Grey Havens goodbye.
Masterful.

Blogger Cluebat Vanexodar September 01, 2017 12:21 PM  

I remember when I started reading the second book, I also grabbed a dictionary. And tossed it away. Some words just should be ignored or redefined internally to fit the intended purpose.
I forgive him, although others still mock.

Blogger Ingot9455 September 01, 2017 12:21 PM  

You're not supposed to like Thomas Covenant. You're supposed to realize that only someone like him can beat Lord Foul.

Blogger Dos Voltz September 01, 2017 12:29 PM  

@18. That's very good insight.

You don't have to like Trump, either, but only someone like him can effectively counter the left's lunacy.

Anonymous MDZ1985 September 01, 2017 12:32 PM  

After I finished LOTR I was looking for more of the same. My father took me to B. Dalton's, where one of the employees hesitantly (I was 13) offered me Lord Foul's Bane. I read it 3 times in a row and spent my high school years eagerly awaiting each volume of the second series. To say he IS one of my favorite writers is putting it mildly. Quirks and all.

That essay was wonderful. I agree heartily with the discussion of Donaldson's abuse of vocabulary. The author was correct as to the proper approach. Do not look them up. I made the mistake with the recent series of looking up 'condign' and am still a bit annoyed (he used it correctly, sort of, it's just that the word is really only used for legal penalties). As for 'roynish', I always assumed it meant "looks like ur-viles."

Thanks for this post. It's nice to discuss Donaldson without anyone screaming "rape apologist!" at me.

Blogger Francis Parker Yockey September 01, 2017 12:40 PM  

As for 'roynish', i always assumed it meant "looks like ur-viles."

Exactly. What does "wine-dark sea" really mean?

Blogger Cail Corishev September 01, 2017 12:43 PM  

You're not supposed to like Thomas Covenant.

Maybe I sympathize with him enough that it feels like liking. He's a regular guy just starting a family, and something incredibly shitty happens to him, followed by the further shittiness of his family and everyone else abandoning him. Instead of strapping a bomb to his chest and taking revenge on the world on his way out, he withdraws, basically accepting their condemnation. Then in what he's half-convinced is a dream in which he's going insane, he does something shitty to another person, then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for it. I kinda like him.

Compared to Angus, he's a choir boy. I find the Gap Cycle harder to read. It's a more stark, brutal world. The setting is more alien (with actual alien aliens), and there are stretches where I have a hard time picturing where things are in relation to each other. (I'm the kind of person who really appreciates the map in many fantasy books.) There are times when it drags a bit. But I also found it very deep and rewarding, worth the harder read.

Blogger Magson September 01, 2017 1:26 PM  

I got lots of recommendations for the Thomas Covenant books. Read the 1st one. Despised the main character, fond the writing to be boring. Got told "the 1st book's fine, but the 2nd one's REALLY good." But I hated the 1st one, and found nothing redeeming in the main character's whiny-ass "woe is me" victimhood, so why would I want to subject myself to any more of that?

Now, this was back in the late 90's when I made my foray, so perhaps the intervening 20 years would change my perspective if I were to give it another go, but.... I hated it then, so I really have no desire to try it again either.

Glad you like it though. Diff'rent strokes and all of that.

Blogger Last Redoubt September 01, 2017 1:31 PM  

I know the first time I tried to read Donaldson, I got halfway through the first book, and cannot remember why preceisely I stopped, but just, couldn't.

I still find Thomas unlikable, but tried again a few years later, and went through all six of the available books in no time flat.

Like Cail said, I can sympathize, a bit.

That said, it was the Gap books that I really came to appreciate, and looked forward to each new one. Good thing the library understood checking out books for an entire underway of a coupe months.

Blogger maniacprovost September 01, 2017 1:32 PM  

The Chronicles are just something that you can't stop reading, no matter how much you want to, if you appreciate their good qualities.

I personally thought the Second Chronicles were good too. The voyage with the giants is arguably the best part of the series for plot. But part of the problem is that the annoying, tedious whining of the first three books continues to grow more tedious and more annoying the more of them you read.

Blogger Ostar September 01, 2017 1:33 PM  

I was mildly interested once whether George "Rape-Rape" Martin was influenced at all by Donaldson. I found out George considered him a great friend for decades. Draw your own conclusions.

Anonymous Bz September 01, 2017 1:35 PM  

I read and enjoyed the first trilogy, and some of the conceits of the second one. It was long ago, but I can't say I was ever convinced by the pretense that the Land was just a dream, or that there was any heavy psychologizing or psychological parallels going on. Thomas Covenant never struck me as much more than 'Leper. Outcast. Unclean.', that is, not very deep. Nor was the Land or the story ever depicted as being very dream like. The whole 'modernist' part thus seemed a bit insincere.

But there certainly were other, more conventional, qualities.

Blogger maniacprovost September 01, 2017 1:37 PM  

What does "wine-dark sea" really mean?

The Greeks did not have a word for the color blue.

Blogger Ostar September 01, 2017 1:41 PM  

Donaldson has commented that he found out that he had mostly Thomas Covenant fans, not Donaldson fans, when few of his other books sold well. That's why he had to keep coming back to the Land over and over.

Anonymous Brick Hardslab September 01, 2017 1:56 PM  

Was it Angus that had "recurve war arrows"? It wasn't an editor's error. He'd obviously never touched a bow.

Anonymous Anonymous September 01, 2017 2:01 PM  

The Gap Series is far better then the covenant stuff. https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_18?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=stephen+donaldson+gap&sprefix=Stephen+Donaldson+%2Caps%2C239&crid=260QPDLCQ3SP9

Blogger Snidely Whiplash September 01, 2017 2:48 PM  

I won't deny the power of the books. One of my closest friends in High School was doubtless inspired by the Covenant books for the path of his life.
I just have to say that the books held no attraction for me. The knobdurate stupidity of Thomas Covenant, and Donaldson's constant misuse of language made reading it an unpleasant chore. An unpleasant chore from which I derived nothing particularly useful.

maniacprovost wrote:The Chronicles are just something that you can't stop reading, no matter how much you want to, if you appreciate their good qualities.
Sorry, simply not true.

This post reminds me of JC Wright's periodic essay in defense of the writing of Ayn Rand.

maniacprovost wrote:What does "wine-dark sea" really mean?
The Greeks did not have a word for the color blue.

Which is why the sky is reflexively referred to as "bronze-colored" by the Greeks.
The Vikings also had no word for blue.

Blogger Cail Corishev September 01, 2017 3:07 PM  

Donaldson uses rape to say, "This character is badly broken and may be beyond redemption." Martin uses rape to say, "All of humanity is broken and beyond redemption so let's wallow in it."

when few of his other books sold well.

I really like his The Man Who detective series, originally written as Reed Stephens, but you can find them with SRD on them now. Mick Axbrewder isn't quite as morose as Covenant, and much more willing to kill bad people because they're bad.

Blogger Doc Rampage September 01, 2017 3:32 PM  

Ostar wrote:I was mildly interested once whether George "Rape-Rape" Martin was influenced at all by Donaldson. I found out George considered him a great friend for decades. Draw your own conclusions.



Martin and Donaldson both do the same really annoying think in their books: horribly kill off all of the characters you care about. They both have talent as story tellers. Donaldson, especially can rise to sublime heights for short passages, but I just hate the stories. The Battlestar Galactica reboot series had the same problem. Why would I want to follow a story where nothing but horrible and depressing things happen?

Blogger Cail Corishev September 01, 2017 3:49 PM  

I'm honestly drawing a blank as to "characters you care about" that Donaldson killed off. I can't think of any in the first Covenant book, and in the second and third there are a few important deaths, but mostly heroic ones or ones that came as the consequences of actions. Same with the second trilogy. I can't think of anything to rival Ned's and Robb's deaths.

I'm not surprised or bothered that some people don't like his books, though. He definitely has a particular style and feel, and if it doesn't work for you, I can see how it would grate, especially over multiple books.

Blogger Francis Parker Yockey September 01, 2017 4:14 PM  

@28 maniacprovost
"What does "wine-dark sea" really mean?"

"The Greeks did not have a word for the color blue"

Ah. Ask a rhetorical question; get an actual answer. Thanks.

@33 Snidely Whiplash

Disagree with your opinion of the books, but "knobdurate" still gets my vote for neologism of the week.

@34 Doc Rampage

"Martin and Donaldson both do the same really annoying think in their books: horribly kill off all of the characters you care about."

Martin much more than Donaldson. He seems addicted to what you might call "inverse deus ex machina"-- building up a character as both sympathetic, and central to the story, then killing him off suddenly and unexpectedly.

I get the sense that must Martin derive some strange sort of satisfaction from doing this. Either that, or he sees it as an easy way to make a sudden change in narrative direction/ connect different story lines. I don't get that sense from Donaldson's work, for whatever reason. He seems to kill off characters for purposes that fit with the central narrative, rather than just the sheer joy of it.

Anonymous Andrew Anglin September 01, 2017 4:19 PM  

I read Donaldson back when. First reaction: derivative but well done. But I have never felt the urge - as with Vance, Niven, Wolfe - to go back and read it again. And again. Evidently, not so well done after all.

Blogger RobertT September 01, 2017 4:25 PM  

Hmmm. I'll check it out.

Blogger Positive Dennis September 01, 2017 5:15 PM  

I never finished the triolgy. I may restart it.

Blogger Snidely Whiplash September 01, 2017 5:46 PM  

Francis Parker Yockey wrote:"knobdurate" still gets my vote for neologism of the week.
It started as a typo, where a stray n somehow stuck itself onto the start, but rather than fix it I enhanced it.

Anonymous 5343 Kinds of Deplorable September 01, 2017 6:35 PM  

Donaldson has commented that he found out that he had mostly Thomas Covenant fans, not Donaldson fans, when few of his other books sold well. That's why he had to keep coming back to the Land over and over.

Which is too bad in a way. I agree with Vox that he should have stopped at the original three (though I happily read the read because I'm voracious). But I have his much-ignored detective series and love them, maybe more so than the Covenant stuff. He didn't feel compelled to adopt the same voice, and it just ... worked.

Blogger R Doom September 01, 2017 6:52 PM  

I remember catching much heat from my nerd friends (of decades ago) for liking Donaldson so much, pretty sure I read everything of his (he actually links some of his books up subtly, you can magic in one book appearing in a completely different series).

Now I want to see someone give me a word to explain how Gene Wolfe can write epic fantasy in 200 pages.

Anonymous Brick Hardslab September 01, 2017 7:06 PM  

I wish Tom Simon would write something sufficiently doorstopping. He's really underrated and under exposed

Anonymous SkepticalCynical September 01, 2017 7:21 PM  

I'd second the recommendations for The Gap series. Each time I've seen Wagner's Ring, I've wound up re-reading Donaldson's sci-fi version.

The Gap series would also be completely unpublishable today. As much as Thomas Covenant is an unlikable character, Angus Thermopylae is much worse. The series opens with him committing a series of premeditated murders and rapes and sort of gets going from there. Nevertheless, it's obvious that the author kind of likes Angus, and absolute despises his charming, handsome rival Nick. Watching Donaldson work really hard for 5 books to redeem Angus and condemn Nick, despite the fact that the later never does anything all that bad, is fascinating every time.

Blogger Cail Corishev September 01, 2017 8:20 PM  

Watching Donaldson work really hard for 5 books to redeem Angus and condemn Nick, despite the fact that the later never does anything all that bad

Well, other than the way Nick treats Morn after he finds out about her implant, and what he does to her and Davies once he knows the truth about that (trying to avoid spoilers). He would also casually kill or sell any of his crew to save himself, if he could get away with it. Other than that, he's a peach.

But yeah, Angus. In the Author's Note for the first book, Donaldson even says something like it was frightening to write Angus, because on some level he's revealing that that's a part of him at all. Dammit, I'm gonna have to read it again soon too.

Blogger VD September 01, 2017 8:25 PM  

The Gap Series is far better then the covenant stuff.

It's not. It's not even close. It's repulsive. It's like an ultimate Gamma fantasy.

I wish Tom Simon would write something sufficiently doorstopping.

He won't. He is wonderfully observant, but he has the mindset of a born critic. His attempts to create are flat and lifeless; it feels as if he's writing by rote.

Blogger tuberman September 01, 2017 9:33 PM  

I loved LOTRs, but I doubt if I would like any of Donaldson's books after following this thread. I hated Martin's material.

Blogger maniacprovost September 01, 2017 9:54 PM  

It started as a typo, where a stray n somehow stuck itself onto the start, but rather than fix it I enhanced it.

This is popular engineering approach.

Blogger Amos Bellomy September 01, 2017 10:19 PM  

I have not read his magnum opus work, but I thought "Lord Talon's Revenge" was excellent.

Blogger Amos Bellomy September 01, 2017 10:25 PM  

Simon is best when he tempers his writing with humor.

OpenID Sidehill Dodger September 01, 2017 10:26 PM  

maniacprovost wrote:What does "wine-dark sea" really mean?

The Greeks did not have a word for the color blue.


What it says in Wikipedia is also interesting:

The ancient Greeks classified colours by whether they were light or dark, rather than by their hue. The Greek word for dark blue, kyaneos, could also mean dark green, violet, black or brown. The ancient Greek word for a light blue, glaukos, also could mean light green, grey, or yellow

A friend who knows Japanese told me that Japanese color words for blue and green don't map on to our European vocabulary either: they would say that the "green" traffic light is the same color as the sky, more or less "blue". No wonder kids have such a hard time getting color names straight!

So does this mean that the Greeks couldn't see what we call "blue"? When Bertrand Russell asserts that he "sees a red sense datum" do we understand him as well as he thinks we do? Fascinating, fascinating stuff.

So when Bertrand Russell asserted that he "sees a red sense datum", do we understand him as well as he thought we do?

Anonymous SkepticalCynical September 01, 2017 11:57 PM  

Well, other than the way Nick treats Morn...

I admit, I'm cribbing from looong essay on the books written back in the dawn of the interwebs. Search for "The Case For The Defence". Just like Donaldson is selling the reader hard on Angus, he never misses a chance to trash-talk Nick. By the time Nick acts against Morn, she's certainly given him plenty of good reasons for it!

Ultimately I like the books for the epic space opera that's based on an actual opera. All the weird sexual dynamics are more something that you can't help notice once you start paying attention to how Donaldson does what he does.

Blogger wreckage September 02, 2017 4:46 AM  

When you teach a person new words for colour, they perceive those colours.

In other words, the words limit the description and perhaps thereby the narrative cognition we think of as thinking, but not the faculty of sight itself.

Thanks for posting this essay on Donaldson, Vox. I didn't LIKE the Chronicles, but I did find them very good.

Terry Brooks on the other hand I find unreadable, generally.

You mention "moral modernist", and I'd like to point out a moral nihilist: Peter Watts Blindsight and Firefall are utterly neuro-nihilistic, but you can sense the despair of the author. He really does abhor the moral implications of the strict materialism he writes...

Blogger Buybuydandavis September 02, 2017 9:40 AM  

VD: Donaldson may be a modernist, but he is a moral modernist, and as such, his color palette considerably exceeds that of the more nihilistic authors.

Donaldson is much like Jordan Peterson, in that he is trying to get past the modernist "God is Dead" and back to value and meaning without denying the truth they see in modernism. After Nietzsche, what now?

He does a more credible job of it than Peterson, IMO, but I'd love to hear Peterson analyze Donaldson.

Blogger Doc Rampage September 02, 2017 10:00 AM  

Cail Corishev wrote:I'm honestly drawing a blank as to "characters you care about" that Donaldson killed off.

It's been a long time and maybe time has distorted my memory, but what I remember most clearly is the death of the giants and the Bloodguard, and the way the second trilogy starts by wiping out the Land. I don't think I ever finished the first book of the second trilogy. He had destroyed everything worth caring about from the first trilogy so what was the point?

I stopped reading Song of Ice and Fire after he wiped out the Starks. Didn't care any more. Could see Sansa's rape coming and didn't want to read it. I might have stuck it out if I thought there was any hope of revenge for the Starks but it was clear that wasn't going to happen.

Blogger Buybuydandavis September 02, 2017 10:01 AM  

Cail Corishev wrote:Donaldson uses rape to say, "This character is badly broken and may be beyond redemption."
...
I really like his The Man Who detective series, originally written as Reed Stephens, but you can find them with SRD on them now. Mick Axbrewder isn't quite as morose as Covenant, and much more willing to kill bad people because they're bad.


I don't think that's the meaning of the rape scene for Donaldson. Covenant is in dream he recognizes as a mortal threat to his life. "Are you trying to drive me crazy?" Not quite "rape rape", as Whoopi would say.

I recall The Man Who series as well, although hazier than you did. Thanks for digging up the facts. Maybe some of these Donaldson fans might like it.

I found it was rather formulaic fantasy, but different in that the usual formula was applied to the world of martial arts. The different martial arts communities were like the different species in Magic Land, and the hero travels from one to the other, learning the stereotypical characteristics of each.

Interesting more for the literary technique more than for the story, which made little impression on me compared to his other stories.

Blogger Buybuydandavis September 02, 2017 10:09 AM  

Doc Rampage wrote:

Martin and Donaldson both do the same really annoying think in their books: horribly kill off all of the characters you care about.


But for Donaldson, the deaths are often a triumph. That's much of his point - finding meaning in how you *spend* your life.

That was the theme of The Second Chronicles.

Blogger Buybuydandavis September 02, 2017 10:19 AM  

VD wrote:The Gap Series is far better then the covenant stuff.
It's not. It's not even close. It's repulsive. It's like an ultimate Gamma fantasy.


"Ultimate Gamma fantasy." That sounds bad.

I liked it well enough. Most explicitly mythic.

I liked the anecdote about bridge, playing your hand under the assumption that your partner has the cards you need to win.

The biggest annoyance I recall was anger that they just wouldn't kill that bastard Angus already.

OpenID paulmurray September 03, 2017 4:52 AM  

An observation on the obscure vocabulary:

Donaldson uses archaic and rare words to slow the reader down, and he does it whenever anything magical is happening. It's bullet-time in prose. He does something similar in the horrible Mordant books: whenever something magical happens, the protagonist descends into her tedious vortex of self pity.

I like his short stories. They are all the same story over and over: some massive magic thing comes to save the day, but in the end the actual day-saving gets done by someone ordinary and it turns out the big magic thingy was only there to prod the ordinary dude into action.

Not sure what his point is. But it illuminates the covenant series. In the first trilogy, Foamfollower and Mohoram are the big magic things that enable Coveneant. In the second, Covenant himself is the magic thing enabling Linden.

Didn't much like the final books. "I am myself!" Horrible. I would have preferred that she return to her husband and live happily ever after.

Blogger Buybuydandavis September 03, 2017 11:36 PM  

The first of a new trilogy from Donaldson is coming out in November.

Seventh Decimate (The Great God's War)
You can pre order at Amazon

Blogger Strelnikov September 06, 2017 3:59 PM  

Agreed. The First Chronicle is an act of imaginative genius. It's follow ups remind me of Herbert's efforts to follow Dune: A lesser grade product not worth your attention.

Blogger Rez Zircon September 07, 2017 11:38 AM  

@46 Maybe I noticed because I read some later Covenant, Mordant's Need, and The Gap in close proximity, but... all three are basically the same story with different trappings. Donaldson really only has one theme, to wit "How far can a human being be degraded, and still be human?"

The Gap just takes it a lot further than did Covenant, which is why it is, as you say, repulsive. It does have a point, eventually (yeah, I slogged through the whole series), but it's real ugly getting there. Ugly can be appropriate, but this wallows in it.

I also find Donaldson an annoying writer: "But that wasn't the real story." I don't need to be endlessly reminded that I'm reading a book.

BTW am reading Summa Elvetica and so far (we just left the monastery) I love it. Yeah, it shows some relatively-green-at-fiction issues (mainly needless filtering; and a few typoes) but the setting works, the story is interesting, and the characters are easy to be with. And I *want* to know what happens next.

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