Nostalgia Rules The Land
Grab your dictionaries. Stephen Donaldson revisits The Land in Runes of the Earth, part 1 of the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
When I was 18 and innocent even to Dutch standards, I moved to England for a few years. For love. Ah yes. What I found, among other things, was a country of cheap books. Books at home were expensive and lived mainly in libraries. Not so in the UK, where publishers rarely have to worry about translation costs and a relatively small local-language market. Very quickly I was on the slippery path of wanting to own fantasy. I still blame Weaveworld by Clive Barker for setting me in that direction.
The Old Chronicles
Things went from bad to worse when I discovered a small shop selling second-hand books. I bought my first trilogy, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. I stayed up nights, reading, eager to know what would happen to Covenant and The Land. I had never read anything like it. The hero was a miserable leper, who growled and cursed and whom I could not relate to at all. He made himself suffer a lot and took forever to understand how his own magic worked, but it was epic! The different people, the creatures, the Earth Power! I struggled with a lot of the words and never quite grasped the meaning of things, but I didnít care. I was hooked and went back for the Second Chronicles.
Now Iím twice the age I was then and have read and bought many trilogies since. Thanks to the Internet, I am no longer limited to Dutch libraries or musty second-hand shops. Those days are in the past and they should stay there to be fondly thought of, in brief moments of nostalgia. Like this one, brought on by Stephen Donaldson and his Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Why people want to go back to what they left behind twenty years ago I donít know. The world should have changed since then. But not so for Donaldson.
The start of the story
The Second Chronicles finished with the death of Thomas Covenant, and with his beloved Linden Avery (The Chosen) becoming the hero of The Land. The Runes of the Earth (first of four books) picks up her story ten years later. She is now the head of a psychiatric hospital and one of her patients is the crazy Joan Covenant. She is Thomasí first wife, who left him because of his disease and took their son Roger with her. Roger turns up fairly early in the book and he is crazy too. (Or to quote Donaldson, he suffers from "incipient madness or prophecy in his eyes.") He kidnaps his mother, who went even crazier after Linden gave her back her white-gold wedding ring back a few months earlier. Roger also kidnaps Lindenís son, Jeremiah. He is an autistic boy whom she rescued from the crazy people who killed Covenant in the previous trilogy. Yes, thereís a lot of craziness going on.
In an attempt to rescue Jeremiah and Joan from Roger, Linden is shot, and an outburst of Rogerís evil magic transports everyone to the Land. Linden arrives alone at Kevinís Watch where she witnesses some kind of cloud hanging over The Land. She has a conversation with Lord Foul through the muddled mind of Joan, and learns a bit about his devious plans. A crazy man crawls up from underneath the fog, begging for protection. A migraine-like phenomenon in the sky called a caesure, causes Kevinís Watch to come crashing down. Linden uses white magic to protect herself and the man, who is called Anele. They survive the fall and Linden realises she is bound to him.
Three thousand years have passed since Linden last visited. The curse from the previous Chronicles has not returned, but caesures roam The Land and destroy the structure of things. The cloud hanging over The Land cuts all people off from their magic senses. The Bloodguard of old are now the Masters of The Land and they despise all earth power. Anele is full of it, and that is why they hunt him. Linden teams up with a Haruchai called Stave and a Stonedownor called Liane. She has decided to protect Anele. She also discovers the Staff of Law has been gone for thousands of years and decides to go and find it, comforted by the reassurances of Thomas Covenant, who occasionally speaks through Anele. As does Lord Foul, which rather complicates matters. Linden also wants to find and rescue her son Jeremiah who is held by Roger, though she doesnít tell anyone about that.
During the course of the quest, which includes a long, long visit with the Ramen, all the old names are mentioned and a lot of the old creatures turn up. Fans may be comforted by this, but I felt I was being lectured. The Haruchai, the Ramen, the Ur-Viles, the Demondim, theyíre all there. One new element is the conflicted character of Esmer, son of the Haruchai, Cail, and a Dancer of the Sea. I thought he was quite intriguing, trying to find a balance between help and betrayal. Towards the end of the book, when Linden has firmly established her position of Ur-Lord, everyone gathers in Revelstone and we get a nice little surprise on the last page.
The Dutch edition is a big floppy book that makes reading easy. Nice size, spacious typeface, smooth paper. Other than that, I donít have a lot of positive things to say about this book. Take Donaldsonís use of difficult words for one. I read the story in Dutch, but had to order an English copy to be able to write about it (and grab a dictionary to understand it). Itís not just the litany of fantastic names and creatures, it is also the use of obscures words and illogical metaphors. It slows down the pace of the book, which is at a near standstill in places anyway.
Then thereís the weird psychology of people. I donít know anyone who acts and thinks and feels they way these characters do. Like Linden. Why not tell people your son has been kidnapped? Why still grieving for Covenant as if it were yesterday? She seems rather unstable and insecure. One moment she is ready to rule the world, the next she is a whimpering wreck, paralysed by fear for her son. She wants to sleep, but doesnít; she wants to cry, but doesnít; she wants to make a decision, but isnít sure. For goodness sake, sheís the managing director of a hospital, sheís been through hell and back last time she was in The Land, sheís saved the world, whatís wrong with the woman?! In the first chapter she considers quickly driving away to get away from hassle at work, but she says to herself, "If she had wanted to be a woman who fled whenever her job became difficult, she should have bought herself a more reliable vehicle." As if bravery prevents you from buying a new car? Geez.
Another thing that bothers me is the way Donaldson handles time. Linden has been away for millennia and The Land has hardly developed since. The Ramen and Haruchai have flawless memory, yet nobody remembers earth lore. And nothing seems to have developed since Linden left. They still havenít invented the wheel, so to speak. Three thousand years have past and historical figures (like Brin and Cail, Sunder and Hollian) are remembered correctly, without anything being written down. A very successful game of Chinese whispers, if you ask me. Mind you, they talk so much about the past, maybe that is why it still so alive. Every single character from the previous books gets at least one reference. Not remembering who they were just meant I hadnít studied hard enough.
I felt as though Donaldson has taken all the elements of his previous books, mixed them up a bit, added a few new features, a thousand or so extra words and rearranged all that for a new generation of fantasy readers. No doubt fans will love this book and I must admit, for nostalgiaís sake Iím curious how it will all develop. But what are the chances of Donaldson unfolding his story in less flowery prose?