The Runes of the Earth (2004) sees the return of Linden Avery to a stale, mundane Land where Earthpower is unheard of and the Staff of Law gone, but before this comes a five-chapter prologue which in some ways — and I hope I’m not damning the book on whole by saying this — is the most suspenseful part. The Covenant books have always relied on prologues taking place in our “real” world to set the stage, but they’re usually quite brief. For The Last Chronicles Donaldson serves up what is virtually a short story about Roger Covenant’s abduction of his mother from a psychiatric hospital, and his kidnapping of Linden’s mute son, which culminates, as once before, in the woods behind Haven Farm, with shafts of lightning pulverizing the ground in every direction, people getting shot by gunfire, and through all the rain, blood, and blackness, Lord Foul’s fang-eyes burning with murderous hate. Linden’s transition to the Land was almost a come down after this cracking narrative, so much that I wouldn’t mind seeing Donaldson turn out suspense thrillers after he finishes The Last Dark.
It doesn’t take long to get drawn back into the Land, however, given what happens next. It’s been ten years for Linden, twice as long for us, and so it feels like we’re in good hands when she’s dropped on the familiar doorstep of Kevin’s Watch — until this cherished lookout is smashed to smithereens, and Linden survives the cascade only by inadvertently summoning wild magic. That’s quite a reentry promising high-stakes danger, and Linden is shocked to find her health sense killed by Kevin’s Dirt, an invisible smog that blinds the Land’s inhabitants to Earthpower. She wastes no time hooking up with a Stonedowner and Haruchai, who along with an insane old babbler flee into the mountains where they are rescued by Ramen. From this point on, the novel focuses intently on both the Ramen and Haruchai cultures, their righteous immunity to evil machinations, and their stringent codes of honor and shame which despite themselves play into Lord Foul’s purpose.
The Runes of the Earth is so saturated with themes of honor and shame, in fact, that it makes it ideal for review on this blog. The Haruchai are shamed by their past failures, the Ramen by exile, and both hold themselves to impossibly high standards — a purity of purpose which almost guarantees failure in advance. This forces interesting questions about the inherent worth of honor, and holds the spotlight on multiculturalism. Many people take a dim view of the Haruchai and Ramen, though Donaldson clearly respects them through their faults, as does Linden. She is challenged by both in austere rituals, and accepted collectively by the Ramen when the Ranyhyn show her unprecedented obeisance, but rejected by the Haruchai, save for Stave, on account of his vision in the horserite, who chooses to be ostracized for sake of friendship. In placing integrity above honor, Stave may be in danger of serving as a cheap foil — implying that inside every honor-bound Haruchai there is a man of integrity waiting to come out — but it would be a mistake to see this as Donaldson’s purpose.
The insight, rather, seems to be that people who judge themselves by unreasonable standards don’t count the cost of their solutions, and Stave is finally able to see this. Collective self-judgment is the critical point, as it informs judgment on everything and everyone else: “The Ramen were as draconian as the Haruchai, as absolute in their judgments. Both people rejected the reality of Foul’s malevolence and the Land’s vulnerability. Where the Masters sought to alter that reality, however, the Ramen had simply turned their backs on it.” (p 271) When something good is misused, suppress it; when things get bad, leave. Frankly, these aren’t always bad approaches, but in the context of mythic drama they prove drastic. In Runes they derive from feelings of shame and inadequacy, something Linden transcended in the Second Chronicles and so now accepts her limitations: “she could not be misled by despair, because she did not expect herself to be greater than she was” (p 133). The danger of Earthpower lies not in its use, as the Haruchai insist, but in the hearts of those who don’t understand their vulnerability to despair; and the problem is that people from honor-shame cultures aren’t especially sensitive to issues of vulnerability, having little patience with natural failings.
Ironically, it’s the creatures spawned by evil who are able to atone for their past errors more effectively than the honorable Haruchai and Ramen. The ur-viles extend their purpose with Vain by helping Linden locate the lost Staff of Law, while the Waynhim have been preserving the Staff at a destructive cost to themselves. “That which is evil need not be so to the end” is a recurring motif throughout the Last Chronicles, and this blurring of good and evil is of course classic Donaldson, but taken to another level, probably pre-figuring the restoration of Foul himself. There have been hints about Covenant and Foul becoming one, notably in the author’s ’90s interview with W.A. Senior. When asked what a third chronicles might look like if he ever attempted it, Donaldson replied with single-sentence summaries:
“In the First Chronicles, Thomas Covenant faces Lord Foul and defeats him. In the Second, he surrenders to Lord Foul and accepts him. In the Last, he 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.”
But what does it take to get there? Will Covenant/Foul have to destroy the earth in order for it to be made new? The yin-yang paradigm seems to demand Covenant becoming evil as much as Foul becoming good, and that’s probably where The Last Dark is going.
Some have charged that the stakes don’t feel particularly high in the Last Chronicles, and on a surface level that’s true. The Sunbane was an omnipresent horror, whereas caesures (falls) are sporadic; under the Clave people killed family and neighbors to survive, but now the Stonedowners and Woodhelvinin just live in stale ignorance. Horrors have become less graphic and more philosophical, but that there is an escalation of menace is undeniable. Foul isn’t wasting his energies on Earthpower this time (content to let the Masters suppress it, and Kevin’s Dirt obscure it); he’s going after time itself, condensing all moments and none into discrete whirlwinds of destruction, and summoning extinct horrors out of the past. Time travel is always a risky business, but Donaldson handles it well, and the novel’s most memorable chapter is Linden’s riding the fall back in time to a point shortly after her victory over the Sunbane: her use of Joan’s white gold makes the time travel possible, while the ur-viles’ lore protects everyone from being broken by it, and the Ranyhyn’s time sensitive instincts enable them to exit the fall at around the right time and place. Her experience inside the fall, however, is what really sells the event: the sensations of arctic cold and biting hornets burrowing into her flesh, and a torturous rending that would kill if not for the fact that no time passes inside a fall in which one could cease to live. It’s powerful stuff, but there’s still no denying that from a dramatic point of view, the Sunbane was the most brutal poison ever inflicted on the Land, and for that reason I doubt the Last Chronicles will surpass the Second despite this colossal ambition with time and falls.
The other problem, to me the more acute one, lies in the role of Linden. In the first series Covenant was a self-hating rapist who refused to believe in the Land, and the story stood on the strength of his knifing anti-heroism. By the second series he had come to terms with his unbelief and was more proactive, thus more likable, but less interesting; Linden compensated for that with twice the amount of self-loathing and despair he ever had. But she has likewise overcome her demons — homicidal and suicidal impulses owing to horrendous parents — and thus is also less interesting. In fact, rather alarmingly, she’s become a Dirty Harry, motivated by sheer outrage over her kidnapped son. This gives The Last Chronicles a vengeful color, and I miss the inner dysfunctional torment that made the first two chronicles what they were.
At the same time, on a more profound level, it’s actually the second and last chronicles which promise to pair over and surpass the first. The real deficiency of the first series lies in the contest of muscle, as Donaldson himself once noted. For all its originality with anti-heroes and white gold paradoxes, it’s remarkably straightforward, and Lord Foul a clearly defined and predictable foe. Even worse is the Tolkien baggage, especially in the first and third books. Lord Foul’s Bane gave us a Gollum equivalent and quest for an artifact coveted by the creature, leading to a mountain and eruptive climax. The Power That Preserves replayed the Siege of Gondor at Revelstone, while Covenant and Foamfollower made for Foul’s Mordor, and the latter even carried the former over ash. The Second Chronicles not only shed the Tolkien trappings, but raised the stakes with an enemy who attacked sideways and unpredictably, a devastated Land with no hope at all, and a quest that failed — all across a single complex epic rather than three self-contained volumes. The Last Chronicles follows these strengths, with Lord Foul operating behind the scenes in ways we can only guess at, so that the people of the Land become his unwitting pawns; and in a story that’s likewise completely on its own terms. On top of this, there is another enemy working at cross-purposes with Foul, making things even more convoluted. If the first series involved a Tolkienesque collision of armies, the second and third involve deeper conflicts in which armies are useless and there aren’t any around to speak of anyway.
That’s a long way of saying that if the rest of the Last Chronicles is like this book, it won’t top the Second but will surpass the First. The next book is bound to launch missiles now that Thomas Covenant is onstage. Since The Gap Cycle, Donaldson has become a master of cliffhangers, and the sight of our hero galloping up to Revelstone with Jeremiah in tow gave me shivers. But is Runes just an extended prologue for the return of Covenant? Not at all, no; it has more than enough plotting, and plenty of philosophical meat, to make it stand as a full leg of a table.
The first half of Fatal Revenant (2007) bucks and jumps with some of the best writing Donaldson has ever put on paper; the second half has parts which drag at the pace taken through the forest of Salva Glidenbourne. The result is a rather disjointed novel, and so we’ll take the two parts in turn. But let me dispel all doubt at the outset: in some ways, this is my favorite volume to date in the entire Chronicles.
Covenant’s comeback is a ripper that never cheats. Happy reunions are foreign in these chronicles, but I was still taken aback by the first words out of his mouth: “Hellfire, Linden! Put that damn thing out!” Donaldson hasn’t lost his touch, and from this point the narrative punches forward with heartbreak, guessing games, lies, half-lies, and betrayals. For Covenant is not really Covenant (or at least not Thomas), and Jeremiah has a demon. They are Roger and croyel under a powerful glamour, sent by Foul to keep Linden out of Andelain at all costs, and take her back in time to a point when the Blood of the Earth is accessible, so that Roger can drink it and command the Worm of the World’s End to wake up and start the apocalypse — if Linden cannot be persuaded to give up her ring. None of this is remotely guessable until the eleventh chapter. Covenant, despite going out of his way to alienate, compels with his dark intentions.
For Donaldson to pull this off demands consistently intricate writing by even his standards: Covenant’s demeanor has to be as convincing as his arguments every step of the way. The first is the easier task, because the unbeliever has always been sardonically unpleasant; Roger (like father, like son) hardly needs to play the role of a sweetie-pie to win us over. So when he keeps lashing out at Linden with nastiness, in many ways he’s giving us the man we’ve always known. Still, it is excessive, but he attributes this to the strain of keeping him and Jeremiah in two places at once. And when Linden desperately tries to understand his mean-spiritedness at Melenkurion Skyweir, Roger is able to feign a wonderful sense of spiritual loss: “I miss my life, Linden. I miss living. When you made that Staff, you trapped me. I know it’s not what you intended, but it’s what you did. I’ve been stuck for millennia. It made me bitter. I yell because I hurt.” (p 250) This feels so right that there is no good reason to question it; I was almost weeping for Covenant at this point.
The second issue, the logics of the deception, is more difficult, but I was completely taken in by the profusion of bullshit. Roger’s accounts make perfect sense given what Donaldson has established about white gold, the Staff of Law, the Arch of Time, and their interrelations. We are to understand that Covenant is still embedded in the Arch of Time, and Jeremiah still Foul’s prisoner, but Covenant has folded time so that he and Jeremiah can be in two places at once; because this breaks so many rules, Linden can easily undo the fold and cause time to snap back into place, killing the present incarnations; the Staff of Law is the chief liability in this regard, which Covenant reacts to like a vampire does a cross. All of this treats the polarities of wild magic and Law with the appropriate respect, and nothing seems bogus in these explanations.
Moreover, when Covenant accuses Linden of actually having done more harm than good by taking his ring and creating a Staff of Law, his reasoning is disturbingly compelling. He claims that without Law stifling him, in the Arch he could have healed the Land more effectively than she did, and put Lord Foul away for good. “What do you think I’m doing here?”, he charges before answering his own question: “I’m still trying to clean up your mess.” If that sounds gratuitously unkind, it also sounds like a cold truth, lending force to his claim that he’s going to use the Power of Command to freeze time around Lord Foul, “something he would have already done if she hadn’t created that damn Staff” (p 137). And even though she knows the Covenant of old would have never held her accountable for consequences she couldn’t have foreseen, this is again a Covenant emptied of empathy by bitterness and strain.
There are, to be sure, subtle hints that something is wrong. Linden senses that Covenant “is like a man who knew the words but could not remember the song” (p 71), but again we, like Linden, expect this from someone who’s been out of touch with his humanity for three and a half millennia (pp 112, 135). And while it’s true that she grows increasingly distrustful of him after he apparently lies about Jeremiah still needing rescuing after he deals with Foul (pp 151-152, 157), that comes across as a device to make us feel for a wounded protagonist robbed of her son; we just don’t know enough about Jeremiah’s strange role that would warrant Covenant’s deception or not. Her antipathy goes over the edge when he sadistically recounts the bruises he paid back Inbull for the bullying of Jeremiah (pp 211, 222), but at this point I was even more convinced that Donaldson wanted us to be misled by Linden’s aversion; from the ’90s interview with W.A. Senior, we know that Covenant is going to “become Lord Foul” in some way, which is what this gleeful sadism looks like. I did find it a bit odd that Covenant, whose omniscience includes knowing what Berek Halfhand had for breakfast on any given day, could be ignorant of where Foul is keeping Jeremiah prisoner, or even where Lord Foul is; but that suspicion was mitigated by his claim that he needs his ring back — that even though he “is” the white gold, his power has limits without the artifact itself. There’s just no solid reason to suspect Covenant is anything other than who he claims to be, and that he fully intends to use the Power of Command in the way he says.
Which brings me, finally, to the Blood of the Earth. This climax is clearly from the same author who gave us the nerve-shredding cliffhangers of A Dark and Hungry God Arises and Chaos and Order, where we feel, in the words of a famous critic, “narrative crescendos that build and build and keep on building, unremittingly, until they have reached a pitch which no composer of texts has ever attained before”. My blood rushed as Linden yelled “Show me the truth!”, killing the glamour that fooled her (and us) for half a book, and then bellowed the Seven Words, channeling the might of the mountain and bringing it down around Roger’s ears. It’s a beautiful payoff to the Theomach’s entreating Berek in her presence.
And on that subject: In exploiting the time travel plotting of the Last Chronicles, Donaldson is able to go places that are usually the province of inferior fantasy prequels; we get to meet Berek Halfhand in the context of high-stakes end games. Stripped of romantic legend, he’s exactly what I wanted: he’s not a superhero, his Warhaft is a sadist, and he barely understands the Earthpower he supposedly unlocked. Indeed it was not he who summoned the Fire Lions, but they who came to him; and the victory on Mount Thunder wasn’t the triumph claimed by oral history. Two years later, Berek is still mopping up the King’s men, and rather the worse for wear for it. Linden’s dealings with him are crisp — she must watch her every sentence lest she alter time — but it’s nice that she’s able to show him what hurtloam is, and heal his wasted soldiers on death’s door.
Then there is Carroil Wildwood, last seen in The Illearth War, my favorite character of the entire chronicles, and whom I’d fear for my life even on my best behavior. He’s the best (certainly most efficient) forest guardian portrayed in fantasy literature, outdoing even Treebeard, a being of immeasurable power devoted not merely to killing those who mean harm to his forest, but to the total extermination of those who intrude on it. An “out and out butcher”, Covenant calls him, and accurately; he spares no one, save those in unique positions to help his cause. Linden is almost caught in the crossfire when he assaults the Viles, and the brilliant depiction of Wildwood’s song is worth citing:
“She felt as well as heard an abrupt cavalcade of music among the trees. It shocked her… The leaves sang a myriad-throated melody of ineffable loveliness while the twigs and boughs contributed chords of aching harmony and trunks added a chaconne as poignant as a lament. Each note seemed as pristine and new as the first dew of springtime, dulcet as daisies, thorny as briars. Together the thousands upon thousands of notes fashioned a song of such heartbreaking beauty that Linden would have wept to hear it if she had not been trying feverishly to run… [Yet] within the profound glory of the music lay a savage power. Her nerves were stunned by the sheer magnitude of the magic which the singing summoned. It was not mere beauty and grief: it was also a tsunami of rage. Somewhere beyond the hillside, Caerroil Wildwood must have come to the verge of the Deep; and there he sang devastation for every living being that opposed him.” (p 234)
Linden, of course, is ultimately spared by Wildwood on the strength of her promise to save the forests in the future, for which he rewards her in advance by accentuating the Staff with mysterious runes.
She is then returned to the present time by the Mahdoubt, at which point Fatal Revenant deflates. The journey to Andelain sags under grueling treks and fatiguing battle sequences. The problem is that Donaldson brings out too many big guns, and without warning, that they sometimes collapse under their own weight. The Insequent are a brilliant creation but have a deus-ex-machina quality that makes the Harrow’s vanquishing of the Demondim a non-event. The return of the Sandgorgons is a nice touch, but on top of the chaos of Roger’s army of cavewights and Esmer’s caesure doesn’t quite deliver the excitement it should. By the time we get to the skurj — the creatures we’ve been waiting for — I was too battle-slammed to be impressed to the extent I should have been, though they are admittedly nasty beings. Then we get a carbon-copy repeat of the Giant’s mission from the Second Chronicles. Longwrath is Cable Seadreamer all over again; Coldspray the First of the Search. It’s as if Donaldson exhausted himself with all of the grand innovation of the first part of the book and had to coast on sterility to get his second wind in Andelain.
But where a mythic climax awaits. Linden has intended all along to use Loric’s krill to harness the contradictory powers of the Staff of Law and white gold, but in particular to resurrect Covenant from the dead, and this will apparently spell disaster so off the scales as to wake up the Worm and start the apocalypse (which had been Roger’s intent with the Power of Command). The powers-that-be are terrified enough that Infelice herself makes an appearance to stop her, revealing in desperation why the Elohim tried so hard to get her to take Covenant’s place during the Sunbane: to avert what she’s trying to do now. For as a wielder of white gold which wasn’t truly hers, but which could have been tamed by her Sun-Sage talents, she would have posed no hazards to the Arch of Time and could have dealt with Foul in a way that would have made a Staff of Law unnecessary.
It’s fascinating that the Elohim have always considered the Staff a last resort solution (provided in Findail), or lesser of potential evils, since it constrains Covenant’s function in the Arch of Time, thus posing eternal hazards. “By wild magic, he came into being,” says Infelice, “and by your deeds, he was made weak.” This disturbingly echoes Roger’s argument when he was disguised as Covenant, proving that he spoke at least partial truths about the Staff of Law. Even more disturbing is the casual willingness of the Elohim to suffer pollutions like the Sunbane as long as the Arch is secure. But as always, there are deeper and riskier truths, even if Linden doesn’t really understand them, and the cliffhanger is a wonderful shocker: our hero — the real thing this time — is called back into life, leaving the Arch of Time completely undefended.
Fatal Revenant is thus two novellas in a novel, one as epic and thrilling as The Wounded Land and The One Tree, the other a bit stale until an incredible climax which atones for the deficiencies. Taken as a whole it’s a masterpiece, and points ahead to disaster. With the real Covenant back now, and black chaos approaching, I’m expecting raw, unbridled deliverance.
Against All Things Ending (2010) is best characterized as having a transcendent start, a blow-out finish, and a lot of vacuum in between. The vacuum pulls me in in a good way, however, as I’m easily impressed by inner, tormented redundancies and philosophical bickering. The vitriol that has been heaped on this book doesn’t terribly surprise me, but most of the perceived weaknesses I count as strengths, though I realize this amounts to little more than saying that Donaldson’s writing style happens to feed my self-indulgences, even when out of control. While not much happens compared to the previous books, I still couldn’t put it down, and that’s more than I can say for Lord Foul’s Bane.
But first things first: Covenant’s resurrection. It passes brilliantly for a dark version of the Johannine incarnation, the “white gold becoming flesh”, and no accolades can do the writing on display justice. (Read the full text of the passage here.) To describe Linden’s act as one of mad desperation or selfish love would be accurate, but the horror of it doesn’t stop Covenant from being awed, as he expects Linden, as always, to transcend herself through abomination. And she has only days to act before the end of all things.
Amusingly, the time crunch doesn’t prevent five prolonged chapters of anguished second-guessing, self recriminations, and heated arguments (which evidently piss off many readers, but gratify me to no end), before everyone strikes into the Lost Deep to rescue Jeremiah. Not only is this the only course that will appease Linden, but it’s clear by now that the Land’s fate is tied to her son. Foul, Kastenessen, and Roger have wanted his talents, but so does the Harrow, who in a chilling passage is compelled by the Ardent to reveal his true intentions: to use Jeremiah’s powers to construct a cage of permanent slumber for the Worm, thereby depriving the Elohim of all purpose and worth, which will probably kill their existence. To do this, however, he needs more than just white gold and Earthpower, but also the unique magics of the croyel, which he intends to leave on Jeremiah’s back hideously possessing and feeding on him.
The Lost Deep itself turns out to be a place of astonishing beauty, with incredibly fluid architectures that impose sensory contradictions. Linden “would have seen smells, felt colors, tasted voices, if the Viles had not frozen water and theurgy into permanence” (p 144). Mixed in with this grandeur are occasional repulsions of Despite, reminding us of the Viles’ ultimate corruption, worst seen in the room containing Jeremiah. The showdown in this cavern is bloody fantastic: Roger vilely slays the Harrow (frankly I was cheering the son of a bitch on), exchanges insults and flame with his father, whose hands in turn are burned to uselessness from Joan’s assault through the krill; when Roger tries vanishing with Jeremiah, Esmer explodes furiously through the stone floor and intervenes, requiring a vicious betrayal on his part involving She Who Must Not Be Named.
This bane from below demands attention. On the one hand, she’s a nasty piece of work, an amorphous beast containing the souls of thousands of devoured women, the faces of whom are visible and howl horribly in torment. This thrice-damned creature turns out to be the source of Kevin’s Dirt, created by Kastenessen and Esmer in order to obstruct Law, and the effect she has on Linden is horrendous, draining her ability to tap into Earthpower, and pummeling her with disgusting sensations of carrion — maggots feasting on her eyes, spiders in her ears, centipedes up her cunt, and more. On the other hand, I don’t know what Donaldson was thinking with the moniker She Who Must Not Be Named. For an author with a genius ear, this is an astounding display of incompetence, not to mention a rip-off of Harry Potter, and jarringly evokes images of juvenile fantasy throughout a dark part of the quest. It’s not even clear why the bane can’t be named, and seems like a melodramatic contrivance. But she does give good payoff, especially at the climax when Covenant brandishes his ring futilely, and Elena is summoned only to be defeated by the bane and become grossly part of it — as if his daughter hasn’t been through enough hell for the past seven millennia.
And a word about Covenant. In the opinion of many, he’s too useless in this book. He’s unable to remember anything from his eternity spent in the Arch, unwilling to use power, and catatonic half the time; in this light it seems incredible he could have been godlike. But Donaldson fans should know better, and I’m not just talking about the way the author enjoys making things impossibly difficult for his characters (though that’s true as well). A major point of the chronicles is that power, like innocence, is ultimately impotent. As Covenant reflects beneath Landsdrop, and in a very non-Judeo-Christian way:
“No wonder only people like Roger and creatures like the croyel wanted to be gods. The sheer impotence of that state would appall a chunk of basalt — if the basalt happened to care about anything except itself. Absolute power was as bad as powerlessness for anybody who valued someone else’s peace or happiness or even survival. The Creator could only make or destroy worlds: he could not rule them, nurture them, assist them. He was simply too strong to express himself within the constraints of Time. By that standard, forgetfulness was Covenant’s only real hope. No matter how badly he wanted to remember, he needed his specific form of ignorance; absolutely required it. Nothing less would prevent him from violating the necessity of freedom.” (p 253)
There is more. In a brilliant inverse to the exchange under Melenkurion Skyweir, where “Covenant” (Roger) justified his ill treatment of Linden by appealing to spiritual brokenness, so now the real Covenant tries to assuage her pain at being pushed away: “I’m broken, Linden. I told you. I don’t know what I’m becoming, and I don’t know what I’ll have to do about it. I trust you. It’s me I’m worried about.” (p 318) That’s the Covenant we (certainly I) should have been looking for in Fatal Revenant, someone who self-accuses more than self-justifies, and believes in others more than himself.
With Jeremiah rescued from imprisonment, the focus then turns to the unpleasant attempts to free him from the croyel itself. This happens around two assaults on the company beneath Landsdrop and the tragic deaths of characters whose purposes come to fruition. The exorcism is arduous: Linden attacks the demon with everything at her disposal, but with the Staff finds that the necessary slow efforts would break Jeremiah down and kill him; and that while the white gold could blast through the croyel’s brain directly without hurting the boy’s consciousness, the demon would go down incinerating his mind. Her helpless attempts go on for eight pages (pp 322-330), until her display of power finally calls down the fury of six caesures, which she can barely fend off as Liand decides to attempt his own exorcism with the Sunstone.
The death of Liand is something of a mixed bag, both tragic and strangely anti-climactic, and the same goes for Anele during the second assault of Roger’s cavewights. It’s good to see Donaldson treating exorcisms with the gravitas they deserve: messing with demonic powers gets you killed. The problem is that there hasn’t been enough development of the Stonedowners to make their sacrifices hit quite as hard as they should. Even worse is Esmer, who in his typical fashion appears out of nowhere to prevent Anele’s success, and the ur-viles appear too and before we know it slap their manacles on him and destroy his purpose once and for all. This get-out-of-jail free card stands in contrast to the painstaking development of Vain in the Second Chronicles, and cheapens the ur-viles’ labors. Galt’s sacrifice, on the other hand, is wonderful, and the revelation that he is Stave’s son well played; in the end he chooses his father’s devotion to Linden over the demands of the Humbled. (Amidst all the slaughter and dying, there is an amusing point at which Roger gets his cavewight cut out from under him, and he sprawls on his ass, causing me to bray laughter — and this especially on top of his endless fury that with the croyel slain, Jeremiah is now beyond his retrieval.)
Despite its lukewarm execution, the battle for Jeremiah’s soul is a pivotal moment in the Last Chronicles, and leaves us wondering about the role he has absorbed from Anele as “the Land’s last hope”. We learn that a short stop away from the Shattered Hills, where he builds a cage out of strange bones and is able to completely free his mind and speak. Before this, however, a wrathful Infelice appears and gives Linden a tongue-lashing that outdoes her performance in Andelain, and it’s fascinating, as always, to hear what passes for Elohim stewardship. To be fair, Infelice isn’t operating out of sheer self-interest; not only do Jeremiah’s cages threaten the Elohim, they can imprison the Creator himself, and this is apparently what the Despiser wants him for. Still, it’s long reached the point where I don’t trust these Earthpower deities at all. They’re way too self-serving, and always aim for safe or lesser-evil solutions that solve nothing. I’d even ally with the Insequent before them, and that’s saying something; at least they (through the Ardent) are willing to gamble on risky choices and trust Linden.
The final act of Against All Things Ending excels in the manner of all Donaldson cliffhangers, and allows the resurrected Covenant to show some teeth after all, by murdering his ex-wife. I couldn’t think of a better use for the krill; Joan has been damned beyond hope for too long. I was deeply unsettled by the tsunami, which he barely evades, and even by keeping his oath to the Ranyhyn: the Humbled grab his arms and hold his body between them while furiously galloping inland. It’s an entertaining spectacle, but also a bit sickening in the wake of India and Japan’s crises — tsunamis, I’m convinced, are as evil as Lord Foul. As for the stars going out, that’s strangely reminiscent of the season-five finale of Doctor Who, and while it’s doubtful that Moffat and Donaldson were aware of each other’s intentions, it’s curious that their penultimate apocalypses came out the same year.
Against All Things Ending is neither the worst Covenant book (that award goes to Lord Foul’s Bane) nor the underrated treasure claimed by few apologists, but a successful volume that glides with an abundnace of psychological anguish, pleasingly high body counts, and crushing sense of hopelessness that makes Donaldson what he is. I hope he goes out stronger in The Last Dark and reattains the absolute greatness displayed in the Second Chronicles and Fatal Revenant. If he can do that, he’ll have done the impossible with third sequels.
The Last Dark (2013) is an unsparing slaughterfest that respects the apocalypse: neither Covenant nor Linden can stop it. All they can aim for is damage control and stop the Despiser from making Hell out of Hades; the world’s destruction goes on regardless. I was sure this is where the Last Chronicles were going, and confident that Donaldson had the courage to follow through, but my jaded self was half-expecting a wild card to get The Land out of jail. Nothing that bad happens… but nor is The Last Dark the payoff we deserve.
Make no mistake, Tolkien looms where it counts. Themes of noble courage and futility have saturated The Last Chronicles, and now they are brought sharply into focus, not only through mass carnage but scolding sermons. The Giants of the Land have always reminded me of hobbits (save in size), but more than ever in The Last Dark, where the twin virtues of hopelessness and cheer are made so explicit. First there is Cirrus Kindwind’s lecture to an emotionally damaged Jeremiah, who like all youths have shrill ideas about justice and what people deserve. Kindwind corrects this (pp 187-188):
Kindwind: “The notion of deserved and undeserved is a fancy. Knowing both life and death, we endeavor to impose worth and meaning upon our deeds, and thereby comfort our fear of impermanence. We choose to imagine that our lives merit continuance. But that is a fancy. A wider gaze does not regard us in that wise. The stars do not. Perhaps the Creator does not. The larger truth is merely that all things end. By that measure, our fancies cannot be distinguished from dust. For this reason, we Giants love tales. Our iteration of past deeds and desires and discoveries provides the only form of permanence to which mortal life can aspire. That such permanence is a chimera does not lessen its power to console. Joy is in the ears that hear.”
Jeremiah: “So you’re saying what Stave did is worthless? What Cabledarm did is worthless? It’s all dust? You sound like the croyel. It was forever telling me that what Mom did was useless. Nothing matters. It’s all dust. That’s why Lord Foul laughs — and Roger — and those Ravers. They agree with you.”
Kindwind: “Then hear me, Chosen-son. Hear me well. We do what we must so that we may find worth in ourselves. We do not hope vainly that we will put an end to pain, or to loss, or to death. The purpose of life is not ease. It is to choose and act upon the choice. In that task we are not measured by outcomes. We are measured only by daring and effort and resolve.”
And as always, the wisdom of Giants opposes the honor codes of the Haruchai, who measure everything by outcomes and are trapped in cycles of shame.
Rime Coldspray’s speech on the doorstep of Mount Thunder (p 377) is possibly my favorite passage in the book:
“Here we surrender every future which we have imagined for ourselves. We have no prospect of return. Indeed we cannot trust that we will outlive another day. Our doom is this, that we enter Mount Thunder seeking to confront the most heinous of foes — and yet the Worm hastens toward the World’s End many scores of leagues distant, where no deed of ours can thwart it. Thus even the greatest triumphs within the mountain may come to naught, for no life will remain to heed the tale. Nonetheless I proclaim that I am not daunted. While hearts beat and lungs draw breath, we seek to affirm the import of our lives. When we must perish, my wish for us is that we will come to the end knowing that we have held fast to that which we deem precious. Doubtless this is folly. Yet when have our deeds been otherwise? Are we not Giants? And is not our folly the stone against which we have raised the sea of our laughter?”
And when all the Giants start doing exactly that — laughing in the face of doom — Jeremiah looks on thinking “they had lost their minds”. Coldspray is basically replaying Sam Gamgee at the Black Gate, who “never had any hope in Frodo’s quest, but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope”. As far as I can tell, Hobbits and Giants have exactly the same outlook: things must turn out badly in the end, so they can only be better in the meantime; if you dare to hope you will fall prey to despair when your hope is withdrawn; expecting disaster from the start enables you to remain immune, even cheerful, when your expectations are simply confirmed.
This idea opposes Judeo-Christian values and comes from cultures where evil is expected to triumph at Armageddon, like the Norse Ragnarok. Tolkien was Catholic and believed hope was virtuous, but he was drawn by the hard nobility of the ancient pagans, and in a pre-Christian world like Middle-Earth, hope could only be for fools. In The Land hope is more murky, and Donaldson works outside Christian/pagan frameworks in any case. As I see it, there is a progression of pessimism in The Land as stakes increase. The first chronicles allow for a measure of hope against evil, the second just barely, and the third not much at all. This mirrors the escalation of menace as Covenant goes from (a) facing Lord Foul and defeating him (in the first series), to (b) surrendering to Lord Foul and accepting him (in the second), to (c) becoming Lord Foul as the earth is destroyed (in the last). So even when things are at their bleakest in The Power That Preserves, Mhoram can encourage hope in the war against samadhi Raver and for Covenant’s purposes against the Despiser. The second trilogy is crushingly defeatist: the Sunbane is an omnipresent horror, the quest of the One Tree fails, and Covenant is ready, by the end of White Gold Wielder, to give up and surrender his ring. Of course, that’s a paradox (the quest for the Staff of Law didn’t really fail, as Vain’s arm was transmuted, and Covenant’s surrender is what enables his victory), but few readers feel any hope in the Second Chronicles; they are depressing to the point of suffocation. In Andelain, nonetheless, the shade of Mhoram summons the optimism to say, “My friends, I believe you will prevail.”
Not even a sliver of this hope can be found in the Last Chronicles. The best the Lords can allow for are deeper mysteries owing to the purity of Linden’s passion. They are non-judgmental (save Kevin), but agree with Infelice that Linden has wrought disaster by removing Covenant from the Arch of Time. After Andelain it’s all about damage control — trying to prevent Lord Foul from escaping the Arch, and stopping his even deeper threat against the Creator. Then too, had Linden not brought on the apocalypse, the Despiser may have done much worse over time. Thus we learn in the epilogue:
Linden: “All those people. Millions of them. Tens of millions. All that devastation. I did that. I have to live with so much death.”
Infelice: “Yet had you not roused the Worm, he whom you name the Despiser would have wrought graver harm by some other means. Damning the Earth, you enabled its redemption.”
When Infelice at last finds wisdom, it’s with a truth harder to take than her own gall.
The narrative itself, however, disappoints more often than not. It sounds like a cracker when described. The Land has become an underworld of vanishing stars and no sun, with the reality of the apocalypse felt on every page. On the coastal front, Covenant races to the Sarangrave in order to steer the Worm onto a less lethal path and buy himself time. Before this we’re treated to the vastly entertaining spectacle of him being whipsawed by the Lurker, as the colossal beast aims him with the krill against its own body — using Covenant to tear off parts of itself before turiya Raver can possess more. Leagues west, the Giants and Stave nearly kill themselves building Jeremiah’s sanctuary, while Infelice, incredibly, declares her intent to slay Jeremiah (so that Foul won’t be able to capture him and use his talents) even as he’s saving her bloody ass from extinction. To top that off, Kastenessen makes a long-overdue appearance, and breaks Jeremiah in a horrible possession. Donaldson depicts the event as a splintering of many selves: “One Jeremiah realized that he had been possessed and tried to scream; one stood in the white core of a furnace; another interpreted every form of pain as pure delight; one relished the knowledge that he had become incarnate lava, and the idea that his companions were about to die glorified him; still another self fled for the safety of sepulchres; another gibbered for the godhood of eternity.” (p 209) Meanwhile, Linden hurtles centuries back into the past to achieve a forgotten power. This entails revisiting my favorite character Carroil Wildwood, in a grand chapter of musical rage and unprecedented sacrifice.
The way this is all executed is by-the-numbers. I was let down by Jeremiah, who overcame moksha Raver too easily, not to mention his horrendous emotional baggage. His mother needed a whole trilogy to heal, but he — a physically tormented and mindraped teenager — somehow manages to pull his shit together in the space of five days. As for Covenant becoming Lord Foul, the idea is faultless; the execution extremely lukewarm. It occurs awkwardly and out-of-the-blue at the showdown in Mount Thunder, in conjunction with Linden’s confusing liberation of the Bane. Both of these contain impressive elements, but they lack an organic build-up that made Covenant’s surrender of the white gold, and Linden’s fusing of Vain and Findail, a brilliant payoff in the second series. Nor did I care for the preliminary clash outside Mount Thunder, where Donaldson copies his earlier mistake of bringing out too many Sandgorgons (on top of umpteen skurj). The result is battle fatigue that trivializes the graphic horror of a single Sandgorgon in The One Tree.
So ends the last trial of Thomas Covenant whom I will sorely miss. It’s the real ending this time, and leaves us imagining the new world: a rebuilt Land, not exactly free of Lord Foul, but with a Despiser constrained or diluted by the flesh of wild magic. You could easily get a fourth chronicles out of that — the potential of Covenant becoming a demon is certainly there — but after ten books, I think the story of Covenant=the Despiser is best left to the imagination.
The First Chronicles — 3 ½
Lord Foul’s Bane — 2
The Illearth War — 5
The Power that Preserves — 4
The Second Chronicles — 5
The Wounded Land — 5
The One Tree — 5
White Gold Wielder — 4 ½
The Last Chronicles — 4
The Runes of the Earth — 4 ½
Fatal Revenant — 5
Against All Things Ending — 3 ½
The Last Dark — 3