The Talisman and Thomas Covenant

talismanI’m finishing up a marathon of Peter Straub and pleased to say that the dark fantasy he co-wrote with Stephen King, The Talisman, holds up well after 30 years. I’d forgotten how much it owes to the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, especially the second trilogy, which turned the Land into a toxic nightmare. That trilogy remains the best horror fantasy of all time, was published between 1980 and the spring of 1983, and was clearly on the minds of King and Straub (or at least one of them), whose book was released in late 1984.

The story is about the 12-year old Jack Sawyer who embarks on a quest from New Hampshire to California, legging it, hitchhiking, barely able to feed himself and escape run-ins with those who want him dead. He periodically flips over to a world called the Territories, a parallel version of America with magic and medieval technology. It’s an inherently good place that’s been corrupted and polluted — a lot like the Land of Donaldson’s second trilogy. Let’s compare the two.

First arrival

One of the first things Thomas Covenant does in the Land is eat the treasure berries (aliantha) that grow wild and taste extraordinarily sweet. Their nourishment derives from the vitality of the Land itself, like the berries Jack Sawyer stumbles on when he first appears in the Territories:

“Jack reached in, picked a handful of berries, and tossed them into his mouth. They were amazingly sweet, amazingly good. He had never tasted anything so fine — although, he thought later, it was not just the berries themselves; part of it was the incredible clarity of the air.”

There are other benefits. Covenant’s leprosy is cured. Linden Avery has a “health sense” that puts her in tune with the Land. Jack’s experience in the Territories is reminiscent of this:

“The warm drifting air of the Territories patted his face with the gentlest, most fragrant of touches. He no longer felt ill; he felt, in fact, better than at any time since leaving Los Angeles, not merely healthy but somehow harmonious, mysteriously in tune with his body.”

The Blasted Lands = The Wounded Land

The influence of the Second Chronicles revs up when Jack and Richard come to the Blasted Lands (the Territories’ analog for the eight mountain states). Jack and Richard must travel through the stretch that parallels Wyoming-Utah-Nevada in order to reach the west coast, and they first encounter the figure of Anders who offers them advice. Anders is a babbling hermit who all but worships Jack as a savior (“Jason”) who will put things to right. He is basically Donaldson’s hermit Nassic, who receives Covenant the same way. Anders is depicted thus:

“The old man was on his knees, babbling and weeping. ‘Jason, ye’ve come! Ye’ve come and a’ wi’ be well, aye, a’ wi’ be well, and a’ manner a’ things wi’ be well!’ His white hair obscured Jack’s sandaled feet as be bent over and began to kiss them. He was a single man who had spent his entire life in the Outposts and he was not used to talking much at the best of times. Now he had been commanded to speak by a boy whom he considered to be at least royalty, and perhaps even something of a god.”

woundedJack and Richard then enter the Blasted Lands, which is basically the Land under the Sunbane. Boulder-sized fireballs appear out of nowhere, bringing death and radioactive poison. Warped animals and serpentine humanoids dash about and hide under rocks. Rare water pools are foul and oily. As for trees, their existence is pure agony:

“From this starved dry soil grew the wretched trees, so stunted they seemed to be straining over in an attempt to flee back under their own coiling roots. This was bad enough, but when you saw one of the trees obliquely, out of the side of your eye, you saw a living creature in torment — the straining branches were arms thrown up over an agonized face caught in a frozen scream. The trees were cursing, pleading, howling at Jack — their unheard voices hung in the air like smoke. Like all the Blasted Lands, these trees had been poisoned.”

This imagery is lifted from The Wounded Land, where Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery witness the torture of vegetation under the Sunbane.

“Suddenly, the long grass and curling vines, the thick bushes, the saplings no longer seemed lush. Instead, they looked frenetic, hysterical. They did not spring with spontaneous luxuriance out of the soil; they were forced to grow by the unnatural scourge of the sun. Vegetation squirmed out of the ground like a ghoul-ridden host. Shrubs raised their branches as if they were on fire; trees clawed their way into the air, as frantic as the damned. Linden was floating through a wilderness of voiceless anguish; the torment around her was as loud as shrieks. Tortured out of all Law, the trees and plants had no defense, could do nothing for themselves except grow and grow — and hurl their dumb hurt into the sky.”

White Gold + Staff of Law = Talisman

The Talisman itself calls to mind the Land’s two artifacts, the Staff of Law and White Gold Ring. The Staff for its healing function: the Talisman was made to cure Jack’s mother and her Territories’ analogue the Queen. In the process, the cosmos will be made whole, because the Talisman somehow encompasses all worlds through these women. The rightful wielder of the Talisman (Jack) actually becomes one with the cosmos:

“Jack Sawyer was everywhere; Jack Sawyer was everything. A blade of grass died of thirst on an inconsequential plain somewhere in the center of a continent which roughly corresponded in position to Africa; Jack died with that blade of grass. In another world, dragons were copulating in the center of a cloud high above the planet, and the fiery breath of their ecstasy mixed with the cold air and precipitated rain and floods on the ground below. Jack was the he-dragon; Jack was the she-dragon; Jack was the sperm; Jack was the egg. Far out in the ether a million universes away, three specks of dust floated near on another in interstellar space. Jack was the dust, and Jack was the space between. Jack’s happy teeth bit an orange: Jack’s unhappy flesh screamed as the teeth tore him open. He was a sneeze; he was the germs in the sneeze; he was the atoms in the germs; he was the tachyons in the atoms traveling backward through time toward the big bang at the start of creation.”

Compare this to Linden’s experience of wielding the Staff of Law. She heals the Land by becoming spiritually coterminous with it, and absorbing every ounce of poison and corruption, translating it, and sending it back as Earthpower:

“It was a strange battle, weird and terrible. She had no opponent. Her foe was the rot Lord Foul had inflicted on the Land. She called it to herself, accepted it into her personal flesh. The sheer pain and horror of it excruciated her hideously. But her need drove her to more power. She was a storm upon the mountain, a barrage of determination and fire. From every league and hill and gully and plain of the Land, every slope of Andelain and cliff of the peaks, every southern escarpment and northern rise, she drew ruin into herself and restored it to wholeness, then sent it back like silent rain. The brown of deserts came blistering around her, scorched her skin. She felt in her bones the rhythm of rise and fall, the strict and vital alternation of seasons, summer and winter. The desert fire was cooled to a caress and emitted gently outward again. She restored the Earthpower and released it upon the wracked body of the Land.”

Jack Sawyer is like Linden Avery — a “chosen” healer with godlike awareness and feeling. But he’s also like Thomas Covenant, because the Talisman is as much a weapon as a healing device, and like the white gold depends on the paradox of surrender. As Jack and his nemesis Morgan Sloat battle on the beach, Sloat furiously demands that Jack surrender the Talisman, which Jack finally does to his friend’s shock:

“Richard watched in horror as Jack tilted the palms of his hands and let the Talisman tumble out. ‘Jack, no!’

“Jack didn’t look around at Richard. You don’t own a thing unless you can give it up, his mind hammered at him. The Talisman glowed on the beach, and in that moment Jack knew the staggering cleanliness of giving up the thing which was required.

“‘No more slaughter,’ Jack said to Sloat. ‘Go on and break it if you can. I’m sorry for you.’

“It was this last which surely destroyed Morgan Sloat. If he had retained a shred of rational thought, he would have unearthed a stone and smashed the Talisman. Instead he turned the key on it. Fire sang out. It arrowed out at the Talisman, struck it, spread over it, turned it into a burning sun. Every color was there for a moment… then it was gone. The Talisman swallowed the fire from Morgan’s key. Ate it whole. Then Morgan Sloat was driven backward and enveloped in a field of fire — fire that had been absorbed inside the Talisman and which was returned to him a thousandfold. Jack heard Morgan Sloat’s dying scream as he was driven back through all the worlds that were, into oblivion.”

White-Gold-WielderCompare this to what happens in the final confrontation under Mount Thunder, in White Gold Wielder. Lord Foul demands that Covenant surrender his white gold ring, to which Linden protests but allows Covenant his freedom of choice. Covenant does surrender it, and seals Foul’s doom by way of paradox: Foul gets the white gold ring and unleashes its fire on Covenant, but because Covenant himself is white gold, the fire ultimately backfires on Foul and destroys him. If Foul had simply taken the ring and left Covenant alone, he would have been free to destroy the cosmos.

Morgan Sloat makes a similar blunder in the above citation. If he had simply tried to destroy the Talisman by physically crushing it, he would have succeeded, and could have wreaked havoc across worlds. Instead, like Foul, he attacks Jack with magic fire (from his personal key), which triggers the Talisman to rebound the attack. Sloat dies like Lord Foul, a victim of his hate and rage.

So is The Talisman derivative?

No, it’s its own story, filled with originality and surprises. And I’m not faulting King and Straub. In the early ’80s it would have been difficult for a horror-fantasy to be free of Donaldson’s influence. After Lord of the Rings, the second Covenant trilogy is the best fantasy ever written, proving that sequel trilogies can be not only good but better when authors push themselves. It’s a mean fantasy, with a foe that can’t be defeated by armies and battles, and a plot impossible to predict. Donaldson had stepped outside the Tolkien trappings that constrained his first trilogy and delivered something completely on his own terms.

King and Straub were writing on their own terms too, but in the immediate shadow of the Second Chronicles. The Talisman doesn’t plagiarize — for that, read Straub’s Shadowland, which, though a masterpiece, shamelessly steals the catalog of magic-user spells from Dungeons and Dragons — but it does evoke Land-like themes. It depicts an environmental poison worse than war; omnipresent evil that fills the cosmos; and salvation that comes by risky submission to it.

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