I have a feeling that Lord Foul’s Bane may come as a surprise to many readers. It’s on the ‘fantasy’ shelf, and fantastical things do occur, but this isn’t meant to be how fantasy works. At least, not these days.
Some history is in order. Lord Foul’s Bane is one of the most important books in the history of the genre. It came out in the epochal year of 1977 – in October, I think. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons had been released in stages through the year, with the Monster Manual released sometime that autumn so far as I can make out. Tolkien fans would have been at fever-pitch with the long-awaited release of The Silmarillion in September. In January that year, Terry Brooks had released his own shameless rip-off loving homage to Tolkien. Up until then, fantasy was mostly the soft fringes of science fiction, itself already a niche genre. Pern and Earthsea were established, but otherwise it was a matter of writers like Vance, Moorcock and Leiber, who did not exactly write for the masses. Anne Rice and Stephen King were just getting started, but keeping themselves carefully distant from the ‘fantasy’ label, despite their content. Rice, King, Brooks and Donaldson were all early representatives of the Boomer generation, a generation that had grown up with Tolkien and Lewis, and that in 1977 were just beginning to put their stamp on the genre they had inherited.
What happened next is obvious. Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara became the first fantasy novel to make the NYT’s bestseller list. The Silmarillion reached #1 at the beginning of October and stayed there until the middle of March 1978. AD&D was a cult success, and went on to raise up a generation of new fantasy fans. Even The Book of Merlyn made it to the list, the long-belated fifth novel of T.H. White’s old Once and Future King tetralogy. And Donaldson went on to sell 10 million copies of his first two fantasy trilogies. Fantasy went from being a strange half-genre of isolated works to a full functioning world of its own – and a profitable world too.
The problem is: it’s better to forget about all that when you read Lord Foul’s Bane. Because in reality Lord Foul’s Bane was not the first book of a new era of fantasy. That was The Sword of Shannara. Lord Foul’s Bane was the last book of the old era of fantasy, an afterstraggler to the genre of neo-Romantic (big ‘R’) fantasy that had stretched from MacDonald’s Phantastes right through to The Silmarillion, and that would be wiped out almost without trace by the new wave of Brooks-and-Gygax-inspired fantasists.
In many ways, then, Donaldson is one of the most astonishing bestsellers in history. He sold ten million copies in a genre that hadn’t existed when he wrote his books: Lord Foul’s Bane was rejected 47 times, by literally every publisher in North America. Donaldson had to wait for new publishers to come into existence and new editors to take over (he was eventually taken on by Lester Del Rey – the same man who published The Sword of Shannara and, a few years later, David Eddings’ The Pawn of Prophecy). While he was waiting, he wrote the second and third novels of the trilogy. And then after 47 rejections, he sold 10 million copies. And then… nothing happened. The rest of the fantasy genre just took place off to one side. No-one ever tried to emulate him. Oh, A Song of Ice and Fire would eventually claim some portion of his inheritence (Martin and Donaldson are also good friends), but that’s more a nephew-several-times-removed with a few throwback resemblances than an actual son or grandson. Few bestsellers surely can be so singular.
In any case, it says on the cover that Donaldson is an American Tolkien, and actually that label is much more accurate than people these days might assume. More specifically: Donaldson is a Calvinist Tolkien.
I’m actually quite proud of that observation. At some point reading it I thought: hey, this feels Protestant! and then I thought about what sort of Prostestant it felt like, and I realised: this is Calvinist. And lo and behold: Stephen Donaldson was indeed brought up in a devoutly Presbyterian family. To be fair, it’s kind of obvious once you notice it.
Of course, Donaldson rejected his family’s religion, and went on to be a liberal, skeptical conscientious-objector (and he was studying at Kent State when the shootings took place, though he was not at the demonstration himself). Hence, some things are a little odd…
Donaldson shamelessly steals from Tolkien; but the real commonalities are not the wizards with the knobbly staffs, or the hero’s magic ring. What they really have in common is laid out right at the beginning of the book, in the form of a cryptic question the protagonist discovers on a piece of paper.
This question, to paraphrase, asks the reader, and the protagonist, to imagine a man who believes he is dreaming, but who is told that he is the appointed saviour of the whole of the (dream-)world. The man refuses to accept he is not dreaming, so the dream-world is destroyed. Is the man a hero or a coward?
This, we are told (Donaldson is not big on subtlety) is the fundamental question of ethics. It’s an interesting question in its own right, taken literally (we recall Nietzsche’s contention that it is only the actions we perform in our dreams that we are truly morally responsible for), but of course the real meaning is rather deeper than that. We are the dreamer, and we are denying the reality of… well, for Tolkien and for Chesterton and for Donaldson’s parents it would be the world of religious truth, but Donaldson himself does not explicitly make his theme religious, so instead we could say ‘the moral world’ or ‘the world of beauty’. Probably ‘beauty’ is the most appropriate way of saying it. In any case, it is the belief that, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez put it, there is more to reality than the price of tomatoes. There is something more important in the world than a strict numerical accounting of its physical elements. Perhaps, given events in the novel, it’s simply the leap of faith to believe that other people are truly real.
Thomas Covenant is an American man, a novelist, in the middle of a crisis. His novel was a bestseller, and he has written a second unpublished book… but he has been diagnosed with leprosy. His wife has left him, and taken their son with her. The townspeople have ostracised him. He now hates his naive bestseller, and has burnt his unpublished second manuscript. As leprosy takes his physical sensation, he refuses himself emotional sensation also, and survives instead purely on raw stubbornness. He refuses to kill himself, either through suicidal despair or through the hope and optimism that he feels will lead him to a horrid and lingering demise thanks to his disease: his leprosy makes even the slightest unattended wound potentially disfiguring, even lethal, so he must be perpetually on guard, never take any moment of safety for granted.
[Donaldson apparently grew up, incidentally, in a Presbyterian missionary colony in India; his father was a surgeon who treated lepers. Evidentally some things stuck in the mind, because Donaldson’s descriptions of leprosy… well, they stick in the mind too.]
One day, he discovers himself in a fantasy world. He, naturally, does not believe that it exists: he must be hallucinating, gone mad, or else just dreaming. Yet everybody in the world believes that his actions are of the utmost, most vital importance.
Thus he is confronted with a dilemma: does he accept that the world around him is real, effectively surrendering his sanity and surely condemning him to death (directly through harm in the real world if he is only hallucinating, or indirectly by awakening a hope and optimism that will crush him when he discovers himself back in the real world), or does he refuse to accept the reality of the world – again potentially condemning him to dangers from the dream world, as well as forcing him to watch terrible things happen to these figments of his imagination? The book shows us his psychological journey, his progression through a series of resolutions designed to enable him to survive being placed at this crux; but these more generally can be taken as showing the progression of a wounded soul toward a moral or religious life.
It is a distinctively Calvinist journey for two related reasons: first, because it stresses the inquity of the sinner, the enormous and unspannable chasm between the wretched man and divine justification; and second because it emphasises the utter hopelessness of a godless world and the vanity of human pride.
The first point is what a lot of readers hate about the book. Covenant… is iniquitous. He has almost no redeeming features. He’s not some fun little anti-hero, so evil that he cannot be taken seriously. He’s a normal guy, doing things normal guys might do in his situation, except the things he does and says are at best desparate and at worst evil. He’s not fun, and witty, so dashing that we love him despite his villainy… he has the odd good line, but mostly he’s bitter, resentful, stubborn, uncharitable, taciturn… just as he is determined to make no concession to any enemy, he seems determined to concede nothing to any friend. He has put himself beyond a willingness to be judged by others – or at least so he appears to claim.
And because he’s iniquitous, he… well, it’s been 40 years so you should know by now what happens in Chapter 7, but if you don’t I won’t tell you, because honestly I think it works better if you read it for yourself. But let’s just say, he Does Some Bad Things. This means that a lot of readers hate Covenant, or put the book right down. A fair few people even despise Donaldson as a result. Indeed, it would be interesting to explore why what happens is so objectionable to many people – since, sure, it’s an unforgivable thing, but novels before and since have shown characters do far, far worse things without provoking such outrage. Hell, A Song of Ice and Fire has one character throw an innocent child to their death to prevent people learning about his own incestuous adultery, and the guy’s practically beloved! I think a lot of it is that Covenant isn’t a dashing evil, isn’t a ridiculous evil, is just a really ordinary, really despicable kind of evil.
But then, that’s the point. In a Calvinist world, we’re all despicable. We’re all unforgivable.
Yet perhaps what really infuriates people is that in another way Covenant isn’t evil. He’s just a normal guy, and his sins are presented as a realistic response to his situation. And while we may regard him as unforgivable, the book… perhaps doesn’t. There is no point at which Covenant is simply redeemed, let off the hook by the author or the text… yet the author also appears to have faith, or at least hope, that through some sort of grace Covenant might be redeemed – that there is something in him that allows him to be redeemed, even if Covenant himself cannot (or does not) effect that redemption. The author neither even slightly hints at forgiving his character nor writes him off as a lost cause. I think that might be tricky for some readers.
And then again, maybe the real problem is just that Covenant (as perhaps his name suggests) seems to stand for the human race as a whole, including us readers. And some readers don’t want Covenant to be their proxy. They don’t want anything to do with him. “We’re not like this guy!” they’ll say, “why are we being this guy as our representative?” And maybe a Catholic or Anglo-Catholic author like Tolkien or Lewis would have been sympathetic to that. But this is a Calvinist fantasy – we’re all iniquitous and utterly depraved sinners lacking all justification without the direct grace of God, we just don’t all know it yet. And perhaps in this Calvinist view it’s also fair to say that we are all so drenched in sin that none of us have any right to forgiveness… yet none of us are so irredeemable that we could not be saved if God wished it.
That gives us one of the most striking inversions in this series. So often in a heroic story, the protagonist is essentially left asking “why me? Why do I have to undergo all this hardship?”
Thomas Covenant, on the other hand, is left asking “why me? Why do I have to get a free ride?”
Because Thomas Covenant is a Hero. He is here to save (or damn) the Land he finds himself a guest within. And everybody knows it. Everybody at least knows he has (thanks to the magical powers of his wedding ring) immense power; the more credulous or hopeful also believe he is the reincarnation (or the like) of the Land’s greatest historical hero, the wonderful-in-all-possible-ways Berek Halfhand (Berek lost his fingers to a sword; Covenant, to leprosy). Everyone’s instinct is to praise him, to adulate him. Even those who doubt him personally – even those who come to hate him and know his iniquity – are left forced by their own wisdom to let his many sins, major and minor, slide, in the interests of the greater good. He is just so important that their own grievances against him must be forgotten.
If that sounds a really irritating read for us – bad guy gets off scott free for everything – it’s an excruciating experience for Covenant himself. Covenant does not want to be forgiven. He does not forgive himself. More than that: it is the very fact of forgiveness that undermines him. His mantras of survival are founded on a view of the universe as fundamentally hostile – so long as everyone and everything hates him, he can justify whatever it takes to defy them, to keep on living. Once people – once perhaps even the world itself – starts to forgive him, once things put themselves at his service and he becomes responsible for them, he struggles to defend himself against his own accusations. Forgiveness would bring responsibility, and responsibility brings guilt and guilt brings pain. If Covenant can avoid responsibility, he can avoid pain. But this also connects to the idea of the dream world: in feeling responsible for the things in this world, Covenant would have to acknowledge their reality. Conversely, by denying their reality he can deny his own responsibility.
I’d also like to suggest trying to view Covenant’s position through the lens of, in a Fichtean sort of way, a consciousness that posits an external, unyielding other. At first the Self believes that everything is itself; then, it comes to recognise the Other as a passive, static, objective stock of resources. It imposes its will upon the Other in order to create its own freedom. But in doing so it causes pain, and the perception of that pain creates shock, and guilt, and an awareness of the validity of the Other as an alternative subjectivity. Until it feels that pain – rather, until we feel the pain of others, the pain that we have caused them, we view the world and its inhabitants, as we do as children, as being merely the stuff of our manipulation. Covenant does not allow himself to feel the pain of others – or even his own pain – and so he violates the subjectivity of others, and indeed of himself, and creates a pain that constantly hammers at his senses. But in the real world, Covenant’s senses are dulled, physically by leprosy and psychologically by despair and alienation from human contact. He is left neither able to deny the pain of others – and hence his own guilt – nor convince himself of it, just as he can neither deny nor convince himself of the reality of the Land, or of the existence of beauty. Similarly and inversely, Covenant’s condition has left him impotent – mentally, creatively, physically, sexually, socially. He cannot influence the world, and so cannot take responsibility for its pain. But the magic of the Land, and the trust of its inhabitants, rip that protective impotence away from him.
At one point a character says something that Tolkien’s work also emphasises (sorry, I have to paraphrase here): All power is a terrible thing. But for the Catholic Tolkien, power is terrible because power is a seduction, leading the individual into pride, and hence into evil. Evil in Tolkien is simply power used pridefully, and as a result the Elves and Wizards of his world walk a terribly thin line between great good and great evil. But for the post-Calvinist Donaldson, power is terrible because power shows you that you are already evil. Your power forces you to confront how badly you will use it, how unprepared you are for it. Covenant… does not use power well.
The other half of the Calvinism meanwhile is the hopelessness of the world. This may not be immediately apparent. Because, after all, the Land that Covenant finds himself in is a deeply wonderful place. The stone, the trees, are filled with power, and everybody in the Land is a sort of sublime, viceless hippie. [There is more than a touch here, in Covenant’s encounter with the Land, of what we might imagine to be the encounter between a conservative-raised skeptic and the real hippies Donalson would have encountered in his university studies and at anti-war marches and the like]. The Land is presided over ultimately by a small council of ancient, wise, all-loving philosopher-magicians, the Lords of Revelstone. Everybody in the Land has sworn an oath of peace: not to hurt when holding is enough, not to wound when hurting is enough, and so on. They won’t even be violent toward their enemies, except in self-defence, and even that must be as gentle and forgiving as possible.
The problem is that everything in the Land is going to be destroyed. We know this because right at the beginning of Covenant’s time in this world, he is given a message to take the the Lords… from Lord Foul the Despiser. As the name suggests, he’s a wrong’un and no mistake. Lord Foul spells out the Lords’ problem very simply: they all have only 49 years to live. If they don’t do exactly what he wants – snatch some magic goodies from a lesser evil guy – they’ll all be dead in 7. If they just ignore this message, they’ll be dead in 2.
The thing is, Foul isn’t boasting. He’s not lying. Lord Foul never lies – it’s the genius of his character. He’s not one of those satanic figures who cunningly gets around lying, who deceives by telling the truth. No, he doesn’t lie because he doesn’t have to. Everybody is doomed.
As readers, we’d like to believe that this isn’t true. And to be fair, we haven’t yet seen just how little chance our heroes have. But by the end of Lord Foul’s Bane [the title itself it a joke: it is not the bane of Lord Foul, it is a bane of the world that Lord Foul wants], we should be getting worried. The Lords with their Oath of Peace and their love of knowledge… the stoic haruchai with their vow of service… the ranyhyn with their noble, natural power and the manethralls with their worship of the ranyhyn… the basic goodness of the stonedowners and woodhelvenin… the joy and passion of the Giants… we are confronted with so many visions of virtue, so many incompatible ways to fight against the Despiser, that we have to be suspicious about all of them. And indeed the book begins to interogate these human faiths, showing us not only how they can be exploited but how they can perverted, turned against themselves. The only thing it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to try to do something about it… time and again, Foul taunts people with the appearance of power only to show them how impotent power really is.
We are warned from the beginning. We are told about Kevin [sorry – Donaldson has a lot of great fantasy names, and then the most important person in his mythology is called Kevin. Berek Halfhand begat Damelon Giantfriend begat Loric Vilesilencer, begat the most powerful of them all… Kevin]. Long ago, when High Lord Kevin, the most powerful man in history, saw Foul’s inevitable victory, he took the ultimate, nuclear option: the Ritual of Desecration scoured the earth clean of all life, sacrificing the world to kill Foul. Needless to say, he failed, and more than failed. Power is a terrible thing.
Kevin stored his lore in seven Wards. In the thousand years since, the new Lords have still only made it partly through the first Ward. They don’t even have the other six. The wisest and most knowledgeable people in the world don’t have even one seventh the wisdom and knowledge of their ancestor, and that ancestor not only completely failed to kill Foul but did more damage than Foul could have imagined. [Except he did imagine it. Foul always knows what’s going to happen.] So… we might not know yet what is going to go wrong with the current generation, but we know that something will. How could it possibly not?
And the only way out of that trap is Covenant. So it’s probably not a good sign that it was Foul who brought him to the Land in the first place.
But the great theme of Donaldson’s world isn’t that good cannot triumph. It’s that every time good thinks it has triumphed, it has only created some other new evil. And boy is there a lot of evil in these books. And Donaldson manages the trick of giving us these visions of virtue, making the virtue impressive, undeniable… and still having us worry, so cynically, that something here seems off. Something is very wrong, everywhere.
Today, though, I’m just reviewing Lord Foul’s Bane.
This isn’t easy.
But maybe we should get down to the details. And for Donaldson, that means the problems. Because Donaldson’s books are much more satisfying to have read than to read.
The most obvious problem is the language. Donaldson – in, it must be said, the tradition of high neo-Romantic fantasy – infuses his narrative voice with archaisms. In Lord Foul’s Bane, it’s mostly minimal, but it becomes more and more pronounced as the book goes on and will be an even bigger issue in each further book. Donaldson uses long or strange words when they are not needed; and this has resulted in a good deal of mockery.
Yet I think that this is uncharitable. For the most part, these are perfectly good words, albeit not quotidian ones. There was only one word I had to look up in Lord Foul’s Bane – and that I think was a mistake by him, since I don’t believe the word actually exists, but I can tell from context and apparent etymology what he meant. The rest of the time, it’s just a broad, literate vocabulary, and frankly I enjoyed seeing a few unusual words crop up. More importantly, it’s a key element of his style: his Land is fantastical in part because the language is, by quotidian standards, fantastical. And if perhaps it may in part be true that he’s using big words to sound more intelligent, more philosophical… well obviously he is. That’s the point. He’s trying to infuse his book with vast, cosmological, ethical and theological import. So no, no he’s not going to write it in the idiom of an ordinary man just nipping off down to the shops!
Relatedly, there’s the use of metaphor. This, I think, is the heart of the book. Donaldson describes his world in metaphor after metaphor after metaphor. Some are conventional, others are innovative, some are bizarre. Some are mundane, some are Significant and Symbolic. Some are boring, some are cheesy or bad, and some are brilliant.
I really wish – for one of the first times ever – that I’d read this digitally, so that I could have underlined bits worth remembering. Because there truly are a whole load of real gems of a line in this book. You just have to wade through a lot to get to them.
The real problem, you see, isn’t that the story is told with strange words and strange rhythms. And though you might think so, the problem isn’t even the tendency toward long, explanatory monologues – not even the ones by Foul, which I think at some points actually are punctuated by maniacal evil laughter, and if they aren’t then they should be – nor even the godawful random-line-breaks-in-prose ‘poetry’. Those things are all, well, slaps in the face, to be sure, but they’re the sort of thing a charitable reader can come to see as just part of the deal, an oddity of style and genre. If these things happened in some classic work from centuries ago and many miles away, we’d not complain about them – we’d just say “that’s a strange way of telling a story, but I guess it’s how they did it then”, and it’s not as though there aren’t benefits of it, as well as disadvantages. In the end, the only issue with these things is that they’re not currently fashionable.
No, the real problem is that it’s unbearably boring. The problem is that there is no story to tell.
Oh, sure, symbolically there’s a story. Metaphorically, theologically, spiritually, ideologically, allegorically there’s a story, and that’s all very interesting. And I don’t mean that to sound dismissive, because it really is interesting, and more than that: at times it’s genuinely powerful. But unfortunately, on the page-by-page, chapter-by-chapter level, sod all happens.
There are two dimensions to this problem. The deeper but less important problem is that there are no characters. Covenant is the only person who matters: everything is about Covenant. It’s almost as though we’re trapped in Covenant’s head – not just in the sense of only seeing what he sees, but in the sense of everything that comes through his eyes being filtered by his mind before it reaches us. That’s fair enough as a literary technique, but when the protagonist is self-centred and narcissistic (and self-loathing), that means we don’t get to see enough of the people around him. And not seeing the people around him is a huge problem when the protagonist is an arse. I don’t think you have to like the protagonist to enjoy a book… but it really does help if there’s someone likeable around. And the people around Covenant may be vaguely pleasant, but we don’t see enough of their depth to really care about them, to get the sense of these people as people rather than as devices to probe Covenant’s mind. And sure, that makes sense thematically, and indeed these ‘people’ may only be figments of his imagination anyway. But it doesn’t make for a good read. Especially when Covenant’s own character arc is slow, highly abstract and (so far) incomplete.
There is, to be fair, one other interesting character. But they don’t get much time on screen after a certain point in procedings.
[Oh, and one thing is very important: although the book may be happening entirely in Covenant’s head, there is one passage, only a couple of paragraphs, shown from somebody else’s point of view. Given which couple of paragraphs it is, I think this is probably central to the entire project of the book, but most people don’t notice it.]
And then there’s the second dimension to the problem – the superficial, unimportant, and ultimately fatal dimension to the problem. And I’m sorry if it’s taking me a while to steel myself to say this, because it’s not something I ever wanted to say about a fantasy novel, but: it’s a travelogue. They’re just walking around the whole time.
It’s a common complaint with the genre. Lots of fantasy novels involve the character walking from this location to that location. Often with some rumination about the interesting landscape they pass, and perhaps with some helpful geographic and sociopolitical infodumping at their destination from a passing shepherd, merchant, or perhaps Nazgul.
And I don’t mind! I’ve spent my life obstinately not minding this. I like descriptions of scenery. I like travelling-badinage. I like seeing new and interesting places (I’m often more interesting in the world than the characters). I don’t mind nothing obvious happening for long periods of time.
But come on, Donaldson, seriously. The entire book is journey after journey. Even the climactic finale is basically just a more perilous journey in worse lighting conditions. Because Covenant is surly and unfriendly, and there are no vibrant characters around him, the banter between companions is occasionally depressing-but-interesting and otherwise nonexistent. The scenery they pass isn’t all that spectacular – some hills, some rivers, some forests, some plains. Mostly there aren’t any people along the way. Any given chapter of this is fine, but there just isn’t anything else. Any time that Donaldson has Covenant settle down for a bit in one location, the enjoyability of the book just rockets – we can get some backstory, some depth, some intrigue. But that happens too infrequently, and not for long enough.
I actually thought it was going to be a substantially better book. The first, I don’t know, ten chapters or so have relatively little travelling around, and it works so much better than the long descriptions of people walking along peacefully. It was like running into a narrative wall, all momentum slowly but inexorably sucked away.
In fact, the travelogue element was so bad that I started to worry about my childhood. Were all those fantasy books with all that travelling this bad? I didn’t think they were all great literature, but I didn’t think they were this terrible!
But then I thought: hey, I read The Elenium last year, didn’t I? And I did. And the travel scenes there were just as long if not longer, and they too became a bit irritating. But they were handled so much better, perhaps because Eddings’ naturally light style, while underserving the important moments, helped stop the dreary bits get too dreary, whereas Donaldson’s weighty, portentous, solemn prose just weighs down every moment where something important isn’t happening. Both authors suffer from the same problem, in a way: they can’t change their style to match the circumstances. Eddings tried to go dark and grim but couldn’t shake of the constant flippancy and lightheartedness. Donaldson’s style is genuinely powerful when it gets to serve up big, big psychological and supernatural moments, but it’s like lead when he’s just moving things around the board. Bold, symbolic reminders that this moment is a moment on which the fate of all existence hangs, both in the story and metaphorically, are great for making major conflicts seem epic and awesome… but for every step of a thousand-mile journey? It gets, at best, incredibly wearying.
And let’s face it: when anybody ever reads you book and thinks hey, David Eddings handled that aspect with more subtlety and sophistication, that is a terrible, terrible sign.
In the end, then, no matter how much I want to like this book at the level of theme, there are just too many basic problems at the level of story. Many of those problems could individually be overlooked as idiosyncracies of style. But put together? The book is, frankly, for much of its run-time, a slog, in my opinion.
But I do want to like it. And not just because it’s like a strange bizarro-Tolkien. No, the thing I really love about this book is: dear lord it’s bold!
Aspect after aspect makes me think: wow, that’s a bold choice. It can be general things, like the use of language. It can be specific things, like when Donaldson decides to spend an entire paragraph on the horse-traing=sex double entendre. [It’s not even a serious metaphor, it’s just a double entendre! Most writers would either have been too embarrassed to include it, or would have included it and then moved on, but no, Donaldson really excavates that vein of suggestive symbolism, and doesn’t give up until the seam is dry.] It’s the huge things like “the hell? The hero just did what?”. It’s things like: “I’m sorry, you have not only essentially told us via authorial proxy what the book is going to be about before it’s even gotten started, but you are telling us it’s about the entire foundation of all our human ethical systems?”
It seems as though the author wanted to write a particular book. A book that, while superficially reminiscent of others in its genre, is fundamentally a book unlike anything else, a book that nobody else would have written. And the author wrote that book. From beginning to end. With absolutely no compromises. It’s practically daring us to laugh at it. It’s daring us to put it down in boredom and walk away. We don’t like this book? Well too bad for us, it seems to say, because this is the book that it is. I admire that in a book, and in an author. This is an author, let’s remember, who submitted his manuscript to every publishing house in America and was rejected by all of them.
Now, we all experience rejection. I try to put myself in Donaldson’s shoes. I get a rejection letter. OK. I get another rejection letter. OK. A third? Someone will recognise its worth! A fourth? A fifth? A sixth?
Somewhere along the way, I’d start thinking ‘maybe there are a few things I could change to make this more appealing…’; I’d start off just making a few minor, little changes, of course. But ten rejection letters? Fifteen? I’m changing major elements. Twenty? Thirty? Rewrite the damn thing!
We are talking here about a man who had his manuscript rejected forty-seven times. And more importantly, we’re talking about a man who had his manuscript rejected forty-seven times, and didn’t take that as a hint he should rewrite it. Because in fact, we’re talking here about a man who had his manuscript rejected forty-seven times, and who took those forty-seven rejections as encouragement to write two damn sequels! He started with a book that couldn’t sell, and ended up with a trilogy that couldn’t sell.
And let’s just think about that. Because I know that it sounds like the sort of little anecdote that gets thrown about – hey kid, don’t give up, Donaldson was rejected forty-seven times! – but actually it really does get at the heart of the book. It tells you a lot about the book – about what’s wrong with it, sure, because this is a book that you can certainly imagine forty-seven editors rejecting, and it wasn’t just because Donaldson was trying to write in a genre that didn’t exist yet. But also about what’s right with it. This isn’t a book based on a focus group. It isn’t a book that tries to be liked. Instead it’s a book that is certain about what it wants to be, and is what is. And sometimes that’s breathtaking. And other times it’s just plain stupid.
Let’s put it this way: there are a hell of a lot of books I would probably enjoy reading more than this one. But how many of those books will I remember more than this one? Not that many. And chapeau Mr Donaldson, because I think that’s quite an accolade, myself.
And I guess I’m not alone in that. Because he may have been rejected forty-seven times, and I can totally understand that… but he’s also sold tens of millions of copies. And I can understand that to.
I suppose in a way Donaldson’s books are (functionally, though certainly not ideologically) a bit like Ayn Rand’s. Or (blasphemy!) like The Silmarillion. There are plenty of reasons to hate them, and a lot of people do. But they can also inspire devoted followers, because there really is something underneath all the clumsiness here that readers are unlikely to find anywhere else. And personally I think that even if Donaldson’s books don’t speak to your soul, they’re worth reading for the glimpse into someone else’s soul, and indeed into what it is possible for fantasy as a genre to do. If nothing else, if any budding writers out there feel anxious about trusting their instincts and making brave choices, reading Donaldson could certainly help with that!
So I’m not going to leap into The Illearth War just yet. But I am going to keep on re-reading this series, which, as I remember it, keeps on getting darker and more disturbing. [If you haven’t read these books, you have no idea how dark and disturbing it can get. Donaldson doesn’t mess around with gore and profanities, when Donaldson goes dark he goes for your soul.]
In the meantime: well, I’m glad I reread it. It’s deeper, and frankly just better than I feared it might be, and there are real glimpses of something special here. But please: if your manuscripts gets rejected forty-seven times for the love of the gods, think about doing some editing!
[Oh, one little thing that didn’t fit in this review but that I wanted to mention. At one point, Donaldson suggests that the tragedy of the world is that no man is both a seer and an oracle. In the Land, you see, they really do have the ability to tell the future. But some people are seers and others are oracles, and none are both: those who can tell you true and important things about the future cannot know the real meaning of their prophecies, because they cannot see how exactly they will come to pass (and unlike most fantasy settings, the people here are at least aware that prophecies can often be misleading); meanwhile, those who can see the future do not know the truth about it… so Lord Kevin was a seer and saw the desolation of the Land, but didn’t realise he would cause it, whereas Lord Mhoram is an oracle, and can give out helpful prophecies, but he does not know what they mean or why they are important.]
Adrenaline: 2/5. Avoids the minimum score by having some exciting scenes and a good helping of dread and tension throughout. But badly let down by long sections without enough happening.
Emotion: 3/5. The elevated style makes things seem important, but also distant, and the protagonist is also hard to empathise with. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of emotion flowing around in the book and it’s hard not to experience some of it vicariously. It really puts its characters, all of them, through an emotional wringer.
Thought: 4/5. It’s probably fair to complain that Donaldson’s ideology is a little simplistic, and sometimes too obvious. Nonetheless, this is a book that is all about big ideas, and that isn’t afraid to address them both explicitly and symbolically.
Beauty: 3/5. As well as the ugliness of some of what happens, much of Donaldson’s weighty prose is just ugly. On the other hand, there are a lot of really fantastic lines (the problem isn’t that Donaldson is too loud when he’s loud, it’s that he doesn’t know how to turn down the volume in the quiet scenes).
Craft: 2/5. Honestly, while there’s a lot to like about the book, all its virtues have to fight against Donaldson’s limitations as a writer – in terms of prose, characterisation, pacing, structure, plot, everything. On the other hand, some of those fights are won. Donaldson is clearly both a bold and a clever writer, and he does get some things very right.
Endearingness: 3/5. It may not be a book that I want to curl up with for a comfort read – it’s prickly, cold and weighty – but it is a book I want to like. It’s a book that to me feels worth reading, and worth re-reading.
Originality: 3/5. It is a unique book. On the other hand, almost no element of it feels original. Yes, that’s almost a paradox; there are a lot of them in this book.
Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. There are certainly truly bad things about the book. On the other hand, there are some truly good things about the book too. I think ‘not bad’ probably is fair overall. It’s an interesting ‘not bad’, though. And of course, this is only Book One.