The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

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The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Cover of the first trade edition of Lord Foul's Bane
Cover of the first trade edition of Lord Foul's Bane
Author Stephen R. Donaldson
Cover artist
Country United States
Language English
Genre High fantasy
Publisher
Published 1977 – 2013
Media type
No. of books 10

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is a series of ten high fantasy novels written by American author Stephen R. Donaldson. The series began as a trilogy, entitled The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. This was followed by another trilogy, The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and finally a tetralogy, The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

Thomas Covenant, an embittered and cynical writer, afflicted with leprosy and shunned by society, is fated to become the heroic savior of The Land, an alternate world. In six novels published between 1977 and 1983, he struggles against the satanic Lord Foul, "The Despiser", who intends to escape the bondage of the physical universe and wreak revenge upon his arch-enemy, "The Creator". Some elements are similar to those found in Richard Wagner's epic "Ring Cycle" and in earlier Celtic literature, but with some of the values inverted.

Stephen R. Donaldson's works are infused with psychological undertones involving an exploration of the darker side of the protagonist Thomas Covenant whilst preserving strong humanist ideals. The contextual richness of the Land's varied geography, races, cultures and history enables all three series of the Chronicles to explore and expand upon an increasingly diverse and storied environment.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever[edit]

  1. Lord Foul's Bane – (1977)
  2. The Illearth War – (1978) ("Gilden-Fire" - first published 1981)[1]
  3. The Power that Preserves – (1979)

The story "Gilden-Fire" first appeared as an independent novella, but is most widely available as a part of most versions of the Donaldson short story collection, Daughter of Regals, 1985.[2] It was set during the action of The Illearth War, and covers an episode from the doomed mission to contact the Giants. Gilden-Fire is told from the point of view of Korik, the senior Bloodguard on the mission. It describes Korik's selection of the mission's Bloodguard, then narrates the mission's passage through Grimmerdhore forest, where they defeat an ambush of ur-viles and kresh (wolves). The narrative ends as the mission leaves the forest.

Whether Gilden-Fire can be considered part of the series' canon is open to debate, as per the author's foreword. Gilden-Fire was originally part of a larger, planned section of The Illearth War that followed the mission to the Giants in "real time", but was cut due to space restrictions as well as point-of-view inconsistency with the rest of the Chronicles. The events during the trek through Grimmerdhore are not mentioned in the published narrative of The Illearth War; indeed, The Illearth War suggests that the crossing was uneventful. Some information shared here on the origin and motivation of the Bloodguard does appear in other contexts in the published Chronicles. The rest of the mission after the Grimmerdhore passage was included in the Chronicles, via the narrative device of Bloodguard messengers.

Major themes[edit]

An issue of major importance in the First Chronicles is the question of the reality of the Land. From Covenant's perspective, the Land may well be just a delusion of his disturbed mind; early in his adventure, he gives himself the title of "The Unbeliever". Donaldson goes to great lengths to make this explanation as plausible as any other theory (e.g., Covenant is (to varying degrees) mentally unbalanced, events in the Land seem to parallel his subconscious struggles, his physical condition upon exiting the Land is always exactly the same as his condition upon entering it, etc.). This is the heart of the "Fundamental Question of Ethics" that appears at the very start of the Chronicles, which can be rephrased as "Do one's actions in dreams have any real significance?" Covenant's despicable act early in the first book (the rape of a young woman who befriends him when he first arrives in the Land) has consequences throughout the story and can be seen as an attempt to test this theory. The First Chronicles sees the reality of the Land eventually 'proven' to Covenant; another interpretation of Covenant's eventual decision to aid the Land is the realization that, whether the Land is real or not, it matters to him.

Covenant attempts to (dis)prove the reality of the Land several times in the First and Second Chronicles – for instance, growing a beard (after choosing to keep his pen knife, the only object he brings with him apart from his clothes); however, this fails when he inevitably shaves his beard. Another test of the reality of the Land is the fact that Covenant enters the Land after sustaining damage (e.g. collapsing on asphalt as he is about to be hit by a car in the first book, bashing his head on a coffee table corner in the second, and a series of incidents at the start of the third including cutting his gums on razor blades hidden in bread buns, falling down a stony hill, and sucking snake poison from the wound of a young girl) but he is always returned to the same state that he entered shortly before leaving, such as the wound on his forehead that he sustains bashing it on a coffee table before entering the Land is healed, only to be wounded again after being attacked with a staff by Hile Troy (who claims to be another traveler from the "real" world to the Land.)

Another major theme is the psychological symbolism of the Land. It very clearly parallels Covenant's own psyche: he is filled with self-hatred, manifested in the Land as the Despiser; he is ravaged by a corrupting disease that eats away at him, similarly to the Illearth Stone, and so forth. Covenant is forced to decide whether the fundamental health and beauty of the Land is worth struggling to preserve, whether it is "real" or not, mirroring the choice he must make in his own life. In this way the fantasy genre allows the author to explore Covenant's inner workings in a very effective way.

After his return to our world, Covenant resumes his writing, publishing for the first time in years. Although he will never be able to return to the life he had before contracting leprosy, he seems to have come to terms with his condition and the events that transpired in the Land.

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant[edit]

  1. The Wounded Land – (1980)
  2. The One Tree – (1982)
  3. White Gold Wielder – (1983)

Major themes[edit]

Where the First Chronicles concerned Covenant himself, his psychology, and his relationship with the world of the Land, the Second Chronicles add a second character, Linden Avery. The interaction of the two characters becomes a major topic, with relations warming up and cooling off at different times, but in the end settling on mutual respect and warmth. Covenant is forced to re-evaluate his experiences and the conclusions he's come to in another context, namely when other "real" people's "real lives" are affected.

The resolution of the crisis and the defeat of the Despiser reveal another theme. Covenant discovers despite in himself, and thus that the Despiser is part of him, in a sense (figuratively, or, perhaps, even literally). Thus he does not need to combat him directly – indeed, direct conflict failed to defeat the Despiser more than once. Hence he surrenders his ring to the Despiser, and allows him to fail in his attempt to destroy the Arch of Time.

Another theme which is covered in both the First and Second Chronicles is that of powerlessness and the freedom that being powerless can bring. In the First Chronicles, Thomas Covenant strives to avoid responsibility for the Land by denying that he has power to control the wild magic in his ring. He spends much of his time getting others, especially Lord Mhoram and High Lord Elena, to assume responsibility for the Earth in his place. In the Second Chronicles, Thomas Covenant discovers the powerlessness that comes from too much power. As his ability to draw upon the wild magic grows, his control over its effects lessens; thus, he becomes a threat to all around him, eventually to the entire Earth. He thus has to battle against his own passions to avoid unleashing the apocalypse contained within himself.

The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant[edit]

  1. The Runes of the Earth – (2004)
  2. Fatal Revenant – (2007)
  3. Against All Things Ending – (2010)
  4. The Last Dark – (2013)

Peoples and creatures of the Land[edit]

Cavewights are dimly intelligent subterranean creatures skilled in metal working and mining. They are weak willed, and are easily intimidated by Lord Foul into serving him (though they once traded openly with the humans of the Land). They are described as having "long, scrawny limbs, hands as huge and heavy as shovels," plus "a thin, hunched torso, and a head shaped like a battering ram." Drool Rockworm is a cavewight.

The Creator is the mysterious being who created the Land and the universe in which it exists. This universe is referred to as "the Land" but is clearly a different reality than Covenant's world. The fundamental structure of the universe, the Arch of Time, prevents the Creator from intervening directly in events in the world of his creation, and he never appears in physical form within that world. He can, however, manifest himself in the "real" world—he appears to Covenant and Linden as an old man in an ochre robe—and guides those who attempt to make contact between the universes.

Demondim are a now-extinct race spawned by the Viles. They had a semi-corporeal nature, and could only achieve physical presence by animating dead bodies. (They are somewhat like dybbuks in this respect.) They were not originally wholly evil, but their inherent self-loathing was used by Lord Foul to gain their allegiance. They spawned two other races, the Waynhim and the ur-viles.

Elohim are a race of spirits who possess god-like powers. To mortal perceptions, they appear as beautiful men and women in a remote, sealed-off region of the Earth, and spend their time in dazzling physical transformations. In their own perspective, they constitute the animating principle of the Earth, and the history of the Land is the manifestation of events in their own consciousness. As they regard their own domain as the only "real" place in the Earth, they rarely dabble in outside events. However, if they perceive a grave threat to the Earth, one of their number is "Appointed" to attempt to avert the threat – and to bear the cost of failing. "Elohim" (אלהים) is the Hebrew word for "God".

Forestals are beings who serve the forests of the Land, the remnants of the One Forest, the great sentient wood which once covered the Land. They are human in appearance, but according to the Elohim they were created by the One Forest itself using knowledge from another Elohim imprisoned within the Colossus. The Forestals actively protected the remaining forest from destruction by encroaching mortals. They were more numerous in the distant past but few survived into the era of the New Lords. By the time of the Second Chronicles, when the remnants of the ancient forest (with the exception of Giant Woods in the Lower Land) were long dead, the last remaining Forestal lived in Andelain. His name was Caer-Caveral, though he was originally Hile Troy, a man from Covenant's world who had once been Warmark (commander-in-chief) of the Lords' army.

Giants are a race of extremely long lived (but nevertheless mortal) humanoids of unusual height and strength. Giants are known for their stone lore (similar to but not identical with that of the Stonedownors), their skill at seamanship, and their love of story-telling. A common Giantish interjection is, "Stone and Sea!" Giants are resistant to cold and cannot be harmed by ordinary fire. Fire does however cause them intense pain, which they use to cure themselves of grief in a ritual known as caamora. In return for a favor performed for the mysterious Elohim long ago, the entire race of Giants are endowed with an innate ability to speak and understand all languages. The Giants' own language is very florid and verbose, and they find human speech to be rather curt and inexpressive. The Giants of the Land are sometimes called the Unhomed since they were separated from their homeland long ago. Although the Giants love children, they are not fertile as a people, and their numbers in the Land in the time of the First Chronicles have dwindled. Kevin Landwaster entrusted them with the first of his Seven Wards before the Ritual of Desecration. They sometimes refer to humans as Rockbrothers and Rocksisters, in honor of the ancient alliance they made with High Lord Damelon Giantfriend. Saltheart Foamfollower is a Giant.

Griffins are winged lions. They are sometimes ridden by ur-Viles.

Haruchai are a hardy race of warriors living in the Westron Mountains, west of the Land. The Haruchai shun the use of weapons or magic, taking pride in their own physical prowess and the purity of their service, which is never given lightly. They have the ability to communicate amongst themselves via telepathy, and each can access the combined memories of their entire race. Outwardly stoic, even seemingly emotionless, they could also be considered arrogant in their beliefs. It is revealed on several occasions that the Haruchai are a deeply passionate race, capable of swearing a lifetime's worth of service if sufficiently moved.

The Insequent are a mysterious race of people who dwell to the west of the Land. Each Insequent has a unique and very focused skill that can seem magical or superhuman. These skills range from invisibility, virtual invulnerability or even time travel. They have an almost dismissive disdain for the Haruchai and a bitter and long-standing rivalry with The Elohim, which has not yet been fully explained. They rarely reveal their true names, but prefer to be identified by their titles. So far only four Insequent have appeared in the stories: The Mahdoubt, the Harrow, the Theomach and the Ardent. A fifth, the Vizard, is referenced by several other characters, and a sixth—the Auriference—is mentioned briefly by the Ardent, although both the Vizard and the Auriference are believed to be deceased.

Lords are the leaders and stewards of the Land, also known as Earthfriends. The standards for Lordship are high, so they are generally few in number. In order to become a Lord, a person must master the martial arts and the use and application of magic. These skills are called the Sword and the Staff respectively, and together form the First Ward of Kevin's Lore, an ancient repository of knowledge. A student who masters both parts of the Lore – and does not opt to become Unfettered in order to pursue a private vision – is invited to join the Council of Lords at Revelstone, also known as Lord's Keep. The Lords carry special staffs that allow them to channel their power, and are easily identified by their sky blue robes.

Lord Foul is the most commonly used name for the ancient enemy of the Land, given to him by the Council of Lords. He is also called 'The Despiser', the 'Gray Slayer' (his name in The Plains), 'Fangthane the Render' by the Ramen and 'a-Jeroth of the Seven Hells' by The Clave. According to Roger Covenant, he also called himself 'a-Jeroth' during the time he served on Kevin's council. He is described as "the wicked son or brother of the Creator's heart" and is the source of all evil in the Land. He is a being of pure spirit, although capable of taking on human form, and is apparently immortal: he cannot be killed, but his power can be reduced to near insignificance. On occasions when this has happened he has always been able to restore and regenerate his power. His desire to bring suffering to the earth and the Land in particular is manifested by his extremely well orchestrated and even cautious long term plans throughout the chronicles.

Ramen are the tenders of the Ranyhyn (see below). The Ramen's life-work is to serve the Ranyhyn, whom they hold in very high esteem. Traditionally they do not ride or otherwise subjugate the great horses, and can grow resentful of those who do. The fact that the Lords of Revelstone and the Bloodguard often ride the great horses is a major point of contention, but the Ramen tolerate this in deference to the Ranyhyn, who choose to give their service. When defending the Ranyhyn from Kresh (large wolves in service to the Despiser) or other predators, the Ramen frequently use ropes as garottes to break the attackers' necks. Ramen are organised into three "ranks": Manethralls who are the leaders, Cords who assist the Manethralls, and Winhomes who perform domestic supporting duties. Two other ranks are mentioned in The Runes of the Earth, Keepers and Curriers, but their placement within the Ramen hierarchy is not known.

Ranyhyn are the great horses of the Land. These horses live on the Plains of Ra, and are tended by the Ramen. The Ranyhyn are akin to normal horses, but are larger, always have a star and are in some indefinable sense enhanced by the Earthpower of the Land, so that their speed and endurance, as well as their intelligence, far outstrip those of a standard horse. The Ranyhyn can be ridden by individuals they deem worthy, but a person who seeks such a mount must travel to the Plains of Ra and offer himself to the horses for consideration. If a Ranyhyn accepts a rider, it is loyal to that rider until death. All of the Bloodguard (apparently) are accepted by the Ranyhyn, but not all Lords have been deemed worthy. The Ranyhyn also have a limited ability to perceive the future; these horses can "hear" when their rider will need them, hearing their calling days or weeks before the rider makes the call. Thus, when the rider summons his Ranyhyn, it appears shortly thereafter, regardless of the distance between them.

Ravers are bodiless evil spirits with the ability to possess and control some lesser creatures, and most humans as well. Giants and Bloodguard are typically immune to this power, and there are no known instances of a Raver possessing a Ranyhyn. There are only three Ravers, ancient brothers who each have many names but are commonly called turiya Herem, samādhi Sheol, and moksha Jehannum. Their greatest hatred is reserved for the trees of the One Forest of old, and their loathing of the Earthpower and all good things has led them to become Lord Foul's willing servants. The Despiser is somehow able to enhance their abilities when he pleases, but can prevent them from possessing individuals he deems too powerful. (They were not allowed to possess Thomas Covenant, for instance, because his ring would make them too powerful for Lord Foul to control.) This possession can be, and in some cases needs to be, facilitated by some external power. In the 'Illearth War' the Ravers were only able to possess their giant 'hosts' when they worked in harmony with the power of the Illearth Stone. They often serve as leaders in Lord Foul's armies, or as spies among his enemies.

Stonedownors are humans descended from the Land's original inhabitants. They are known for their knowledge of stone lore and live in stone huts. A master of stone lore is called a "Gravelingas", or a Rhadhamaerl which also refers to the craft of stone lore. Stonedownors are typically dark-skinned, squat and muscular, though this is not always the case. Trell and Triock are both unusually tall for Stonedownors. During the Second Chronicles, their leaders are known as Gravellers, and sacrifice members of their village to use the blood to call forth the power of the Sunbane. Sunder, the Graveller of Mithil Stonedown, manages to use the power of Loric's Krill to summon forth the power of the Sunbane without shedding blood, and learns to manipulate the Sunbane for his own purposes.

Ur-viles are creatures of jet black color and are constructions of an extinct race named the Demondim. They are highly magical, possessing a number of supernatural abilities, including shooting acid, creating bolts of pure energy and the like. They are blind, lacking any form of visual organ, but possess a preternatural sense of smell. One of their most distinctive features is that when assembled in a wedge formation, the leader (or loremaster) at the apex wields the combined power of the entire group, without weakening any of their kin in the rest of the wedge. The ur-viles initially served Lord Foul, but later turned against him by creating the creature Vain (from which the new Staff of Law was created). In The Runes of the Earth, the ur-viles have actively joined the side of "good", though their motivation remains unclear. Because they were made rather than born, the ur-viles loathe their own bodies and often redirect this rage towards other targets. They also do not die, except when killed, or reproduce naturally, although they do retain the lore required to construct more of their own kind and the Waynhim—however, their motivations for doing so are unlike those of natural creatures.

Viles are an extinct race who spawned the Demondim. They were non-corporeal, but nonetheless very powerful. Initially a proud and gifted race, they were led into self-hatred and despair by the Ravers. They were eventually destroyed by the Council of Lords, under High Lord Loric "Vilesilencer".

Waynhim are another race of creatures spawned by the Demondim (often referred to as the "accidental" or "lesser" creations, in contrast with the ur-viles). They closely resemble the Ur-viles (having no eyes, super-sensitive smell and hearing, and magical abilities), though they are smaller and lighter in color. Like the Ur-viles (who are their long-standing nemeses), the Waynhim were made rather than born. However, they do not share their cousins' self-hatred, and have dedicated themselves to serving the Land and the Earthpower according to their own peculiar ethical system, the Weird of the Waynhim. Like the Ur-viles, they fight in a wedge formation with a loremaster at the apex.

Woodhelvennin are humans descended from the Land's original inhabitants. They are known for their use of wood lore and living in tree-top villages. The village elders are called Heers. A master of wood lore is called a Hirebrand, or a lillianrill. (Lillianrill usually refers to the craft of wood lore.) They are typically fair-skinned, tall and slender.

Important Concepts[edit]

Map drawn by Lynn K. Plagge to illustrate the books.

Andelain is a focal region of the Land, where the Earthpower is especially strong. In the Second Chronicles it is the one place immune from the Sunbane, as it is protected by the Forestal Caer Caveral.

Languages: Human inhabitants of the Land (together with Giants, Cavewights, and the human inhabitants of other regions of the Earth) all appear to speak modern English, though their style of speech is usually rather formal and archaic. The strange commonality of language between Covenant and the Land's inhabitants is never addressed in the books. There are, however, other languages extant: for example, in Lord Foul's Bane, Atiaran tells Thomas Covenant that a different language was spoken in the age of the Old Lords. (However, this appears to be contradicted in Fatal Revenant, when Linden Avery and Berek Halfhand converse together in English.) Non-humans also have their own languages, for example the barking speech of ur-viles and Waynhim, the Giants' florid and ornate language, and the native tongue of the Haruchai. In the Second Chronicles it is explained that the Giants received "the gift of tongues" from the Elohim as a reward for the telling of a simple tale, and the Bhrathair, a people who live on the edge of the Great Desert, also speak their own language, which is described only as sounding "brackish".

Worm/Word/Weird. In the cosmology of the Land, the Earth's core consists of a coiled-up serpent called the "Worm of the World's End". When Covenant attempts to sever a branch of the One Tree by using the power of the white gold, he risks rousing the Worm (which is not fully asleep, but merely resting) and thus destroying the Earth. The Waynhim and Ur-viles believe in a principle of ethics or destiny called the "Weird". The Elohim have a concept which appears to do duty for both these beliefs: it is impossible to determine whether the sound used for this is "Worm", "Word" or "Weird", as it comes out in a blurred form sounding something like "Würd".

Law[edit]

Law is the natural order; a body of principles which defines and governs the way in which the world works. Some parts of the Law conform to the scientific laws of the real world: gravity and motion, for example operate as the reader expects them to. Other aspects of Law are unlike the real world. Chief among these is the accessibility of Earthpower. Another important difference is that Law is not inherently inviolable. Acts of thaumaturgy can create phenomena which do not conform to Law. In some instances, the violation of a Law can cause that law to stop operating altogether, which results in a major shift in the nature of the world. The novels have discussed three Laws in detail: the Law of Time, the Law of Death, and the Law of Life.

The Law of Time is the most basic and fundamental aspect of Law: it defines the nature and structure of time, and provides a "place" in which the Earth can exist. It requires that instants and events proceed in an orderly fashion from cause to effect. The consequences of all actions must be borne. Although a later action might reverse the effects of an earlier one, those effects (and the earlier action itself) cannot be made to have not been. Any attempt to alter past events risks creating a paradox, which would destroy the structure of time, taking the entire Earth with it.

Terminology[edit]

In the Thomas Covenant stories, Donaldson takes several terms from Sanskrit that are significant in Hinduism and Buddhism and reassigns them meanings in the Land. For example, the term moksha, which in Sanskrit refers to liberation from the cycle of sorrow, is given as the original name for a creature of depravity and evil called a Raver. Another Raver, Satansfist, is called samādhi, which in Sanskrit refers to a state of mind in which one achieves oneness with the object of one's concentration. The third Raver, Kinslaughterer, is called turiya, Sanskrit for a state of pure consciousness. Donaldson has commented on his website that moksha, samadhi, and turiya are ways the Ravers describe themselves, while their other names are given by others.[1]

Donaldson repeats this application of Sanskrit terms to seemingly unrelated aspects of the Land to other terms, including: dukkha, dharmakshetra, ahamkara, and yajna.

The Chronicles also contain names of Semitic origin. For instance, samadhi/Satansfist is also called "Sheol", (Hebrew for the grave, the abode of the dead), moksha/Fleshharrower is also known as "Jehannum" (similar to the Hebrew "Gehinnom" and the Arabic "Jahannum", for Hell or Purgatory), and turiya/Kinslaughterer is also "Herem" (Hebrew for banned, excluded, excommunicated and Arabic for sinful or forbidden [Haram]). The name of the fairy race of Elohim is the Hebrew for God.

Critical response[edit]

The first volume in the series was included in David Pringle's book Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels.

Conversely, in 1986, David Langford published an essay by Nick Lowe, in which Lowe suggested "a way to derive pleasure from Stephen Donaldson books. (Needless to say, it doesn't involve reading them.)"[3] This proposal involved a game he called "Clench Racing", wherein players each open a volume of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to a random page; the winner is the first to find the word "clench". Lowe describes it as a "fast" game – "sixty seconds is unusually drawn out".

In 2009, James Nicoll said that Thomas Covenant would win a "special lifetime achievement award" for the "most unlikeable supposedly sympathetic protagonist".[4]

Related works[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Gilden-Fire. Gilden-Fire Manuscripts (held by KSU Special Collections and Archives).
  2. ^ Interview[dead link]
  3. ^ The Well-Tempered Plot Device
  4. ^ Inspired by previous discussions by James Nicoll, December 28 2009, at Livejournal.

External links[edit]