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Why am I slogging through the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant?

I started reading the entire Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson last year, starting with Lord Foul’s Bane and going on through to the end. I read the first and second Chronicles decades ago when they first came out, but I figured I should re-read them in order to get back up to speed before reading the last series.

I got as far as about the first third of Against All Things Ending, the third book of the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant last August. Then I stopped. I knew I wanted to get back to reading it, but just couldn’t bring myself to do so.

I figured now that everyone is self-isolating due to Covid-19, I would make a run at completing it, and then reading the last book, The Last Dark.

And now I’m wondering, why am I slogging through this?

I like the setting of The Land, and the inhabitants that Donaldson has populated it with. It is imaginative, and could be a cool place to visit (as long as the events of the series aren’t happening.) But I’m not a fan of Donaldson’s writing style. He repeats words like puissance and nacre more than I really need to see in one book, let alone a series. At least in the Last Chronicle he has stopped writing like a grad student trying to impress his professor. Nor am I really a fan of Covenant himself. To put it bluntly, he’s kind of a dick.

OK, spoiler alerts ahead! If you haven’t read the books and intend to read them, you may want to skip to the last paragraph.

I get it that he is afraid he may be going insane and falling into a pit of madness he may never return from, because he is a leper. He needs to retain his grip on reality, and being sucked into another world where everyone believes you are going to be The Chosen One (my term – Covenant is never called that in the series) and save them could certainly put anyone’s sanity to the test.

But he uses that to justify being a horrible person throughout the series. His first act after getting to the Land is being healed by hurtloam, a mud with healing properties. He then goes on to rape the girl who used it on him. And he doesn’t get much better from there.

In the second Chronicles he ends up dragging Linden Avery, a doctor from our world with him. They fall in love but everything between them, and nearly everyone around them, is so full of angst that it wears on you. You want some bit of levity along the way, but you don’t get it. He has a race of giants that inhabit his setting, and they are very good-natured and love humor but even these characters don’t lend any relief to the dark forebodings of the tale.

In the Last Chronicle, Linden is on her own, and the angst gets ratcheted up a few more notches. She is looking for her autistic son, Jeremiah, who is part of Lord Foul’s convoluted schemes. I am finding it very difficult to care about either Linden or her son as the story unfolds.

OK, spoilers over.

So, why am I continuing to slog through this? I have a need to find out how the story ends. Even if it isn’t a satisfying story, I need to know how it ends. I’ve sat through some truly awful movies, not even the ones that are so awful that they are good, but ones that I want the hours of my life back that I wasted watching them , all because I needed to know how the story ends. And I’m a completest. I like having gone through everything. (I tend to watch movie extras and read books about the settings in other books.) I guess I’m wishing that somehow Donaldson will pull off something really cool to make it all worthwhile. One can hope.

3 thoughts on “Why am I slogging through the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant?”

  1. I’ll start with this disclaimer: Stephen Donaldson has been, for most of my adult life, my second favorite fantasy author, behind only Tolkien (though if I’m honest, Donaldson’s no. 2 slot has been preempted in recent years by Terry Prachett). That having been said, Against All Things Ending, the 9th of 10 Thomas Covenant books, is the most difficult of the 10 to get through. It has an upbeat, almost joyful ending, but getting there is a bitch.

    Donaldson belongs in a class of writers who make the reader work for the payoff. The first writer of this class to come to most readers’ mind is probably Tolstoy. War and Peace is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It took me forever. I liken the experience to exploring a vast cathedral with only the light of one single candle. When you have finally examined the entire cathedral square inch by square inch, only then do the lights finally come on and you can see it in all it’s glory. Tolstoy is like that. Donaldson is like that on a much less grand scale than Tolstoy.

    Of course you might be one of those people who meticulously examine every inch of the cathedral by candle light, and yet the main lights never come on for them. That can be a problem.

    Finding out how the whole thing ends is a worthwhile goal. Worthwhile enough to keep you slogging through AATE? Only you can answer that.

    One note, though. You’re not supposed to like Covenant. He’s supposed to be a dick.

    1. If there’s a good ending (doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy ending, just a good one) then I have no problems going through the long slog.

      And I know Covenant is supposed to be a dick. Donaldson pulls that off exceedingly well. But for me, at least, he has missed some element that I need to care about him. Walter White, the protagonist in Breaking Bad, was a decent guy to start off with. He got cancer and was looking for a way to provide for his family when he was gone. That was enough to carry me through the story arc, even when he started making really bad choices and going down the road to become a drug kingpin. I’m just not getting that with Covenant. That type of element comes across much better with Linden trying to get Jeremiah back.

      At this point I’ll continue going through the rest of the book and trust that there is something to pull it all together in the end.

  2. I related to Covenant more in the First Chronicles, but disliked him increasingly as the series went on. And on.
    I thought he had a fairly good arc in the First Chronicles, where he eventually learns that he can care for the Land without having to believe in it.
    While his actions toward Lena are reprehensible, even here we have a hint of understanding. His actions are foreshadowed by his hopelessness at losing his wife and being rendered impotent, and yet he still burns with lust (being a young man, still in his twenties). This lust turns inward and goes sour and bursts out for release upon being healed. In fairness to him, he comes to despise the act, and himself for doing it, and spends the rest of the series trying to make amends and refusing to forgive himself.

    After the First Chronicles, though, he just seemed to wallow in his misery for the sake of wallowing in his misery. I found little to latch onto, and increasingly less to like.
    If only Lester Del Rey had NOT loved sequels and had NOT coerced Mr. Donaldson to write one, which then led to another one. I think the First Chronicles works as a story. It has great world-building, an understandable protagonist, a good ending, and should have been left where it was.

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