Today I finally finished the third book of Stephen R. Donaldson’s THOMAS CONVENANT TRILOGY. This third book delivered the satisfying climax I was hoping for while still staying true to the core of its main character. Even as a triumphant hero, Thomas Covenant remains pitiable.
WARNING: Some spoilers ahead. (See previous installments of Discovering the Unbeliever for thoughts on the first two books.)
Does Thomas Covenant finally transform from coward to hero? Yes. Does he finally learn to accept The Land as something real…something more than a figment of his own tortured psyche? No.
Yet he buys into this “fantasy world” enough to harness the power of his own emotions and fight the ultimate battle against Lord Foul the Despiser. Which is a terrific metaphor for the reader of epic fantasy…readers must invest themselves into a work of fantasy with a “willing suspension of disbelief” in order to make that fantasy world come to life.
This is exactly what Covenant ends up doing. Simultaneously he believes and does not believe…and that is the key to the mysterious White Gold Power that he has been unable to control throughout most of the series.
The battles and acts of heroism (as well as the acts of horror) in this third book are stunning and unforgettable. All the characters we have learned to care for throughout the series…Foamfollower the Giant, Bannor the Bloodguard, Lord Mhoram…each shines as he plays his role in this truly epic finale. There is slaughter and death galore, yet the heroes of this struggle do their very best to avoid becoming like those they are battling.
Mhoram discovers the key to the ultimate power…The Ritual of Desecration…that might save everyone…but which would destroy The Land itself as Kevin Landwaster did ages ago. A major theme of the COVENANT series is the struggle to resist the lure of power itself. One gets the sense that Lord Mhoram would never have made President Truman’s decision of dropping the bomb on Japan if he were running World War II. In fact, the Ritual of Desecration itself is a fine metaphor for nuclear annihilation…mutually assured destruction. This is the power that we in the post-Atomic age must resist at all costs…or we will annihilate ourselves with our enemies.
The People of the Land represent the best and brightest sides of human nature. The side that refuses to give into fear, despair, violence, and hatred. This defines them as well as their adversary. Lord Foul the Despiser is the personification of hate and bitterness.
Donaldson ends his fantasy masterwork not with the typical “hero slays villain” ending, but one that is more in keeping with the nature of The Land and the nature of its people. Covenant finally learns to reconcile the conflict inside himself and rise above his own hatred and despair. In the end it is he and he alone who refuses to kill the Despiser, instead forcing him out of existence with the power of unrestrained joy, as manifested by the laughter of both living and dead personages. It is interesting to note that it is not Covenant himself who does this terminal laughing, but Saltheart Foamfollower and the spirits of The Land’s dead Lords. Covenant has still not learned to enjoy life…but by the final page he has at least learned to smile.
In typical Covenant fashion, certain decisions of his are bound to irritate the reader even after he brings victory to The Land. When he converses with the mysterious “Creator” that brought him across the dimensions, Covenant refuses a gift that could cure his leprosy forever. I’m still uncertain why. Is he still so addicted to his own pain and suffering that he CHOOSES the ultimate isolation of a leper’s life. Apparently. And even though he gains some respite from the hate that dogs him in the “real world” because of saving a little girl’s life, he will still be “that leper who lives down the road.” I was hoping the series would end with a permanent cure for Covenant’s terrible disease…but Covenant himself prevents that. He even refuses an offer to live in The Land permanently. Another bad decision…
Is Donaldson saying that we choose our own suffering? That we do our very best to maintain whatever pain and despair that we manifest for ourselves in this life? At the trilogy’s end, free of The Land once again, Covenant seems more content with his life as a leper. That’s his grand apotheosis. In the midst of his wasting disease, he’s simply (finally) glad to be alive. This, too, is a powerful metaphor…no matter what happens we must learn to value the life we have. Still, I wanted Covenant to be healed and he was not. I suppose I should just be glad that at least The Land was saved. In the long run, Covenant himself may be beyond saving.
Knowing that there are TWO more trilogies (six more books) in the continued CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER, I wonder if Covenant will ever find a permanent cure to his leprosy in future volumes. I wonder if Lord Foul will be born again to ravage the earth with his despite and legions of monsters.
I will miss the People of the Land…they are some of fantasy’s most compelling and heroic characters. But I won’t miss Thomas Covenant one bit. In fact, I need a good amount of time away from him before I can dive into the second trilogy. Like The Land itself, I can only take Thomas Covenant in small doses, separated by months or years of time. He may be a hero and a savior, but man he’s still a DRAG. My hope is that in future books Covenant will be a more likeable character due to his experiences in the first trilogy.
Donaldson remained true to his vision of presenting an epic fantasy populated with realistic and all-too-human characters. It’s the raw, blistered humanity of Covenant that draws such a stark contrast with the idealized humanity of The Land. In the end, the heroic elements of the saga are that much more powerful when contrasted against the vulnerable, stumbling, human elements.
What do you get when you place a modern man reeking of futility into an ancient world where men must rise up to discover their own heroism?
You get Thomas Covenant.
The real magic of Donaldson’s trilogy is that it succeeds so very well at being a satisfying and immersive Epic Fantasy while starring such an un-heroic and miserable protagonist.
But maybe that’s the point…that anyone can find the hero inside himself if he looks hard enough.