Way back in the mists of pre-history (well, 1980, anyway) before Corruption had poisoned the Land and long before I lived here, I interviewed Stephen Donaldson in an overcrowded office at the back of the Birmingham City Centre branch of W.H.Smith. I was a bit starstruck really, which was weird as I was forever rubbing shoulders with scruffy rock’n’rollers up in Manchester, but Mr Donaldson was something else altogether. He sat behind someone else’s desk and managed to make it seem like his own. He was the very essence of a young, clean-living American collegiate professor, gesticulating and emphasising his ‘mots justes’ with regular jabs and waves of a pipe which seemed like a prop rather than something he actually smoked.
Stephen Donaldson in the 1980’s
This was really the high-water mark for Donaldson’s career, though I guess none of us knew that at the time. His first three books; collectively ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’, had broken through the stockade that separated the geeks and weirdos of Science Fiction and Fantasy from the general fiction market. There was even talk of a movie.
These 3 bulky volumes borrowed a little from Tolkien, but then doesn’t every fantasy writer? Personally, I’d say that Donaldson is just as influenced by writers like William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad. Also, unlike Tolkien’s heroes, Thomas Covenant is a thoroughly modern man – a desperately conflicted character, dogged by self-doubt and moral ambiguity. He refuses to even believe in the ‘reality’ of the ‘parallel world’ into which he is suddenly propelled even when his senses are telling him that he’s 100% not in Kansas anymore. All in all, he’s a pretty difficult character to like….
Donaldson had managed to fuse the fol-de-rol of traditional fantasy writing with more modern concerns and somehow made it work. The Covenant books had crossed over to the mainstream and Donaldson was in town to promote the publication of the first trilogy in hardback and also the paperback launch of the first book in a second trilogy. This was called ‘The Wounded Land’ and, as it worked out, the Second Trilogy was a bridge too far where casual crossover readers were concerned and catered much more for Donaldson’s geeky core audience. It was also rather hard to ‘warm to’ if the truth be known. As is often the way with long-running science fiction or fantasy sagas, the complexities tend to build and build until the author has to come up with a plot of such fiendish ingenuity that it acknowledges all previous plot twists and manages to encompass them in a storyline so labyrinthine that you need to lie down and rest after reading each chapter. Alternatively the author has to break free of the past and despatch his hero to pastures new until he figures out what he can do to resolve the granny-knots he has written into the plot.
This was the route that Donaldson took with his second Covenant trilogy. The second and much of the third book take place away from the ‘Land’ of the first Trilogy and whilst some of the writing has an air of ‘making-it-up-as-he-goes-along’ there are some passages that work equally as well as anything in the first Trilogy. Without wishing to give the game away, Donaldson resolved the second Trilogy fairly handsomely, though without leaving too much scope for any further sequels. I think he’d pretty much had enough of Covenant by the end of the sixth novel, ‘White Gold Wielder’ (Just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?)
After that, Donaldson gave Covenant and The Land an extremely wide berth, though I think we all knew he would get back there in the end. In 2004, he began a new Quartet called ‘The Final Chronicles’ of which I have just finished the second part, ‘Fatal Revenant’. As the name might suggest, when you’re a fantasy writer, you can pretty much make it up to suit yourself as long as you can drum up a plausible enough reason for bringing back characters that were supposedly dead.
The main difference with the Final Chronicles (if such they are) is that the central character is Dr Linden Avery, who is both Covenant’s constant companion and his lover in Trilogy # 2. In her own way, her initial vulnerability to events in the Land is slowly and inexorably eroded into the same kind of cynical detachment that characterises Covenant himself. The scope of the first two books is considerable as Donaldson propels his characters backwards and forwards through time and space in search of a resolution to the ills that afflict The Land. I was actually considerably surprised by my reaction to these new books, having ‘moved on’ a bit from this kind of writing since 1980. These days, I tend to read a lot of non-fiction – mainly travel books and biographies. Though Donaldson’s plotlines are frequently enigmatic and deliberately obscure in their intentions, I overcame any initial irritation I might have been feeling and have enjoyed being back in the familiar surroundings of Revelstone and Andelain. ‘Fatal Revenant’ ended – of course – on a suitably dramatic note and it’s now thumb-twiddling time until Part Three emerges in about 6 months time.
‘Hellfire’, as Covenant might have said….