Stephen R. Donaldson’s Newest (and Oldest)

08 Nov 2006

A revised version of this post is included in my essay collection The Books That Wrote Me Collection 1, available here

I became aware of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant sometime in junior high or high school and read them, or at least the volumes of the Second Chronicles, as they came out. Donaldson graduated from the College of Wooster, and this was at least a small factor in my decision to go to Wooster myself.

I majored in English and wrote a collection of short stories for my senior independent study project; for one of my stories, published the The Wooster Review, I was awarded with that year’s Donaldson Prize for Fiction. It was not that many years earlier that Mr. Donaldson wrote his own senior independent study project: a fantasy novel.

I’m not actually trying to draw any kind of parallel between my career and that of Mr. Donaldson; although I wrote some publishable short stories almost twenty years ago, and had aspirations towards writing as a career, I also had many other overlapping interests — I was also taking all the computer science courses I could manage — as well as a “butterfly mind.” I’ve sold several non-fiction articles and occasionally been paid to write book-length technical documentation, but I haven’t written a complete original story since 1989, and I’ve never managed a novel. I’ve begun to plan some possible writing projects, but they will move only sporadically for the near future.

When I won the prize I got a letter from Mr. Donaldson as well, asking me about the state of the English department and their attitudes towards genre fiction such as science fiction and fantasy. I was slow in answering him and probably didn’t give him much useful feedback. I think he wound up calling me, but I don’t remember for certain. At the time I was not thinking much about the reputation of science fiction and fantasy in academe. The English department offered an occasional course on science fiction literature taught by Professor Thomas Clareson, although it was only offered irregularly and I never actually took a course from Clareson. I was focused on medieval literature with Paul Christensen and fiction by women with Joanne Fry and creative writing with Michael Allen and then my thesis work with Dan Bourne, while also taking all the computer science classes I could manage; I was also spending a lot of my time engaging in a less academic pursuit: debauchery.

Anyway, I always felt like I should have been more helpful for Mr. Donaldson. According to a little Googling the Donaldson prize seems to be alive and well — in fact, there seem to be several of them now. It might be interesting to round up the past Donaldson prize winners and find out what they have to say about the experience, and to come up with a group “thanks” to Donaldson himself.

Meanwhile, it has been decades since the completion of the Chronicles double trilogy, but I was interested to note that Donaldson has started another series. Although he killed off Thomas Covenant, Linden Avery is still alive and well and she is the hero, or anti-hero, of the latest book.

I don’t get very much time to read these days, with three children at home, one of them only three weeks old. However, when I discovered that William Hope Hodson wrote more than one famous novella, it awoke some dormant interests in me, and I’ve begun to think much more about genre writing: the overlapping demands of money and art, how writers have reconciled them, and how I might do the same.

Donaldson’s book The Runes of the Earth had been in one of my to-read piles for several months. I have several such piles. But a couple of days ago, for no clear reason, I finally plucked it out and started reading. (It is sad reality in my life that the only uninterrupted time I get to read is generally early in the morning, in the bathtub; I’m sure I’m not the only bathtub reader out there; and no, I’ve never actually dropped a book in the tub; but just in case, I never read my rare or out-of-print books that way).

So far, The Runes of the Earth is quite engaging. I’m getting reaquainted with Donaldson’s trademark style (at least, the style he uses for the Covenant books; like William Hope Hodson, he has several at his command). It’s safe to say that readers are not neutral on the issue of writing style. It’s grim, but beautiful; it will put off some readers and fascinate others. Donaldson must have a well-thumbed copy of the OED in his office; he loves to pull out weird, wonderful words. I’ve always felt that I have a big vocabulary, but Donaldson always surprises me by pulling out words I’ve never read before. I try to force myself to make mental notes of these words and look them up later. To give you a taste of what I mean here’s a passage from The One Tree:

  Suddenly, power seemed to flash around her as if she had been dropped like a coal into a tinderbox. Bells clanged in her head – chimes ringing in cotillion on all sides. Bubbles of glauconite and carbuncle burst in her blood; the air burned like a thurible; the world reeled.
  Stunned and gaping, she panted for breath. She had been translated by water and travertine to another place altogether – a place of eldritch astonsihment. An opalescent sky stretched over her, with the suggestive evanescence of night and the specificity of day. And under its magic, wonders thronged in corybantic succession. Nearby grew a silver sapling. Like flakes of precious metal, the leaves formed a chiaroscuro around the tree, casting glints and spangles as they whirled. A furry shape like a jarcol went gamboling past, and appeared to trip. Sprawling, it became a profuse scatter of flowers. Blooms that resembled peony and amaryllis sprayed open across the glistening greensward. Birds flew overhead, warbling incarnate. Cavorting in circles, they swept against each other, merged to form an abrupt pillar of fire in the air. A moment later, the fire leapt into sparks, and the sparks became gems — ruby and morganite, sapphire and porphyry, like a trail of stars.
  And these were only the nearest entrancements. Other sights abounded; grand statues of water; a pool with its surface woven like an arras; shrubs which flowed through a myriad elegant forms; catenulate sequences of marble, draped from nowhere to nowhere; animals that leaped into the air as birds and drfted down again as snow; swept-wing shapes of malachite flying in gracile curves; sunflowers the size of Giants, with imbricated ophite petals.
And everywhere rang the music of bells — cymbals in carillon, chimes wefted into tapestries of tinkling, tones scattered on all sides — the metal-and-crystal language of Elemesnedene.

Now, that passage isn’t quite typical — Donaldson uses so many rare and beautiful words here specifically because Avery has jus passed into a very strange and beautiful place, a bit like Galadriel’s stronghold, Lothlorien. But it isn’t completely atypical, either. It reminds me faintly of E.R. Eddison’s style in his novel The Worm Ouroboros. Compare this passage:

  At the end of the hall upon a dais stood three high seats, the arms of each composed of two hippogriffs wrought in gold, with wings spread, and the legs of the seats the legs of the hippogriffs; but the body of each high seat was a single jewel of monstrous size: the left-hand seat a black opal, asparkle with steel-blue fire, the next a fire-opal, as it were a burning coal, the third seat an alexandrite, purple like wine by night but deep sea-green by day. Ten more pillars stood in semicircle behind the high seats, bearing up above them and the dais a canopy of gold. The benches that ran from end to end of the lofty chamber were of cedar, inlaid with coral and ivory, and so were the tables that stood before the benches. The floor of the chamber was tessellated, of marble and green tourmaline, and on every square of tourmaline was carven the image of a fish: as the dolphin, the conger, the cat-fish, the salmon, the tunny, the squid, and other wonders of the deep. Hangings of tapestry were behind the high seats, worked with flowers, snake’s-head, snapdragon, dragon-mouth, and their kind; and on the dado below the windows were sculptures of birds and beasts and creeping things.
  But a great wonder of this chamber, and a marvel to behold, was how the capital of every one of the four-and-twenty pillars was hewn from a single precious stone, carved by the hand of some sculptor of long ago into the living form of a monster: here was a harpy with screaming mouth, so wondrously cut in ochre-tinted jade it was a marvel to hear no scream from her: here in wine-yellow topaz a flying fire-drake: there a cockatrice made of a single ruby: there a star sapphire the colour of moonlight, cut for a cyclops, so that the rays of the star trembled from his single eye: salamanders, mermaids, chimaeras, wild men o’ the woods, leviathans, all hewn from faultless gems, thrice the bulk of a big man’s body, velvet-dark sapphires, crystolite, beryl, amethyst, and the yellow zircon that is like transparent gold.

I’m partway into The Runes of the Earth; Linden Avery has just been drawn back to the Land. She’s just had a series of visions and her perceptions are darkened and confused. Several of her acquaintances and co-workers have just been murdered. She herself has apparently been shot in the chest, but can’t feel the pain of the injury; maybe she’s in shock, or maybe it is something stranger. I’m drawn back to the Land as well. I only hope that I don’t neglect my family any more than necessary while trying to find some brief moments of peace and quiet in order to get through this novel! And once again I’ll be in the long-familiar state of waiting for Mr. Donaldson’s next book. But, meanwhile, I’ve ordered copies of the original two trilogies from ABE, so I’ll have the original books to re-read.

It will be interesting to see how they read. I can’t remember for certain, but I think that I first read the books out of order. I may have started with a signed hardcover copy of The One Tree (that copy is long gone), then gone back to the first trilogy and caught up, then read White Gold Wielder when it came out in hardcover. But I could be wrong about that; my first encounter with the books was at least 23 years ago.

Meanwhile, if this all seems a little too high-brow for you, you can watch two California girls and their friends attempt to make sense of Lord Foul’s Bane in a community-access cable show available as a “vodcast” (for iTunes, but it may work with other RSS feed readers here (note: this is a link to the XML file for feed).

Anyway, Mr. Donaldson: if you wind up reading this, thank you for writing another novel of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant lineage. And thank you for the Donaldson prize! If it ever comes to pass that I get my act together and finish a novel, or begin submitting short stories again, your work and indirect encouragement will have been partly responsible.

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