Saturday, December 31, 2011
I wouldn't be referring to Covenant as a failure all this time if I didn't ultimately see it as a missed opportunity. Despite my admiration for the Chronicles as an attempt at a ethical project, a world-building exercise and a subversion of high fantasy, it's undone at the same time by some serious weaknesses.
Most of the Covenant-mocking I've seen starts with his use of language - it's the kind of book where both the characters and the narrator drop in words like 'inexculpable' and 'anneal' as casually as they can - which is to say not very. But I've read Poe, I've read Lovecraft. I can take this. And least Donaldson's trying to be creative with his clunkiness in a rather charming way.
The poetry is universally bad, however. This is one bit of Tolkien I wish he hadn't imitated.
But I have bigger fish to fry with my critical Earthpower (Critpower?).
Covenant is meant to be a troubled character - embittered, suffering from an incurable disease, and stunned by the health and truth of The Land. Donaldson loads his back-story - I think - with enough woe to make his dilemma believable.
But Donaldson has Covenant do something upon arrival in The Land in Lord Foul's Bane to further complicate his relationship with the fantasy and purposely alienate the reader. Covenant rapes the young woman, Lena, who welcomes him to her village.
It's as shocking in print as it is in bare summary here. If the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, this kills the book outright for many readers.
To be fair to the author, he doesn't let Covenant off the hook for this. Not only could the first half of LFB be subtitled Self-laceration against a fantasy backdrop, but over the course of the three books Covenant gradually reaps the terrible consequences of his action.
But by destroying any empathy you might feel for the central character, the crime reduces the impact of the central question of the Chronicles: is an illusion worth fighting for? Instead, you get the pop reduction of Covenant to asshole leper hero.
It doesn't help the book, and it doesn't help Donaldson's problems with women in his novels either.
Why you thought this was a good idea I really do not know
The Chronicles actually have a lot of strong women - warriors, Lords, village elders - but when I sat down and thought about it the safest place for a female character to be in Stephen Donaldson's fiction is in the second rank. That way you get to be awesome without stepping into the authorial line of fire.
Let's take a look at the main female characters in Covenant and what happens to them, shall we?
Lena - rape and murder (the second not by Covenant)
Atiaran (Lena's mother) - despair and death by magical accident
Elena (Lena and Covenant's daughter) - killed by a ghost and brought back from the dead so she can be degraded and killed again.
Now that I think of it, pretty much every one of Donaldson's leading women in his other novels gets thrown in a dungeon and tortured - sometimes sexually - at some point or other. None of it is written to titilate, but if he's trying to make a serious point it's eluding me too.
But that's even before we get to the crowning WTF moment of the entire series on book 2, the Illearth War: Back in the Land after weeks of his time and years of their time, Covenant encourages his daughter Elena's sexual overtures to him so she - now a Lord and super-jedi - can take on the role of saviour of The Land and let him off the hook.
And for good measure
I can guarantee you that no-one who gets this far into the trilogy is wondering if Covenant will reconcile his disbelief in The Land with the need to act to protect it. They are all - all of them, darn it - thinking "Dude! This is wrong on so many levels my head hurts"
And these flaws are too big for the reader to ignore.
In writing these reflections, I've discovered that I like the idea of Covenant better than I do the reality. Much as I might appreciate what Donaldson tried to do, as all the bits in The Illearth War and The Power That Preserves without Covenant are great, as the trilogy fizzes intermittently with great ideas, he undermines his own foundations with narrative decisions which seem designed to alienate the reader and cause me to question the merit of the entire project.
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The politics of high fantasy - in as far as it articulates them - are deeply retrogressive. While neither Tolkien nor C S Lewis can be simply filed as political conservatives, their works and the works of those who followed them in creating the mainstream of modern fantasy are problematic for the progressive reader.
This is because they fetishise an imaginary medieval.
Humour me while I set up a straw man in high fantasy clothing here. A mediocre author writing in the genre will give you uncritical adulation of monarchy and aristocracy, a poor-but-happy peasantry, nations and species defined by a single characteristic (grumpy dwarf syndrome), fantasy racism (dead orcs don't count), orientalism, patriachy-a-go-go and obfuscatory mysticism.
The classic fantasy happy ending is one which validates any or all of this above. Preferably through a prophecy.
The fact that your setting is pre-modern is not an excuse for any of this if you're making it up.
Good authors can, will and often do subvert these cliches - but in my view most interesting fantasy is being written outside of the genre (wierd fiction, magic realism, science fantasy) precisely because of this millstone.
I don't ask for a politically correct re-imagining of the past, or for Conan to be sent on sensitivity training, but seriously, fantasy writers, the clue is in the name of genre you're writing in.
What does this have to do with Thomas fricking Covenant?
In this context Covenant is interesting because the society he encounters manages to avoid most of the pitfalls I've just outlined.
The people of The Land live mainly in self-governing villages without a trace of a medieval hierarchy. There is no king - there are Lords, but lordship is achieved through initiation into arcane knowledge, training in which is open to all. Men and women alike play leading roles in the villages, the lore-keepers and the military.
Grumpy dwarf syndrome does rear its ugly head with the giants, and fantasy racism with the ur-viles and cavewights existing mainly for plot purposes as sword fodder. But at least the Tolkien xeroxing is kept to a minimum (there are no elves, Galadriel be thanked).
None of the usual grab-bag of forelock-tugging, old-time religion and oppression which usually holds you-haven't-this-through fantasy societies applies in The Land. Instead Donaldson gives us a picture of a people held together by reverence for all that is living, sworn to the healing and protection of the earth.
Whole communities dedicate themselves to the care and mastery of earth and stone, plant and tree, or horses. Other than protecting the Land and increasing their knowledge of 'Earthpower', the Lords pride themselves in their restoration of areas once blighted by Lord Foul.
How many fantasy societies can you think of where everyone swears an oath of peace?
This wierd cocktail of agrarian anarchism, deep ecology and benign academia is there in plot terms, like the geography of The Land, to heighten Covenant's dilemma, to be 'too good' for him. As we shall see, one of the hallmarks of the people of the Land is their refusal to punish him for his misdemeanors (more of which in part 4).
But it also takes us away from the kind of half-baked medievalism of high fantasy into something more like the utopianism which used to be part of fantasy (Cockayne, Shangri-La) before it became the preserve of science fiction and political theory.
The utopian strain running through Covenant is a worthy attempt to use fantasy to put forward some downright progressive ideas about man's relationship to man and nature.
And it's a utopia which had a powerful influence on at least one 90's teenager. When asked, I tell people that the two things which got me into environmentalism were hearing about the greenhouse effect (yes, I really am that old) and reading Covenant and understanding what a reverence for nature and for the achievements of your ancestors could mean in practice.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Like most fantasy writers, Donaldson's world-building is shaped by plot expediency and sheer joy in topography and taxonomy. However, that The Land also reflects and partakes in Covenant's psychodrama is a masterstroke
At the start of two of the three books in the Chronicles, Covenant is forced to descend the look out tower of Kevin's Watch. This descent is as much spiritual as physical; it marks his exit from modernity and its entry into a realm begging him to make an apparently simple moral choice to defend it.
Sometimes this plea is verbal, often it is shown rather than told through the beauty of the landscape Covenant sees on his wandering: the Andelainian hills; the pure pool of Glimmermere; the Petra-a-like city of Revelstone. It is even embodied by the 'highest' and 'best' inhabitants of The Land, such as the Giants or the Ranyhyn horse-lords.
In order for Covenant's dilemma to have meaning, this geographical hyperbole is essential. It is vital that The Land be 'too good' for him, ask too much of him.
The creation of The Land through the visual imagination of Stephen Donaldson transcends window dressing - it becomes - and I mean this as a serious compliment - it becomes a stage set which enhances the meaning of the tale itself.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
- Part 2 - Psycho-geography
Sunday, December 18, 2011
2011 has been a good year for me in some respects, unexpectedly challenging in others.
In August Roz and I split up. I was very distraught at the time, but I've gradually made my peace with what happened. I'm thankful that we had a wonderful year together and I hope to stay in continued contact with her as things calm down emotionally.
My family, as some of you will know, are all well, although both Mum and Dad have had minor health issues and Lucy's broken her arm. :-(
I'm really looking forward to seeing them all for Christmas and cooking the vegetarian main for Christmas Day.
I remain grateful for all the fantastic friends I have - you know who you are, thank you.
I'm continuing to work for Friends of the Earth supporting volunteers across the Midlands, and have managed to sort out my work/life balance a little more so that I stay healthy in the longer-term. I still feel honoured to be a part of the organisation and I'm certainly not bored.
The highlight this year was a trip to the Netherlands in May with some volunteers for an international gathering. Not only did I camp for the first time in a decade (!) but I got to meet wonderful people from around Europe and stand on a sand dune overlooking the North Sea. An awesome moment.
Maybe that hitherto dormant travelling urge is beginning to re-awaken. :-)
Birmingham continues to agree with me. I'm not sure I'm settled for the long-term (who is?) but it still feels like the right place to be right now. I jokingly refer to the city as the new Berlin, but it's true that there so much happening here which is really exciting. In the past year, I've been to:
My first ballet and my first drag act simultaneously (The Trocks)
Art festivals held in a dozen different warehouses in post-industrial Digbeth
Local music festivals – Moseley Follk and Supersonic (where things go DER-DANG)
Birmingham Zine Festival
UK Games Expo (yes, I am still roleplaying)
Buy Nothing Day, dancing round the town centre dressed as Santa
And that's really only dipping my toe into what's out there.
I'm still trying to write more and you can find my occasional scribblings here at http://magpie-moth.blogspot.com/ and when I have nothing better to do on @magpiemoth on Twitter.
Recently I've recorded my first piece of spoken word – a Christmas horror story. A friend is working on the musical accompaniment but we'll make it available online very soon. I've also been taking advantage of my smartphone to do more photo-blogging.
I'll finish up here by wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. I hope that 2012 brings you your heart's desire and a better political situation than the one we now find ourselves in.