Stephen R. Donaldson and the Modern Epic Vision

Stephen R. Donaldson and the Modern Epic Vision. Christine Barkley. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 17. Series editors Donald E. Palumbo and C. W. Sullivan III. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Company, 2009. 213 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-4288-1

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Reviewed by Kim Coleman Healy

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 28.3/4 (#109/110) (2010): 199–202.]

Mythlore readers may remember Christine Barkley from her 1984 paper “Donaldson as Heir to Tolkien.” Her new book germinated from that work and has grown beyond the Donaldson-Tolkien comparison in a most fruitful direction. She traces how the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (First, Second, and nascent Last) engage concerns of modern literature (not only those traditional for fantasy) to achieve Donaldson’s stated goal for the series: “to reclaim the epic vision […] as part of what it means to be human” (Epic Fantasy in the Modern World [15])  Where Sartre had asserted that “Man is a futile passion” is the credo of modern literature, Donaldson insists, “Man is an effective passion” (Epic Fantasy [7-8]). Barkley shows how Donaldson evolves Thomas Covenant, Hile Troy, and Linden Avery, and with them his readers, from futility to effectiveness.  For Barkley, experience cannot be unmade into innocence, and a world view turned ironic must regain epic vision by maturing, not by regressing. She characterizes the Chronicles’ journey from futility to effectiveness as a journey from either/or to both/and thinking, in which irony and heroism are joined in the eye of the paradox, forming a larger and more inclusive world view. Her concentric-circles illustration of the relations of the Land to Covenant’s “real” world—and our real world where Donaldson writes—shows the “timeless mythic realm” as encompassing all these (35).

Barkley’s discussion of how courage works in the Chronicles conveys the uniquely penitential and irreducibly modern quality of Donaldsonian heroism. “Twentieth century literature complicated any exploration of heroism and courage when Joseph Conrad forced us to acknowledge our own heart of darkness, our own potential for evil. Once we admit we are flawed, it is hard to attempt to be courageous” (11). Covenant’s stubborn capacity to go on despite his crimes, ignorance, powerlessness, and wish to remain uninvolved “shows a special kind of courage, one which seems to paralyze most others in the modern age” (11). The bridge from modern to epic vision, from futility to effectiveness, is undergirded by this special kind of courage, which is a constant substratum of the Chronicles. Not only Covenant and Linden, but Land-born characters too—Bannor, Foamfollower, Sunder, and Memla, to name only a few—use this kind of courage to keep moving forward when they feel they least deserve to. Donaldson thus illustrates the passage from paralyzing guilt to a capacity for concern that is more effective than innocence could have been. Cail of the Haruchai sums it up best: “It is agreed that such unworth as mine has its uses” (White Gold Wielder 201).

For Barkley, Thomas Covenant and the Land-born characters co-evolve. While Covenant rejoins an epic vision of meaning to his modern ironic viewpoint, characters native to an epic worldview temper it with modern self-awareness, creating an alloy more effective than frangible heroic purity. This process is most conspicuous in those Giants and Haruchai who interact most closely with Covenant, for their cultures start nearest the heroic pole and must travel farthest to integrate modernity. Sunder and Memla in the Second Chronicles travel the reverse direction. Under the Sunbane their world is even more filled with futility than Covenant’s “real” world, and their path back to epic vision leads through Covenant’s disproof of the Clave’s false “truths” and requires acceptance of culpability for Rede-required actions. Such co-evolutionary developments advance the reintegration Covenant derives from interactions in the Land, which can be read as encounters with external Others or with internal dream beings. As Barkley puts it, “Self-awareness rather than global peace may be the overall goal of Donaldson’s fantasy story” (34).

Barkley’s most generative chapter, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Leper,” examines Thomas Covenant’s leprosy as a metaphor for modern futility and Thomas Covenant’s authorship as a metaphor for modern myth-making. Covenant as leper endures social rejection and projected fears similar, Barkley states, to those often inflicted on persons with AIDS in our world. Barkley affirms that as the Land healed Covenant of leprosy’s consequences, Covenant’s experience provides a mythical coping tool for readers contending with chronic disease. Although I find the layer of mythotherapy for disability much more salient in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series than in Donaldson, I know of a real-world AIDS activist whose work was continually inspired by the Chronicles.

Covenant as “real-world” author refracts Donaldson at work on the Chronicles, suspended between the ecstasy of myth-making and the irony of the late twentieth century. Barkley observes that though Covenant writes his first book from within the embrace of transcendence, Covenant’s poems after diagnosis express futility. At this point Covenant enters the Land and his renounced authorial passions are transmuted into the inhabitants’ own myth-making. Barkley connects the Land’s Creator-image with Covenant or Donaldson himself in an irresistible sentence: “The Creator ‘formed and reformed, trialed and tested and rejected and trialed and tested again’ as a writer might revise a manuscript [italics added]” (61). Since Donaldson in the Chronicles is rewriting futility toward meaning and Covenant in the Land is experiencing dream therapy, then Land beings—refractions of Covenant, and ultimately of Donaldson—also need Story to make sense of their world and to anneal their inadequacy and guilt into effective concern.

Barkley traces the evolution of Land-told creation stories to illuminate their tellers’ evolving world views. Lord Tamarantha’s creation myth in the First Chronicles is the vision of inhabitants of a declining world who seek to rise again; the vast responsibility for resisting Despite belongs to sentient beings without direct divine aid. Thus, even before Covenant’s arrival, the Lords’ world view is heroic in reach but not in grasp; only their pure intent preserves their humility from modern despair. Covenant retells Tamarantha’s myth to Linden in the Second Chronicles, making subtle but telling revisions. His conscious evolution of the story in a direction of greater hope contrasts with the Clave’s consciously propagandized myth asserting that the Land deserves the Sunbane. Throughout the Second Chronicles, Covenant’s work in the Land is strikingly similar to Donaldson’s work in our world: to tell stories that reassert truth against distortions and call people back from futility to effectiveness.

Barkley’s discussion of the Last Chronicles, exploring Donaldson’s fantasy appropriation of the normally science-fictional themes of time and space travel, features more of the unusual and effective geometric diagramming that is introduced in the first chapter. Perhaps because the Last Chronicles are still in progress, their commentary feels more fragmented than the chapters on the completed portions of the mythos. This chapter could potentially have been further enriched by including themes from Donaldson’s own science fiction in the comparison, especially since the Last Chronicles, as late-career work, are likely to integrate strands from much else Donaldson has written.

Barkley’s analysis through some central concerns of modern literature (creativity, memory, identity, power, and evil) provides a much clearer view of the Chronicles’ distinctive charismata than would the Donaldson-Tolkien comparison in isolation. Her occasional value judgments, e.g., “Donaldson takes a different perspective on fantasy than Tolkien did and provides a better answer” (29), become explicable—if still arguably excessive—in the context of her defending Donaldson’s heirship to Tolkien. The book as a whole occasionally evinces the tendency of Donaldsonian commentators (including this reviewer) to gravitate toward Donaldsonian cadences. Probably because spell-checking software is not designed for mythopathic use, there is a distracting frequency of typos, some of which are repeated (Hollinscrave for Honninscrave, Wayward for Warward). But these are minor quibbles. No course on Donaldson, epic fantasy, or modern fantasy should be without this book.

Works Cited

Stephen R. Donaldson and the Modern Epic Vision. Christine Barkley. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 17. Series editors Donald E. Palumbo and C. W. Sullivan III. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Company, 2009. 213 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-4288-1

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