Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Rereads: First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

This post's kind of deceptive. I didn't reread the whole First Chronicles. I'm going to, really, I am. But I haven't gotten to the third book just yet. Normally, when I do this kind of thing, I just read the first book and let it go, but that's not happening here, for reasons I will explain. But let me start of by saying that I've read Lord Foul's Bane and The Illearth War, and that I'll be reading The Power That Preserves next month; with that said, let's go.

I first read these books, by Stephen Donaldson, when I was about 10. I don't recall how they came into my orbit; there's two great possibilities, one of which is more likely. The less likely one is that my brother had bought them. The Covenant books are my older brother's favorite novels in all the world; he has a deep and abiding love for them that exceeds any I've felt for books in my life, and I love me some books. He recognizes fully what the world has concluded: that the books are complicated and troublesome and all that. Beside the point. They are his Middle Earth, his Narnia, his Wonderland; The Land is the place he would go, if a door opened up for him and let him go anywhere. So maybe he bought them. But of course, you never know books are going to become your favorites before you read them, and he is only twenty months older than me; a 12 year old in 1981 or so isn't exactly full of money, even with a paper route (which my brother had), so he wasn't going to be throwing down his hard earned cash for unknown quantities. There were X-Men comics to be bought, after all. So we come to the more likely version; that my mother saw them in a checkout line, in the racks of paperbacks which in those days included a good amount of fantasy, and tossed them in the cart as she so often did, to our great delight. Probably my brother would have read them first, if he had any interest in them; he was older, and got to do such things. But if he was busy or not too interested, it might have been me who read them first, actually; my brother's a quick reader, or was back in those days, but I was even faster. So let's assume the most likely situation: my mother buys the books and brings them home, I read them first, my brother doesn't read them, but consumes them.

Anyway. I remember liking them, and not being particularly troubled by them at all. There were adventures, and magic horses, and supercool hand to hand warriors, and Lords with flaming staves, and ur-viles, and Giants (always capitalized, note), and wars, and all that stuff. I read them and reread them over and over. The fourth book had come out about the time we were reading them, and maybe we read that at the same time, but it was a whole different thing. I do remember that I was the one who bought the fifth book myself with my limited pocket money, so I must have really rather liked the books. I remember buying it because it was also the first and only time I've been robbed in my life: I was at the 7-11 not far from my house, and I was buying the book and some form of chips and candy, and there were these two other boys about my age there, and they were friendly, and we started to walk home together, and part way back (going by way of a really neat trail that I hadn't been on before, but which was not at all out of the way, running between rows of houses on one of Seattle's endless series of hills) the slightly bigger one of them took my glasses off my face. One has few hostages to fortune as easily obtained as an eleven year old's glasses. So they took my money, which, after my purchases, amounted to a little more than two dollars, and they took the candy, which they had helpfully advised me about which kind to buy, and they left me the chips that they didn't want and the book they really didn't want and tossed down my glasses and ran. They didn't smash them, and they didn't take much of anything that mattered so I wasn't, if I recall correctly, really that mad. I never saw them again. I wonder where they lived: it must have been nearby because they knew the little path to take, but they weren't kids I knew at all. Such was the tribalism of our neighborhood that I'm not at all shocked; I didn't even know the kids who lived on the next street over.

We had these covers, of course
Darrell K Sweet did them, before he decided it was entirely unnecessary to even know what a book was about before he did the cover. These all show actual moments of the books, and if they have odd perspective and strange choices, they're still good and evocative covers, enhanced by the simple one color borders. My brother might still have these books, or he might not; maybe I ended up with them, I don't know. They were in very poor shape after years of serious reading by two youths.

Reading the first two now is a weird experience. Great numbers of words and phrases and snatches of text are still with me; these books are strongly stuck in my head, a part of my mythology almost as much as Tolkien. And there is much of Tolkien in the first one, Lord Foul's Bane, though mixed about and somewhat hidden: huge creatures who tell enormously long stories and speak a very long winded language; underground adventures in caverns with a narrow bridge crossing over a chasm; magic horses that appear when you call them, even though they have been far off; peoples who are like dwarves, or like elves; sentient forests. It's all there in the first book, and though it's enormously darker and lighter at the same time (despair and hope are powerful forces), you can see that it's been hugely influenced by the hugest of influences.

And then...well, the second book...it's suddenly clear that this isn't going to be a Tolkien clone at all, that it's not going to have too much to do with that other great epic. It's going to be richer and weirder and grimmer and it's going to be about things. There's still stuff you can tie to Tolkien, even structurally: splitting the group into one that quests into danger and another that fights battles of increasing desperation, for instance. But it's less noticeable, and it's going off far into its own place. The Lords are more interesting and compelling in this second book, possibly just because there's more of them (there are five in the first book, but only two do much of anything, and they don't even do much, really; the second book brings up nine, most of whom get at least a moment). And Covenant is more interesting because he's more conflicted, and more confused, and more tempted by the Land.

Plus, you're already past the rape. Because the first book has one, and the second book features the almost completely flat and uninteresting child of that rape who's kind of into her father in a majorly gross way which, in a very good choice, he declines to pursue. High Lord Elena is a major failing: she's didn't actually interest me at all, and I found almost every other character to have more to them. I remember thinking she was kind of cool before, but in the years (decades?) since I've read the books, she lost something for me. Maybe that's me, and she's still great? But I get nothing from her.

I'm looking forward now to reading the third book, and then the next trilogy which I read a couple of times, and then the final four books, which I've never touched. Finally, after 35 years, the story is complete, I guess, and I'm really wanting to get to the end of it.

So do they hold up? They do, though the first book is a bit of a grind. Donaldson has his linguistic ticks, words he overuses (surpassed is one that turns up way too often; characters spend a lot of time groaning; there's lots of them, really, and it can be kind of fun, once you're past caring about it, to see how often they turn up.) The Lords start off very ill defined (and in fact, they always remain slightly out of focus, but it's okay). It takes a book or two or three to really get how everything works (which is good, because it implies depth, but bad, because it implies muddied thought; I think it's kind of the middle ground, depth that is poorly expressed for a while; if you can't grasp it, there's no alternate way to gain access, so you're screwed.) But I'm liking them, that's sure, and I'm going to keep going. So they succeed, these First Chronicles, better than most.

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