Thomas Covenant and the love of the unreal

Let’s talk about Thomas Covenant. I nearly don’t know how to start. My emotional experience of the first three Covenant novels is up there, rivaling nearly anything I’ve enjoyed in my life. I remember reading the third book in two days, and I stumbled out of my dorm room upon finishing it feeling as though I’d been stoned for being a witch. I met friends in the cafeteria and couldn’t understand why they were going on as though nothing had changed.

We’re having this discussion now because I just recently started the sixth Covenant book — there are two trilogies, and Donaldson is working now at the final book. But each group was meant to be the end at the time they were written, so I took years to get around to the second trilogy. I have to admit I don’t like the second trilogy as much, but it’s still better than a lot of the stuff I’ve read recently out of the worlds of fantasy, so hell I’ll take it. But I want to tackle, not what I like or dislike about the books, but the statement, the thesis they pursue.

Stephen Donaldson is the author, if I didn’t make that clear. The books are titled The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. They are a fucked-up version of the classic “person from our world gets pulled into a fantasy world” thing that was popular back in the day (and still sometimes in anime). In American fantasy literature right now the trope has been absorbed into “urban fantasy,” in that the protagonists discover “another world” that just happens to co-exist with what we recognize as the “real world.”

The books are fucked up because the main character is a leper and pretty fucking bitter about it. When he gets pulled into “The Land” and healed of his leprosy — something he had internalized was impossible — he concludes he’s hallucinating. This leads to some weird, awful shit: he refuses to help in the struggle against Lord Foul; he drags his heels all the time; and, oh yeah, he rapes the woman who healed him. And in the second book he comes back years later and his daughter from that rape falls in love with him, and he starts to give in to that relationship before she dies. And in the third book he has to go on a quest with the woman he raped and her mom, who hates him but accepts him as a sort of messiah.

Hooooly shit that’s some fucked up stuff. I love it. Covenant struggles constantly with the reality of his situation and his power inside it. His wedding ring is white gold, which doesn’t exist in The Land, meaning Covenant has a magic that doesn’t exist anywhere else. White gold, it turns out, is similar in nature to the Arch of Time itself, because it’s an alloyed gold, rather than a pure one. In the contradiction of the two metals joining into one Covenant finds a kind of “crack” In consciousness that allows for the use of “wild magic.” But all through the first trilogy he hardly uses his power. He’s afraid of it — which I find far more sensible than other protagonists in the same situation, who all seem to fall in love with it and run around like a crazed footballer, getting in fights and running after all the ladies because now they finally can.

Covenant, on the other hand, falls in love with The Land itself. It doesn’t just heal him, it’s marvelous in its own right. There are a lot of sights and magical things he experiences, but the biggest thing is making friends with a giant named Saltheart Foamfollower. Eventually Covenant figures out something as he travels with Foamfollower (who appears in the first and third books): Covenant doesn’t care if the Land is real or not. It is important to him, and therefore it is worth saving, even if it is a delusion. The thesis of the books, then, is that “reality” is not important – it is how we feel about it. There’s a lot of theory stuff dealing with our relationship to the physical world around us, and it’s all really interesting, you should look into it, but it suffices here to say that Covenant goes through a journey and the books ask us to share it with him. Be begins happy, becomes bitter (when he contracts leprosy), and then tries for years to stay hard and bitter and safe. He looks obsessively at himself for physical signs, so he can know if he is injured (the leprosy damages his nerves so he wouldn’t feel it if he burned himself on the stove or cut him leg on a table). Basically he thinks about the world and observes it, but doesn’t feel it. And the Land insists on being felt. Its magic is almost entirely one of feeling, of Earthpower used to light fires without consuming wood, because then the wood would be gone, unable to feel any longer. The meaning imbued in things comes from the people who observe and then accept the things into themselves: the things themselves are not changed. The abstractions in the person’s head change. In this world that happens to be the way some people manage to do magic, but not always. And after all, a hallucination is a real experience, even if it is not an experience of a “real” thing. The Land becomes something like that for Covenant. He learns to value what he loves and what he wants, rather than what “is.” He accepts that the things in his own head can be important to him – he gives himself permission to value things other than empirical realities. For a leper trained to be obsessive about what’s happening, that’s huge. And for us, as readers, not only does it empower us to draw from ourselves, but it also re-values fantasy itself. Fantasy is a literature of abstraction in some ways, and many people don’t value that, thinking it’s removed from “reality.” Thomas Covenant’s very power comes from his status as an unbeliever, because he loves without requiring proof. That’s a hell of a thing.

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