Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Illearth War


The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever Volume II
The Illearth War
Copyright 1977

The Illearth War picks up where Lord Foul’s Bane ended. Thomas Covenant has returned to Haven Farm in a daze, still trying to determine if what he experienced in the Land was a dream or real. Determined to keep his mental discipline that he needs to keep him alive as a leper, he resolves that it was all his imagination.

His trip into town has earned him the anger of the townspeople. He gets hate mail and experiences vandalism and threatening phone calls. Defiant, he decides to venture out into society once again. This time, he decides to go to a neighboring town for a drink at a nightclub.

He hitches a ride from a trucker and gets to the club. As he’s watching the singer prepare to do her act, she recognizes him as her old friend, Berek. When the lights go up and people see him, someone recognizes him. He is run out of the club.

As he’s walking home, the local sheriff picks him up and takes him home. The sheriff tells him to stay on his farm and away from “decent” folk.

As Covenant chews on his anger, he notices that the stables behind his home are ablaze – obviously the work of some vandal. As he is pondering what to do about this, his phone rings. He answers to find out it is his ex-wife, Joan. Joan misses him, she tells Covenant. She wants to reconnect.

Covenant wants to respond, but can’t. He’s swept by a wave of dizziness. As he hears Joan’s plaintiff cries for him to say something, he falls unconscious, striking his head on the coffee table.

He awakens in a place familiar to him. It is the Close of Revelstone where the lords of Revelstone hold council. He recognizes his friend, Mhoram who has aged dramatically. Covenant finds that 40 years have passed since he left the land.

The new High Lord is Elena and it is she who, using the Staff of Law that he helped recover, who has summoned him. Lord Foul’s army is on the move and she wants Covenant to use his white gold in defense of the Land.

Covenant also learns that the Lords have appointed a new Warmark. A man named Hile Troy who comes from Covenant’s world. Born blind, he once served as a Pentagon battle tactician. He fell from a burning building and ended up in the Land. It is he who is making preparations for the defense of the Land.

Covenant is escorted by his former bodyguard, the Bloodguard Bannor to a chamber where he freshens up. He is then summoned to the chamber of the High Lord Elena. He is horrified to learn that Elena is the daugher of Lena, the girl he ravished when he first arrived in the Land.
Elena tells Covenant that the Ranyhyn kept the promise they made to Covenant in the Plains of Ra years before. The Ranyhyn – glorious steeds who pick their riders – had reared to Covenant out of fear and loathing. Covenant promised not to ride the Ranyhyn if they would, once a year, visit Lena who dreamed of seeing and riding Ranyhyn. Elena was selected by the Ranyhyn to ride at a very young age, marking her as one strong in earth power.

She presents to Covenant a sword called the Krill which was wielded by Loric Vilesilencer, son of Berek Halfhand, and asks him to use it. In a fit of pique, Covenant drives it into the stone table of the High Lord’s chambers. Once impaled in the stone, it can not be removed.

Shortly after the Krill is driven into the stone, a strange visitor arrives in the Close. A spritely man who calls himself Amok tells the Lords that the conditions have been met for him to arrive and share his knowledge if they ask the right questions. But he frustrates them with non answers as they ask question after question. Eventually deciding that his summoning, triggered by driving the Krill into stone, was a mistake, he leaves them.

While preparations are underway to move the army, Elena invites Covenant to join her at an enchanted lake near the peak of Revelstone. Covenant slips into the cold water and can feel its invigorating effects. In an uncharacteristic mood of playfulness, Covenant swims with Elena and they start dunking each other. While underwater, Elena kisses Covenant passionately. He is appalled that this young daughter of the woman he raped 40 years prior is attracted to him. Already bitter and wary, he becomes more so.

On his way back to his chambers, Covenant has a chance meeting with Trell, Lena’s father and Elena’s grandfather. Trell’s wife, Atiara, who led Covenant to Revelstone despite Covenant’s crimes against her daughter, died a powerless and heartbroken woman. Trell is distraught and angry when he sees Covenant. Violating his oath of peace, he launches himself at Covenant and nearly kills him before Bannor can subdue him. Now Trell, already a pitiful creature, is a broken man, having violated the oath of peace he swore to live by. Covenant sees it as more blood on his hands.

Meanwhile, Hile Troy prepares the army of the Lords to march. They will first go to Revelwood which has been regrown from new trees after being destroyed by Foul’s minions 40 years before. From there, they will head south for Doom’s Retreat where they will meet Lord Foul’s Army. Doom’s Retreat has traditionally been the place where routed armies flee for a final defense, but Troy sees it as the most defensible place in the Land.

The army, lead by the High Lord and Lord Mhoram set forth from Revelstone and travel to Revelwood. There, they determine that they need to make contact with the Giants, from whom they’ve not heard in many years, to enlist their aid. They also send a scouting party to find Lord Foul’s army and determine its size.

While at Revelwood, Covenant notices that there is a distortion in the air that moves about. The Bloodguard pounce and it turns out to be Amok who had accompanied the army from Revelstone while invisible. He confesses that he is the way to the seventh ward of Kevin’s Lore.

Desperate to find anything that will aid the Land’s army in their war, Elena states that she and Covenant, along with their accompanying Bloodguard, will travel with Amok to Earthroot which lies beneath Melenkurion Skyweir – the highest summit in the land and reportedly the source of all earth power. Lord Mhoram and Hile Troy will lead the army to Doom’s Retreat and prepare for war.

As Mhoram and Troy move the army south, the scouts from Seasearch return to tell a horrific tale. All of the Giants have been slain. They died in their homes with their heads split open. They found one Giant alive who was responsible for the slaughter. He was one of the three Ravers – the most powerful servants of Lord Foul. His name is Kinslayer and he wielded a piece of the Illearth Stone as he tormented and destroyed the Giants. He allowed the party to return so they could tell the lords that resistance was futile against such might.

The scouting party that sought Lord Foul’s army also returns to tell Mhoram and Troy that a Giant rides at the head of the army of ur-viles and cavewights. He, too, wields a piece of the Illearth Stone.

Troy now knows that the army at Doom’s Retreat doesn’t stand a chance. As Foul’s army approaches, they retreat further into the canyon until the reach the Garroting Deep – a forest under the control of a powerful being called a Forestal known as Caerroil Wildwood. To enter the Garroting Deep is to meet with certain death.

Mhoram shouts into the forest trying to summon the Forestal. He tells them that the enemies of the Land are his enemies as well. He begs for passage of the army through his forest.

Caerriol Wildwood arrives and tells him that all sentient beings are enemies of the forest, recalling a time when men felled the trees of the once great forest that covered the Land. Troy is desperate to save his plan. He tells Wildwood that he’ll do anything to save his army if only the Forestal will help them in their cause. The Forestal accepts and allows them to enter.

Meanwhile, Covenant and Elena journey east toward Melenkurion Skyweir. Along the way, Elena repeatedly questions Amok who continually responds with riddles and non-answers. Frustrated, she does not see how Amok can be of service to them.

One night, while camped, Covenant is talking to Elena. He learns that Lena never married, never took a mate, and that Elena is Covenant’s daughter. In that same moment, she drops her robe and offers herself to him. Covenant is horrified and disgusted. But he realizes that he has developed a fatherly fondness for the young woman who is his daughter.

Finally, the party arrives at Earthroot, a deep underground river beneath Melenkurion Skyweir. There, Amok reveals the nature of Kevin’s seventh ward. It is the power of command. It was an earth power Kevin did not dare use, even in his despair before invoking the Ritual of Desecration because of its deadly power.

Excited, Elena is determined to use it. Despite Amok’s warning, she drinks deeply of the water at the source of earth power and makes her command. She commands Kevin Landwaster to return from the dead to go forth and slay Lord Foul. She reasons he will be able to redeem himself for his earlier despair and failure and save the people of the Land.

Kevin arrives and is angry. He tells her not to order him to do it. She knows not what power she will unleash. Determined and desperate, Elena sends him forth.

Kevin returns just moments later, looking like a zombie. Foul easily bested him, he tells Elena, and sent him to destroy her and the Staff of Law. She has violated the law of death, he says, and unleashed an unfathomable evil upon the land. He then advances on her.

Elena’s Bloodguard tries to stop Kevin and is destroyed like a bag of sticks. Elena fights with all her might with the Staff of Law as Bannor and Covenant watch. They fall into a deep cavern. As they fall, Covenant can see the flashes of earth power as they do battle.

The ground around them starts to shake and they get into the boat that delivered them to the cavern to make their escape. They ride rapids and go over falls as the land around them pitches and rolls. Finally, they escape the caverns to the Black River and sale toward the Garroting Deep.

They arrive to find that the Giant has been hanged at the Forrestal’s gallows and his army has been destroyed. Troy is horrified to find out that Elena is dead for he had fallen in love with her. He is bitter because she chose Covenant, a self loathing, bitter man who denied the land over him. Mhorman reminds Troy that the High Lord must still live because Covenant is still in the Land and it was Elena who summoned him.

As he’s venting his anger at Covenant, the Forestal reminds Troy that they had made a bargain where Troy offered to do anything to save his army. The Forestal’s price is Troy’s life. He will not kill Troy, but make Troy a Forestal so he can assist in tending to the Garroting Deep. Slowly, Troy is converted from a human into a plant like creature which is carried off into the forest by Caerroil Wildwood.

As Covenant watches this unfold, he becomes dizzy and begins to fade. Mhoram remarks that the High Lord must be dead for Covenant is disappearing. That is the last thing Covenant hears in the land.

As he fades, he hears a loud buzzing noise. He awakens in his living room. The phone is on the floor, off the hook. The buzzing is the phone. He picks himself up and notices he has cut his head. He goes to the bathroom and sees that he has cut himself down to the bone along the scalp in his fall. Rather than clean the cut, he just stands there, staring at it and believing it to be a mark of his guilt for all of the evil he feels he committed upon the Land and its people.

Usually, the second installment of a trilogy – be it books or movies – is the strongest. When one arrives at the second installment, the characters are established, so there is room for a great deal of plot advancement, new character introductions, and a cliffhanger to lead you into the third installment.

In my reading of Donaldson’s works, I’ve found that his second installments are usually the weakest. There are several shortcomings in this second of three books.

First is the introduction of Hile Troy. A large portion of the book is told from his point of view. Yet, he is under developed and the reader never really comes to care for or despise Troy. Inasmuch as Donaldson masterfully developed the anti hero Thomas Covenant whom we loath for his self pity and bitterness, yet root for because of his core character, Troy is flat and meaningless.

Donaldson puts forth Troy’s jealousy of Covenant and the relationship he enjoys with the High Lord. Jealousy is perhaps the strongest of all motivations. Yet, he does nothing with it. Nor does he make Troy heroic, cowardly, likeable, or despicable. For as large a role as he played in this second book, the reader finds Hile Troy to be an enigma.

A book short on character development ought to have epic battle scenes or something that creates great peril for the heroes. We will come to find out that Elena’s actions have grave consequences. But as this second book ends, Donaldson doesn’t hint at or tantalize the reader with what those consequences will be.

Nor does the book advance Donaldson’s character arc. He leaves the Land in at the end of the second book the same man with the same feelings as he had at the beginning.

Having said that, a trilogy must be judged by the gestalt of the story – not the individual parts. The story in its entirety is compelling and Donaldson has set things into motion that will make the third installment riveting. I know this because I’ve read the books before. But I remember putting down the second installment wanting more. I didn’t want more because I was excited to see what was next. I wanted more because I felt The Illearth War was an unsatisfying reading experience.

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