Sunday, August 21, 2011
The Power that Preserves by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Book 3
The Power that Preserves
by Stephen R. Donaldson
Book three of the first trilogy of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever finds Thomas Covenant in bad straits. Despite the fact that he continues to argue with himself that his experience in the Land is nothing but a dream, he is horribly depressed about the death of High Lord Elena, his daughter, as she battled Kevin Landwaster for control of the Staff of Law.
Covenant has let himself go; his leper’s discipline gone. He’s stopped taking the medication that arrested the spread of his disease. He’s stop giving himself the constant physical examinations necessary to identify and treat cuts and wounds promptly. His grip on sanity is tenuous.
He takes daily walks and one day, upon returning to his home, he finds his groceries have been delivered – courtesy of the local grocery store who does not want him to enter their store. He bites into a roll and there is a razor blade inside, placed there to hurt and maim him by one of his neighbors.
He flees into the woods, distraught, angry, and at his wits end. As he wanders aimlessly, he hears a little girl screaming. He races to her and finds that she has been bitten by a rattle snake.
Just as he’s preparing to help her, he feels that discorporate feeling that tells him he is once again being summoned to the land. He appears in the Lords Keep of Revelstone before Lord Mhoram and the assembly of Lords. He pleads to be allowed to return to his home so that he can save the little girl. Mhoram pleads with him, telling him that this is the Land’s darkest hour and they need him to save the Land. Covenant denies the request, saying he must save a girl in his own world. Unwilling to bring Covenant to the Land against his will, Mhoram releases him.
Covenant sucks the venom from the girl’s wound and then carries her to her parents who are camping in the woods. The father immediately recognizes him and begins to pummel him. Covenant surrenders himself and pleads with Mhoram to take him.
Covenant is summoned to the Land, but it’s not Lords Keep where he arrives, but the peak of Kevin’s Watch. His summoners are Triock, the man who loved Lena, the girl he raped years before, and his old friend, the Giant Saltheart Foamfollower.
They take him to Mithil Stonedown, the village he first visited when he arrived in the Land during his first sojourn. The Land is in the grasp of a preternatural winter, contrived by Lord Foul to starve its population. The Stonedowners are barely surviving the frequent attacks by wolves and other Lord Foul minions. It is Triock, no longer the simple sheepherder, who leads the defenses of the village.
While Covenant is taking in the plight of the Land and Foul’s machinations, the Stonedown is attacked. As Covenant takes cover, he sees and elderly woman, defenseless except for a small dagger, attack one of the assailants. Covenant joins the fray to save her and finds that it is Lena, the woman he ravished years before. She is now and old woman, now insane and obsessed with her love of Thomas Covenant.
After fending off the attack, Covenant resolves to be passive participant in the Land’s battle no more. He directs Triock to take a party to the Forrestal at Garroting Deep and to use his powers to send word to Revelstone to let Mhoram know that the white gold wielder has returned. Covenant resolves to go directly to Foul’s Creche to face down and destroy Lord Foul once and for all. Triock and his friends set off for Garroting Deep. Covenant, accompanied by Saltheart Foamfollower and Lena, whom he feels responsible, set off for Foul’s Creche.
At Revelstone, the siege has begun. The Raver, Satanfist, bearing a piece of the Illearth Stone, has assembled an army before Revelstone. He begins his relentless assault. Those within are trapped. There is no escape through the main gate. The upper plains above the keep that were once fertile and supplied the keep with food, are barren with Foul’s winter. There is little food and much fear. High Lord Mhoram struggles to maintain morale and maintain defenses as the raver launches land-corrupting assaults against the keep that destroy the Land and bring pain to the inhabitants.
Triock’s efforts to use his lomillialor staff to contact Revelstone meets with defeat when he is betrayed by a raver.
Covenant and his party move west toward Foul’s Creche and arrive at the Plains of Ra where the prideful, powerful horses known as Rahynyn live. There, he is captured by Ramen, the keepers of the horses. The Ramen have never liked Covenant because of the Rahynyn’s forced supplication to him. They show him the starvation and deprivations endured by the horses since Foul’s winter set in. The once majestic horses have either died or are near starvation.
Living with the Ramen Covenant finds his former Bloodguard, Bannor. Bannor tells Covenant that their oath to defend the Land and the Lords has been broken because of Bannor’s disclosure of Kevin’s seventh ward. Bannor and the other Bloodguard, once immortal, now age and the years have taken a toll on the once implacable Bannor.
As they talk, they are attacked by wolves and other minion of Lord Foul. Covenant and Lena escape. Saltheart and Bannor promise to find Covenant once they have thwarted this attack. Covenant and Lena flee west into the cold, barren plains.
Soon after fleeing, cold and starving, they encounter a man that Covenant recognized back in the Plains of Ra. Pieten, the young boy whose mind was captured by a raver at Soaring Woodhelvin years before to serve as a trap for Covenant, Hile Troy, and the Lords greets Covenant. Left with the Ramen years before, he has developed a fanatical attachment to the Ranyhyn that leaves him scorning the Ramen’s careful and deferential care as inadequate. He feeds them and prepares a fire to warm them. He then tells Covenant that he will fulfill his destiny by destroying Covenant whom the Ranyhyn fear, but respect. He tells Lena that her daughter, Alena is dead and that Covenant refused to help her in her time of need. The insane Lena is overwrought and tries to kill Covenant. Pieten then kills her to Covenant’s horror. Covenant drives a dagger into Pieten’s heart. He continues westward, cold, alone, and without provision, his ankle broken in the fight with Pieten.
Back at Revelstone, as morale collapses and the keep starts to fall into chaos, Mhoram is pondering his options, including the Ritual of Desecration, uttered centuries before by Kevin Landwaster to thwart Foul’s goals. He ventures into the Lords’ Keep, now destroyed in a fit of rage and despair by Trell, Lena’s father. He finds that the Krill, the sword that Thomas Covenant drove deep into the stone of the table of the keep many years prior, is free of the stone and the stone in the hilt is aglow. Mhoram knows that Covenant has returned to the land and that the defenders of Revelstone must buy him time to do what he needs to do to destroy Lord Foul.
Mhoram begins to ponder Kevin Landwaster and his hour of despair. He had wrought destruction of the Land – the thing he loved most – to avoid violating his Oath of Peace. Mhoram has an epiphany. It is that very oath that has weakened the defenders of the land from the beginning. Pacifism is a laudable philosophy to employ in life to maintain peace and harmony. But when faced by a daunting and willful enemy, sometimes the goal of peace requires the execution of attack. Mhoram orders his warriors to prepare for a full frontal – and probably suicidal – attack on the raver and his army.
Mhoram and his men leave the safety of Revelstone and meet Satanfist’s legions of ur-viles and cavewights. Mhoram, armed with the Krill, seeks out Satanfist the raver himself for a final confrontation. Just as Satanfist is about to end Mhoram’s life, they both notice that the moon – once discolored a nauseating green by Lord Foul’s use of the illearth stone and the staff of law – has returned to its normal color. Emboldened, Mhoram takes the Krill and thrusts it into the giant raver, killing him. The Warward dispatches what remains of his army and Revelstone is saved.
Meanwhile, Covenant wonders through the frozen waste of the Despoiled Plains alone, starving and injured. He collapses and prepares to die. While in slumber, he is found by an Unfettered One who has devoted her life to the healing arts. She takes him back to her cave in Morinmoss Forest and devotes the very last of her energy to healing him, recognizing him as the last hope for the Land.
Covenant awakens to find the dead Unfettered One and realizes the sacrifice she has made for him. He sets off, more determined than ever, to get to Foul’s Creche and do battle. He continues his journey and eventually arrives at the great stone monolith the protectors of the Land call Coloussus which separates and protects the land from Lord Foul and keeps his power confined within the Despoiled Plains and Foul’s Creche. There, he meets Triock who was dispatched to the south to try to get a message to Revelstone. He is surprised and ask Triock how he got to the plains.
Triock, bitter and angry over all that he has lost at the hands of Thomas Covenant, tells him his journey met with a raver and they were waylaid. Then, two of the Ramen appear and they have been taken over by the other two of the three triplet ravers. They take Covenant’s ring from him.
They have brought with them those Covenant has longed to see for many days – Saltheart Foamfollower and Bannor. But they are controlled by the ravers through the use of their slivers of the Illearth Stone. Triock, his oath of peace long forgotten and his desire to kill Covenant unsated, advances to finish the job. The ravers tell him to halt and direct his and Covenant’s attention to the hillside. There, they see High Lord Elena, Covenant’s daughter by birth and Triock’s by adoption, approach the party.
She informs them that she means to kill them slowly, but not before making Covenant watch his friends die. She carries with her the Staff of Law. With the Law of Death put asunder by her own deeds, High Lord Elena is brought back to destroy that which she loves, the ravers tell Covenant.
But they are momentarily distracted when Elena discovers that the Lords of Revelstone have turned the tide of battle and that Soulcrusher is threatened. That distraction releases Saltheart, Triock, Bannor, and Covenant from their bonds. Triock attacks Elena and knocks the Covenant’s ring from her finger. Covenant recovers it. Elena strikes at him with the Staff of Law. The power of Covenant’s ring reacts to the tainted highwood and blasts it into ashes. Elena is released. Before she dies, she utters the plea, “Strike a blow for me, beloved.”
Covenant, in his desperation, issues a plea to the Forrestal for help. Bolts of lightening discharge from Colossus, driving the ravers from the bodies of the Ramen. Triock is mortally wounded by his battle with Elena. Before dying, he tells Covenant to forgive Elena, that she was flawed from birth.
Covenant, Bannor, and Saltheart now stand at the edge of the Land. Bannor says he will go no further, that his service to the Lords has come to an end as with all the Bloodguard. He shares his knowledge of the Despoiled Plains with Covenant and takes his leave, returning to the Ramen to help them serve the dying Ranhynyn.
From there, Saltheart and Covenant continue their journey. They cross the Despoiled Plains and gain the entrance to Foul’s Creche. Saltheart, immune to damage from heat, bears Covenant across a moat of lava and Covenant enters. Saltheart is seemingly lost in the pit of molten lava.
Finally, Covenant finds Foul in his lair. There, Foul has imprisoned Saltheart Foamfollower by chaining him to a wall. First, Lord Foul tries to bribe Covenant with promises of power, then tries to make him grovel by inflicting upon him the end stages of leprosy. Covenant realizes that Foul is toying with him because he isn’t sure whether or not Covenant has yet mastered his wring.
Just as Mhorman, Covenant has an epiphany every bit as contradictory as Mhoram’s. Just as Mhoram found that one must sometimes employ warfare for the sake of peace, Covenant found that the contradictions of his disbelief and his love of the Land and its people were his essence. He is the White Gold, he’s been told. And this contradiction of love and disbelief is him.
The white gold erupts in a verdant blaze of power. Foul’s godlike appearance is blown aside and his mortal self revealed. The power of Covenant’s ring coupled with the crippled law of death summons the Lords and many friends that have died in the fight against corruption. They implore Covenant to kill Foul.
Covenant looks at Lord Foul in his mortal guise and refuses. Killing him will not stop him, Covenant tells them. They must drive him from the Land with that which he hates most – joy. He asks Saltheart to start laughing. Saltheart starts with a mirthful, painful laugh, but soon summons a belly laugh born of true humor. Soon, the dead join in. Foul, unable to endure the joy unleashed by Covenant, begins to regress in age. He becomes a child, and infant, and this ceases to exist.
Lord Foul is driven from the Land.
The cataclysm that ensues brings Foul’s Creche down around them. Saltheart and Covenant are killed in the collapse.
But Covenant is transported to an ethereal place where he meets the homeless man who, just days prior in his own world, implored him to be true when he returned Covenant’s wedding band to him. He is the Creator.
He explains that, as Creator, he could not meddle in his own creation lest the Arch of Time be destroyed and all law fall with it. He chose Covenant, so willing to part with the white gold wedding band, as his proxy. He offers Covenant a life of peace and leisure, unafflicted by his disease. Covenant refuses. His world is his world and he is a leper.
The Creator tells Covenant that he is lying in a hospital bed dying because he has taken in some of the rattle snake poison and is allergic to the antivenin. The Creator tells Covenant that he will make it possible for him to survive his physical injuries in his own world.
There, Covenant awakens. He learns that he is a hero for having saved the small child and that through the efforts of his lawyer, he will be able to keep his home. Covenant lays back, prepared to resume his life as an outcast leper.
So ends the first trilogy of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
This was the first fantasy trilogy I ever read – even before Lord of the Rings. It immediately hooked me on fantasy literature.
Donaldson’s work is hailed as one of the great fantasy works of all time. What sets it apart from most fantasy literature is how it sets itself apart from Tolkien’s work.
Too many writers rely on Tolkien’s framework for a story. The heroes are all heroic. The mystical magical items are readily employed. The journeys from place to place are long and there is always the ultimate villain to slay.
Donaldson’s hero, such as he is, is the antithesis of Tolkien’s hobbits. The reader loathes him because he is a self-pitying, whining, coward – and a rapist. He has no courage, no core values except his leper’s rules of survival. Conjuring Thomas Covenant and making the reader root for him is an accomplishment that puts Donaldson at the pinnacle of fantasy character creators.
The other primary character in Covenant’s trilogy is the Land. Tolkien had his Middle Earth, but it was Middle Earth’s inhabitants we loved. Donaldson’s characters were not inhabitants; they were servants of the Land. The Land was the beginning and end of their purpose. From that purpose flowed power, unlike most fantasy literature where magic and power flow from a conjuring being.
Finally, Donaldson writes a well plotted, well paced novel. Never are we in one place too long. Never are the characters too ponderous or given to overlong philosophical debate. The story stands well against any told in fantasy literature.
I have to admit, Foul’s demise reminded me just a little of that horrible Star Trek episode, Day of the Dove, when the Enterprise crew and the Klingons who have invaded all drive out an alien life force by laughing at it. It’s not quite that foolish because Donaldson has set it up nicely. All through the trilogy, joy is center of all the characters’ lives. They live to bring joy to each other. They find joy in their service to the Land and the earthpower that flows from the Land brings them joy. It is not improper, therefore, for joy to be the ultimate weapon deployed against their tormentor.
Donaldson’s trilogy was well received at the time. Liner notes praising the story come from legends of fantasy and science fiction such as Clifford Simak, Robert Bloch, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. That is high praise indeed.
Few books have brought me as much pleasure as these. I don’t recall exactly how many times I’ve read the first trilogy, but it has been at least five and familiarity with the story has not reduced the joy of taking in Donaldson’s fantastic story told with astounding prose.