Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Donaldson, Stephen R

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(1947-    ) US writer of central significance as an author of demanding and exploratory fantasy novels, beginning with the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, which appeared as two linked but inherently different sequences; he won the John W Campbell Award for most promising writer in 1979 on the basis of the initial Covenant volume. The first (and more impressive) of the two sequences, now entitled The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, comprises Lord Foul's Bane (1977), The Illearth War (1977) and The Power that Preserves (1977), assembled as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (omni 1993 UK); the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is The Wounded Land (1980), The One Tree (1982) and White Gold Wielder (1983), assembled as The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (omni 1994 UK); a slim pendant to the sequences, Gilden-Fire (1981 chap), is an out-take from The Illearth War.

The first sequence concentrates on Covenant's slowly waning refusal to believe in the Reality of the Secondary World into which he has been catapulted. This unbelief is perhaps SRD's most original single invention, for it radically transfigures every moment of the first sequence and profoundly contradicts the reader's normal expectations about the relationships between the Hero and the Land, the Quest and his Companions, plus the overall relationship to the decorum and moral requirements that define the condition of being a Hero. It thoroughly exposes the artifact of the normal fantasy Secondary World as a stage-set for the deeds of protagonists whose every act is deeply patriotic, deeply land- and folk-affirming.

In the real world – the 1970s USA – Thomas Covenant is a leper, and he maintains a precarious grip on reality through a constant monitoring of his condition, an act which constitutes a necessary refusal to pretend that his condition does not exist. Every time he contacts something beyond himself, something rubs off from him, and he dies a little more. When he is transported into the Land, its seductions – as in most secondary worlds, this land is a kind of Eden – are anathema to him for this reason, and so even here he must continue with his obsessive VSE, the Visual Surveillance of Extremities which lepers, who cannot feel their extremities, perform in order to check on whether they remain intact. As far as Covenant is concerned, to surrender, to believe in the new reality, would be to commit suicide: he is a Childe who refuses to act as a childe.

The land itself is under threat from Lord Foul, a Dark Lord whose only escape from the Bondage of being intrinsic to the land is to dissolve it. He is in a way himself a leper, longing to dissolve his body, and in this sense is Covenant's true dark Shadow. Only slowly does Covenant understand that to preserve the land is to preserve himself (between each of the three volumes of the First Chronicles Covenant returns to the world for a short period, while years pass in the land; and each time he returns the land is significantly more diseased). The surface events resemble those of most High-Fantasy novels since J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), and superficial resemblances between that book and Covenant are very numerous. The basic heroics of the surface plot are, therefore, familiar ... up to a point. For different readers that point will perhaps differ: for some it may come when Covenant rapes a young woman (because his extremities have been reawoken, and because he thinks he remains in a weird fever dream); for others it may come at the conclusion of the second volume, when the land's chief defenders Hile Troy and Elena both fail – one as soldier and hero, the other as wielder of white magic – to do anything but worsen the situation; Elena dies offstage, in a manner presumably horrid, and Troy undergoes Transformation to tree form.

As the third volume opens, Covenant returns to find the land desperately diseased, but finally he triumphs over Lord Foul by dint of walking a kind of tightrope of belief/unbelief, by refusing on the one hand completely to surrender to the lures of the land (which would give Foul the chance to dissolve both) and refusing on the other to negate the land utterly (which would have the same result). Defeated in part by the cleansing laughter of a dying Companion of Covenant's, Foul subsides until the next sequence. In the Second Chronicles, the intimate relationship between Covenant and land is allowed to fade, and the land becomes a more conventional secondary world. At the same time the "superficial" High Fantasy texture is even further subverted. There are no sustained battles to rescue the Waste Land from desiccation, no climactic scenes in which right defeats might (see Maggots), no survival, in the end, for Covenant himself. He spends much of the trilogy comatose (rather like Jerry Cornelius in the latter parts of Michael Moorcock's Cornelius Chronicles [1968-1977]), and when he is awake is long bemired in guilt for what he has done and for what he is – proof of which he can see all around him, in the horrific destitution of the land. The First Chronicles have become a central Story, thousands of years later, for the inhabitants of the land in the Second Chronicles, but that Story has itself become distorted and diseased. Only when Covenant finally comes to understand himself, and the fact that he must die in order that the Land become whole again, can the sequence end in a kind of subdued Healing.

SRD's second series, Mordant's NeedThe Mirror of Her Dreams (1986) and A Man Rides Through (1987) – is, compared to the Covenant books, a kind of scherzo, and is told in a style much less burdened with image and import. The female protagonist, having been translated through a Mirror into a secondary world in crisis, gradually comes to grips with herself, with the huge cast of characters, and with her sexual awakening. Much of the tale takes place inside a vast, intricate Edifice. Outside, an equally complex war builds in intensity; but in the end all turns out well. SRD is not a lighthearted writer, but Mordant's Need develops a very considerable comic momentum before justice and true Love triumph.

Each of SRD's three main sequences – the sf Gap sequence included – represents an almost obsessional working out of motifs and actions. Mordant's Need and Gap share a further characteristic: each is a crescendo. SRD's works move, in other words, towards their endings, and it is unsafe to attempt to understand him until he has had the last word. [JC]

other works: Daughter of Regals and Other Tales (coll 1984; cut vt Daughter of Regals 1984); Epic Fantasy in the Modern World: A Few Observations (1986 chap), nonfiction.

other works (sf): The Gap sequence, being The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story (1990 UK), The Gap into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge (1991), The Gap into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises (1992), The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Order (1994) and The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die (1996).

as Reed Stephens: An associational detective sequence comprising The Man Who Killed His Brother (1980), The Man Who Risked His Partner (1984) and The Man Who Tried to Get Away (1990).

further reading: Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Variations on the Fantasy Tradition (1995) by W A Senior (1953-    ).

Stephen Reeder Donaldson


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.