There’s an article on Tor.com commenting Donaldson’s final book in the Thomas Covenant series, but it is more a simplistic wrap-up of the series as a whole.
I have only read the very first book whereas this guy has read them all, yet I’m pretty convinced that he just doesn’t “get it”. At all. He basically writes poorly motivated insults throughout the whole article, clumping together with some humorless snark all the worst cliches about Donaldson. But he then tries to play the surprise card by saying the series is great. In italics, because italics gives so much emphasis to throw out of balance all the insults preceding it.
I’ll get to the title, but the first thing that really annoyed me is this rhetorical device of using pejoratives while still trying to write a praise. As if one’s too coy to admit liking something and so proceeds using 99% of the space just to apologize for all the bad things. Why should a reader loving Thomas Covenant books APOLOGIZE? Are we really at this point of rhetorical shame? Of utter dishonesty?
He basically starts, after slyly comparing these books to adult diapers just to set the mood you’ll find for the rest of the article, by saying the series’ theme “of self-pity, and its deeply problematic nature” is “gross”. That’s like a first and final declaration of intents: whatever happens, you won’t empathize. Which means you should already close the book. Thomas Covenant can ONLY work as long you shed your own prejudices and judgement. You have to listen. If you don’t want to, go read a different, complacent book.
The other aspect that makes me think he doesn’t get it at all is this comment about The Land:
Donaldson is no meticulous world-builder, but the setting of the Land possesses a palpable emotional character and presence, even if ecologically it’s a bit of a hash. So many things in the series seem like they shouldn’t work, but they are so powerfully infused with Donaldson’s intensity and extravagant depth of feeling that you don’t dare take them with anything less than utter seriousness.
You can see again the rhetorical device of using pejoratives even if the point is really to praise the work, even if that’s also another coy rhetorical device whose actual point is to truly diss the work. One slap and one pet, because the true kings of judgement are always squarely in the middle, and able to discern.
Donaldson is no meticulous world-builder (bad), but the setting of the Land possesses a palpable emotional character and presence (good!), even if ecologically it’s a bit of a hash (bad!). So many things in the series seem like they shouldn’t work (bad!), but they are so powerfully infused with Donaldson’s intensity and extravagant depth of feeling (very good!) that you don’t dare take them with anything less than utter seriousness (huh… bad?).
He makes you believe that the ultimate judgement is, surprise!, positive, but leaving a so bad taste in your mouth that’s in the end you won’t dare touch the soiled diaper. And he wins! Because that was the true, unsaid purpose. The “cleverly” disguised goal.
But again, the worst thing is that he doesn’t get it. There’s already this big misunderstanding in the genre about “world-building” that seems the most important prerequisite writing fantasy. It make sense it is, but here it completely sidetracks the purpose of the work. Donaldson writes about a secondary world called “The Land”. The name already should tell you how utterly generic and inconsistent the thing is. The key element here: a writer who brands his important secondary world as “The Land” is not a bad world-builder, he simply isn’t even TRYING. Branding this world as The Land is a declaration. It is generic not because Donaldson is unable to come up with a fancier, more specific term, but because it being generic is THE POINT. This land he’s describing is specific, but it is also, and most importantly, abstract. It is a symbol. It “represents” a land more than it actually “is”. By being generic it can embrace and represent every internal imaginary landscape. It’s one cliche of fantasy world, a metaphor turned into a specific object. But still a metaphor, so abstract and generic to apply to all sort of imaginary spaces. “One ring to bind them”.
Everything else follows from there. The Land is imagined. By being imagined, and so man-made, it is meaning-full. Objects ooze sense. They ooze emotions. The emotions, that are usually seen as impalpable and metaphysical (hello Bakker, I’ll get back to you) here are made into rocks, tree and grass. As in The Matrix, where things are made of numbers, this “Land” is made of thought and feelings. It is imagined because there’s a guy named Donaldson who imagines it. And because, in the book, this device is perfectly retrieved: there’s a guy named Thomas Covenant who imagines it! Thomas Covenant, SPOILER!, is dreaming. Dreams are made of symbols, not of “things”. And dreams have, very obviously, the “intensity of feelings”. That’s the whole point, you know? So this isn’t a weird collision of good and bad writing skills, or good and bad world-building. This is a collision between this guy getting and not getting the thing. Mistaking deliberate choices in the writing, for “flaws”. And he makes sure you don’t misunderstand all the “praises” he wrote:
That’s not to say he’s a writer without flaw
And finally we come to the more controversial bit. The blatant declaration:
As with the Flashman series, you are expected to continue sympathizing with the main character, but there is no denying or mitigating it: Thomas Covenant is a rapist.
I really tried to understand what his purpose is with that line. It’s not immediately clear to me. It starts with “your are expected to continue sympathizing with the main character BUT”. Thomas Covenant is a rapist.
That’s an affirmation. He underlines the fact it is. It’s like saying “Thomas Covenant has blue eyes”, but not quite because it’s more than just an observation or description. It’s a “label”. It is meant to reverse in the mind of who reads it. A rapist is Thomas Covenant.
Thomas Covenant: rapist.
That’s the label. He’s being flagged. This is a character reduced to a single angle, one dimension. And that’s the kind of intersection that does exist in the book. You either decide to be nonjudgmental here and actually go deeper in the story, or this fact is a screen and you bounce back. The whole thing is a “test”. It is a test as much for Thomas Covenant as it is for the reader, and neither seem to pass it.
But IS Thomas Covenant even a rapist? Because things aren’t that simple, and that claim is actually not correct. In fact, the book reproduces directly within itself the boundary between “real” and “fictional”. The same barrier that seems rather problematic for some readers and that brings them to absurd affirmations like saying that if Bakker writes a book about a misogynist world then it means Bakker himself is a misogynist. Blurring constantly fiction and reality, interpretations for facts.
In the case of Thomas Covenant the character rapes a girl in HIS DREAM. Not only, but it’s one of those “lucid dreams”, so he’s also aware of the fact the world he’s dreaming is fictional, and so that all the harm he may cause is also FICTIONAL. He’s “guilty” of raping a fictional character in a dream. Making it close to accusing a writer of murder because he wrote a crime story. “No fictional characters were harmed in this book”. And it’s not just that, because Thomas Covenant never backs up from what he did. He never tries to justify himself, and so he suffers the consequences of what he has done as if it was actually real. He rapes as if it wasn’t real, but from that point onward he acts as if it was. The society finger-pointing “a rapist!” doesn’t even come close to the way Thomas Covenant is changed by the experience. And no, I’m not implying that rapists do suffer as much as their victims and we should all pity them. NOPE. The story here remains an imagined landscape that plays with that burred barrier of fiction and reality. Being an imagined landscape it means Thomas Covenant himself is the “measure”. The “society” cannot rise to judge Thomas Covenant because all this is happening within Thomas Covenant, and that includes the society itself. It’s Thomas Covenant recreating society within himself. The point of view here is authoritative, as authoritative is the fact you’re reading a written story. It is introspection. The rape and its consequences are BOTH introspection. No real girl was harmed. No fictional-real girl was harmed (since even in the book this happens within Covenant’s thoughts). Stephen Donaldson didn’t rape anyone and him and Thomas Covenant are both only guilt of introspection, and maybe wild imagination.
Thoma Covenant is not “a rapist” because that label empties the character entirely of its worth. It replaces a number of fundamental, ambiguous questions with an affirmation that is entirely false on all accounts, and so it means not engaging at all with the story at it is written. The rape in the book is never justified in any way. Neither in subtext, nor directly by Thomas Covenant. I’ve justified it here, but in the end it’s a challenge thrown at the reader. You will empathize or not, you will understand what Thomas Covenant did or not. The ambiguity, and actually difficulty in answering that question, is one of the book’s central themes. Can there be redemption when what you’ve done can’t be recovered? What will you do if you can’t go back? That triggers most of Thomas Covenant self-pity, because nothing can compensate what he did. What is sufficient compensation or punishment for rape? You throw yourself (because it’s introspection) in jail for the rest of your life? You cut the manhood, throw it in a jar and make her a present (“we are even now”)? You give her a knife and let her stab you till the end of times? You go to her and repeat “I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry!” a billion of times? The answer is that there’s no answer. So what now? That’s one of the questions.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if now someone claimed what I’ve written here is “rape apology”. Or that since I liked reading a book about a rapist then I’m a rapist too. Or that I’m saying all this because I’m “male and white”.
Nitpicking, the rape actually represents rape toward the land as a symbol and not as a sexual act. It represents Thomas Covenant lashing out against his dream and “violate” it. Soiling it in a non salvageable way. So the girl he rapes is actually just the spirit of the land that was humanized, innocent and pure. The way dreams usually work.