Monday, May 5, 2014

Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

After reading about the fantasy series and deciding that it sounded interesting, I picked up the first three volumes of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant at a recent book fair. I have now read most of the first volume and have to confess I will probably give up on it.

The reason why I got interested in the first place is also the greatest strength of the books: their protagonist. Thomas Covenant is not your average fantasy hero. He is a man of our world who gets sucked into "The Land", the magical parallel universe in which most of the story takes place. In our world, he is a leper who has been deserted by his family and is shunned by his entire community. In The Land, he is The Chosen One and venerated by all the forces of Good, and he finds that hard to deal with.

Covenant oscillates between willingness to accept what happens to him as real, the conviction that he is dreaming while in a coma, and a fear of going insane. (Thus the self-chosen title "Unbeliever".) This is worsened by the training he went through when his disease was first discovered, where he was conditioned to accept his leprosy as untreatable and focus on containing it, because of course in magical land he gets healed magically, and he is afraid of believing that in case it turns out to have been a dream.

On the other hand, Covenant is not what we would call a nice person. Despite his friendly and awed reception by the inhabitants of The Land, he is constantly surly, hostile and culturally insensitive towards them and, worst of all, commits a terrible crime against the very first person to befriend him. The reader finds themselves in the odd position of being repulsed by Covenant's character but sympathising with him for the terrible disease and rejection he experienced in his own world; exasperated at his boorish behaviour but at the same time rooting for him because he is the only hope the good guys have to save their world from ruin. One-dimensional he isn't - he is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in fantasy literature.

So what annoys me so much then that I am giving up on the books?

At this stage I cannot continue to avoid mentioning another trilogy, because there is no way around the realisation that The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever are somewhat 'inspired' by Lord of the Rings. Indeed sometimes one gets the feeling as if somebody had said, hey, I bet I can do LotR but with an unlikeable human hero instead of a hobbit. There are many parallels, but also interesting twists:
  • An ancient, evil, supernatural antagonist was defeated a long time ago but not for good, and he is now staging a comeback. Also, said antagonist has no motivation beyond a rather pointless and implausible hate for all that is good.
  • The hero wears a ring of great power, although in the case of Covenant it apparently has to be used for good instead of destroyed.
  • The hero is an unwilling one, hesitant to shoulder the burden of responsibility or to go adventuring at all.
  • Middle Earth has mountain-dwelling Dwarves, forest-dwelling Elves, seafaring Elves who pine for their mythical homeland across the western ocean, the Rohirrim people who are keen horsemen, and with Minas Tirith an impressive human capital city that has lost much ancient knowledge. The Land has rock-shaping, stocky Stonedownors, treehouse-inhabiting, tall and slender Woodhelvennin, seafaring Giants who pine for their mythical homeland across the eastern ocean, the Ramen people who are associated with magical horses, and with Revelstone an impressive human capital city that has lost much ancient knowledge.
  • The magical horses allied with the Ramen essentially play the same role as Tolkien's Great Eagles, that of having to deus-ex-machina the heroes out of an otherwise hopeless situation.
None of this is necessarily bad, as such. Surely the idea of "like LotR but with X" has potential, especially for exploring the weaknesses of Tolkien's storytelling or underlying world-view, or for parody. An unlikeable, traumatised person as the protagonist is an interesting take on the concept. But the problem is that for me, it is the weaknesses of The Land that stand out in this comparison; weaknesses that make it hard for me to maintain suspension of disbelief.

It starts with Covenant himself. Yes, and as outlined above, his scepticism is somewhat understandable. But still there are, in real life, massive differences between dreaming and experiencing reality. Both Covenant and the reader are supposed to remain unsure whether The Land is a hallucination or real, but I find it hard to consider the first option at all plausible after he has spent the first few weeks there, experiencing hunger and pain, and living through all minor details of life including washing, eating and being sore from riding. That is not how dreams work. Surely at some point the only remaining explanation both for him and the reader is that that world is, indeed, real? And should at that point his behaviour not change a bit?

On the other hand, the land itself is admittedly very unbelievable, and that does not make it easier for me to enjoy the story. I am not talking about magic here, obviously, because that is par for the course in fantasy. Instead, it is an all too frequent problem of fantasy books and movies that they portray a world consisting predominantly of vast empty areas. There might be a city here and there but in between them all there is is either empty forest, empty grassland, or empty desert. That is not how humans (and by extension, orcs and elves) work. If there is a massive unused area of fertile grassland or forest, somebody will, for better or worse, move in and settle, making use of the area. Worse, especially in movies we often see huge, thriving fantasy metropolises surrounded by nothing whatsoever, raising the immediate question where all the people in the city are getting their food from.

Tolkien was actually very good with this, and somewhat of a positive exception. His heroes travel through much farmland, the forests are inhabited by elves, and the mountains by goblins and dwarves. When the focus is on Minas Tirith we are told about all the farmers from the surrounding areas fleeing into the safety of its walls. (In the recent movie adaptation, for a jarring contrast, there was only barren grass in all directions; again, how do the people of Gondor feed themselves?) When Legolas sees Ithilien, he quite realistically decides to found a colony of his people there because the area is empty, which in this case is justified because it was the unsafe, war-ravished border region between Gondor and Mordor. In his world-building, Tolkien even thought about where the crops are grown to feed the armies of Sauron!

The Land as seen by Covenant, on the other hand, is virtually empty, which is even less plausible than usual because all areas are described as covered in bushes that provide very nourishing food for the traveller. So why not for the settler also? As indicated above, I have been through most of the first volume, and if you asked me for a guess of how many people live in that whole world altogether, I would be at a loss how to answer. What we actually see during Covenant's travels so far is this:

The Stonedownors live in a few small villages, perhaps a few hundred people. The Woodhelvennin were only shown in one village so far, so perhaps another few hundred tops (SPOILER: also, they all get massacred). The Ramen are hunter-gatherers with apparently only one central village, say another few hundred. The 'big' capital city sounds as if a few thousand people live there; at least farmers are explicitly mentioned to be among them, so that's a plus. We have so far not seen the homeland of the Haruchai people who provide the elite guards for the capital, but extrapolating from the others there is no reason to assume that there are many of them given the small area they inhabit, so at a maximum there would be another few thousand. And finally, there are very few hundred Giants.

The bad guys have unknown numbers but both sides in the conflict narrated in the first volume appear to consider a few dozen people to be an impressive strike force, so they can't be too many either. In other words, at this stage it is well possible that the world population in the Covenant books is well below 30,000 people. Is that how it is supposed to be? Maybe. In that case, I would call it implausible. But if not, if we are supposed to assume that there are many more people, I would call it poor world-building.

Armies are another interesting thing. Yes, the people of The Land have some magic, and some of them farm. But the best military technology they, who have had to deal with the evil antagonist before, currently possess is this: stone knifes (Stonedownors), sticks (Woodhelvennin and the leaders of the capital city), ropes (Ramen), and bare hands (Haruchai). No joke. And each individual people seems unwilling to use any weapon type except the one they are familiar with. Even more ludicrous is that these tools suffice to bring down the hulking evil monsters they have to fight against.

Finally, while Thomas Covenant himself is an unpleasant character, the human inhabitants of The Land are so nice it makes me wince. All, without exception, are hospitable, follow the law, serve The Land, and do their duty. If they have any flaws then it is (1) agonising too much about whether what they do is right and (2) being too forgiving of Covenant's abuse. War and conflict is unheard of except as initiated by the depraved non-human antagonists, and everybody lives in complete harmony with each other and with nature. So +5 points for making the protagonist unusually interesting, but -40 points for making everybody else dull, one-dimensional and completely unbelievable.

I am starting The Miracle of Theism now, let's see how that goes.

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