Interview: Stephen R. Donaldson and the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Ending the Tale of the Land
by Drew Bittner
Cover Artist: C. Petra Hegger
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 08 October 2013
Links: S.R. Donalson's Website / Review of The Last Dark /
Publication of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant followed in the 1980s, and then in 2004 came the release of The Last Chronicles. With the release this month of The Last Dark, readers come to the end of this tale.
Mr. Donaldson very kindly took time to answer our questions about this incredible journey.
SFRevu: First, congratulations on The Last Dark. It's truly a wonderful book and a great capstone to this series. [SRD: Many thanks!] Second, thank you for taking time for this interview and giving us a chance to celebrate the culmination of your epic fantasy. [SRD: I'm happy to do it.]
If a new reader came to you and said they'd heard of Thomas Covenant but didn't know much about the series, what would you say to describe it to them?
SRD: I consider this an impossible question. I'm the wrong person to offer a reader's perspective on my own work. When people ask me, "What's your book about?" I often say, "About 650 pages." What else am I going to say?
But when the question is phrased differently, I sometimes say, "I'm playing in the same ballpark as J.R.R. Tolkien, but he's playing softball and I'm playing hardball." And sometimes I say, "Do you know Tennyson's Idylls Of The King? I'm trying to accomplish the opposite."
In Tennyson, one pure, self-sacrificing, honorable hero--Arthur--is eventually destroyed by his venal, petty, self-serving, or misguided knights. I'm taking one weak, despairing, self-serving protagonist and exploring the question of whether or not he can be redeemed by pure, self-sacrificing, honorable companions.
SFRevu: That truly a hero's journey. And it has been a long, long road to reach this point. Where did it all begin? Specifically, how did Thomas Covenant come to exist?
SRD: I don't want to repeat the answer I usually give. After a while, it becomes tedious. Instead I'll say this: During my "formative years" (as an English major in college and graduate school), Lord Of The Rings was at the height of its popularity, regularly selling a million sets a year; but in my intellectual world those books were regarded with what I'll call affectionate contempt. I was the only person I knew who took them seriously, not as "a good read", but as literature.
As a result, I felt as alien and misguided among my peers as Covenant first does in the Land. So now I think it's fair to say that I wrote the first Chronicles in an effort to discover why I considered fantasy important when no one else in my world did.
SFRevu: You said that you conceived the second and last chronicles together. The Second Chronicles were published in the early 1980s. What led to such a long gap between the two sets of books?
SRD: Writing The Second Chronicles convinced me that I wasn't good enough as a writer to tackle The Last Chronicles. And I had other aspirations, other stories I wanted to tell, so I decided that the best way to become a better writer would be to push myself in new directions (Mordantís Need, the GAP sequence, short stories, crime novels). In that, I believe I succeeded. I'm certainly better at what I call "story design" than I was 30 years ago.
But the process took longer than I had originally anticipated.
SFRevu: I note in my review that the story evolved from an epic fantasy to a meditation about relationships, integrity, courage, and love. How did this evolution occur for you as the writer?
SRD: One way to look at it is that my original intentions were explicitly archetypal, but that as I became older and (I hope) more mature, I became more and more interested in my characters as individuals rather than as archetypes. More and more, I wanted to work for them, instead of asking them to work for me.
Or, another way to look at it: having established the archetypal foundation of the story in the first trilogy, I felt no need to repeat myself. In fact, I felt an urgent desire not to repeat myself. So I decided to take that foundation as given: not so that I could turn away from it, but rather so that I could go beyond it, trying to examine its implications more thoroughly.
SFRevu: The Last Chronicles begin with the reappearance of Covenant's grown son Roger, who becomes his hate-filled enemy. There is also Jeremiah, Linden Avery's son, who comes to mean a great deal to Covenant (in ways that are revealed in THE LAST DARK). What do Roger and Jeremiah represent, to Covenant and to the reader?
SRD: I may still be too close to the story to have a satisfactory answer. But the question makes me think of Lena and Elena in the original Chronicles: the parallel there is consequences. Do something terribly hurtful to person A, and descendant B suffers for it--often as much or more than parent A did. Rape Lena, and Elena suffers for it. Destroy Joan, and Roger is filled with hate. Maim Jeremiah, and--well, in his case, Linden intervenes.
One definition of a hero--at least to my way of thinking--is a person who strives to do less harm in the world than he or she has personally suffered.
SFRevu: Many fantasy writers consciously or unconsciously model their work on that of Tolkien and map their stories to Campbell's "Hero's Journey". I would suggest that you have not, rather pointedly. Would that be a fair assessment, or do you interpret these two influences differently?
SRD: I don't actually know what Campbell had to say about the "Hero's Journey", so I can't claim that I was influenced, either positively or negatively. But I don't think of my work as a reaction against Tolkien's. In fact, I believe that he made what I do possible, and for that I will always be grateful. Instead I prefer to say that when he opened the door I walked through it.
I'll only give one example: THE RING (since that's the basis on which I'm sometimes dismissed as an imitator of Tolkien). Sure, Tolkien's ring is important in his story. But it's specific shape and substance aren't actually relevant to the personalities and dilemmas of the characters who carry it: since all they have to do is carry it and endure it or reject it, it could just as effectively be a torc, a bracelet, a necklace, an armband.
But in The Chronicles the ring as a ring takes on an entirely different kind of importance: as a symbol, first, of the voluntary commitments which people can make to each other, and, second, of the alloyed nature which defines and bedevils virtually every human being. (Which is probably why I consider my game hardball rather than softball.)
SFRevu: Your writing style, for Covenant, is a blend of internal and external conversations, not to mention a very sophisticated vocabulary. Does this make for unusual challenges in writing Covenant as opposed to your crime novels, to choose one example?
SRD: It's a challenge, all right, but it isn't unusual. The challenge is always to devise a style that suits the story, ideally the style that best suits the story. I like to think that every story I've written has its own characteristic style. However, those styles aren't always easy to find--never mind to implement. Some stories take me farther outside my stylistic comfort zone than others (and none farther than the GAP sequence).
With that said: the Covenant style does come naturally to me, and my return to it after 30 years was comparatively effortless.
SFRevu: Hollywood is aggressively pursuing fantasy series for adaptation, in movies and on pay TV. You've said previously that you have reservations about how successfully Covenant might be adapted. Has the success of epics like SONG OF ICE AND FIRE changed your mind?
SRD: My reservations persist. I've often suspected that epics like Song of Ice and Fire were written with at least one eye on the possibility of adaptation: they were written so that they could be adapted. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were not.
Too much of the narrative impetus derives from the specific emotions of the characters; and those emotions are probed from within the characters rather than from the kind of external perspective on which good movies depend. Just one example: I fear that Covenant's Unbelief would appear ludicrous in a movie. His personal struggle only works (if it does work) in a book because of the sheer weight of prose devoted to it--virtually all of it internal.
Incidentally, a production company called Fully Loaded Pictures holds an option on the GAP sequence. In my opinion, those books are far more accessible to adaptation than The Chronicles.
SFRevu: You've had a strong interaction with your readers through the Gradual Interview on your website (which is a fantastic resource for answering myriad questions about this series and much, much more). You closed this part of your website in 2011 to concentrate on writing this book. Do you think you might resume the Interview or are you content to let it rest?
The Gradual Interview was invaluable while it lasted. Among other benefits, it helped me sharpen my intentions: it encouraged me to think harder about what I was doing. But I'm not a young man--and now I'm twelve-plus years older than I was when I started on The Last Chronicles. As a result, my resources of energy have dwindled. I needed to close the GI to conserve what I had left at the time. Alas, that remains true. So for the present, at least, I'm content to leave the GI where it is.
SFRevu: And is there anything you'd like to say in closing?
SRD: In closing, I must confess that The Last Dark proved to be even more difficult to write than I feared it would be 30 years ago. Now I can only hope that I met the challenge. My readers will know better than I whether I succeeded.
SFRevu: Our great thanks to Mr. Donaldson for consenting to this interview, and to Ms. Lauren Truskowski at Penguin Books for her kind facilitation.
Stephen Donaldson must be the most underrated story tellers of our time. I have never before or since read prose with such density and ever building crescendos. No one matches his rhythm. I loved Tolkien as a teenager but the characters and the stories just don't stick like Donaldsons. My psyche and intellect grew from reading his books. Whether intentional or not I have gained many insights into human behavior that I would not have otherwise known. Thanks Stephen. What an honour to live and read the works of a living master. Tusk you and blessings on your life from here on in. Whatever you do... Enjoy.