To borrow a cliche, reading Stephen Donaldson is a marathon, not a sprint. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1980-83) does not demonstrate this with something as trifling as mere wordcount. 1250 pages is nothing for a high fantasy trilogy, after all: consider Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders, whose final volume alone clocked in at 900+. Rather, Donaldson's novels are weighty because of the way they're written and conceived: in theme, in mood, and above all in prose.
Ah, the prose. We'll get to that in a moment. First, a brief overview of the plot (as spoiler-free as possible).
The first trilogy introduced us to Donaldson's splendid titular anti-hero, Thomas Covenant: a bitter, intransigent, introspective and generally rather irascible chap, traits due in no small part to his recently having contracted leprosy, as a result of which his wife and son left him, and he has become a pariah in his home town. No sooner are we shown his misery than Covenant finds himself whisked away to another world, the Land - a bucolic, pre-industrial (indeed, apparently pre-medieval) realm full of magic and peril, whose inhabitants live in such harmony with the world around them that they don't even need to burn wood. He also finds that his leprosy has been cured, though its effect remain (not least, its psychological impact; even when Covenant's nerves work, he still conceives of himself as a leper).
Covenant spends a considerable portion of the ensuing narrative stuggling with the knowledge that the threat faced by the Land - Lord Foul and his desire to destroy it - can only be met by himself. By virtue of the fact that his wedding ring is made of white gold, he is its destined saviour. So far, so standard high fantasy. The difference is that Covenant does not merely resist his destiny; rather, like his namesake (and entirely understandably), our Thomas doubts, doubts, and doubts some more, stubbornly refusing to accept that the world around him is anything other than a fever-dream. The Unbeliever, as he becomes known, makes himself thoroughly objectionable, including but not limited to raping the girl who rescues him when he first arrives. Over the course of the trilogy, thanks to the trust and companionship of the various peoples of the Land, he finally reconciles himself to the Land's reality - and to love it, enough to undertake the terrible suffering needed to save it.
The point, then, is not the goal, the plot, so much as the journey: it is an elaborate study in suffering and self-hatred. In the world of the story, the Land (and Lord Foul) are both 'real' and metaphor - reflections of Covenant's own health, illness and self-hatred. His work completed, he is returned home - back to his leprosy, and life without his family. Thus ends the first trilogy.
The second trilogy broadens and deepens both aspects of the first work, continuing Covenant's development, introducing another messed-up protagonist, and returning us to a Land even more sadly beleaguered than before. Ten years on from Covenant's return home, a woman called Linden Avery takes up a medical post in his local town. At the urging of a colleague, she pays a visit to the increasingly strange and reclusive Covenant. She receives a characteristically terse rebuff from the Unbeliever, and is preparing to leave the farm when she is drawn back by a shocking sound:
A scream like a mouthful of broken glass snatched her to a halt. Slivers of sound cut at her hearing. A woman screaming in agony or madness.
(Notice how visceral the imagery is? Hold that thought, we'll come back to it).
The woman in question is Joan, Covenant's estranged wife, now returned to him under the most painful circumstances imaginable: she is possessed by Lord Foul, strangled by a murderous rage that can only be appeased by the taste of Covenant's blood.
From this, all else follows, and soon Linden and Covenant are dragged to a Land four thousand years older (time moves differently there) and horrifically altered. Where once it was green and full of life, the Land is now a desert wilderness, crippled and dying beneath an enchanted sun. The Sunbane, as it is called, is a brilliant creation. Natural cycles are perverted beyond recognition through the action of the sun's various faces upon the Land. The most common, the desert sun, brings baking heat - and maddened mutation to any living thing who stands on soil or sand while it shines. On random days, other aspects of the Sunbane bring flash floods (which swiftly evaporate under the desert sun), wildly exaggerated plant growth (towering trees within a day - which, again, melt away before the desert sun), and plagues of insects and incurable infections. The people of the Land cling to existence through extreme insularity and blood magic - including human sacrifice.
All of this is profoundly horrifying to Covenant: finally able to return to the place he loves, the place where he is more than a leper, he finds it fractured almost beyond recognition. Linden, too, suffers. Upon her arrival in the Land, finds herself possessed of a 'health-sense' - she is able to 'see' health or illness (which might be read as purity or sin) in people, creatures and the world around her. (In this context, it is surely no coincidence, given Donaldson's propensity for symbolic nomenclature, that Linden shares her name with a type of tree). True to the Donaldson ethos, this proves a useful skill but also an unbearable torment, and a catalyst for much agonised reflection upon her past and her life as a doctor. Observing the Sunbane, for example:
The desert was simply dead. The dead could inspire grief, but they felt no pain. The sun of rain had the force of incarnate violence: the malign creatures of the sun of pestilence were a pang of revulsion: the fertile sun seemed to wring screams from the whole world. But the desert sun only made her want to weep.
Together, Linden and Covenant must find a way to heal the Land. The rest of the plot consists of travelling - with some sense of urgency, but not too much - with this aim in mind, encountering figures both new and familiar and exploring the various cultures of the Land through their methods of storytelling and customs of hospitality (or lack thereof). The overall pace is unhurried, although there are several very gripping episodes, particularly the Bhrathairain interval (despite the latter's irritatingly plot-dictated character stupidity). The focus is always squarely upon the central pair's psychological progress, seen through their actions, reactions, interactions and extensive inner musings. The portrayal of them is very successful (although they inevitable relationship between them rather less so, I thought): they are real, rounded, deeply flawed individuals, prone to (repeating) mistakes. By comparison, most of the other characters - human and otherwise - are archetypes rather than living people, representatives of characteristics and of the different facets of the Land. They serve their purpose, but don't always stand out.
On to the style, then. Donaldson is notorious for his thorny verbiage - what Gavrielle Perry, in one of the more sympathetic assessments out there (during her matchless analysis of the Gap series (hefty spoiler warnings)), called "dense thickets of prose". He has a clear fondness for obscure words, the more complex, expressive and gnarly the better (including ones that I'm half-convinced he's invented: caducity, sabulous, crepitation, mansuetude, roynish...). Favourite terms recur to the point of becoming verbal bludgeons: clenched, mien, exigency, febrile, need. There are times (though not as frequent as his legend tells) when the result is simply purple prose of the highest order, eminently mockable:
And gradually, as dusk seeped into the jungle, macerating the effect of the Sunbane, the insects began to disappear. Their viscid stridulation faded as they restreated into gestation or sleep.
Oftentimes, however, it is a clear effort to create a very specific mood for his world - one in which physical descriptions always parallel mental and spiritual states. The elevated language also gives a feel both alien - fabrics and the like are particularly prone to thesaurusitude - and grand enough to befit his subject matter. Of Coercri, stronghold of the Giants in the Land, with a long, tragic history, we are told:
The guardwalls of the lower ramparts wore grey-white knurs as massive as travertine; and even the highest levels were marked like the mottling of caducity, the accumulated habit of grief.
Or this atmospheric depiction of Linden's new house, at the start of the first book:
The house squatted among its weeds like a crippled toad, spavined by antiquity; and when she unlocked her apartment for the first time, she had been greeted by three rooms and a bath with grubby yellow walls, floorboards covered only by chipped beige paint, an atmosphere of desuetude bordering on indignity.
Above all, this practice is utterly central to Donaldson's style and concerns as a writer, both in the Covenant stories and elsewhere. One of Donaldson's hallmarks is the way that his characters experience everything - especially internal, mental turmoil - in an inescapably visceral way. Similes, when they apply to people, nearly always reference (extreme) emotional states rather than externally observable phenomena: one character is described as "wearing his old misery like a man who had always known what would happen", another's "chest heaved as if he were full of denunciations".
For a moment, Covenant stood still. His arms hugged his chest as if to stifle an outcry; his head stretched back in anguish. The bruises marked his face like a bereavement.
This is the key to the whole trilogy. This is a fantasy war that is won - or lost - within the protagonists' hearts and minds. Yet every iota of mental torment is matched by physical agony of staggering proportions. Covenant and Linden are heroes as much by virtue of what they can survive as by any magical powers they have.
Terror bloomed from the touch like a nightshade of the soul. Gelid ill froze her face, spread ice across her senses like the concatenation and fulfilment of all her instinctive revulsion. It flamed through her and became truth. The truth of Despite. Wrong suppurated over her features, festering her severity and beauty, corrupting who she was. The Sunbane shone in her flesh: desert, pestilence, the screaming of trees. She would have howled, but she had no voice.
Here, I can't help but muse on the legacy of Donaldson's own upbringing. Most of his childhood and adolescence were spent in India, where his father was a doctor (working with lepers). Both his parents were devout Christians, and combined medicine with missionary work. It is a worldview that, I understand, Donaldson came to reject, but which clearly saturates his fictional endeavours: Covenant is a Christ figure (and here his surname comes in...), who must bear unbelievable suffering to redeem the world. He must put aside anger - for that, in Covenant's understanding, is what Foul is, a pariah's nihilistic anger ("the complex rage against being outcast, a leper's doom of Despite for everything including himself") - conquer doubt, and surrender in order to overcome.
The result is, frankly, exhausting - but also exhilarating, absorbing, devastating, and quite unlike any other high fantasy. A great work.