Tuesday, September 27, 2016

In the Year 1977

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Tolkien fans, that is.

1977 saw the publication of The Silmarillion, which critics apparently hated, I guess because they wanted some happy novel about hobbits. But 1977 also saw the appearance of the two titans among Tolkien clones: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, and Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. Each might be described as The-Lord-of-the-Rings-with-a-twist: the first replaces the prehistoric past with a post-apocalyptic future, while the second replaces the merry band of doughty halflings with a cynical, s**t-head leper.

I read a stack of Terry Brooks novels back in the nineties, when I was a teenager, both his Shannara series (the first seven, I think) and his Magic Kingdom of Landover series (the first four?), checking them out one by one from the town library and devouring them. The Landover novels in particular I remember with fondness. But I recall going into Waldenbooks one day (this is when malls had bookstores) and seeing the next Landover installment on the shelf (Witch's Brew, I think), and suddenly realizing that the series was, in fact, an open-ended commercial venture. Shocked to the marrow, I turned my back on popular fantasy then and there, and began my Gollum-like transformation into the lurking curmudgeon I am today.

Anyway, it was the Shannara books I read first. Their shortcomings, which were obvious even to my tenth-grade-level literary acumen, have been pointed out many times, and I needn't dwell on them matter here. I genuinely enjoyed them. I don't know how I would feel upon rereading now. But there's no denying that the publication of The Sword of Shannara was a seminal event in the evolution of fantasy into the commercial genre we know today.

Now, I never encountered Stephen Donaldson back while I was still a happy Smeagol splashing by the banks of the Great River. But he's come to my attention a few times in recent years, and his darker take on Tolkienism interested the writer in me. So I picked up Lord Foul's Bane about five years ago...and promptly put it down when I encountered That One Part.

Let's get that out of the way before we move on.

The protagonist, toward the beginning of the novel, rapes a teenage girl, the daughter of his hosts. He's a leper. A moral leper, that is. Now, I defend the right of an author to write whatever accords with his or her artistic vision, and I'm not one of those people who think that everything a novelist writes about is some statement of their personal beliefs. Nevertheless, I put the book down at that point. It disturbed me. I didn't feel like reading a book where such things happen. Or rather, I didn't feel like reading such a book written by an author lacking the psychological profundity needed to write about such things without trivializing them. And I wasn't convinced that Donaldson had that profundity.

The strength of my disturbance, I think, owes to the identification I felt with Thomas Covenant, which was quite visceral due to the graphic depiction of his leprosy. (And this depiction is one of the novel's strengths, in my opinion.) I felt as though I were leering with him, first at a girl in the telephone company office, then at the sixteen-year-old Lena. The rape scene itself sent me down a well of vicarious guilt and horror.

[Aside: The cover of The Sword of Shannara sports a picture by the Brothers Hildebrandt. I like a lot of their work, despite the fact that it's dated and a bit goofy. The cover of Lord Foul's Bane features a lovely painting by one S. C. Wyeth, about whom I can't find any information. Is he related to N. C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth? The style recalls the elder.]

Maybe it's that I feel genre fiction to be too frivolous, written too much for pure entertainment, to justify the inclusion of such elements. Or maybe it's more a matter of style than anything else. I mean, if you're going to have your protagonist commit an unspeakable crime, then the plot sort of needs to be about that. It can't be one element among others. It's almost inconceivable that a mother would travel for weeks in the sole company of her daughter's rapist, however cogent the reasons, and the fictional depiction of such a journey should be a descent into an emotional hell. What we get, though, are descriptions of scenery.

I suspect, however, that we aren't meant to view Thomas Covenant in quite that light. The rape scene is presented as though we're supposed to imagine that he commits the act because he thinks he's in some kind of fever-dream or coma, and also because he's overwhelmed by the unexpected return of his lost virility. But if he's really the Unbeliever he always claims to be, why does he go through his VSE (visual surveillance of extremities) on every page? Why is he always reminding everyone that he's a leper? I mean, maybe I could accept the fever-dream excuse on a literary level if the presentation of the plot were consistent, if (say) he went on a febrile, Maskull-like odyssey of crime and depravity through the Land, but it's not. Covenant's supposed conviction that it's all a dream comes off more as an occasional pose. Which, I repeat, is a matter of style, not of morality.

And then there's the scene later on in the book when he lusts after another underage girl, and suddenly feels remorse for what he did to Lena, and basically decides to send her an annual present. Dude. That just makes you twice as creepy and despicable in my eyes. Which is fine if that's what the author intends, but here I don't think it is. Because it's presented as a climactic moment beginning Covenant's reconciliation with the Land and his opening up to friendship with his companions. So, ramifications continue to be felt, etc., but, to me, it all comes off as slightly phony.

Well, anyway, that's enough of that. It's a point reasonable people can disagree on. My own (purely stylistic) assessment is that the rape scene is presented so as to shock the reader's sensibilities, but that its inclusion isn't supported by the novel's subsequent meandering quest-plot. Still, there's something to be said for Covenant's moral numbness, the numbness of his leprosy, and his identification with Lord Foul, and I'll admit that there may be more to it all than I've seen at my first glance. On the moral side, I can see why it bothers people, but I'm going to suspend my judgment until I finish the trilogy.

As for the rest, well, I don't feel that it's worthwhile to comment much on the story until I've read the next installments. (Or maybe I'm afraid to throw rocks, having just published my own novel.) Instead, I'll talk about what struck me on every page of Lord Foul's Bane: the extent to which it draws from The Lord of the Rings. Just to name a few items, we have:
  • Tolkienesque place-names like Mithil Stonedown, Kiril Threndor, Trothgard, and Glimmermere.
  • People with sturdy, earthy, Anglo-Saxon names like Treeroot Branchtwig (okay, I made that one up). 
  • A long journey to a big info-dump of a Council, which takes place midway through the book.
  • Mysterious liqueurs that magically refresh you.
  • Woodsy retreats and way stations.
  • Slow, friendly giants who practically hoom-hom while they complain about the hastiness of their companions.
  • Elvish-sounding exclamations like Melenkurion!
  • A super-important gold ring that someone tries to bite off at the end.
  • A city carved in a mountainside with a layout almost impossible to comprehend.
  • Dark forests with angsty, anti-biped trees. 
  • Geologically fanciful mountains.
  • Horse People.
  • A Dark Lord who returns after a long vacation but remains offstage.
  • A volcanic climax. 
I could go on and on. It's got the potential of being a commentary on or deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings, what with its s**t-head leper of a protagonist and its opening in the Real World, which might be kind of cool in a way. And I say that as a Tolkien fan. But, in the thick of things, Lord Foul's Bane just becomes a somewhat shallow retread of something that had already been done, with a twist to make it seem original. For me, the Land remains mere artificial "scenery" (to quote a word from an ironic conversation in the novel); it doesn't come to life and make me long to enter it, like Middle-Earth.

It's no coincidence that books like The Sword of Shannara and Lord Foul's Bane were published the same year as The Silmarillion. For whatever reason, people were starving for more Tolkien, and there was simply no more to be had. So they had to settle with uneven compilations of his unpublished backstory material and new novels that mixed and matched his stylistic tics. It's taken a long time for the commercial genre to outgrow that. And maybe it never quite has. Certainly the fracking of Tolkien's unpublished works "goes ever on and on."

But I'm still struck by the narrowness of the adherence to Tolkien's vision. What, in fact, do we want when we want to read Tolkien? What is the real hunger that The Lord of the Rings whets without satisfying? I ask this as a writer who consciously (and probably unconsciously) adopts elements from Tolkien. What's really essential about his work? Is it something material, or something deeper, something hidden under the surface? When are you producing something truly new, and when are you just making a direct-to-DVD mockbuster?

There's not a simple answer to this, I suppose. While reserving my final judgment on Lord Foul's Bane until I finish at least the first trilogy, I'll just end with William Blake's pithy paradox:
The difference between a bad Artist & a Good One Is: the Bad Artist Seems to copy a Great deal. The Good one Really does Copy a Great deal.


  1. There's not much I can say to counter your critique - and still, I "like" Lord Foul's Bane. It does hew very closely to JRRT. I suspect it's partly because Donaldson wanted to work deliberately in a setting familiar to readers and himself, and I bet there was a deliberate effort to tailor his book to del Rey's tastes. We know he was looking to mimeograph JRRT and, ideally, his success.

    The only other point I'll comment on now is Covenant's VSE. If I recall correctly, after the hurtloam and the rape, he is terrified he will be subsumed by the dream that is the Land and when he is restored to reality, he will have let his survival skills atrophy.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on the other two books.

    1. As usual, writing this post was a way of processing whether I like it or not. Can't say I know yet... For me, it usually comes down to whether I'll read it again, and I don't think I'll know that until I complete the arc.

      But it was definitely worth reading; for me, the leprosy and all it entails was the stand-out element. I especially liked the account of Covenant's burning his book; I wonder if any of that reflects Donaldson's own life as a writer.

      Thanks for the comment on the VSE; I'll have to look that up again.