|"If we fail the Land itself reproaches us. It will be made waste. We are its last preservers."
[Mhoram] turned the thrust with a wry smile and said, "The last, Lord Trevor? No. The Haruchai yet live within their mountain fastness. In their way, they know the name of the Earthpower more surely than any Lord. Ramen and Ranyhyn yet live. Many people of the South and North Plains yet live. Many of the Unfettered yet live. Caerroil Wildwood, Forestal of Garroting Deep, has not passed away."
|-- The Power That Preserves|
Tolkien scored a huge success with his
creation of hobbits. Mr Donaldson
must be equally acknowledged for eschewing
the tried'n'true but worn'n'threadbare cast of
elves, dwarves, gnomes, trolls, dragons and
(lord forbid) unicorns which compose the
unimaginative fantasy author's stock in
trade. Instead he forays into new territory with
his own bestiary and associated mythology,
and the Land is the better for it.
In the First Chronicles alone we are
introduced to Stonedownors, Woodhelvennin,
Waynhim, Haruchai, Ravers, ur-viles,
Wraiths, griffons, Unfettered Ones, Giants,
Lords, fire-lions, Cavewights, Ramen and
Ranyhyn, Elohim, Forestals,
jheherrin and various monsters. They
populate yet never crowd the Land, which in
its own way is also a living being.
My favorite race is probably the Haruchai, although they contain many of the same contradictions that so frustrate me about Thomas Covenant and the Chronicles. Theoretically they are exuberant and militant, yet almost without exception the Bloodguard are stoic, unemotional characters who hide their martial spirit extremely well. Doubtless some of this can be explained by the binding power of their extravagant Vow, yet the Haruchai in the Second Chronicles act the same. Their refusal to employ weapons in battle is confusing and alien (they could kick a lot more ass and protect the Lords better if they just stooped to wielding swords) but then their alien-ness as a race is refreshing.
Although Giants are common in fantasy, Donaldson has crafted a particularly engaging and vital sect of them in the Unhomed of Coercri (and later with the Search). Giants frequently end up portrayed as stupid and clumsy overgrown cousins of clever, nimble humans but the Unhomed elegantly balance extreme literacy, poeticism (if that's a word), artistry and sense of community with raw physical might. Their vastly extended lifespans permit them to garner wisdom through life experience without dimming their innate, almost childlike enthusiasm for new experiences, heroic deeds and amusing stories. It's a shame that we only really get to know Saltheart Foamfollower in the First Chronicles; he's a fascinating, multi-faceted person and it would have been good to contrast that with others of his race. You get the impression that there really are a bunch of wonderful Giantish stories that would take days to tell and would have you in stitches half the time. No wonder High Lord Kevin felt comfortable entrusting them with the First of the Seven Wards. Advice for the Third Chronicles? ... more Giants!
There is a great mystery in the existence of the Waynhim and ur-viles, which is yet another reason I hope Donaldson tackles a series of books detailing the ancient history of the Land. What lore do they master, and what ultimate purpose are they serving ... and what does that imply about the myriad various Powers prevalent in the Land and available for use or misuse? Why did High Lord Loric oppose the Viles so fiercely and how deeply did High Lord Kevin delve into their nature? A few of these questions are tantalizingly hinted at in the Second Chronicles in the form of Vain.
The existence of the three Ravers is unsatisfactory to me, at times they seem like mere plot devices to wreak a little destruction when things start to slow down. Their ability to dopplegang a wide variety of creatures gives them an unfair advantage that tips the scales of proportion. If I were a Raver I could easily have sabotaged the good guys at every turn; their limits need to be expounded upon. Their birth or initial creation and the nature of their existence is never explained to my satisfaction, nor for that matter is that of Lord Foul. They are simply too powerful and fundamental to the integrity of the Chronicles to spontaneously pop into existence hating everyone and everything. Tolkien's Nazgul have an established and believable provenance as mortal men doomed through ring-slavery and the Ravers deserve one too.
Amok is an interesting character, and if Lord Kevin had the power to create a Ward containing at once such incredible rectitude to withstand High Lord Elena's compulsion and such mercurial curiosity to ride Sandgorgons, what other incredible wonders did the Old Lords create?
The Unfettered Ones and Lords are excellent conceptions, each uniquely human, united in dedication to Earthpower. The Unfettered Ones have otherworldly personas fitting to mortals who dedicate their lives to inhuman loremastery. The Lords are definitely more human and humane, Donaldson does well avoiding propping them on pedestals by making them approachable and well-rounded with their fair share of faults and shortcomings. Mhoram is pretty close to what I think everyone wishes they were like. Verement, Shetra, Hyrim, Trevor, Loerya and Amatin are closer to the various teams of folks I've worked with over the years ... each with his or her particular weaknesses, strengths and personality traits that emerge depending on the situation into which they are thrust. I particularly enjoyed that the nice ones like Hyrim, Elena and Callindrill get killed off just like the standoffish Shetra and Verement. Well done Mr Donaldson.
I wish I could show the same enthusiasm for the Ramen and the Ranyhyn, but each seemed to me too one-dimensional for me to form any connection with. Maybe you need to harbor a secret unicorn fetish. Does anyone feel they (with the exception of Manethrall Rue) were interesting characters?
The Forestals must have been a fascinating bunch. If Donaldson ever revisits the ancient history of the Land I sure hope he devotes a couple chapters to their struggles and ultimate failure to stop the decimation of the Forest(s).
I've got mixed emotions about the jheherrin. They're so cute and cuddly I can't help forming the mental image of Covenant and Foamfollower stumbling into a scene from The Muppet Movie ... yup, there's Gonzo and Kermit. They obviously exist to jerk a few tears from the reader, but for some reason it works; they appeal to a mushy part of me that a guy is not supposed to publicly admit having. Donaldson's credibility stretches awful thin during their recital of the Pure One legend but all in all I'd have to say the book's better for having them in it.
As for the Stone-shaped monsters in Lord Foul's armies, I guess they serve their purpose as well as faceless baddies usually do. Even Tolkien couldn't do much with orcs in their numberless hordes, only when he broke them into small groups did they take on a semblance of perverted personality.
The creatures of the Second Chronicles are even more unusual than those of the First but because they generally appear in relative isolation from each other and the framework of the Land, they seem less authentic. For instance the skest and nicor appear as little more than plot devices: the former to give the sur-jheherrin the opportunity to repay Covenant, the latter to get Starfare's Gem back on track once the wind died. The Elohim are far more interesting and philosophically important; beings of incarnate Earthpower who yet contain shadows or banes within themselves. Do the changes within the Elohim produce the effects within the Land or vice versa? Donaldson did extremely well to introduce them early in the First Chronicles so their appearance in the Second is appropriately foreshadowed. The hustin obviously served as the inspiration for Jabba the Hut's Gammorhean (sp?) Guards in Return of the Jedi. The Sandgorgons are just great. Every fantasy novel should have a few sympathetic monsters embodying incalculable brute force. The croyel are magnificent little creatures ... why didn't we see them in the First Chronicles? Wouldn't it be great if they made an appearance in the Third Chronicles? (plug, plug) The arghule again are nice little beasties but am I the only one in the audience wondering why Covenant lets Hamako die fighting them instead of melting them all with a burst of wild magic?
All in all I have to give Donaldson a thumbs up for creativity, and reiterate my desire for a third set of Chronicles dealing with the ancient Land. First of all, I want to get to see the Plains folk in action ... after all they're the most "human" humans and I think they're the race that produces all or most of the Lords but we rarely see any of the commoners. Also I want to get a chance to see the wonderful races and peoples interacting in the good old days before Lord Foul sends armies against them, then watch how that dynamic changes during the grim and isolating wars of Foul against the Old Lords.