Abruptly, she lifted the Staff of Law, held it horizontally
before her like a weapon. "Amok," she commanded, "place your
hands upon the Staff."
The youth looked without flinching into the authority of her face. Slowly, he obeyed. His hands rested lightly between hers on the rune-carved wood.
She gave a high, strange cry. At once, fire blossomed along the Staff; viridian flames opened from all the wood. The blaze swept over her hands and Amok's; it intensified as if it were feeding on their fingers. It hummed with deep power, and radiated a sharp aroma like the smell of duress.
"Kevin-born Amok!" she exclaimed through the hum. "Way and door to the Seventh Ward! By the power of the Staff of Law -- in the name of High Lord Kevin son of Loric who made you -- I adjure you. Tell me the name of the Seventh Ward's power!"
Covenant felt the force of her command. Though it was not leveled at him -- though he was not touching the Staff -- he gagged over the effort to utter a name he did not know.
|-- The Illearth War|
Though mere days have passed in our world since the recovery of
the Staff of Law, when Thomas Covenant is resummoned to the Land
he finds that four full decades have elapsed. Lord Foul has
possession of a terrible bane called the Illearth Stone enabling
him to amass a tremendous horde of evil creatures to
ravage the Land. The Council of Lords has entrusted Hile Troy,
a formerly blind man of our world skilled in modern warfare, to
lead the Warward against Foul's army. The Council is now led by
High Lord Elena -- the daughter born of Covenant's rape of Lena four
decades ago. She bears Thomas Covenant a deep and abiding love
eclipsed only by her fanatical determination to destroy Lord
Foul. As the Warward marches off to a desperate struggle against
superior numbers, Covenant and Elena embark on a quest to recover
dead Lord Kevin's sorcerous power.
The Illearth War is the novel that really sunk its hooks into me and convinced me I'd stumbled onto something big, a feeling I hadn't had since putting down the Lord of the Rings. Just as any Tolkien fan worth his or her salt can remember and discuss the Gandalf-Balrog conflict in Moria or the siege of Minas Tirith, it is effortless for me to recall vivid and powerful scenes from the Illearth War. Kinslaughterer's hideous genocide of the Giants at Coercri; the Warward's brutal and seemingly endless forced march; Fleshharrower's torture and execution of Lord Verement at Doom's Retreat; Elena's tragic summoning and battle with the specter of High Lord Kevin.
It is easy to immerse in the visually graphic action scenes and lose sight of the terrific storytelling Donaldson accomplishes in this book. Much of the fleshing out of the Land's history occurs here, we are given tantalizing hints at Lord Foul's origin, and Donaldson prepares the way for events later in the First and Second Chronicles. The Bloodguard's recovery of a fragment of the Illearth Stone, Elena's breaking of the Law of Death, Kinslaughterer's murders at the Grieve and Hile Troy's bargain all have grave impacts on the future course of events though some do not become apparent until the Second Chronicles. And it's during The Illearth War that the last frayed fragment of Thomas Covenant's Unbelief becomes academic.
Of course it is impossible to describe the events of The Illearth War without examining the characters of both High Lord Elena and Lord Mhoram. The image of Elena's simple yet tragically lovely face leaps instantly into focus in my mind's eye; she is every doomed yet beautiful woman who has chosen the worst possible man to love and is willing to pay any price for him regardless of how extravagantly she or others may suffer. Elena is somehow an alien within the Land; simultaneously greater in lore and more vulnerable to Despite than any other inhabitant -- the seeds of Covenant's first crime within the Land bear bitter fruit in the madness of her other sight. Juxtaposed with her is the guileless Lord Mhoram, a man so noble he seems (to borrow a phrase from Amadeus) to shit marble. How did Mr Donaldson expect the reader to believe he could wield such immense power that even a Raver quails at his touch yet who displays not the slightest shred of ego? And yet, it works ... I'd give a month's paycheck to have an hour's conversation with the man. I'd give ten years off my life to emulate his benevolent grace. The poor guy has lost so many family and friends he should be bitter to the core and yet though his sleep is hagridden by hideous nightmares Despite can gain no hold on his soul. Some have made comparisons with Mhoram's compassionate peacefulness yet indomitable inner strength to that of Jesus or the Buddha yet I prefer to believe that he is both a common human and an incarnation of Earthpower created by the sentient Land for its defense. Could he be in some way an expression of the Elohim's Würd?
The Illearth War somewhat resembles the Silmarillion's Nirnaeth Arnoediad or Battle of Unnumbered Tears in that once the clamor of war has faded there is no longer any way for the free peoples of the Land to stand against the Enemy, and succor must arrive from outside if any creature of good is to survive. The Staff of Law is retaken by the enemy, the Law of Death is transgressed, the Warward is decimated, and the Council of Lords is thrown into disarray. When he reached this point of despair in the Silmarillion and in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien twice made use of deus ex machina to defeat the Enemy when the combined strengths of the free peoples proved insufficient (Earendil the Mariner and Gollum respectively). Donaldson doesn't let the reader off so easily however, and the third novel of the First Chronicles provides him nearly 500 pages in which to describe the torments a maniacal force of evil can wreak on a nearly defenseless Land.
All in all, I have to rank The Illearth War as one of the top 3 fantasy genre novels ever written -- and I include the centuries-enduring Greeks myths such as the Iliad and Odyssey, Roman legends, Norse sagas and Eddas, Chinese and Indian epics, Arthurian and chivalric legends, and of course the relatively modern yet voluminous panoply of sword and sorcery efforts beginning with Lord Dunsany and including the masterworks of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The sheer brass balls ambitiousness Mr Donaldson essays and succeeds in The Illearth War's scope, his craftsmanlike detail in both the sweeping panoramic "cast of thousands" events and the painfully tender and tragic individual moments of unforgettable characters, and the relentlessly inevitabile consequences of his gripping yet intricate plot combine to elevate this novel into the rarified realm of genius.
Chapter headings for The Illearth War
Part I: Revelstone
1: "The Dreams of Men"
3: The Summoning
4: "May Be Lost"
6: The High Lord
7: Korik's Mission
8: "Lord Kevin's Lament"
10: Seer and Oracle
Part II: The Warmark
11: War Council
12: Forth to War
13: The Rock Gardens of the Maerl
14: Runnik's Tale
16: Forced March
17: Tull's Tale
18: Doom's Retreat
19: The Ruins of the Southron Wastes
20: Garroting Deep
Part III: The Blood of the Earth
21: Lena's Daughter
22: Anundivian Yajna
24: Descent to Earthroot
25: The Seventh Ward
26: Gallows Howe