Then Brinn reached the edge of the cliff. From somewhere within
himself, he summoned the desperation to fight back. Several
blows jolted the Guardian, though they left no mark. For an
instant the old man was forced back.
But he seemed to become more adept and irresistible as he grew more solid. Almost at once, he brushed aside Brinn's counterattack. Lashing out like lightnings of flesh and bone, he coerced Brinn to the precipice again. He swayed on the rim, tottered. Began to fall. Covenant's shout tore through the mist like despair: "Brinn!"
In the fractional pause as his balance failed, Brinn glanced toward the aghast spectators. Then he shifted his feet in a way that ensured his fall. But as he dropped, his hands reached out. His fingers knotted into the old man's robe.
Surrendering himself to the precipice, he took the Guardian with him.
|-- The One Tree|
The One Tree has always been the most puzzling and ambiguous
book of the entire Chronicles to me. I can't seem to make up my
mind whether it's a superfluous flight of fancy or the most
deeply grounded, important and introspective psychological
exploration of the series. I finished it last month and already
the tendrils of its complexities have slipped entirely out of my
grasp and I'm left wondering if I should reread it before trying
to discuss it. (Fat chance of that). You certainly don't have
this problem with The Illearth War or The Wounded Land.
Maybe it's the plot. A plot description reads simply, almost simplistically. Covenant, Linden Avery and the Search sail off for parts unknown where they encounter routine betrayal, damage and disillusionment. Fin. But there may be a world full of significance in their long, painful journey. First, we encounter portions of the World outside the Land. This world is less black/white, good/evil than the stark contrast found in the Land. The Giants have traveled it's oceans from one end to the other and have found a variety of peoples and creatures neither wholly good or evil. They've made alliances with some and fought against others, but clearly there's a mess of people outside the Land who've lived for many millennia with no knowledge or care about Lord Foul's dominion. Some Powers are so elementally strong they seem to exist completely beyond such mortal concerns.
Most troubling to me is the mollycoddled existence of Earthpower incarnate, the faery Elohim dwelling in solitude yet claiming omnipresent knowledge of the entire world including the Land. Their self-occupation disconcerts me because for once we are shown beings of nearly unlimited power who have not been corrupted to the service of evil ... but what do they do with that power? They bring to mind images of rich women with pampered poodles, dozens of servants and a buttload of cash who sit and drown in their own purposelessness. They've ceased living and merely exist chasing meaningless diversions like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Why don't the Elohim take a concerted action against the Despiser's obvious corruption of Law? Is their essence or Würd so closely entwined with the fabric of Law that they've become corrupted themselves? Why do they no longer travel the world, what spark have they lost, and if they're so percipient why do they waste time turning themselves into butterflies and fountains instead of something more profound?
So I don't know how to interpret the Elohim. I'm equally at a loss to describe the excursion into Bhrathairealm. As John Cleese exclaimed in Fawlty Towers, "What is the point? I mean, what is the bloody point?!" This particular scenario has been enacted dozens of times before and Donaldson's attempt to build suspense as members of the Quest are drawn further into the Sandhold is, in a rare departure from his usually masterful form, obviously contrived and clumsily handled. After meeting the hustin is there anything we can't guess about the nature of Bhrathairealm's leaders or how the episode will turn out? Obviously Covenant's not going to lose his ring and none of the Quest's principals will get offed even if we lose a Haruchai or two. Color me disappointed for the most part, yet there's still some redeeming points. We get to meet a Sandgorgon who plays a small but interesting part later in the Chronicles. We discover the croyel -- and if one of these excellent beings doesn't play a huge part in the Third Chronicles I'll be mightily disappointed.
But overall I'd have to say I'm confused with all the symbolism, including the various creation stories (the Creator, the star children, the all-devouring Worm of World's End whose tail is a tree?). But then I've never read a creation story from any source -- including the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, numerous other mythologies, the Big Bang Theory, or even the Silmarillion -- that was really satisfying. What is Donaldson trying to tell us about the interrelation of Giants and the Land? Why is it the Giants always seem to be around when the deal is going down ... first with High Lord Kevin's Desecration and his Wards, then with Foul's two great assaults against the free peoples, then with the Search just in the nick of time for Covenant and company? Their essential nature seems bound up with that of the Land but I can't puzzle out how or why. What is the significance of the Soulbiter, and why are some Giants cursed to revisit it more than once in a lifetime? And what the hell is going on with the Haruchai? Why do they almost eagerly sacrifice themselves one after the other? (Hergrom, Ceer, Brinn and Cail's attempt with the merewives, then Brinn again) Lots of questions, not many satisfying answers.
And then Donaldson goes and pulls an 800 pound rabbit out of his creative hat in the form of Kasreyn of the Gyre, the hideously ancient Kemper whose incontestible power subjects a proud kingdom to his bilious grasp. For starters I like him because he represents a new dimension of magical power, thaumaturgy, entirely unlike the relatively gentle practices of Earthpower demonstrated by the earlier free peoples of the Land. It is breathtakingly powerful yet despite the transparently evil and self-serving ends to which Kasreyn invokes it, thaumaturgy appears to be innately unsullied compared with the malignancy of the banes beneath Mount Thunder or the savagery of the Ravers or Lord Foul. When you consider the sheer variety of manifestations of magical power in The One Tree you begin to sense the tremendous richness of Donaldson's vision and the breadth of experiences awaiting the reader of a Third Chronicles, whether it takes place before or after the events of the First and Second.
Back to my buddy Kasreyn ... he's a bottomless well of Hunger with a capital H who has literally bargained away his soul in exchange for more time to work his thaumaturgic will. He's a world class sexual degenerate to boot ... and that's what I respect about Donaldson's portrayal of him. Run of the mill fantasy genre heavies lack a certain genuine rapacious carnal element which I've come to associate with ambitious men and women. People who seek power for its own sake are generally channeling a significant source of frustrated sexual tension into their pursuits, trying to screw metaphorically what they can't physically (a recent American political figure is merely the exception that proves the rule). Kasreyn makes no secret of his voyeuristic addiction -- in fact he gloats about it -- and that only lends his vileness a deeper layer of authenticity. But this wide-eyed exploration of depravity does not drag the reader down or diminish in any way the quality, the legitimacy or the stature of The One Tree or the Chronicles. Tolkien certainly wouldn't have described such a character in his works, but is there a doubt in anyone's mind what Sauron would have done with Luthien had he gotten her in his greedy clutches?
So what have we learned in The One Tree? I've got my suspicions but I'd really like to hear the opinions of other Donaldson readers, because I'm so thick that even after Vain's arm got turned to wood in the cavern of the One Tree I didn't figure out that he and Findail would merge into a renewed Staff of Law. How's that for a spoiler?
Chapter headings for The One Tree
PART I: Risk
1: Starfare's Gem
2: Black Mood
4: The Nicor of the Deep
5: Father's Child
6: The Questsimoon
8: The Elohimfest
9: The Gift of the Forestal
PART II: Betrayal
10: Escape from Elohim
11: A Warning of Serpents
13: Bhrathairain Harbor
14: The Sandhold
15: "Don't Touch Me"
16: The Gaddhi's Punishment
17: Charade's End
PART III: Loss
19: The Thaumaturge
20: Fire in Bhrathairealm
21: Mother's Child
22: "Also Love in the World"
23: Withdrawal from Service
24: The Isle
25: The Arrival of the Quest
27: The Long Grief