|"Beloved," she said
with a smile of deep affection, "it has befallen me to speak a
hard thing to you. The truth is as you have feared it to be;
the Land has lost its power to remedy your illness, for much
great good has been undone by the Despiser."
|-- The Wounded Land|
Before comparing and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of
the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant with the Second, let me
say I believe both of them are spectacular accomplishments in
their own right. Each series is a masterful exploration of new
lands and awesome challenges, replete with intriguing characters
and locales. Both are unified with a thoroughly unique
perspective and style that resonates with some and repulses
Sense of wonder. I read fantasy literature to slip free of daily life and explore strange new worlds through the eyes of protagonists entirely different from me. In that sense the First Chronicles engage me more deeply than the Second and are a more satisfying reading experience. Although compared to nearly any other significant fantasy novel or series the First Chronicles would appear bleak and depressing, there are many uplifting moments and discoveries. The introduction of Giants, Ranyhyn, Bloodguard and the Earthservice of rhadhamaerl and lillianrill, the glory of Revelstone, the sublimity of Trothguard, the capture of the Staff of Law, the destruction of the various Giant-Ravers ... I found them all inspiring and thrilling. Each book, even Gilden Fire, is crowned by a significant victory of good over evil, though Donaldson never lets you forget these triumphs are dreadfully costly and in the final scheme merely the momentary reprieve of a sandcastle against a remorseless tide. Compared to that, the Second Chronicles are almost unrelievedly grim and joyless. Instead of new and wonderful peoples and locales, every step of the journey is like a trip through a burned-out warehouse of sickened and desecrated memories. The Land is wracked in ways too heinous to be dreamed of in the First Chronicles, except perhaps in the nightmares of High Lord Mhoram. Each new place the Search visits greets them with foreboding and betrayal. In the closing chapters of each book our heroes end up taking another beating from a can of Lord Foul's inexhaustible supply of Whoop-ass. The end of The Wounded Land finds a haggard and scarred crew limping away from the Sunbane that has kicked their collective teeth in. By the end of The One Tree so much physical and psychic damage has been inflicted on the Quest you could almost forgive them if they commited mass suicide. And even the ostensibly triumphant and revelatory ending of the Second Chronicles is somber.
Sense of perspectives. Another area in which I think the First Chronicles excels is the shifting perspective of protagonists among Thomas Covenant, Hile Troy, Lord Mhoram, the Bloodguard, Triock and others. With each change in narration the action is regenerated and fresh insights are gained into the makeup and outlook of the Land's inhabitants. My favorite moments in either series comes with Mhoram's introspection prior to and during the siege of Revelstone and during Korik's mission to Coercri. By contrast, the vast majority of the Second Chronicles is viewed from either Thomas Covenant's or Linden Avery's perspective. And both of these folks are continuously discouraged, depressed and foul humored when not actually raging, unconscious, envenomed, possessed, Raver-haunted or communing with the Dead. Another significant drawback to the Second Chronicles sense of perspective is the way in which its plot unfolds linearly. This leads to a (perhaps intentional) sense that we're on a Death March which limits the trilogy's scope ... something Donaldson effortlessly transcended in the First Chronicles.
Sense of purpose. Somewhere along the way in the Illearth War, probably during Runnik's tale to Hile Troy and Lord Mhoram, Thomas Covenant's unbelief loses its last thin shred of plausibility and becomes irrelevant. Certainly when Gilden Fire is read the reader comes to that inescapable conclusion. This monumental inconsistency completely overshadows the tenuous and shaky "bargain" he strikes with himself along the way to Melenkurion Skyweir. From this point on, the First Chronicles' star protagonist lugs around a gaping flaw in his central struggle (man against self, as they used to say in Creative Writing class). How refreshing in the Second Chronicles for Thomas Covenant to ditch that tired argument and just settle down to kicking Foul's ass, regardless of whether it's a dream.
Sense of self-reliance. The concept of Landservice binding together the disparate peoples of the Land, giving them purpose, identity, depth and sympathy is one of Donaldson's master achievements in the First Chronicles. The Giants, Haruchai, plainsmen, Stonedownors, Woodhelvennin, Ramen and Ranyhyn, Waynhim, Unfettered Ones and Lords are vibrantly alive and completely independent, yet defiantly united in the face of overwhelming odds. They are going to hold out collectively and individually until every last life is snuffed out. That alliance of the individual strengths of good peoples fascinates me whether the Enemy is Lord Foul, Morgoth, Sauron, the Dominator, or the Axis Powers of WW II. It provides the reader a way to identify and ally himself or herself with the various good guys, binding him or her that much closer to the unfolding action. Who wouldn't want to be a member of the Bloodguard, or a Lord fighting the good fight? By the time of the Second Chronicles however this conception has died a bitter death. The peoples of the Land have been remorselessly ground down into such an abject state of self-loathing and servitude it is beyond question they could possibly rally themselves against the Enemy. It's up to Thomas Covenant and company to bail them out, with some minor assistance along the way. That's the real reason I prefer the First Chronicles, because the Land's inhabitants during the Second Chronicles no longer surprise and engage me on an emotional level the way they did before.
As another pitch for the idea of a Third Chronicles, I think the various peoples of the Land during the days of Berek, Damelon, Loric and Kevin would be even more vital and interesting than they were in the First Chronicles, allowing the enemies of the Land to be even stronger and more evil, and the crescendo of the series to be that much more dramatic.