The Runes of the Earth begins the third and last chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. My passion for reading was forged as a teenager with fantasy books by the likes of Lewis, Tolkien and Donaldson. When my eyes first fell upon Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book of the first chronicles published in 1977, I saw that it was another story about a ring of power craved by an evil lord, and thought that it must be another Lord of the Rings knockoff. Wow, was I wrong. Donaldson is a master of psychological adventure, taking readers deep into the interior of complex characters such as the anti-hero, Thomas Covenant, who disbelieves in the Land to preserve his health and sanity in our world. The fantasy genre uses symbols literally, and often crudely. Symbols are the language of the unconscious, and only a few like Donaldson can use them effectively.
Lord Foul is back after being twice defeated in his attempts to use Covenant’s white gold ring to destroy the Arch of Time. Covenant was slain at the end of the second chronicles, but the manner of his death promises a return in some form. Linden Avery reappears from the second chronicles as a worthy protagonist, equally tortured in her circumstances and decisions. Her son, Jeremiah, has been taken by Foul to manipulate her use of Covenant’s ring: “Tell her that I have her son.” Covenant’s family has been twisted into the service of Foul. The Staff of Law was lost a generation after Linden’s last victory over Foul, permitting new evils, including a smog called Kevin’s Dirt, and distortions of time called Falls or caesures. In the absence of any other leadership, the Haruchai have turned from servants of the Land to Masters, forbidding the use of Earthpower (health incarnate) to fight Foul. Linden’s only friends seem to be mad old Anele, who clings to her for protection, and young Liand, an untried Stonedowner.
Like any psychological journey, the action is more internal than external. The reader is treated to pages of deliberation, garnered in unfettered use of uncommon English (words like thetic and threnody), and dialog stretching over paragraphs at a time. Metaphysical questions are pondered deeply: can good come of evil? Readers travel leagues with Linden with only skirmishes for action. But when the moments of truth arrive, Donaldson delivers with fireworks. I recall that the conclusion to the second chronicles had me uttering aloud, “Oh my God!” These books are Old Testament fire and brimstone.
Thirty years after the first work was published, I wondered again if anything original could happen here. How many times can Foul return? I was not disappointed. This story had to be told. Consider that the villain has many names — Lord Foul, the Despiser, Despair. Despair is by nature a persistent foe. Donaldson is psychological novelist. Perhaps despair seldom wins, but can any of us truly vanquish despair for good? A major theme is this book is that of reckonings. When Stave the Haruchai is persuaded to assist Linden, he promises there will be a reckoning. What reckoning will be required to finally settle things with Foul? My hope is that by the end of this last chronicle, Donaldson will resolve the cycle in a new way, finding some kind of balance or synthesis in the Land between hope and despair.