Stephen Donaldson’s Epic Fantasy Article

I really enjoy Stephen Donaldson’s books; after a perplexing false start with the first Thomas Covenant novel I blazed through the rest of the first and second series. However I didn’t fully understand what was going on; I could feel that something unimaginably deep underlay the conflict between Covenant and the Depiser, that it represented, was explained by, and followed the logic of something that I couldn’t perceive. My English teacher dropped me a hint that helped me understand the struggle as a metaphor for Covenant’s reaction to his disease, and I thought it was all over. When I read the beginning of the third series, I was surprised by minor revelations as to the hidden elements of prior books, but thought I had it all under control. But I was wrong…

I recently found and read Stephen Donaldson’s amazing 1986 article on epic fantasy, and found not only an ambitious definition of fantasy, an illuminating explanation of the epic in English literature and what it means about how we’ve seen ourselves, but a completely new understanding to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as well.

To summarise, Donaldson contends the following…

The core idea of the fantasy genre is to externalise and physically embody internal conflicts and crises. Thus magic expresses characters’ inner force of personality and charisma. Sure, the arch-evil being in a story as an entity is trivially a simplification of evil, but that misses the point of the role it serves. Nevertheless while fantasy uses  allegorical tools, it can go much further. Donaldson makes an insightful point about the Lord of the Rings’ Frodo slowly becoming Sauron, presenting the realisation that evil can come from the most innocent characters.

English epic literature is about the relationship between man and the transcendent order of the universe. According to Donaldson, all epic English literature is fantastic, because authors necessarily employ fantasy’s tools of externalisation to give meaning and order to the world, to answer the great questions. Donaldson charts the decline of the role of humans in the great order via epic English literature: in Beowulf humans in the real world are great heroes; The Faerie Queen introduces an imaginary world to explore the meaning of life; Paradise Lost relegates humans to bit-players in a cosmic struggle between good and evil; and Idylls of the King depicts epic ideals as untenable in a world of flawed, fallible humans. Then Tolkien resurrected epics – but only by employing a completely imaginary realm and utterly rejecting allegory.

Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels attempt the reverse process to Idylls of the King: placing a cynical, mistrustful, flawed human at the centre of a fantasy world that demands that he not only be an epic hero, but that he believes as well. This is the level I did not understand, 17 years ago – I thought that never showing a scene outside Covenant’s perception was no more than a silly little trick, his unbelief nothing more than an obstacle to the story. I’m glad that I’m finally able to appreciate what Donaldson achieved, and am looking forward to the conclusion of his third series.

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