(urth) SRD on obscurity

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes danldo at gmail.com
Sat Jun 10 14:05:28 PDT 2006

On 6/10/06, Chris <rasputin_ at hotmail.com> wrote:
> It is not so much Covenant's horribleness that bothers me about that series,
> it's Donaldson's tendency to *wallow* in that horribleness for extended
> periods of time.

This provides a good jumping-off place to answer Stilskin's question,
"What was Donaldson doing that nobody had done before in fantasy?"

1. Disclaimer: since I haven't read every pre-Donaldson work of fantasy
out there, I could obviously be missing something important.

2. The short answer: taking a character from realistic fiction (I mean
in the sense of Zola) and plopping him down into a fantasy world.

3. The long answer is, naturally, more complex. The rest of
this post is a quick sketch:

It isn't that Covenant is horrible; it is that horrible things have
happened to Covenant, making him a particular kind of person;
and then, in a particular situation, he does a particular and
particularly horrible thing, which colors his reaction to the Land
and to himself for the rest of the book.

The Covenant books are (at one level) about the interplay of
passion and control. What is shown in Covenant's crime is that
passion without control is, well, horrible. What the rest of the
series dramatizes in a dozen ways, including Covenant's own
protests against the Land, is that control without passion is
impotent. This is the "paradox" at the heart of white gold: it is
necessary to make a decision in an utterly controlled way, and
carry out the decision with utter passion.

This paradox can _only_ be embodied in a character who is,
no, not horrible, but _capable_ of horribleness: capable of
making the choice to "damn" rather than "save."

Put another way: Covenant is a character who has been
taught, by the horrible things that happen to him, that only
by complete and utter control can he survive. He finds
himself in a situation he believes to be impossible, and
-- in a moment of lost control -- acts on pure passion, and
commits a crime he finds unbearable. His response is
twofold: first, to reject the reality of the Land (because by
doing so he makes his crime not real) and second, to
impose upon himself in the Land control even beyond
what his condition required in his "real" world.

One result is that, in the real world, his control begins to
slip, and he nearly dies. Another is that, in the Land, where
he is overcontrolled, he is impotent, incapable of wielding
the power that he is repeatedly demonstrated to carry.

The solution to the paradox -- control guiding passion --
is the artist's solution; it is also the solution found at the
same time by Lord Mhoram, which causes him to reject
everything the New Lords have built.

4. Incidentally, one thing about Donaldson's style in
these books: the constant reuse of certain words ("clench"
being the famous example) is an attempt -- which fails,
in the first trilogy, through overuse and clumsy use --
to create the literary equivalent of a Wagnerian
_leitmotif_. This is one reason it would be wise to read
at least one non-Covenant text before dismissing Donaldson
as a terrible stylist; he doesn't do this everywhere, it's a
specific trick used only in the TC books.

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes, writer, trainer, bon vivant

"One o'th'flay-rods gone out o'skew on th'treadle."

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