In hindsight one can see the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant building up to the Götterdämmerung that is The Last Dark.† In the first Chronicle, Thomas Covenant, an outcast leper in our world, is translated to the Land. There one’s physical and mental health are tangible, and all is threatened by Lord Foul the Despiser, who desires to destroy the Arch of Time (and, thus, the Earth) and escape his prison. Covenant learns that he is the wielder of the wild magic of white gold, the paradox that both sustains Time and is the only thing capable of destroying it. Initially, Covenant resists belief in the Land (hence his sobriquet of “Unbeliever”) and refuses to actively help the many people who befriend him. But events in the course of the first three books contrive to force him into a confrontation with Lord Foul, where he laughs Despite into irrelevance. With Foul impotent, Covenant finds himself back in our world. In the second Chronicle, Covenant is again translated to the Land along with Linden Avery and finds that in saving it the first time, he unwittingly laid the seeds for Lord Foul’s corruption of the Council of Lords and the abomination of the Sunbane. In order to defeat Foul this time, Covenant and his friends seek the One Tree in order to recreate the Staff of Law (destroyed in the first Chronicle) and (hopefully) restore the Land to health.†† Ultimately, they succeed. Covenant gives Foul his white gold ring, and the Despiser unleashes the power of wild magic. The results are not what Foul desires, however. While Covenant’s physical body is destroyed, he becomes a part of the Arch (hence his other sobriquet of “Timewarden”) and again Foul’s desires are thwarted. The third Chronicle begins 10 years (in our world) after the events of the second. Linden is a doctor at the institution where Covenant’s first wife is immured, driven insane by Lord Foul. She has also adopted Jeremiah, a boy whom Covenant saved from sacrifice to the Despiser in the second Chronicle but who’s suffered such abuse that he’s retreated into his mind and appears unreachable. We also meet Roger Covenant, Thomas’ son by Joan, who’s also been touched by the Despiser and is under the control of a Raver. Eventually, all find themselves translated to the Land. Thousands of years have passed and the Land is ruled by the Masters, Haruchai who have determined that the only way to save it is to keep its inhabitants ignorant of Earthpower and the Lore of the old Lords. They’ve also developed an unhealthy fetish for Covenant that takes its most extreme form in the Humbled - Haruchai who have voluntarily emulated Covenant’s halfhand. In order to save her son, Linden selfishly breaks the Law and restores Covenant to life. In the process she awakens the Worm of the World’s End and grants Lord Foul’s greatest desire – an escape from the Earth.†††
The Last Dark opens in the last days of the Earth. The Sun no longer rises and the Worm is devouring all of the Elohim, causing the stars to fade from the sky. Though everything they know tells them that all their efforts will prove futile, Covenant and his companions set out to do several things. Jeremiah will build a fane that will protect the remaining Elohim; Linden will go back in time to gain the knowledge of forbidding from Caerroil Wildwood; and Covenant will journey to Mount Thunder to confront – once more – Lord Foul in his lair.
But there is “hope in contradiction,” as Donaldson observes several times in the novel; and means speak louder than ends. As the Giant Cirrus Kindwind explains to Jeremiah when Stave and Cabledarm are nearly killed finding the malachite the boy needs to build his fane:
Beckoning for Jeremiah to accompany her, Kindwind stepped away. When they had withdrawn a few paces, she said, “We must trust, Chosen-son, that his folk restore themselves in this manner. It appears that his spirit has turned inward. But I will believe that a man who has performed his feats must soon heal himself and return to us.”
Jeremiah swallowed against the dryness in his throat. “I hope so. He doesn’t deserve this.”
“Ah, deserve,” sighed Kindwind. “The notion of deserved and undeserved is a fancy. Knowing both life and death, we endeavor to impose worth and meaning upon our deeds, and thereby to comfort our fear of impermanence. We choose to imagine that our lives merit continuance. Mayhap all sentience shares a similar fancy. Mayhap the Earth itself, being sentient in its fashion, shares it. Nonetheless it is a fancy. A wider gaze does not regard us in that wise. The stars do not. Perhaps the Creator does not. The larger truth is merely that all things end. By that measure, our fancies cannot be distinguished from dust.
“For this reason, Giants love tales. Our iteration of past deeds and desires and discoveries provides the only form of permanence to which mortal life can aspire. That such permanence is a chimera does not lessen its power to console. Joy is in the ears that hear.”
Her assertion startled Jeremiah. It seemed to question his foundations. If he closed his eyes, he could still see the extremity of Stave’s fall. The hard throb of Cabledarm’s bleeding and the excruciation of her shoulder cried out to his senses. Awkwardly he reached for Kindwind’s last waterskin. When she released it, he drank as if his thirst – his dismay – had the force of a moral convulsion.
“So you’re saying,” he protested or pleaded, “what Stave did is worthless? What Cabledarm did is worthless? It’s all dust?”
“Aye,” Cirrus Kindwind assented, “if that is how you choose to hear the tale.” Her tone was mild. “For myself, I will honor the effort and the intent. Doing so, I will be comforted.”
Jeremiah wanted to shout. Instead he fumed, “You sound like the croyel.” Was joy in the ears that hear? Then so were agony and horror. So was despair. “It was forever telling me everything Mom did was useless. Nothing matters. It’s all dust. That’s why Lord Foul laughs – and Roger – and those Ravers. They agree with you. In the end, they’re the only ones who get what they want.”
Kindwind looked at him sharply. Like the flick of a blade, she retorted, “Then her me, Chosen-son. Hear me well. There is another truth which you must grasp.
“Mortal lives are not stones. They are not seas. For impermanence to judge itself by the standards of permanence is folly. Or is it arrogance? Life merely is what it is, neither more nor less. To deem it less because it is not more is to heed the counsels of the Despiser.
“We do what we must so that we may find worth in ourselves. We do not hope vainly that we will put an end to pain, or to loss, or to death.”
Failure isn’t something you are. It’s something you do.
Without warning, Jeremiah found that he ached to share Kindwind’s beliefs, and Linden’s. Perhaps the monolith had never contained enough malachite. Perhaps the deposit had shattered. Perhaps Stave and even Cabledarm would die. Perhaps Mom would never come back. Perhaps futility was the only truth. Still Jeremiah would have to find a way to live with it.
To himself, he muttered, “It’s not that easy.”
Cirrus Kindwind had never been possessed.
Her response was a snort. “We were not promised ease. The purpose of life – if it may be said to have a purpose – is not ease. It is to choose, and to act upon the choice. In that task, we are not measured by outcomes. We are measured only by daring and effort and resolve.” [emphasis mine] (pp. 187-8)
The passage above also contains another important theme – the primacy of agency. The worst thing a person can do or suffer is possession, the loss of the ability to choose. There’s a later scene where Jeremiah has been possessed by moksha Raver, who tempts the boy with the seductiveness of submission:
Do you now discern truth? asked the Raver kindly, eagerly. Long have you striven to evade our intent, long and at great cost. Long have you concealed yourself from suffering, though your wounds festered with every avoided day. Do you now grasp that there can be no surcease or anodyne for an implement, except in its condign use? Do you comprehend that there is both freedom and exaltation in the acceptance of service?
This all true believers know. They submit every desire and gift to the will of beings greater than themselves, and by their surrender they gain redemption. Self-will accrues only fear. It achieves only pain. The highest glory is reached solely by the abdication of self.
Do you understand? Do you acknowledge at last that you are the Despiser’s beloved son, in whom he is well pleased? (p. 498)
Reading this passage, I was immediately struck by the parallel to Matthew 3:16-17:
Then Jesus, when He had been baptized, came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.
And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (NKJV)
It’s too simplistic to say that Donaldson is anti-Christian. One could argue that his defense of unconditional love and nonviolence are Christian in the best sense of the word. But Christianity (and Islam and Judaism, for that matter) demands its adherents submit themselves entirely to the will of a god who will use their lives to further his purposes. And – to be honest – I’ve always found such abnegation of will distasteful; certainly a factor in my admiration for Donaldson. (There’s a thesis paper in here somewhere.)
Another parallel with a major literary work – and another thesis – that came to mind while reading The Last Dark is to the Lord of the Rings. Again, it would be simplistic to reduce the Chronicles to the anti-LotR. Tolkien did not glorify war or violence. He lost two of his closest friends to the First World War, and endured the trenches himself. He had few illusions but it’s unlikely that Gimli, storming an Orc stronghold, would have ever uttered these words: “Covenant wheeled on Branl. ‘We have to get out of here! These are their homes! We can’t start killing their children!’” (p. 461)
Or that Aragorn, in the midst of the Battle of the Pelennor, would have agonized:
With every slash and thrust, every frantic swing, he appalled himself. He had to goad himself with curses like groans in order to keep moving. Otherwise he would have plunged to his knees, crippled by abhorrence. The Cavewights were only simple in their thinking: they were not unintelligent. And they had a long history. On their own terms, they had a civilization. They had never deserved the use which Lord Foul had made of them. They did not deserve what Covenant did to them now.
He promised himself that the Despiser would pay for this; but no promise sufficed to condone such slaughter. (pp. 452-3)
I want to avoid spoilers in this review so I can’t go into any detail about the novel’s end, another example of the book’s “anti-LotRism.” I will say, however, that Lord Foul’s fate is very different from either Morgoth’s or Sauron’s.
On the other hand, I would argue that Linden’s struggle with her own role mirrors Frodo’s:
But she could not keep meeting peril with violence, striving to out-do the savagery of Lord Foul’s servants and allies. She could not. She needed a different purpose, a better role in the Land’s fate. She had passed through the wrath of Gallows Howe to the gibbet’s deeper truths; to the vast bereavement which had inspired Garroting Deep’s thirst for blood. The time had come to heed the lessons which her whole life had tried to teach her.
If she did not give up, and did not fight, what remained? She thought that she knew, although she trembled to contemplate it; or she would have trembled had she been less weary. (p. 351)
And that both come to the same conclusion (cf., Frodo’s actions in “The Scouring of the Shire,” The Return of the King):
She understood that now. She recognized, if the bane did not, that healing was both more arduous and more worthy than retribution. And sometimes healing required measures as extreme as the patient’s plight. Surgeons amputated or extirpated. They performed sacrifices. They transplanted. They did not judge the cost. They only did what they could. [emphasis mine ] (p. 488)
Another passage that recalls LotR takes place at the end. Actually, it reminds me more of passages from the History of Middle Earth, where Tolkien is discussing the nature of Morgoth’s evil:
Covenant grimaced. He almost smiled. “It’s easier than it looks. Or it’s harder. Or maybe it’s just worth the effort.” He ran his halfhand through his hair. “I don’t know how else to explain it. Lord Foul makes us strong.”
“Strong,” Jeremiah objected. “The Despiser? He would have slaughtered the whole world and laughed about it.”
“Well, sure,” Covenant shrugged. “But ask yourself why he’s like that. Berek said it. ‘Only the great of heart may despair greatly.’ All that malice and contempt is just love and hope and eagerness gone rancid. He’s the Creator’s curdled shadow. He –“
He grimaced again. “I’m not saying this right.
“He gives us the chance to do better.” (p. 527)
Compare the “Ainulindalë,” where Melkor/Morgoth is the mightiest of the Ainur and its his very love, hope and eagerness for Eru’s Creation that curdle into the despite that mars Arda.
I recommend The Last Dark, and the final Chronicle overall. Enough that I’m nudging my initial three stars to four; it inspired me and made me think so despite its manifest flaws (which I mentioned in my reviews of previous books), it’s become one of those books that will color everything else I read for years to come.
† Another reviewer commented that anyone reading this book has almost certainly read the preceding nine so the synopsis that follows is brief and written as if the reader will know of the places and people mentioned. (And that they'll forgive the spoilers from the first two series.)
†† I’m not going to touch on the theme of uncertainty that is a major element in all three Chronicles in this review. Not much, at any rate, except to mention that often (always?) the characters set off to accomplish things not knowing if it’s the correct thing to do or if it will help in the end.
††† There’s a parallel here between Elena’s breaking of the Law of Death to bring back Kevin Landwaster and Linden’s. Where Linden’s differed was that her motivation was unconditional love; Elena’s love was contaminated with her insanity.