Stephen Donaldson: a short critique

Stephen Donaldson is an easy author to satirise: his rich prose has always been a ripe target, as has his protagonist in the two trilogies that made his name so prominent in speculative fiction - The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. There has also been more serious criticism of these works, as well as satire: here I shall look at a darker side to Donaldson.

I was a child - emotionally and mentally - when I first read the "Covenant" books and loved them so much that I bought them as they came out. In the intervening years I held fond memories of the books, especially the first trilogy, although I was the first to admit that they tended to be overlong - especially The One Tree - and overwritten. The Land gripped me then, and it was clear to me that here was a clear imagination at work, yet when I tried to re- read them more recently I found them unreadable. Why was this so? What had changed so much in those six years? The truth is that the books had not changed - only my perception of them, and seeing them through an adult's eyes, after six years of experience, gave me an extra insight into them that made them unpalatable.

The first thing anyone will notice about Donaldson's work is his writing style. Donaldson's novels are overblown and stuffed with adjectives: thick, treacly and tiring. He leaves nothing to the imagination, preferring to describe it all ad nauseam, and this literary spoon-feeding - while suitable for children - is merely irritating to those who prefer to think for themselves. The long words and long phrases may seem 'adult' but this thin veneer of 'proper writing' conceals a writing style that contains no feel for style or language, no subtlety, little sense of pacing and a love of the worst sort of cliche

Cliche is also the word to describe Donaldson's plot for the two trilogies. Although he seems to try for originality, his story boils down to that of a hero/antihero pitted (unwillingly) against a generic Dark Lord, a storyline dating back centuries and a favourite of fantasy writers up to this day. Both trilogies are effectively quests and while they have nice touches throughout, and a few interesting quirks, they suffer from the standard complaint of quest novels: they are too long and just too often boring. Donaldson's conceit, his main attempt at originality was his 'hero'.

As a protagonist Covenant had great potential: he is not a hero; he is not a fresh, shiny-faced kid who adapts quickly to the strange world he is plunged into. Donaldson squanders Covenant. Instead of a deep, complex character, there is a shallow, caraciture, nominally emotionally scarred from the ludicrous leprosy. Donaldson has Covenant do bad things, not because they are what Covenant might have done naturally, but to say to the reader "look here - here is an antihero" and the readers, adolescent pseudo- rebels, flock to read the books. The tradition of the antihero is strong in all kinds of literature but done badly an antihero is as dull as a hero: what is more interesting is a realistic person, with flaws and good points - and no flared nostrils.

I leave till last a point that to some people will seem minor and to others will overshadow all the rest: in the Covenant trilogies the treatment and portrayal of women is poor to the point of misogeny. From the introduction of Covenant's wife (who 'cruelly' leaves him when he discovers the leprosy), through the utterly abhorrent rape scene, to the token 'female' character in the second trilogy, women are portrayed as weak, evil or both, overawed and enthralled by the power of men (especially Covenant). The rape scene, especially, is repugnant, as it could have been avoided - could be argued to be unnecessary - yet even this is made worse by the womens' reaction to it: no woman is going to easily forgive nor forget a rape of themselves or a loved one, by anyone. Here, Donaldson has commented on a subject many women feel strongly about and he has shrugged it of as of little importance except as a plot device. I could probably forgive over-the-top writing and daft characters but I find it hard to forgive this.


Home | SF | RPG | Academics | Links | Contact