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Monstrous Regiment: Sauron, Torak and Lord Foul Tehanu's Seventh Note

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Rell, the scariness question has been bothering me some more. Will we see Sauron in the movies? I’ve felt my Scare Index drop sharply in two recent novels as soon as the main evil character was given a face, so I hope we’ll see no more of him than you got to see of the Alien the first time round. Even less would be better.

One of my correspondents, Thomas Goss, had this to say:

"It's interesting that the talk has turned to bad guys: I was deliciously spooked by Black Riders, and thrilled with disgust at the Orcs and Trolls, and astounded by the Balrog. These were monsters, naturally and unnaturally evil. They had a feel and a smell to them intoxicating to a young person, and I can still remember the powerful affect that meeting them for the first time had on my imagination: somehow, these most mythical of creatures brings the sharpest sting of reality to the canon. The orcs have lives and gripes and politics of their own, and the trolls are more natural in their appetites (in the Hobbit) than evil in their natures. And of course for sheer, gripping creepiness, nothing quite comes close to the Black Riders. I'm sure that after our first taste of them, you and I never looked at a shadow in quite the same way again.

"But the worst bad guy of them all, Sauron, we never quite meet face to face. Oh, sure, we hear Pippin relate a very disjunct encounter of a long-distance conference, and Saruman, Denethor and Aragorn all struggle with him using various palantir. Yet it is all second and third hand: we never come close to a visceral contact with color and sound. Only in the Silmarillion is he described, and that is in the guises (hound, werewolf, etc.) that he took in service of Morgoth. And of course there is the rather dry description of him as having a "fair guise" as a "master of gifts" to the ring-smithing Noldor in the Second Age. But once again, as in descriptions of him in battle before the Barad-dur, we are withheld from any substantive shape to our imagination other than shadow and terror and treachery.

"Lord knows I tried, especially as a boy, to put a face on this evil. I imagined a horribly twisted black wizard, like a shriveled, ogrish man. It didn't ring true. Then a sort of vague, super-Black Rider with a dreadful demon visage: this also fell short. Then I reached for another image with my mind's eye, a vast, angry spirit of hate and malice, in the shape of a man, but huge like a giant, with no tangible body, just a cloak of empty darkness from which no light or hope ever escaped. Nope. That wasn't quite it, either. It was too Balrog-y, somehow.

"It was much later when I realized that the face of Sauron was in his works. He had spread himself so thoroughly across the landscape that there was little left of any central body or being, except for perhaps an organizing will. That was it, all that Sauron was in the end, just pure force of will with perhaps the remnants of a soul clinging to it, sending out its commands through the vast chain of its body. The Nazgul were somehow the nerves, Mordor the bones, Orcs and Men the muscle.

"This is real evil, the ability to create rule by force, perhaps a more terrifying reality, especially to a child of a world at war, than any isolated goblin or wraith. And the results are pure devastation upon the face of the earth: haunted, putrid marshes, poisoned streams, mutated greenery, blasted heath. That was why I never felt right about imagining Sauron as a creature: Tolkien didn't want me to. But he made sure that I knew exactly what Sauron was by the time I finished the book."

I defy anyone to come up with a better analysis than that. Thank you Tom.

Diana Wynne Jones talked about the way Tolkien makes us fear Sauron’s enormous reach. At first it is unnerving to think that he could reach as far as the Shire, but his emissaries there are recognisably outsiders. Once the Hobbits reach Bree it is harder for them to know who can be trusted; it seems that Sauron’s spies are everywhere. Then even Nature turns against the Fellowship: the very birds of the air are a watchful threat, not to mention the Wargs. Like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples of Saurons’ influence spread wider and wider, and so does our realisation of this. The Balrog may not be under Sauron’s command, but the deep roots of the earth are stirred up by the waking of evil in the land. And most chillingly of all, the terrible song of the Barrow-wight prophesies a Black Resurrection, as if Sauron hoped to rule not only the living but the dead as well, so that all creatures can be in his power not only in the present age, nor only in life, but for all time:

"Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die.
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land."

What an absolutely terrifying thought.

When I was a child, I knew the people who could hurt me and our battles were personal and limited. Books like "The Lord of the Rings" introduced me to the idea of a kind of hatred that I had never encountered in real life, the kind that can destroy you impersonally, in pursuit of its own goals, without ever knowing your name. That was frightening.

So much the worse for Frodo, then, who in his innocence had hardly heard anything of Sauron, yet Sauron knew his name.

The rest of this Note is vastly overblown by the effects of reading two books ‘inspired by’ or answering to Tolkien’s work. I trawled the library as usual and pulled out David Edding’s " The Belgariad," or at least the first volume of that, and Stephen R. Donaldson’s " The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant." And now I have a full head of steam to rant about what is best and worst about the fantasy genre, and nothing is going to stop me.

First up, Edding’s Belgariad. Right at the beginning, we are introduced (in somewhat Dunsany-like language) to the Gods, one of whom is angry and wishes to destroy everything and has a reasonable motive: Pride, greed, despair, self-hatred. Good-oh. Next we meet young Garion, who I have no doubt will become the champion of Good and the King of the Alorns. There are liberal clues about what will happen, but I don’t doubt that if I read the whole epic there would also be satisfyingly unexpected twists and revelations in the plot. Garion is a pleasant young chap, fair-minded and kind-hearted, as well as having a secret gift for fighting which I expect will serve him well in the volumes I’m not about to read. He is easy company. His country is the same pre-industrial, mainly rural society we know so well from countless similar epics. Eddings doesn’t have to describe it in detail because it’s so familiar already.

The language is clear and simple: it gets you where you are going effectively but is unlikely to startle you with unexpected imagery or surprising turns of phrase. Easily digested, like oatmeal, and a little dull, like driving a car without a manual gearshift.

What happens to those nice characters I don’t care to know, because I’m not in any doubt that they’ll succeed, probably in Volume X. Evil Lord Torak isn’t scary enough to build up the kind of suspense that is going to keep me going that long.

And now for something completely different.

I started "The Chronicles…" in the middle and worked outwards this time, which turned out to be a good idea. I remembered that I’d hated the first book, but in the second book I finally became aware that Donaldson was tackling some complex and subtle questions of ethics. By the third book I was fascinated. The last 100 pages were a triumph, and I was cheering him on and racing to the end, thinking, ‘Go go go!Yes, fantasy can tackle tough issues with intelligence and imagination!’ The final debate between Lord Foul the Despiser and Thomas Covenant is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, at least in a fantasy novel. (It pains me to have to add that qualifier.)

If you only read the first volume, it would be impossible to believe that this epic is grounded on compassion, and I bet I’m not the first person to give up at that point wishing that Covenant would hurry up and die.

Two things stand out for me that relate to our Ur-topic of evil characters. One is, Lord Foul is terrifying. You never see him ‘til the end, and the characters in the Land have less hope than Tolkien’s characters of understanding their adversary, so you fear for their floundering ignorance of what they face. Worse, he is infinitely crafty, using people’s best motives to make them destroy what they love. All the way through the epic there is a terrible sense of doom because there is no point when you can be sure that anyone’s action, though aimed at protecting the Land, will not instead betray it.

Secondly, Foul works through despair. Despair feeds him. And Covenant, the anti-hero, has leprosy. He is in despair already, and in real life that will kill him by allowing his disease to take hold. The Land is a metaphor for health, in a sense his fight for the Land is also his battle against self-hatred. And to me it was stunning and revelatory, and absolutely right when Covenant discovers in Lord Foul a hatred of life because it is imperfect. The description of Foul’s icy, untenanted palace is terrifying:

"…Then at odd moments he caught glimpses of the spirit of this place, the uncomromising flawlessness which somehow gave rise to, affirmed, the most rabid and insatiable malice….Foul’s creche was the domain of a being who understood perfection – a being who loathed life, not because it was any threat to him, but because its mortal infestations offended the defining passion of his existence." Covenant’s power springs from the knowledge he gains: "You’re the one that teaches lepers to hate themselves."

Covenant must be one of the greatest anti-heroes ever written. Timid, brutal and half-mad, he refuses to believe in the Land let alone try to save it. Even by the end of the second book he is so unsympathetic that you wouldn’t credit the possibility of change. But with any luck by then the reader is caught by the fascinating moral struggles going on. Covenant must retain free will – like Tolkien, Donaldson argues that good will be corrupted if it attempts to prevail by force. But unlike Tolkien, in the Land, Good is too good – hamstrung by its own scruples. And Covenant is free to be a really nasty person for hundreds of pages:

"He placed a hand on Covenant’s arm, and said softly, ‘My friend, what has happened to you?’

Savagely, Covenant threw off the Lord’s hand. ‘Don’t touch me!’ he raged in Mhoram’s face. ‘Are you deaf as well as blind?’"

The rage, the fear, the self-loathing, the paranoid conviction that the world is out to get you…if you want to understand what bad PMT feels like, go here. I don’t want to. Specially since Covenant is unlikely to receive the periodic gift of days that electrify the heart with joy. Face spending 1500 pages in Covenant’s head without compensation? Not if I could avoid it.

Then there’s the rape of Lena. It takes the numbed Covenant weeks to realise the vileness of what he’s done, and it only serves to make him hate himself for himself instead of merely hating himself for what he is reduced to in the eyes of others. Around about book three you can sense that it wouldn’t be beyond Lord Foul to have engineered things so that Covenant can only see himself as worthy of the loathing his disease has already earned him.

It’s not until the third book that redemption seems possible for Covenant. Finally he starts to change. What courage can be drawn from utter despair? What if it is more important that Covenant be true to himself, unpalatable as that is, than that he become a pretender in the Land? How will the contradictions of love and unbelief be resolved? The answer Covenant finds is subtle and intriguingly non-Western (Donaldson grew up in India): or maybe he puts his stake in hope, at last, affirming that you can love unreservedly an ideal without seeking proof of its reality. Is that faith?

It’s really daring to have a book which has a fantasy kingdom where the forces of Good and Evil are clearly opposed, and a series of transitions to our world that are themselves a dark fantasy! Covenant lives in some kind of hell, a sort of rural-Kafka land of bigotry, ignorance and hatred. What business does a writer have trapping himself anywhere so small-minded? I can only think that calling his home "Haven Farm" is a sign that he’s deluded.

He decided he was deluded in his talent, and burned his books. Was he also deluded in the wife that he adores? Everytime he makes yet another gesture to honour Joan I want to scream, because we only have his point-of-view to say what a wonderful wife she is (for as long as he’s a productive member of society). Her actions and the one instance when she speaks for herself prove her to be a monster of selfishness with less compassion than a redback spider. (She rings him up to complain that she’s lonely!)

Was he deluded in his friends? No matter how much they feared contagion, what kind of friends would abandon him so completely as not to even phone? Was he deluded in thinking that he treated them well enough to make them want to stick around? Covenant’s home world is abnormally evil, and it took a while before I could understand why he shouldn’t just get on a bus and go somewhere more tolerant.

"The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" were written before the advent of AIDS, so our culture had not recently tested the mettle of its compassion against incurable contagious disease. Perhaps it would have been a different book if it were written now.

A disease like that is a metaphor for the evil that strikes at innocents, and it’s maddening to have to read so many pages before realising that Covenant is going to attempt to find an answer to that evil. It’s nowhere an easy struggle with glib answers, and I respect that.

BUT having said all that, given the deep and provocative ideas that are in this book, I am only the more rabid that they are so ill-served by terrible writing, obscure logic, confused plotting and motives, and pointless wordiness.

Firstly, by being so stuck in one insane point of view for the whole first volume, it’s impossible to see enough of the issues to care much about them. Covenant rants incessantly and his logic is hard to follow. I’m still never sure about the meaning of his bargains with himself, his whimsical scruples. It shouldn’t be that hard to follow, because it’s crucial to understand Covenant’s motives.

Secondly, the prose.:

"He shambled out of the night like a massacre metaphored in flesh – an icon of slaughter."

"Drool’s moon embittered the night like a consummation of gall."

And it’s never enough to describe something once: If a thing can be old, withered, seared by Time and flattened by the weight of years all in one sentence, Donaldson will barely consider the subject fairly covered.

In a fifty-word poem it’s usual to skew a word out of its habitual use or grammatical purpose in order to give it ambiguity and compact more meaning into it. Doing this for a three-volume epic slows things up criminally. Some of Donaldson’s writing is powerful, full of turns of phrase that startle and delight. But he can’t stop; cleverness piled on cleverness leads to something less than wisdom.

"With a howl that shivered the air, echoed savagely off the carven walls, beat against the battlements like an ululation of fangs and claws and hungry blades….."

I beg your pardon? If somebody knows how to make a sharp object ‘ululate,’ let me know. This is plain word misuse and it drives me nuts.

"His lips were contorted with a paroxysm of savage glee; ecstatic rage shone on his wet teeth…"

Shone on his wet teeth? What, rage? From where? It’s not a typo; Donaldson does it all the time.

He also makes up words like ‘trepidations’ or ‘diminishless’ which draw attention to the cleverness of his style when you’d rather be getting on with the story. Worse is the desire to use every word in the dictionary including ones for which he doesn’t know the meaning. He may believe that saying a woman’s hair is "raddled with honey-coloured streaks" sounds good in a complimentary passage, but "raddled" means "excessively or badly rouged," "dilapidated, unkempt…"

OK, and then there’s personification. On the one hand, having everything described in terms that seethe with life can be seen as either a result of the Land’s vivid life or Covenant’s hypersensitivity to it:

"A snarl jumped across his teeth, and his shoulders hunched as he strangled such thoughts.

"As they rode onwards, the silence between them glistened like the white eyes of fear."

"The mountains seemed to spring abruptly out of the ground like a frozen instant of ambuscade…."

"A frown clenched his brow like (insert prolix simile here)"

It gives the sense that you are reading a Van Gogh: everything on the brink of breaking into independent life. But when Donaldson overdoes it you find you’ve lurched out of Van Gogh into some lurid Seventies velvet painting. You know: the kind of thing with the bare-breasted South Sea Islands girl.

Indeed when we get passages in other points of view, the writing tones down a bit, but you never quite get the feeling that Donaldson is that much in control of the language he uses.

It’s the lack of control that lead you to distrust the author. Is he as clever as he seems? Are all those contradictions in there deliberately, or are they an accident? Are the people of the Land such doormats because their Oath of Peace makes them that way, or because Donaldson can’t give their characters enough inner life to match Covenant?

I’ve argued and debated this stuff pretty hotly with various people, and the sad fact is that Donaldson’s writing obscures his intent. Most of the time I feel we’re arguing because we don’t get what he’s trying to say, or we’ve been thrown an unintentional red herring, or the important nuggets of information are so buried under verbal stunts as to be invisible. It’s a shame, because somewhere in all that turgid prose is a thought-provoking and intelligent novel about good and evil, choice and compulsion, sickness and healing.

Am I being hard on Donaldson? I am more angry that no publisher or editor had the guts or imagination to send him away to re-write his story into the great book that it could have been. Because it was ‘only fantasy’ and the publishers needed to jump on the Tolkien bandwagon, it seems to me that they snatched this up uncritically and threw quality out the window. Despite Tolkien, the publishers have decided that fantasy readers don’t deserve better, and that’s what infuriates me.

Rants and replies to:tehanu@theonering.net

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