Fatal Musings: Epic Vision

Book 2 of the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

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Post by wayfriend »

I'm glad to hear you liked it. I'm also glad to hear it's interesting, because like anyone I do fear laying an egg. So thanks.

One of the reasons I write these kinds of posts is to encourage people to know that they can discuss these things. If I can, anyone can. Let loose with the ideas, barnetto!
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Post by ninjaboy »

I thought that was a really well-written essay. Very thought out and it really does emphasise what is so special about the Chronicles.. Well not the *only* thing that is special about the Chronicles..

This 'epic vision' is one of the reasons I am irritated by those who just put it down after the rape scene.. Because they really are missing out on something truly remarkable. And reading 'Twilight' instead. *shudd
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Post by wayfriend »

I've been thinking, I could have written a whole subsection in Epic Vision about the jheherrin.

For what purpose did Covenant encounter these beings shortly before his confrontation with the Despiser? The help that Covenant and the giant needed in order to penetrate Foul's Creche could have taken any form. So, why creatures of mud?

The jheherrin are pitiful, and weak, and cowardly, and impotent. Their nature is such that they cannot tolerate something as innocuous as sunlight. They fear the Maker, under whose very nose they eak out a futile, childless existence. They live as if any day they will all be wiped out, and only by remaining craven can they hope to survive.

They are, by any and all accounts, beings fully living in the Ironic Mode.

In fact, they are so Ironic Mode, they make lepers seem like superheroes.

It is plausible that this is why Covenant meets them.

On the path of his story arc, Covenant is just about to confront the Despiser. Whatever character transformations he needed to make in order to be ready for that, he has made them. He has epic vision. Latent, unknown to himself, and untested. He has come a long way since he was a scared, self-protecting leper daring to go into town to pay his phone bill.

When he meets the jheherrin, he is meeting himself, as he used to be.

The result is tears. He feels concern and pity for the jheherrin, and sadness at their state. He is appalled that he may have distressed them by interfering with their sole dream of a Perfect One.

It is interesting the the jheherrin cannot abide the sun. They seem to be the precursors of the people of the Land in the Second Chronicles, who suffer under the Sunbane. Like those people, the jheherrin live in the Ironic Mode, and lack epic vision.

In the Second Chronicles, Covenent gives back to the people of the Land the epic vision that they have lost. Similarly, in the Second Chronicles, we find that has also given it to the jheherrin. They are now the sur-jheherrin.
In [u]The Wounded Land[/u] was wrote:From cave to mud pit, quagmire to swamp, underground spring to riverbed, they moved northward across the years, seeking terrain in which they could flourish. And they found what they needed in the Sarangrave. For them, it was a place of safety: their clay flesh and mobility, their ability to live in the bottoms of quicksands and streams, suited them perfectly to the Flat. And in safety they healed their old terror, became creatures who could face pain and risk, if need arose.

Thus their gratitude toward the Pure One grew rather than diminished through the generations. When they saw Giants in peril, their decision of aid was made without hesitation for all the sur-jheherrin throughout the Sarangrave.
Certainly, the sur-jheherrin have some amount of epic vision that their ancestors lacked. Creatures who could face pain and risk. They flourish in their environment, rather than suffer within it. They made momentous decisions without hesitation. They are far from being strong beings as we know strong, but in their own way, they strive and dare and are not afraid to tackle the world and stand up for what they believe in.

How were they transformed so?

I'd like to think that, in daring to help Foamfollower and Covenant, they took the first steps on a journey of self-discovery. They found what was always within themselves. When children came to them, it was not because of a miracle manifested by the Pure One, but because they had managed to transform themselves, harness their own destinies. When they believed in themselves, they became potent, and potent, they became prolific.
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What a post!

Post by ussusimiel »

Hi Wayfriend,

I know that this post is up here a while but I am new to the forum and I just wanted to say that your post made me register so I could express my gratitude for the generosity of your offering. It is exactly what I would hope to read in a scholarly yet vibrant book about the Chronicles. The kind of book that I would buy immediately if I saw it. A book by a scholar and a lover of Covenant and the Land.

This site is a beacon of light on the net. A necessary corrective to Ironic Mode. You do credit to yourself and all the rest who make this site what it is.

Hail Earthfriend!
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Re: What a post!

Post by Cambo »

ussusimiel wrote:Hi Wayfriend,

I know that this post is up here a while but I am new to the forum and I just wanted to say that your post made me register so I could express my gratitude for the generosity of your offering. It is exactly what I would hope to read in a scholarly yet vibrant book about the Chronicles. The kind of book that I would buy immediately if I saw it. A book by a scholar and a lover of Covenant and the Land.

This site is a beacon of light on the net. A necessary corrective to Ironic Mode. You do credit to yourself and all the rest who make this site what it is.

Hail Earthfriend!
And thank you, ussusimiel, for posting and bringing this thread to my attention!

all credit to Wayfriend for his essay. It's easily one of the best Covenant posts I've read on the Watch so far. Wayfriend, I believe I joined shortly after you went on hiatus. Come back, I want to meet you and discuss!
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Post by ussusimiel »

You're welcome, Cambo, glad to be of service!

I'm new on the Watch and I hope to meet you on the plains of the threads and the slopes of the forum!
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Post by Cambo »

ussusimiel wrote:You're welcome, Cambo, glad to be of service!

I'm new on the Watch and I hope to meet you on the plains of the threads and the slopes of the forum!
Yea, we there we shall meet, and exchange tales and laugh like Giants, and our thoughts shall run like the Ranyhyn, and we shall frolic like Wraiths, and become wise like Lords!

:biggrin: Welcome, see you around.
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Post by Iolanthe »

A marathon post, but I read it in one go, must go back and read it again in a few days - memory not so retentive these days. Now I feel the need to read the books all over again. Trouble is, once I begin I can't put them down. Thank you so much for recording your thoughts.
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Post by wayfriend »

(I wasn't sure which topic best served this post. Rape thread? Re-read thread? I chose to stick it here.)

If you have Epic Vision on your mind, as I do, when you reread the Chronicles, as I am now, there are lots of things small details that pop out at you in and shine in a new way.

And the rape of Lena now seems quite different to me now.

I came across these lines when it struck me.
In [i]The One Tree[/i] was wrote:"Can you believe it? I used to be impotent. Back when I thought leprosy was the whole story."
Throughout the Chronicles, power is equated to effectiveness, and both are the antithesis of futility. When I read those lines, what struck me was this: what's more futile than impotence?

Covenent was impotent when he first contracted his leprosy. Leprosy doesn't imply impotence. But as a leper, Donaldson considered him was the epitome of futility. Impotence is a reasonable symbol of this. A manifestation of the Ironic Mode.

However, in the Second Chronicles, we have a man who has mastered the lessons of the first Chronicles, a man who is effective in his own life, who has escaped the Ironic Mode. A man who is potent. Potent in spite of weakness by the intensity of his heart.

So, he is no longer impotent, even though his leprosy remains. His leprosy isn't his whole story. He was not a leper - not just a leper. Covenant has found a vision that has made him effective in his own life. Sexual potency is [again] a symbol of this. A "concrete manifestation" of this (if you would allow).

All well and good.

But now, let's go all the way back to Lord Foul's Bane, to the chapter entitled "Lena", where we find a Covenant who suddenly has lost his impotency.

The in-story explanation is that he was cured of his leprosy. But leprosy didn't cause his impotence directly. So we must also consider the semiotics. If impotency is the symbol of futility, then restoring potency is the symbol of escaping futility, of becoming powerful or at least effective.

But if that's the symbol, what is the denotatum?

At this early stage of the first Chronicles, Covenant hasn't yet learned anything, hasn't yet changed any course of his life. Despite Foul's monologuing, he believes he must be unimportant and powerless. (In fact, he thinks his dream is trying to destroy him by leading him to believe otherwise.)

On the other hand, he has come to the Land, and he has wild magic. He doesn't know it yet, but he has it. In fact, he has everything he needs to defeat Lord Foul quite literally at hand. He just needs to recognize that this is so.

So the lapse of his impotency must be a symbol or manifestation of wild magic, a power he is unaware he has, and which will take him a long time to learn how to use. He is, in fact, as Donaldson says, "bloody dangerous". Without experience or even awareness, he might do anything with his power. He's bound to hurt someone.

Lena.

Donaldson has spoken in the Gradual Interview about some of the reasons for Lena's rape. One of the reasons is to show Covenant's conflicted nature. "Covenant is demonstrably a man who "could go either way." And when the story begins, he is far more likely to go in Lord Foul's direction than in the Creator's."

But now I also see that there is another level to think about. His sudden potency is a symbol of wild magic. His lack of control over his lust is a symbol of his inability to control wild magic. And the rape of Lena is a symbol of how dangerous wild magic is without control. Without a moral compass, wild magic can be a great cause of harm. Like a man who is suddenly no longer impotent, Covenant needs to figure out how to responsibly weild his power, because if he heedlessly follows his passions, people will be hurt.
In [i]Lord Foul's Bane[/i] was wrote:A moment later, he dropped the burden of his weight on her chest, and her loins were stabbed with a wild, white fire that broke her silence, made her scream.
Wild, white fire. An obvious allusion to wild magic. That makes sense to me now. Covenant is weilding his newly found power. In this case, destructively.
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Post by Savor Dam »

I agree that this is the proper thread for these insights, weaved as they are into the fabric of your Epic Vision interpretation of the Chrons.

Nicely done. Not sure how the "wild, white fire" phrasing escaped all of us for these many decades. Like an optical illusion, it is so clear once it is pointed out...
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Post by ussusimiel »

Interesting insight, wayfriend.

u.

P.S. It's also cool to get a notification from the thread that inspired me to join the Watch*. Many thanks again to wayfriend for that!

*DISCLAIMER: wayfriend is on no way responsible for any perfidities that I have subsequently perpetrated on the Watch. Those have been all my own doing :lol:
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Post by Cams »

wayfriend wrote:The very first time I read the Chronicles, I found them very uplifting, and I would even go so far as to say that they helped me. At the time, I considered it a story about perseverance. Now I think I recognize that it's a story that communicates epic vision - that a man can be an effective passion, despite "the poverty of his life". And that this is where the uplift that I found came from, I now have come to see.

If other people have found the Chronicles to be uplifting, or would say that it changed their lives for the better, then I think we need to give Donaldson credit for some success.
I've often wondered just what it is that I find so uplifting about the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Your essay has gone a long way to helping me figure that out.

Alcohol and depression have been part of my life. Thankfully I'm sober now and haven't picked up since 2005. I first read the first and second chronicles in the 90s when I was in my 20s and growing into my alcoholism. Then again in my 30s when it was full-blown and the third time in the late noughts a few years after getting sober through AA.

And now I've just finished the Last Chronicles for the first time and gone back to Lord Foul's Bane.

These books have accompanied me through the years and I've related to them differently each time. As I suppose has anyone that has read them multiple times.

This essay about Epic Vision and the Ironic Mode has gone a long way to helping me to understand why I find these books so uplifting. In my own small way, I've lifted myself out of "poverty" (addiction) and built a different life on a more spiritual path, a path of acceptance, a path of love.

And that leads me to what I find to be the most valuable and quotable part of the book, which is this:

You will not fail, however he may assail you. There is also love in the world..

That's the message I take and that I try to live my life by.
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Post by wayfriend »

Thanks for sharing, Cam.

There doesn't need to be a reason why you like something. But when you figure out why you are drawn to something, sometimes it can clarify something about yourself. In this way, stories heal.

Donaldson has written a very healing story.
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Post by samrw3 »

Yes thanks for sharing Cam.

My story was when I was a teenager I was a introvert and shy - both at extremely high levels. Already being at teen awkward stage and having those qualities was not a easy road. Most of my days were spent reading and wallowing in my self pity and inferiority complex. SRD books were some of the first to help plant the seeds that I could find a way out of that state of being. That I could step out of my current state of mind and find passion to do better and be better.
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Fatal Musings: Epic Vision

Post by Barnetto »

For anyone looking to follow the link (which is broken) to Donaldson's short essay, you can find it here:
https://www.stephenrdonaldson.com/EpicFantasy.pdf
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Fatal Musings: Epic Vision

Post by Cord Hurn »

Barnetto wrote: For anyone looking to follow the link (which is broken) to Donaldson's short essay, you can find it here:
https://www.stephenrdonaldson.com/EpicFantasy.pdf
Thank you for the link, Barnetto! An entertaining essay. 8)
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Fatal Musings: Epic Vision

Post by High Lord Tolkien »

Wow, that essay was fantastic! Thanks. I like reading whatever SRD has to say.
It also had an unexpected and wonderful quick dive into Tolkien's works.
I think I'm going to give The Riddle-Master of Hed a read now as well.
And, as always, Donaldson used a phrase I had never heard of and had to look up: "de trop". :D
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Fatal Musings: Epic Vision

Post by Helen Blood »

Great thread! I'm blown away by the initial post. Not much I could possibly add, so I'll just offer this, the core of which I wrote the other day after watching a critique of the Chronicles on YouTube and scrolling through the comments. It's sort of a personal account of my own encounter with the New Epic.

Reading Lord of the Rings at the age of 12 made me feel something had been restored to me that I'd never known was missing. Reading the first four Covenant books at 19 made me feel I could be restored.
Originally read these books in 1977. I was 18. Found Covenant frustrating rather than unlikable. He was a broken, wounded animal fighting for his sanity and his life. I felt sorry for him. I wonder how I'll feel after 47 yrs. About to find out. :)

– @Splucked, commenting on Library Ladder's YouTube video, “Are The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant Essential Reading?” (emphasis mine)
Probably the best thumbnail description of Covenant at the beginning I've ever seen.

At 19 when I first read the books, I not only felt sorry for him—I identified with him.

Because I too was broken and wounded and fighting. I didn't realize it because I had never been anything else, but I felt it very keenly. “Seeing” someone else go through this fight, the way only a novel can show it to you; seeing that person go through several hells and emerge with a smile—because they are alive—made it not only possible but permissible to continue my own battle, which wasn't simply with “mental illness.” There probably could, maybe even should, have been a diagnosis involved, but the threats to my sanity and life, as to Covenant's, were also cultural, moral, and at least partly self inflicted: existential in the true sense of the word.

And hey, if this guy could get through it...

I would like to say I was horrified at the rape scene, but in all honesty, it didn't shock me. The scene, and the pages leading up to it where an experienced reader who can bear to look can see it coming, have gotten harder to read over the years, especially knowing how it will affect both characters. But what truly upsets me now is not only my lack of reaction back then, but the reason for it.

It wasn't that I didn't understand what had happened. I knew what rape was. In fact, I had been taught all my life that every man, without exception--even my gentle father and generally protective older brother--were rapists at heart and by nature. As men, they just couldn't help it.

As a woman--and especially, a girl--it was up to me to prevent them from acting on it. Simply being alone with a man, I was taught, implied that I wanted to have sex with him, and as a “good girl” I wasn't supposed to want that until my wedding night. I was supposed to be simultaneously as attractive as possible, in order to “catch” a husband, and always on guard in order to protect the men around me from acting on their own terrible urges.

Leprosy might have been easier.

So it didn't surprise me at all that poor, innocent, star-struck Lena, who had obviously never been given such crucial instruction—the Land was different from our world, indeed—fell to harm upon going into a dark place with a strange man. It's not that I felt she got what she deserved; I just felt sorry for her, that she didn't know any better.

And to my shame, I identified so strongly with Covenant that I didn't really feel the severity of what he had done. I felt the intensity of his relief; I understood having strong desires thwarted, could imagine how sweet would be the release. But because I had been taught this was just the way all men are, I didn't really understand how wrong it was, to take that release from someone who didn't know any better, to take his rage out on her in that particular way. I didn't even stop to think about it. Like him, I just kept going, to find out what happened and how he got through all this. Because on some level, I urgently needed to know.

Looking back on that time, it astonishes me that it was only a matter of weeks before personal, real world experience changed my view on such things. Part of my own torment came from questioning everything I had been taught, on a level that in hindsight went beyond simple adolescent testing of boundaries. Some of those teachings were so plainly wrong—the overt racism of my parents' pre-Civil Rights Movement South, for instance—that I felt compelled to question all of it, in deed as well as thought. I went into dark places with strange people, literally and metaphorically. Once or twice I suffered similar harm as Lena did. Not metaphorically. I learned my own brand of caution, for my own reasons.

Those incidents happened in the few months between reading Lord Foul's Bane and the rest of First Chronicles, plus Wounded Land, which I think had just come out in paperback. My experience didn't affect my opinion of Covenant. I didn't come out of denial about what had happened for several more years, didn't yet name it as rape, let alone connect it with that scene in the book. But my woundedness and sense of fighting for my life were amplified, enhancing my identification. Wounded Land in particular gave me some concepts and catchphrases useful for survival. Caamora. “Run. Fight if we have to. Live.”

Without knowing it, in reading about Covenant's journey of moral recovery, I had begun my own.

It's still going on.

Over the years, I re-read the first six books several times, usually at moments when I needed to get back to the basics of who I am. They were so formative for me, reading them again served as a reminder of where I had come from and what I was about.

Each re-reading brought new insights, new watchwords. “There is also love in the world.” I continued to grow and learn, but it wasn't until I finally braved Last Chronicles that I could appreciate these books as something more than just a personal touchstone. Reading Donaldson's other works, as well as Last Chronicles, has put some things in perspective for me.

Watching the Library Ladder videos, I had the sense that the critic onscreen was missing something, possibly several very important things. Reading wayfriend's initial post, re-reading Donaldson's essay, it strikes me that the videos were critiquing simply on the level of craft while ignoring the far more important—and impressive—level of artistry. It's that level, the deeper currents of thought, that impresses me most about Donaldson's work. Are there flaws in his writing? Of course. Does that negate the enormous value of it? Of course not.

Wayfriend makes the point in the initial post that
The fantasy world here is not walled off from us; it is accessible, because it is only a metaphor...In a sense, anyone who understands the metaphor can go there. Because anyone who understands what the Chronicles shows us can learn from it and apply it to their own lives.
Most of the critics who dismiss Donaldson on the basis of craft and style—reliance on deus-ex-machina, all those obscure words—seem to be missing the metaphor. It's not only the rape scene that's “divisive.” If you get the metaphor, the flaws are easy to live with. If you don't, they become inexcusable, because style and craft are all you're looking at. Which is a shame--there's so much more here, and it really can change, or even save, your life.

That said, one of my favorite parts of the Gradual Interview--and one of the best responses to the inevitable fan-gush of “You saved my life!” I've ever heard--was when Donaldson said something like: You saved your own life. I'm just glad my words were there to help.

Me too. Other, more specific help came along later, but Donaldson's words were among the first, and I remain very grateful for that.
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I think the eye of the paradox just winked at me...
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