March 29, 2011

Keeping the Covenant: a beloved fantasy series resumes

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Stephen R. Donaldson began his acclaimed Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series in 1977. With his creation of Thomas, a flawed everyman who enters an alternate universe, the Land, to save it from the evil Lord Foul, Donaldson became one of the biggest names in fantasy. He ended the series with White Gold Wielder, much to the dismay of his millions of fans. This month, Donaldson launches a four-volume conclusion to the saga with The Runes of the Earth. Here, Donaldson explains why he decided to return to Thomas and the Land after more than 20 years.

The dedication to my novel, The Wounded Land (Book One of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), reads: "To Lester del Rey: Lester made me do it." I naturally wanted to dedicate a book to him. He was the editor who discovered me, the editor who found Lord Foul’s Bane in his slush pile and decided to publish it when it had already been rejected by every fiction publisher in the U.S. (including Ballantine Books, the company that later hired him to start a new fantasy line). I needed to express my gratitude somehow. And I chose to say that "Lester made me do it" an intentional reference to that old excuse, "The Devil made me do it" because he is both directly and indirectly responsible for every Covenant book that has followed, and will follow in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

Of course, Lester is directly responsible because he published me when no one else would. In that sense, he is responsible for my entire writing career (19 books so far, not counting The Runes of the Earth). Nonetheless the line, "Lester made me do it," refers more to his indirect responsibility for the subsequent Covenant books.

Lester, bless him, had many admirable qualities as an editor. However, he was also one of publishing’s foremost advocates for "repeatable success." Having published my first trilogy successfully, he saw no earthly reason why I should not continue to write Covenant books, and only Covenant books, until the day I died (or until they stopped selling, whichever came first). I, on the other hand, disagreed. Strenuously. As far as I was concerned, my first trilogy told a complete story, and I saw no earthly reason why I should ever write another Covenant book. I had nothing more to say on the subject of Thomas Covenant’s struggles against Despite in the arena of the Land.

Well, Lester didn’t get where he was in life by taking "no" for an answer. But he had already discovered that I can be a bit pig-headed where writing is concerned. So he cleverly didn’t try to argue with me. Instead he began sending me "ideas" for my next Covenant book. Idea after idea, relentlessly, until I feared that he would never stop. And each new idea was worse than the one before. Soon he was sending me ideas so bad that Bulwar-Lytton wouldn’t have written them. And at last he succeeded in his devilish purpose: he sent me an idea SO bad that before I could stop myself I began thinking, "No, this one is truly terrible. What I really ought to do instead is . . ." Almost instantaneously, my brain seemed to fill with fire. Mere moments later, in a mad rush, almost helplessly, I had sketched in the main stories for both The Second Chronicles and The Last Chronicles: both of them perfectly logical extensions of "Covenant’s struggles against Despite in the arena of the Land"; both of them building seamlessly in sequence on the first Covenant trilogy; both of them playing their parts to make the entire Covenant saga into one vast, organic whole.

More than 20 years may have passed since I completed The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, but The Last Chronicles has remained alive in my imagination the whole time, waiting more and more impatiently for me to get around to finishing what I started. In that sense, it is quite literally true that "Lester made me do it."


Stephen R. Donaldson

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The Runes of the Earth

The Runes of the Earth

By Stephen R. Donaldson
ISBN 9780399152320

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