Thursday, December 14, 2017

Stephen R. Donaldson and Tolkien

Well, just finished my monster 12,000 article (14k with footnotes) on sexed/gender violence in Stephen R. Donaldson. Sent it off yesterday afternoon. I have high hopes for it, but it was exhausting to write -- not only 2 1/2 months of labor, but a very depressing subject matter. My final draft has the phrases "sexed violence," "rape," and "assault" appear 168 times, and my secondary reading wasn't no picnic either, as you might imagine.

But anyway, I started reading the 3rd book of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I got to think thinking about SRD and Tolkien himself. Perhaps I should preface this by saying -- and it kills me to do so, since I love SRD -- that The Last Chronicles are really, really, really bad. The first two books are perhaps mediocre; not awful, mind you, but not as fresh or captivating as either of the first two Covenant trilogies. Yet book 3, Against All Things Ending, is really a sucker punch to the soul. I tried reading it about three or four years ago, but couldn't make it past page 100. Very literally, almost nothing happens in those first 100 pages -- yet virtually every sentence is filled with heartache, anguish, and despair. Much like Patricia A. McKillip, Donaldson has always had a tendency toward melodrama and operatic extremity, but somehow in this book he has simply lost all restraint. Here's a sample paragraph from Pg 194:
Until that moment, Covenant had seemed preoccupied with pain, too hurt to react. Yet he heard her appeal. Meeting her gaze, he gave her a look of anguish, stricken and faltering, as if she had asked him to betray himself -- or her. His hair resembled a silver conflagration, as if his thoughts burned with shame.
That last bolded sentence is literally the dumbest thing I've ever read. (What does conflagration hair look like, really?). But the previous sentences are eye-roll-worthy as well. Every once in a while wouldn't have been bad, perhaps especially in a poignant moment in the narrative, but Donaldson goes on like that, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Show, not tell!

So this combination of re-reading late Donaldson, plus my long essay, has also made me reflect on his relationship to Tolkien. For this, I'll make up a few categories and see how things go:

Sub-creation -- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Tolkien -- and it's not even close. As much as I love The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Donaldson clearly is borrowing all of Tolkien's plot structure. That's not a flaw, mind you, so long as you do it well, which Donaldson. But he doesn't really come into his own until The Second Chronicles. . . . alas, though, The Final Chronicles, in terms of subcreation, has squeezed the lemon dry. There just isn't very much interesting about his world by the third go-around.

Prose -- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Tie. Actually, I hate discussions about prose, since there isn't really a rigorous way to discuss it -- although writers clearly revise their sentences according to some theory of better/worse, critics most often mention prose only to disparage a work they dislike for other reasons. Both Donaldson and Tolkien have both been unfairly maligned for those prose styles; really, though, their styles are just fine.

Intellectual Daringness-- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Donaldson -- but this is tricky. Tolkien was a hell of a bright guy, and he certainly knew pre-modern  century English literature way better than Donaldson does. But he's not nearly as self-consciously literary as SRD. This may possible be a case of bias, since SRD's existentialism seems more far-ranging (although not necessarily more meaningful) than Tolkien's Catholicism, but I give the points to SRD here. 

Plotting-- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Donaldson, slightly, again with the caveat that his plot for the first Chronicles owes a lot to Tolkien. But Donaldson seems better able, in my able opinion, to stretch out a climax much longer than Tolkien. And SRD's greater prolificness gives him much more narrative space to write gripping stories.

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