Against All Things Ending, by Stephen R. Donaldson
Paperback: 575 pages (trade)
Publisher: Putnam, ©2010
Review by Peter Dowd
Any of Donaldson’s multiple Covenant Chronicles can be characterized as being garbed in the viscera of human emotion. The tale brings the reader into such intimate acquaintance with loss, sorrow, rage, self-doubt, self-loathing, self-condemnation and ultimately, despair, that the sensation of drowning amidst one’s own stunned silence prevails. Against All Things Ending is no different.
As the third of four ‘Last Chronicles,’ and the penultimate of all ten Chronicles, Against All Things Ending is a book that relies a great deal upon what has come before. As such, it is prefaced with a recounting of these main story lines across the previous eight installments. The book also includes the same map that long-time fans will be accustomed to, as well as a glossary of terms specific to the Covenant Chronicles.
Donaldson’s use of archaic terms throughout the Covenant Chronicles is well known. Aside from driving the reader to the dictionary, the terms used also provide a meaning unattainable with more modern equivalents. Donaldson also employs a dynamic use of simile. In fact, the only element to Donaldson’s style that has ever failed to satisfy, and it is a recurring one, is excessive description during periods of travel which undermines the overall sense of the novel’s pace.
The tale unfolds through five main, and sequential, acts. In labeling them, according to their setting, they are: Andelain, Gravin Threndor (Mount Thunder), the Spoiled Plains (where the group splits), Muirwin Delenoth (a region south of Kurash Qwellinir, i.e. the Shattered Hills, which ring Foul’s Creche – Avery’s party) and Ridjeck Thome (the proper name for Foul’s Creche – Covenant’s party). Those who love and defend the Land are confronted by numerous enemies and an impending apocalypse. Throughout this tale, lives are lost, choices are made and consequences are borne, willingly or not.
Throughout, Linden Avery and Thomas Covenant are their typical selves. Surely, there has been some dislike of the two characters over time. However, it seems most likely that the antipathy for the characters stems from the characters’ penchant for: 1) unintentional destruction and damage, 2) subsequent self-doubt and loathing and, 3) the emotional or mental paralysis suffered by the character consequently. Such circumstances can be disheartening and drive one to look away when descried in another. Perhaps because it brings on a disturbing sense of discomfort – reminding us of similar events we have suffered. No sane person wants to go there ever again.
And so, there are many who criticize Donaldson’s Covenant Chronicles as being rather bleak. The works are not intrinsically so, as the author has demonstrated throughout why nothing is too bleak. Ranyhyn are still Ranyhyn – i.e. noble. Giants are still Giants – i.e. cheerful and faithful. Haruchai are still Haruchai – i.e. ready and able. For all of the dreariness a reader may encounter in the Covenant Chronicles, the author does provide salvific relief, however subtle it may be.
By way of example, Linden Avery has a conversation with Stave, a Haruchai by birth and former Master. Linden asks why the Masters distrust her as though she were a second Kevin Landwaster. She asks what is so similar between the two of them. Stave responds by saying, “If.” Linden asks for elaboration and gets it – in spades.
“If, Chosen. That you share with High Lord Kevin Landwaster, who is now forgiven by his sires. If.
Summoned to a parley with or concerning the Demondim, if he had not sent his friends and fellow Lords in his stead. Concerned and grieving for your son, if you had heeded Anele’s desire for the Sunstone. You believe that you might have acted otherwise, and that you are culpable for your failure to do so. Thus you open your heart to despair, as High Lord Kevin did also.”
“Chosen, you have rightly charged the Masters with arrogance. They have deemed themselves wise enough, and worthy, to prejudge the use which the folk of the Land would make of their knowledge. After his own fashion, Kevin Landwaster was similarly arrogant. In his damning if, he neglected to consider that his friends and fellow Lords selected their own path. He commanded none of these to assume his place. Indeed, many among the Council valued his wisdom when he declined to hazard his own vast lore and the Staff of Law in a perilous vesture [perhaps author meant ‘venture’ – typo?]. Yet those voices he did not hear. Arrogating to himself responsibility for the fate of those who fell, he demeaned them – and failed to perceive Corruption clearly. Faulting himself for error rather than Corruption for treachery, he was self-misled to the Ritual of Desecration, and could not turn aside.
So it is with you.”
In an attempt to drive the point home, inexorably, Stave concludes his comparison of Linden Avery to Kevin Landwaster:
“…you demean all who stand with you by believing that there can be no other fault than yours, and that no fault of yours can be condoned. Doing so, ‘You tread paths prepared for you by Fangthane’s malice,’ as Manethrall Mahrtiir has said. Thus you emulate High Lord Kevin.
In your present state, Chosen, Desecration lies ahead of you. It does not crowd at your back.”
Avery, as is her wont, has assumed “the weight of the world” upon herself. Stave explains that Avery has, at her side, Ranyhyn, Giants and Haruchai that are ready, willing and able. Stave asserts that it is futile, and the road to despair, for Avery to assume total responsibility for defending the Land and battling its enemies. It is in this way, that Stave provides ‘salvific relief’ – by emphasizing that no one need necessarily be alone with their burdens.
Since the 1980’s, I have read and enjoyed the Covenant Chronicles. Within, there lies a deep, rich and well disguised symbolism that is extremely relevant to the conduct and endurance of an individual life. They are stories that offer the reader maimed and loathsome lepers, both literally and figuratively, who demonstrate the virtues of perseverance and resolve. In the end, these characters transcend their baser natures by disdaining apathy, self-abasement and despair. It boldly and confidently delivers the message that nothing, and no one, is irredeemable or unforgivable.
Against All Things Ending, as with any other Covenant Chronicles, does more than merely entertain. It is a story which explores the width, breadth and depth of the concept of free-will, especially how to recognize its pitfalls and gracefully accept its consequences.
A Must Read.
Peter Dowd, 2011