The Last Dark
The Last Dark is an unsparing slaughterfest that respects the apocalypse: neither Covenant nor Linden can stop it. All they can aim for is damage control and stop the Despiser from making Hell out of Hades; the world's destruction goes on regardless. I was sure this is where the Last Chronicles were going, and confident that Donaldson had the courage to follow through, but my jaded self was half-expecting a wild card to get The Land out of jail. This is the payoff we deserve, that The Land deserves, and I hope more fantasies will emulate it. Only Tolkien could save the world without it feeling like a cheat.
But make no mistake, Tolkien looms where it counts. Themes of noble courage and futility have saturated The Last Chronicles, and now they are brought sharply into focus, not only through mass carnage but scolding sermons. The Giants of the Land have always reminded me of hobbits (save in size), but more than ever in The Last Dark, where the twin virtues of hopelessness and cheer are made so explicit. First there is Cirrus Kindwind's lecture to an emotionally damaged Jeremiah, who like all youths have shrill ideas about justice and what people deserve. Kindwind corrects this (pp 187-188):
Kindwind: "The notion of deserved and undeserved is a fancy. Knowing both life and death, we endeavor to impose worth and meaning upon our deeds, and thereby comfort our fear of impermanence. We choose to imagine that our lives merit continuance. But that is a fancy. A wider gaze does not regard us in that wise. The stars do not. Perhaps the Creator does not. The larger truth is merely that all things end. By that measure, our fancies cannot be distinguished from dust. For this reason, we Giants love tales. Our iteration of past deeds and desires and discoveries provides the only form of permanence to which mortal life can aspire. That such permanence is a chimera does not lessen its power to console. Joy is in the ears that hear."And as always, the wisdom of Giants opposes the honor codes of the Haruchai, who measure everything by outcomes and are trapped in cycles of shame.
Jeremiah: "So you're saying what Stave did is worthless? What Cabledarm did is worthless? It's all dust? You sound like the croyel. It was forever telling me that what Mom did was useless. Nothing matters. It's all dust. That's why Lord Foul laughs -- and Roger -- and those Ravers. They agree with you."
Kindwind: "Then hear me, Chosen-son. Hear me well. We do what we must so that we may find worth in ourselves. We do not hope vainly that we will put an end to pain, or to loss, or to death. The purpose of life is not ease. It is to choose and act upon the choice. In that task we are not measured by outcomes. We are measured only by daring and effort and resolve."
Rime Coldspray's speech on the doorstep of Mount Thunder (p 377) is possibly my favorite passage in the book:
"Here we surrender every future which we have imagined for ourselves. We have no prospect of return. Indeed we cannot trust that we will outlive another day. Our doom is this, that we enter Mount Thunder seeking to confront the most heinous of foes -- and yet the Worm hastens toward the World's End many scores of leagues distant, where no deed of ours can thwart it. Thus even the greatest triumphs within the mountain may come to naught, for no life will remain to heed the tale. Nonetheless I proclaim that I am not daunted. While hearts beat and lungs draw breath, we seek to affirm the import of our lives. When we must perish, my wish for us is that we will come to the end knowing that we have held fast to that which we deem precious. Doubtless this is folly. Yet when have our deeds been otherwise? Are we not Giants? And is not our folly the stone against which we have raised the sea of our laughter?"And when all the Giants start doing exactly that -- laughing in the face of doom -- Jeremiah looks on thinking "they had lost their minds". Coldspray is basically replaying Sam Gamgee at the Black Gate, who "never had any hope in Frodo's quest, but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope". As far as I can tell, Hobbits and Giants have exactly the same outlook: things must turn out badly in the end, so they can only be better in the meantime; if you dare to hope you will fall prey to despair when your hope is withdrawn; expecting disaster from the start enables you to remain immune, even cheerful, when your expectations are simply confirmed.
This idea opposes Judeo-Christian values and comes from cultures where evil is expected to triumph at Armageddon, like the Norse Ragnarok. Tolkien was Catholic and believed hope was virtuous, but he was drawn by the hard nobility of the ancient pagans, and in a pre-Christian world like Middle-Earth, hope could only be for fools. In The Land hope is more murky, and Donaldson works outside Christian/pagan frameworks in any case. As I see it, there is a progression of pessimism in The Land as stakes increase. The first chronicles allow for a measure of hope against evil, the second just barely, and the third not much at all. This mirrors the escalation of menace as Covenant goes from (a) facing Lord Foul and defeating him (in the first series), to (b) surrendering to Lord Foul and accepting him (in the second), to (c) becoming Lord Foul as the earth is destroyed (in the last). So even when things are at their bleakest in The Power That Preserves, Mhoram can encourage hope in the war against samadhi Raver and for Covenant's purposes against the Despiser. The second trilogy is crushingly defeatist: the Sunbane is an omnipresent horror, the quest of the One Tree fails, and Covenant is ready, by the end of White Gold Wielder, to give up and surrender his ring. Of course, that's a paradox (the quest for the Staff of Law didn't really fail, as Vain's arm was transmuted, and Covenant's surrender is what enables his victory), but few readers feel any hope in the Second Chronicles; they are depressing to the point of suffocation. In Andelain, nonetheless, the shade of Mhoram summons the optimism to say, "My friends, I believe you will prevail."
Not even a sliver of this hope can be found in the Last Chronicles. The best the Lords can allow for are deeper mysteries owing to the purity of Linden's passion. They are non-judgmental (save Kevin), but agree with Infelice that Linden has wrought disaster by removing Covenant from the Arch of Time. After Andelain it's all about damage control -- trying to prevent Lord Foul from escaping the Arch, and stopping his even deeper threat against the Creator. Then too, had Linden not brought on the apocalypse, the Despiser may have done much worse over time. Thus we learn in the epilogue:
Linden: "All those people. Millions of them. Tens of millions. All that devastation. I did that. I have to live with so much death."When Infelice at last finds wisdom, it's with a truth harder to take than her own gall.
Infelice: "Yet had you not roused the Worm, he whom you name the Despiser would have wrought graver harm by some other means. Damning the Earth, you enabled its redemption."
As for the narrative, it's a cracker, and punches along at the pace we craved in Against All Things Ending. The atmosphere is an underworld of vanishing stars and no sun; the reality of the apocalypse is felt on every page. On the coastal front, Covenant races to the Sarangrave in order to steer the Worm onto a less lethal path and buy himself time. Before this we're treated to the vastly entertaining spectacle of him being whipsawed by the Lurker, as the colossal beast aims him with the krill against its own body -- using Covenant to tear off parts of itself before turiya Raver can possess more. Leagues west, the Giants and Stave nearly kill themselves building Jeremiah's sanctuary, while Infelice, incredibly, declares her intent to slay Jeremiah (so that Foul won't be able to capture him and use his talents) even as he's saving her bloody ass from extinction. To top that off, Kastenessen makes a long-overdue appearance, and breaks Jeremiah in a horrible possession. Donaldson depicts the event as a splintering of many selves: "One Jeremiah realized that he had been possessed and tried to scream; one stood in the white core of a furnace; another interpreted every form of pain as pure delight; one relished the knowledge that he had become incarnate lava, and the idea that his companions were about to die glorified him; still another self fled for the safety of sepulchres; another gibbered for the godhood of eternity." (p 209) Meanwhile, Linden hurtles centuries back into the past to achieve a forgotten power. This entails revisiting my favorite character Carroil Wildwood, in a grand chapter of musical rage and unprecedented sacrifice.
The Last Dark isn't perfect though, and doesn't quite attain the heights of what I consider the best Covenant books -- Fatal Revenant, The Wounded Land, The One Tree, and The Illearth War, in that order. I was a bit let down by Jeremiah, who overcame moksha Raver too easily, not to mention his horrendous emotional baggage. His mother needed a whole trilogy to heal, but he -- a physically tormented and mindraped teenager -- somehow manages to pull his shit together in the space of five days. As for Covenant becoming Lord Foul, the idea is faultless; the execution lukewarm. It occurs awkwardly and out-of-the-blue at the showdown in Mount Thunder, in conjunction with Linden's confusing liberation of the Bane. Both of these contain impressive elements, but they lack an organic build-up that made Covenant's surrender of the white gold, and Linden's fusing of Vain and Findail, a brilliant payoff in the second series. Nor did I care for the preliminary clash outside Mount Thunder, where Donaldson copies his earlier mistake of bringing out too many Sandgorgons (on top of umpteen skurj). The result is battle fatigue that trivializes the graphic horror of a single Sandgorgon in The One Tree -- just like Aliens did to Alien.
So ends the last trial of Thomas Covenant whom I will sorely miss. It's the real ending this time, and leaves us imagining the new world: a rebuilt Land, not exactly free of Lord Foul, but with a Despiser constrained or diluted by the flesh of wild magic. You could easily get a fourth chronicles out of that -- the potential of Covenant becoming a demon is certainly there -- but after ten books, I think the story of Covenant=the Despiser is best left to the imagination.
Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.