Our book today is Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Illearth War, the 1977 sequel to his Lord Foul’s Bane, which features as its central character a man named Thomas Covenant, a writer living in our normal, everyday world who gets diagnosed with leprosy. The diagnosis comes too late to save two of the fingers on his right hand, but after that he arrests the disease with medicine and vigilant care. The irony of Lord Foul’s Bane is that this initial set-up is more interesting than what follows: Covanant blacks out and wakes up in an entirely different reality, a fantasy-place called the Land, an idyllic place inhabited by peaceful people, ruled by the Lords of Revelstone, and menaced by the evil Lord Foul, who lives just about exactly where you’d find Sauron, if this were The Lord of the Rings instead. There’s lots of nifty creativity in Lord Foul’s Bane – from the jovial, tale-loving Giants to the immortal, superb warrior Bloodguard to the fact that the Lords all swear an Oath of Peace to serve the good of the Land to the very idea of having a leper as the hero – but the main narrative of the book so quickly softens into a standard heterogeneous-group-goes-questing-to-defeat-an-artefact-wielding-monster that its various unique signatures are lost in a gathering fog of ‘forsooth’s and ‘you shall not pass’s.

Which is why, when I recommend Donaldson (and I often do), I always take the odd step of advising people to skip the first book and move right on to the sequel, The Illearth War. At the end of the first book, the Summoning that brought Covenant to the Land is broken, and he returns to our own world almost completely convinced that it was all a dream (his angry insistence that it’s all a dream while it’s happening to him not only confuses everybody in the Land but also leads Covenant to commit a horrible crime because he thinks it can have no real consequences). The standard “what has gone before” prologue at the beginning of The Illearth War covers all the salient points in about ten paragraphs.

In the sequel, Donaldson’s creativity takes flight. Covenant, wandering around in a daze upon his return to the normal world, is suddenly Summoned to the Land again – but forty years have passed there. He’s been summoned by High Lord Elena to Revelstone because Lord Foul has amassed an enormous army and is preparing to make war on the Land – and the Lords need Covenant’s help. Covenant is no warrior and possesses no sorcery – but his wedding band is made of white gold, and in the Land this ring is imbued with Wild Magic from outside the Arch of Time, magic sufficient to eradicate Lord Foul, or so the Lords believe. The contrast between their almost-religious faith in him and his stubborn lack of faith in them is here raised to an exquisite pitch by the addition of a spoiler character: Hile Troy, a man also Summoned from our normal everyday world. Covenant quickly comes to the conclusion that he’s subconsciously placed Troy among his delusions “so I’d have somebody willing to argue with me,” but Troy – a blind military genius whom the Lords have placed in command of the Land’s armies – is bewildered by such a stance. The sheer vitality of the Land restores health: it’s erased Covenant’s leprosy, and it’s given Troy sight – what possible harm could come from believing in such a place? “How can you be so sure this isn’t real?” Troy asks him.

“Because life isn’t like this. Lepers don’t get well. People with no eyes don’t suddenly start seeing. Such things don’t happen. Somehow, we’re being betrayed. Our own – our own needs for something we don’t have – are seducing us into this. It’s crazy. Look at you. Come on – think about what happened to you. There you were, trapped between a nine-story fall and a raging fire – blind and helpless and about to die. Is it so strange to think that you cracked up?

“Just forget that you know there’s no possible way you could have come here. It’s impossible – But just forget that for a while. Listen. I’m a leper. Leprosy is not a directly fatal disease, but it can kill indirectly. I can only – any leper can only stay alive by concentrating all the time every minute to keep himself from getting hurt – and to take care of his hurts as soon as they happen. The one thing – Listen to me. The one thing no leper can afford is to let his mind wander. If he wants to stay alive. As soon as he stops concentrating, and starts thinking about how he’s going to make a better life for himself, or starts dreaming about how his life was before he got sick, or about what he would do if only he got cured, or even if people simply stopped abhorring lepers – This Land, it’s suicide to me. It’s an escape, and I can’t afford even thinking about escapes, much less actually falling into one. Maybe a blind man can stand the risk, but a leper can’t. If I give in here, I won’t last a month where it really counts.”

Hile Troy doesn’t understand that kind of obduracy, needless to say, but he’s got other things on his mind. The book splits into two parallel plots: Covenant, Elena, and the two Bloodguard sworn to protect them go on a more or less typical quest high into the mountains in search of a mystical ward against Foul’s magic power, while Troy and the army, two hundred Bloodguard, and several Lords (including Lord Mhoram, a marvellously complex character who Donaldson clearly knows is his best creation in this series) march out to meet Foul’s army and defeat it through Troy’s mastery of strategy and tactics.Troy is grateful to the Land for giving him sight, and he’s confident of his own preparations:

“The first time I stood on the top of Revelwood and looked over the valley where the Rill and the Llurallin rivers come together – the first time in my life that I had ever seen – the first time, Covenant, I had ever known that such sights existed – I swore I was going to win this war for the Land. Lacking missiles and bombs, there are other ways to fight. It took me a little while to convince the Lords – just long enough for me to outsmart all the best tacticians in the Warward. Then they made me their Warmark. Now I’m just about ready. A difficult strategic problem – we’re too far from the best line of defense, Landsdrop. And I haven’t heard from my scouts. I don’t know which way Foul is going to try to get at us. But I can beat him in a fair fight. I’m looking forward to it.”

Readers of fantasy literature will hardly need to be told what happens to somebody who talks like that. The shattering of Troy’s certainty is the highlight of the book, but it has lots of competition – there are stories within stories here, with characters continually popping up in order to tell the long tales of their adventures. And unlike in its predecessor volume, here Donaldson’s command of his action sequences is so assured that they thrill even upon multiple re-readings (and there are parts of this book you’ll re-read many, many times). The book’s dual climaxes are wonderfully ambivalent – you want to cheer, but you also dread the future.

Donaldson’s world in these books is intensely derivative of Tolkien, but The Illearth War rises above that fact in ways Lord Foul’s Bane doesn’t even hint at. He gets the most out of his fictional creations by knocking the hell out of them, and he’s only getting started. He’ll do much, much worse in this book’s sequel, as we shall see one of these days.

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