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The One Tree by Stephen Donaldson

The One Tree by Stephen Donaldson
3.5
Book Name: The One Tree
Author: Stephen Donaldson
Publisher(s): Del Rey
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Classic Fantasy
Release Date: 1982

Any of you read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? Fantasy royalty? Seminal work? They are an unusual series of books. In a good way. A saga, really, nearly forty years in the making.

The saga is composed of three trilogies (the last actually a quadrilogy, only completed last year!): The First-, Second– and Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I’m midway through the Second Chronicles and quietly enjoying it, I must say. Not something I can breeze through, mind you, as it can be a little hard going, but definitely worth my, and (I hope you agree by the end of this) your, time. So let me clue you in.

Thomas Covenant is a leper. A figure of fear, horror and revulsion, as his body rots away while he yet lives. It’s incurable. Unusual right? “What kind of hero is this?” you ask. The granddaddy of fantasy antiheroes, I say.

It’s 70s suburban America. He finds out he has the incurable disease. He’s sent to a modern leper colony, and there he is abandoned. The specialist doctors attempt to teach him how to live with his condition and keep the full effects of his leprosy at bay, but understandably he’s finding it all a little difficult. Once satisfied the risk of his infecting others is low, they allow him to return home – to a wife who leaves him their dream house and relocates with their young son, and townspeople not merely afraid of him, but actively hostile to his residency, who would, if they could, run him out of town. Yup. A bag full of laughs.

He survives only by drawing inwards, changing, becoming the man he needs to be: a man of grit, bitterness, selfishness and a slow-burning anger. So when he’s forced to brave walking into town to deal with some legal issues, he gets to it, puts on his armour, heads on out. On the way, however, he suffers a funny encounter with an old man who tells him to “Be true”.

BAM! He’s hit by a car. He wakes. This ain’t no hospital he’s ever seen! He’s been transported to a completely different world. The Land. A world, knowing he was hit by the car (and the fact he can feel his leprosy-numbed fingers for the first time in forever) he believes to be nothing more than a figment of his imagination. A dream. More so because the people there do not fear him, are not repulsed by him, instead treat him like some long lost hero, the man he so wants to be, the hero of his own story. He is supposed to be the Land’s saviour reborn, as the Land is in great need, but he can’t bring himself to believe a word of it. He does believe, however, he may just have to play along to get through the dream in order to wake up.

To cut a loooooooooong story short, and to do it some serious injustice, Covenant finds the Land is not a figment of his imagination (or if it is he can no longer bring himself to care, for the people of the Land, the people he has come to love and care for, taken advantage of and hurt, are real – to him) and the Despiser, the great evil of the world, the Creator’s rival and nemesis who is imprisoned on this world is manipulating him to his own nefarious ends, for Covenant is the White-Gold Wielder, the bearer of the untapped power of something alien to the Land and not entirely bound by its rules, the one thing that can save or destroy it. Covenant finds he must stop the Despiser at all cost, or all he has come to love will perish.

At the end of this trilogy we find he has a great victory, only at the beginning of the second trilogy to find the victory was a hollow one. And having returned to our world, where time, Narnia-like, runs differently, thousands of years have passed, and all his friends are dead and the Land is worse than ever. The Despiser has found a way to corrupt the Land and its people and their beliefs beyond anything he previously accomplished, and Covenant needs to set things right.

Sucked into this world alongside him is another person from our world, the itinerant, troubled doctor, Linden Avery. She is a woman with her own troubles, her own hang ups, and by answering a distressed call to visit Covenant’s farm, she finds herself sucked into his orbit and with him into the Land to face the Land’s call. To this end, Covenant in book one of the second trilogy, The Wounded Land, realises he must reconstruct the Staff of Law (broken on his watch), the potent magical tool of the Lords of Revelstone that governs the use of Earth Power, and with whose destruction all the corruption of the Land has been allowed to come to pass. Only, the One Tree, the source of the Staff’s material is across the sea and he must use the fortuitous arrival of giants, itinerant sailors, to find it.

So begins The One Tree, book two of the second trilogy. They are aboard the giants’ stone-wrought ship voyaging towards the Tree’s unknown abode. Along the way they encounter adventure and danger, not only from the unpredictable weather but the mythical creatures of the deep; attacks from the Despiser, that not only threaten the voyage but Covenant’s health and Linden’s sanity; unfathomable higher powers that can at once provide boon as well as doom; and tyrannical despots that threaten not merely their lives but the success of the quest itself.

Linden, who comes to rely on the inhumanly self-denying protection of the Haruchai (descendants of the Bloodguard, if you’re familiar with The First Chronicles), and the stalwart loyalty and heart-lifting camaraderie of the giants, must overcome the demons of her past and find her own strength if she is help Covenant find the One Tree, defeat the Despiser and bring order once again to the Land. Only, part of her fear is for that which lies not just in her head. Like all who are weak, she craves power, lusts for power like Covenant’s, and like Covenant, who has his own uneasy relationship with it, she fears its allure. She also fears the dark prophecy given her that she will betray Covenant and ensure his failure, so she distrusts even herself and shies away from anything that smacks of power. Only, she is constantly forced into situations where she must confront this head on, and her decisions affect them all.

This focus on Linden makes The One Tree more her story than it is Covenant’s, the first time so far in the saga this has happened. We see the story through her eyes. It is her internal world we are privy to as the events unfold. Her motivations, her conflicts, her interior life. And for my money it is in the rendering of these interior lives that Donaldson excels in. While the plot is an episodic one, like The Odyssey, full of adventure and incidents and obstacles to be overcome without and within, and like The Odyssey, in its structure it is very mythic, moving from disorder to order, or at least the seeking of such, its complexity rises more from its characters than its plot. It is the internal life that is Donaldson’s focus, the complexities of his characters as they try to navigate a world that forces them at every turn to confront their demons and weaknesses. This is what makes The One Tree – though difficult at times and not always thrilling – so compelling. Like the saga as a whole.

And like all I’ve read so far, The One Tree has a lot going for it. Strong characters, like the giants, whose laughter and camaraderie are a wonderful creation (forever immortalized with the unforgettable Foamfollower in The First Chronicles); extensively detailed interior monologues, from the perspective of mainly Linden Avery, giving us a break from the strict and often self-loathing Thomas Covenant, while also viewing him from the outside, whom to her seems an alluring and strong character (which is interestingly juxtaposed with his own views of himself); and the novelty of a new quest in territories we have not yet seen – land and sea and peoples.

But The One Tree is not without its hang-ups, most of which are tied up in the episodic nature of such a voyage and the single-character perspective chosen to relay it, as well as that character’s character arc. The problem is Linden is so self-deprecating, self-loathing and insecure that not even the richness of her interior life, which enables us to kind of understand her actions, can make some of those actions sympathetic, not because those actions are inherently distasteful but because, I have found, sympathy is a finite thing. Her character arc was stretched so long I found myself at times wishing she’d just fall overboard, to save me from having to listen to her self-deprecations, or that she would just get over herself already and start doing what the situations demanded she must. The good thing is, though it takes a while, Linden does get to this point, up to which the events themselves are exciting, intriguing, and portentous enough to hold your interest.

And interest is key. It is interest that keeps you going through some of the more difficult passages, where quick gratification is not the order of the day. It is also part of what makes the saga seem so (for lack of a better word) adult. Nothing is easy, nothing is straightforward. Motives are as complex as the actions they inspire and those actions rarely lead to wholly happy conclusions. Not to mention, Covenant is the grandfather of the antihero, a thoroughly self-centred and self-interested character, one we can only stomach because his internal life is so well rendered we are given enough to understand his actions in a given context even if we do not agree with or are even disgusted by them. Complex. And if that is what you are looking for in a story, something unable to be taken wholly at surface value, something desperately serious and different from much of modern fantasy fare, then I recommend the Thomas Covenant books to you wholeheartedly. For sheer novelty alone they are worth it. My advice? Start at book one of the saga, Lord Foul’s Bane. And if you like it, read on.

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Rating: 9.9/10 (7 votes cast)
The One Tree by Stephen Donaldson, 9.9 out of 10 based on 7 ratings
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2 Comments

  1. Bibliotropic says:

    This is a series I’ve heard people talk about and praise for years now (not surprising, since it started before I was even born), but I still haven’t actually picked up to read no matter how many times I hear it’s amazing. One of these days I’m going to have to rectify that, since I confess a little bit of a soft spot for “transported to a new world” fiction.

    • Nick Turner says:

      Read this years ago…… and though it was my first really heavy fantasy novel, and at the time I was pretty much hooked, by the end of the books I must admit I was drained emotionally……..even now when I see the books I feel a sense of fondness mixed with dread at the thought of ever having to read this again…..did it once but I don’t think I could do it again.

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