At the end of "The Power That Preserves," the third volume of the adventures of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever in a supernatural world called the Land, it seemed as if the story was over. Covenant had evoked wild magic. Unleashing the power in his wedding ring, he had burned the unutterably evil Lord Foul down to human size. The Land could recover its wholesomeness, and titanic cachinnations would no longer echo from the sky. But this was all wrong, of course. No modern writer of heroic fantasy worth his salt would end a series after only three volumes.
In "The Wounded Land," the fourth volume in the series and the first of a new trilogy, Covenant is once more pitted against his old enemy, Lord Foul. But Covenant is not quite the interestingly nasty egotist of the earlier volumes. Ten years have passed on Earth, and he is more mellow, more altruistic, more insightful man. He is now accompanied by a faithful woman companion, Linden Avery, M.D., who can perceive essences hidden from Covenant. By the sixth volume she will undoubtedly shoulder him aside and take over, as she is already showing signs of doing.
Due to differential times rates, almost 4,000 years have passed in the Land since Covenant's last visit, and much has changed. The cultures that Covenant once knew have been shattered, and the old Whole Earth nature magic has been largely lost. Foul is stronger than ever, and has subverted the former harmony between the Land and its peoples. The solar cycles, for example, are agonizingly perilous, and only the greatest caution (and suitable small magic) permits one to survive. Foul has also fostered a new magical hierarchy, the Clave, which under the pretense of palliating the horrible weather, is really making it worse, with the blood from human sacrifices.
Covenant, Linden and their friends undergo ghoulish suffering. They stagger in and out of captivities. They experience small magic. They escape from the Clave. And at the end of the volume they are making their way to the eastern lands. There Thomas hopes to make a magical Staff from the One Tree. This Staff, like Odin's spear, will maintain law on all levels and regulate the out-of-phase Land.
Donaldson is now starting to drop hints about ultimate meanings and interpretations, namely why Foul persists in his actions and just who or what Foul is. The final secret behind the whole Land and Covenant's strange guilts and responsibilities is still to be revealed, but it seems obvious. Meanwhile, events take place within the ingenious mythology that Donaldson has established from elements of Christian symbolism. Norse mythology, psychoanalysis, and the Grail romances. The Fisher King lies at the heart of the story.
Over the past few years, heroic fantasy has evolved into a subgenre with very characteristic features: enormous length (three words labor to do the work of one); inflated diction (the characters are quite aware that they are heroic); private vocabulary and suggestive names that hint at allegory but never quite make it; an endless but simple quest, often involving a fair amount of brutality; and the utmost seriousness. There is seldom room for humor, beauty, wit or fancy.
"The Wounded Land" is a good example of the new conditions and even transcends them at times. It is highly imaginative; the author writes well, if one can overlook excessive length; and the structure is very nicely handled. iIt should please devotees of the form, but somehow I prefer the older writers like Leiber, Le Guin or Poul Anderson, to say nothing of Tolkien. w