Thomas Covenant/Angus Thermopyle....

same man, different universe?

I was walking home from work a few minutes ago and (maybe because the half-moon looked so white-hot – like a saw blade screaming into the sky) I started thinking about Stephen R. Donaldson’s Covenant series which immediately reminded me of his more recent The Gap sci-fi series. And I realized that I see a lot of similarities between Thomas Covenant and Angus Thermopyle.

[li]They are both bitter, defensive men who take any kindness or generosity shown towards them as a personal affront. In both men this is driven by disease: T.C. suffers from leprosy; A.T. from what might be called leprosy of the soul (it’s fiction, folks – so they can have souls, ok?), caused by brutalization as a child.[/li]
[li]Both have access to enormous power: T.C.'s white gold ring is echoed by A.T.'s ability to edit data cubes, and, later, his transformation into a deadly cyborg by Warden Dios.[/li]
[li]Hi Opal[/li]
[li]Both are shaken to the core by the responsiblity implicit in their power, afraid of their own desires and ability to inflict harm.[/li]
[li]Both are are racked with guilt: T.C. because of the rape he committed when he entered a world he refuses to believe in, but is afraid is real; A.T. because of the controlling device (I forget its name) he implanted in Morn Hyland (which was simply a more complete form of rape).[/li]
[li]They are both paralysed and driven by fear; they consistently refuse to act until events threaten to engulf them.[/li]
I could go on a while longer, but I won’t. I’m just wondering if any of you have read both series. And if you have, whether you made the same connections. Or made different ones, for that matter.

I’d also like to know which of the two series you like best – it’s The Gap for me; I think that Angus is Covenant, and this series was a retelling of the first Chronicles from multiple POV’s by a more mature writer.


I think most of those similarities you mentioned are completely valid - but I can’t help but feel so differently about the two characters.

Covenant is a man who committed one terrible act and spends the rest of the novels forcing himself to pay for it. His bitter reaction to the kindness of the inhabitants of the Land is precisely what makes him so different from Angus. He cannot accept their forgiveness because he cannot forgive himself. That everyone seems to like him so much (Foamfollower, Elena, Mhoram) practically kills him (good god, even Atiaran, the girl’s mother, helps him). He knows what he has done and can’t stand himself for it. He refuses to act because he cannot see himself as the saviour that everyone needs him to be. His retreat to the position of Unbelief is somewhat cowardly (IMO) but it’s the only way he can see to protect himself from his own guilt.

Angus, on the other hand, commits repeated acts of intentional cruelty towards Morn. He does eventually help her, but it’s not the same as Covenant’s attempt to repent as it only happened because he got caught! He had no desire to change and in a way it’s forced upon him. Had Nick and Morn not done him in, he’d have carried on as he was. It’s definitely an interesting change that takes place in Angus, but he’s vastly different from Covenant.

Covenant’s leprosy and Angus’ “leprosy of the soul” (cough, cough) aren’t even close to being the same thing. Angus is at heart a cruel and terrible man. Covenant is essentially a good man in a terrible situation who does something completely horrifying in extraordinary circumstances. Not that his act is any more forgivable because of the circumstances, but at least he tries.

Anyway, to simplify several thousand pages of character development into a few trite phrases: Angus goes from arsehole to angel; Covenant’s journey is to accept himself, warts and all.

Personally, I love both series (and even Mordant’s Need), but The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant probably have the edge for me. I think Covenant is a fascinating character. I’m not sure I like him, but I certainly feel for him, and that makes for an interesting read. The Gap Series is probably more exciting, and certainly a more pleasurable read - Donaldson has definitely matured as a write, and I hardly ever wanted to lob the book across the room in frustration while reading The Gap. However, I did find the ending of the series to be slightly anti-climactic, with everything playing out exactly as it needed to. The ending of the Second Chronicles was… awesome.

I’d have to disagree with the idea of The Gap Series being a “retelling” (even in a loose sense) of the Chronicles. Even setting aside the vastly different concerns, characters, setting, plot… The Gap is about three main characters, and if there is a main protagonist it’s Morn. Despite Donaldson’s stated intention of having a trio of balanced characters, it’s Morn that drives the story, and the actions of Nick and Angus tend to revolve around her. Looking at it in a broad way, The Gap Series is very much about characters attempting to control external events, while The Chronicles have a much more internal focus. But I love them both.

Anyone know what Donaldson is up to these days?

(Sorry if I’ve got some of the details wrong - it’s been a few years.)

Funny how three Donaldson fans can view his books so differently.

I personally feel that the first Covenant trilogy is his best work, and the second one is his worst, with the other, very different, two tales somewhere in between. But more on that in another post. (Aside from a handful of short stories and a novella, the guy’s only written four stories in a quarter-century career as a writer! OK, so they’ve been looong stories.)

Nicko, I agree with you on the comparison between Covenant and Angus, but in a way, I disagree about Morn. I’m sure Donaldson meant for Morn to be the protagonist, and as Donaldson has written, he meant for Morn Hyland, Nick Succorso, and Angus Thermopyle to play frequently shifting roles of villian/victim/rescuer with each other. But my take on the series is that Donaldson’s relative fascination with the characters changed in the writing: he’s just not that interested in Nick (ultimately, Holt Fasner and Warden Dios both wind up being more essential to the series than Nick, IMO), but he’s absolutely fascinated by Angus, who winds up taking over the story. Shylock had nothing on Angus.

I think Donaldson’s ultimate moral, in the Gap series, can be summed up in a line from a line from a hymn by the prolific hymn author, Fanny J. Crosby:

The vilest offender who truly believes,
that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

In Angus, Donaldson creates ‘the vilest offender’, and brings him to redemption. And the good guys win in the end. That’s the story in a nutshell.

(BTW, as the child of missionaries, it’s likely that Donaldson is quite familiar with the hymn I’m quoting from.)

Despite having a lot more opportunity to get to know her, I never felt I had nearly as good an idea of who Morn was, and what drove her, as I did with Linden Avery, Terisa Morgan, or even Elena.

And, like I said, I think Donaldson loses interest in Nick; IMO, that’s part of why he kills Nick off with a book and a half to go. There’s nothing more to do with him. And Donaldson spends a lot of time trying to knock Nick down as he builds Angus up, but the ‘terrible things’ that Nick’s crew say they’ve been part of, are really small potatoes compared to Angus’ atrocities. Nick will cheerfully kill you if you’re in his way or if you betray him, but he doesn’t go out into the world looking for people to kill; Angus does. As a likable villian, he’s frankly more likable, less villianous, and less complex than Master Eremis. Which leaves Angus as the central character.

In fact, if there are any middlin’ close character comparisons here, it’s between Mordant and the Gap, IMO: Nick for Eremis, Angus for Lebbick, and Morn for Terisa; the likable villian, the nasty guy on the right side, and the heroine/protagonist. I personally feel the Mordant characters come out the better in all three of these comparisons; they’re more interesting and complex. The Gap comes out better in the overall complexity of its world, and in some of the other characters - particularly Fafner…er, Fasner, and Dios. Which story’s better? Damned if I can say; it’s really an apples-and-oranges comparison.

I’ll be back to this thread later; once you get me started on Donaldson, it’s hard to get me to shut up. :slight_smile:

RT, what you said about Morn just made me realize that she is another character driven by disease – gap sickness – and guilt.

I hesitate to use the terms protagonist or antagonist for any of Donaldson’s characters, including those in Mordant’s Need (which I didn’t mention in the OP, although it is my favorite of his works), though Terisa may come closest to being inherently good.

It seems to me that Donaldson, as a writer (I would never presume that reading his work gives any insight into his personality), is very much a postmodernist in the sense that his characters are anti-heroes; they never have black and white answers – there are no absolutes for them, everything they do hinges on contingency. They must set arbitrary lines within themselves concerning their responsibility to and for others… [like NickoI’m working from memory here, it’s been a couple of years since I read any of these books]

I think this makes the moral of The Gap’s (and of The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) : Nothing is as it seems.
I’m not so sure what the moral of Mordant’s Need is… looks like I’m going to have to read it yet again. Poor me, ha.

P.S. By the way, I’ve figured out what probably dredged this up. I’ve almost finished the third book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is so fine that I may have to rearrange my top 10 list, damnit.

nothamlet, I’m not sure any of Donaldson’s other tales have morals, and I doubt he had a moral in mind when the Gap series was taking shape. But to me, that one hymn couplet absolutely nails what Angus is all about, and like I said, Angus seemed to kind of take over.

I don’t think Mordant needs a moral; it’s a wonderfully fine fantasy story/fairytale, built close enough along the classic ‘good guys v. bad guys in medieval world with magic instead of technology’ model, yet with enough genuine originality to make it truly interesting. It’s my favorite Donaldson to re-read, and I think there’s only a few minor missteps, such as the ‘tilting the board’ analogy that he tries too hard (but not very often, thank goodness) to make work, and the bit where, at the end, all the bad guys turn out to be sex perverts - Eremis a genuine sadist, High King Festten literally a sheepfucker (doesn’t that turn up as an epithet in Gap?), and Gilbur getting his rocks off by sodomizing and killing chained-up young men. (Then when he practically starts off the Gap series with Angus using the zone implant (there, I knew it would come to me) to do Morn every which way, I kinda wondered what had gotten into Donaldson all of a sudden.)

As I mentioned, I liked the characters. I found both Geraden and Terisa to be very believable, and in Eremis and Lebbick, we had the most engaging bad guy, and one of the most repulsive but compelling good guys, that I’ve run into in fiction. And the whole business with the mirrors was wonderful - such a great fantasy device. And the scene during the climactic battle, when Geraden and Terisa are trying to translate back to Orison, and instead wind up in Terisa’s old condo - absolutely priceless. And it’s too bad they couldn’t have made a movie version, with the late Marty Feldman playing Adept Havelock.

But excepting Mordant, I think you pretty much nailed the thrust of Dondaldson’s writing here:

Although I’d add that the lines can’t be arbitrary, even if they might seem to be, from the outside. I find Donaldson demanding that, in drawing those lines, his characters must be groping their way towards some sort of core integrity. In the first series, Covenant’s lack of any answer that has anything to do with his inner self is what makes him so dangerous to those around him, IMO.

Well, that’s enough Donaldson for one night, but like I said, I’ll be back.

Zone implant, yes. Thanks, RT. And I just remembered that it was data cores, not data cubes.

I agree Feldman would have been perfect as Havelock. Oh, if only…

As to morals: I don’t know if any story needs one – though they can usually be found if we’re determined enough.

On another note (and you can read Covenant for Angus, and so on, in most of the following because) I hated Angus from the moment I met him in that seedy spacer bar. As I was supposed to. I felt sickened at times reading that first book. As I was supposed to. As the series progressed and he was dragged kicking and screaming into being a force for good, I cursed and muttered warnings under my breath. As I was supposed to… and I ended up cheering for the rat bastard.

This is why I respect Donaldson. He can just plain tell a story. And when he starts, when he sets the hook, he usually has me till the end.

I’m not so sure about this, Nicko. I’m inclined to equate the Amnioni (is that right?) with Lord Foul and his minions. And doesn’t Warden Dios seem as if he’s taken a Bloodvow?


Ya know, I going end up reading every one of Donaldson’s books again as a result of this thread. There could be worse fates.

There could be worse fates indeed, nothamlet. :slight_smile:

I have a hard time equating the Amnion with Lord Foul & Co. First of all, the Amnion don’t have a dominant evil figure along the lines of a Sauron or Lord Foul; they’re more in the group-mind, we-will-assimilate-you school. If any Gap character got to be Mr. Evil, it was Holt Fasner.

Also, Foul’s minions, whether we’re talking the Ravers and ur-viles in Covenant I, or the na-Mhoram et al. in Covenant II, don’t at all remind me of the Amnion.

IMO, the main weakness of the Gap series was, if you’re going to save the world, it helps if it’s a world worth saving. By setting most of the series in the rocks-n’-vacuum sort of sci-fi environment that I haven’t seen much of in decades, Donaldson almost lost me early; I bludgeoned my way through the first half of the series mostly out of respect for him. I really didn’t care if the Amnion took over this particular universe; hell, let 'em have it! And given that there was also a shortage of reasons to care about most of the characters, that made it doubly hard.

That made the Gap series very different from the Covenant books, or from Mordant. We haven’t been in The Land for five minutes before it’s got its hooks into us; the hard part to understand is why Covenant doesn’t think The Land is worth fighting for, dream or no. And we find plenty of reasons to care about Mordant’s fate before Terisa gets her first good night’s sleep in Orison. But the bleak spacescape of the Gap is something else again.

The amazing thing is that, despite being set in a forbidding environment, and with largely unsympathetic characters, it’s still an extremely fascinating story, once you finally get a handle on all the subplots. (One of these days, I’m gonna have to re-read it.) That’s a testament to Donaldson’s genius; not too many authors could pull that off.

It’s been five years since the last Gap book was released. Anyone know what Donaldson is working on now? (A collection of his short stories was recently released, but most of them had been already published in other anthologies.)