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The Illearth War -- Stephen R. Donaldson
Written by Mike Noel   
Friday, 31 October 2008

The Illearth War

The Illearth War is the second book in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.  I added my comments on the first book Lord Foul's Bane on this site a couple of weeks ago.  As I mentioned then, I first started reading this series in High School.  At that time I only read the first book and didn't really like it.  This time I found the first book interesting enough to compel me to read the second.  It is unusual for the second book in a triolgy to be better than the first but that is the case with this series.  Much better, in fact.

Thomas Covenant is still the main character but he shares the stage with another "real world" character, Hile Troy, and the High Lord Elena.  Troy was accidently brought to The Land when the summoner was trying to get Covenant back.  He was a military strategist in the real world and so it didn't take long for him to take over and become the Warmark for the Council. 

It didn't take long for us to find out that Elena was the daughter of Lena, the person who Covenant had betrayed in the first book.  There is another major surprise about Elena that I will let readers discover for themselves.

Only a few days of time passed in the real world before Covenant was recalled to The Land.  Fourty years had passed there since he disappeared.  Now the Despiser was on the verge of launching his army against the Council.  Covenant was summoned to bring his white gold to try to stop the Despiser.  Covenant was just as bitter, angy and reluctant to help in this book as he was in the first.  He was unwilling to accept The Land as anything more than a dream -- a figment of his imagination.  

I won't go into a lot more of the plot.  Most of the obvious and inevitable things happen but in an interesting way.  As I was reading the book I kept getting a growing perspective of what was going on behind the scenes.  I wonder if this is what Donaldson was going for.  Let me try to explain it.

In the real world Covenant is a leper and an outcast.  His life is miserable.  He had the material success that the world offered but it was all taken away when he got leprosy. Then he is transported to another land.  The other land is full of people with an unimaginable capacity to forgive and love.  They are dedicated beyond comprehension to following the oaths that they make for the protection of the land and of life. Even when they are wronged they make every effort to put off the offense and live honorably by the prinicples they believe to be true.  Yet, they acknowledge the weakness of man.  They know that no matter how hard they try they will still fail.  But they try anyway.

Covenant comes into this world and rejects it all.  He says it's too good to be true.  Even when he violates the laws the people forgive and love him.  He reacts in anger and malice but they forbear.  Covenant deals, then, with an internal struggle of being tempted to believe the good that he sees but the real world has convinced him that this just can't possibly be true.  He struggles to hang onto the real world and deny the fantasy.

I can't help but wonder if this isn't a parable of a humanistic journey of faith.  The humanist (Covenant) finds himself interacting with people of genuine faith who have a belief system of forgiveness and love that is so foreign to the person that they just can't believe it.  Even when "miraculous" things happen it can't be believed.  Donaldson's biography points out that his parents were missionary doctors in India (presumably Christian) so I have no doubt that he was exposed to much of how faith can lead people to extraordinary acts of generosity and kindness.  I wonder if that's what these stories are about.

It is an interesting thread to the stories that I will be following as I read the rest in the series.