Thursday, June 4, 2009 Kent State Graduate Stephen Donaldson and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant Stephen Donaldson wrote one of the most popular and influential fantasy trilogies in the late 1970s. Unlike many of his peers, he avoided the common stereotypes of elves and dragons. Story by CHRIS BOROS
When Kent State graduate Stephen Donaldson wrote a fantasy trilogy in the late 1970s called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, he threw away the stereotypes of the good-natured, perfect and all-knowing protagonist. His hero is confused, angry, scared, and unaware of his power. And to make matters worse, he's a leper. WKSU's Chris Boros has more.
Kent State graduate Stephan R. Donaldson andJ.R.R. Tolkien have at least one thing in common: both have written high-fantasy science fiction novels that feature rings.
But where the acclaimed authors part is at the box office.
Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” novels were produced into a three-part movie series that has attracted droves of moviegoers and raked in box office sales. But Donaldson’s late-1970s fantasy trilogy never made the leap to the big screen.
At one time, though, Donaldson’s “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” had a good chance of getting its share of time on the silver screen. The producers of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Patriot” were interested in making the series into a movie, and they had a script and artwork ready, along with Donaldson’s approval.
But their Hollywood version fell flat. Studio executives said the books wouldn’t work as a movie, and Donaldson realized that his work and the film business weren’t compatible.
“It is not my art, and it’s done by committees. I’m used to being the only person who gets to decide what goes into my books,” he said. “And the idea that me and120 other people would be deciding what goes into a movie -- it just sounds like hell – hell on Earth.”
Donaldson’s “The Chronicles” is a story of a modern-day leper, shunned by his wife and community. When its protagonist enters a new world called The Land, he’s viewed as a hero there to save the world with his white-gold wedding ring – a power he doesn’t understand or want to use.
The series’ hero is different from many protagonists; he’s scared, confused and angry, rather than good-natured, perfect and all-knowing. But the character’s personality is not why the movie proposal failed.
“And it didn’t die for any of the reasons that people who have read the books would expect,” Donaldson said. “It’s not the leprosy. These books cannot be made into movies because they’ve got a ring in them!”
In other words, people may have thought “The Chronicles” was copycatting “The Lord of the Rings.”
Tolkien’s famous trilogy of novels became popular in the 1960s and fueled publishers’ and readers’ hunger for fantasy. The craze faded when many bad books made it to the market.
But in 1977, two – “the Sword of Shannara” by Terry Brooks and Donaldson’s “Chronicles” -- reignited the genre.
But not easily. In the mid-80s, when Donaldson was trying to turn his story into a book, publishers didn’t bite.
“That book was rejected 47 times. Everybody turned it down,” he said. But the steady rejection didn’t get him down. Well, at lest not any more than usual.
“I live in a constant state of discouragement. I never believed I was good enough. I was raised to believe that I’m not good enough,” he explained. “For me, the question wasn’t one of believing that I’m good enough; it was one of being so completely inflamed with storytelling that I couldn’t let it go.”
Donaldson was born in Cleveland in 1947 and lived in India, where his father worked as a medical missionary with people who had leprosy, until 1963.
He came to Kent State University to get a graduate degree in the early ‘70s, which has helped him launch a writing career that has lasted for three decades.
“My peers as students in the graduate school for English literature were very bright, very quick-witted, very fun and challenging people,” he said. “It’s also true that from a point of view of the faculty, Kent State was a very open-minded place. So I gained direct perceptions about writing and about what I wanted to achieve in writing through my studies with those professors.”
Fantasy writing came naturally, almost compulsively to him.
“I’m not sure I have a choice,” he said. “I have to work with the ideas that come to me. And without that I might as well be a plumber because I have nothing to offer except those things which are unique to me.”
He’s best known for the “Covenant” series, but Donaldson has also written mysteries and “The Gap Cycle,” a series of science-fiction novels. He wrote “The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” in the ‘80s and is working on the last part of the series now.
Throughout his career, Donaldson has continued to influence other writers. Stephen King has said the “Covenant” stories inspired him when writing his “Dark Tower” series.
But Donaldson doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“I was smart enough before I ever got into this position that I knew that commercial success is a mind game. It’s a trick,” he said.
“People quickly get sucked in. Their egos get gratified. They like being in the limelight. And then they start to think, ‘I am selling so well because I am so good.’ And then they go into a ‘success commercially equals success artistically equals success as a human being.’ And that’s a trap.”
Only a handful of fantasy authors were popular when Donaldson’s story made it big. Today, though, the genre is thriving. But that doesn’t stop literary critics from being skeptical.
“I encounter quite a bit of knee-jerk intellectual prejudice against the kind of work I do because it’s perceived as being popular and commercially successful. Therefore, it cannot have merit
“I learned by studying Conrad and Faulkner and Henry James, but the same people who admire them automatically brush me aside simply because the subject matter that my imagination offers me to work with.”