Have you been locked in despair for weeks while ignoring events around you? Have you looked up to find that it is a fresh spring day, the birds are chirping, and the air is crisp against your skin, then wonder how you missed it? That is what reading The One Tree is like. It is a deep dive into the character of Linden Avery, a character who never sees the spring day, or understands the events around her because the bitterness of her past consumes her.
The One Tree—more so than the books that went before it—shows the flaw in Stephen R. Donaldson’s writing. Here, at last, I can agree with those that say there is never anything good about Donaldson’s characters. Seen primarily through the eyes of Linden Avery, her miserable past, her inability to experience joy, weighs down this epic tale.
The One Tree is not a bad book. I celebrated with the giant crew of Starfare’s Gem as they set sail on a quest to find the legendary tree of the Staff of Law. I devoured the description the Elohim’s island and thrilled to every gut churning event at Bhrathairain Harbor. But The One Tree—and much of White Gold Wielder that follows—is like grinding through a video game before the next boss challenge. Every page is laden with the dark moods of either Linden Avery or Thomas Covenant—who happens to be absent for most of the story.
I understand the need to take a powerful character like Covenant off the stage so we can experience the world through the eyes of another. Donaldson is a master of the third-person omniscient and third-person limited omniscient points of view. Lord Mhoram’s Victory from The Power that Preserves is a handbook on how to do it. In The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Covenant’s repeated near-death incidents keep him off the stage. This habit started in The Wounded Land when Covenant was bit by a Raver and infected with a venom that unleashes his wild magic. It continues in The One Tree where the story is related through the eyes of Linden Avery.
Linden is the most tortured of Donaldson’s characters. As a doctor she capable of healing, but in the world of the Land her gift to see illness and injury only reminds her of some darkness in her past. The joy of setting sail with the giants becomes an uneasiness that haunts Linden like the shadows of her dead father. That uneasiness proves to be Linden’s earth-site detecting a raver. A raver that bites Covenant and leaves him dying in a bubble of wild magic that damages the ship. Only Linden can save Covenant from himself, but of course she is incapable to act because of her despair.
We never visit the giant’s point of view. What joy to see this world through eyes of Pitchwife, or even brave and capable Honniscrave? An odd choice since it is the giants who move the story forward. Without them the story would grind to a halt on Linden’s old-world misery that is so awful that even when she does act, she does so out of regret. The weight of it is too much for this lengthy novel. However, when The One Tree is good, it is spectacular.
At Elemesnedene we discover the Elohim are earth-power manifest. They are capable of destroying Lord Foul with a thought. They could have made all of Donaldson’s writing unnecessary by simply acting, but they do not. Later Findail—an Elohim that joins the quest for The One Tree—shares a story that explains the Elohim’s inaction. They are supposed to be a study of the helplessness of power. I struggle with beings of absolute power doing nothing on some pretense. They infect fantasy fiction like measles and are as self-centered and uncaring as vaccination deniers.
“For this was he afflicted with the Despiser’s venom!” Findail’s clamor tormented every part of her being. “To enhance his might, enabling him to rend the Arch! This is the helplessness of power! You must stop him!”The One Tree by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Elohim accomplish their task; they take Thomas Covenant out of the story, touching his mind so that he is only capable of is his trademark refrain: “don’t touch me.”
With Covenant and the wild magic safely locked away, Starfare’s Gem escapes the Elohim to meet the fury of the sea. The dangerous canting of Starfare’s Gem under hurricane force winds and the giant’s expert seamanship is a highlight of the book, one I wish I could have seen though Pitchwife’s eyes.
“Ah, Chosen.” Pitchwife had finished his work. He stood facing her with arms akimbo and echoes of her uncertainty in his eyes. “Since first I beheld you in the dire mirk of the Sarangrave, I have witnessed no lightening of your spirit. From dark to dark it runs, and no dawn comes. Are you not content with the redemption of Covenant Giantfriend and Mistweave—a saving which none other could have performed?” He shook his head, frowning to himself. Then, abruptly, he moved forward, seated himself against the wall near her. “My people have an apothegm—as who does not in this wise and contemplative world?” He regarded her seriously, though the corners of his mouth quirked. “It is said among us, ‘A sealed door admits no light.’ Will you not speak to me? No hand may open that door but your own.”The One Tree by Stephen R. Donaldson
Crippled, Starfare’s Gem seeks aid at Bhrathairain Harbor. The story at Bhrathairrealm could stand on its own. Here is a fully developed world ready to explore. The city is a complex of circles that rise to The Sandhold; a fortress of the Ghaddi. Once upon a time, Sand Gorgons attacked the city, but now a magic storm imprisons the gorgons. The giant’s quest for charity takes them to the heart of the Sandhold where the real power is Kasreyn, a powerful thaumaturge of great age.
Powerful with magic and seeking immortality, the Kemper, Kasreyn, desires Covenant’s white gold ring. But despite the Kemper’s most powerful suggestions, the Elohim’s spell protects Covenant. This attempt to claim Covenant’s ring foreshadows the final conflict between Lord Foul and Covenant in White Gold Wielder. Power must be given.
Before escaping the Sandhold there is a brutal fight between a Sand Gorgon and the Haruchai. Sharing a Sand Gorgon’s name proves fatal for the Ghaddi, however. In the climactic scene at Bhrathairain Harbor, Linden enters Covenant to unlock the Elohim’s spell. She leaves him with a single word; Nom. Once spoken, the Sand Gorgon begins the destruction of the Sandhold, and freed of the Elohim’s spell, Covenant completes the task, shredding the Sandhold behind him.
Starfare’s Gem is unrepaired and crippled as she makes her way to the island of The One Tree. But Honniscrave and his crew are up to the task. At the island of The One Tree, we learn the Haruchai have a deeper purpose than even the Bloodguard; one of them guards The One Tree, and another must battle him to give access to the quest. Brinn takes the charge and succeeds, but as Mhoram promised in Andelain, seeking, and finding The One Tree was not the true quest. The mission fails. The long quest for The One Tree proves to be a long shadow cast by White Gold Wielder.
And that was not all. She remembered what Covenant had told her about his Dead in Andelain. His friend, High Lord Mhoram, had said to him, do not be deceived by the Land’s need. The thing you seek is not what it appears to be. The same prophecy was true for her as well. Like Brinn, she had found something she had not come seeking. With Covenant after their escape from Bhrathairealm, she had let some light into the darkness of her heart. And in the cavern of The One Tree she had found a use for that part of herself—a use which was not evil.The One Tree by Stephen R. Donaldson