A book for everyone

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Lars was twelve when his teacher gave him – seemingly without reason – three thick books. They were not exactly children's books, on the contrary, it was a profound trilogy that was not easy to read; a lot of adults would perhaps throw such a book into a corner. Lars himself was not surprised by this gift, only delighted. In addition to children's books, he had been reading all kinds of adult literature with remarkable subjects for a long time. The librarian always made it difficult for him and tried to persuade him to read children's books.


Back home, Lars immediately started book 1 and didn't stop until he had finished it. Deeply impressed, he advised his mother to read it too. He kept doing so, even after book 2 and book 3, saying that it was a really important book and she should read it. But his mother didn't feel like it. She did look at it: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever [1]. The author was Stephen Donaldson. That first part, which Lars was so fascinated by, was called Lord Foul’s Bane. The title didn't appeal to her, neither did the front cover (too dark) nor the short description on the back, although it did arouse a tiny spark of interest – not enough to start.

Two and a half years later, book 1 was suddenly in sight. She picked it up and started to read. As voraciously as Lars had once read it, so was she reading now. It was a fantasy story, but completely different from all the others. It was about a man who had leprosy and was not very successful in life, in his work, his married life and his self-esteem. Completely out of control, he suddenly wakes up in a totally alien world and has to deal with the expectations that the inhabitants have of him. They look at him as the long-awaited one, a kind of messiah. By now she had realised that when the book came out in 1977, it was received very enthusiastically and even awarded a prize. However, the book was completely unknown to her and those around her.

The book's distinctiveness, which bore no resemblance to the usual quest, however beautifully and profoundly it may have been described, attracted her enormously. But, she thought, that says nothing about the extraordinary quality of this book. It was beautifully and poetically written, and exciting, surprising, but so are many books. It was the book's innermost quality, she couldn't think of another description, that carried her away. It was the impression that something deep inside her became alive and that inner changes took place, just by reading this book. She certainly didn't understand everything, but underneath there was a kind of stream of reassurance that there was no need to. It was like a letter to her heart, which her head had no need for. Her faith in life surged as the protagonist of the book struggled through extremely difficult situations. He was not exactly a good person, nor was he powerful or anything like that, he was not a clumsy person but an imperfect saint, although that sounds impossible. All the misfortunes that befell him, to which he all too often reacted clumsily, benefited him. Creatures who attacked him, horrible mistakes he made, guilt and shame... everything contributed to his growth, although he did not notice it himself. Deep inside the man lived his good will and everything reacted to that, with violence or with love and loyalty, especially loyalty.

He found himself in a totally unknown world with unknown laws, and he could do nothing about it. If you are a hobbit in hobbit land, then you know more or less how it works. But if you fall into a new world, then you know nothing at all and you have to deal with that void. What is good and evil there? What is living there? Is it real or not? Especially the last one, she thought, you can ask yourself that, but just like in a dream you just have to work with it, because at that moment it is real. You have to go on, just like in real life, you can't get out, even if people think you can. Everything you avoid is just around the corner, waiting for you. By the way, you might as well ask yourself if this 'real' life is real.

When she was about halfway through book 3 and everything she read still matched something inside her, she felt that the book could only end one way; otherwise it was worthless. And so the story ended, exactly in the way that was so completely different from the end of other books. The man did not win, but something else happened... she was not going to tell anyone about that, of course. Others had to experience it for themselves if they wanted to.

Because of the deep impression the books made, she recommended them to others. People who she thought would find it interesting. For example, there was someone around her who made a very balanced, wise impression on her. He showed a lot of interest, but after a while he said:

If I've been reading that book, anyone who comes along might get hit.

She was shocked by this reaction and did not understand a thing. She asked no further and lent the book to a neighbour with a keen interest in fantasy and also a certain amount of life wisdom. After a while, the woman exclaimed:

That man always does everything wrong! Insufferable!

Now it was time to talk to Lars about it. How was this possible, that those people had been reading a totally different book than she had? What did Lars think about it? She had great confidence in what he said, because he was very wise as a child. But Lars surprised her with a completely different view of the book. He said, with his typical adult language:

I thought it was a very special series in which the conflict of the anti-hero raged inside even more than outside. It was both fascinating and frustrating. The outstretched hand he constantly receives from all sides, but which he usually pushes away, the vehemently wrong choices he consistently makes and his inner struggle weighed heavily on my shoulders from time to time while reading.

That heaviness… she hadn't expected it at all! He had been so insistent that she read it...

Were there no people at all who were affected by the book in the same way? Was there nobody she could talk to about it? Apart from Lars, there was no one who thought it was a very important work, the trilogy. They thought it was 'beautiful' or 'good' or 'exciting', but not important. That was incomprehensible to her and disappointing. It made her wonder, just like the main character in that strange world, if what she thought was so great was really there.

It kept gnawing at her until once she thought that if she hadn't felt that undercurrent of confidence so strongly, she might have found the book scary, or too heavy, with all those trials and tribulations, three thick volumes long. It could also be that this undercurrent was really there and that other people were perhaps unaware of it, just as one person hears higher sounds than another. That was not proof that the undercurrent was in the book, she realised. But her belief in it was there and it flowed throughout her life.

She compared it to a tree. If you stood on one side, you might see a low branch and a knot at knee height. A squirrel running up the trunk. Someone on the other side of the tree might see lichen, or fungus and two knots, right above each other, very high. Someone else might think it was a graceful tree, with delicate leaves. Yet it was the same tree.

Whoever would ‘read’ the tree, with the same inner focus as she had read the books, might find the infinite depth that the creator had placed in it. The tree is there for everyone, even for those who carelessly pass it by. And with a deep sigh, she concluded: the best thing about a book like this is that it is there, for everyone, even those who don't want to read it.

And then it was Lars who pointed out to her that what she got out of the book, others might have seen in that tree, or heard in music, or just always known.


From Lord Foul’s Bane, Book 1 of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever:

An expression of exasperation appeared on Covenant's face; it annoyed him that he had not taken part in the job. He looked at his robe: the brocade was stiff and black with dried blood. It was the perfect outfit for a leper, for an outcast, he thought.

He knew that the time had come to make up his mind. He had to determine where he stood in his impossible dilemma. Enfolded in that grim funeral atmosphere and leaning heavily on his staff, he felt that he had come to the end of his options. He had lost track of his survival techniques, he no longer remembered to hide his ring, he had lost his sturdy boots and he had shed blood. It was he who had brought about the demise of Floating Wood village. He had been so completely engrossed in his flight from madness that he had not considered the madness where his flight had taken him.

He had to go on: that much he had learned. But to go on was to face the same impenetrable problem. Participate and go mad, or refuse to participate – and then go mad too. He had to come to a decision, find a firm basis and not deviate from it. He could neither accept nor deny the Land. There had to be a solution to his problem. Without a solution he would fall into the same trap as Llaura and be forced to dance to the tune of Foul, losing himself while trying to avoid losing himself.

Mhoram looked up from stirring the pot and saw the expression of annoyance and concern on Covenant's face. Kindly the Lord asked: 'What's wrong, good friend?' 



[1] Stephen R. Donaldson, Lord Foul’s Bane, Book 1 of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, 2004

After the first trilogy about Thomas Covenant, Donaldson wrote a second series, a strong sequel, again in three volumes. In 2004, he began to work on a sequel to that again, which was finished in 2013. Donaldson wrote other books, including the two-volume Mordant's Need, also fantasy, as well as several detectives and science-fiction novels.

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