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In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the eponymous (anti)hero finds himself in the mystical realm known as the Land, which only he has the power to save. However, he is - let's be honest here - a grumpy old curmudgeon, and insists that the Land cannot possibly exist and is only a figment of his fevered imagination.

To support his hypothesis, he performs tests such as not shaving for days on end, to find out whether his beard stubble will still be there when he awakes in the 'real' world. But (so far at least - I'm still in the first trilogy) these tests are always foiled somehow, and when he returns to his own reality, he is unable to ascertain whether or not his experiences in the Land really happened.

Is his uncertainty ever broken? Are we ever told, either in the books or e.g. via interviews with the author, whether Covenant is hallucinating or actually being transported to another world?

Is it ever made clear whether the Land is real or not?

  • Spock says nothing unreal exists. Even if it is imagination, that is not the same as not existing. The book suggested he was mentally or spiritually transported - that his physical body was on earth, but his mind and will were in the other world. – EngrStudent Mar 10 '16 at 3:25
  • My advice: read more books instead of asking here for spoilers. – GEdgar Mar 10 '16 at 16:21
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Short answer: According to the story at the end of the sixth book (third of the second trilogy), the answer is yes.

In the second series, Thomas Covenant's ex-wife Joan was under some sort of mind control by followers of Lord Foul in the real world to force Covenant to submit to them. Covenant trades himself for her and walks into their bonfire, which transports him to the Land. He is inadvertently accompanied by Dr Linden Avery, who was trying to stop him walking into the bonfire.

At the very end of that third (sixth) book:

Thomas Covenant gives Linden his white gold wedding band just before he dies. Linden wakes up in the "real world" with Thomas Covenants wedding ring in her hand.

That's pretty compelling evidence that it is real.

Even across both trilogies, the mysterious old man

who is revealed to be the creator of the Land at the end of the first trilogy

is encountered by both Covenant and Linden in the real world and clearly is related to their experiences.

(Note, I have to go to my bookshelf after work and grab the books to give some more detail / references)

  • it's even more clear in the third series that the Land is real, given the number of different people Foul affects separately in "our" world. – KutuluMike Mar 10 '16 at 11:56
  • I disagree that the first trilogy removed the ambiguity, it was part of the point not to, no matter how hard the reader wanted Covenant to believe as they did. The second trilogy did, which was pretty much the only value it had for me. – Oldcat Mar 10 '16 at 17:52
  • 2
    @Oldcat While I'm normally all in favour of removing ambiguities, the fact that the first trilogy never made it clear whether or not the Land is real is a very distinguishing feature, part of what makes the series so special. Remove that and it's just a standard "ordinary person called up as hero to save parallel world" story, except with a bl00dy grumpygutted sod for a hero. – Rand al'Thor Mar 14 '16 at 13:52
  • @randal'thor - I agree with that. I just found the entire second three books disagreeable because it undid the first, added nothing to the Land, and by the time things ended the removal of the ambiguity was the only thing that I remember. Then his next set of books was about someone who supposedly was unsure she existed. That, to me, was totally silly. Never went back after that. – Oldcat Mar 14 '16 at 17:24
3

The Illearth War Gives a Strong Clue...

... to the readers, not to Thomas Covenant. Regarding whether the Land is real or not, the OP's question asks from two perspectives:

  1. Is his [Thomas Covenant's] uncertainty ever broken?
  2. Are we [the readers] ever told, either in the books or e.g. via interviews with the author, whether Covenant is hallucinating or actually being transported to another world?

The second book of the first trilogy, The Illearth War, reveals to the reader through the narration that the Land must be real. It does this through the details of Hile Troy's experiences in "Part II: The Warmark."

If the story were Thomas Covenant's dream relayed to the reader, the parallel time frame account of Hile Troy's experiences during Thomas Covenant's own experiences (given in "Part III: The Blood of the Earth") would not even be part of the story, for Covenant would not have been dreaming that while he was dreaming about his own role. This narrative shift of perspective gives a strong clue to the reader (not Covenant) that there are actual "events" occurring in parallel, indicating that the story is not existing in Covenant's mind.

This is strengthened by the fact that during the Part III narration, there is no awareness (by Covenant, Elena, or anyone) what is occurring as Part II had narrated.

Note that the argument here is not the fact that Hile Troy and the people of the Land:

claim that Hile Troy is from Covenant's world, as Covenant could be dreaming that aspect himself

It is purely that the narration of those events in parallel to the other events does not match the format of dreaming.

The argument here is based upon my own experience with dreams. When I have dreamed, I can at times shift perspective (and be someone other than myself, so Thomas Covenant could be dreaming as if he were Hile Troy for a time). Sometimes I can even see myself in third person, as might be the case at the end of Part II

at Covenant's reunion with Hile Troy and Lord Mhoram.

Additionally, when I dream, time sometimes "stands still," sometimes "accelerates" or "skips," but the dream always (for me) morphs along a linear path and never runs along two parallel streams simultaneously. So it is extremely unlikely that Covenant is:

  1. Dreaming these two sets of experiences in parallel to each other simultanesouly
  2. Dreaming these two sets of parallel experiences in sequence to one another (as narrated), with the latter experiences being a skip back in time during the dream

This, for me, is a strong (though not obvious) clue to the reader that the Land is real, even before that fact is made more explicit in the second trilogy per the point made in the other answer.

0

In short, the reality of The Land and the associated magic were confirmed beyond doubt at the end of The Power That Preserves, book three of the first trilogy.

Please bear in mind in reading my following description that I last read this 25 years ago, and do not have handy access to the text. However, the scene that I describe below made a massive impression on me and I have never met anyone else who noticed this.

The last section of the book returns Covenant to the real world, after another encounter with the beggar / creator, who offers him the reward of life for his dying body in the real world - and Covenant accepts. At the start of this book Covenant gets rattlesnake poison into his bloodstream. We discover that the medics treated him with horse blood anti-venin, but Covenant was allergic to that and nearly died. This was ironic given his dislike of the horses in The Land.

The doctor treating Covenant said, "You don't believe in miracles, and neither do I, but it was a miracle that you survived." I read this to be his evidence of the reality of The Land. This was also ironic (yes, more irony) because at the opening of the scene, the doctor was muttering about being summoned to the hospital, and, "It had better be for a damn good reason, especially with it being Easter Sunday and all."

  • I don't understand how this is evidence for the reality of the Land. Symbolically yes, but there's no logically necessary connection between a real-world 'miracle' and the existence of the Land. – Rand al'Thor Feb 11 at 7:23
  • Apart from the fact that in his objective reality (and according to the reliable account of the doctor) he was at death's door with organs failing etc, and then suddenly he is alive and well again with no rational real world explanation. If I recall correctly, judging by his own reaction (a smile not a grimace!) this was sufficient evidence for Covenant himself even though it could have been some other deity unrelated to The Land who intervened! So, although not incontrovertible proof, this event does add strong evidence in support of the reality of The Land. – D.H. Feb 11 at 18:06
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This was addressed by the author in an interview on his official website. In short, the reality of the Land is intentionally ambiguous. If you want to assume it's real, it's real. If you want to imagine that it's a construct of the character's imaginations, you can happily think that as well.

Q. An interesting question about Covenent: is The Land real? I assume it is, I'm sure all the readers assume it is, but, unless I'm mistaken, it was never actually stated that it was real. Thomas may have just excepted it as a place in his own mind, were he was not an angry, old leper, but rather someone who was able to help, and wanted to help (here i'm speaking of the last book of the first Chronicles, were he fought off the summons to save a child, then gave in to letting them call him into the land). Granted, the very begining of the second chronicles kinda dashes that to hell, but i thought i'd like to ask you about that anyways.

SRD: Is the Land real? Of course not. I made it up. As I also made up the characters who have to wrestle with the question of the Land's "reality". It's all a parlor trick. Or, to put it more constructively, an exercise of imagination.

OK, OK, I know that's a glib (not to mention dismissive) answer to a serious question. But I'm actually trying to get at what I consider a very serious point: what is "reality"? Is something "real" because we can verify its existence in some tangible way? (I know this desk is "real" because I can touch it. I know my illness is "real" because I can feel its effects. I know my friends are "real" because I experience them in various ways.) Or is something "real" because we choose to assign importance or value to it? (You may believe that you have a "soul." I may believe that I do not. But surely the fact--and it is a fact--that I cannot verify the existence of your "soul" has no bearing on the importance of your "soul" to you. Is not your "soul" therefore "real" as far as you are concerned?) Gene Wolfe says that he knows "angels" are "real" while "corporations" are not because he's seen "angels" but he's never laid eyes on a "corporation." I personally don't consider "real estate" to be "real": oh, I know that the physical ground exists, but the whole notion that a person could "own" a piece of the planet seems so absurd to me that I simply can't give it any credence.

Do you see my point? The Land has no tangible, verifiable "reality," not even to Covenant and Linden. Yet they--and I--and many of my readers--assign importance/value to the Land. Isn't it therefore "real" precisely because we make it so? And isn't that really the position at which Covenant himself arrives at the end of "The Power that Preserves"?

Gradual Interview: http://www.stephenrdonaldson.com/fromtheauthor/gi_view.php

  • I think this is the author being disingenuous. As seen in other answers, there are clues planted in the text that the characters from "the real world" ultimately take The Land to be real. – D.H. Feb 10 at 20:48
  • @D.H. - You're welcome to disregard the author's own statement if you like. – Valorum Feb 10 at 20:51
  • I would not normally disregard that. This is a special case though. The whole story - which I remember being brilliant - rests on the character's internal conflict about whether his experience is real or not. Hence the label The Unbeliever that Covenant gets tagged with. When the author has gone to great lengths to sow clues in the text to reward the careful reader with the solution to this riddle, I would be surprised if he stated that solution in bald terms on his own website. – D.H. Feb 10 at 21:10
  • Oh, and the corrolary to the above comment is that all answers to this question are spoilers! – D.H. Feb 10 at 21:41
  • This is partly a Doylian as opposed to Watsonian answer (obviously the Land isn't real real, because Donaldson made it up - the question is whether it's real within the story or just a figment of the character's imagination) and partly philosophical thrashing around to avoid the question. Good find, but as @D.H. says, he's probably being deliberately mealy-mouthed so that readers figure out the answer by analysing the text instead of just by listening to him. – Rand al'Thor Feb 11 at 7:27

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