Generosity and Enslavement

Posted: November 1, 2009 in Idealism, Idle Nonsense, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Writing

A friend gave me the first book of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson to read. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but this is a nice diversion from my usual fare. The novel is so thoroughly derivative of Tolkien I find myself irritated frequently, but it has its own ideas and devices, too. Though only halfway into the book, one idea caught my attention distinctly.

Among the numerous races of people and characters are the Haruchai, a warrior class that serves the Lords of the Land. The Haruchai are reminiscent of the Samurai. What struck me, however, is the manner in which the Haruchai came into the service of the Lords. Some 2000 years before the time of the first novel, the Haruchai prepared to wage war against the Land, but the Lords refused to go to war lest the Haruchai be destroyed utterly. Instead, the Lords gave to the Haruchai precious gifts. Oddly, the Haruchai responded by taking a vow of service to the Lords for a debt that could never be fully repaid. Although never quite stated so baldly, the Haruchai basically enslaved themselves to the Lords, presumably out of gratitude.

These two acts — refusal to destroy one’s enemy and self-enslavement — are pretty remarkable. If applied to our current geopolitics, it would suggest that the U.S. might think twice about its preemptive wars against minor powers, and those minor powers might consider some form of tribute for the greater power’s refusal to invade or otherwise engage. Of course, that’s idealistic. What we have instead are the lone world superpower beating up on everyone else, like the tantrums of a schoolyard bully, and the irrational promises of at least one victim of our aggression to deliver the mother of all battles, only to fail in less than a month yet subsequently mount a surprisingly effective insurgency. If the situation in the Covenant novel is slightly comical, it’s certainly matched by the real-world situation in which we find ourselves.

Like Tolkien’s novels, Donaldson’s work appears to be the subject of considerable analysis. I haven’t read any of it, since I don’t want to spoil my reading pleasure. So I don’t know if this observation has been made, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Donaldson has conceived of his characters and their world as being profoundly stupid, as in cognitively challenged. Sure, they adhere to strict codes of honor and integrity (an almost child-like allegiance), and their florid, Tolkienesque language is sophisticated, but from what I’ve read so far, they’re also bumbling fools in their absolutism and inability to regain lost lore and knowledge. What else but sheer stupidity would compel a people to enslave itself out of gratitude or a generous people to accept such an arrangement?

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