Every generation a new American fantasy writer gets dubbed the “American Tolkien”. Few of them deserve it.
George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice books are popular thanks to the terrible HBO series, but Martin is the least deserving of the title. Martin is a great short story writer, but a poor novelist and his world building is terrible. Tolkien would have hated Game of Thrones and everything that followed.
Stephen R. Donaldson is the only writer who got called the American Tolkien and deserved the title. Not because Donaldson is a better writer than Martin. He’s much worse than Martin in almost every department except epics.
And that’s the one that counts. But there have been plenty of better epic fantasy novelists than Donaldson.
What makes Donaldson deserving of the title is that he didn’t just try to copy Tolkien. Copying Tolkien was a booming industry. Stephen R. Donaldson tried to comment on J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideas.
The Thomas Covenant books are not a series about fighting orcs. Neither is Lord of the Rings. They’re about the ethical impact of the decisions we make.
Donaldson is one of the very few writers who captured the environmental scope of Lord of the Rings. The forests and plains and mountains are characters in the Covenant books the way that they are in Lord of the Rings. Both series use the environment to give the books epic scope.
But Donaldson takes everything Tolkien did to an extreme. The Lord of the Rings books are not fond of industrialization. Donaldson creates an anti-industrial society where no one even chops wood or injures stone. Instead they’re so in harmony with nature that they figure out how everything fits together. It’s very seventies, but it’s developed so that it’s the magic system and the mythology of the books.
Tolkien’s characters are conflicted about power. They worry that using it might be more dangerous than not using it. Donaldson turns that up to the highest pitch by making his main character a man who is terrified of using power and certain that it will corrupt him. Thomas Covenant makes Frodo look like General Patton.
In Lord of the Rings, the right thing isn’t what succeeds, but what is morally right. Killing Gollum would have been the smart thing to do, but not doing is what saves the whole quest and Middle Earth. Covenant spends most of the books not killing his own Gollum no matter how much harm and suffering it brings.
Donaldson often shamelessly copies Tolkien, but sometimes he effectively condenses him. Covenant’s first dialogue with Saltheart Foamfollower about the ring works much better than the similar scene with Tom Bombadil. Not to mention that splitting up the Ents into Giants and Forrestals works a lot better. And Tolkien’s own initial ideas had focused on someone from our world traveling back in time to another age, but he could never make it work.
The Thomas Covenant books are wildly eccentric, but so is Lord of the Rings. There’s no comparison in terms of quality. Tolkien is far better. But Donaldson is probably the best at closely copying much of what he achieved. The Covenant books take the same material to extremes and Tolkien would probably not have liked the results, but he would have recognized them right down to the religious influences.