“Do not forget whom to fear at last. I have had to be content with killing and torment. But now my plans are laid, and I have begun. I shall not rest until I have eradicated hope from the Earth. Think on that, and be dismayed!” (Stephen R Donaldson, Lord Foul’s Bane)
So begins the journey of Thomas Covenant in Stephen R Donaldson’s classic fantasy series. It’s a story that resonated powerfully with me as a teenager, and still does. It is a tale of the battle against despair. Through the eyes of Covenant we see first a refusal to acknowledge its reality, then varying degrees of his opposition to fighting it: all with disastrous consequences. In the end, though his physical leprosy remains in the ‘real’ world, he faces his torturer and overcomes the hopelessness that has eaten at his soul.
I can now recognise the depression that has tormented me through much of my adult life began in those years when I was reading the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I suspect that is one reason why it made such an impact on me. It still gives me fragments of hope to remember that even the ‘Unbeliever’ eventually conquered his demons.
It’s a funny thing that even in the twenty-first century, we find it difficult to discuss depression. Not funny as in “haha”, of course. Rather, funny as in strange.
Even ignoring the fact of its widespread prevalence in our culture of twenty-four hour work and unrelenting change, we have hundreds of years worth of history teaching us of its presence; and of the contributions those suffering can still offer.
From Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” discourse in which he ponders whether he should continue his existence or end his pain, writers and poets have used the pen to both understand and to describe their suffering. Further, we read of others in history who lived with this terrible illness. In the Old Testament we even read of Moses pleading to God to take his life, “…kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.” (Numbers 11:15, KJV) Winston Churchill famously had his “black dog”.
It is a positive sign that others, too are speaking out about their own experience with depression. Stephen Fry has used his life-long struggles to do enormous good in the effort of opening up a discussion; as has Ruby Wax. So, too, have the likes of J K Rowling made her battles known.
Yet even with this, our modern society continues too often to pretend it is not a real illness. Politicians disproportionately target mental health for spending cuts. Employers say all the right things in their policies, while behind the scenes whisper to each other about the risks of employing someone unstable. Family members refuse to acknowledge a loved one is ill, preferring to believe their son or daughter has brought their misery upon themselves and can somehow choose to ‘snap out of it’. If only it were that simple.
I have spent much of my life fighting my own war against depression. At times, only light skirmishes have broken out. At other times, I’ve felt besieged by an enemy too great to number; too powerful to resist, and felt to cry like Denethor, “Why do the fools fly? Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre!” (JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)
If only Denethor had delayed his race to death, he would have seen that hope was not lost. Alas, he lacked the strength, and who am I to judge him for that?
It is my hope that I have many more years left on this earth, and if so I suppose I can expect a few more fierce battles yet. So far, I have somehow outfought, or possibly out-lucked, my dark enemy. And in doing so, have managed a few things some might say were achievements.
One of these is my writing.
I was entering the darkest episode of my life in 2014. It would soon be a daily – even hourly – struggle to keep my place in this world. Like Denethor, the truth was warped in my mind. My continued existence felt selfish: as if I were preventing others from reaching their potential happiness by my life. The very oxygen I breathed could surely have been put to better use than fuelling my pathetic body. “To my pyre!” was a continual beckoning call.
And at that precise time, as I lay in bed one sleepless night, a thought came to me. I saw a young man sitting in his solitary armchair in a dilapidated flat. He was lonely, and his life hadn’t been happy. But he was more than he realised.
I asked myself who he was, and how he had come to his present circumstance. I enquired as to his destiny, and then I allowed my mind to wander as it traced his journey.
I’ve always enjoyed stories with meaning. That’s another reason why I enjoyed so much the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I’m sure I was as frustrated as everyone else at the antihero protagonist. But just as much as the overall message, I loved the world Donaldson created. In this work, he shows how fantasy can surpass other genres when trying to say something.
Any genre can use situations, places and other characters as foils, counter-examples, or to further emphasise the themes the author is addressing. But in fantasy, a writer can add to that by developing magical creatures, or even a magic system itself, that adds additional layers of metaphor and meaning.
Not all fantasy is written in that way, of course. Indeed, most probably isn’t. But there is a capacity within the genre that opens doors in telling stories – real stories examining the deepest loves and fears of the human soul – in ways that simply aren’t possible in tales based in the ‘real world’.
There are similar themes within my own work, Dreams and Shadows, though not as relentless as Donaldson’s. Yes, I have huge black dogs spreading despair, and my MC has his moment of giving up on life. But it is just one of many themes woven through my story.
More important for me was the process of writing Dreams and Shadows. You see, in no small way, publishing that book saved my life.
Maybe that sounds melodramatic, and I suppose it is. But it true, nonetheless. And it is true for a number of reasons.
First, the world of Aylosia I created was my escape. If I stumbled through the days with nothing but failure and hopelessness before me, at least I could lie in bed at night and imagine somewhere that triumph could be achieved. Once the world became too complex to keep in my head and I started to write it down, I knew I had to finish the story. Even if, at that point, I had no plans to publish.
Once I decided to publish, I knew self-publishing was my only option. I would like to think that I’ve written something of high enough quality to be considered by a traditional publisher, and I certainly wouldn’t say no if a decent offer came along.
However, I researched enough to know that even with a good book I would likely have several rejections from agents before finding one that was right for me. And then, I would almost certainly have several rejections from publishers before finding one who felt my work fit their marketing plans. With that in mind, I was sufficiently aware of my wellbeing to know that such rejections could just push me over the edge on which I was already precariously balancing.
No, traditional publishing would be bad for me: very bad.
And that comes to the second point of writing being my salvation. The process itself of self-publishing.
It was a steep learning curve, but that worked for me because it gave me a distraction. I bought Pixelmator and mocked up a cover; hired a graphic designer to turn it into something professional. I bought Scrivener and learned how to use it. I hired an editor and worked with her to improve my book. I taught myself how to create mobi and epub files, and how to format my book cover to fit the paperback version perfectly.
And as I achieved each goal, it was something I could point to and say, “I did that.”
It didn’t cure my depression. Far from it, as I still have some very dark days; though at least it’s not as relentless. But, it did keep me going. It kept me from running to my pyre.
And the feedback I’ve had has been positive, which has been encouraging.
I wonder if this story would ever have come to me if I’d hadn’t been fighting a losing battle against my depression. Has something beautiful – or at least readable – come from my deepest moments of despair? Are there messages in there that others may find valuable? Have I successfully used the fantasy genre in the way I had hoped; as more than a tale of magic?
I suppose others will be the judge of that.
I’d like to be known as a writer of fantasy – not “that guy who wrote a book when he was depressed”. Maybe this post doesn’t help that. Maybe a potential employer will stumble across this and say, “Hmm. Not sure we want to take a risk on this one.” But then again, maybe it will get people thinking; talking. Maybe it will do just a little to reduce the stigma that stubbornly persists: about depression; about fantasy work being nothing more than light fluff; about self-publishing being only for those who don’t have good enough writing skills.
After all, if I’ve written and self-published a book with multiple themes and thought-provoking wisdom literature – all while severely depressed – I can’t be total write-off, right? Right?
Anyway, what are your thoughts? What fantasy books or authors have you come to love for such issues they discuss? That is, after all, one of the most wonderful things about fantasy. A story may have magic or dragons or all number of fantastical elements. But in using these to tell tales of things society is too embarrassed to address, it is the genre that can most effectively touch the deepest parts of our soul. That’s certainly why I love it.