Some time ago I talked about rereading Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, or at least the first seven books of it. Today I’m going back to the well to discuss my reread of Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in Stephen R. Donaldson’s series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
Though published in the 1970’s, the Thomas Covenant series still holds up as a classic of heroic fantasy, in large part because it reversed the common tropes of swords and sorcery novels by creating a horribly unlikable, impotent anti-hero as the protagonist. In this way Donaldson went further than Moorcock, who at least portrayed his anti-hero Elric as a powerful magician; by contrast, Thomas Covenant is a profoundly weak man who only uses power when physically forced to by others or, at the end of his physical and spiritual rope, to save a place that he himself considers imaginary.
As a protagonist, Covenant is as flawed as he is original. Before the events of Lord Foul’s Bane he contracts leprosy and as a result loses two fingers from his right hand. His wife divorces him, taking their infant son. His home town ostracizes him, terrified of the disease. Leprosy has become the single most important factor of his life, because if he gets injured, the injury may reawaken the leprosy in his bloodstream and cause him to quite literally rot away. Blindness, gangrene, loss of limbs: it’s horrible. And, at the time of the novels, incurable.
During a defiant trip to town he is knocked unconscious and awakens in a fantasy world called The Land where he’s considered the second coming of The Land’s greatest hero, Berek Halfhand. His wedding ring, which he stubbornly refused to take off after the divorce, is a talisman of powerful magic in this new realm. Everyone he meets is prepared to honor if not worship him. The Land’s greatest enemy, Lord Foul, gives him a message to take to the Lords of Revelstone, The Land’s leaders, warning them that he, Lord Foul, has returned after thousands of years to destroy everything.
Covenant rejects all of it. He doesn’t believe in The Land. He thinks it’s all a dream. And when he’s cured of his leprosy by a magic substance called hurtloam, he can’t handle the feeling of his nerves, once dead from leprosy, becoming reawakened. He rapes the young girl taking care of him and reluctantly goes to deliver Foul’s message to the Lords, guided by the mother of the girl he raped.
So we’re already in very strange territory: a leper rapist protagonist. He’s deliberately unlikable, cowardly, and weak. And yet we can’t help but understand him. He’s not a good man, but he’s not evil, either. We see incredible things through his eyes, but he’s almost never moved to take action. Can he save The Land? Can he save himself?
As fascinating as the book is, it’s not perfect. Reams have been written about the author’s use of terms like hebetude, desuetude, roynish, cymar, and hundreds of other words that most of us have never heard of. While many of Donaldson’s archaic and/or otherwise obscure terms can be divined through context, they take the reader out of the book. Much is made of Covenant’s “self-despite,” and the book’s main protagonist, Lord Foul, is called The Despiser. The problem is that a term like self-despite doesn’t have the same punch as “self-hatred”, which is what the author means. We’ve all experienced moments of self-hatred, usually after polishing off an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s. But we don’t suffer from self-despite. It’s not even a case of elevated diction: it’s wrong word choices, and the entire series suffers from it.
But not too much. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are too good not to read. Or reread. I myself have read it a half-dozen times since picking the series up in the mid-1980’s. Covenant’s personal quest, his weakness, the characters he meets, the places he goes: they’re all unforgettable, and the first book in the series, Lord Foul’s Bane, is the best. Donaldson introduces us to the semi-animist concept of Earthpower and then goes to show us how it can be used to do both great and awful things. Creatures like ur-viles, Waynhim, and Cavewights are vivid and disturbing, and the secondary characters are drawn in realistic terms, even if they speak in stilted, archaic English.
Lord Foul’s Bane is a gigantic book in both scope and ideas, and it deserves better than a surface discussion. It’s very much a polarizing work with many detractors. If you want to have a sad laugh, check out the Goodreads reviews of it; you’ll find many, many people who find the book…problematic. We’re not invited to love or even like Thomas Covenant. That’s not why he’s there. He’s an icon of human weakness, both a victim and a victimizer, and his adventures reflect the parts of us that we wish weren’t there. As both a teenager angry at the world and an adult who tries to practice gratitude every day I can still find much to love about this book. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but you should give it a try if you haven’t already.