I’m currently reading LORD FOUL’S BANE, the first book of Stephen R. Donaldson’s legendary trilogy The Chronicles of Thomas Convenant the Unbeliever. I know, I know–most people my age read this series back in the late 70s, the 80s, or during any decade since. I admit–I’m way late to this fantastic party. But that’s the beauty of great fiction–especially great fantasy–you can discover it years or decades or centuries after it’s released and it rocks your world. And Donaldson is seriously rocking it with this series.
When I was in middle school a friend who was into fantasy recommended the book, and I tried to read it. I was big into LORD OF THE RINGS, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, and THE MARTIAN TALES OF EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS, among others. But when my 7th-grade self popped open a copy of LORD FOUL’S BANE, it was simply…beyond me.
The prose must have been too sophisticated for my young brain…plus it didn’t help that the protagonist starts in the “real world” and it takes about three chapters before he is immersed in the fantasy world called The Land. I guess I ran out of patience…and that’s really not too terrible because now, at the age of 40, I am discovering what some have called the “War and Peace of fantasy fiction” for the first time and man am I loving it.
It’s no wonder my younger self didn’t “click” with Donaldson’s main character, Thomas Covenant, in his first adventure. This is a thoroughly ADULT fantasy…the themes and the language were never intended for a Young Adult Audience, although many young adults enjoy the series. I look at it like this: My younger self gave my older self a present by ignoring this amazingly good feast of fantasy for later. I’m sure many a reader who read the series as a youngster read it again later and got much more out of it. How can a 12-year-old (as bright as some are) identify with poor Thomas Covenant, who is so beaten down and despised by the world that he is a literal outcast, his emotions atrophied, his self-confidence shattered, his very essence torn, tattered, and suffering?
Donaldson takes a man who is on the very lowest rung of society–a victim of leprosy–and plunges him into a fantasy world that is enchanting, vital, and deadly. I’m still in the first book of the series and I keep wondering if Covenent will ever accept that he’s no longer sick, that he’s got the White Gold Power, and that he’s not a total loser!
The first moment of shock and awe came for me when Covenant, believing himself caught in a strange dream where nothing is real, sexually assaults a teenage girl who does nothing but help him survive from the moment he arrives. I am absolutely AMAZED that Donaldson’s publishers let him keep that scene in the book…it is so powerful and so very wrong.
Right away your sympathy for this protagonist is tested, challenged to the core, because he has done something reprehensible. Of course, Covenenant only experiences more self-revulsion and guilt becuase now he must live with his crime. Everyone he meets thinks he is the reincarnation of the great hero Berek Halfhand, but Covenant himself refuses to accept his obvious “wild magic” powers or his physical existence in the despoiled paradise that is The Land. At times I’m rooting for him, at other times I’m hoping he gets what is coming to him. This is brilliant writing, and it creates a fantasy world that is utterly charming and yet full of grey areas…it is not a simple tale of good folk versus evil folk. Perhaps there is symbolism in the naming of the book’s lead villain Lord Foul as “The Grey Slayer.” Something to think about.
Besides the anti-heroic Thomas Covenant, the real beauty of the book is how Donaldson builds a fantasy world (The Land) that brims with benign magic and evokes the loveliness of nature itself (much as Tolkien did with Middle Earth). His peoples with their Lore of stone and wood magic are fascinating and complex in their emotional depth. His giants are links to the glorious legends of the past, which provide a subtext as gorgeous as the bits of Tolkien’s SILMARILLION that creep into LORD OF THE RINGS. It seems that Donaldson’s genius was in taking what Tolkien had done, twisting it, and filling it with the imperfections of human nature that make every character closer to modern humanity than Tolkien’s striding, lovable archetypes. Like The Land itself, the people who live in it are damaged, flawed, and sometimes utterly broken.
I will most likely post more thoughts on this classic series as I continue blazing through the books. I’m so very glad that I finally found my way back to Donaldson’s creation. I can’t wait to see where it takes me…