Tonight I finished reading LORD FOUL’S BANE, the first book in Stephen R. Donaldson’s epic trilogy  THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER. In an earlier post (“Discovering the Unbeliever”) I talked about how Donaldson bowled me over with a mix of traditional fantasy elements, a heavy dose of originality, and a perfectly anti-heroic protagonist. Now that I’ve reached the end of the first book, I’m nearly as ambivalent about The Land as Thomas Covenant himself. The poor bastard…

Covenant could not take his Messianic role seriously because a) he believed The Land was only a dream he was having, and b) he was an emotionally and spiritually scarred coward to the core. And this is what bugs me about the first book’s conclusion: I expected there to come a moment at some point during the battles, the desperate flights of magic, the near-death moments, the confrontations with evil and strange powers that rule The Land and threaten to destroy it…I expected there to come a moment where Covenant quits whining and realizes a) “Wow, this really isn’t a dream–it’s all real!” and b) “I should embrace my role as White Gold Wielder and draw upon this tremendous power I’ve been given instead of bitching and moaning at every step along this quest!”

But that moment never came.

At the end of the first book, Covenant is just as frightened, hopeless, spiritually atrophied, and wracked by denial and cowardice as he was at the beginning! Well, he may be a tad better, but these problems still plague him, even up the point where he peforms an act that saves the lives of his fellow questors. Where was his transfiguration? Where was his enlightenment? Where was the magical apotheosis that was going to transform this unlikable whiner into someone worthy of being called the “ur-Lord”? (Which he was called anyway, although greatly undeserving of the title.)

Okay, I understand that years of being a leper in “our world” (i.e. earth) made Covenant afraid to feel, destroyed his emotions out of self-preservation, made him live in a world of constant loneliness and ever-present terror of injury. But one would think that The Land and its wonderful healing power would have affected him in some way. One would think that the heroic quest and the great heroes he accompanied and assisted would have changed him…gotten him used to being “human” again…helped to heal his scarred soul.  But no…Covenant is just as miserable and clueless at the end of the first novel as he was at the beginning.

And this bothered me…because one would think that all the knowledge he has gained, all the evidence of the Lords and their power, The Land’s healing properties, the OBVIOUS FACT THAT HE IS NO LONGER A LEPER, all this would eventually change him into what he is raging against being: a hero. But Covenant is bound and determined NOT to be hero…not to be the savior everyone hopes he will be. He is one of the most frustrating charaters in fantasy literature, hands down. Every time you want him to do something right, he does the opposite. Every time someone offers him a hand in friendship, he smacks it away. Every time someone offers hope, he tears it down.

Thomas Covenant is a schmuck.

Donaldson has simultaneously fascinated me and revolted me as a reader. His fantasy world is so compelling, so full of grand beauties and stark terrors, so redolent of Nature and Myth and Dream, that I long to return there in the second book. But Thomas Covenant is such a pathetic loser that I really would rather make the journey IN SOMEONE ELSE’S COMPANY.

I look at the gorgeous Darrell K. Sweet cover painting on the second volume, THE ILLEARTH WAR, and I want to dive right in and savor The Land again, to see what becomes of its noble people in their unfinished struggled against the Soulcrusher and his legions of doom. But I’m so glad to be OUT of Thomas Covenant’s messed-up head and guilt-wracked psyche that I’m hesitant to crack the book open.

Donaldson’s first book leaves me ambivalent…however, that’s also what I like about it. Most epic fantasies are predictable (I already stated what I “expected” to happen to Covenant)…but LORD FOUL’S BANE never went in the direction I expected it to go. When I thought he would zig, Donaldson zagged. He simply refused to follow standard fantasy tropes and consign his characters to archetypal roles…he was far more concerned in evoking true personalities and following them to their utmost limits. His characters are true to themselves…hence Covenant’s lack of any major transformation.

This is exactly what fills me with respect for Donaldson’s writing. This is what will get me cracking open my gorgeous copy of THE ILLEARTH WAR. (I had to pay a little extra for the Darrell K. Sweet cover edition since it’s out of print). With Donaldson, you simply can’t predict where he’s taking you. It’s a testament to his authorial skills that even though I can’t stand his protagonist (Covenant), I simply can’t wait to get back into the world he has created.

THE POWER THAT PRESERVES is the third book in the trilogy, and word-of-mouth tells me it's the best of the bunch. Another terrific Darrell K. Sweet cover on this original out-of-print version. These covers are icons of my youth...I could not imagine reading the series without them.

How is that even possible? How can I read an entire book told through the point-of-view of a protagonist I simply DO NOT LIKE and yet still feel compelled to see where Book II is going? I’ve never felt this way before about a book or a series. Usually, I either finish a book because it’s completely amazing, or a stop reading one-third or one-half the way through because I finally realize it’s not working for me. But something about pitiful Thomas Covenant makes me look past my antipathy and hope that when he returns to The Land (as I’m sure he will in the second book, based on the title of the trilogy), he will eventually find that growth and healing that he needs.

Maybe it will take the winning of this war against Lord Foul and the healing of the wounded Land itself to heal Thomas Covenant. (I also know that the sequel trilogy begins with a book called THE WOUNDED LAND.) Perhaps if The Land represents Covenant’s tattered psyche (and/or body), he can never be completely healed until The Land is healed…and vice versa. This is another point of the series’ strong appeal…thematically, it works like magic.

I just hope Covenant doesn’t whine and moan his way through THE ILLEARTH WAR the way he did through the entirety of the first book.

But there’s only one way to find out…

I’m off to The Land.