Stephen R. Donaldson,
The Chronicles of Thomas
Covenant the Unbeliever
Lord Foul's Bane (Del Rey, 1977),
The Illearth War (Del Rey, 1978),
& The Power
That Preserves
(Del Rey, 1979)

Thomas Covenant was once a happy, well-adjusted young writer who developed an unfortunate case of leprosy. After receiving initial care at a facility, where he lost two fingers to the disease, Covenant lives the life of a pariah, his wife having taken their only son to protect him from the disease, the townspeople shunning him as he lives out his days on a farm called, oddly enough, Haven. Lonely and embittered as his body slowly but surely shuts down on him, Covenant, after being hit by a car on one of his infrequent trips to town, wakes up in a strange, beautiful place called the Land. Thus begins a series that's been hailed as either a soft Tolkien rip-off or complex and intriguing epic that explores the darker currents of the human soul as deftly as Tolkien's magnum opus critiqued societal trends toward industrialization.

After a well-meaning local girl, Lena, heals Covenant's leprosy with arcane magic, the awed townsfolk of her village hail him as the prophesied hero Berek Halfhand, the White Gold Wielder. It seems that Covenant's wedding ring is the key to the Land's survival, the ring itself made special both by virtue of having been made from white gold (there is no metal like it anywhere in the Land) and by the wild magic power it calls forth -- though Covenant can't for the life of him figure out how to do so. Unable to handle the input from his reawakened senses, panicked that he's gone mad and created a fantasy world he can't escape from and hailed with complete societal acceptance as a savior where before people threw rocks at him, Covenant goes into sensory overload and assaults Lena, the young girl who healed him.

Thus the first book of the series, Lord Foul's Bane, commences with an ugly rape, setting up the crisis from which a great deal of the action will flow. Although the people of her village cannot comprehend an act of such horror, they have taken a vow of nonviolence and decide not only to forgive him but to help him in the quest with which he's been entrusted. Lena's mother, Atrian, takes Covenant to the Council of Lords, where he is to tell them what he saw in a vision: that a Golem-like creature called Drool Rockworm, a cavewight, has seized the Staff of Law, which controls the Land's magical Earthpower, and has become the minion of Lord Foul, a chthonic being of destruction who intends to devour all of the Land. Covenant, the council Lords and a Giant named Saltheart Foamfollower set out to retrieve the Staff from Foul and return Covenant to his own world.

In the second installment, The Illearth War, Covenant returns to the Land after a generation has passed. Lord Foul has assembled a massive army headed by giants and is once again threatening the Land. The High Lord of the Council is Elena, Covenant's child by Lena. Also in the Land is a man called Hile Troy, a blind man from Covenant's real world, whose sight has been restored by Earthpower in much the same way Covenant's leprosy was cured. While Troy takes on Lord Foul, Elena and Covenant go in search of the Seventh Ward, a repository of ancient magic. In a cataclysmic battle with the deceased spirit of another high Lord, Elena is killed and the Staff of Law lost. Troy defeats Foul's army, the war ends in a stalemate and Covenant once again returns home.

The Power That Preserves opens several years later. The spirit of High Lord Elena, now a slave to Foul, uses the Staff of Law against her own people. The Land is in perpetual winter as Covenant and his friend, Foamfollower, journey to the very heart of Foul's dominion to try and defeat the evil lord, rescue Elena's soul and set matters to right once again in the Land.

The Covenant saga has Chronicles of Narnia-like ties to the real world, which sets it apart from Tolkien and most other fantasy series of the time. The reality between the two worlds couldn't be more different; a savior (at least of sorts) in one, he's a pariah in the other. Significantly, Covenant never really believes that he's in another world, merely lying in a coma somewhere. There are enough hints in the book to keep definite confirmation at bay -- one of the more enticing and original aspects of the series. The tension throughout is excellently conceived and built upon. Donaldson is obsessed with describing the inner world of his characters and manages to touch on levels of emotion and insight not seen very much up to the point the trilogy was written.

This is not a story for readers who like Good Guys to win against Bad Guys. Donaldson employs broken, repugnant human beings as believable, if miserable and flawed, heroes. Covenant is not easy at all to like, if such a thing is even possible. Many readers put the book down after the rape scene, vowing never to return. Donaldson does make a genuine attempt to have Covenant face and attempt to weed out the festering sores that drove him to commit terrible acts, creating a character that we can understand, if not necessarily excuse.

There is a great deal of genuine prose amid the rather turgid phrasing. Donaldson has a Wagner-like love of such themes as fear and despair. His characters are imbued with the same emotion and intensity as Tolkien's, but they are much more complex. Donaldson's ebullient descriptions are overflowing with detail where compression would definitely have helped moved the story along -- yet the words are sometimes quite insightful, with a hypnotic, crystalline clarity and an amazing breadth and scope in terms of the details they describe, whether it's a human emotion or a character. It's one of the most unique, disturbing series that the genre has to offer, and it's either a breakthrough or deeply cynical, depending on how you look at it.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 31 July 2004

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