On My Shelves: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever



     1977, as I have mentioned before, was something of a banner year in my fandom experiences for me. Star Wars was released in that year; I first encountered roleplaying games, in the form of Dungeons and Dragons, in 1977; The Sword of Shannara was published in that year.


     And so was Lord Foul's Bane, the first book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever – a series which was first a trilogy, then two trilogies, and now a total of ten books with the addition of a final tetralogy. I have not read this final tetralogy; I'm unsure whether I want to, given my feelings on the two trilogies that preceded it, so this review will discuss only those two trilogies.


     The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant may well be the most-reviled work of fantasy to have also achieved high acclaim, and is certainly one of the most polarizing. I would say that about ninety percent of those who begin the first book and do not complete the first trilogy stop at the exact same point – and understandably so; I nearly stopped there as well (more on that later). Those who stop are virtually universal in their understandable detestation; of those who complete the first trilogy, there's still quite a division of "I finished it and feel that this is an achievement of pain and fortitude" and those who actually enjoyed reading it.


     The first novel, Lord Foul's Bane, introduces us to Covenant – possibly the most non-heroic central character ever in an epic fantasy. Covenant is a man who once "had it all"; wealth from a wildly successful bestselling novel, a wife Joan he loved very much, and a young son named Roger.


     Then out of the blue he contracted leprosy, resulting in the loss of two of the fingers on his left hand and the departure of his wife and child because his wife fears that prolonged exposure to Covenant could infect Roger as well.


     This is only part of the problem for Covenant; he is also given six months counseling as to how to deal with his leprosy (which destroys nerves and eliminates sensations, meaning that even an unattended scratch may turn, unnoticed, into a gangrenous wound). This "counseling" includes, basically, terror tactics, showing Covenant what could happen to him if he ignores his condition and ever, EVER believes, for even a single moment, that he could EVER be cured. It is emphasized again, and again, and again that his imagination and fantasies will be his deadly enemies, that his mind may attempt to trick him into believing he can live a normal life, and if he ever falls into that trap, he could end up a freakish, distorted remnant of humanity.


     This is … not at all in line with the way things are today with respect to leprosy, and is a hideously bad course of psychological treatment even taking into account that this was written in the 1970s. Adding to that the nearly medieval attitudes of Covenant's neighbors in the small town he lives in and other interesting peculiarities, I have always considered that Covenant's story does not actually begin in this universe but one somewhat similar, in which a cure for leprosy was never found and attitudes lag behind our modern ones in a number of areas.


     In any event, this reduces Covenant to a grim, isolated man with barely any human contact. When he finally resolves to at least not be completely isolated and leaves his home to go into town, he encounters a strange beggar who refuses all offers of his help – including his white gold wedding ring – and leaves him with an admonishment to "be true".


     Then Covenant is hit by a police car, and when he awakens, finds himself in a place called simply The Land – a fantasy realm which is in some ways a distillation of all fantastic tropes, and in other ways very different. After an initial terrifying encounter with his monstrous summoner, a being called "Drool Rockworm" wielding a powerful magical artifact, and that summoner's superior, the true villain of the piece who is simply called Lord Foul, the Despiser, Covenant is transported to an isolated location called Kevin's Watch and discovered by a young girl named Lena, who leads him to the nearby village. There he finds that the residents consider him the reincarnation of one of their greatest heroes, Berek Half-Hand (due to Covenant's missing two fingers), and the holder of the mystically vital "white gold", which is said to unlock the Wild Magic, something beyond the power of any who live within the world.


     Well, seeing the brainwashing his "counselors" gave him (I cannot call it anything less vile; brainwashing it clearly was, especially if you read the details in the book) earlier, one can probably guess where this is going. Covenant – knowing that the last thing that he remembers from the real world is that he was struck by a police car – refuses to believe any of this is real; it's obviously a dream, a fantasy cooked up by his subconscious. He knows that if he accepts this fantasy as true he is likely dooming himself to a terrible death or a possibly even worse half-life on a hospital bed for decades. So he refuses belief in anything having to do with the Land.


     From this perspective, of course, the Land is an insidious and horrific trap, a desperate attempt by Covenant's own mind to break him, convince him that instead of being a powerless, isolated man who has lost everything, he's a great hero, powerful, in a place where everyone will respect and admire him.


     He has to deny this, or he's dooming himself. The conditioning he has accepted gives him no latitude; indulging fantasy is tantamount to suicide, and despite his far reduced circumstances Thomas Covenant has no desire to die.


     But the Land continues its (apparent) assaults on his sanity, culminating in the application  by Lena of something called "hurtloam", a magical mud that uses the power of the Land itself to undo all damage to a person.


     It cures Covenant's leprosy… and even brings back the nerves, full sensation to every part of Covenant's body.


     This is the final straw, the clear "frontal assault" on his sanity, the absolute proof that this must be a delusion. There is no cure for leprosy, and even if there was a cure, it could not bring back nerves that had been dead for a year or more. Dead nerves are dead.


     Covenant breaks at that point, and from my reading of the book, what happens then is that his panicked, conditioned mind suddenly has a twisted yet, in some ways, brilliant insight. If the point of this fantasy is to escape, to give Covenant some refuge where everyone loves him instead of avoids him, where he's a good guy and hero instead of outcast and isolate avoided by everyone, then there's a simple solution: make everyone here hate, fear, and revile him too! Then he has no more reason to stay here!



     TRIGGER WARNING. If you have specific triggery issues with sexual events I you should stop now. And probably never even attempt to read these books, even though there is, in fact, only one significant event in that category in the trilogy that I can recall. Still, I say stop if you have any triggers in that area.


















Okay, continuing…


     This combines with the fact that one set of regenerated nerves also cures his impotence (which began when he was first diagnosed), and Covenant rapes Lena.


     THIS is of course the point at which a vast number of people take the book and throw it against the wall, never to continue, or even read anything by Donaldson again. And I can't blame them for it. I nearly did that myself, and only continued because I was interested in The Land itself.


     But from a psychological point of view, the action makes a twisted sort of sense. Such an act is unforgiveable – by Covenant's own standards. But since (as he then believes) this is merely a delusion in his mind, he's not actually committing the act, and it will make everyone hate him and the fantasy will reject him, forcing him back to the real world.


     But the Land does not, in fact, reject him. And while many people are horrified by what he has done and unable to comprehend it (and, indeed, Covenant can't really understand it either, at least not for a long time), they abide by their sacred Oath of Peace, and by the need to get the message he carries to the rulers of the Land, and send him unharmed on his way.


     The subsequent parts of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are constantly affected by this single event. Covenant accepts that what he did in that moment was a heinous, unforgiveable act, and spends the remainder of his time attempting to atone for it – and always accepts that there really is no way to fully make up for what he has done. He does not attempt to justify it in any significant way, and is constantly followed by the shadow of that choice – and constantly confronted by the consequences thereof, in multiple ways.


     Beyond this, though, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant give us a huge, complex world and plot driven by moral choices, lies and truths, courage and despair, a world that, for me, made it more than worth the time to continue. Many of the secondary characters – especially Saltheart Foamfollower, the laughing Giant, Lord Mhoram of Revelstone, and Bannor of the Bloodguard – made the journeys to the Land worthwhile for me. And it was filled with moments of awesome as well as tragedy and vileness; to this day, I cannot read the words "Lord Mhoram's Victory" without a chill of triumph and awe down my spine, nor think of Saltheart Foamfollower's laugh without a similar, sadder sensation.


     Covenant himself … I hated his guts for 2.8+ of the first 3 books. He spends huge amounts of energy trying to evade any responsibility handed to him (because, after all, accepting the responsibility to DO something is, itself, a concession to the reality of the Land), and has a constant internal monologue of self-loathing which colors every interaction he has; even when other people don't SEE him that way, he assumes they will. He remains, for most of the trilogy, a grim, self-despising man afraid of any human contact. Covenant, at least in the first trilogy, is not a hero in any real sense of the term except, possibly, for one.


However, I came to actually grudgingly like him at the end, when he finally found the key to being the Unbeliever, and the key to saving the Land: that it did not matter if the Land was real. His choices to protect it – to deny Despite – were either very real defenses against a malevolent being of godlike power, or were his own choice to live and not to destroy himself regardless of his mistakes or flaws, a battle against his worst self in the form of Lord Foul. Either way, there was something worth fighting for, and thus he had to neither believe in the Land, nor NOT believe in it – to balance in the UnBelief, and find the key to that power, the Wild White Magic Gold.


     In the second Chronicles, Thomas Covenant is joined by another traveler from the "real world", Doctor Linden Avery, who has her own tortured secrets in her psyche. In this trilogy, Covenant gained huge cred from me from his initial response to Lord Foul, having summoned him to the Land once more, gloating over him, telling him that he has no hope and "you are mine": "I don't believe it. You can't be STUPID enough to try this AGAIN."


     The second Chronicles also introduce more things of horror and wonder, from the hideousness of the nature-warping Sunbane to the beauty of the Elohim and the implacable, unstoppable power of a Sandgorgon, and multiple more events of sorrow, heroism, evil, and love. The trilogy climaxes, however, with Thomas Covenant pulling off one of the most brilliant Xanatos Gambits I have ever seen, finally defeating Lord Foul in a manner that left me simultaneously crying and laughing so hard that I could barely finish the book.


     It is that ending that makes me extremely reluctant to pick up the final four books. Undoing that triumph… is there anything worth doing that? Can the final four novels manage to conclude Covenant's legacy in a manner that is that good or better? I'm doubtful.


     How do I rate the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? Rrrrgh. That's a hard one. That One Event is enough to knock it down pegs. Yet… that one event is also the driving force of the novel in many ways, the single hideous choice that affects, distorts, and pushes ever single other thing that Covenant does or must do, and reveals the one truly heroic trait he has: absolute willingness to face himself and hold to who he is regardless of the pressures and temptations to do otherwise. Donaldson is also very well known for stylistic quirks that have been used as SF convention party games ("Clench racing", where you pick up a Covenant book and open it at random, with the winner being the first to find the word "Clench" somewhere in the text); he often seems to use his thesaurus as a shotgun, targeting a concept but not being precise about what he hits.


     At the same time, that strange choice of language, with bizarre, often outmoded word choices, lends a dreamlike intensity to the Land which would be lost with more conventional writing. I have to accept that for his purposes, that writing actually works far better than a style which would be technically better and more accurate.


     I guess I have to say that these were good books, well worth my time (I've read them more than once), but not ones I would approach casually. Of Donaldson's works, I think his Mordant's Need dualogy (which I'll probably review later) was considerably superior, but the Thomas Covenant books are certainly worthy volumes in and of themselves.





Your comments or questions welcomed!