Lord Foul’s Bane, first book of Stephen R. Donaldson’s series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever was released way back in 1977. This is the year of Star Wars, and a decade following the preeminence of Lord of the Rings, so another epic fantasy on the book charts is no surprise. But is Lord Foul’s Bane just another epic fantasy? Let’s see…
High fantasy setting? Check.
Bearded, wizardly men with staves that shoot fire? Check.
Mythical creatures? Check.
Wicked evil foes? Check
Quest for a magical artifact? Check
Main character has a magic ring? Check.
Main character is a bitter, bitter leper who commits rape within hours of arriving to this wondrous fantasy land? Er… … Check?
While Lord Foul’s Bane has many standard, even trite, elements of the fantasy genre, it turns the system on its head by providing you with a rather agonizing protagonist.
The story starts regularly enough. Thomas Covenant is from our world. He is a published author. He used to have a family, but they left him when he discovered he is afflicted with leprosy. The stigma against his ailment is more painful that the disease itself, and Thomas now lives as an outcast, and society wants nothing more than for him to keep his distance.
By means unknown, Thomas is transported to The Land when he is struck by a vehicle. There he is greeted by the villains of the novel straight away. Goulish Drool Rockworm, who does the bidding of Lord Foul the Despiser. Foul, oddly enough, almost stupidly, gives Thomas a message to relay to the lords of the land that spells doom and destruction.
Thus begins an adventure through The Land where we meet its peoples, learn that is has a deep history, and a dark past. The journey, too, seems pulled right out of any mythic form. Thomas must assemble a group of companions who can both fight and provide him with knowledge that will help him unlock mysterious and innate powers that will help him overcome a great evil.
On the surface, that’s exactly what this novel is about.
But remember: Thomas is from Earth. Our Earth, our time (well… the 70’s). Things like this don’t happen. Can’t happen. Furthermore, Thomas is a leper. His severe nerve damage limits him drastically, and even the merest cut could spell his demise. He certainly isn’t the stuff of heroes, and his magic ring? It’s just his white gold wedding band that he nostalgically wears even though his wife has long since abandoned him.
What the story really explores is the internal journey Thomas makes as he struggles with his disbelief with this entire experience (hence his title The Unbeliever). But Thomas is a bitter, bitter man. He is wholly unlikable, and he digs himself in a rather deep hole with his attitude. He is an anti-hero to the extreme.
This is where I had problems with the book, originally. You see, I generally don’t like novels about anti-heroes. They seem to me like the author’s chance to live out a fantasy of being an asshole to everyone yet still be celebrated for it. I have been surprised before, such as with Anne Rice’s Lestat character, and was surprised here as well.
I still don’t like Thomas, but I pity him. He has had a difficult life, so it’s not like he chose to be a leper, or that he chose for his wife to leave him, though that doesn’t excuse all of his choices. It’s a sour irony that Thomas is an outcast at home and wants to be a part of society, but while in The Land, he is a vital figure but he wants nothing more than to be alone.
As far as the setting Donaldson created, he obviously has a lot of affection for it like any author would, but he shows some restraint as the novel progresses and doesn’t encumber us with every minute detail of the world. While I do think parts of the journey in the novel dragged on during passages of travel, I didn’t feel like I was on a guided tour with signs explaining the history of ruins on the hill, or some relics in the grass.
When compared to other fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings, there are quite a few shared elements. Donaldson even writes with an archaic, expressive vocabulary that makes the novel seem like some ageless and forgotten tome. But the abrasive character of Thomas Covenant, who clashes with every generous offer and benevolent character in The Land, is an intriguing and effective story telling device that sets Lord Foul’s Bane apart from its contemporaries.The unlikable character is such a conductive element that the conflict and drama in the book become explosive, but not just because of physical battles or magical spells.
If you find yourself bored with conventional fantasy, and you feel like you’re reading the same thing time and again, give Lord Foul’s Bane a try. It retains the superficial fantasy elements so that the whole affair has that flavor, but there is a twist to it all. Lord Foul’s Bane may very well be a rebel among fantasy novels, but it’s not one to be quelled.