There is a wonderful article by Nick Lowe1 in which he states that he came up with “a way to derive pleasure from Stephen Donaldson books. Needless to say, it doesn’t involve reading them.” Well, I gave it a shot, and unfortunately, the man is right.
Lord Foul’s Bane was one of the most depressing, miserable, anger-inducing books I’ve ever read – and mind you, I managed to get through Twilight and the Sword of Truth series. The protagonist is an asshole, the other characters merely cardboard cutouts, the plot is stupid and hard to grasp, and alltogether I took away a general sense of dissatisfaction. What I’m trying to say is: it was a unique, enlightening and fascinating read!
Let me explain. Just because I didn’t derive any pleasure from Lord Foul’s Bane does not mean that the book didn’t succeed at what it set out to do. Pleasure or enjoyment are not the only qualities by which to judge a novel, and Lord Foul’s Bane, I believe, makes you miserable on purpose. Let’s start with the main character, Thomas Covenant.
Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever
Lord Foul’s Bane is a classic portal fantasy: Thomas Covenant, a protagonist who might have invented the term “anti-hero”, is drawn from the real world into a fantasy world. He reaches it not through an actual portal, though, but rather blacks out in the middle of the street and wakes up in “The Land”, as it is called. The subtitle of the novel is “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever” – the inhabitants of The Land give him this questionable title because he constantly questions the existence of their world. In fact, this may be called the main ‘plot’ of the novel: Covenant coming to terms with his “dream” and figuring out a way to get back to the real world. The quest to find the Staff of Law and confront Lord Foul seems almost insignificant in comparison. With Covenant as the narrative’s focalizer, the reader only sees the Land through his eyes, filtered through his half-crazy brain. It’s no wonder everything seems unreal.
Covenant’s main ‘in-your-face’ character trait is that he is a leper. The first few chapters deal exclusively with his life before and after he was struck by the disease, how he is ostracized from society, and how he fights depression through rigorous self-discipline. I found this part much more interesting than the rest of the novel – and during his stay in ‘fantasyland’, I was constantly evaluating the story in terms of what it meant for Covenant. It is tempting to see the Land as nothing but a dream, since then the novel would be an interesting exploration of Covenant’s psychological mindscape. In this respect, Lord Foul’s Bane harks back to the days when fantasy was more or less just a psychological journey, rather than the development of believable secondary worlds.
Thomas Covenant is absolutely convinced that the Land is a trick of his mind: it is a beautiful place, furnished with Convenient Berries to ensure you never go hungry, and some wonderful Convenient Mud to heal all his injuries, including the leprosy. Add to that a beautiful maiden that beds his head in her lap and sings to him, and you understand how bitter Covenant becomes. The dream is obviously trying to destroy his self-control, and to make him give in to a reality in which he is treated kindly and does not have to endure his terrible illness. If you take fantasy, especially older fantasy, as a mainly metaphorical look at human problems, this makes sense: everybody develops certain routines and strategies to cope with every-day life, even if we’re not sick or homeless. Having these strategies destroyed and challenged is tough and even unbearable to some people. Thereby, Covenant’s struggle against the Land makes for a strong plot.
All in favor to destroy the Land…
The problem here is, that Donaldson attempts to make the Land real, and to make it matter for the reader. In that, I believe he failed – while reading I didn’t care for one second whether or not all these old guys succeed or fail in their quest. When some of them died, it had zero impact on me (or on the plot, or Covenant, for that matter…). The novel is constantly poised between being about Covenant and being about the Land. At some points, it certainly seemed to me that Donaldson satirizes the typical quest fantasies, and I even laughed at how silly it often sounded! Certain parts, read on their own, could be from a Terry Pratchett novel.
There is, to begin with, Covenant’s weird position in the Land. He wears a “white gold ring” – his wedding ring, which he still kept even after his wife left him. He sees the ring as a symbol of his illness and failure; how horrible, even insulting, is it then, that this ring singles him out as savior, as Berek Halfhand returned, a champion ready to fight Lord Foul. Even though Thomas Covenant behaves like crap to everyone he meets, they still believe in him. He brings death and suffering to the Land, and his power stems from intimidation rather than benevolence or compassion. It is almost comical how ridiculously trusting the people in the Land are: he is constantly trying to tell them that he is an outcast for a reason (they don’t understand the word leper), but they ignore his warnings. I sympathized with Lord Foul wanting to destroy the Land and enslave all the idiots!
But this is where the novel becomes complicated. In his ultimate horrible act, Covenant rapes the aforementioned beautiful maiden. He is ashamed and terror-struck at his deed, but it is still somewhat excused by the fact that he thought it was all a dream. I cannot stress enough how terrible this was to read: You know he’s the biggest asshole in the Land, and still, you’re in his head, trapped in his guilty, self-deprecating conscience. In the end, there is no poetic justice or retribution; the rape isn’t even mentioned anymore. Before the rape, I was mildly supportive of the guy, afterwards I just wanted him to fall down a cliff. But I still did not sympathize with the Land or the people in it either! Just because he raped Lena does not mean I have to like her, and just because the Land is doomed does not mean I have to want to prevent it.
I guess you could now either accept this as Donaldson’s trick: he forces you to read a novel that makes you abhor everyone and everything in it. It is an interesting literary device, an interesting exploration, you might say, of what can be done in a fantasy novel. But sadly, this also means that I stopped caring about Covenant’s fate by the end. He does not learn anything, and neither do the people of the Land. Everything vanishes, like the dream it seemed to be, and Covenant finds himself in hospital. He is convinced that his fulfilling the ‘quest’ in the dream enabled him to wake up, and goes back to his life. I hated both Covenant and the Land – and therefore I learnt nothing, either. (Apart from some very interesting facts about leprosy.)
Lord Foul’s Bane was unique (or at least to me) in that I continued reading mostly out of morbid curiosity; enlightening because it showed what kind of an effect can be achieved with the means of fantasy; and it was a fascinating read, because I was honestly surprised at its bleakness. It made a point, but that was all.
There are 10 books in the Thomas Covenant series, with the latest only published in 2013. But I was so depressed and disappointed after the first one, that this is a series I will gladly drop right now. I’ll just see it as an interesting, but ultimately failed, experiment.
1 Nick Lowe – “The Well tempered Plot Device”, go and read it, it’s hilarious.