The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson

I just finished The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson [who is, incidentally, from Cleveland]. It is comprised of three books: Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War and The Power that Preserves. With this series I have finally, after three years, finished the Science Fiction Book Club list: The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002 which I will provide a large review of sometime this week. First a review of Thomas Covenant.

In many ways this book is a typical Tolkien, ring-lore ripoff. I’m going to ignore those ways and instead focus on the more original aspects of the work.

Thomas Covenant is the protagonist, he is a leper. He lives in our world but keeps knocking himself out and waking up in another world where he is hailed as a messianic figure. Yes, Leper Messiah [1, 2, 3]. Anyway, as a plot device this is kind of clunky but it sets up an interesting take on the fantasy world. Covenant believes that he is just knocked out and that his mind has created this world as a way to cope with the necessary withdrawal and selfishness that leprosy demands. Hence, Unbeliever. Covenant is not a likable person. He is bitter, cowardly, plaintive, and on and on and on. Within the first 40 pages he rapes a 16 year old girl. And this is the fucker that is supposed to save the Land from the ravages or Lord Foul. In what he knows as the “real world” [for in these books, reality and fantasy are questionable] his wife has left him but he still wears his wedding ring. In the Land everyone seems to vest this white gold ring with power.

Enough of that.

The story itself becomes a not so subtle salvation and redemption tale, like the Gospels, but through the glass darkly. The people of the Land don’t need redeemed but they do need saved. Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever [twice doubting but still a promise?] is the one who needs redeemed. The books are torturous and violent. I mean, nothing good happens, just about ever […does have an ambiguously happy ending, but is a bit preachy]. The best Good ever does against Evil is a stalemate or temporary reprieve. Evil beats on Good for most of the books. Lemme tell ya, it gets really old after awhile. Covenant finally reconciles life in the Land and his unbelief and banishes Despite [Lord Foul, The Gray Slayer, etc.] through mercy and laughter. But not his own, he is still rather unlikable at the end. Still, he is Savior of the Land and has a chat with God before waking up tied to a hospital bed as if he were crucified. The books aren’t very subtle and I think their greatest attribute is the leper-coward-rapist protagonist who is so despicable, yet, we who live in his mind throughout the books, come to a deeper understanding of our own inherent despicability and the only way to overcome it. Joy is in the ears that hear.

Donaldson must be Catholic.

5 thoughts on “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson

  1. Shalom Adam,

    I actually own first-edition, hardback copies of the first five Covenant books. As I look back on the Navy years when I bought them I have to ask, “What was I thinking?”

    I remember at the time being amazed that such badly written books with such a horrible protagonist could be so popular. I was so enthralled that I kept buying then thinking that a light would go on in my head and that I would get IT. I never did.

    I think these books are a lot like John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces: so horribly bad that people can’t seem to admit they read them to the end.

    That Donaldson’s books made it onto some all-time-best list doesn’t surprise me. Sometimes people are ashamed to admit they read a pile of crap.

    But hey. I DID buy five of them, so I was guilty for contributing to the buzz.



  2. I think you’re overly critical of the series – it has a dark beginning sure, but what makes it so different than George RR Martin in that regard?

  3. I guess I’d say that A Song of Ice and Fire pays no mind to morality or the tired good/evil dichotomy, whereas this series is almost wholly centered around both, framed with whiny melodrama.

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