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 Replies

  • 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.



  • 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?

  • 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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