The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is a fantasy trilogy by author Stephen R Donaldson, beginning with Lord Foul’s Bane. A few years after the original trilogy in the 80’s, there was a second series, and then the “Final Chronicles” series of four books was concluded within the last couple of years. This review is really of the full series rather than of standalone books. The first book in the first series, Lord Foul’s Bane, works as a standalone novel, but after that you really need to read each series in full as the individual novels often end on cliff-hangers.
If you scout around the web for reviews on this series you’ll get quite polarised views. And I can understand why. While I’ll explain below why I just love this series, my wife who also enjoys fantasy really couldn’t bear it.
Lord Foul’s Bane begins in our world, with the main character Thomas Covenant. He is a leper, and as a result of his disease has been abandoned by his wife (taking their son with her), and is an outcast in his community. He has had to learn to live by strict routine and view everything around him as a potential threat to his wellbeing in order to avoid potentially life-threatening cuts and bruises. He has previously had two of his fingers of one hand removed due to his disease.
With that background he is transported to “The Land”, a place of beauty and magic, of healing and heroic deeds. He is soon healed of his leprosy within the Land, restoring to his body sensations that he had long forgotten. Partly because of this, and partly because he believes that he is dreaming, he commits some pretty awful acts – acts which have long-lasting effects throughout the course of all three series. His hand with the fingers removed – a “halfhand” – make him resemble a long-dead hero, of whom there was a prophecy that he would return. That, together with the fact that Covenant still wears his wedding ring of “White Gold” (an object that allows the most powerful magic known to be performed), he is quickly believed to be the object of the prophecy: the one who will save them from the evil “Lord Foul the Despiser” and his many powerful minions. So, despite his early misdeeds, he is held up as their saviour.
Key to the book, and also source of many of the frustrations that some readers have, is that Covenant is an anti-hero. Because of his leprosy he refuses to believe that his experiences in the Land are real, and fights against the beauty he sees for fear that it will tear down his needed defences when he eventually “wakes up”, thus making him vulnerable in what he believes to be the real world. Added to that, on the few occasions when he actually tries to use his wedding ring to create magic, he finds he can’t. Its power only comes forth (from him) unwillingly.
For me, Donaldson does a remarkable job of portraying the Land as a place of the most gorgeous beauty, something that is worth any sacrifice to preserve. And it is that contrast between the thing that is so beautiful (and that needs defending) against the obstinacy of the one person who could actually do something to save it (Covenant) that creates an ongoing sense of frustration. There are a number of truly wonderful characters within the series who I grew to love, but more often than not, Covenant isn’t one of them.
There are races who I grew to love, who then had the most horrific things happen to them. There are precious gifts from the Land that are destroyed. Ultimately, the story is resolved at the end of each series (and as I say, in the first series, to an extent at the end of the first book) leaving me satisfied with the outcome, but the journey to get there was hard work.
So, with all that said, why do I love these series so much?
Firstly, across my reading of fantasy I haven’t yet come across any other book or series that describes a Land itself as being so beautiful, or a people so worthy of salvation. The world Donaldson created absolutely drew me in and really made me care about the place like no other has, making me yearn for their rescue from their enemy.
Secondly, Donaldson really tries to get under the skin of the characters, and that sort of story is one that appeals to me. Yes there is plenty of action, and battles, etc (as a teenager the Haruchai – or Bloodguard as they are known in the first series really appealed; they’re awesome fighters!), but you get a connection with the characters.
Thirdly, and this is related to the second point, while the stories at face value are about the defenders of the Land against Lord Foul the Despiser, the story is really a vehicle to explore how each of us battles against despair in our own lives. What are the lies that lead us into those dark places and how can we overcome them? What barriers do we put in place that make such victories more difficult? The journey isn’t always a happy one, but in the end triumph is possible.
If you’re just looking for a bit of escapism in your fantasy, then the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant isn’t for you. You’ll find it frustrating, you’ll find it long-winded, and you’ll probably throw the book down by half-way through at the latest. If, however, you’re looking for something that really attempts to delve into profound human emotions and struggles, in a land of fabulous world building, then I haven’t yet found anything better.
For me, these are truly remarkable series that are exceptional pieces of literature, and that just happen to be set in a gorgeous fantasy world. If that’s what you enjoy reading, then look no further.
(N.B. In the second and third series, there is some swearing in the parts of the story that are within the “real” world)