Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Lord Foul's Bane
The 2nd last of the D’s for the challenge.
I’ve read Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane (the opening book of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) 3 times now and it’s never inspired me to read the rest of the series. As the last time was in the late 80’s, I thought things may have changed over time. Sadly that is not the case.
Lord Foul’s Bane came out at about the same time as Terry Brooks Sword of Shannara and both books were hailed as successors to JRR Tolkien’s (Lord of the Rings) mantle as the master of high fantasy. Right from the start Shannara was, and still is, pilloried as being extremely derivative of Tolkien. Donaldson’s work did not suffer the same fate, although it does not now seem to inspire the positive criticism that it once enjoyed. In a number of ways I found it far more derivative of Tolkien’s work than Terry Brooks’ debut.
One of the things that sets the Covenant Chronicles apart from other similar works is it’s protagonist. Thomas Covenant is an adult, a successful novelist, he lives in America and he is a leper.
Covenant is involved in a car accident and finds himself in the Land (no, I’m not kidding, Donaldson called his world the Land), a pre industrial world where humans and other races live in harmony with nature. Covenant's missing 2 fingers (they were removed to prevent the more rapid spread of his disease) and the white gold wedding ring he still wears, despite his wife having left him with their infant son after his positive diagnosis, mark him as the legendary hero Berek Halfhand. It’s never really explained how Covenant came to be transported to the Land, although it is believed to be the work of Cavewight Drool Rockworm at the behest of Lord Foul the Despised. Covenant believes that the entire thing is some sort of vivid dream and that is why he names himself The Unbeliever. He’s involved in a sort of quest to rid the Land of Rockworm’s army of Cavewights and ur-viles and the presence of Foul himself.. Aside from possibly the most unsympathetic protagonist ever in ef only one character is more than two dimensional sketch and that’s Covenant’s good natured friend the Ent…sorry Giant Seaheart Foamfollower. I think the Giant was meant to provide some sort of comedy relief, the book is unrelentingly bleak, but most of his jokes fell rather flat.
If it sounds like I didn’t like this book then you’re right. I didn’t. The prose is uninspiring, it’s appallingly derivative of Tolkien, it’s humourless, the world building is poor and the characters are two dimensional, it’s been saddled with an unlikeable, unpleasant anti-hero and then there’s his disease. There’s a reason Stephen Donaldson made Thomas Covenant a leper. Donaldson’s father was a doctor who worked with lepers in India, Donaldson himself lived there between the ages of 3 and 16. What he saw and experienced there obviously had a profound effect on him and seem to have inspired the creation of his main character. Readers are told right from the start what Covenant suffers from and given details about the disease and how it affect sufferers, we do not need to have this reinforced every single chapter from that point on. I didn’t care about Covenant himself, the Land, the quest or any of his companions. There are 8 more books featuring Covenant, with at least one more due in 2013 (The First Chronicles, The Second Chronicles and The Last Chronicles, there’s that marvellously inventive imagination at work again!)
I’ve been led to believe that some of Stephen Donaldson’s other work; his science fiction Gap Cycle and the Mordant’s Need epic fantasy books aren’t all that bad. I’m not sure that I really want to take the chance, though.
Similar works that are also rather Tolkienesque, but in my opinion far more enjoyable are: Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and some of Robert Jordan’s early Wheel of Time books, before that author became obsessed with the minutiae of his creation. At times I wondered if Jordan had taken some things from Lord Foul’s Bane and improved on them for his own epic. You could also of course read Lord of the Rings, but if you do that, treat yourself and read The Hobbit first.