Beware! Leper unclean! shout the crowds.
Don’t touch me! responds Thomas Covenant, the antihero of Stephen R. Donaldson’s memorable epic fantasy trilogy. In this exchange, which Convenant repeats in his mind like a mantra for his sanity, Donaldson summarizes the conflict of his protagonist. Despite being unlikeable, Covenant tends to garner your empathy. He’s a man whose marriage to his wife and his writing career crashes on the day he discovers he has been infected with a rare disease that makes him a cripple and a social outcast.
And that was before he was brought, against his will, to the Land.
Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane is the first novel in Donaldson’s signature trilogy, and a book that made experiments in the epic fantasy genre. Published 1977, around the time of the epic fantasy surge that saw the rise of Terry Brooks and other Tolkienistas, Thomas Covenant broke a rule by turning a leprous antihero into a protagonist and implying that the fantasy world he travels through is only a dream.
What a phenomenal idea, as original today as it must have been forty years ago. This is a book well worth rediscovering.
Thomas Covenant fights a losing battle for his health. He is missing three fingers and his wedding ring is the only sign he carries of a relatively happy past life. A social pariah in small-town America when we first see him, his great rebellion consists of a journey to personally pay his bill at the Bell Telephone Company. A woman has taken the liberty of paying his bills for him, because they just don’t want a leper walking through town. In an effort to reclaim his humanity and connection to the community, he makes his epic quest to town.
On the way, he gets knocked over by a police car.
When he awakes, he is in the Land, surrounded by darkness as Lord Foul, the incarnation of Despite, gives him a quest. He must deliver a message to the council of Lords that Drool Rockworm, a Cavewight has the Staff of Law. This, Foul promises, is cause for despair. All life in the land will be obliterated soon if Covenant does nothing. Still quite ignorant of his situation, hethen finds himself high upon Kevin’s Watch, a pinnacle in a mountain range where he first surveys the Land.
The Land is sublime in all its Pre-Raphaelite glory: rolling green hills, vast mountain ranges, mighty rivers. It exudes an aura of health, the vitality of all its living things. Rather like New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed, it is a source of beauty and goodness.
Soon Covenant makes the acquaintance of the Stonedownor, a tribe of squarely-built, rock-solid humans who specialize in stone-lore. And his quest begins. Men, women, and giants are drawn to him, thinking that he is the incarnation of the hero Berek Halfhand–who lost half his hand from an axe during an epic battle against Lord Foul aeons ago. But Covenant cannot comprehend this lore, doubting even that the Land exists, preferring it as a dream: that his half-hand is the result of leprosy, not prophesy.
He must journey to Revelstone, the seat of the Lords, who are the most powerful magicians in the Land, although their strength is much diminished from the Lords of old. Protectors of the Land’s health, the Lords will do everything in their power to defeat Lord Foul at his game. But all the while, Thomas Covenant doubts.
His wedding ring has become a powerful source of wild magic, perhaps the most useful weapon with which to fight Drool, if he can master it. However, he has no wish to. Because to buy into the reality of that magic and the very existence of the Land would be to sacrifice his sanity.
As a leper, Covenant’s priority is survival. Every day, he tests his nerves by shaving with a straight razor and checks his extremities for signs that his disease is spreading. Meanwhile, “dis-ease” is spreading across the Land in the form of Drool’s bane. As wrongness spreads and reality itself thins, Covenant must at once resist the Land’s seductions while finding a way to get back home.
Thomas Covenant’s tale is existential, filled with the conflict between hope and despair, survival and death, madness and sanity. In a wonderful, if cheeky, move, Donaldson actually provides a reading guide to his own book in the world of the story. A wizard hobo in Covenant’s hometown gives him a slip of paper on the “fundamental question of ethics”: is it noble to fight for a heroic, moral cause if the world we believe in is an illusion, or is it more courageous to rebel against that world, which we know to be a lie?
In one option, we buy into a lie, but can perform good deeds within that lie. The other option has us resist that lie, holding out in the hope for a more accurate reality, at the expense of neglecting the world. This is how we come to admire Covenant, even as it is the same reason we hate him. If the Land is an illusion, it means he doesn’t have to be good. Yet though his rebellion against the Land seems cowardly, we still see his courage in his attempts to master his sanity.
Another less philosophical but more academic reason to read this book is that it fully develops the four-part structure of the fantasy novel outlined by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. (I discuss this a little more in depth here.) This structure consists of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing. Wrongness is mentioned explicitly as part of the disease that afflicts the Land, while a strange phenomenon of thinning happens in the presence of some forms of evil magic. The well-being of the Land itself can be restored through healing. And, in the end, Thomas Covenant does have a severe recognition in which he recognizes that he is in a story crafted by a brilliant but cruel hand with an eye for paradox and irony.
Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever will compel many readers to become seduced by the Land, even though it is Covenant’s mantra to resist it.