by Stephen R. Donaldson
I. Lord Foul's Bane (The Red One)
II. The Illearth War (The Blue One)
III. The Power that Preserves (The Green One)
This is neither here nor there, but one of my strongest memories related to the Thomas Covenant Trilogy is from maybe sixth or seventh grade. I was reading it on a school bus to or from some event, and a grown-up I didn’t know looked over the seat, saw the cover of Lord Foul’s Bane, and asked “Why don’t you read children’s books?” I found this a difficult question to answer. I remember the moment vividly. Having been asked why I didn’t read below my abilities – essentially, having had it pointed out as peculiar that I wasn’t taking an intellectual dive – was my first intimation that there were fully functional and even fully competent adults around me, who were basically dummies.
An alternative explanation for this incident, looking back at it now, is that the woman had herself read the trilogy and, surprised to see it in the hands of a young person, sought impulsively to protect him from the relentlessly grim world view that the Thomas Covenant books embody. Eh, maybe. But if that was the case, she was too late on the scene. I was already on my second time through the books.
I read them a third time in graduate school, basking on a sunny rock in the Alaskan summertime. The current reading was my fourth foray.
The Plot: So there’s this dude in small-town American named Thomas Covenant who contracts leprosy. He loses half of his hand along with his family and friends, and everybody in town hates his guts. He’s very bitter. And then, he is transported to another world, a place of magic, health, and country folk who are obnoxiously (to him and us both) decent and wholesome. Recognizing an escapist fantasy, he is initially very careless in his behavior. As the fantasy begins to prove oddly persistent and convincingly detailed, he becomes angry, remorseful, confused, and riven with self-loathing. It doesn’t help matters that he’s kind of a jerk by nature.
This dream-world in which he finds himself is in the midst of a titanic struggle between the powers of good and evil. The good guys see in Covenant a reincarnation of a legendary figure of the past, and recognize his “white gold” wedding ring as an instrument of mammoth magical power. They want his help in fighting the bad guys, who are indeed very, very bad. He doesn’t want to get involved, however, because he feels that to acknowledge the reality of his dream world would be to abandon himself to insanity.
Tom Covenant v. Tom Bombadil
I think the reason why the Covenant books appealed to me as a kid was that they were so unlike Tolkien. Which is not to say that I didn’t love Tolkien, but rather that the fantasy genre was, at that point in time, completely saturated by The Lord of the Rings and its many lesser derivatives. There was not much I had read that wasn’t a bunch of selfless, virtuous guys (elves, dwarves, wizards, what have you) on a quest for weapons of power to use against some version of the dark lord. In this context, the character of Tom Covenant was bracingly different: not virtuous, not all that interested in questing, and a real-world human to boot. Tolkein’s Frodo and Donaldson's Thomas Covenant both walk hundreds and hundreds of “leagues” on ring-related missions, but where Frodo does it out of his love of right and trust in Gandolf’s wise authority, Covenant does it because he’s basically spineless and, although an inveterate complainer, he doesn’t know how to say “no.”
With fantasy having had thirty more years to develop, I’m less impressed now by Stephen Donaldson’s rebuttal to Tolkien than struck by his failure to fall further from the tree. For as much as the mood and characters of this trilogy are different from Lord of the Rings, the underlying bones are awfully similar. A bucolic land must resist the encroaches of an overinflated figure of pure evil, and only the power held in a ring – a ring! – which is in the possession of a naïve nobody can turn the tables. Even the narrative arc through the three volumes is nearly identical. Behold:
- Book I: A diverse questing party under the leadership of a magic-user forms around the ring-bearer; they run into trouble in underground caverns but escape in the end.
- Book II: As war erupts, the party divides in two parts; one will directly confront the enemy, while the other will endure strange perils in the mountains.
- Book III: Things look pretty grim at the siege of the last remaining city of the Good Guys. Fortunately, the ring-bearer more or less accidentally destroys the dark lord’s source of power!
Many people having trouble getting past the character of Covenant, and this is understandable. He is – I can’t really think of a better word – surely one of the more dickish central characters in all of literature. His continuous frettings and grumblings and callousness are certainly grating to that part of you that wants to “identify” with a “likeable” character. Then too, his reaction to leprosy and to his treatment by the world seem completely overcooked and unrealistic – until, irritatingly, we learn that Steven Donaldson’s father was a doctor who devoted much of his career to the treatment of leprosy, so maybe Donaldson Jr. knows what he’s talking about.
My own pet peeve about the Covenant character is that, through three books of being told that his wedding ring is the most powerful object in the world, and even when he begins to buy into the reality of that world, he never expresses the slightest interest in how it might work. What it might be used for. And that doesn't ring true to me. Even someone who doesn’t have any interest in power, even someone who actively wants to avoid the responsibility of power – I think that if enough people mentioned to them that the most powerful artifact in the world happened to be attached to his hand, he would eventually say “Huh. How does that… work, exactly?" I can deal with ol’ Tom as an unlikeable character, because that’s how his artist intended him. As such an oddly uncurious character, he doesn’t seem fully human somehow.
There is at least one additional trilogy of books about Thomas Covenant and his adventures in "The Land," as it’s called. I read it as a kid, but disliked it for what I remember as a depressing mood of pervasive despair. Since this first trilogy is nothing if not suffused with a depressing mood of pervasive despair, it’s almost hard to imagine how the second series managed to up the ante.
The Covenant books are, despite their flaws, essentially a pretty good genre read. They were probably important, too, in helping the genre start to escape the shadow of its too-dominant twentieth century master. But I suspect this reading was my last go-around, and I don’t think I’ll wade into the second series. Other worlds await.