Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever #1)
Author: Stephen R. Donaldson
Release Date: 1977
I was recommended this book by a co-worker who usually has pretty similar tastes as I do. While reading it, another coworker saw me reading it and mentioned that they also loved this book. When I added it to my Goodreads page however, I noticed that this book also has a legion of anti-fans who have reviewed the book with a vitriol that had me pretty excited to see which side of the fence I would fall on. So what makes this book so polarizing?
Well, for starters the main character rapes an underage girl pretty early on in the story. (Sorry, I guess that was a spoiler). In fairness, this happens very early on in the story. Thomas Covenant is a best selling author who is married and has a son and a decent life until he gets leprosy. Quickly his whole word changes, as he becomes an outcast, losing his family, his home and a few fingers. While on the way to the post office he gets hit by a phantom tollbooth-police car and gets transported to the magical land of Oz where magic is real and he is given the mission to relay a message to the elders about the danger of Drool and Foul. (There are a few words in that last sentence that are a joke, but probably not all the ones you would guess.)
**Spoilers follow** Once Covenant arrives in this new world, he dubs himself “the Unbeliever” as he believes this entire world is a dream. Despite that, he pretty much sets out to deliver the message and does whatever else this quest asks of him throughout the book without any active resistance. Upon first arriving in this new world, he is met by an attractive young girl who helps guide him to town, takes her to meet her parents, explain the world to him and provide a big meal to him. Shortly afterward Thomas punches her to the ground, strips off her clothes and goes to town on her. Later he runs off with the girl’s mom who sacrifices much by serving as his guide, and he doesn’t tell anybody what he did throughout the rest of the book. However, much later on Thomas finds out that he has a way with the giant horse beasts in the land, and requests that they go visit the girl he raped every year on her birthday. **Spoilers end**
So that’s certainly one aspect of the plot that could make people dislike this book. For me, that part on its own didn’t ruin the book for me, but it was symptomatic of the broader problems this book has. Namely, Thomas Covenant is an unlikable guy to read. I would not call him an anti-hero, but more of a whiner. Convenant basically drags his feet throughout the whole book and is reluctant to do anything, taking vows against killing and usually only speaking up to cast doubt on others. When it is time for him to be heroic, it is primarily just because he has a white gold wedding ring which imbues him with magical powers in this world, so it’s not like there’s any great development of him as a character to overcoming fear or becoming stronger as a person.
The language of the book was also not for me. I can’t explain how I can love a book like “Dune” with its own jargon of Mentats and quizzach haderach and what have you, but reading a book about Drool Rockworm and Foul had me constantly shaking my head at the awful names Donaldson came up with to populate his world. Beyond the names of characters, Donaldson also frequently drops into flowery prose that had me thinking he was writing in parody of the genre with so many characters talking in the same authoritarian wizardly tone.
All that said, I can also see why this book is well loved by others. The fact that Covenant is such a flawed character made this a very different read from most of the fantasy books on the market. I can only assume that the allure of reading the sequels is that Convenant eventually grows into a good person or more of a deserving lead character. There are also some interesting character types populating the world, from the philosophical giants, to the Wood people and Stone people, to those that worshipped the horse creatures. The best part of the book was the entire beginning/pre-fantasy portion of the novel as Covenant’s leprosy was detailed. However, the interesting parts of this novel were all relegated to small bits in service of a story about a whiny guy, never deserving of the hero role in a book that ultimately needs one.