Against Despair: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

Against Despair: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

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“To the Lords of Revelstone, I am Lord Foul the Despiser; to the Giants of Seareach, Satansheart and Soulcrusher, The Ramen name me Fangthane. In the dreams of the Bloodguard, I am Corruption. But the people of the Land call me the Gray Slayer.”

                                                                                                                                       Lord Foul to Thomas Covenant

Lord Foul’s Bane came out in 1977, one of two books pulled from the submissions pile by the del Reys in their search for another Tolkien. The first was the Lord of the Rings-derived The Sword of Shannara (reviewed here), which makes total sense. But this? It’s a work full of crushing despair along with a miserable and unpleasant protagonist who refuses to be the hero people want and need. He also rapes a 16-year old girl. This is not the rolling green hills of Middle-earth and hobbits.

I can remember the reactions of people in my circle. My father hated it all around. My friend’s mom, a high school English teacher, loathed it as well, supposedly for its criminally bad prose alone. I myself found it dense, impenetrable, and dull. I was only twelve but I had already read LotR twice, so I just assumed it was no good. The only person I knew who read it and its sequels was a friend who read any and all fantasy without a drop of discrimination.

Even today much of the reaction toward Donaldson’s series is negative. In Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, David Pringle describes it as an “unearned epic.” During Cora Buhlert’s dustup with Theo Beale over morality in fantasy she said she could never get past Covenant being a rapist. James Nicoll wrote that Covenant should win a “special lifetime achievement award” for the “most unlikeable supposedly sympathetic protagonist.”

I finally read Lord Foul’s Bane a few years ago and found it a fascinating book. I got sidetracked from reading the rest of the initial trilogy but my present desire to read some epic high fantasy brought me back to it. Also, my friend, Jack D., keeps asking me if I’ve read these and if not why not. I don’t think he reads a ton of fantasy so his love for Donaldson’s work is something that I found especially intriguing. So I went back and came away a captive of Donaldson’s strange first novel.

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Drool Rockworm by Wayne Barlowe

Thomas Covenant is a man alone. An author of a successful first book, stricken with leprosy; deserted by his wife who took their son with her. The townspeople fear his disease to the point they’ve started paying his bills so he won’t have any reason to come into town anymore. To survive his infirmity he practices a constant self-examination called Visual Surveillance of Extremities. If he drops his vigilance he may unknowingly injure himself which can lead to infection, then gangrene, then amputation. Already he has lost two fingers on his right hand.

Covenant refuses to be utterly ostracized from humanity, and insists on still paying his bills in person. One day his excursion leads to his translation to another world. After a strange conversation with an old man in an ochre robe, Covenant is hit by a car whereupon he awakes in the presence of two evil beings — Drool Rockworm, a monstrous creature with a “head like a battering ram,” and Lord Foul the Despiser. The latter sends the reluctant Covenant on a mission to the Council of Lords to tell them he has returned. If Covenant doesn’t go, Drool will destroy the Lords in two years; if he does, they will be destroyed in forty-nine years by other forces. Despite his refusal, Covenant is transported out of Drool’s caverns and sent on his way into the wider, cleaner parts of “the Land.”

Ere fifty pages are passed, the event that has garnered Thomas Covenant his vile reputation occurs. For three years Covenant has been living alone and damaged. He cannot accept the lush new reality of the Land. When young Lena finds him and heals his wounds, eventually regenerating his lost nerves, he verges into madness. Despite the warm hospitality of Lena and the willingness of her mother, Atiaran, to take him to the Lords, he attacks and rapes the girl. He justifies it by reasoning that the Land is only a dream, and the sudden return of feeling after three years of undiminished sexual desire is too overpowering to resist.

I think this horrifying event is a gauntlet thrown down by Donaldson. James Nicoll is wrong in saying Covenant is supposed to be sympathetic. Absolutely not. The Thomas Covenant of our world is sympathetic, the one in the Land is not. In the beginning, when he is still coming to grips with what he can only believe is a dream, it’s possible to have sympathy for his staggering sanity, but the reader soon realizes that he’s an insufferable jackass. He rarely fails to find the worst thing to say at the worst time, and rebuffs nearly all attempts to engage him on a personal level.

oie_277354TpU95aMDespite not having read the two sequels, The Illearth War and The Power That Preserves, I suspect that this is Donaldson’s plan for Covenant’s character development. Not only has Covenant been given a mission by Lord Foul, but with his reduced finger count and white gold wedding band (an artifact of tremendous, nearly uncontrollable power in the Land) he looks like the ancient hero Berek Halfhand. The Lords and people of the Land take him for a savior in their hour of gravest need. Can a man capable of the detestable act of rape, unwilling to believe in the very existence of the Land outside of his own unconscious mind, rise to being a hero? Can he become a good man, or at least one capable of good acts? By the end of Lord Foul’s Bane there are definite hints of those possibilities, even if he remains a jackass.

By the end of Lord Foul’s Bane, only Thomas Covenant emerges as someone the reader knows. Every other character is too focused on the struggle against Drool and Lord Foul. The giant Saltheart Foamfollower has some personality, but then he’s the only person to force his way through Covenant’s defenses.

Covenant’s primary interaction is with the Land, which effectively becomes the other major character in this book. It is a beautiful, wonder-filled place. As he spends time in the Land, Covenant gains the ability to feel its health, as well as its sickness when wounded. Withdrawn from human company as he is, his attention turns to the new world around him, and something close to love for it slowly builds in him.

But the real difference was transcendent. The Andelainian Hills carried a purer impression of health to all Covenant’s senses than anything else he had experienced. The aura of rightness here was so powerful that he began to regret he belonged in a world where health was impalpable, indefinite, discernible only by implication. For a time, he wondered how he would be able to endure going back, waking up. But the beauty of Andelain soon made him forget such concerns. It was a dangerous loveliness — not because it was treacherous or harmful, but because it could seduce. Before long, disease, VSE, Despite, anger, all were forgotten, lost in the flow of health from one vista to another around him.

oie_271118ArtYcKDR I suspect it is this growing attachment that will begin to transform Covenant. I think Donaldson intended for his readers to become entranced by the Land as well.

Other gripes with the Thomas Covenant books:

-Many readers have found them difficult to understand. There are times where Donaldson seems to be deliberately choosing the SAT word when a simple one might do.

-There’s a portentousness that often sinks into pretentiousness attached to nearly every utterance of nearly every character.

-Some of his metaphors and similes are questionable. I’m not sure how someone can be clutched to your heart like a helm.

Overall, though, I found it worked. The Land feels like it’s supposed to be some mythic primary reality underlying countless other ones. Donaldson’s sometimes clotted, but always intense, prose ratchets things up to an appropriately operatic level. Sometimes turning everything up to eleven can push a work into a unique place, and that happens in Lord Foul’s Bane.

Earlier I said that this book is filled with crushing despair, and it is: innocents are murdered; the Land itself is poisoned; several of the Lords are convinced of the pointlessness of trying to thwart Drool. So be forewarned, this book can be heavy going, and there’s barely an ounce of levity to lighten the tone.

I haven’t said much about the plot. Well, Donaldson does crib some standard bits from LotR (dark lord, quest, magic ring, etc.), but he’s doing something different with them. He seems more concerned with the psychology of someone choosing to fight against despair and hopelessness even if it’s not in his own best interest. Of course, he’s also playing with the question of reality versus dream. He avoids the faux-medievalism of much fantasy. The Land is its own strange and unique setting that deserves to be experienced with virgin eyes.

So am I excited to be finally setting out to read these books? Yep, absolutely. Covenant’s a hard character even in this jaded and cynical age, but he and the Land are utterly compelling creations.

Oh, and some folks did wring some levity out of this book despite everything. There was a forty episode public access show called Fantasy Bedtime Hour that includes funny discussions of the book by two women in bed, awesomely awful enactments of the “action scenes,” and even an appearance by Stephen R. Donaldson himself. All the episodes are available to watch online.


Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog when his muse hits him. You can read his thoughts about epic high fantasy here.

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