Lord Foul's Bane - The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (1977)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
Stephen R. Donaldson
Publication Date 1998
Format Leather-bound (245 x 160 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 369
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on Amazon.com
Rating 8
No. of Reviews 228
Frontispiece/Illustrator Vincent Di Fate
Original Details
Original Publisher Ballantine Books
Original Publication Year 1977
The first book in one of the most remarkable epic fantasies ever written, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever.
He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself. Yet he was tempted to believe, to fight for the Land, to be the reincarnation of its greatest hero....

"High fantasy," as The Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines it, takes place in a "secondary world," like the Middle-Earth of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, that is autonomous, impossible, and self- coherent. The actions in high fantasy affect the destinies of these secondary worlds.

Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane is a high fantasy that is often compared with The Lord of the Rings from which, scholars say, it draws a good part of its structure and some of its characters. But Donaldson's approach to his secondary world, the Land, differs in remarkable ways.

By "impossible" the Encyclopedia means that the world cannot exist "in terms of our normal understanding of the sciences and of history," and in this respect Lord Foul's Bane qualifies. By "self- coherent" is meant that "the world... is governed by internally consistent rules to which the reader gives credence, and in terms of which anything can be believed.., as long as that which is believed in is livable." That certainly applies to Lord Foul's Bane. By autonomy the Encyclopedia categorizes a world that can exist independent of what the reader calls the real world, "without any lingering need to 'normalize'... secondary worlds by framing them as traveller's tales, or dreams (entered via portals), which prove exiguous at dawn, or timeslip tales, or as beast-fables." Here is where Lord Foul's Bane departs from traditional high fantasy.

The overall title of the six-volume series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever reveals one important distinction: the protagonist (at least in the first three volumes) doubts the reality of the secondary world. As John Clute observes in Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, "his chill refusal to go along with the world constantly violates the delicate decorum of shared belief that makes most fantasies work for their creators, the characters, and their readers. Covenant violates the sense of awe."

Moreover, Covenant is an unlikely and unlikable protagonist. "Woebegone, diseased, haggard, obsessed, self-pitying, weak, violent, ungrateful, and choked with ire, he is anything but a willing and usable vessel or conduit for immanence on the cheap," Clute continues. The world into which Covenant is thrust, the inhabitants believe, has been created out of Nothing, but evil was introduced by the Creator's eternal Opponent. Cast out of Heaven by the Creator and bound to existence, the Opponent, Lord Foul, can escape only by dissolving the Law that binds existence. Only Covenant can destroy the Creator's prison, but it will not work if his action is coerced. He must be brought to his own Despite. "That this prison also represents to Covenant the humanity he must constantly refuse," Clute writes, "is the underlying paradox, the underlying dilemma that causes him such extraordinary anguish, making him in the end, despite his repellent personality, a figure with whom the reader must sympathize deeply."

The novel begins with Covenant's discovery of his leprosy and the process by which he learns to live with it, including the world's fear of him and his disease. His wife, fearing contagion, divorces him while he is in a leprosarium; his neighbors shun him; eventually the world itself rejects him, as he is drawn through a "portal," by being knocked down by a car, into the Land where Lord Foul hopes to use Covenant to gain his own freedom. Leprosy involves the numbing of the extremities and Covenant has been taught VSE, the Visual Surveillance of Extremities, to check for damage that he cannot feel. It is this model of perception, VSE, that stands as a central image through out the Chronicles and leads continually to Covenant's questioning of his interactions with the secondary world.

Of his own writing, Donaldson has said, "virtually everything I write is about redemption: most of my characters are caught up in a vital and necessary struggle to 'work out their own salvation, with fear and trembling'.... Of course, to claim that redemption is one of 'the fundamental questions to life,' puts me in conflict with much of modern philosophy. . . . If one accepts - in any form - Sartre's postulate that 'Man is a futile passion,' then the whole concept of redemption becomes something of a joke. Clearly, I reject that postulate. But I'm also intelligent enough to understand its relevance, and recognize its power. (Hence the grimness of much of my work. . .)."

Grimness exists in Lord Foul's Bane, to be sure, but also power and relevance as well, and perhaps even redemption. Individual readers will have to discover that for themselves as they follow Covenant's tortured path through the Land whose growing disease reflects his own condition in the real world.

Stephen R. Donaldson, whose entry into published fiction came at the age of 30, in 1977, with Lord Foul's Bane, was born in 1947 in Cleveland, the son of a physician. His father specialized in the treatment of leprosy, and it was this familiarity that Donaldson used to such good effect in characterizing Covenant and his disease as well as the metaphors of affliction that pervade The Chronicles. . . . Donald son earned his B.A. in English from the College of Wooster and his M.A. in English from Kent State University. He served as a teaching fellow at Kent State, as an acquisitions editor of Tapp-Gentz Associates, and for two years as an associate instructor for Ghost Ranch Writers Workshops.

Lord Foul's Bane, The hearth War, and The Power That Preserves - the three volumes of The First Chronicles. . . - all were published in 1977. For these he earned the British Fantasy Society award and the John W. Campbell Award as best new writer, both in 1979. The Second Chronicles.., followed more slowly: The Wounded Land in 1980, The One Tree in 1982, and White Gold Wielder in 1983. He published a collection of short stories, Daughter of Regals and Other Tales in 1984, and began a second fantasy series, Mordant's Need with The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through both in 1987. He turned to science fiction, as Donaldson himself put it, "toward more 'realistic,' objectively real, modes of expression," with the Gap sequence: The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story (1990), The Gap into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge (1991), The Gap into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises (1992), The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Disorder (1994), and The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die (1996). He has written three detective novels under the name of Reed Stephens and a non-fiction book, Epic Fantasy in the Modern World: A Few Observations (1986), and has published a second collection of short stories, Strange Dreams (1993).

Donaldson's fantasy novels are not only a tribute to the rising tide of fantasy that lifted all boats with the success of The Lord of the Rings and other novels in the mid to late 1960s, they are a critique of them as well. As Clute has commented in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Covenant's "unbelief is perhaps [Donaldson's] most original single invention, for it radically transfigures every moment of the first sequence and profoundly contradicts the reader's normal expectations about the relationships between the Hero and the Land, the Quest and his Companions, plus the overall relationship to the deco rum and moral requirements that define the condition of being a hero. It thoroughly exposes the artifact of the normal fantasy secondary world as a stage-set for the deeds of protagonists whose every act is deeply patriotic, deeply land- and folk-affirming."

At the same time, as Sonya Cashdan and Barbara C. Stanley pointed out in Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, "From both Tolkien and medieval lore Donaldson draws the motifs of hid den identity, prophecy, sacred or profane objects, Christ figures and Satan figures, enchanted places, enchanted or magical animals, words of power, and help unlooked for. From medieval literature, he incorporates the motifs of a land's health being tied to human health, of moral decay being reflected in physical decay, of earthly struggles carrying eternal consequences, of evil disguised as good, and of fate calling the chosen to fulfill tasks upon which the destiny of many depends." To this one might add the names given to characters; as in medieval epics and Renaissance allegories, names are powerful and reflect the nature of the inner self.

While he brings to his work the vast resources of literature and the experience of high fantasy, Donaldson also contributes his own sense of values: the only direction to move is forward, never out. Aaron Rosenberg sums up Donaldson's attitude toward life and the appropriate human response to it in the conclusion of the entry in St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, "As one Morn Hyland realizes in The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story, 'Vast space was deadly: it called for valor, determination, and idealism.' The same can be said for life itself; Donaldson himself supplies most of the idealism, but his characters demonstrate the courage and persistence that it takes to change, and far beyond simple redemption, they give themselves to the effort of changing their world, our world, for the better."

High fantasy can have no higher calling.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas
August 4, 1998