Classic Review – Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
Reading time: about 13 hours
Lord Foul’s Bane is the first book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. The first three books in the series feature Thomas Covenant as the protagonist. Before I get to the plot, I should first opine that Covenant is the ultimate anti-hero: an average man, suffering from leprosy, with two amputated fingers, divorced from his wife (due to the leprosy), feared by his neighbors (again, the leprosy), and who is anti-social and self-loathing from – you guessed it – his leprosy. To make matters worse, early on in the story, Covenant rapes a woman. There’s no way to sugar-coat this horrible act – Donaldson smacks you right across the face with it. The fact that Covenant believes himself in a dream, or feels a sudden emotional response to being healed, are no excuse. Yet after the briefest of dismissals, he moves on. It is at this callous moment, this suddenly insignificant turn, that some readers choose to abandon the story in disgust. In truth I certainly understand why someone chooses this course of action. However, by doing so they miss out on what is a fantastic story. Be assured that this is not an insignificant event…the consequences of this single act will come back to haunt Covenant for the rest of the series.
The plot revolves around Covenant being summoned from our world to a place called The Land. Throughout the series, we are never really sure whether The Land is some real place, or just a product of Covenant’s imagination when he falls unconscious and strikes his head. Magic is real in The Land, and Covenant is summoned by an evil creature called a cave wight, who is named Drool Rockworm. This creature summons Covenant with an artifact known as the Staff of Law, seeking to claim the white gold wedding band which Covenant bears. An item made from white gold is the most powerful source of magic in the land, and Rockworm seeks to dominate with it. But before Rockworm can take control, another being intervenes. Things go from bad to worse when Covenant learns that this mysterious being is Lord Foul the Despiser, an ancient enemy of the land who has been gathering power for 1000 years and also covets the white gold’s magic. Leaving Covenant with a message to deliver to the Lords who care for the land, Foul warns of Rockworm discovering the Illearth Stone, another destructively powerful magic. However, Foul claims that eventually all creatures will bow down before The Despiser.
From here the plot follows Covenant’s journey through The Land to carry the message to the Lords, and aid them in their attempt to stop Rockworm. It seems that the amputated fingers of Covenant invoke memories of The Land’s greatest hero, Berek Halfhand. Donaldson uses this journey, and subsequent quest, to introduce the people and magic of The Land, and several fantastical elements. There are Loremasters, who can make fire from wood without burning it, or mold and work stone as if it were clay. There are the Lords, who use magic staves to channel power from the earth. Hurtloam is a mud that heals wounds, and Aliantha is a plant, of which a single berry nourishes like a full meal. The Bloodguard are a monk-like people that fight without weapons, Giants are a gentle sea-loving folk that carve stone, and the Ramen care for the Ranyhyn, the great wild horses. There is much, much more, and Donaldson reveals an incredible amount of imagination in creating this world.
Donaldson’s prose runs smoothly and effortlessly, although he will have you occasionally running for a dictionary to look up words that are obscure. Although Covenant’s self-loathing becomes a chore to read through, an aspect of Donaldson’s writing that requires much praise is his ability to make you care about what happens to The Land and it’s people. One of the glaring complaints I have with some other writers (such as Terry Brooks for instance), is that they focus on the heroes and a few supporting characters to the exclusion of all others. Such writing has me asking why I should care about whether or not all those other people are saved. I never feel that way with Donaldson’s story…from the Loremasters and Lords, to the Bloodguard, Ramen, Saltheart Foamfollower (a Giant and Covenant’s friend), and servants, all of them have a nobility and strength of spirit that makes you want Covenant to succeed and save them. These people even care about Covenant despite his negativity and self-absorption. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most readers care about what happens to The Land a lot more than they care about Covenant, and I’m sure this is Donaldson’s design. The Land is a place worth saving.
In conclusion, this is a book worth reading. The characters are well-developed, have their own voice, are easy to root for, and act consistently. Fantastic elements abound, and Donaldson describes The Land with abundant detail. There is a map of The Land in the front of the book, and a glossary in the back. The ending occurs a little abruptly, but the stage for the next story is set. It is a story that holds up to today’s environment remarkably well. If you can overlook the main character’s flaws and attitude, you are in for an excellent story. Highly recommended for readers of high fantasy who don’t mind a seriously flawed protagonist. Also, the Darrel Sweet cover art is probably some of his best work. It makes Sweet’s Wheel of Time artwork seem uninspired. There are some alternate covers available that are more mainstream but less interesting.
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