Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson
Review by Floresiensis
Thomas Covenant. Arguably one of the most famous names in fantasy, but not all who know it love it. Whether it is due to the Covenant character himself, or simply as a response to the series as a whole, readers find themselves often divided in their opinions: Some love it, some hate it. But few dismiss it. And it should not be forgotten that The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant had a profound impact on the genre at the time; effects that can still be felt today as authors like Steven Erikson continue to write fantasy that is both brave and ambitious; fantasy that is not written to simply please the masses.
I first read Lord Foul's Bane when I was a teenager and I am now able to understand that I was simply not ready for it at that time in my life; my vocabulary did not stretch far enough and by overly focussing on Covenant I missed the most beautiful aspects of the book. But now, twenty years on, I have embarked on a complete series re-read and this time around I was able to enjoy and comprehend the book in a way I was previously unable to. This is not a book/series for the casual fantasy reader and I urge those who may initially struggle, to persevere, as the books contain moments of sheer magic and the characters and locations are amongst the best to be found in the genre.
My re-read was also interesting for another reason, and that I was able to pick up on certain similarities to JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which I missed first time. I think this may be partly explained by both authors having similar influences, ranging from Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen to Norse mythology but nevertheless, on several occasions, I believe I picked up elements and themes that run through both these great works, and an answer in a Stephen Donaldson interview with SF Signal I recently read supported this:
"In any case, it would be foolish to pretend that I wasnít profoundly affected by Lord of the Rings. Tolkienís example convinced me that fantasy was worth writing. But in various ways I was also inspired by writers as diverse as Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination), Robert Heinlein (Glory Road), and Frank Herbert (Dune)."
Sometimes, especially when reviewing, it is far too easy to concentrate on the negatives but it is the positives upon which I would like to focus. For those new to the series, Lord Foul's Bane was first written in 1977 and formed the first part of a trilogy entitled The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (now referred to as The First Chronicles of Ö). As the book begins Covenant, a novelist and happily married man with an infant son, is stricken with leprosy and after having the last two fingers of his right hand removed he is taught that leprosy is incurable and that his only chance of survival is to reject all hope of relief. He returns to his home, Haven Farm, to find his wife has divorced him and fled to protect their son from his illness. As he struggles to go on living as a leper he begins to suffer bouts of unconsciousness in which he appears to have adventures in a magical realm known only as the Land, where he is greeted as a reincarnated ancient hero due to his missing fingers and his wedding ring of white gold, which is a talisman of great power. Covenant chooses to interpret this magical place as an hallucination and responds with Unbelief. The Land has an ancient enemy, Lord Foul the Despiser, who dreams of destroying the Arch of Time and the Lords of Revelstone seem incapable of defeating him. Both the Lords and Foul seek Covenant's allegiance to achieve their ends.
From Mithil Stonedown and its sturdy Stowndowers to Revelstone and its austere Lords, from Soaring Woodhelven and its lore to Mount Thunder and its feared cavewights and ur-viles - Donaldson's creations are a joy, rich and vibrant, and the writing that brings them to life eloquent and descriptive. But of course there is always Covenant, the man who is pivotal to all that unfolds - but why did Donaldson make him not only a leper, but also a man so very difficult to like?
"I had conceived the ambition to write a fantasy novel about a ďrealĒ character who rejected the fantasy experience (no doubt partly in an attempt to answer my own questions about why fantasy matters); and it occurred to me one day that if I wanted my character to have any true substance, he would have to be someone with very personal reasons to prefer fantasy (a leper, in this case) - someone for whom integrity is more important than convenience or easy gratification. And, of course, integrity is a journey. We donít simply have it. First, we have to discover it. Then we have to earn it."
Lord Foul's Bane is a very complex piece of work but at heart a good old-fashioned tale of epic fantasy. It can not be read without the reader's constant concentration, it is adult fantasy fiction and the casual fantasy reader may need a period of time in which to become accustomed to this - there are no lovable hobbits to ease you into the story, here you have a man that has lost everything, a man who is angry, bitter, an outcast from the life and the world he knew. But the effort spent in reading this now ten-book series is rewarded ten-times over and I recommend that every fantasy fan read this seminal work.
Luke from Durham, north England
My perspective on Steven Donaldson's books, particularly on this the first of his Thomas Covenant novels is inextricably linked to the time at which I began reading them. At that point I was in a state not unlike Thomas Covenant. Due to having a disability myself I have had certainly my own experiences of feeling like an outcast, and furthermore due to extra personal circumstances at that point, my life was in a time of extreme darkness and loneliness, indeed I could take Thomas Covenant's oft repeated "don't touch me!" as my own motto. Therefore, I was unusually prone to sympathize with covenant, the scene in which he at the bank is told to stay at home and not enter the bank is remarkably similar to a circumstance I've experienced myself. However, the more the book continued, the more I felt a growing dislike of covenant. yes, the man has leprosy, however according to Donaldson this seemed to justify him being a complete and total git! That he would disbelieve in the fantastic land in which he found himself, much less become it's saviour is something I can accept, however even basic civility or decency seem impossible to covenant, much of the time it seems that he refuses to speak to people half way politely without subscribing to some sort of mental deal requiring massive amounts of anguish on his part. Flawed characters I can live with, but ones who are, as the previous reviewer put it only one step away from becoming completely evil themselves, a step Covenant takes on more than a few occasions are quite another matter. Combine this with the fact that everyone in The Land is hell bent on being nice to covenant no matter how much of a scumbag he is, and you have something which is frankly painful to read. What I find even more worrying is the underlying thinking behind covenantís character. Tragic circumstances make people bad. That leprosy, or any other life tragedy has consequences is a fact I know well myself, and a good author will show this in their work, Witness the wounded Frodo at the end of Lord of the Rings or harry potter's moments of anger and feelings of loss at having no parents, still more when others close to him die. In Thomas covenant however, Donaldson presents us with a man who has undoubtedly suffered, but who shows nothing of the supposedly good man he once was. Even at times in which covenant himself is supposed to be "feeling better" the best he achieves is a croaking, gallows humour and a cynical, sullen refusal to be his usual unpleasant self. By the end of the book I wasn't just feeling irritated at Covenant, but partly thinking that the man dam well deserved! to have leprosy. Another key problem in covenantís thinking is that he is probably the most complex character in the book. Everyone else feels so much a caricature of tragic circumstances or lordly duty, that the hypothesis that the land is all part of covenants deranged imagination seems all the more likely. What particularly does not aide with this is that while his descriptive writing and world building are exceptional, Donaldson's actual ability to portray emotions in his characters and the way they interact has the subtlety of a pickaxe. Being told for instance that a character is humorous only served to frustrate my experience, because I never found him to be the least bit funny in what he said. Reading any sort of dialogue or interaction in Donaldson's writing is in fact a painful process, in which the reader is told at great length what the characters are feeling while the characters themselves spout either monosyllables or runs of vaguely archaic sounding English that come across more like an eleven year old trying to imitate Shakespeare than any sort of realistic language which people use on an everyday basis, it's quite hard to imagine anyone in the land asking for a coffee or just saying good morning without a massive emotional subtext. As a last negative point, Donaldson also falls into the trap into which Terry brooks, Raymond Feist and various other fantasy authors have fallen regarding magic. Despite some detailed and complex explanations of everyone studying "lore" the majority of the magic in the books, particularly the hero's own power comes out as blasts of varying coloured fire. Measuring characters by their capacity to imitate human flame throwers always to me rings hollow in a system of magic, and never feels either satisfying or coherent, particularly when (as inevitably happens), the hero magically discovers the method to increase his or her own flame output and save the day. For a man who has crafted a world so carefully, this aspect was extremely disappointing, particularly since it implies that overcoming emotional conflicts basically just results in larger sized fireballs, which, (given the anguish of the principle character), feels a distinct anticlimax. One of the key lessons in Tolkien is that where magic is concerned, less is often more, indeed in Lord of the rings I often got the idea that characters like Gandalf, Galadriel or Saruman didn't need! to show off their power with blasts of fire, since their will, personality and sense of charisma were more than enough on their own. This is just the sort of power which, with his strengths of writing would've served well in Donaldson's work, yet he resorts to the far cruder and less obvious method of flame hurling. All this being said however, Donaldson's book has much to recommend it. Outside of characterization, his descriptive writing has a beauty and flow all of its own with a deep sense of poetry and rhythm. The land and it's creatures are drawn in truly staggering detail, which also emphasises the destructive nature of the evil at work, seeing how it corrupts and changes otherwise magnificent vistas, or creatures of beauty and strength, even the usual cannon fodder of Wargs and ork like beings have far more rich descriptions to enhance their unpleasantness than is usual. Despite his over emphasis on fire as the only destructive magical power, Donaldson also shows some very unique societies using magic in a very everyday sense, living close to the land and it's wood and stone. I especially here enjoyed the descriptions of Radhammeral stone lore, using pots of glowing sand as light and heated gravel as warmth, and with the ability to shape stone by movements of the fingers. This everyday use of power emphasized the alien nature of the society covenant had entered into, and thus made the land even more distant from that by now familiar semi medieval England that so many fantasy authors resort to. It is also an aspect of his world building which Donaldson continues through the other books, and provides a welcome intricacy as compared to the somewhat forced nature of his characterization. I also very much enjoyed Donaldson's writings of poems, songs and rhymes in the land. Here his rather old fashioned English and liking for the use of rare and unusual words come into their own, making such histories and poems a joy to read, indeed I'm quite amazed nobody has ever set Donaldsonís poetry to music as it certainly has enough rhythm and intricacy to be perfect for the voice. This gives the land a real sense of history and tradition and once again, emphasises that this is a real society into which Covenant has fallen, and one quite different from our own. so, Lord Fouls' bane. A complex and many layered book, with some elements of high beauty, and some distinct and unpleasant flaws. Generally how well a person might enjoy the book can be said to be a reflection of how well someone can appreciate the one and disregard the other, which is why I have given a dead centre writing of five. It is true that perseverance will be rewarded, but it is also true that a reader must persevere through a lot for that reward, especially when it comes to the less than heroic protagonist.
Xavier from Austria
This series is not for everyone. It is by turns beautiful and grim, inspiring and depressing. Echoes of The Lord of the Rings but overall even darker. And Covenant is a very difficult man to root for but I think this was a master stroke as it shows what one of us would really be like if we were transported to a magical, almost utopian land. It would show our pettiness, our grasping to material wealth, our complete disregard for nature and the planet. If Steven Erikson's Malazan books worked for you then I am confident you will appreciate this book and the series (now standing at 10 books) as a whole. A must for fantasy fans.
Ivan from Texas
I have read these books multiple times over the years. Although I concede that they may be a bit difficult for some people, these books stand amongst the best fantasy works of all times. Be warned, if you are looking for a sunny and bland book where the heroes are easy to understand and the story is pre-digested for you then these books are not for you. This is NOT Snow White and the seven dwarves, this is a much darker fantasy. However, if you enjoy challenging literature that is both complex and satisfying, these books are definitely for you. Though the ten 9 books published so far (eagerly awaiting the last one) I have at times laughed, cried, been exasperated with the characters, fallen in love with them, hated them, been exalted an exhausted but never been bored. These books will run through your emotions and capture your imagination like few others can even if you have read them multiple times. I am thankful I was introduced to them by my brother who gifted me Lord Foul's Bane many years ago. These books have enriched my life and sustained me though dark periods in my life. I have an immense appreciation for Mr. Donaldson and even though I understand that all good things must come to an end, my only regret about this series is that there are only 10 books that give me the opportunity to visit The Land.
Aaron from Bangkok
Thomas Covenant got me hooked on the genre. From the first pages of "unclean" you get dragged along in a story built on self doubt and unbelief. Donaldson gives us a difficult task, and at times a chore, to follow a character who is so extremely flawed. You get frustrated and even angry at Covenant, but the story itself and the description of the land is wonderful. I would not tell anybody you must read this series, but I suggest you sit down, take some deep breaths, and give it a try. The rewards are truly there for all to see.
Chuck from Australia
Read it twice over the years,will read it again one day. It's different. Funny thing could never get into Lord of the Rings. Chasing the last book now, will it ever end??
Fabiane from Braisl
I realy loved this book and the whole series. Donaldson's series are totaly diferene first because Thomas Covenant escapes the stereotype of the hero good guy who has no doubt. He is a normal person who have fear, doubts, he makes mistakes and suffer for it. I really loved it.
Steve D from Braintree
I could not put this book down.
Robert from Nebraska
This is one of those series of books that I think of fondly from my youth that comes to mind when I think of fantasy books (the other important set of work for me was Brook's Shannara material). I thoroughly enjoyed these books and remember anticipating each new release. But I also remember being disappointed in the last book or two in the overall series. After 20 years, I plan to re-read this and see what I think of it nowadays.
Nancy from Minnesota, USA
I love fantasty books and started this book due to great reviews but stopped halfway. Too slow-paced and the hero was unlikeable. Did not want to waste anymore time on it when there are thousands of other fantasy books to read. Seems the reason this book is supposed to be unique is because the hero suffers from leprosy; however, that is not a good enough reason to continue on with the book.
H from USA
Never really figured out why people like these Thomas Covenant books so much. It was a struggle to merely finish the book, the naming system in the book is a joke (Seriously, the bad guy's name is 'Lord Foul'), and all the characters are one dimensional cardboard cutouts, with the except of Covenant himself. Covenant spends more time being useless (All powerful ring--rarely ever used) than as an "anti-hero", but the only thing that even makes this book semi-interesting is the fact that you're never quite sure if good really will triumph over evil.
Simon from Devon
A real tough read, but truly worth the journey. Once I realised that the real hero of the story is the Land itself I became totally immersed in the world that Donaldson creates. Genius.
Joan from London
I read all six books of the same series.... my opinion... brilliant... could not put them down.
Shell from Winchester
A fantasy that works on more than one level - an exploration of the psyche and the psychological conflicts of a man who suffers leprosy - either a new world is drawn or the inner world is exposed - fantastic.
John from Scotland
I really didn't like it, struck me as "oh poor, poor me"all the way through it. I hate that in real life, unbearable in a book series though. Shocked to see so many people rate it so highly - clearly its not annoying to most folk.
Tom from Ohio
The writing was OK but the story was too slow for me.
Paul from Australia
This was the series (after Tolkien) that started my obsession with Fantasy. Brilliant first 2 series. This ain't your cutesy fantasy but my god it's good. If you read fantasy and haven't read this do so!
Aucassin from Michigan
This is not what fantasy should be about. Fantasy is about hope. It is about a world where belief is possible and good always prevails (though not of course without a struggle against evil, and not without taking major losses). It is about characters who are willing to risk everything, even their own lives to do what is necessary. In life, our choices are confusing. In fantasy, they should not be. Tolkien knew this, LeGuin knows this, many of the other major fantasy authors both for teens and adults infuse this central theme in a wide variety of creative ways throughout their sagas. However, Donaldson creates a detestable "hero" who is pitiful, whiny, has lost all hope, and is only a few steps away from being evil himself. This, to me, is not fantasy. It is what much of our modern fiction has turned into, with a little magic added in. The writing style itself had its merits, but I was hugely disappointed in Thomas Covenant.
James from Minneapolis
I read the Covenant series when it first came out and was less than impressed. To have this ranked so high on a top 100 list is a mystery to me. To not have Jack Vance any where on the list is a scandal. His "Lyonesse" series is so bright, creative and well written compared to Covenant it is pitiful.
Eric from Sydney
Behind Tolkien, Donaldson is one of the Grandmasters of fantasy. Both the Covenant series are some of the most briliant fantasy writing I've read in 35 years of being an avid fantasy fan. Though the first book was difficult to get through, his Gap series was also an excellent foray into Sci-Fi.
Robert from Folsom,CA
This book is different. If you want cute talking animals and friendly elves, pick another title. I highly recommend the series, but not for the faint of heart. A rating of 8 was awarded.
Anon from Unknown
No review was submitted but a rating of 8 was awarded.
John from Huddersfield
I have tried to read this book 3 times but it's just too hard to get into. The writing seems unnecessarily complicated and in the end I just gave up. I did enjoy the descriptions of the Land though.
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