Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen Donaldson (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Book 1)

(9.5/10) A very complex work of fantasy, tough going but rewarding.

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 wasn’t profoundly affected by Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s 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 …). 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 “real” 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 don’t 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.

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21 positive reader review(s) for Lord Foul's Bane

48 positive reader review(s) in total for the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series

15+

Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series


Lord Foul's Bane

Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Book 1
9.5/10

The Illearth War

Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Book 2
9.0/10

The Power That Preserves

Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Book 3
9.2/10

The Wounded Land

Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Book 4
9.6/10

The One Tree

Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Book 5
8.6/10

White Gold Wielder

Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Book 6
8.5/10

Lord Foul's Bane reader reviews

from UK

it deserves a high rating due its quality as a story and its strangeness ? why is strangeness important - well take our world and the beliefs of its human inhabitants - my human friend's beliefs about our world and the universe that planet earth resides in vary from simple its what you see to the matrix type weirdness ? So a book that purports to be significant must be a good story which it is and must be exceptionally strange ? I know of no human friend who is not educated in philosophy, mathematics and physics that believes even my simple reading from standard modern science text books eg the concept of infinity and its consequences - they just laugh and humor me because it sounds strange and unbelievable ? so the strangeness of the lord foul universe is a must - although giving forces human names and characters is of course only a device for a story ? Russell once remarked that if indeed the universe was in some way sentient it would not be anything that humans would understand it would be strange ? I must admit that Donaldson does seem reluctant to let Lord Foul be defeated and keeps introducing new characters and plots - but that fits science in the sense that every discovered new feature of our observable universe or our theoretical research seems to require a new quantum field or a new way of understanding and every author wants the series to continue ? When the author of sherlock holmes tried to end his character the public insisted he carry on. Donaldson can be puzzling but that does not detract although it can be exhausting for the reader. I am only puzzled that the creator does seem a bit sidelined in the stories whereas Foul gets all the good lines but i guess its best for we poor mortals to try and puzzle out creation whether it is in the world of the reader or the world of covenant >

from Australia

This is a great book. Thomas Covenant is unlikeable in this novel, but he probably has the most amazing character arc in fiction. How can one go from so disliking a character to loving him? That's what Donaldson does in the course of 6 novels. I can see why people are turned off by this novel, but there really is a lot to miss out on if you don't continue.

from United States

I read this 30 years ago when in high school and it made an avid reader out of me. Donaldson'so mastery of metaphor and overall style bring characters to life and give events a livid and almost tangible quality. Many will say that Thomas Covenant is an unlikable character; however, they miss this point. I missed it as a kid and only recognized in my reread as an adult...Covenant is like almost all of us. He is the epitome of throw away people (not that we are, too). Have you ever felt rejected? Have you ever faced discrimination? Have you ever been judged? In Covenant there is a character almost all can relate to on some level. He's repeatedly challenged with expectations from others which would be utterly unrealistic, fantastic to be exact, That's sobering that again, many readers have experienced to a degree. Donaldson's portrayal of his protagonist IS realistic. Sometimes when we fall into a pool of pity, when we adopt a victim attitude, we are unlikely too, but this allows us to relate to Covenant. The life of the Land and the rich character development that takes place in LFB are sure to lure the reader in and help you feel for the individuals and their plot lines. I think LFB, and the series overall, also deals with a very adult issue in a way that portrays it as the ugly and horrific act it is that deeply harms people's lives, and not just the immediate victim. It does not let you forget about it entirely. I'd give LFB a 10, but Donaldson tends to be too pedantic and, if you're liker me, you'll be reaching for a dictionary/ thesaurus more often than you should be, and that's not due to a small vocabulary. As a kid I was happy for the challenge to expand my vocabulary. As an adult it's just an interruption in a fantastic read. Ok...9.5!

from UK

Epic quest, the search for the truth inside us all, characters that you love and hate in equal measures. Each gritty footstep taken in the land is felt keenly, ah the land who would not sell their soul to live there. And above all this, striding like a broken colossus is Covenant, a uniquely flawed man, a harbinger of hope and hell balanced on a knife edge. Sometimes you want to scoop his eyes out with a rusty spoon for not seeing what is so apparent, sometimes you weep for his abject loneliness, in the end you scramble to the book shelf to read the next installment of a unique and epic story. I have just finished the tenth volume of this series and yes it does have highs and lows but I am a better person for having been on this journey with the paradoxical TC.

from Australia

Thanks for the review and the comments. I have just started the first book and, to be honest, am struggling to enjoy it so far. (Having just finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road I probably should have picked something a bit lighter!) However I will persevere and see if I become a "love it" or "hate it". I will repost when (if?) I finish.

from Minnesota

An all-time favorite of mine. It is difficult for me to understand the criticism of Donaldson's narrative style or character development. In my opinion Donaldson is a master writer, and I have thoroughly enjoyed his fantasy, sci-fi and mystery novels. He has succeeded in all the genres. The Covenant books are filled with beautiful lyricism and description. Covenant may be a flawed character, but an epic hero nonetheless.

from Scotland

I have to admit that the first of the Thomas covenant series books were stressful, irritating and sometimes unbearable - but to me these feeling signify a good story telling where the writers character can cultivate you so much to extract these emotions from you. I persevered with the books and fell very much in love with the series. With every book I grew to love the land and was entranced with the way Donaldson gave us, as the reader, complex issues and feelings towards the anti-hero Thomas Covenant. The books are full of dark contradictions but its Donaldson's ability to stretch his readers understanding and emotions that has made him, in my opinion, one of the best fantasy writers the world has scene. My only advice to new readers is to persevere with the books as it will very much be worth the love and respect you gain for Donaldson and his characters.(You echo my own sentiments exactly Mackenzie. It's been a struggle at times but hugely rewarding. I'm on Fatal Revenant now and the books have left an indelible mark on me - Lee @ Fantasy Book Review)

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.

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.

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.

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??

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.

from Braintree

I could not put this book down.

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.

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.

from London

I read all six books of the same series.... my opinion... brilliant... could not put them down.

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.

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!

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.

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.

from Unknown

No review was submitted but a rating of 8 was awarded.

9.3/10 from 22 reviews

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The Runes of the Earth

The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Book 1
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The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Book 2
5.0/10

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The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Book 4
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