A few years ago I took an online creative writing course (you can tell, can’t you?). Naturally discussion often turned to books, and at one point someone, on hearing about my love of fantasy, exclaimed, “But then you must have read Stephen Donaldson!”
There was an awkward silence, broken only by the chirping of crickets. (Well, not really. This conversation happened in an online chat forum, and I only saw the message likely hours after it had been posted, but isn’t it just awkward if someone assumes, nay, insists that you’re familiar with something…and you aren’t?)
Never heard of him, was my reply. Oh, the other person came back. You should. You’ll enjoy him.
See? I told you. Awkward.
Never one to back down from a challenge (unless it involves moths…don’t ask), I started scouring second hand bookshops and managed to track down all three volumes of The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever. And then promptly forgot about them.
They made it through the big book culling of ’17 before our move last year, though, and the other day I finally got tired of bingeing on Discworld novels (I might be coming down with something) and picked up Lord Foul’s Bane.
(Warning: the remainder of this post contains some spoilers)
I enjoyed the novel. Donaldson had clearly put a lot of effort into his world building with different cultures, each with their own histories fitting into the greater mythology of the Land itself. The quest is suitably epic, with a lot at stake (as long as I don’t think about it too much). All things considered, while it’s not Tolkien, I can understand how people compares it favourably to his work.
But I’ve never disliked a main character in a novel this much. I enjoyed the novel in spite of Thomas Covenant, not because of him.
First, he goes and rapes another character, who up until that point had only given him help and admiration. So, this is the hero who is going to save the Land? This is the character in whom I must invest emotionally for the coming few hundred pages? Someone who violently takes advantage of a young girl who has been his guide, his healer and his host thus far in the story? I don’t think so.
I read on, though, believing there had to be a reason for this, that somewhere it will become clear why this was necessary, that somehow Covenant will redeem himself. Turns out the only reason (apparently – I might have missed something that can only be discerned through thoughtful contemplation and analysis of the work) to have him do that was to get hold of a flint knife (two knives, in fact, given to him in exactly the same way by characters who want to stab him in retribution for what he has done to the person they love but who stab the ground in front of his feet instead). Which he never uses for anything else than to shave. And sharpen some sticks.
Let’s move on.
For the rest of the novel we just see the story happening to Covenant. His arrival in the Land is the catalyst that sets events in motion, but has no agency whatsoever. Every moment, even with his companions (half of whom he never bothers to learn their names, not even the one who personally takes care of him for most of their journey) being killed around him, he agonises over the effects events are having on him, and he refuses to participate out of a sense of unworthiness, fear of losing himself, an unwillingness to accept that what is happening is real.
At the end he saves the day – that’s what heroes do, after all – but even that is by accident as he acts on instinct rather than by conscious choice.
And then he wakes up. I mean, I knew that was coming, as Covenant arrives in the Land only after a car hits him in our world, but it still comes down to a “it was all a dream”-ending, arguably one of the worst ways to end a story.
I’ll probably read the rest of the trilogy,
because I have a problem as I find myself invested in the other characters and in the battle for the Land itself, but I wish Thomas Covenant was not part of the deal.
On the other hand, I’m only one third through the story. Perhaps Covenant will yet find redemption and become the hero the Land needs.
And that concludes my World Book Day rant. Any Donaldson fans out there who disagree with my assessment of the Unbeliever? Any who agree? What’s the best book you’ve read with the worst protagonist ever?