Thomas Covenant, the Insufferable

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?

15 thoughts on “Thomas Covenant, the Insufferable

  1. Urgh, unsympathetic characters, who needs ’em… I’m not a great reader of fiction as I get very distracted by ideas that I’d like to write something myself instead (and I’ve tried that without any success, won’t try again), but the last I tried to read (‘try’ being the operative word) was ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer. (I was given it, I wouldn’t have bought it myself.) About a kid whose father was killed in the Twin Towers. And it was… truly awful. Not the same genre as any of the Thomas Covenant ones, which I haven’t read, but… well.

    I noticed you reviewed one of the Stephen King books in an earlier post… another I couldn’t get on with. I used to be a big fan of King’s but somewhere along the way (possibly after his accident) he just lost it. It’s also got to do with my own tastes changing, though. I re-read a book of his I’d enjoyed (I forget which, now. One of the later ones) and found I really loathed it the second time round. I’ve stopped buying his books now.

    1. No! Don’t give up on writing! They say practice makes perfect 🙂

      Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does not sound like the kind of thing I would like. The characters aside, I prefer to read stuff that aren’t too close to reality – I read for relaxation and escape.

      I’ve read a few Stephen King’s, yes, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. I quite liked the first half of Hearts in Atlantis, but then it got weird (note that it got weird after the guy who keeps mumbling about some tower in another dimension and the drones in trench coats trying to capture him). I find his books too easy to put down, though, and popular opinion seems to indicate most people feel the exact opposite where his writing is concerned. The first Dark Tower novel is hands down the most boring book I’ve ever read (and mixing fantasy and the Wild West had so much potential.)

      1. I laughed at ‘The first Dark Tower is hands down the most boring book I’ve ever read’ – I’ve felt that about so many of his later books. If you haven’t already, try The Shining (the book’s better than the film) or even ‘The Dark Zone’.

        It’s very unlikely that I’d write more fiction now. The ones I used to write were back in the late 70s/early 80s (that dates me!) and were vampire fiction which I’m not into anymore. I also tried romantic fiction just to try to make some money as what I was aiming at was formulaic, but it seems my style wasn’t right for the publishers – and anyway, I don’t like romantic fiction…(Could have had a lot to do with it!) Generally, while my characterisation is good my plotting is awful.

        Weren’t you doing some novel or other long-form writing yourself? (I seem to remember seeing something earlier in your blog). Did you stop? Are you still doing it?

      2. Oh, I’m constantly tinkering away at the writing. Haven’t managed to finish a draft, though, and nothing I’m willing to share with the world at large.

        But it’s something I really want to do, even just to say I’ve done it, so one day…

        Vampire fiction, huh? A la Anne Rice, or more in the Twilight/Vampire Diaries vein? Please say the latter – that would mean you were only ahead of your time 😀

      3. Not really ‘up’ on the Twilight/Vampire diaries so don’t know if it was like that, but certainly not Anne Rice territory (her stuff is so overblown.) It was more psychological than stuff I’ve read. Maybe one day I’ll try again, don’t know what genre, though.

        Would something like NaNoWriMo help or hinder you? I was always put off by it (I don’t even do well with prompts) but I know a lot of people find it gets them buzzing with inspiration.

      4. The one year I actually managed to do NaNo I really enjoyed it, and got a lot of writing done. It’s all about community – being in it with a bunch of other people. But getting the most out of it takes time, as you really need to take part in the forums and the word sprints and everything. Given I spend all my day in online forums already, the past two years I haven’t quite had the motivation to do that in my non-work hours as well 😀

      5. I understand that.
        Don’t know if you know but I used to blog here years ago on a different blog and helped out a lot in the forums but I got a bit worn out from it eventually. You made that extra step! 🙂

  2. I tried reading the Donaldson ‘Covenant’ books but couldn’t get into them – it was the writing style as much as anything else, quite apart from the main character. Not my cup of tea, as they say (nor, it sounds, yours), but the books have been successful enough, and if people (other than you and me) can draw something from the books, then good on them – and good on Donaldson for writing it. Can’t fault that. The purpose of writing is, after all, to entertain, satisfy, provide emotional release etc etc, and that’ll differ between people. But yeah, I for me, if I’m going to read high fantasy then there are a LOT of other authors who’ll come ahead of Donaldson!

    1. Well said!

      The writing style didn’t bother me, to be honest. He does break many of the modern “rules” of fiction writing, and I found myself wondering at times if he’d be able to land an agent or publishing deal had he tried to sell the novel now, but I’ve been reading much of the same lately, and so I found the different style refreshing. That probably contributed to me finishing the novel in spite of the protagonist, and a couple other things I didn’t get into here.

      I’ll probably read the remaining two in the first trilogy, but at this point I’m not seeing myself become a fan. It will likely also be a while before I pick up the next one.

  3. Sounds like a book I’ll skip. Or–hey, three for the price of one–three books I’ll skip. But what you say about the story happening to him is interesting. The only writer I can think of who can pull off that sort of protagonist is Graham Greene. The plots don’t really happen to his protagonists, but they’re so reluctant that they might as well.

    1. A reluctant hero is one thing, but Covenant is… In Afrikaans we have a word: steeks. Adjective. Used to describe the behaviour of a donkey when it plants its hooves, locks its knees, and refuses to move no matter what you do to it. That’s Thomas Covenant. He refuses to even admit that events are happening to him, and then he goes off in a corner to feel sorry for himself.

      I’ll give Greene a try.

      1. I’ve created characters like that. Lucky for me, the novels they were in all died a natural death.

        The best of Greene’s books, I think, is The Quiet American, set in Vietnam in the period when the French were about to be defeated and the Americans were moving in. There’s also Our Man in Havana, about a vacuum cleaner salesman in Batista’s Cuba who’s recruited as a very, very reluctant spy. I’m not sure how well it’s held up–I read it ages ago–but Greene’s one of those writers I have to read in the context of his time, which means doing my best to read around his sexism and occasional racism to get what’s worthwhile out of the books.

      2. I’ve read some of John le Carré’s novels, which are from the same era, so I think I might enjoy Greene. High time I read something other than fantasy for a change!

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