First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson

December 26, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

As I said in an earlier review, if I think something is Important enough that I ought to read it out of sheer obligation then I will deliberately try to avoid getting any details before I read it. The Thomas Covenant books have been on my radar for a long time. Opinions vary wildly as to whether the books are great or awful. There’s only agreement on one thing: Covenant is intensely unlikeable and almost certainly the genre’s foremost anti-hero.

This reputation led me astray. I was expecting Covenant to go around being a complete bastard, but instead, he is a decent enough person except for one nasty thing he does very early in the first book. He feels really guilty about that, too, and in the process blames himself for a whole lot of other stuff over the course of the trilogy. Most of this blame is overblown or fabricated entirely. Covenent, I was somewhat disappointed to discover, is not a bad person so much as he is a degenerate whiner.

If you are unfamiliar with the series, the high concept is this: Covenant crosses over to a fantasy world, but chooses not to believe that it really exists, perferring instead the interpretation that it is all a hallucination. This is a clever twist on the very old idea of crossing over into faerie, but it doesn’t exactly go anywhere. It seems to me like either you’d reject what your senses were telling you (presumably doing nothing or alternately act completely selfishly) or accept it. Covenant seems to think accepting the fantasy means madness, so he doesn’t do that, but he mostly goes along with it anyhow, exact at points convenient to the plot he will do odd things due to his alleged unbelief.

Mixed in with this is Covenant’s leprosy. Today leprosy is curable, but when the book was written it could not be cured. Thanks to what I think is a far fetched view of small town America’s reaction to having a leper living in their midst, Covenant is completely alienated from society in the real world. His acceptance by the people of the fantasy world he crosses into (they don’t know what leprosy is) for some reason makes him mistrustful and angry.

Thanks to America’s fascination with serial killers, there are a lot of fiction that deals with the psychology of what I would term broken people. By the standards of Hannibal Lector, Covenant isn’t that bad off, but still his leprosy (and the hateful response of his town) has turned him into someone who cannot successfully relate with other people. This all ties in somehow or other with the series’ big bad guy, whose defining characteristic is hatred. The problem with all this is I don’t sympathize with Covenant’s psychological hurdles because I find them arbitrary. He’s broken not by something I can understand like the death of someone close to him or some particularly tragic medical condition like paralysis, but by an imaginary scenario (imaginary both in that his contracting leprosy happens miraculously and his rejection by society is totally unrealistic).

Well, since Covenant is unappealing and perhaps unrealistic, what are we left with? A paint-by-numbers high fantasy that beyond its main character does nothing to make you forget it comes from a period when fantasy was deeply influenced by Tolkien. For some eason a lot of arguments in this line seem to revolve around whether it was cheating for Covenant’s talisman of power to be a ring, but I didn’t have a problem with that at all. As Tolkien himself answered the criticism that his One Ring was too similar to Wagner’s, “They are both round and there the resemblence ceased.” But in many other respects, from his use of poetry to his names to his language choices to his pro-nature themes, Donaldson owes much to Tolkien. Unfortunately, he isn’t nearly as effective as Tolkien was with any of these things. The poetry never matches Tolkien’s own uneven standard. The language and history fails to be compelling since it is not backed by a lifetime’s thought the way Tolkien’s was. And the nature themes seem to betray a lack of enthusiasm. If Donaldson really cares about nature and the environment, he fails to translate that successfully into his prose.

The saving grace of these books is that Donaldson is a very competent writer, for all his other faults. In this he reminds me of Eddings, although Eddings had a better hand with dialogue. Nevertheless, the writing moves the reader briskly from points A to B to C. If you love high fantasy and can’t think of any others you’d prefer to read right now, you’ll probably enjoy these books. If you really enjoy alienated main characters, run, don’t walk, to the bookstore to get this. And if, like me, you just want to be able to know what people are talking about when they are discussing fantasy, you probably ought read these at some point as well. Otherwise, I’d give them a pass.

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