Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
The publication of The Lord of the Rings resulted in an enormous demand for more works Just Like That. And given that Tolkien died while trying to impose some kind of order upon his magnum opus of the First Age, it was natural that publishers would start looking for other authors whose works could satisfy readers' hunger for this sort of fantasy. Yet reprinting existing tales of magic and wonder, whether they be L Frank Baum's whimsical Oz books, Robert E Howard's tales of derring-do by various barbarian warriors among decadent civilizations, or the weird stories of HP Lovecraft and his various imitators, seemed to only emphasize how they differed from Middle Earth.
Thus publishers were on the lookout for new fantasy writers whose writing resembled Tolkien enough to be likely to scratch the itch readers had developed. And here on Lester Del Rey's desk was another vast epic story that centered upon a ring with magical power.
However, when one went beyond that superficial similarity, the two works could hardly be more different and still belong to the genre of epic fantasy. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, to which Lord Foul's Bane is the first volume, deals not with a Secondary World completely apart from the Primary World, but with the story of a man from a fictionalized version of the Primary World who is thrust into a magical world as an unwilling hero, told he has to overcome his flaws and defeat a menacing Evil. In fact, the first chapters, in which we learn of the protagonist's diagnosis of Hansen's Disease and the subsequent disintegration of his comfortable, successful life, read so much like a mainstream novel that if it hadn't been for the promise of the back cover blurb that fantasy elements would be coming, I would've abandoned it in disgust.
There is none of the innocent naivete of the young Frodo Baggins in Thomas Covenant. He is a frustrated, embittered man focused on the management of his disease, and only the sense that he did not deserve these misfortunes makes him enough of an underdog to create the sympathy that keeps the reader going. Far from being a Hero, he's an antihero.
The antihero is a character type who is a staple of post-modern mainstream and literary fiction, but typically has been seldom seen in speculative fiction. The one exception is the tough guy with the heart of gold, who may break procedural rules to bring criminals to justice, but always operates by his own iron-bound code of honor in pursuit of justice, or who fights for freedom against a corrupt or outright evil government. Characters as varied as Batman and Han Solo fall within the bounds of this category. However, we almost never see the villain protagonist who's so disgusting that the whole point of the story is seeing how he comes to a nasty end, like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, nor the loser or schmuck character who can't seem to get his life together or is doomed by circumstances to fail (the closest would be Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984, but that novel's spec-fic credentials are hotly debated in critical circles). Which meant that a lot of readers who hadn't also done a fair amount of reading in mainstream and literary fiction found Thomas Covenant extremely offputting, to the point of condemning the novel as bad writing when in actuality it was more a genre expectation violation. (That said, a few years later cyberpunk and its various spinoffs made antiheroes common in speculative fiction, although they tended to be cynical and amoral characters who'd do the right thing for completely selfish reasons and succeed at it, rather than losers or jerks).
And if it wasn't enough to have to wade through several chapters of this character being a complete failure at life in a fictional version of the Primary World, he gets tossed into a wonderful magical world and given magical healing, and what does he do but rape the woman who gave him that healing. So now he's simultaneously wallowing in what a Complete Monster he is and denying that the Land could possibly be real, because such things can't exist and therefore he must be lying injured and hallucinating the whole thing, including the rape.
And that's pretty much the tone of the entire novel, as he's propelled through the course of the quest through a fantastic landscape full of magical races to find Drool Rockworm and the stolen Staff of Law. He's told again and again by the people of the Land that he's the Chosen One because he wields the White Gold, but at every single point he fails to rise to the occasion. He watches in helpless horror as the ur-viles devour the Wraiths in the middle of the Celebration of Spring, extinguishing light and beauty from the Land. And even when he does manage to raise a bit of the Wild Magic, it's a reflexive response he can't control, so it's no more useful than his previous helplessness.
Even in the final confrontation he never really rises to the occasion, just fumbles his way through under the direction of the various members of the quest. And then everything fades away and he's lying in a hospital bed, convincing himself that Of Course the entire thing was Just a Dream. But we the readers never know from the text whether he's right or if he's deluding himself to protect his psyche from having to acknowledge both the wrongs he committed and the rights he failed to do.
Instead of being a true Tolkien clone, as it was marketed, Lord Foul's Bane is in fact a post-modernistic deconstruction of the Hero's Journey, inverting the tropes instead of using them straight as works such as Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara or David Eddings' Belgariad do. And thus the intense criticism of the novel, because it did not deliver what those readers considered themselves to have been promised. People who feel they've gotten a bait-and-switch are not going to be happy customers, and while a happy customer will tell ten people, an unhappy customer will tell a hundred.
However, the fact that The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever sold well enough that it was continued beyond the original trilogy to a second and third series shows that it was not without an audience. And there is a certain attraction to the profound ambiguity of the storyline, which centers around the fundamental existential question of how we can know whether what we perceive as reality is indeed real, or if it might be in fact a hallucination or elaborate hoax. Not to mention the sheer wonder and beauty of the Land, with its rich variety of characters and cultures.
Review posted December 14, 2012
Buy Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Book 1) from Amazon.com