I come to this review in a crisis. While chasing my dream of writing science fiction, I forgot my age. Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant lit my desire to write. I found Lord Foul’s Bane in the school library, a paperback fantasy on a shelf full of dusty, hard-covered tombs. Lord Foul’s Bane entered my world at another crisis point, high school. The story of a man rejected by his world was the life of every thin high school nerd in the early 1980s
I devoured The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Donaldson’s writing was a revelation. He ignored that tired advice of the simple word is better. Lord Foul’s Bane forced me to read with a dictionary nearby. I loved it. With every beat of a sentence, I thought to myself; I want to write like this.
I tried, but divorce and households emptied of joy marred my transition from childhood to independence. A journey made more difficult by parents that were unable or unwilling to help. American culture is fertile ground for such stories. My story spans thirty years before I sat down to finish my fist science fiction novel.
Absently he replied, “I was, once.”
“And you gave it up? Ah, that is as sad a tale in three words as any you might have told me. But a life without a tale is like a sea without salt. How do you live?”Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
Fiction is hard. Harder than coding a website, harder than leading a team of coders in a global integration project. Writing The Fundamentals was the hardest thing I have ever finished. It’s not Moby Dick, but it is better than most of the self-published works on Amazon, and my current work is even better. Thirty-five years after devouring Lord Foul’s Bane, I call myself a writer. I have never been more frightened.
The Crisis of Looking for Work
In thirty years of work, I had four interviews for new jobs and twice that for promotions or new positions. I got them all. No sweat.
Now, with a resume that screams competence, dedication, and success, I can’t get a job. I get interviews, but nothing more. Courtesy is gone in the interview process. When someone follows up, I learn they hired younger. I am fifty-one. I focused on my dream at forty-nine, my mistake. Wrestling with despair, I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant again.
Unconsciously he clenched his fist over his ring. “I live.”
“Another?” Foamfollower returned. “In two words, a story sadder than the first. Say no more—with one word you will make me weep.”Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
Meeting my Crisis with a Childhood Favorite
This is my third pass at Stephen R. Donaldson’s series. I do not reread books until they fall apart like many are wont. On rare occasion I will reread a book to reinforce my memories of its themes. That I have purchased the Kindle editions of The Chronicles for a third reading is all the proof you need. READ THESE BOOKS. No one comes away from them untouched. I know some that could not finish them, and a few that refused to read them, but for those willing to live with a dictionary at hand, it is a seminal piece of fiction.
Thomas Covenant is a leper. In the first three chapters, we learn about leprosy. How family and society treat someone with that disease. An early eighty’s geeky teenager could relate to Covenant’s dilemma. He wanted to belong, to matter, to be accepted, but his community rejected him. Leper! Outcast! Unclean!
A geek in the eighties was a faggot, a queer, a loner. Covenant’s leprosy became a talisman I wore around my heart. When insulted or punched in the hallways of school, I curled the last two fingers of my right hand. Be True.
Foamfollower answered as if in reply to some other voice. “Remember the Oath of Peace. In the maze where you go, it is your lifeline. It preserves you against Soulcrusher’s purposes, hidden and savage. Remember the Oath. It may be that hope misleads. But hate—hate corrupts. I have been too quick to hate. I become like what I abhor.”Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
Thomas Covenant is a writer. He started his writing career with a break-out novel that made him money, found him love, a wife, and a child. Then, after all those affirmations, he became impotent, unable to write another book. His wife grew distant, went away, and in a week of desperate writing leprosy claims Covenant’s life. When his wife returns, he stinks with gangrene. In horror, his wife flees with their son. The small town isolates him to his farm, paying his bills to keep him away from their children. With the cold rigidity of a leper’s dilemma, Covenant marches to town to pay his bills, where—after portents of what is coming—he is nearly struck by a police car. He falls to the ground and wakes in the Land where Lord Foul gives him a message, a bane, to carry to the Lords of Revelstone.
The Land is impossibly healthy. The inhabitants naïve of their circumstance and Covenant’s disease. In the Land, earth, stone, and wood have power. The power to give light and heat and heal.
After a trial of vertigo and kindness, the land cures Covenant’s leprosy. The defining element of his life is gone. He can feel icy water, hard stone, and power in the earth.
Unbelief is Covenant’s only defense. A leper cannot afford to hope. A cut, a bruise, any harm, will trigger the bacillus that is his life’s bane. That a magical place, bereft of technology, can heal leprosy is impossible. This land is a dream, and, in a moment, he will wake to the nightmare that is his life.
After a few chapters of witnessing the behavior of the Land’s inhabitants, you will wonder if your life is a nightmare. Why don’t we respect the Earth and its resources? Compared to the Stonedowner and Woodhelvennin we rape our world. In the impossible health and goodness of the Land Covenant is true to his nature—our nature—raping a young girl. An event that defines much of the story in books to come.
“No,” the Unbeliever said. “Dreams—never forgive.”Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
Lord Foul’s Bane opens the longer narrative. Through Covenant’s travels we learn about the Land, its history, and its people. We journey high into the branches of Soaring Woodhelvennin, only to see it burned to ashes. We venture into the deeps a Revelstone and learn of the Giants and their contribution to the Land’s history. We discover the Bloodguard, the Ranyhyn, the Cavewights, and the Ur-Viles. Lord Foul’s Bane lays the foundations for the epics to come. We learn about Drool Rockworm, who has found both the Staff of Law and the Illearth Stone. With their combined might, and under the guidance of Lord Foul, he summoned the one thing that could free Foul from his prison of time. White Gold. Covenant’s wedding band.
A bane of a Covenant’s meant to last through sickness and health contains the wild magic that can save or doom the Land. At the end, Covenant meets Drool Rockworm, then mirrors his wife’s abandonment; he tosses his wedding band into the rocks of Mount Thunder. But despite himself, Covenant made friends in the Land, and they do not accept his castigation. They retrieve his ring, the Fire Lions descend on Drool Rockworm, and Covenant wakes in a hospital bed, bruised from falling to the pavement when a police car nearly hit him.
The doctor of this world is not the leper’s friend. He sends Covenant back to his farm, away from the town, away from the people he might infect. Thomas Covenant will never be the same. He will find it as impossible to accept his world as it was to accept the Land. Can you blame him?
As a skinny geek in the eighties, I earned a derision as potent as leper, faggot. Those were different times; geeks are cool now. They have TV shows, conventions, and those old crutches of comics and science fiction are billion-dollar businesses. Being a coder is common now. In fact, if you can’t code, you risk ostracization. Those who will find hope from despair in the pages of Lord Foul’s Bane are of a different generation today, but no less fearful than I was thirty years ago.