The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson

The First Trilogy

In the summer of 2016, I was in New York City. While exploring the city one day, I discovered the Strand Bookstore in The Broadway. It’s a famous bookshop, I was told, which stocks both new and second hand books. I went back to the Strand several times during my stay in NYC for one visit wasn’t enough to walk through all its aisles and browse all its shelves. The bookshop was huge, a bookworm’s paradise.

Anyway, one of the treasures I found there was a complete second hand (but in great condition) hardback set of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, an epic fantasy trilogy by American author Stephen Donaldson. The trilogy comprises Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), The Illearth War (1978) and The Power that Preserves (1979). I first read the trilogy in the mid-80s and had given away my copies and so it was good to find another set at a bargain price.

My First After-Tolkien Series

If I remember correctly, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever was the first fantasy series that I read after The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s masterpiece had left me hungry for more epic fantasy and the Thomas Covenant books caught my eye while I was looking at the book section of our local Woolworths. A quick look at the blurbs on the book covers told me that the series was about a magical Land with a Dark Lord and a powerful Ring. Sounds familiar?

Donaldson’s trilogy did indeed have many similarities with Tolkien’s: a reluctant hero, Thomas Covenant, must save the world from the powerful Lord Foul the Despiser with the use of a powerful ring. But there are also big differences. Thomas Covenant couldn’t be more different from Frodo Baggins. He is a leper from our world (Earth) who finds himself transported to the Land (as the alternative world is unimaginably called).

On Earth, Covenant was an outcast because of his disease. He finds himself magically healed in the Land but he becomes an outcast again before too long when he rapes Lena, young woman who tragically tries to help him. The sympathy the reader had for Covenant who had suffered discrimination and oppression on Earth, is gone in an instant. Sympathy is replaced by repulsion but Covenant goes unpunished because the inhabitants of the Land are bound by an oath of non-violence, plus Covenant is the key to the survival of the Land.

A Unique Protagonist

And this is what makes The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant unique: we have an anti-hero who refuses to believe that the Land is real (hence the series title). We have a protagonist who holds little or no hope with a worldview that makes it difficult for the reader to root for him. The series becomes an exploration of his inner struggles, his guilt and his oppression. Consequently, the reader feels unsure how to feel about him. Should he feel sorry for a rapist?

I had mixed feelings about the series too. Donaldson is undoubtedly a skilled writer with his narrative sweep and the depth of his imagination. The Land is as rich and intriguing a world as any other presented in fantasy fiction. The beauty of the Land that he paints with his words is tangible, as is the horror of the bizarre creatures that inhabit it. But the journey that the reader is asked to undergo with Covenant is emotionally draining. The roads he travels are dark and pessimistic, with little light and joy to reinvigorate the soul.

Final Thoughts

When I finished the trilogy (emotionally drained), I felt that I had read an important contribution to the fantasy genre. But at the same time, I was glad to have departed from the Land and had no desire to revisit. Compare this to Narnia or Middle Earth, two worlds I never wanted to leave and would revisit time and time again.

Well, perhaps I was in the minority for there was clearly a demand for a return to the Land because Donaldson wrote two successful sequel series, the first another trilogy and the second a series of four novels. Perhaps I’ll find copies of the sequels in my next visit to the Strand, but for now vivid but perturbing memories from my first visit to the Land still haunt me.

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