Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane
By Stephen R. Donaldson
Copyright 1977

This is the first in the trilogy and introduces us to Thomas Covenant, a leper living in modern America. An author of former stellar repute, he is now an outcast in his home town where the locals pay his bills to keep him from coming into town.

While in town paying his phone bill, he encounters a homeless man who delivers a short, but cryptic message, Be True. In response, Covenant tries gives him his white gold wedding band, parting with it in bitterness as a symbol of his failed marriage, his wife having taken his child and leaving him when he is diagnosed with the disease. While walking away, he is hit by a car and knocked unconscious.

While unconscious, he is transported to a cave where he beholds a strange, misshapen being known as a cavewight. This particular cavewight, Drool Rockworm, holds a powerful staff. A powerful voice speaks to him, telling him he and others cannot hope for he, Lord Foul, The Despiser, means to acquire this Staff of Law from the crazed Cavewight and bring men and their world low, under his dominion. He orders Covenant to go to the Council of Lords and tell them that Drool Rockworm has recovered the Staff of Law and plans to use it against them and their homes. Lord Foul hopes that the Lords, in their panic, will wrest the staff from Rockworm, making it easier for his minions to acquire later. He comprehends none of this.

Covenant awakens on a high summit in a foreign land. While trying to recover his wits, he is greeted by a young woman. She immediately notices that he is missing two fingers on his right hand (amputated to prevent the spread of infection caused by his leprosy) and tells him that he is The Land’s hero reborn, Berek Halfhand, the founder and first leader of a long line of lords who are stewards of The Land, a magical place where all power, mystical and real, flows from the earth. Berek was the wielder of white gold, the metal that has the power of wild magic that will save or destroy the land. Like Berek, Covenant wears a white gold ring – the wedding band he tried to give away.

Lena takes him back to her village, known as a stonedown for its residents’ specialty in stonework. Lena’s father is a rhadhamaerl, a person who uses earth power to shape and construct with stone. Lena’s parents make Covenant welcome in their home.

Thomas Covenant is a bitter, rigid man – made so by his disease He rigidly holds on to the truths of his life. His has leprosy. There is no cure. He has no hope. He can only survive by leading a carefully regimented life of constant visual inspection of his body, searching for cuts and bruises that can lead to a resurgence of his disease. He is bitter over the loss of his writing career and the life he enjoyed with his wife and son.

Covenant is ill mannered and ill tempered with the stonedowners. These peace loving people ignore his bitterness and anger and offer him the comforts of their home.

Atiaran, Lena’s mother, also recognizes Covenant’s resemblance to The Land’s early hero and prepares to tell the village the legend of Berek Halfhand and of his return. She also tells Covenant the story of Kevin Landwaster, a lord who led The Land’s people in their fight against Lord Foul’s minions. In his time, earthpower was much stronger for he was the most knowledgeable of all the lords in the lore of the earth. However, as Foul’s troops started gaining the upper hand on the forces of The Land, Kevin invoked the most powerful and dangerous lore of them all – the Ritual of Desecration – that imprisoned Lord Foul, but destroyed much of the lore of the earth. In the generations that followed, the people had recovered just a small part of that lost lore.

Covenant does not want to listen to the story and refuses to believe that he is any kind of hero and walks away from the village meeting. Lena, who applied a poultice of sand called Hurtloom to Covenant’s scraped palms to heal them, follows him and offers to take him to a place where he can be alone.

She accompanies him to a remote area. There, the hurtloom applied earlier works its way deeper into Covenant’s systems and his nerves, deadened by leprosy come back to life. Formerly impotent, he finds himself suddenly sexually aroused by the young Lena. Losing control of himself, he rapes her.

The next day, he awakens and is certain that he is now a hunted man for having raped the young woman. Instead, Atiaran arrives and tells Covenant that she will guide him north to Revelstone where the Lords reside, so that they may know of his return. Apparently Lena did not tell her parents of Covenant’s ravishing of her. They set off south, headed for Revelstone. Along the way, Atiaran tells Covenant of The Land’s history, of Berek Halfhand rising up against his corrupt king and defeating him and of his creation of the Council of Lords who benignly rule the land and are warrens of earthpower and protection of all things in The Land.

Along the way, Covenant is assailed by Lena’s betrothed tells Atiaran of Covenant’s sin against her daughter. Covenant, riddled with guilt, can not bear to travel with the woman who he has so badly wronged, but has no alternative. He resolves that the entire event is just a dream. If he follows it through to its conclusion – getting to the Lords and telling them about the Staff of Law and Foul’s plans to dominate the land, then he will awaken.

As they travel south to Revelstone, they stop in a village in the trees, Soaring Woodhelvin. It’s residents (not elves) are known as Woodhelvennin who are versed in the lore of using earthpower to shape and build with wood. They rest there before continuing north.

They leave Woodhelvin and continue south and arrive in time to see a rare rite, the Celebration of Spring. Covenant watches and Atiaran is entranced as the Wraiths – beautiful points of light – begin a ritual dance to welcome the new season and the return of life that comes with it. But as the ritual commences, it is attacked by black, hideous creatures known as ur-viles. Atiaran pleads with Covenant to use the power of the white gold to save the Wraiths as their flames are extinguished, one by one by the ur-viles. The appearance of the evil creatures of legend is sure evidence that evil is afoot in The Land.

Emotionally exhausted by the slaughter of the Wraiths and the knowledge of what Covenant has done to her daughter, Atiaran trudges northward, leading Covenant but doubting her ability to deliver him to the Lords. Finally, they come to the Soulease River where they meet a Giant traveling to Revelstone to deliver news to the Lords. Atiaran begs the Giant, Foamfollower, to take charge of Covenant and deliver him to Revelstone. Foamfollower agrees. Atiaran, broken and exhausted, starts her journey home.

As they travel, the humorless and bitter Covenant hears the story of how the Giants came to the land and their allegiance with the Lords. They were once sailing people from another land who arrived in The Land and then could not find a way home. They met the people of the land and their leader, Kevin Landwaster and offered their allegiance and support to him and all peoples of The Land. It was they, with their stone lore and their might that carved Revelstone from a mountain.

They call themselves the Unhomed for they still seek to return to the land of their birth. The race is slowly dying out in The Land because, for whatever reason, Giant women have few babies in The Land. The news Saltheart Foamfollower is to deliver to the Lords is of the birth of triplets to a Giant wife which the Giants regard as a miracle and perhaps a harbinger of good fortune.

They finally arrive at Revelstone and Covenant is introduced to The Lords. He is greeted by Mhoram, the youngest of The Lords and is consigned to an apartment and held there, guarded by a Haruchi, or Bloodguard who serve loyally, dispassionately, and without fear, the Lords of Revelstone.

He is eventually brought before the Council of Lords who are alarmed by his message and by Covenant’s ring. They resolve that they must travel to the mountain Kiril Threndor where Drool Rockorm resides, and recover the Staff of Law. Recovering the staff, lost since the time of Kevin Landwaster, will help them in defending themselves against Lord Foul and unraveling the mysteries of Kevin’s lore, which he recorded and hid in various locations before his demise.

Before the Council of Lords, Covenant decries his own title to be that of Unbeliever. The Lords call him Ur-Lord.

Covenant, disappointed that his arrival at Revelstone did not bring his dream to an end, agrees to accompany The Lords, hoping that perhaps the recovery of the staff or the death of Drool Rockworm will end it and put him back into the rigid, disciplined life he is so afraid of losing.

The Lords, their accompanying Bloodguard, and warriors under their leadership set off from Revelstone, headed south to an area known as the Plains of Ra where the Ranyhyn reside. Ranyhyn are exceptionally intelligent horses who accept, then bind themselves to one person, whom they serve with unfailingly loyalty, actually being able to anticipate their rider’s call and arrive in times of need.

As the party makes its way southeast toward Ra, the moon changes color. As it rises in the evening, it is blood red. It casts a pall over the beautiful land. It also affects Covenant’s ring which takes on a sickly, blood red hue, further depressing the already depressed and obstinate Covenant.

As they pass east of Soaring Woodhelvin, they see it has been set ablaze. The party turns west to see what assistance they can provide. They find the village burned, its trees scorched, its people slaughtered except for a woman and a young boy. The woman tries to tell what happened is unable. She is able to communicate under careful questioning, that she and the boy, who is speechless, have been placed under a spell that prevents them from revealing the secret. Finally she is able to break through the spell and tell them that they have fallen into a trap. They are immediately set up on by ur viles. Battle ensues and The Lords are able to prevail with the loss of few. They take the boy, Pieten, and the woman, Laura, with them.

They arrive at Ra and one of the most astounding events in the modern history of The Land takes place. The powerful, willful Ranyhyn, who accept few as riders and live their own lives under the assistance of a people known as the Ramen, rear to Covenant and each of them offer themselves willingly. Covenant can ride any or all of the Ranyhyn if he so chooses. But the coward, whose wife broke horses for a living, has a fear of them and will not ride. He does see an opportunity to make some amends for his great sin, however. He orders the Ranyhyn to, at least once a year, make themselves available to the young Lena who dreamed of seeing and riding one of the great horses.

The Ramen agree to take charge of Laura and Pieten who will remain as residents of Ra.

The Lords and their party, now accompanied by Ranyhyn which bear the Lords and the Ramen who tend them, turn north toward Kiril Thrednor. They finally arrive and descend into the mountain’s caverns. They fight ur viles and cavewights along the way before finally arriving in Drool’s chamber to find the quite mad cavewight ready to do battle. The High Lord Prothall wrests the Staff of Law from Drool Rockworm, but Drool has yet another weapon at his disposal. He has found the Illearth Stone, a talisman of evil that bends and warps earthpower to evil purposes. He summons cave wights and ur viles to cut off the party’s escape.

They flee through the caverns and out into the open of a ravine where it seems they will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of their enemies. Finally, the Bloodguard Bannor, assigned to protect Covenant, cannot watch the desecration about to happen. He grasps Covenant’s hand which bears his ring and places it on the Staff of Law wielded by the dying High Lord Prothall. The power unleashed from Covenant’s ring by the Staff of Law summons the legendary Fire Lions of Kiril Threndor which slay their adversaries and Drool Rockworm.

With the creature who summoned him to The Land dead (Drool Rockworm under the guile of Lord Foul) dead, Covenant fades from The Land without time for goodbyes or even a chance to reflect upon what happened, its reality, or its connection with his disease.

He awakens in the hospital where a doctor tells him that, according to the driver of the car, he was not hit, but simply fainted and hit his head. The doctor tells him his minor scrapes have been treated and that he can go home. Covenant dresses and prepares to return to the farm where he has lived since he was married.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, is one of the most heralded fantasy epics ever written. Stephen R. Donaldson completed this trilogy, then authored a second trilogy. After a 20 year hiatus, he started another series of Covenant books which will contain four volumes, three of which have been published.

Of course, the standard of comparison for all fantasy works is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Too often, fantasy writers will copy the pattern of Tolkien’s work while changing the names, the settings, and the circumstances of their novels, but never escaping Tolkien’s shadow. Their emulation of Tolkien is usually apparent.

Donaldson does this to a small degree with all of the journeying to various locations to acquire different lore or magical items. However, Donaldson’s characters are the antithesis of Tolkien’s.

Thomas Covenant is the very definition of anti-hero. He is abrasive, nasty, self-pitying, petulant, rude, and emotionally weak. He’s also a rapist. To set up such a character and then make him sympathetic is a feat of literary accomplishment on Donaldson’s part. Donaldson goes out of his way to make Covenant unlikable, but the reader is always rooting for him.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the stuff of legends as well, mostly for its beauty which he creates with unparalleled skill. But Tolkien’s Middle Earth was just a setting. Donaldson’s land, while portrayed as beautiful, is more than just a setting. Donaldson’s characters do not serve a leader or a group of people, but the Land itself. The Land and the power it provides emerge as more of a character than a setting. Tolkien’s tale was of the struggle of various races against evil that threatened them and the people of Middle Earth. Donaldson’s tale is of evil which threatens the land itself which is more important to his characters than they or their charges.

Covenant will soon return to The Land and find that he is not the only person from his world to make the journey there in The Illlearth War which is the second book of the first trilogy in the chronicles.

This was the first serious fantasy book I ever read – even before Lord of the Rings. Before Lord Foul’s Bane, my fictional reading was confined almost exclusively to horror and psychological fiction. It was Donaldson who led me to Tolkien.

At the age of 18,I was in a self-imposed exile from my family and friends, working at Cedar Point Amusement Park when I made a journey into town and picked the first volume of Donaldson's work from the fantasy rack almost at random. I have to admit, it was the cover art that drew me. While working at Cedar Point, for personal reasons, I, like Covenant, was a loner. These books helped me pass many of those off work hours. That self imposed exile restored my emotional equilibrium. I have a strong emotional attachment to them to say the least.

Other than Tolkien’s trilogy, the first chronicles stands as my favorite fantasy trilogy. As Covenant makes two more journeys to the land, his already complex character grows more complex. The Land grows in importance and stature, and characters such as Lord Mhoram, Saltheart Foamfollower, the unfortunate Lena – forever fundamentally altered by Covenant’s assault, are developed wonderfully and new, interesting characters are introduced and developed.

Stay tuned. I plan to take you through the entire first, second, and third Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.

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