Returning to Lord Foul’s Bane, Donaldson’s introduction to the Land and its deeply conflicted protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is a surreal experience. We should probably start with Thomas Covenant himself, who remains the most unlikeable protagonist in the history of fantasy fiction. At the novel’s beginning, Covenant has recently been diagnosed with leprosy. He’s lost his wife, his career as a novelist, and two fingers on his left hand. He must come to grips with being an “outcast unclean” in polite society. After an encounter with a homeless man who delivers a strange prophecy to him, Covenant is nearly run over by a police car in the street. He hits his head on the pavement and finds himself transported to another world.
The central conflict in Lord Foul’s Bane is Covenant’s determination to disbelieve the reality of the Land, the fantasy world in which he finds himself. Covenant is seemingly the reincarnation of legendary hero Berek Halfhand, with whom he shares two key characteristics: He’s missing two fingers, and he wears a ring of white gold (his wedding ring), which allows him to harness “wild magic,” whatever that is. Covenant’s presence in the Land also seems to heal his leprosy, a cure which he cannot abide. If he accepts the Land’s reality, then he may forget how to live as a leper—which, when he finally awakes from this prolonged dream, could be a potentially fatal change.
It’s a great setup and a terrific psychological conflict for a fantasy protagonist. The problem? Thomas Covenant is a tremendous asshole, and he remains an asshole throughout the novel. The people of the Land treat him with deference as a powerful Lord and the reincarnation of one of their most legendary heroes. In return, Covenant treats them all like shit and acts like an unrepentant douchebag.
Covenant’s most heinous act is his brutal rape of Lena, an innocent teenager from a village near Kevin’s Watch, where he makes his first appearance in the Land. The rape is so brutal and gratuitous that it’s unforgivable, and we can never again root for Covenant even as an anti-hero. The scene, deemed acceptable to the book’s publisher in 1977, would never survive in a novel traditionally published today—nor should it. This scene alone makes the book hopelessly dated to modern readers.
The rape aside, Covenant spends the novel muttering “Hellfire!” at everyone and refusing to use his magic white gold ring. He’s constantly twitching and clenching his fists and moaning and groaning. Why the high lords of the Land who encounter him don’t beat his ass into the ground at every opportunity is beyond me. With Covenant, Donaldson pushed the notion of the anti-hero into proto-Tony Soprano territory—but Tony Soprano at least loved his kids and the baby ducks in his swimming pool. Covenant, in contrast, possesses not a single redeemable trait. He’s a leper who deserves his leprosy.
As for the plot, I had forgotten how little actually happens in this first book. The novel follows the basic tropes of the fantasy quest as established by The Lord of the Rings. Covenant is given a mission to deliver a message from Lord Foul, the series’ Sauron, to the high lords of Revelstone, the book’s Rivendell. From Revelstone, he joins another quest to retrieve the Staff of Law, the book’s MacGuffin, in the hope that doing so will allow him to wake from his dream. There are a few encounters with Ur-viles, the book’s orcs, and a showdown with Drool Rockworm, the book’s big boss. That’s pretty much it.
And then there’s Donaldson’s prose style, which, don’t get me started. To call Donaldson’s prose “purple” is to overload the color purple. The prose is heliotrope, amaranthine, violaceous—all words, by the way, that you might find in the book. So overburdened with similes is the prose that nearly every sentence contains the word like or the phrase as if—and, most often, those similes collapse from the weight they’re forced to carry. Donaldson chooses his verbs most often for their sheer inappropriateness. For some unknown reason, his editor allowed him to use the word clench so often that it appears on nearly every page of the novel. If you took a shot of tequila every time you encountered clench, you’d black out by the end of the second chapter.
And yet—despite the rape, Covenant’s assholery, the lame plot, and the bad writing, the book somehow remains compulsively readable. Since I finished it, I’ve pondered at length why this is so. How can a lazily plotted book with bad writing and a hateful protagonist still, beyond all reason, work? So doggedly committed is Donaldson to telling this story that this commitment carries the reader through. Donaldson believes in Thomas Covenant. He believes in the Land, in the power of wild magic and white gold and Kevin’s Lore and Bannor the Bloodguard and the giant Saltheart Foamfollower. He believes in it all with as much force as his protagonist denies it all. He believes in his turgid prose so forcefully that you sometimes gasp with delight at the sheer awfulness of his writing. It would be a gas to read the book on mushrooms.
So, do I recommend Lord Foul’s Bane? At the end of the day, I’d say yes! I recommend it the same way I recommend the Patrick Swayze movie Roadhouse: as a work of art so audaciously bad that it becomes delightfully irresistible. The book exists beyond criticism. You either get on board and enjoy the wild ride, or you run for your life. Both choices are correct.
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.