Wednesday, March 17, 2010

1979 BFS – LORD FOUL’S BANE by Stephen Donaldson

No post Friday this week, so here's a Wednesday post instead.

Lord Foul’s Bane is the first volume of Donaldson’s "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever." The series has become a fantasy classic, so I thought I’d take the opportunity of its Derleth win to review it. You see it in a lot of “top fantasy series of all time” lists, though I think you’re about as likely to see it in “most overrated fantasy series of all time” lists. After finally reading the first volume, I can safely say that I side with the latter camp.

Thomas Covenant, like Dorothy, John Carter of Mars, or the various kids from the Narnia books, gets transported from our world to a wonderful fantasy world where he is a mystic hero with special powers. However, Donaldson twists the trope in two dramatic ways: 1) Thomas Convenant has contracted leprosy, his wife has left him as a result, and the whole situation has made his extremely bitter and surly, and 2) Covenant absolutely refuses to buy into or go along with the fantasy world. He feels free to abuse the people therein and ignore their needs. If she’s not real, why not rape the teenage maiden?

So, Thomas Covenant is an unlikable bastard. Really, really unlikable. Donaldson has an obvious agenda here – he wants to create the ultimate anti-hero in order to tell a darker fantasy story. To make sure that you get this point, he shoves it down your throat again and again. The chapters become formulaic: Thomas meets a mystical challenge, his companions say “save us!”, Thomas screams “I have leprosy!” and runs away, people suffer needlessly, Thomas unconsciously does something magical, his companions say “we oughta kill you,” Thomas screams “I have leprosy!”, they don’t kill him, rinse and repeat.

I can see the potential in creating a character as pathetic and despicable as Covenant, and I can imagine a couple of ways in which this could actually work. You could make Covenant somewhat relatable or likable, for one. I suspect that Donaldson thought he accomplished this by giving Covenant the leprosy as an excuse – but it’s not an excuse for his actions, and Covenant is never relatable or likable on any level. He always does the most annoying and cowardly thing in every situation. When there’s danger, he treats the world as real and hides. When there’s no danger, he treats the world as imaginary and abuses it.

The other possibility is that you create a rich and fascinating world to put your unlikable bastard into. If we can’t stand our protagonist, at least we can enjoy the scenery. Again, I think Donaldson believes he has accomplished this, as he melds some Sanskrit names with some Ring Cycle material and seems to say “aha! Folklore and hero’s journey and whatnot, my world must be important and weighty.” Of course, the Ring Cycle is heavily mined material, and this world is as cold and generic as any fantasy world I’ve ever read. There are various good, simple (boring and stupid) folk living joyless, generic fantasy-world lives, and there is a dark evil on the horizon. Yawn. The world is called “The Land,” and it’s almost as interesting as its name.

I pretty much checked out when Covenant committed rape, and it was a struggle to finish the remaining four hundred pages of this bloated novel. This is the worst book I’ve read for this project in a long time.

On the brightside, it did take me to a very odd, early 2000s local access tv show out of San Francisco called "Fantasy Bedtime Hour," in which two girls (playing up their ditziness) read a portion of Lord Foul's Bane every night and pair their reading with a hilarious super-low-budget reenactments. It's a fun and inventive show, sort of Wayne's World doing Masterpiece Theater, though the Donaldson interview in the final episode was slightly creepy.

Grade: F

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