View Full Version : Thomas Covenant - What do people see in it?

2011-11-21, 08:39 AM
After seeing the books recommended a few times, I randomly stumbled upon a copy of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever in the book store. So I bought and read Lord Foul's Bane.

Now I'm mainly wondering... why do people like this book?

Before you get the pitchforks, I'll admit that Covenant himself is a very interesting character.

But everything else - let's just make a list.

The characters. To me it felt as if every character other than covenant was really, really flat. Foamfollower the Giant and maybe, maybe High Lord Prothall came close to having actual characters, but even those barely moved beyond archetypal. Most people, it seems, are given a name, a few lines of description on how they look and then they just kind of stand around, or follow Covenant from place to place when necessary.

The setting. The land, is, apparently, incredibly beautiful and vibrant. I didn't see that. There was grass, and water, and trees, and hills, and nothing of it seemed in any way special. The writing was, frankly, not evocative enough to make me feel anything about the areas described.

The villains. Lord Foul is a big bad incorporeal evil thing with a silly name. He doesn't seem to have any motives beyond "Graaargh, me evil, me kill all life!". Drool isn't any better, as we basically know nothing about him. Ur-viles and cavewrights are two races of evil hordes that run at people and attack them. Your generic goblins and orcs as used by every second fantasy author since Lord of the Rings, or so they felt to me.

The plot. The Evil presence has a powerful artefact, a group of heroes goes to take it away from him. The end. What's there to say about this?

In short, there was nothing about this book that was remotely exciting, except Covenant himself. By far the best parts were the first and last chapters, and if Covenant had stayed on Earth, I think the book could have become very good. But there was just barely anything for Covenant to interact with, and so the end result was just bland, overall.

So, what do people see in this book that makes them recommend it?

2011-11-21, 10:01 AM
It happens to be a favourite series of mine, although I do admit it's been a while since I've read it last.

You're mostly right, in that Covenant himself is the main focus of the story, and the rest of the setting is mainly there for him to interact with. Remember, it might just all be in his head, anyway. Although there were some interesting parts to the story. The giants in particular, and I enjoyed the bits with the horses, as well. Nothing exceptionally original, but still entertaining. Most of the other characters are simply walking exposition, to be honest.

The main pull of the series for me is the philosophical and psychological implications of the story. The sense of what's real and what's not is a main focus of the second series, as well. In a way, I suppose it's a story of accepting yourself for who you are. The series is less a straightforward fantasy sword 'n sorcery story and more an introspective narrative.

It comes down to personal preference, of course, but I'm sad to say that if you didn't enjoy the first part, the rest of the series might not interest you that much either. None of the other characters really grow, although some other "real" people show up later in the series, which makes it more interesting.

2011-11-21, 11:13 AM
The first book of this series was one of the few books in my life that I have put down unfinished. This was many years ago: and I forget precisely what it was that so rubbed me the wrong way. I seem to remember finding the setting to be stilted and the tone to be annoyingly pretentious. I don't plan to revisit it.

2011-11-21, 01:49 PM
The thing about Donaldson's writing, and I've noticed this in pretty much all I've read by him, is that it focuses a lot on the idea and the message at the expense of plot and characterization. In this series he explores the psychological and philosophical consequences of both unbelief and leprosy. If you aren't grabbed by this exploration I can see how the book would fall flat for you. Another part of the book I enjoy is his willingness to make the protagonist utterly despicable right from the get go and then have him ever so slowly crawl up from that pit.

I'm also a fan of his use of language, though that may just be my love of archaic and obscure vocabulary.

But it is definitely a polarizing series, I've never run across someone who thought it was okay, either people fall in love with it or they come away from it really disliking it.

The best way to look at it is not as a novel about a fantasy quest, but instead an exploration of one character, because that's really what it boils down to. The other characters are pretty much archetypal, though this gets better as the series goes on with 3 or 4 becoming truly fleshed out by the end, the story is cliche with a BBEG trying to destroy all life, though his reasoning becomes a bit more nuanced as the backstory for the world becomes clearer. In many ways it's not actually good 'genre fantasy' and if you come at it from that perspective you may be disappointed.

2011-11-21, 01:56 PM
No, that can't be it, really.

I like Covenant as a character, and the exploration of his Leprosy. As I said, the first and last chapter of the book are fantastic. I also like archaic vocabulary quite a bit.
I would very much like to read a book about "Thomas Covenant the Leper and his life in a town full of hateful idiots".
But the entire fantasy world, to me, did not strengthen or even enable a good story. The descriptions and characters made the entire thing a boring chore to read. Nothing interesting was happening and the entire quest story felt pointless. Everything but Covenant himself felt superfluous. So much padding around an interesting character.

2011-11-21, 02:45 PM
I don't know what else you want, your analysis of the book is pretty spot on. The series is centered around one utterly fascinating character who is placed into a world that simply falls flat. I personally don't find the world as flat as you do, there are enough engaging bits (usually based around the giants, the bloodguard and a few of the Lords) to keep me inside the world, but I agree that the fantasy part of the world doesn't have enough to it to really stand up.

Covenant is the only reason that the series exists, pretty much everything else (especially in the first book, this changes over time) is built up around him just to serve as something for him to interact with.

I would actually say that of the first trilogy the books get better and better as the series progresses. There are a few characters introduced in the second book who are actually given some depth and a couple characters from the first book are expanded on. Also the plots are a good bit less hackneyed though they are still somewhat archetypal.

When you get right down to it Donaldson is a deeply flawed writer on a number of levels and whenever I think critically about his works I'm always surprised at how much I love them despite their very obvious flaws.

2011-11-23, 03:24 PM
But it is definitely a polarizing series, I've never run across someone who thought it was okay, either people fall in love with it or they come away from it really disliking it.

Hi there :wave: Now you have.

Read it in high school during the '80s, thought it was meh. The second series is better in my opinion, couldn't get into the third at all.

2011-11-23, 06:27 PM
my memory is rather patchy, as a long time has passed since I read it...so I may have made things up in my recollection.
I remember reading the first book over a period of years..in that I dropped it, forgot about it and gave it another go, a couple of times..
the fact it never grabbed me enough for me to stay up at night the way I do with most books I have at least some interest in, speaks volumes.
I can't remember if I ever read more than the first book.
(I should note it was an italian translation, so that might not have done it any favours).. the whole thing was just a bit too polarized.. Covenant's extreme self-pity, depression and interiorisation of the leprosy, with him going woe me, everybody is going to treat me like a freak and nobody in the whole world will as much as look at me... well..the world is a little bit better than that, except, not in that book. which made it all the more unrealistic. behaviour, lack of any kind of logic in the character's choices and actions.. a rather run of the mill fantasy world with very little in terms of appeal and characterisation... it all conspired in making it a book far less extraordinary than I was expecting, going by the enthusiastic reviews I'd read and heard.

in short:not all that special. some interesting sides to the character. the plot is a bit too warped around the character and his inner turmoil finds more validation in the real (or fantastic) world than one might realistically expect...which makes it all a bit odd, and not in a good way.

Dr. Simon
2011-11-28, 10:11 AM
I've found that each book works better as a part of the whole than as a stand-alone, and with each book in the series that you read, the more you get from preceding ones. Mind you, I did read these in a wierd order, with the Second Chronicles trilogy first, then the First Chronicles trilogy. First time I read it, I too lost interest in the First Chronicle books, which over the course of the three of them really deal with Covenant removing various layers of his physical and mental reserve until he finally Does Something. The Second Chronicles are more rewarding. I'm enjoying the Third Chronicles but it feels a bit like a "The Land's Greatest Hits".

I first read (or almost read) these when I was around 15, at the same time I read the Belgariad which I preferred. Some 15 years later, when I reread both series shortly before making room on my bookshelves, I found Eddings rather pat and simplistic, and Donaldson a lot more nuanced. Example: for all that Covenant is labelled a whinger by people who don't get into the books, he's actually got a very dry sense of humour that permeates a lot of his interactions.

The Reverend
2011-11-29, 11:02 AM
As my mom explained to me the big draw with this book series was that at the time there were no "anti-heros" or unwilling heros in fantasy lit. Despite its numerous flaws it became big because it was so different. The bad guy was winning people died left and right, the hero didn't want to be one, his town "full of hateful idiots" hah, everything was the opposite of the sappy high fantasy grandchildren sired by tolkein that were around at the time.

2011-11-30, 04:54 PM
Yeah, it must've tapped into the zeitgeist when it came out. I was aware of it throughout my teens and 20's but now that I finally decided to give it a go a couple of months ago, I found Lord Foul's Bane to be really boring and, as others have mentioned, full of dull characters and an unengaging world. Convenant himself is interesting but he's too much of a jerk. Plus the writing is kind of weird. What's with his "leper outcast unclean" and "hellfire" exclamations? I kept picturing a dude standing in line yelling that while trying and failing to pay his phone bill and it made me embarassed for him. It didn't work for me and left me uninterested in reading the bunch of sequels.

Dr. Simon
2011-12-01, 04:58 AM
As my mom explained to me the big draw with this book series was that at the time there were no "anti-heros" or unwilling heros in fantasy lit. Despite its numerous flaws it became big because it was so different. The bad guy was winning people died left and right, the hero didn't want to be one, his town "full of hateful idiots" hah, everything was the opposite of the sappy high fantasy grandchildren sired by tolkein that were around at the time.

Quite. From interviews with Donaldson, Covenant was conceived as an antidote to the concept that a "real world" person dragged into a fantasy land and proclaimed as some kind of hero would embrace that concept and get on with saving the world. He then took it to an extreme by giving Covenant not just a lack of interest in being the hero, but an active interest in not even accepting that his situation was real in any way. For Covenant to start thinking that his leprosy is cured and that people like him is, for him, the first step into madness. And for the first book he is completely the opposite of heroic. He deliberately does nothing to help the Lords' quest, he even commits rape (which act continues to come back to haunt him emotionally and in very real terms of consequences for the rest of the series).

The first trilogy can be read as if it is all happening inside Covenant's head (Donaldson deliberately excised the only chapter, Gilden Fire, seen from the point of view of a Land dweller so as to remove any certainty that the Land was real). Lord Foul represents his leprosy, eroding the physical health of The Land (his body), with the Ravers representing psychological decay. As the series goes on and Linden Avery is introduced that uncertainty is removed, but then Foul becomes much more of a psychological creature. He changes from a fairly bland "Dark Lord" kind of character into the personification of self-loathing, of doubt, of good intentions having unforeseen bad consequences. When confronted in person at the end of White Gold Wielder, Foul is somehow diminished. His reality is shown to be impotent against one who has come to terms with his own failings.