Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

17 Nov 2006

A revised version of this post is part of my essay collection The Books That Wrote Me: Collection 1, available here.

So, I have taken a break from reading The Runes of the Earth while I backtrack and re-read Lord Foul’s Bane. First published in 1977, I was probably thirteen or fourteen the last time I read this book. It is interesting to find out how much I remember, and also how well the novel holds up.

Donaldson’s book has some superficial resemblances to Tolkien’s work. There’s a ring of power, goblin-like creatures, dwarf-like humans who live in stone buildings, and elf-like humans who live in a big tree (Woodhelvin, which sounds like “wood elves.”) The antagonist is a disembodied spirit who speaks through others, and rallies armies of deformed creatures to bring forth a blight upon the countryside. There’s a stone keep (Revelstone) that bears a superficial similarity to one of the cities of stone in Tolkien, Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith. There’s a dreadful mountain, Mount Thunder, slightly comparable to Mount Doom. There’s a giant with a personality a bit like Tolkien’s ent Treebeard, who laughs deeply and loves long tales and urges others not to be hasty.

However, it would be a big mistake to think of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as a pastiche or homage to Tolkien, even though they make passing nod to some of the physical elements of his story, which were not necessarily original to his work.

Aside from an occasional, forgivable lapse into a more traditional “high fantasy” mode in which characters recite their lineage by way of introduction, Lord Foul’s Bane is a stripped-back, pared-down fantasy almost entirely free of grandiose sentiment and heroism of any kind. Donaldson does not attempt to be a “cultural completist” like Tolkien; his world is not a re-creation of the lost history of ancient England. the Land’s history and legends are not intact: in fact, it is a dimished world, and most of the great lore of its past has been lost, and the inhabitants are struggling to regain it. When his characters recite the occasional fragment of verse or epic tale, these things are not written in a faux-ancient style; they are, for the most part, in modern un-rhymed verse. Indeed, they occasionally lapse into a slightly dated 1970s Rod McKuen tone, but only occasionally; most of the work still reads as if it had been written yesterday. And although some may consider it to be tedious and hard going, I am impressed by just how how economically the story is told. There’s no Tom Bombadil, and no happy drinking songs. Almost every word very pointedly and urgently propels the story along.

The protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is just about as unlovable a man as you could possibly construct. He was a successful writer, stricken with leprosy through no particular fault of his own. Embittered, he has dedicated his efforts to his own survival, which has required him to strip himself of all consoling illusions about life’s loftier rewards and goals; his goal is to survive each day, and he has little to look forward to except the avoidance, for one more day, of reactivated leprosy, infection, numbness, and amputation. His wife has abandonedhim, taking with him their infant son; his community shuns him, and he has thrown his unfinished novel onto the fire. In short, his virtue consists of a carefully cultivated selfish will to his own safety and survival; his primary impulse is self-protection and withdrawal. But however much the world recoils from him, he is keenly aware that he needs to continue to go into, and interact with, the wider world, so that he does not retreat entirely into isolation and self-pity.

When the story opens, he is walking downtown to pay his electric bill. He is angry and bitter: someone has been paying his bill for him, apparently to keep him from venturing downtown to pay it himself. A woman drags her child away from his path, telling him that he ought to be ashamed. He feels panic and vertigo, and looking at a pair of giggling teenaged girls, a lechery born of the impotence the disease has imposed on him. I don’t think we’re told exactly how old Covenant is, but I place him at about thirty; old enough to have left behind some of the careless illusions of youth, but not old enough to have developed wisdom and equanimity.

Telling the clerk that “it isn’t catching,” and constantly scanning himself for scratches, since his extremities are numb, Covenant succumbs to an anxiety attack and stumbles into the path of an onrushing police car. Falling, he believes the car will strike him, and he loses consciousness. When he regains consciousness, he is in the Land, listening to a blithering goblin-like creature, Drool Rockworm, announce gleefully that he has summoned Covenant by using his new found-mastry of the Staff of Law. The voice of Lord Foul intrudes and Covenant finds himself given a grim message to take to the lords of the Land.

The story, and Covenant’s motivations, here become paradoxically confusing. One the one hand, Covenant must believe that everything that is happening to him is a kind of dream. It seems to him that the temptation to succumb to his fantasies is a kind of suicide, a complete retreat into unreality. But if it is a dream, then why not act out his own self-gratification? He meets a teenaged girl, Lena, who believes him to be the reincarnation of a legendary hero from the Land’s distant past, Berek Halfhand. She looks at him with both trust and overt attraction, in a way that would provoke a more mature man’s protective instincts. But Covenant’s nerves are miraculously healing, and his sexual potency returns.

This healing drives him to believe even more strongly that what he is experiencing cannot possibly be happening in reality. He succumbs to his lusts and rapes Lena. And so now as readers we are forced to decide whether we will throw the book down in disgust or attempt to maintain our sympathy with a man who must surely be one of the most unpleasant protagonists ever set to paper. Or, as Julie puts it in Fantasy Bedtime Hour, “I hate him so much!” For Donaldson’s part, he does not indulge our prurient interest — the rape is described only vaguely, not like a modern romance/pornography. But there it is.

If we continue, we are faced with a series of complicated questions. If I indulge a debased fantasy in a dream, have I done anything wrong? Couldn’t such a thing actually be healthy, if it prevents me from acting upon impulses like that in my waking life? But what if my dream is, in any sense at all, real? If you believe that nothing you do matters, does it still matter what you do? Earlier in the book Covenant was handed a pamphlet which asked a similar question, and declared that this was the central question of ethics.

Covenant then reacted with disgust, because in his reality, the choices and options he faced were dramatically limited, and centered around his own survival. But he is forced to confront the question written on the largest possible scale. One could rewrite the question as a choice between moral relativism and a belief in unversally applicable moral principles. That’s a big topic for a work of fiction to take on, and it only works because Donaldson does not provide a single, simple answer.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Donaldson has also written a book which takes on the complex question of the relationship of human beings to nature. One of Tolkien’s themes was the madness of war and the destruction that inappropriate use of technology wreaks upon the earth. The land is a wonderfully beautiful place, and Donaldson grants Covenant a “health-sense,” the ability to directly feel the health or sickness of the Land’s ecosystem itself on both a small or large scale. In such a world failure to take care of the land has a direct and potent effect on one’s own senses. It seems a consummation devoutly to be wished. But would you like to feel the earth’s pain in an open-pit mine, or a poisoned watershed?

So Covenant is embroiled in a paradox. All his senses — because they are fully functional, and indeed, more functional than they ever were before — are a constant reminder to him that what he is experiencing can’t be real. He doesn’t want to succumb to what feels like madness. But the vitality he sees and feels around him — the beauty, and the strength and devotion of the Land’s residents — convinces him that he must fulfill the mission that Lord Foul has given him, to warn the Lords of the Land of their impending doom and try to preserve what he can of the beauty he sees around him. He calls himself “Unbeliever,” even as he sets off on a journey to the Lords with Atiaran, Lena’s mother. He does not atone for the rape of Lena; he does not ask forgiveness, and it is not preemptively given to him. Atiaran learns of his act she does not renounce her Oath of Peace and take his life, because the threat to the Land is greater than her own need for revenge.

And so the story proceeds. It is intellectually challenging, and morally challenging, in a way that Tolkien isn’t. The two obvious options Covenant is faced with — absolute disbelief, and absolute acceptance, of the reality of the Land, feel to him like forms of madness. And so his only alternative is to remain on the knife edge between belief and unbelief. And so he is torn. He could fall into crippling guilt for Lena’s rape and for his own inability to save the land. Or he could veer into complete contempt for the alluring and fantastic lie laid before him. He’s not a hero, although everyone he meets seems to treat him like one, but they also expect miracles and wonders from him. He doesn’t know how to use the white gold ring that everyone he meets tells him is an artifact of immense power, both creative and destructive. And so all for all his apparent freedom his options are agonizingly limited. This makes Lord Foul’s Bane not just a potent work, but a profoundly ethical work.

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