When I was a student and my finals were approaching I found this book in a charity shop for 10p. I read the back and it sounded interesting and hey only 10p… In those days I was not intimidated by long books. The book is the first in what was then a series of 6 books (now 9 and there’s one more to come). I read the first five and a half in a couple of weeks during the ‘rest breaks’ from my revision for finals. The final half book took me several months.
That says something about something. Either me or the books or both. Anyway…
Lord Foul’s Bane is the story of a man, Thomas Covenant, who is transported to another world – called simply “the Land” – where he bears resemblance to a mythic hero and where his wedding ring is a magical object of great power – not that he knows how to use it. The other thing we learn about Covenant is that he is a leper, and we learn that the key to managing leprosy is a dogmatic vigilance to the dangers around him – he can’t rely on his dead nerves to warn him when he’s injured himself and so must carefully check for minor scrapes and cuts in case they get infected. This leads to a rejection of anything but the harsh realities of life. He can’t afford to think about life the way it was (his wife divorced him and took their son) or how he wishes it were, he must focus on the practicalities of simply surviving.
So when he finds himself in “the Land” – a place of beauty and magic, a place where his leprosy is healed and feeling returns – he rejects it as a dangerous dream. However in order not to be overwhelmed by it he tries to follow the logic of the dream and interacts with the people he finds there as if they were real whilst believing them not to be. This he calls his “Unbelief”.
There are a couple of big hurdles to enjoying this and the other books in this series. The first is that Thomas Covenant is hard to like. For reasons that are understandable he is bitter and tends to be harsh to those around him, even those being kind to him. And when he first recovers his health in the Land he loses control and commits rape. I know of at least one person who gave up on the book at that point – which is several chapters in.
The second hurdle is Donaldson’s prose. He’s not one to use 10 words where 150 will do. He also, to my mind, delves into the psychological motivations of Covenant in excessive detail such that he makes a mockery of “show don’t tell”.
Given this, why read Lord Foul’s Bane?
Well it’s all about story and the story is, I think, a compelling one. At the point where he enters the Land Covenant is given a message from the eponymous Lord Foul for the Lords – the rulers and protectors of the Land. The section of the book – about the first 2/3rds – which concerns Covenant’s journey to deliver this message has a driving energy to it which always gets me. I’ve started this book more times than I’ve finished it, and usually if I’ve abandoned it it’s at the point just after he’s given the message at the Council of the Lords where I’ve floundered.
I almost did again this time. In fact it was perhaps only the fact that having read 300+ pages I did not want them to go to waste because of not finishing the book.
7/10 – if you like fantasy, can overlook an unlikeable hero and plough through the turgid prose then there’s an interesting story in there.