Take me away from reality. That’s all I ask of a book. Send me to a city plagued by vampires.Dump me into an argument between a wife and husband. Or my favorite, transport me to a mythical world. A land. The Land.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant do just that. Not long after meeting Covenant himself, we (along with Covenant of course) are taken to a new world called The Land. It’s full of mystical creatures and creations I’ve never heard of (Ranyhyn, Fire-Lions, Ur-Viles, Wraiths of Andelain), combined with the familiar (Giants, High Lords). During most of the books you travel throughout The Land. At times you surpass its bounds. The Land is one of my favorite parts of Stephen R Donaldsons masterpiece, but it isn’t what separates it from other fantasy greats. Tolkien gave us Middle Earth, Frank Herbert has Arrakis, and even George R. R. Martin created a large setting in ASOIAF. No, Donaldson goes deeper than just the world he creates.
I’m not going to do a whole summary (mostly because it would sound horrible), but I’ll give you a little introduction. Thomas Covenant is a leper in the real world. The condition became so bad he lost his two fingers on his one hand. His wife and son have left his life because of his disease and he is utterly alone. The towns folk hate that he lives among them. His day to day life is filled with self-loathing. As he walks into town one day, he is suddenly hit by a police car. Covenant is mysteriously transported to the mysterious world previously described as The Land. In this reality(or unreality), he is believed to be the second coming of Berek Halfhand. A messiah.
Believe me when I tell you, Thomas Covenant is not a likeable character. In fact, most people hate him. And this is the main character! Donaldson’s version of Frodo is as despised as Joffrey from ASOIAF. It’s not entirely without merit. He commits a deplorable act in the beginning of the first book. Most readers refuse to continue after that. Yet that single act, above all others, has consequences that span throughout the rest of the series. It’s a slow burn, but my GOD is it worth it. I love Thomas Covenant. I love what he becomes. I love what he IS. Because simply put, I see a lot of myself in him. And I’d bet many others do too. It’s just the qualities we share are the ones nobody likes to acknowledge. There are times when I’m totally self loathing and pitiful. I’ve been caught in a web of despair. Thomas Covenant finds his own leprosy revolting. I don’t have leprosy myself, but I carry with me that same feeling. Whether it’s how I look (short, balding, hairy), where I am in life (single, alone, minimum wage job), letting people down (family, friends, significant others), or my own qualities (greedy, spiteful, cynical). I’m disgusted by myself. I see why certain people are out of my life and I wallow in the self hate.
Listen, I’m not on suicide watch here. I just openly acknowledge these things about me. And they drew me to the character of Covenant. So where others found him whiny and immature, I found him incredibly relate able. See, I want a character with flaws. I’m not just talking about a character who sometimes bends the law to get the job done. I mean real, up close and personal flaws. Thomas Covenant is as bleak as they come. In his mind there is no hope, for him or this world. He attempts to push any and all help away from him. I’ve been there. Repeatedly. And I’d bet I’m not the only one.
The characters in this series aren’t all like Covenant. As I said, Covenant has plenty of people trying to help. I don’t think many readers continue long enough to see this. The Giants are a people full of hope. I personally wish I had a Saltheart Foamfollwer as a life long friend. All my troubled times wouldn’t seem so dark. Allow me to post one of my favorite quotes from the series, courtesy of Foamfollower and Covenant:
“Are you a storyteller, Thomas Covenant?”
Absently he replied, “I was, once.”
“And you gave it up? Ah, that is as sad a tale in three words as any you might have told me. But a life without a tale is like a sea without salt. How do you live?”
… Unconsciously, he clenched his fist over his ring. “I live.”
“Another?” Foamfollower returned. “In two words, a story sadder than the first. Say no more — with one word you will make me weep.”
This quote makes me reflect every time I read it. Because despite what Covenant (and myself) think, there is hope in this world. And love. And friendship.
A critique that does have some justification to it: Donaldsons writing. It isn’t bad. I think he writes prose wonderfully. He just has a taste for ten cent words. I guarantee you know what “succor” and “roynish” mean after reading the books. Personally I enjoyed the challenge. Did I stop and look up what every word I didn’t recognize meant? No. Mostly because I used a Kindle. Even still, you can pick up the meaning. It’s just frustrating when you know a lesser word would work just as well. The author also tends to be a bit descriptive. This leads to the books being a bit of a chore to get through. But for me, the story and the character of Thomas Covenant were too appealing. When it comes to plot, Stephen R Donaldson is one of the best.
This is also not the series to read if you are looking for battles and fighting. There are, however, some bad ass characters. The Haruchai (such as Bannor, Brinn, Ceer), the aforementioned Giants (they take no pleasure in killing but when they must, look out), and of course the wild magic that comes from White Gold. I don’t want to spoil much, but White Gold has had such an effect on me that I’ve contemplated getting a tattoo of it somehow (and immediately regretting it of course. But still). I know someone who was a kid when this series began and he said ” when my friends were playing with The Force, I was wielding wild magic with my White Gold ring”. Well come friend, well come.
“Impotence is freedom. When you’re incapable of anything, no one can expect anything from you. Power has its own limits—even ultimate power. Only the impotent are free.”
For whatever reason, this rang especially true to me. It’s a trap many fall into. If people have low expectations for you, you never end up letting them down. The same goes for having low expectations for yourself. I’ve told myself ” If I went blind, my parents would never expect anything from me”. Not that I would ever blind myself, but I really connect with this quote. In my life, I’m always trying to make myself “impotent”. Trying to put myself in situations that are no win. For when I lose, I can go “well look at what I was up against!”. In reality I have as much opportunity than anyone else (and probably more so than most). I could be way off base. It’s dialogue that’s stuck with me. And that’s why I love reading.
This isn’t meant to be a book review. Not even a plead to read the series. I don’t know what I meant to do. I just wanted to write about books that changed me. It’s not for everyone. Yet it sold over six million copies when it was first released. I guess I just want people to know it’s out there (And that one person in Alaska who reads this blog will know). And that I believe. Not in much. But in this author. In these books. In Thomas Covenant.