I was searching a favorite used bookstore for something not too serious—a fun book to break up the heaviness of some of my other reading. Among others, I picked up Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, remembering a high school friend who loved the book and its sequels. It’s a Tolkienesque story replete with rings, staffs, mythology, different races, and arcane lore. However, the epic and elegiac qualities that I think separate Tolkien, that make his work grand and memorable, are, in Donaldson’s book, replaced by a blind belief in the power of the “land,” an often ill-concealed violence just beneath the surface, and the frustrating, and ultimately boring, self-destructive tendencies of its protagonist Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever.
Convenant is The Unbeliever because he is transported from a world that may or may not be the one you and I live in—either way, it is very similar—into the world of the title character. Many of the story’s events would appear supernatural in his home world (and in ours), but they are normal in this new world: there are explanations, and the beginnings of even a science, that make these events explainable in terms of the this world’s understanding of reality. But for Covenant, who comes from a different reality, the whole experience has a dream-like quality; it is a dream from which he cannot escape. The dream has its own logic and he decides that in order to survive it, he must adapt. In this way, Donaldson questions the fabric of our own reality and at the same time makes the question moot: maybe the world we live in isn’t real, but since we’re pretty much stuck in the reality we have, we might as well deal with it.
Along with the fantasy epic and reality-as-dream tropes, Donaldson taps the anti-hero—a main character that does not exemplify traditional heroic characteristics like bravery, selflessness, and moral purity. I love a good anti-hero (Is that an oxymoron, like “perfect square”?—probably only funny if you study and/or teach math). Oxymoronic or not, good anti-heroes are often tragic, usually self-destructive, and never boring. Among my personal favorites are Milton’s Satan, Morrison’s Sethe, Hulme’s Kerewin, Jeff Bailey from Out of the Past, Nikita from the Luc Besson flick, and Eastwood’s oft-played and more-often-imitated “man with no name.”
(Despite my obvious tendency to create lists, it is not my intention to start a new list of anti-heroes for the blog. If you think I should create such a list, let me know; I’ll consider it.)
Because I like anti-heroes so much, reading Lord Foul’s Bane was a disappointing experience for me; it is clear almost immediately that Covenant is an anti-hero—just not a good one. Part of the problem is that Donaldson’s style is so over-wrought and over-done with heavy portent that it becomes tedious. Witness the novel’s opening lines:
She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the grey, gaunt man who strode down the centre of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way.
The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, ‘Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!’
Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded, Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean! (Italics in the original.)
As far as my experience of the world goes, no one talks or thinks like that—with the possible exception of religious fanatics and other lunatics.
As bad as that is, I can deal with it. I can usually stomach a pretty big share of silly dialog, unlikely plot lines, violence, self-destructive behavior, and other disturbing events in a book. Sometimes I even enjoy it. However, when Covenant rapes a 16-year-old girl in the first 100 pages, I put the book down and almost didn’t pick it up again. I stuck it out to find out if my high school friend’s recommendation was more than puerile and out the perverse sense that I will read almost anything all the way through, simply for the completeness of it. So, while the book has some redeeming qualities—the mythology is interesting; the creatures and races are reasonably original; the plot is diverting enough—your time would probably be better spent elsewhere.