The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever - Stephen Donaldson

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever - Stephen R. Donaldson

This is the story of a leper, Thomas Covenant, who finds himself in a fantastical world called, in a brilliant display of originality, the Land. It is threatened by a being who essentially epitomises pure evil, and Covenant is called upon to save it.

Sound familiar? Yes, it's a fairly typical plot for a fantasy novel. The Land is a typical fantasy world remarkably like Middle-Earth, with intelligent horses, wizards with staffs (staves?), a powerful ring and hopeless Quests with a capital Q.

However, what is untypical about the book is Covenant's response to the Land. He believes it's a dream, although, to be entirely fair, he doesn't always act as if it's a dream. Never mind, I'm not going to get hung up on that, because the premise is an interesting one when it comes to morality. If you're in a dream, do you have responsibility for the choices you make? Can you commit any crime - because, after all, it's not really real? These are interesting questions that you don't often see in fantasy, which is a shame, because fantasy is best placed to explore them.

As for me, I'm inclined to believe the Land a dream, primarily because it is so much like Middle-Earth. If it were a dream, you could reasonably expect it to be like Middle-Earth, because Covenant, being a writer, has almost certainly read his Tolkien, and even if he hasn't, he would probably have a good idea of what Middle-Earth is like; so you might almost expect him to dream a typical fantasy universe rather than something entirely new. Also, the story (I won't call it a novel, because it's actually three novels in one) often features dreamlike ridiculousness - there's a race called the Ramen, for instance (like the chicken dish) - which you wouldn't expect to find in a fantasy world that is supposed to exist.

Well, this is a very persuasive interpretation, but it falls down on one point: we see things that Covenant doesn't. If the Land were a dream, things couldn't exist without Covenant seeing them, so we would never get to experience, for instance, the great battle of Garotting Deep in book 2, The Illearth War. So we know that the Land exists while Covenant doesn't, which, I feel, alienates us from him. It also reads like Donaldson meant it to be a dream, especially at the end, which feels like a battle within Covenant. With all this in mind - inconsistent action on the part of the protagonist, silly names, impossible changes of perspective and a change of mind from the author - you'd think it was just a very bad fantasy novel with a promising premise.

However, I'm giving it four stars because, on an emotional level, I really enjoyed it. The Land, for all its similarity to Tolkien, is genuinely engaging, with mirthful Giants, musical magic and splendid cities; Covenant's plight as a leper brought a lump to my throat more than once; and it's very dramatic, all last stands and courageous sacrifice. And I also liked the intellectual challenge: not just a fantasy novel, but a fantasy novel that asks questions. Not perfect in its detail, but well worth a read.