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Published in 1977, this is the first of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. There are three sets of Chronicles: the First, Second and Last. The first two contain three books; the third will have four. Against All Things Ending, the ninth book – the third of the Last Chronicles – was published in 2010. Lord Foul’s Bane is the only one I’ve read so far.

The Chronicles are a fantasy epic. Donaldson rightly acknowledges his debt to Tolkien and other great fantasy writers like Mervyn Peake. And I wouldn’t be surprised if writers of more recent fantasy stories would in turn acknowledge their debt to Donaldson; Avatar comes particularly to mind. He has an important place in the fantasy tradition. That said, I had somewhat mixed reactions to the book.

Thomas Covenant, a successful writer, lives in a small American town, but is totally rejected by his community when he is diagnosed with leprosy. He wife leaves him, taking their young child with her. Leprosy becomes the defining fact of his life. He decides that the only way he can survive is to damp down his emotions – the rage and loss – and concentrate exclusively on his disease. Then one day he falls and hits his head. He wakes up to find himself in a different world where he doesn’t have leprosy, and seems to have some part to play in saving the country – ‘the Land’ – from Lord Foul’s creature, the Cavewight, Drool Rockworm. But he can’t accept that the Land is real; he thinks he is dreaming. He doesn’t want to become attached to the Land or anyone in it – ‘he could not afford to be anyone’s friend’ – and he doesn’t want the power – the ‘wild magic’ – it seems he possesses. He fears the conflicting demands of his leprosy and the Land will drive him mad. And is he in any case inadvertently doing Lord Foul’s bidding?

The book (indeed the whole series) has millions of devoted fans. Apart from being an exciting story, readers seem to like the physically and morally flawed hero Covenant, and enjoy the psychological dimension of his predicament. Others hate it, largely for its turgid prose. One critic suggested that rather than reading it, people could simply play a game of who could find the most uses of the word ‘clenched’ on every page.

I certainly read eagerly to find out what happens in terms both of the quest to defeat Drool, and Covenant’s own battle about how to act. But while it’s maybe impossible to over-write a fantasy epic, some of Donaldson’s prose is decidedly over the top. A few of random examples: ‘The night beat about him on naked wings like vultures dropping towards dead meat’ or ‘he had discovered a frontier into the narcissism of revulsion’ or ‘It stood in granite permanence like an enactment of eternity’. I accept that elevated language may be needed to describe the inhabitants of the other world – the ur-viles, the Bloodguard, the Warmark and the Ranyhyn to name but a few. But I found Covenant’s inner conflict was sometimes obscured by the density of the prose. What is ‘the narcissism of revulsion’ anyway? And recent political events aside, I think most Australian readers would find there is something incongruous about the lore of ‘High Lord Kevin’.

Ultimately it is the quality of the fantasy world that determines the success of a fantasy epic. And while there are clear debts to Tolkien, I think Donaldson has done enough in creating the Land, its people and its creatures to warrant his popularity. I’m not sure if Covenant’s psychological conflict can be extended into further stories, but it here makes him a distinctive character and adds some depth to the fantasy battle between good and evil. I’ll at least read the next one.

You can find out more about Donaldson and The Chronicles here.

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