Lord Foul’s Bane
Book 1 of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever
I first absorbed myself in this series back in High School, borrowing most of them from the school library, but then having to spring for the final ‘White Gold Wielder’ when it was published in ’83. And images still remain with me (albeit several merging somewhat with Tolkien originals). Then again, the same could be said of ‘The Sword of Shannara’, a book I should have left safely in vague nostalgia. But on revisiting Donaldson the book is far more than a dodgy ripoff. And it doesn’t pander like so many in this genre: indeed, at times Donaldson seems to deliberately antagonise his audience. He successfully populates his Land with so many crowd pleasing noble archetypes, but then thrusts the most unlikable of protagonists at the centre of all the action.
I do worry that Donaldson wants to be taken seriously more than having some good reason to be taken seriously. Occasionally he forgets himself in the pleasure of invention, but pretentiousness permeates the language and the content of this book. Donaldson always sacrifices clarity of communication for self-consciously grandiose language and Yoda-like syntactical inversions. These are parlour tricks that actually distance the readers from the story, and, like the worst of academic writing, disguise a lack of substance behind pompous style. The readers most open to being impressed by this echo a similar process that reverences Shakespeare for similarly erroneous reasons: “I didn’t really understand that – it must have been very profound.” Likewise some readers love the sound of Jesus’ words in the Authorised Version (or, better, Latin) because they can just enjoy the vibe: it sounds jolly important, but the meaning is wonderfully opaque. Hence Donaldson’s relentless choice of words he knew most readers would not know. I could equally say of Donaldson what I did of Peake’s Gormanghast books:
Were Peake to insert words before subjects like ‘rainbow’, ‘puppy’ and ‘light’, I’d expect something along the lines of ‘malevolent’, ‘ghoulish’ and ‘cancerous’ (or even ‘aspersing’, ‘preternatural’ and ‘internecine’: Peake certainly loved a thesaurus).
Donaldson wants every sentence and action to sound jolly important. He never gets that importance is a relative thing: everything can’t be as important as everything else (“You’re all winners!”). Yet Covenant, and all around him, takes his every action so seriously that it’s it feels wrong to dismiss any as mere petulance. Yet behind all the majestic trappings this is a book of tantrums. Donaldson went even further with this in the godawful ‘Gap’ series, where every interaction is somehow meant to be utterly pivotal, every paragraph crucial – but instead you feel cheated: as each new action is supposed to really matter you feel your reaction to the previous seemingly vital (now shown to be relatively minor) incident was invalid. There’s something similar going on in the silly adolescent self-importance of Cherryh’s Tripoint, where (speaking of self-importance as I quote myself again), “…we get reams of melodramatic bilge. It feels like we’re living with a particularly emotional teen at their most paranoid, where every day (every minute) is the ‘best’ or the ‘worst’, and every day, or hour, is it’s own crisis...”
Similarly ‘Lord Foul’s Bane’ is a book without dynamics. It shouts from beginning to end, so, of course, after a while the shouting is ineffective. Superlatives abound. It’s a boy crying ‘wolf!’ – I’m just amazed at how many reviewers are still rushing out goggle eyed after a thousand pages of this. A typical example:
The struggle went on, prolonged itself far beyond the point where it felt unendurable. (p. 366)
You’d think ‘unendurable’ would imply an end – but this is ‘far beyond’ that. The lovely website ‘hyperbole and a half’ is wryly aware of the irony of the title, but Donaldson consistently is not. Some readers laud Donaldson’s apparent deep love and understanding of words – yet a line like this shows a clear misunderstanding of what ‘unendurable’ actually means (“Yeah, well you’re infinity plus a thousand stupid”). This might be (and it’s very much ‘might’) excusable as one excess at the climax, but this line could have just as easily been used (and similar ones were) at any point in Covenant’s experience (the interactions in his home town, the descent from Berek’s tower, the treks to and from Stonedown, the river journey, all parts of the quest…).
Something similarly shifty (or self-deluding – I’m not sure which) happens in Donaldson’s constant misuse of similes and metaphors. The idea of these comparisons is to take something distant or obscure to the reader and bring it closer to them – you take something far away and compare it to something more comprehensible and immediate so the reader has better understanding and the content has more impact. Yet Donaldson does the opposite in his unrelenting blended metaphorical similes. Another example:
Drool's moon embittered the night like a consummation of gall (p.379)
'Like a' usually precedes some helpful, clarifying comparison, but Donaldson's comparisons are usually more opaque than his initial woolly expression. You can get a sense of what he means - & a strong tone - out of 'embittered the night', but this is hardly a standard condition & invites clarification - bringing it closer to the reader with something more incisive, concrete, personal, precise. Perhaps 'like news of the death of a child', or 'like a friend's betrayal'. This taking an experience the reader may already have felt to better convey a feeling. But Donaldson doesn't use similes in this way (i.e. what I see as the point of similes). Rather he stays with his grandiose, hyperbolic, strained style - 'like a consummation of gall'. Is this something you can more immediately relate to than an embittered night? Have you ever seen or experienced a consummation of gall? Maybe you have, but you'd have to think about it first, hey.
This sort of language use bugs me. It swamps you in connotations, but gives you precious little in content - and nothing in the way of striking or
telling communication. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a connotation, but frequently that’s all Donaldson offers.
So, yeah, I’ve got some grievances with this book, and they are stronger because the book still at times got me in. Some books can’t disappoint or cause resentment like this as they don’t have the power to raise any hopes or expectations.
So to another grievance: I’m not convinced by Covenant's frequent unchallenged assertions along the lines of 'I have to keep going', or ‘You’re doing just what Foul wants’. There are passages central to the motivations of the whole book where Covenant refers to some apparently unimpeachable and universally acknowledged code of how one has to behave in dreams. Right. He has to keep going with the dream – yet he has to maintain his ‘unbeliever’ status to not be seduced by it. Right. Which rulebook was that? In dreams I’ve had I tend to be carried along by the logic of them, and only on waking to acknowledge the oddness of the assumptions of the dream (which may involve you flying, or you being back at school even though you’re 40 years old, or whatever). I’ve never had this external awareness: “I’m in a dream. And these are the rules for successfully traversing it – the ones we were all taught as children…” As an unbeliever Covenant has total freedom – the deaths of the ‘baddies’ should cost him a world less than any of the other characters. But he has somehow become an utter pacifist – something not true of most people, and not even hinted at in his mundane life. I can see no justifiable motivation for either his dedication to the quest or his refusal to help.
The closest I could get to making some sense of this, perhaps, was as Christian allegory. Think of C.S. Lewis’ ‘Great Divorce’ picture of humanity as chess pieces on the board of time, crude representations of the impossibly pure and perfect beings outside of time surrounding the board. All the pieces can see is here and now, yet their actions have eternal consequences – and would be so different if they could see the beauty they are surrounded by. It’s a possible way of thinking about Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’, explaining how he could blithely dismiss seemingly important things (material wealth, political power) and see, for example, a kind gesture as having far greater consequence.
Christians constantly struggle with this dilemma – do they live by faith in what is seen or unseen? At times they doubt their belief, at others they doubt their unbelief. But if the kingdom of God is real, they constantly make appalling choices, denying the purity, health and love that faith can reveal to them.
Covenant, likewise, is surrounded by purity & staggering beauty, & possessed with ultimate power to celebrate this for eternity or damn it with unbelief. He is also bizarrely casual in dealing with divine powers, he has no recognition of what is at stake in dealing with, for example, the Ranyhyn. This could be paralleled to blithe selfish prayers, casually interacting with principalities and powers that warrant utter devotion.
Is there some kicking around of this issue: why, God, did you offer eternity & meaning & responsibility to weak, blinded, flawed, impulsive, humans?
Some Christian approaches put so much value on every individual, & every passing moment. Who could live like this? Is this what it would look like? These pure celestial beings surrounding us foolish, vain, temperamental humans who inexplicably are crucial, & whose actions all have massive significance. The human condition being about how much power for good we have, but we simply do not realise or claim it, instead falling in and out of despair.
(This, btw, runs totally against Ecclesiastes and other Christian approaches emphasising how tiny, ephemeral & insignificant we are).
Still, I’m forcing this theme onto the book. And while I think some of these ideas could use some parts of ‘Lord Foul’s Bane’ as a legitimate metaphor or stimulus, the book itself does not clarify this theme. Moreover I think Donaldson enjoys the lack of clarity.
I loved Matrix 1 where there was one reality, but suddenly and cleverly there was another which made you totally reinterpret the first. But the sequels were a dreadful, indulgent, chaotic mess. This ‘Chronicles’ 1 hinted at but never gave us the clever reinterpretation. And I suspect the sequels will descend further into indulgent, chaotic mess. That can be OK – some franchises effectively have enough in episodes to not need standard resolutions (Hitchhiker’s Guide, some of Phillip K. Dick’s worlds, even P.G Wodehouse where at his best plot is wildly secondary to dialogue and description). But while Donaldson does some impressive evocation here and there, he does rely on plot – the readers must believe Covenant’s actions matter to make reading the story worthwhile – there’s not enough else going on in terms of wit, dialogue, satire, characterisation, whatever, to carry us. It stands or falls on Covenant, and Covenant is a mirage, an empty promise, he’s impressive connotation, not substance.
(Reread – originally read 1982)