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brianmartin

Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

Lord Foul's Bane - Stephen R. Donaldson

This isn't so much a review of the book as a response to other reviews I have read by people who hated it, and hated it specifically because they see the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, as unlikeable -- weak, whiny, and self-pitying -- and/or because of the rape scene included in it. My position is essentially this: You can hate a character for many good reasons, but having no clue who he really is, is not one of them.

 

Some readers seem to want to excuse Covenant to some extent as an anti-hero, but I think this misses a larger point: his Chronicles, of which this book is the first, are a kind of anti-fantasy. Oh, this is still escape literature, but it lacks -- intentionally -- the complete abandonment of a Lord of the Rings. It doesn't allow the reader to simply wish themselves into a magical new world. Like (and because of) Covenant, it fights back. It asks the reader to consider the distinction between reality and fantasy, or, as Covenant would put it, between sanity and madness. This tension makes the Chronicles unique, providing a different kind of depth to the story.

 

Briefly, Lord Foul's Bane recounts the first part of an epic battle between the good people of the Land and the evil that would destroy it, Lord Foul. Specifically, it tells the story of Thomas Covenant, a leper whose disease has cost him his wife, his child, and the succor of society; his sexual potency; two fingers of his right hand; and the nerves in his fingers and toes. The psychological cost has been no less extreme. His disease requires his full attention, if not directly (for example, through frequent visual surveillance of his body, searching out any cuts or abrasions that, because he can't feel them, could quickly become dangerous), then indirectly. In a world that hates and fears lepers, Covenant is compelled to undertake the hardest of all tasks, to give up all hope -- of health and love and meaningful human contact. This is the man who, after an accident, "wakes up" in the Land -- a place of magic, where health can not only be seen but restored: as he soon discovers, his leprosy is cured, and only his missing fingers are not returned to him.

 

Naturally, he rejects the Land, and all its inhabitants.

 

And here is where the story -- and Covenant, too -- begins to pall on some readers. For Covenant's rejection is not a polite one. Worse (for many of these readers) it is incomprehensible. How could he reject this wonderful gift? How, indeed, could he not wholeheartedly embrace it?

 

The answer, of course, is that Covenant is not, in fact, a weak man, but an exceptionally strong one. A weaker man would do exactly as many of these readers seem to want: he would embrace the Land and charge off to help the good guys defeat the bad. And because he carries with him a power equal to the task (the white gold with which his wedding ring is made), he would succeed. Then, truly, this book would be as bad as they think it is.

 

But -- thankfully -- that isn't Covenant. For him, the Land is no gift; it is a curse. He comes from our world, the real world, where places such as the Land are fantasy. And fantasy is dangerous, if you begin to believe it. That way lies a life of institutionalization and madness. Yet it seems so real, so full of beauty and wonder, friendship and love, it takes a man of extraordinary character to resist its temptations.

 

Reader complaints of whininess and self-pity seem to me to lack an appreciation of Covenant's dilemma (and perhaps simple human empathy). He believes -- and as a man of our world, he has every reason to believe -- that he is fighting for control of his own mind. And against impossible odds. Of course he despairs. Yet he perseveres.

 

How exactly is this man "unlikeable"? Because he clings to sanity? Because he refuses to allow figments of his imagination to drive him mad? Because he doesn't say "please" and "thank you"? From what I can gather, many of these one-star reviewers never did read about Thomas Covenant; they read about a Hero who wouldn't bow to their own desire for wish-fulfillment.

 

It's ironic. They come off sounding like the people in Covenant's town who hate him so much they want him to stay locked up in his house, alone, forever. Except that instead of leprosy, they cite the behavior and mode of thinking required by his disease as the reasons for their loathing. Significantly, they don't question the townspeople's reactions; but they don't follow that through, either. It's as if they're saying, Okay, sure, everyone hates you...but there's no need to be bitter about it. They don't seem to understand that Covenant doesn't want to be the way he is, but that he has no choice: that if he doesn't build walls between himself and the outside world, he will lose himself entirely. If he is overtly rude -- unlike, say, a shy person, whose "rudeness" is born of an innate social awkwardness -- it is because he isn't naturally anti-social. He has had to build his defensive mechanisms himself, against his natural inclinations. This makes him at once more rigid and more heroic.

 

And then there's the rape, a crime compounded by the youth of the victim, a girl of only 16. More than one reviewer, in the blissful simplicity of the knee-jerk reaction, wanted to throw the book at a wall at this point in the story. How is it possible to maintain sympathy for a man who would do such a thing?

 

Well, as it turns out, it is quite easy to do so -- provided you see the book through the lens of Covenant's dilemma. If you go into this book like other works of fantasy believing in the reality of the Land and you cannot fathom Covenant's unbelief, then you will have a problem with this scene. But then, I think, you will also have missed the point completely. For rape in a dream or a fantasy isn't rape. But, for Covenant, in a "dream" as real as this one appears to be, it is impossible to ignore. And it acts on him in two ways: it makes his rejection the Land more difficult even as it raises disturbing questions of his mental health outside the dream. Later in the book he has a similar reaction when he kills for the first time. Is he, he wonders, truly capable of such violence?

 

Rather than ask, How could he rape a 16-year-old, it would be more appropriate to think, Even in his dreams, this man has a conscience.

 

 

 

Post Script: Excoriating Covenant for the rape of Lena follows a logic that would have us holding ourselves accountable for the content of our dreams. If a man told a woman he had a dream in which he raped someone, should the woman henceforth think of the man as a rapist? If a woman told a man she had a dream in which she was raped, and she enjoyed it, should the man afterward believe the woman obviously wants to be raped? I hope I speak for a large majority when I say, Of course not.

 

But one of the fascinating things about Covenant is that he does follow this logic. He doesn't want to, and he tries hard not to, but the more things he does in the Land, the more those things affect how he sees himself. This is why he does so damn little. (This is another misguided complaint about his character.)

 

In this sense, Covenant's journey is one of self-discovery. Like many of us, however, he is afraid of what he will discover. By doing nothing (or as little as he possibly can), he can spare himself pain. He has enough pain -- from his disease, from his isolation; he doesn't think he can take any more.

 

Lord Foul's Bane is, I think, a very good book. But it is here, in the area of Covenant's self-discovery, that it is lacking. His "whining" isn't a problem in itself; it is a symptom of Donaldson's unwillingness or inability to fully explore the depth of Covenant's character. It's interesting that the Land is mostly exactly that -- land. While there is much to see on the surface, a few deep lakes would have been nice.