Stephen Donaldson was the writer that spoiled it for me. I picked up Lord Foul’s Bane when I was a teenager. A friend recommended it to me when I happen to mention that I was interested in reading fantasy fiction. I expected to be pointed in the direction of Tolkien; instead I was shoved in Donaldson’s direction. And what a world I was shown.
In this book there are no hobbits, orcs, elves or Gollums. In their place are Bloodguards, Cavewights, Ravers, Giants and Elohim. Its hero, Thomas Covenant, is a writer, cast out from our society because he has leprosy. He isn’t, by all accounts, a nice guy. He is brought to The Land by The Despiser, Lord Foul (in my estimation, a better name for the ultimate in evil than Sauron). Foul has a plan for our (anti) hero, but Covenant doesn’t give a shit. He thinks it’s all a hallucination brought on by his condition, and so gains the name of Unbeliever. The Land’s magical properties cure him and he shows his gratitude by raping the first woman he sees. I was shocked when I first read this. Heroes are not supposed to commit such atrocities, I thought. I do not like this person at all. But that didn’t stop me from turning the page. Or buying the remaining two books in the trilogy. Or buying The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant for that matter.
Here was a main character who couldn’t care less about his “quest.” If it was all a dream, what did it matter that he was the reincarnation of The Land’s saviour, Berek Halfhand? The thrust of this series is the journey from Unbelief to Belief. It’s a realistic journey, too. Donaldson’s writing is evocative and challenging. It would help to have a good dictionary by your side while you’re reading, though; his use of language and the extent of his vocabulary had me concentrating at all times. But when you get past all that and begin to savour the beauty of his descriptive prose, the power of his battle scenes and the depth of his characters, The Land and all it contains will stay with you for a long time.
He’s not everyone’s cup of tea; I accept that. But it’s because I read Donaldson first, before any other fantasy fiction, that The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is the yardstick I measure others by. And that includes Tolkien (sorry, J.R.R.) and, perhaps, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.
Though I have to say, I’m getting into King’s epic in a big way now. Maybe it’s time to buy myself another yardstick. Don’t ask me to read The Lord of the Rings, however: I’ve seen the movie and I know how it ends.