The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever

by Stephen Donaldson

Rating: ★★★

This is certainly a challenging fantasy series. In a way, it would be easier if Donaldson was a terrible writer -- we could call this a failed conceit and move on. But he isn't, and the picture is more complicated than that.

The story of Thomas Covenant takes place in two worlds, like many fantasy novels. In our Earth, Covenant is a leper, unofficially confined to a home on the edge of town, his neighbours doing their best to prevent him from ever having a reason to interact with them, his wife absconding with his child. Leprosy is not highly contagious, but carries a stigma that Covenant feels keenly. In the other world, Covenant is basically the same person, except a widely-available herb can cure his leprosy, and his white gold wedding ring is a conduit for unstoppable levels of magical power. Nobody really understands what he means by leprosy, or ill-health in general. Covenant is however a piece in the machinations of a terrible evil force attempting to gain dominion over the world.

So you think, fine, this world is a sort of escape for Covenant, to work over his real-life issues in a high-fantasy setting. This is exactly right -- there are all sorts of connections between the fantasy and Covenant's personal reality. Yet Thomas Covenant does not take the offered path. Thomas Covenant absolutely refuses to believe in the fantasy world as reality, to take any active part in its story, or to allow it to make him happy. He rejects the whole premise of the setting. This is why he is the Unbeliever. In a world full of kindhearted and generous people who are unreasonably inclined to pander to him, Covenant is a bitter, miserly protagonist, for the most part dragged along by events as he mutters violent and largely incomprehensible commentary to himself. His defence is not perfect -- the world batters him at times into playing along, or he forgets himself and becomes briefly moved by something -- but for the most part he does not take part in his story. This is all exactly as hard to read as you might think, and yet, also, strangely fascinating.

The second book livens things up a little by introducing a second character from Earth into Covenant's world, though he is unable to confirm the man's true existence. This gives us an ally in hating Covenant, someone we can relate to. The third book, however, has more than consolation for us. Partway through the book, Covenant just snaps. To say he finally commits to the reality of the world would perhaps be too strong, but he finally takes an active part in its direction, leading to a quest of sorts which carries all the motion and struggle that the series was previously lacking. Tellingly, this comes as Covenant lies near death in the real world.

This is a complex answer to typical notions of fantasy. Donaldson exposes the conveniences of such worlds by having his character fight them all the way. He renders clear the function of fantasy as escape, as metaphorical of personal troubles. The writing is at times stirring and powerful, and yet so much of the text is just so little fun, so irritating to read.