Sunday, September 03, 2006

Book 75: Lord Foul's Bane

Lord Foul's Bane is the first volume in Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. In many ways Lord Foul's Bane is a fairly conventional fantasy in a fairly conventional fantasy setting. The world is called "The Land" and it is populated by humans of great character who great each other by saying "Hail!" and there are locations such as "Mithil Stonedown" and "Soaring Woodhelven". There is a Dark Lord and a contemptuous little creature in the shadows. There is a Ring and there is songs and poetry. Characters swear Oaths. All told, so far the novel sounds awfully reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. There is a similarity of style to Tolkien and this similarity is part of the way that Donaldson sets up his world.

So, take this truly "classic" style of Fantasy and a heroic quest and turn it completely on its head because the "hero" of the story is a man named Thomas Covenant and he is not a part of this world. Thomas Covenant is part of our world, at least he was when this novel was published in 1977. Covenant suffers from leprosy and he is an outcast in his society, unclean. Few speak with him at all, his bills have been mysteriously paid so that people don't have to deal with him leaving the house and interacting with anybody. He needs to do Visual Self Examinations to make sure he hasn't accidently been injured because he has no sensation of touch due to the leprosy. When Covenant is stuck by a police vehicle he finds himself transported to The Land and commanded by the Lord Foul (the aforementioned Dark Lord) to deliver a message to the Council of Lords. The men and women of The Land view him as a reincarnation of sorts of their legendary Berek Halfhand.

Taking a man like Thomas Covenant who is completely alien to this fantasy world is what sets Lord Foul's Bane apart from a conventional fantasy. When everyone else is being heroic, Covenant refuses to believe where he is and believes he still has leprosy despite being of sound body in The Land. This is a completely original look at fantasy viewed through the lens of a conventional setting.

While Donaldson has originality overflowing in his work, Lord Foul's Bane still feels conventional. It is the wrapping of the novel, the classic sense of the world and the heroic quest and the language and the feel of The Land that feels like everything else that is out there in the "High Fantasy" excpet that The Land isn't as well developed as others. Style over Substance. The insertion of Thomas Convenant in this world is groundbreaking in terms of doing something new with a conventional fantasy setting and everything with Covenant works very well, but the conventional setting of the novel sometimes overwhelms the parts of the book that works.

This is an interesting fantasy experiment and the next two volumes in the trilogy will show how well the experiment works, but it is a worthy effort.

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