The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever
                         by Stephen R. Donaldson
                 Review copyright (c) 1994 by Doug Ingram

[Bibliographic information at the end of the article.]

	Before I begin, allow me to lay down some ground rules and reveal
my biases.  This review of the Chronicles is intended for two audiences.
First, it is meant for those who are relatively new to the net, haven't
really heard much about the Chronicles one way or the other, and don't
know what to make of all the arguing that goes on back and forth whenever
Donaldson is mentioned.  Second, I'm sure this review will be read by
many who are all too familiar with Donaldson and the history of the
Covenant discussions on the net.  I'm not expecting to change any minds
with this review of the books, but I love a good debate (and if you hadn't
already guessed, put me down as a Donaldson fan).

	I've done some reviews in 1991 when first popped up,
but this isn't going to be anything like those book reviews.  After all,
I'm trying to review an entire series here rather than just one book,
so it is very difficult to know where to begin.  I will try to start with
a very broad overview of the books and will apologize in advance for the
unavoidable spoilers (there's only one important one that I will give out,
and it is near the beginning of the series anyway).  From there, I will 
talk about the strengths and weaknesses of Donaldson's style with a couple
of specific passages from the books as examples.  Finally, if you get
that far (I hope you's the most important part!), I have some
general advice for the reader on how to approach the series.

	This series is an example of a "crossover" story that takes place
both in "our" world and a world that somehow exists alongside.  The other
world is known simply as "the Earth" with the major action taking place
in "the Land" (as opposed to what I will call the real world).  The main
character, Thomas Covenant, was once a happily married popular author who
came down with leprosy, a disease that destroys nerves and requires the
sufferer to be constantly vigilant in order to prevent an undetected
injury, which can easily develop into a severe problem.

	Once the disease is discovered and Covenant is taught about how
to deal with his new life, his wife leaves him out of fear that their 
newborn son with catch the disease, so Covenant now lives by himself well
outside of town, cast out by his family and his community.  He has gone
a little bit mad as a result of everything and is in a great deal of
mental anguish.  Donaldson takes a long time building up this persona of
Covenant since much of the story involves Covenant's reactions to events.

	While on a trip into town, Covenant gets knocked unconscious and
wakens to find himself in the Land.  He is warned by some entity named
Lord Foul (the Grey Slayer) that the Land is doomed, and Covenant gets
a small hint of his own importance.  The teenage girl who finds him after
this experience heals him with a gold-flecked mud called "hurtloam", which
not only fixes up his bumps and bruises but heals his leprosy and reawakens
his sexual potency.  Covenant finds that the villagers treat him as a reborn
hero out of an old legend, and this pressure combined with his inability
to accept his healthy condition, drives him to the brink.  When the young
girl, Lena, tries to comfort him, he rapes her.

	During the course of the first book, Covenant discovers why the
people in the Land see him as so important.  It is because he possesses
white gold, a metal foreign to the Land that gives its bearer the ability
to invoke "wild magic," though Covenant can never understand just how to
do something like this.  It is a cruel irony to Covenant that his power
and status come from the wedding ring he still wears after his wife
abandoned him.

	To his anguish, Covenant later finds that Lena and her family are
willing to forgive him because they feel he might be able to save the Land.
With the help of Lena's mother and a friendly Giant named Saltheart Foam-
follower, Covenant finds the Lords in the fortress of Revelstone and they
eventually travel off to meet the menace Covenant was warned about.  Much
of the first book is taken up with this getting the reader acquianted with
the Land, a place that assaults the senses with a texture deeper than any
found in the real world.  Love, hate, cold, heat, rage, passion all seem
to exist here but in far greater depths than Covenant is familiar with.
There are several examples of the kind of writing Donaldson uses to express
this imagery with words; I have chosen one passage from the time when 
Covenant and Atiaran (Lena's mother) wait for the Celebration of Spring:

		"Waiting was not difficult.  First Atiaran passed bread
	and the last of her springwine to him, and eating and drinking
	eased some of his weariness.  Then, as the night deepened, he
	found that the air which flowed up to them from the bowl had a
	lush, restful effect.  When he took it far into his lungs, it 
	seemed to unwind his cares and dreads, setting everything but
	itself behind him and lifting him into a state of calm suspense.
	He relaxed in he gentle breeze, settled himself more comfortably
	against the tree.  Atiaran's shoulder touched his with warmth,
	as if she had forgiven him.  The night deepened, and the stars
	gleamed expectantly, and the breeze sifted the cobwebs and dust
	from Covenant's heart--and waiting was not difficult."

	This is one of the shorter passages that gives the reader some
idea about Donaldson's writing style and the approach he is trying to
take with the Land.  More will be said about this "word imagery" later.
At the end of the first book, Covenant is sent home, where several weeks
pass.  Covenant is called back to the Land to start the second book, this
time by the Lords who helped him last time.  Covenant finds that 40 years
have passed in the Land since he left, and the Lords ask him for his help
in a war that Lord Foul is bringing upon the Land.

	Though his leprosy had returned to him in reality, Covenant is
healed again with hurtloam, and he is determined this time to keep his
emotions rational and under control.  He meets another person from the
"real" world named Hile Troy, who was summoned to the Land by a student
who had been trying to summon Covenant back, and Troy tells Covenant that
Covenant had better appreciate the Land and fight to save it since it
is a far more powerful and greater good than anything one could live for
in the real world, but Covenant refuses, fearing to risk his sanity.

	Covenant travels with the High Lord anyway in an attempt to help
her unlock a hidden source of power.  His actions eventually lead Covenant
to feel an even greater responsibility for what happens to the Land, a
responsibility he fears but by the time of the third book, decides to
accept in an attempt to redeem himself.  With two of his companions from
the first two books, Covenant seeks out a final confrontation with Lord 
Foul.  By the end of the First Chronicles, it still isn't entirely clear
that Covenant hasn't just been having an extravagant halluciantion, and
this is a problem Donaldson eventually leaves for the reader to decide.
Either way, Covenant is left to deal with it.

	The Second Chronicles begins 10 years later, as Covenant and a
doctor named Linden Avery are all but forced to return to the Land where
4000 years have passed.  Now, Foul promises Covenant, there will be no
choice but for Covenant to utterly give up his will and do what Foul 
wants.  As the title indicates, the Land Covenant was familiar with is
now "Wounded" and in fact filled with pain and evil.  Somehow, Covenant
is numb to the rich textures that were once present in the Land, but 
Linden feels everything that is going on and is nearly driven insane
with the sickness inherent in most everything she sees.

	The two manage to journey across the Land to Revelstone as
Covenant seeks out answers to why everything is so warped, and along the
way, he is repeatedly infected with a venom that Foul has purposely
designed in order to enable Covenant to more easily use his white gold.
Covenant eventually learns that he must journey to the One Tree, a legendary
tree of Earthpower from which the original Staff of Law (an implement that
helped preserve the natural order of things in the past) was fashioned.

	With the help of several companions along the way and a mysterious
ebony creature named Vain (given to him by the ghosts of his old friends
from the First Chronicles), Covenant and Linden go on a quest to find the
answers they need to fight Lord Foul.  Along the way, they meet the Elohim,
a race of beings who seem to be the manifestation of the power in the Earth,
and the Brathair, a desert people.  Eventually, they return to the Land to
fight Foul's servants and Foul himself.  Linden's will is repeatedly put
to the test as she is exposed to the relentless evil in the Land, and she
and Covenant must both survive an ultimate test of wills against Lord Foul
in order to escape the madness and try to save the Land.

	This whole series of six books was very profound for me.  Every
once in a while, I go back and reread the Chronicles (the only other author
who regularly gets rereadings is Brust) just to pick up something that I
missed before.  The story is THAT deep.  I always come away from it with
a new image of the Land and scenes from the book.  A lot of it comes from
Donaldson's almost overflowing use of description.  Who has read Donaldson
and not come away with a clear mental portrait of Lord Mhoram, Kinslaughterer
and his horrible walk through Coercri, Gibbon or Foamfollower?

	Finally, some advice on how to approach reading this epic.  The
Chronicles are unique among many of the epic fantasies that have been
written in that they deal with more complex and uncomfortable emotions.
There isn't another series out there in which the author goes to such great
lengths to spark a reaction, positive or negative, from the reader.  It
could be argued that a majority of readers come away with a negative 
impression of Donaldson after reading the first half of the first book.
Many of these readers vow never to pick it up again, and the new reader
may feel the same way.

	There's nothing wrong at all with this rationale for not wanting
to read the series (criticizing the series because of this, however, is
unjustified, and I see it happen too often).  I think a lot of the negative
reaction comes from frustration.  Most readers new to Covenant have had it
very strongly recommended to them by someone, and so they go in expecting
to love the books.  You can guess what happens.  It's the same thing that
happens when someone tells you a movie is "just wonderful!" and then you
go in and feel let down when it doesn't live up to the hype.

	The best way to approach the Chronicles is to read it without any
preconceived notions of how good/bad it is going to be (I realize it takes
some nerve to say that after a ~200 line review).  Just give it a chance.
Realize going in that your natural tendency will be to identify with the
main character (either Covenant or Linden).  Also realize that you will
most likely DISlike (or even passionately hate) the main character.  I
think a lot of readers mix their feelings of dislike for Covenant with
their feelings toward the whole series.  

	Other people dislike the series because of the rape scene, and they
don't feel comfortable being manipulated into accepting a rapist as the
redeemable anti-hero of the series.  This, too, is completely understandable.
The Chronicles are clearly not for everyone.  These people would argue
that with the rape scene, Donaldson has gone over the edge in getting us
to loathe Covenant.  That's an individual decision.

	The other most persistent criticism of the series is the argument
that Donaldson's writing style is too "flowery" or too "hackish."  As I
argued above, this style of writing is important to the series because of
the imagery of the Land.  Those who criticize Donaldson in general for
not being able to write well should take a look at some of his other work.
I think then it becomes clear that the "word imagery" is intentional.
Still, there are those who have such a problem with this writing style
that they dislike the series.  If you feel it detracts from your enjoyment
more than it adds to your mental picture of the Land, then you probably
will not like the series as much as big fans like myself.

	The information below is a capsule summary of the titles of all
six books.  _Lord_Foul's_Bane_, _The_Illearth_War_ and _The_Power_That_
_Preserves_ are the three books of the "First" Chronicles.  _The_Wounded_
_Land_, _The_One_Tree_ and _White_Gold_Wielder_ make up the "Second" 
Chronicles.  The publishing information is from my (very old) copies...
there have been a few newer versions in the bookstores since then, but 
they are easily found in just about any bookstore with a fantasy/sf section.

%A Donaldson, Stephen R.
%T Lord Foul's Bane 
%T The Illearth War 
%T The Power That Preserves
%T The Wounded Land 
%T The One Tree
%T White Gold Wielder
%S The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever
%S The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever
%I Del Rey Fantasy
%C New York
%D August 1978
%G ISBN 0-345-29657-5
%P 2000 pp.
%O paperback, US$3.95

Doug Ingram // // "Carpe Datum" (for more reviews)