Saturday, August 5, 2017

Thomas Covenant? Unbelievable!

I'm re-living my youth.  As the years pass, I find myself doing this more and more.  This time around, it has to do with a book or, rather, series of books, that I read back when I was twenty-something and am now in the process of re-reading.  It's a Tolkien-esque fantasy series known as "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever", written by Stephen R. Donaldson.

Thomas Covenant is a modern leper, and I'm not using the term "leper" in a figurative sense.  He literally suffers from leprosy.  Before he was diagnosed with the dread disease, he was a published writer as well as a family man, having both a wife and a son.  After his unfortunate diagnosis, his wife left him and took their son with her (can't risk either of our appendages falling off you know) and the rest of society shunned him as well, demonstrating that apparently not much has changed for lepers since biblical times.

"I thought you said this was a fantasy series," I hear my readers thinking at this point, "nothing terribly fantastic-sounding about that.  Sounds more like a melodrama, really."  Well, things do take a turn for the somewhat more fantastical when Covenant walks into town to pay his phone bill one day (an act of defiance against his fellow townspeople who would much rather he avoided any personal interactions) and inadvertently wanders in front of an on-coming police car.  At the moment of impact, his world dissolves from around him, as one might well expect that it would, except that it is then replaced with a different world; not the one that you might be thinking of, Dear Reader, as there is nary a sign of either pearly gate nor fire and brimstone. 

Well, actually, there sort of is fire and brimstone, but it's not what you think.  Covenant has apparently been transported inside a mountain which he will later learn is named "Kiril Threndor" or "Mount Thunder" in the common tongue, having been summoned by a creature known as a cavewight.  In due course, he learns that he has been transported to another world known simply by its inhabitants as "The Land" and he is sent on a mission by the enemy of that Land, one "Lord Foul the Despiser", to deliver a message to The Council of Lords, informing them that Lord Foul intends to kick their collective asses within the next forty-nine years, or sooner, if they don't manage to retrieve the Staff of Law from the cavewight who stole it, and used it to summon Thomas Covenant. 

The reason why the cavewight summoned Thomas Covenant, of all people, has to do with Covenant's resemblance to one of the Land's greatest heroes, Berek Halfhand, so named because he lost two fingers of his right hand during a big showdown between himself and The Despiser.  Covenant happens to be missing those same two fingers, in his case due to his leprosy. 

Covenant, not surprisingly, refuses to believe that any of what's happening to him is real, especially since his leprosy seems to go into remission during his time in The Land, so he officially assumes the moniker of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, just to make it clear to everyone around him that he doesn't take any of them seriously.

Sounding a bit more Tokien-esque now?  Hmmm?  And that, my friends, is my chief criticism of this series.  It's too Tolkien-esque.  Consider:

Thomas Covenant has been transported to a world, much like our own, known as Middle Earth - I mean The Land.

The Land is an idyllic place where both magic and fantastical creatures (cavewights, giants, ur-viles, mystical intelligent horses, etc.) exist and which is in danger of being corrupted by an evil entity known as Sauron - I mean Lord Foul the Despiser.

And here's the clincher; Thomas Covenant holds the one weapon which might defeat The Despiser, his wedding ring, which is made of white gold, which happens to be the ultimate source of "wild magic" in The Land.  An evil entity that can only be defeated by the power of a magic ring?  Really?

And get a load of the first book's description of Drool Rockworm, the cavewight that summoned Covenant:

"Crouched on a low dais near the center of the cave was a creature with long, scrawny limbs, hands as huge and heavy as shovels, a thin, hunched torso and a head like a battering ram.  As he crouched, his knees came up almost to the level of his ears.  One hand was braced on the rock in front of him, the other gripped a long wooden staff shod with metal and intricately carved from end to end.  His grizzled mouth was rigid with laughter, and his red eyes seemed to bubble like magma."

Ummm... did he also happen to make a funny "gollum" sound in his throat, by any chance?

I said that the resemblance to Tolkien's writings is my chief criticism of Donaldson's work.  My other criticism of the Covenant books has to do with the alternately corny and lame monikers with which Donaldson saddles his characters. "Drool Rockworm?"  "Lord Foul?"  Really?  They sound like the names of the evil villains in a typical Saturday morning cartoon show.  On the other end of the scale, we have "High Lord Kevin".  Okay, it's better than "High Lord Bob", I suppose, but just barely.

Now that I've undoubtedly earned the everlasting ire of both Thomas Covenant and Stephen R. Donaldson fans everywhere, let me say that I actually enjoyed the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.  Hey, I wouldn't be re-reading the first six books (Donaldson has since written more) if I didn't enjoy them.  They're well-written and they offer an interesting blend of the real world that we all know with the fantastic.  But, hey, I enjoyed "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" too, yet I still maintain that it's basically "Episode IV: A New Hope" all over again.