The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

I would like to take a few minutes of your time to talk about one of my all-time favorite fantasy series.  The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen Donaldson.  I would like to talk about it for a couple reasons.  One, it is honestly one of the best fantasy works ever written – it is RIGHT UP THERE with The Lord of the Rings.  Two, it is a sad fact that most people my age and younger have never heard of it, despite the fact that there are have been three new installments to the series in the last few years – not even my friends who are avid fantasy readers had ever heard of this series before I told them about it.

The first trilogy, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, was published from 1977-1979 and consisted of Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War, and The Power That Preserves.  The main character, Thomas Covenant, is a cynical writer with leprosy, who has been completely shunned by society and left by his wife and children.  After a being hit by a car, he finds himself in a strange place called The Land, where he is told he is destined to save The Land from Lord Foul, The Despiser.  He travels with a group of people, learning about The Land as he goes, and slowly coming to terms with his own inner demons and his place (destined or self-inflicted) in this strange land and its story.

The Land is filled with creatures reminiscent of those in many epic fantasies: Giants, great horses called the Ranyhyn, Cavewights, the spirit-like Elohim, the elf-like Forestal, the demonic Ur-Viles, etc.  The basic concept is fairly standard of many normal-person-transported-to-a-strange-land fantasy stories.  But, I assure you, there is nothing standard about these books.

One of the most important themes of the series is the question of reality.  Is The Land real, or is Thomas Covenant dreaming, or insane?  Covenant quickly titles himself “The Unbeliever,” and spends most of the first books convinced he’s dreaming.  Even the readers are never really sure what’s real and what isn’t, because Donaldson does a very good job keeping it ambiguous, refusing to give us a straight answer, letting us come to our own conclusions.  Even when Covenant starts to give in, it’s not clear if that is because The Land is really real, or because Covenant simply cares about it, whether it’s a dream or not.

The second important theme in the trilogy is the exploration of the dark side of Covenant’s character.  Thomas Covenant is one of the most complex characters in fantasy fiction.  He is not always particularly likeable, especially in the beginning, and he does some rather despicable things – including raping a young woman near the beginning of the first novel, when he believes it is all a dream.  But it is his somewhat dark nature, and his constant doubt, that give both the world and the narrative so much depth, humanity, and tension.

Donaldson continued with The Second Chronicles of Thomas CovenantThe Wounded Land (1980), The One Tree (1982), White Gold Wielder (1983).  The second trilogy introduces a new character, Linden Avery, who is also from the “real” world, and is dragged into The Land with Covenant.  This leads to the question of how Covenant’s dream-or-not world can possibly affect other “real” people and their “real” lives.  The addition of Linden Avery, with her initial disbelief so like Covenant’s and her firm moral compass, brings tension to the second trilogy that might otherwise have been missing.  This trilogy also further explores Covenant’s own darker nature and enhances the psychological elements of the story.  The plot reaches a fever-pitch by the end as the battle against The Despiser continues.

Finally, 21 years after the last book, Donaldson published the first book of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which includes Runes of the Earth (2003), Fatal Revenant (2007), Against All Things Ending (2010), and The Last Dark (expected 2013).  I have not yet read the Last Chronicles because I decided to wait until all four books were published.  I don’t want to take a chance on having to wait after some painful cliff-hanger.  My mother read the series when it was originally published and had to wait that full 21 years for the new books.  I read the books in sixth grade, so I didn’t have to wait quite so long, but it was still pretty frustrating.  So I’m waiting until The Last Dark is published before I read the last four books.

I cannot tell you how wonderful this series is.  It is, like The Lord of the Rings, one of the great things that I found thanks to my mother’s personal library.  It is beautifully written, gritty, intricately detailed, dark, thought-provoking, immanently powerful and real.  I cannot recommend it enough.  My mother and I have talked for years and years about what wonderful movies these books could make.  We’ve been wishing someone would make them since I read them in sixth grade.  Of course, at the time, it wasn’t really possible to make them very well.  But after the masterpiece that is The Lord of the Rings movies, I am certain these movies would be amazing if made.  Happily, Revelstone Entertainment actually optioned the rights for the first 6 books back in 2004 and partnered with Mark Gordon Company to start work on a script.  But since then there has been no further news.  NONE in 7 years.  So my hopes are currently dwindling, but I continue keep my fingers crossed.

If you haven’t read these books, please do so.  I promise you won’t regret it.  If you have read them, let me know in the comments and tell me what you thought of them.  I hope I’m not alone in my continued state of awe over these books.

Some Related Links:

Stephen R. Donaldson’s Official Site

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant Wikipedia Page

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4 thoughts on “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

  1. I was entranced by them when I read them more than twenty years ago. Just started thinking about them again after seeing a doco about lord of the rings fans. Is there a Thomas covenant fan website around at all?

  2. I reckon they won’t make a movie because no American producers would allow an unlikable protagonist. If Han Solo wasn’t allowed to shoot Greebo first, there’s no way the hero (even if he is an “anti-hero”) would be allowed to rape a 16-year-old girl. I like to think of myself as an open-minded reader, but even I found it difficult to continue reading after that.
    http://pomsawaydownunder.wordpress.com/

  3. I have just started Fatal Revenant and boy what a struggle. I read the first Covenant series many years ago but have reached an age where my patience has run out. I’ve never come across so many gobbledigook words used by an author before, it borders on the ridiculous. I certainly never required a dictionary to hand when reading Tolkien as a 10 year old!

    I have however decided to continue but substitute the nonsense words with made up words of my own, the effect is truly hurgleguam and much more kerambablifying to read that I now laugh my gurnalls off! When Covenant and Jeremiah (Tom and Jerry!) turned up at the end of ‘Runes of the Earth’ I realised that this last chronicles is really a comic and the author is just ‘taking the piss’.

  4. Amanda, you are spot on… love your write up regarding these unbelieved masterpieces. If only the movie would come to pass. Yes, they are a challenge to read but as you said, that is precisely why there is some much depth in the works. One thing that seems to be hard to explain is how Covenant had to be an Unbeliever because otherwise he would fall victim to the ravages of his illness… which as aptly described in the books is primarily a mental battle first and then the physical protection is a follow through of the protective mindset

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