Brad's Reviews > Lord Foul's Bane

Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
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Feb 17, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: fantasy, personal-mythology
Read from February 02 to 17, 2011

I read Lord Foul’s Bane once in grade seven (the same year I first read Macbeth and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and The Lord of the Rings for a second time). It was a good year for me and reading. And an important year for who I would become. But I didn’t know until now how important Lord Foul’s Bane was to all of that.

This story has stuck with me in the most amazing ways. After nearly three decades, I recalled an amazing amount of detail in the pages I reread. I remembered minute details about Thomas Covenant’s attitude towards his leprosy, especially when it came to the VSE (Visual Surveillance of Extremities) rituals that sustained him in our world and the new rituals he developed during his time in the Land. I remembered Atiaran’s stone knife and the way Covenant tempted the fate of his leprosy with its keen edge – the edge that never dulled. I remembered the way Covenant – hero? anti-hero? villain? weakling? coward? simply flawed? – raped Atiaran’s daughter Lena. I remembered the diamond draught of Stoneheart Foamfollower and the image of the impaled Waynhim in the Waymeet and the death of the Unfettered One trying to save the beautiful wraiths of the Andelainian Hills and the wedge formation of the ur-Viles. I remembered it all with the sort of clarity one has when they read a book dozens of times or reread a book very shortly after having put it down, but I didn’t expect to have anywhere near the clarity I had all these years later.

Thomas Covenant himself has stuck with me. He is frustrating, spiteful, ugly, tormented, cynical, dark, brooding, and infuriatingly self-pitying. He is every bit the Unbeliever he names himself. And Stephen R. Donaldson wants him to be that way. He needs him to be that way. Covenant has to fight his belief in the Land at every turn because the Land is impossible, and as a rational man suffering from leprosy in 20th century North America, all that allows him to cling to his life is his rationality and sanity – no matter how tenuous both are.

But the Land –- at least in this first book of the Chronicles –- is unbelievable. It has to be one of the strangest, most frightening, and surrealistic fantasy worlds ever created. Donaldson describes it with achingly beautiful prose (and sometimes that beautiful prose is dense and slow and plodding, mirroring the motion of Covenant through the Land itself) to reveal wonders that are just slightly different from everything we’ve seen before in every high fantasy that Tolkien gave birth to, but Donaldson’s slight shift in perspective, his offering of the place through the decaying lens of a leper, his constant overturning of expectations, makes his fantasy world unique. His giants are not what we’d expect, nor are his wraiths, nor his Cavewights, nor his landscape, nor his weather, nor his incarnadine corrupted moon, nor his magic.

And the most disconcerting difference between Donaldson’s Land and the other fantasy realms we know is that his Land feels entirely unpopulated. Covenant never stops travelling as he tries to escape his “dream,” yet his contact with the Land’s denizens is minimal. He passes through four centers of population -- Mithil Stonedown (a town of Gravelingas who are rich in stone lore), Soaring Woodhelvin (a tree town of Lillianrill who are rich in wood lore), Revelstone (the seat of the High Lords), and the Plains of Ra (where the nomadic Ramen serve the Ranyhyn, a kind of uber-horse). He sees great sights, bizarre rituals and happenings, and he interacts with a person here or there, but the first two towns seem home to mere dozens of people, Revelstone seems empty, and the Ramen are so hidden in their poisonous plains that we never get a sense of how many there are. And even those people and races Covenant spends much time with, such as the Haruchai Bloodguards and his Giant friend, are isolated from their vital populations. Two score set out to fight Lord Foul’s desecration. Where is everyone else?! The Land feels empty, and this is another disconcerting moment in an already disconcerting novel.

But that’s why I love Lord Foul’s Bane. It isn’t easy. Donaldson challenges us whenever and however he can. And he does it with transcendent prose and unflinching devotion to his problematic protagonist.

I’d much rather read Mordant’s Need. It is more hopeful, more lively, more real, but I don’t know if that makes it better. In fact, it probably isn't.

If you've read both, I ask you this (especially you Jon): “Is Mordant's Need better?”

I really don't know. But I do know this: Stephen R Donaldson is my unsung hero of fantasy greatness. He is up there with the best. But damn is he a lot of work.
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05/11/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-11)

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message 11: by Amber (new)

Amber Tucker I noticed your modest little copy at the library today (and most other days I've seen you, come to think of it). How can there be so much astonishing depth between those worn covers? I am impressed.

message 10: by Brad (last edited Feb 17, 2011 09:21PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad Last month, when I felt compelled to read this book again (it was during that dry spell of reading), I looked everywhere for this book. The only place I could get it was online, but I was loathe to order it that way, so I kind of decided it wasn't going to happen, but then we were in Halifax, and we were at Kiki's uncle's place, and I remembered that he was a fantasy guy, and I searched his shelves and there was his old copy, the very same edition I read in grade 7. It is sort of lovely, isn't it? And even I was surprised by the depth between those worn covers.

Terence It's interesting that you mention the absence of people in the Land. I'm in the middle of Against All Things Ending, the Last (?) Chronicle of Thomas Covenant, and they mention that Sandgorgons and skurj are attacking Silva Gildenbourne - but it's only the plants that are being destroyed; apparently there are no bodies there.

There's meaning in this but it's too early in the morning yet for me to puzzle it out :-)

Brad So have you figured out the meaning, Terence? It's all I can do to motivate myself into a re-read of Power that Preserves. How was the latest?

Terence No, I haven't figured anything out yet but your question did bring the issue back to mind. It is remarkable how unpeopled the Land is, the whole planet for that matter. I recall from the second trilogy that throughout their quest for the One Tree, Covenant et al. never meet other humans (normal humans anyway).

Perhaps the great reveal at the end of the fourth book of the current series will be that Covenant was right from day one - the Land is a figment of his imagination and he's been in a coma all this time. It might explain the absence of people except when Covenant needs them to fill in a gap.

As to the advisability of reading the latest series....

If you're balking at rereading The Power that Preserves then I'm not sure you'd enjoy where Donaldson's taking things now, and Covenant is decidedly a secondary figure in favor of Linden, which is not the happiest authorial decision. You can read my review of the third book here. I like Donaldson, the themes he addresses, and his answers so I'll pick up anything he writes but tastes differ so you may be better off focusing on something you'd enjoy or had more hopes of enjoying.

Jamie This is the best review of this book that I have ever seen.

Brad Thanks, Jamie. I appreciate it.

Brad Desmond wrote: "He has {both the character & Author} inspired me to write & many of my current stories are inspired in some way by these books. I loved reading your comment & am very glad you feel this way as I do..."

Perhaps, Desmond, next time you could post this sort of thing as your own review rather than adding it to the comments of someone else's?

Jeffrey Schmieder Great point about how this book stays with you. Read it over thirty years ago and still remember so much of it. I should re-read this and also his very good space series.

message 2: by PaulESchilling (new)

PaulESchilling What do you think of the idea that the first trilogy was an argument against Tolkien?

message 1: by LQ (new) - added it

LQ (to the max!) Great review! I've been meaning to read this for a while. It's on my never ending list. I also found an original first print 1977 hardcover of it for a buck!

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