Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #1) by Stephen R. Donaldson

What I learned from this book.

Don’t agree to read the book Robert tells you is the best book in the whole world ever just because he invited you over to watch the best film in the whole world ever (Close Encounters) and you slept through all but the first ten minutes.

You know you are going to hate this book before you’ve even opened it. You know you can’t read it out of guilt. Robert’s fifty. He can live with you sleeping through his favourite film.

But you take it home. Non-specific Catholic guilt syndrome, as my dentist informed me when I said I thought he was God. And you open it up.


I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that’s so consistently made me feel physically ill every time I’ve opened it.


The book starts off with detailed descriptions of the hero getting spontaneous leprosy. Now, as it happens, I know a fair bit about leprosy as I was intending, when I was little, to be a saint, and it’s just one of those things you have to come to terms with. One of the popular ways for saints to die is in leper colonies. So, at the age of eight or so, I did take it upon myself to research how I was going to get it, exactly what it was going to do to me and how I would die.

Unless there was a whole new advance in the way leprosy behaved, I was pretty sure it wasn’t a spontaneous sort of thing. Sure enough, when I doubled-checked my information, I was right. This book starts out twaddle and I have no doubt nothing is going to get any better.

What can I say. I skimmed through it. Pathetically inane made up world and ‘language’ to match. And it’s only one volume of how many? Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.

Robert and I still see each other, but we are no longer close. Um. I guess I shouldn’t have said that thing about hobbits.

Update: Important information I have just gleaned about Stephen Donaldson.

(1) This was his first sortie into fantasy. Okay, okay, so you could tell just by reading the thing. Well, I thought this was interesting.

(2) The reason he picked leprosy as one of the themes was that he knew a lot about it as his father was a doctor in India for a long time. So accustomed to leprosy was he that when he described the creative process as being a combination of a ‘familiar’ and ‘exotic’ idea coming together, leprosy was the familiar one(!) But what’s the point of knowing all about leprosy and then having your character catch it spontaneously??? To make matters worse, why will we believe anything else he says about leprosy? I gather I’m setting myself up here to the argument that it is supposed to be obvious that you can’t spontaneously become a leper and that therefore it is permissable to make it up. So, go on. Sock it to me.

11 thoughts on “Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #1) by Stephen R. Donaldson

  1. I just got back from this really long car journey. I don’t know why, but I decided to read LFB for the whole trip (even though I had more respectable options available to me). I’m about a third of the way through. There are several things that bother me about the book and the leprosy thing is the least of them (#Lena).

    I think leprosy is something he plucked out of his experience and clumsily used as a way to explain Covenant’s assholery.

    Bit of a short cut.

    Not exactly looking forward to the remaining 2 thirds but I’m still holding out on this mad hope that it’ll start making sense.

    That said, I can’t see how this can be anyone’s favourite book.

    (sorry, Robert.)

  2. Though I was a reader, I hadn’t been much of a reader of fantasy (as in, “No, I don’t read fantasy. I look at it on my dorm room wall.”), when, while in college in the early 80s, many of my ultimate-frisbee-playing friends got it in their addled brains that this was great literature and started reading it en masse. Not wanting to be a party pooper, I read it too. And the next and the next. And then the three nexts after that. (Another Stephen Donaldson fun fact …. The first book of the second trilogy is dedicated to Lester del Rey with “Lester made me do it,” which I always took as his admission that – duh – the point of all this pap was that it was making money. I see that Wikipedia offers up a less self-effacing explanation. Mine is the correct one, though.) I’m still not much of a reader of fantasy, not even the acknowledged gems of the genre, such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. So, screw you, Stephen R. Donaldson, I guess.

    I did play on a Chronicles-of-Thomas-Covenant-themed ultimate frisbee team in a “fun tournament” one time, though. We each made a t-shirt to wear in games that represented our character. I was the Gravelingas. Trell. Master of Stone Lore. Made me feel short and stocky and not very attractive, and I’m none of those things. So, screw you, ultimate-frisbee-playing friends, I guess.

    • Hilarious.Your own theme tee-shirts. Love it.

      I know so many bright people who read fantasy, that I hesitate to be too critical of it. Yet I remain at best mystified! Having tried Tolkien when it went through a fashion in my early high-school days, I figured if that was as good as it gets I could skip the rest. Later my sister talked me into the Amber series by Zelazny which I confess I really did enjoy. It did not, however, leave me with a taste for more.

  3. I know it has been years since I read this, but I never thought it was “spontaneous”; I thought there was comment that Covenant had been oversees as a child. My problem, although I liked the stories, was that I never thought leprosy was adequate justification for his assholery (spelling?)

    • Apparently, unlike most series, this one gets better as it goes on. He learns to write along the way I’m told. I think your spelling is just fine 🙂

  4. I’m re-reading this series for the first time in 38 years. Only a hundred pages or so in, but I’m enjoying it. I wouldn’t say Covenant catches leprosy “spontaneously” in the sense of “out of nowhere”. It’s just that they don’t know the vector of the disease in his case. That’s very unusual, and the book points that out. But it does happen. Maybe he should’ve cooked that armadillo more thoroughly. Who knows?

    I’d disagree with those who think the writing gets better as the series progresses–or at least I’d have disagreed with that assessment in 1980/81. We’ll see if I think so this time too. But I remember Lord Foul’s Bane being the best thought out and written of the first Chronicles and The Wounded Land (first book of second Chronicles) being by far the best overall.

    I recall The Ilearth War (2nd book of 1st Chronicles) to be the most problematic. In it Donaldson introduces the character Hile Troy, another visitor to The Land from Covenant’s world. That’s fine in itself. It does a good job of messing with Covenant’s head. Is Troy someone he dreamed up or a real, independent visitor to The Land, which would make The Land itself not a dream? Good stuff. But then Donaldson screws up. He starts telling the story from Hile Troy’s perspective. He gives us Hile Troy’s thoughts directly. He fleshes out Troy’s back story with stuff Covenant doesn’t know and can’t know. This can only mean that Troy IS real. He CAN’T be just something Covenant dreamed up. The narrator gives him an existence independent of Covenant’s imagination. But that wrecks the whole narrative tension of the trilogy. It’s like the movie Total Recall. Donaldson is trying to pull a mindscrew that depends on the reader not knowing the answer to this question. Then he provides details that make one of the two answer choices impossible.

    • Bill, you’ve done a great job of making feel like I should try again. I read it about 10 years ago and who knows? Maybe the whole experience would be different now. But my entire house is a ‘too read’ shelf, thousands of the damn things and so I can’t see it happening in this lifetime.

      ‘Maybe he should’ve cooked that armadillo more thoroughly. Who knows?” 🙂

      • Ha! Definitely DON’T reread it on my account. I can’t have that on my conscience! 🙂 Glad you’ve got plenty of other things to get to first. Enjoyed your review.

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