Review: Lord Foul’s Bane

by Tom Ingram

But look at this seventies cover:

This should have been one of the greatest works of fantasy fiction ever written. It has an original thought-provoking premise that should be hard to screw up, and it came out in 1977, when fantasy was in a bad place. In the aftermath of the success of The Lord of the Rings, “fantasy” had come to mean reselling Tolkien in watered-down form. The Sword of Shannara would come out the same year. Lord Foul’s Bane was in the perfect position to be a meaningful and important contribution to the genre. Unfortunately, Stephen R. Donaldson screwed it up, and we wouldn’t get the book he should have written until six years later, with The Colour of Magic.

The premise is simple: Thomas Covenant, a novelist and incidentally a leper (yes, there are still lepers), gets hit by a car and finds himself transported to a fantasy land called, conveniently enough, the Land. He questions the Land’s existence, and we are given good reasons to do the same: its history parallels his own, its conflicts mirror his psychic turmoil, and some things in the land—names, snatches of tunes, etc.—are obviously drawn from our world. Covenant appears to the people in the Land as a hero spoken of in prophecy, and quickly finds himself with a quest to carry out. Whether or not it is a dream, the Land obstinately refuses to go away, and he is forced into a kind of provisional acceptance of it so he can keep his sanity and complete the quest.

It plays with some interesting ideas and must have been novel at the time, when we had yet to see the worst that high fantasy had to offer. Donaldson’s fault wasn’t in the conception. It was in the execution, which is so flawed that the book is hardly worth talking about except as a cautionary tale.

The first few chapters show us Covenant’s life as a leper before the accident. His wife left him when he was diagnosed, and took their son with her. He found himself unable to write, and burned his wildly successful first novel and the draft of his second. He is shunned by the people in his town, and gradually finds fewer and fewer reasons to leave the house—his groceries are delivered to his doorstep whether he wants them or not, and his water and electrical bills are paid by a mysterious deposit into his account. One day, he defiantly marches into town to pay his phone bill.

On his way to the phone company, he meets an old beggar dressed in clothes that make him look out of place in the town. The beggar passes him a note that invites him to consider a hypothetical situation, which boils down to the question “does what you do in a dream have moral weight?” The note says that this is the fundamental question of ethics. Covenant, a little freaked out, goes in to pay the bill and finds that it has been paid for already in the same way as his other utilities. He speaks to the old beggar again before setting off. On his way home, a police car pulls around a corner too quickly and hits him.

He wakes up in a cave with a mean-looking creature staring over him. An evil black cloud, the titular Lord Foul, transports him from the malicious cavewight (named Drool Rockworm) and gives him instructions. Covenant is to warn the leaders of the Land that Lord Foul is preparing to fight them, and unless they defeat Drool, they have no chance of surviving beyond a few months.

This is all very good as the setup to a different story. There is potential for some serious drama in Covenant’s situation, and the setting, with its high lords named Kevin and its dark lords named Drool and Foul, has the kind of sunny tone that is pretty much required in any book that tries to juxtapose a high fantasy world against our own. Donaldson proceeds in a typical sword-and-sorcery way, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt at first. The agonizing prose could just be an affectation. The problem is that it never gets better, and by the end it gets a good deal worse.

The dramatic potential is squandered because Thomas Covenant doesn’t act like a normal person transported to a fantasy world. He accepts the Land at face value much earlier than he has any right to, but even then his actions don’t make sense as the work of an ordinary fantasy hero. His moods are mercurial, his motivations inscrutable. All these problems become clear in the first few chapters. But the real kicker, the thing that killed the book for me, came at 83 pages in, shortly after Covenant arrives in the Land. He is led into a town by a teenaged girl named Lena. She takes him into her house, and her family feeds him and gives him a place to stay. That night, when the village is singing around a campfire, he leads her away to an isolated ravine and rapes her.

This is obviously part of the book’s moral question: explore whether Covenant’s actions in the Land have moral significance by having him do something evil the moment he arrives. But this scene didn’t pique my intellectual interest. It just made me feel ill. We have to spend the rest of the book (almost four hundred more pages) with this protagonist, and the really sickening thing is that it’s hardly mentioned again, so it inevitably begins to fade to the back of your memory. Over the (too long) period of time it took me to read Lord Foul’s Bane, the incident continually slipped my mind and I thought of Covenant as another bland fantasy hero, rather than a nasty creature who is no hero at all. It is eventually brought up again toward the end, when Covenant (in theory) realizes the error of his ways, but it’s too little and much too late. This ill-judged scene effectively smothered any emotional investment I might have had in the story.

By comparison, the other flaws seem hardly worth mentioning. The other people in the Land are all cardboard cutouts, and only a few of them get the thin veneer of personality that passes for characterization. The plot has no surprises: the little summary I’ve given of the first hundred pages tells you everything you need to know about what happens in the book. It’s way too long for the kind of story it’s telling. And for all that length, hardly anything happens until the end. What was the rest of it spent on? The writing is so bad that it shuts of your mind and you’re liable to miss things, which just makes it annoying when those things come up later. I’m still not quite sure what Gravin Threndor is, though there’s a helpful glossary at the end of the book in case you needed another reason to be predisposed against it.

This should have been a lively and exciting little book, but instead it’s a dull and draggy big one. Its sole innovation is wasted, and it turns out to be nothing more than a sub-par epic fantasy with an unusual framing device. Toward the end, I couldn’t help but think of the time I read Naked Empire by Terry Goodkind. Goodkind is a reprehensible human being, and since his values infuse his books, they have quite a lot of nastiness in them. But at every turn, even during the speeches, they’re more competently paced, better characterized, more exciting. Donaldson has not even managed to live up to some of the lowest standards that have been set in the genre.