Another of my favourite ever novels, Lord Foul’s Bane, features a main character, Thomas Covenant, who is depressing enough to be interesting. Indeed, it is the journey through this character’s tortured psyche which is perhaps the most interesting thing about this book.
Covenant is a leper, which is a subculture of which the likely readers of the book will know very little. As a leper, Covenant carries a lot of very specific psychological baggage. For example, some of his favourite catchphrases: “Don’t touch me!”, “Leper! Outcast, unclean!” Author Donaldson paints a picture of someone whose mental defences are absolutely essential to his survival. In addition to his leprosy, or as a consequence of it, he inhabits a world that he should have no qualms about leaving. His wife left him when his leprosy was discovered. His successful career as a writer stalled with his wife’s departure. He lives in a constant state of caution against the slightest cut or bruise. No one in the town where he lives will have anything to do with him because they fear his disease.
It is this character who is accidentally or magically transported into another world. And what a world it is. It’s called The Land, and when Covenant enters it the tone of the story changes immensely. His depressing worldview is challenged by people who are warm and friendly towards him, opening their hearts and homes, and offering assistance which includes a cure to his leprosy. Covenant refuses to believe in this world, assuming he is in a dream or a delusion, because it’s too good and if he gets used to it is defences will be forever ruined.
The land is a world of wonders, lovingly detailed, and is itself perhaps the most sypathetic character in the story. You grow to hate those who would destroy it and love those who would preserve it. The characters might be defined as good or evil depending on their love or hate of The Land.
The evil characters are unmemorable, mostly coming in large groups. The titular Lord Foul is very interesting, mostly operating in the background similar to Sauron from Lord of the Rings, but unlike Sauron he actually makes an appearance in this story. The most visible baddie of the piece, Drool Rockworm, has a memorable name at least. The evil characters are remarkable for their sheer ruthlessness, being willing to kill anyone and destroy anything with no regard to beauty or morality, though it begs the question, how does such a lovely and good land spawn such hateful creatures?
Some of the good characters are extremely memorable, especially: Lena, the girl who acts as Covenant’s guide through the land and whom he betrays; Foamfollower, a giant who befriends and loves covenant out of sheer good-heartedness; and Mhoram, a wise and compassionate Lord of Revelstone. These characters serve as a powerful counterpoint to Covenant’s own demons.
A theme of this book is the mental anguish that Covenant has to deal with, which causes him to mistreat those he loves. His inner pain is communicated with aching clarity, and makes him quite the antihero — he claims not to believe in the land, which he uses as a license to do some reprehensible things, and allows some terrible things to be done by his own inactivity. And yet over time he comes to care, both about the land and the people, and does his best to make amends.
Lord Foul’s Bane is a fantasy book, set in a land where magic is part of the common experience. Nevertheless, the magic is believable because it is limited and used with restraint.
Stephen Donaldson’s language is extravagant, and I would recommend keeping a dictionary to hand while reading. A large dictionary, with plenty of obscure words, would be best.
The richly emotional style of this novel is not to everyone’s taste. A friend of mine started it once and couldn’t finish because she said it was whiny and pretentious. Several other people level similar criticisms at it, and there is some truth there. It’s not a perfect book. It is one of those books books for which I’m willing to overlook the the imperfections because it has so much to offer. The imperfections are minor and don’t detract a star from its rating.