Edition: Fontana, 1978
Review number: 1236
Thomas Covenant is a successful writer working on his second novel, when progressive numbness in his hands is diagnosed as Hansen's Disease, better known as leprosy. His marriage breaks up and he is shunned by the smalltown community in which he lives. But then, a casualty in a traffic accident, he finds himself in the Land, an unspoilt world built upon a magical harmony between people and their environment, a place full of vitality and health. But this environmentalist heaven is experienced by Covenant as a gibe against his own illness, especially as his leprosy is to him, as to many in the history of the disease, conceived of as an outward sign of some spiritual impurity. As well as this, he seems to have been cast in what he tries to believe is a dream in some sort of Messianic role he cannot understand, let alone accept.
In the early eighties, Donaldson was widely regarded as the greatest fantasy writer around. His Thomas Covenant series - two trilogies - brought a philosophical depth to the genre that had been lacking from its most popular exponents. His immensely flawed central character was a far more ambitious creation than Tolkien's bland heroes; Thomas Covenant was capable both of great deeds and vicious crimes - and this is something which seems to make both more believable. (One of his first acts after arriving in the Land, overwhelmed by the vitality of this new world, convinced that he remains impotent as he knows full well that his disease is incurable, and still hoping that he is dreaming, is to rape a young woman. The working out of the physical and psychological effects of Covenant's crime is one of the strengths of the First Chronicles, but even without this, an attempt to make a rapist in any way sympathetic is extremely unusual and courageous.)
The series also makes admirable use of the idea that the central character is unable to believe fully in the fantasy world in which he finds himself - this is an obvious reaction for someone to have when suddenly in a world where magic works, but not one that was often explored before Donaldson. It is actually left unresolved even whether the reader is meant to believe in the objective reality of the Land for a considerable period; it is only in the third novel of the series, The Power That Preserves, that events are described which neither involve Covenant nor are being reported to him.
Admiration for Donaldson has in the decades since waned somewhat, especially as they have brought little that is new from him - Mordant's Need is more formulaic fantasy than Thomas Covenant, and the Gap series is even more extreme, working out similar themes more intensely in science fiction which I found unreadable. Even at the time, people did not hold back with criticism. The commonest fault readers found in the Thomas Covenant series was that the writing was full of hard and obscure words. To me, this would be more of a challenge and a problem, and in any case I have never found it to be particularly true; all that people who say this seem to mean is that Donaldson was not writing for the kind of young adult market that was expected to be the target audience for the fantasy genre in the late seventies. Spellsinger would have been more typical of what was around at the time (it's actually a bit later, and it is of course deliberately intended to be a light read). Since then, serious fantasy has matured a great deal, and that there has been far more produced on an adult level is itself a kind of testimony to Donaldson's achievement.
A more serious problem, and one which seems graver now than when I first read the series, is that Donaldson's writing it too melodramatic. For example, no one is ever described as "speaking"; they "rasp" or "groan". Covenant is repeatedly "crushed" by the virtues of the people he meets - loyalty, truth, simplicity, courage. The impression of a high level of emotional strain extends without respite from the beginning to end of this series and fills much of Donaldson's other writing, including the detective novels written under the name Reed Stephens. It gets irritating, and mitigates against the characters becoming fleshed out in the reader's mind. On the positive side, it does make some scenes particularly memorable; from this novel, Covenant's trip into his local town and the attack on the wraiths of Andelain have stayed in my mind over the years.
Donaldson may not be up to the kind of reviews he received at the time (though the "comparable to Tolkien at his best" tag reprinted on the cover is really pretty meaningless - I would agree that the Covenant series is as good, but I don't have that high an opinion of The Lord of the Rings as literature). However, he did introduce the idea that the fantasy genre could be used to explore issues as well as to entertain, and he did this in such a way as to retain the mass market. (The more literary fantasy stories, such as those of E.R. Eddison, had previously generally ended up as niche, cult objects.) The Thomas Covenant series remains readable, if in smallish doses, and those fans of the fantasy genre of my age who bought copies twenty years ago would be pleasantly surprised on opening them again.