Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson

I have a feeling that Lord Foul’s Bane may come as a surprise to many readers. It’s on the ‘fantasy’ shelf, and fantastical things do occur, but this isn’t meant to be how fantasy works. At least, not these days.

Some history is in order. Lord Foul’s Bane is one of the most important books in the history of the genre. It came out in the epochal year of 1977 – in October, I think. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons had been released in stages through the year, with the Monster Manual released sometime that autumn so far as I can make out. Tolkien fans would have been at fever-pitch with the long-awaited release of The Silmarillion in September. In January that year, Terry Brooks had released his own shameless rip-off loving homage to Tolkien. Up until then, fantasy was mostly the soft fringes of science fiction, itself already a niche genre. Pern and Earthsea were established, but otherwise it was a matter of writers like Vance, Moorcock and Leiber, who did not exactly write for the masses. Anne Rice and Stephen King were just getting started, but keeping themselves carefully distant from the ‘fantasy’ label, despite their content. Rice, King, Brooks and Donaldson were all early representatives of the Boomer generation, a generation that had grown up with Tolkien and Lewis, and that in 1977 were just beginning to put their stamp on the genre they had inherited.

What happened next is obvious. Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara became the first fantasy novel to make the NYT’s bestseller list. The Silmarillion reached #1 at the beginning of October and stayed there until the middle of March 1978. AD&D was a cult success, and went on to raise up a generation of new fantasy fans. Even The Book of Merlyn made it to the list, the long-belated fifth novel of T.H. White’s old Once and Future King tetralogy. And Donaldson went on to sell 10 million copies of his first two fantasy trilogies. Fantasy went from being a strange half-genre of isolated works to a full functioning world of its own – and a profitable world too.


Plain, simple, slightly naff cover. I like the genre-subtitling, though. Very 19th century. Like many other aspects of the novel, as it happens.


The problem is: it’s better to forget about all that when you read Lord Foul’s Bane. Because in reality Lord Foul’s Bane was not the first book of a new era of fantasy. That was The Sword of Shannara. Lord Foul’s Bane was the last book of the old era of fantasy, an afterstraggler to the genre of neo-Romantic (big ‘R’) fantasy that had stretched from MacDonald’s Phantastes right through to The Silmarillion, and that would be wiped out almost without trace by the new wave of Brooks-and-Gygax-inspired fantasists.

In many ways, then, Donaldson is one of the most astonishing bestsellers in history. He sold ten million copies in a genre that hadn’t existed when he wrote his books: Lord Foul’s Bane was rejected 47 times, by literally every publisher in North America. Donaldson had to wait for new publishers to come into existence and new editors to take over (he was eventually taken on by Lester Del Rey – the same man who published The Sword of Shannara and, a few years later, David Eddings’ The Pawn of Prophecy). While he was waiting, he wrote the second and third novels of the trilogy. And then after 47 rejections, he sold 10 million copies. And then… nothing happened. The rest of the fantasy genre just took place off to one side. No-one ever tried to emulate him. Oh, A Song of Ice and Fire would eventually claim some portion of his inheritence (Martin and Donaldson are also good friends), but that’s more a nephew-several-times-removed with a few throwback resemblances than an actual son or grandson. Few bestsellers surely can be so singular.

In any case, it says on the cover that Donaldson is an American Tolkien, and actually that label is much more accurate than people these days might assume. More specifically: Donaldson is a Calvinist Tolkien.

I’m actually quite proud of that observation. At some point reading it I thought: hey, this feels Protestant! and then I thought about what sort of Prostestant it felt like, and I realised: this is Calvinist. And lo and behold: Stephen Donaldson was indeed brought up in a devoutly Presbyterian family. To be fair, it’s kind of obvious once you notice it.

Of course, Donaldson rejected his family’s religion, and went on to be a liberal, skeptical conscientious-objector (and he was studying at Kent State when the shootings took place, though he was not at the demonstration himself). Hence, some things are a little odd…

Donaldson shamelessly steals from Tolkien; but the real commonalities are not the wizards with the knobbly staffs, or the hero’s magic ring. What they really have in common is laid out right at the beginning of the book, in the form of a cryptic question the protagonist discovers on a piece of paper.

This question, to paraphrase, asks the reader, and the protagonist, to imagine a man who believes he is dreaming, but who is told that he is the appointed saviour of the whole of the (dream-)world. The man refuses to accept he is not dreaming, so the dream-world is destroyed. Is the man a hero or a coward?

This, we are told (Donaldson is not big on subtlety) is the fundamental question of ethics. It’s an interesting question in its own right, taken literally (we recall Nietzsche’s contention that it is only the actions we perform in our dreams that we are truly morally responsible for), but of course the real meaning is rather deeper than that. We are the dreamer, and we are denying the reality of… well, for Tolkien and for Chesterton and for Donaldson’s parents it would be the world of religious truth, but Donaldson himself does not explicitly make his theme religious, so instead we could say ‘the moral world’ or ‘the world of beauty’. Probably ‘beauty’ is the most appropriate way of saying it. In any case, it is the belief that, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez put it, there is more to reality than the price of tomatoes. There is something more important in the world than a strict numerical accounting of its physical elements. Perhaps, given events in the novel, it’s simply the leap of faith to believe that other people are truly real.



Thomas Covenant is an American man, a novelist, in the middle of a crisis. His novel was a bestseller, and he has written a second unpublished book… but he has been diagnosed with leprosy. His wife has left him, and taken their son with her. The townspeople have ostracised him. He now hates his naive bestseller, and has burnt his unpublished second manuscript. As leprosy takes his physical sensation, he refuses himself emotional sensation also, and survives instead purely on raw stubbornness. He refuses to kill himself, either through suicidal despair or through the hope and optimism that he feels will lead him to a horrid and lingering demise thanks to his disease: his leprosy makes even the slightest unattended wound potentially disfiguring, even lethal, so he must be perpetually on guard, never take any moment of safety for granted.

[Donaldson apparently grew up, incidentally, in a Presbyterian missionary colony in India; his father was a surgeon who treated lepers. Evidentally some things stuck in the mind, because Donaldson’s descriptions of leprosy… well, they stick in the mind too.]

One day, he discovers himself in a fantasy world. He, naturally, does not believe that it exists: he must be hallucinating, gone mad, or else just dreaming. Yet everybody in the world believes that his actions are of the utmost, most vital importance.

Thus he is confronted with a dilemma: does he accept that the world around him is real, effectively surrendering his sanity and surely condemning him to death (directly through harm in the real world if he is only hallucinating, or indirectly by awakening a hope and optimism that will crush him when he discovers himself back in the real world), or does he refuse to accept the reality of the world – again potentially condemning him to dangers from the dream world, as well as forcing him to watch terrible things happen to these figments of his imagination? The book shows us his psychological journey, his progression through a series of resolutions designed to enable him to survive being placed at this crux; but these more generally can be taken as showing the progression of a wounded soul toward a moral or religious life.

It is a distinctively Calvinist journey for two related reasons: first, because it stresses the inquity of the sinner, the enormous and unspannable chasm between the wretched man and divine justification; and second because it emphasises the utter hopelessness of a godless world and the vanity of human pride.

The first point is what a lot of readers hate about the book. Covenant… is iniquitous. He has almost no redeeming features. He’s not some fun little anti-hero, so evil that he cannot be taken seriously. He’s a normal guy, doing things normal guys might do in his situation, except the things he does and says are at best desparate and at worst evil. He’s not fun, and witty, so dashing that we love him despite his villainy… he has the odd good line, but mostly he’s bitter, resentful, stubborn, uncharitable, taciturn… just as he is determined to make no concession to any enemy, he seems determined to concede nothing to any friend. He has put himself beyond a willingness to be judged by others – or at least so he appears to claim.

And because he’s iniquitous, he… well, it’s been 40 years so you should know by now what happens in Chapter 7, but if you don’t I won’t tell you, because honestly I think it works better if you read it for yourself. But let’s just say, he Does Some Bad Things. This means that a lot of readers hate Covenant, or put the book right down. A fair few people even despise Donaldson as a result. Indeed, it would be interesting to explore why what happens is so objectionable to many people – since, sure, it’s an unforgivable thing, but novels before and since have shown characters do far, far worse things without provoking such outrage. Hell, A Song of Ice and Fire has one character throw an innocent child to their death to prevent people learning about his own incestuous adultery, and the guy’s practically beloved! I think a lot of it is that Covenant isn’t a dashing evil, isn’t a ridiculous evil, is just a really ordinary, really despicable kind of evil.

But then, that’s the point. In a Calvinist world, we’re all despicable. We’re all unforgivable.

Yet perhaps what really infuriates people is that in another way Covenant isn’t evil. He’s just a normal guy, and his sins are presented as a realistic response to his situation. And while we may regard him as unforgivable, the book… perhaps doesn’t. There is no point at which Covenant is simply redeemed, let off the hook by the author or the text… yet the author also appears to have faith, or at least hope, that through some sort of grace Covenant might be redeemed – that there is something in him that allows him to be redeemed, even if Covenant himself cannot (or does not) effect that redemption. The author neither even slightly hints at forgiving his character nor writes him off as a lost cause. I think that might be tricky for some readers.

And then again, maybe the real problem is just that Covenant (as perhaps his name suggests) seems to stand for the human race as a whole, including us readers. And some readers don’t want Covenant to be their proxy. They don’t want anything to do with him. “We’re not like this guy!” they’ll say, “why are we being this guy as our representative?” And maybe a Catholic or Anglo-Catholic author like Tolkien or Lewis would have been sympathetic to that. But this is a Calvinist fantasy – we’re all iniquitous and utterly depraved sinners lacking all justification without the direct grace of God, we just don’t all know it yet. And perhaps in this Calvinist view it’s also fair to say that we are all so drenched in sin that none of us have any right to forgiveness… yet none of us are so irredeemable that we could not be saved if God wished it.

That gives us one of the most striking inversions in this series. So often in a heroic story, the protagonist is essentially left asking “why me? Why do I have to undergo all this hardship?”

Thomas Covenant, on the other hand, is left asking “why me? Why do I have to get a free ride?”

I have no idea why this cover exists

I have no idea why this cover exists

Because Thomas Covenant is a Hero. He is here to save (or damn) the Land he finds himself a guest within. And everybody knows it. Everybody at least knows he has (thanks to the magical powers of his wedding ring) immense power; the more credulous or hopeful also believe he is the reincarnation (or the like) of the Land’s greatest historical hero, the wonderful-in-all-possible-ways Berek Halfhand (Berek lost his fingers to a sword; Covenant, to leprosy). Everyone’s instinct is to praise him, to adulate him. Even those who doubt him personally – even those who come to hate him and know his iniquity – are left forced by their own wisdom to let his many sins, major and minor, slide, in the interests of the greater good. He is just so important that their own grievances against him must be forgotten.

If that sounds a really irritating read for us – bad guy gets off scott free for everything – it’s an excruciating experience for Covenant himself. Covenant does not want to be forgiven. He does not forgive himself. More than that: it is the very fact of forgiveness that undermines him. His mantras of survival are founded on a view of the universe as fundamentally hostile – so long as everyone and everything hates him, he can justify whatever it takes to defy them, to keep on living. Once people – once perhaps even the world itself – starts to forgive him, once things put themselves at his service and he becomes responsible for them, he struggles to defend himself against his own accusations. Forgiveness would bring responsibility, and responsibility brings guilt and guilt brings pain. If Covenant can avoid responsibility, he can avoid pain. But this also connects to the idea of the dream world: in feeling responsible for the things in this world, Covenant would have to acknowledge their reality. Conversely, by denying their reality he can deny his own responsibility.

I’d also like to suggest trying to view Covenant’s position through the lens of, in a Fichtean sort of way, a consciousness that posits an external, unyielding other. At first the Self believes that everything is itself; then, it comes to recognise the Other as a passive, static, objective stock of resources. It imposes its will upon the Other in order to create its own freedom. But in doing so it causes pain, and the perception of that pain creates shock, and guilt, and an awareness of the validity of the Other as an alternative subjectivity. Until it feels that pain – rather, until we feel the pain of others, the pain that we have caused them, we view the world and its inhabitants, as we do as children, as being merely the stuff of our manipulation. Covenant does not allow himself to feel the pain of others – or even his own pain – and so he violates the subjectivity of others, and indeed of himself, and creates a pain that constantly hammers at his senses. But in the real world, Covenant’s senses are dulled, physically by leprosy and psychologically by despair and alienation from human contact. He is left neither able to deny the pain of others – and hence his own guilt – nor convince himself of it, just as he can neither deny nor convince himself of the reality of the Land, or of the existence of beauty. Similarly and inversely, Covenant’s condition has left him impotent – mentally, creatively, physically, sexually, socially. He cannot influence the world, and so cannot take responsibility for its pain. But the magic of the Land, and the trust of its inhabitants, rip that protective impotence away from him.

At one point a character says something that Tolkien’s work also emphasises (sorry, I have to paraphrase here): All power is a terrible thing. But for the Catholic Tolkien, power is terrible because power is a seduction, leading the individual into pride, and hence into evil. Evil in Tolkien is simply power used pridefully, and as a result the Elves and Wizards of his world walk a terribly thin line between great good and great evil. But for the post-Calvinist Donaldson, power is terrible because power shows you that you are already evil. Your power forces you to confront how badly you will use it, how unprepared you are for it. Covenant… does not use power well.

The other half of the Calvinism meanwhile is the hopelessness of the world. This may not be immediately apparent. Because, after all, the Land that Covenant finds himself in is a deeply wonderful place. The stone, the trees, are filled with power, and everybody in the Land is a sort of sublime, viceless hippie. [There is more than a touch here, in Covenant’s encounter with the Land, of what we might imagine to be the encounter between a conservative-raised skeptic and the real hippies Donalson would have encountered in his university studies and at anti-war marches and the like]. The Land is presided over ultimately by a small council of ancient, wise, all-loving philosopher-magicians, the Lords of Revelstone. Everybody in the Land has sworn an oath of peace: not to hurt when holding is enough, not to wound when hurting is enough, and so on. They won’t even be violent toward their enemies, except in self-defence, and even that must be as gentle and forgiving as possible.

The problem is that everything in the Land is going to be destroyed. We know this because right at the beginning of Covenant’s time in this world, he is given a message to take the the Lords… from Lord Foul the Despiser. As the name suggests, he’s a wrong’un and no mistake. Lord Foul spells out the Lords’ problem very simply: they all have only 49 years to live. If they don’t do exactly what he wants – snatch some magic goodies from a lesser evil guy – they’ll all be dead in 7. If they just ignore this message, they’ll be dead in 2.

The thing is, Foul isn’t boasting. He’s not lying. Lord Foul never lies – it’s the genius of his character. He’s not one of those satanic figures who cunningly gets around lying, who deceives by telling the truth. No, he doesn’t lie because he doesn’t have to. Everybody is doomed.

As readers, we’d like to believe that this isn’t true. And to be fair, we haven’t yet seen just how little chance our heroes have. But by the end of Lord Foul’s Bane [the title itself it a joke: it is not the bane of Lord Foul, it is a bane of the world that Lord Foul wants], we should be getting worried. The Lords with their Oath of Peace and their love of knowledge… the stoic haruchai with their vow of service… the ranyhyn with their noble, natural power and the manethralls with their worship of the ranyhyn… the basic goodness of the stonedowners and woodhelvenin… the joy and passion of the Giants… we are confronted with so many visions of virtue, so many incompatible ways to fight against the Despiser, that we have to be suspicious about all of them. And indeed the book begins to interogate these human faiths, showing us not only how they can be exploited but how they can perverted, turned against themselves. The only thing it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to try to do something about it… time and again, Foul taunts people with the appearance of power only to show them how impotent power really is.

We are warned from the beginning. We are told about Kevin [sorry – Donaldson has a lot of great fantasy names, and then the most important person in his mythology is called Kevin. Berek Halfhand begat Damelon Giantfriend begat Loric Vilesilencer, begat the most powerful of them all… Kevin]. Long ago, when High Lord Kevin, the most powerful man in history, saw Foul’s inevitable victory, he took the ultimate, nuclear option: the Ritual of Desecration scoured the earth clean of all life, sacrificing the world to kill Foul. Needless to say, he failed, and more than failed. Power is a terrible thing.

Kevin stored his lore in seven Wards. In the thousand years since, the new Lords have still only made it partly through the first Ward. They don’t even have the other six. The wisest and most knowledgeable people in the world don’t have even one seventh the wisdom and knowledge of their ancestor, and that ancestor not only completely failed to kill Foul but did more damage than Foul could have imagined. [Except he did imagine it. Foul always knows what’s going to happen.] So… we might not know yet what is going to go wrong with the current generation, but we know that something will. How could it possibly not?

And the only way out of that trap is Covenant. So it’s probably not a good sign that it was Foul who brought him to the Land in the first place.

But the great theme of Donaldson’s world isn’t that good cannot triumph. It’s that every time good thinks it has triumphed, it has only created some other new evil. And boy is there a lot of evil in these books. And Donaldson manages the trick of giving us these visions of virtue, making the virtue impressive, undeniable… and still having us worry, so cynically, that something here seems off. Something is very wrong, everywhere.

Today, though, I’m just reviewing Lord Foul’s Bane.

This isn’t easy.

But maybe we should get down to the details. And for Donaldson, that means the problems. Because Donaldson’s books are much more satisfying to have read than to read.

Well this one is weird...

Well this one is weird…

The most obvious problem is the language. Donaldson – in, it must be said, the tradition of high neo-Romantic fantasy – infuses his narrative voice with archaisms. In Lord Foul’s Bane, it’s mostly minimal, but it becomes more and more pronounced as the book goes on and will be an even bigger issue in each further book. Donaldson uses long or strange words when they are not needed; and this has resulted in a good deal of mockery.

Yet I think that this is uncharitable. For the most part, these are perfectly good words, albeit not quotidian ones. There was only one word I had to look up in Lord Foul’s Bane – and that I think was a mistake by him, since I don’t believe the word actually exists, but I can tell from context and apparent etymology what he meant. The rest of the time, it’s just a broad, literate vocabulary, and frankly I enjoyed seeing a few unusual words crop up. More importantly, it’s a key element of his style: his Land is fantastical in part because the language is, by quotidian standards, fantastical. And if perhaps it may in part be true that he’s using big words to sound more intelligent, more philosophical… well obviously he is. That’s the point. He’s trying to infuse his book with vast, cosmological, ethical and theological import. So no, no he’s not going to write it in the idiom of an ordinary man just nipping off down to the shops!

Relatedly, there’s the use of metaphor. This, I think, is the heart of the book. Donaldson describes his world in metaphor after metaphor after metaphor. Some are conventional, others are innovative, some are bizarre. Some are mundane, some are Significant and Symbolic. Some are boring, some are cheesy or bad, and some are brilliant.

I really wish – for one of the first times ever – that I’d read this digitally, so that I could have underlined bits worth remembering. Because there truly are a whole load of real gems of a line in this book. You just have to wade through a lot to get to them.

The real problem, you see, isn’t that the story is told with strange words and strange rhythms. And though you might think so, the problem isn’t even the tendency toward long, explanatory monologues – not even the ones by Foul, which I think at some points actually are punctuated by maniacal evil laughter, and if they aren’t then they should be – nor even the godawful random-line-breaks-in-prose ‘poetry’. Those things are all, well, slaps in the face, to be sure, but they’re the sort of thing a charitable reader can come to see as just part of the deal, an oddity of style and genre. If these things happened in some classic work from centuries ago and many miles away, we’d not complain about them – we’d just say “that’s a strange way of telling a story, but I guess it’s how they did it then”, and it’s not as though there aren’t benefits of it, as well as disadvantages. In the end, the only issue with these things is that they’re not currently fashionable.

No, the real problem is that it’s unbearably boring. The problem is that there is no story to tell.

Oh, sure, symbolically there’s a story. Metaphorically, theologically, spiritually, ideologically, allegorically there’s a story, and that’s all very interesting. And I don’t mean that to sound dismissive, because it really is interesting, and more than that: at times it’s genuinely powerful. But unfortunately, on the page-by-page, chapter-by-chapter level, sod all happens.

There are two dimensions to this problem. The deeper but less important problem is that there are no characters. Covenant is the only person who matters: everything is about Covenant. It’s almost as though we’re trapped in Covenant’s head – not just in the sense of only seeing what he sees, but in the sense of everything that comes through his eyes being filtered by his mind before it reaches us. That’s fair enough as a literary technique, but when the protagonist is self-centred and narcissistic (and self-loathing), that means we don’t get to see enough of the people around him. And not seeing the people around him is a huge problem when the protagonist is an arse. I don’t think you have to like the protagonist to enjoy a book… but it really does help if there’s someone likeable around. And the people around Covenant may be vaguely pleasant, but we don’t see enough of their depth to really care about them, to get the sense of these people as people rather than as devices to probe Covenant’s mind. And sure, that makes sense thematically, and indeed these ‘people’ may only be figments of his imagination anyway. But it doesn’t make for a good read. Especially when Covenant’s own character arc is slow, highly abstract and (so far) incomplete.

There is, to be fair, one other interesting character. But they don’t get much time on screen after a certain point in procedings.

[Oh, and one thing is very important: although the book may be happening entirely in Covenant’s head, there is one passage, only a couple of paragraphs, shown from somebody else’s point of view. Given which couple of paragraphs it is, I think this is probably central to the entire project of the book, but most people don’t notice it.]

And then there’s the second dimension to the problem – the superficial, unimportant, and ultimately fatal dimension to the problem. And I’m sorry if it’s taking me a while to steel myself to say this, because it’s not something I ever wanted to say about a fantasy novel, but: it’s a travelogue. They’re just walking around the whole time.

It’s a common complaint with the genre. Lots of fantasy novels involve the character walking from this location to that location. Often with some rumination about the interesting landscape they pass, and perhaps with some helpful geographic and sociopolitical infodumping at their destination from a passing shepherd, merchant, or perhaps Nazgul.

And I don’t mind! I’ve spent my life obstinately not minding this. I like descriptions of scenery. I like travelling-badinage. I like seeing new and interesting places (I’m often more interesting in the world than the characters). I don’t mind nothing obvious happening for long periods of time.

But come on, Donaldson, seriously. The entire book is journey after journey. Even the climactic finale is basically just a more perilous journey in worse lighting conditions. Because Covenant is surly and unfriendly, and there are no vibrant characters around him, the banter between companions is occasionally depressing-but-interesting and otherwise nonexistent. The scenery they pass isn’t all that spectacular – some hills, some rivers, some forests, some plains. Mostly there aren’t any people along the way. Any given chapter of this is fine, but there just isn’t anything else. Any time that Donaldson has Covenant settle down for a bit in one location, the enjoyability of the book just rockets – we can get some backstory, some depth, some intrigue. But that happens too infrequently, and not for long enough.

I actually thought it was going to be a substantially better book. The first, I don’t know, ten chapters or so have relatively little travelling around, and it works so much better than the long descriptions of people walking along peacefully. It was like running into a narrative wall, all momentum slowly but inexorably sucked away.

In fact, the travelogue element was so bad that I started to worry about my childhood. Were all those fantasy books with all that travelling this bad? I didn’t think they were all great literature, but I didn’t think they were this terrible!

But then I thought: hey, I read The Elenium last year, didn’t I? And I did. And the travel scenes there were just as long if not longer, and they too became a bit irritating. But they were handled so much better, perhaps because Eddings’ naturally light style, while underserving the important moments, helped stop the dreary bits get too dreary, whereas Donaldson’s weighty, portentous, solemn prose just weighs down every moment where something important isn’t happening. Both authors suffer from the same problem, in a way: they can’t change their style to match the circumstances. Eddings tried to go dark and grim but couldn’t shake of the constant flippancy and lightheartedness. Donaldson’s style is genuinely powerful when it gets to serve up big, big psychological and supernatural moments, but it’s like lead when he’s just moving things around the board. Bold, symbolic reminders that this moment is a moment on which the fate of all existence hangs, both in the story and metaphorically, are great for making major conflicts seem epic and awesome… but for every step of a thousand-mile journey? It gets, at best, incredibly wearying.

And let’s face it: when anybody ever reads you book and thinks hey, David Eddings handled that aspect with more subtlety and sophistication, that is a terrible, terrible sign.


In the end, then, no matter how much I want to like this book at the level of theme, there are just too many basic problems at the level of story. Many of those problems could individually be overlooked as idiosyncracies of style. But put together? The book is, frankly, for much of its run-time, a slog, in my opinion.


Modern cover. Reliably awful.

Modern cover. Reliably awful.

But I do want to like it. And not just because it’s like a strange bizarro-Tolkien. No, the thing I really love about this book is: dear lord it’s bold!

Aspect after aspect makes me think: wow, that’s a bold choice. It can be general things, like the use of language. It can be specific things, like when Donaldson decides to spend an entire paragraph on the horse-traing=sex double entendre. [It’s not even a serious metaphor, it’s just a double entendre! Most writers would either have been too embarrassed to include it, or would have included it and then moved on, but no, Donaldson really excavates that vein of suggestive symbolism, and doesn’t give up until the seam is dry.] It’s the huge things like “the hell? The hero just did what?”. It’s things like: “I’m sorry, you have not only essentially told us via authorial proxy what the book is going to be about before it’s even gotten started, but you are telling us it’s about the entire foundation of all our human ethical systems?

It seems as though the author wanted to write a particular book. A book that, while superficially reminiscent of others in its genre, is fundamentally a book unlike anything else, a book that nobody else would have written. And the author wrote that book. From beginning to end. With absolutely no compromises. It’s practically daring us to laugh at it. It’s daring us to put it down in boredom and walk away. We don’t like this book? Well too bad for us, it seems to say, because this is the book that it is. I admire that in a book, and in an author. This is an author, let’s remember, who submitted his manuscript to every publishing house in America and was rejected by all of them.

Now, we all experience rejection. I try to put myself in Donaldson’s shoes. I get a rejection letter. OK. I get another rejection letter. OK. A third? Someone will recognise its worth! A fourth? A fifth? A sixth?

Somewhere along the way, I’d start thinking ‘maybe there are a few things I could change to make this more appealing…’; I’d start off just making a few minor, little changes, of course. But ten rejection letters? Fifteen? I’m changing major elements. Twenty? Thirty? Rewrite the damn thing!

We are talking here about a man who had his manuscript rejected forty-seven times. And more importantly, we’re talking about a man who had his manuscript rejected forty-seven times, and didn’t take that as a hint he should rewrite it. Because in fact, we’re talking here about a man who had his manuscript rejected forty-seven times, and who took those forty-seven rejections as encouragement to write two damn sequels! He started with a book that couldn’t sell, and ended up with a trilogy that couldn’t sell.

And let’s just think about that. Because I know that it sounds like the sort of little anecdote that gets thrown about – hey kid, don’t give up, Donaldson was rejected forty-seven times! – but actually it really does get at the heart of the book. It tells you a lot about the book – about what’s wrong with it, sure, because this is a book that you can certainly imagine forty-seven editors rejecting, and it wasn’t just because Donaldson was trying to write in a genre that didn’t exist yet. But also about what’s right with it. This isn’t a book based on a focus group. It isn’t a book that tries to be liked. Instead it’s a book that is certain about what it wants to be, and is what is. And sometimes that’s breathtaking. And other times it’s just plain stupid.

Let’s put it this way: there are a hell of a lot of books I would probably enjoy reading more than this one. But how many of those books will I remember more than this one? Not that many. And chapeau Mr Donaldson, because I think that’s quite an accolade, myself.

And I guess I’m not alone in that. Because he may have been rejected forty-seven times, and I can totally understand that… but he’s also sold tens of millions of copies. And I can understand that to.

I suppose in a way Donaldson’s books are (functionally, though certainly not ideologically) a bit like Ayn Rand’s. Or (blasphemy!) like The Silmarillion. There are plenty of reasons to hate them, and a lot of people do. But they can also inspire devoted followers, because there really is something underneath all the clumsiness here that readers are unlikely to find anywhere else. And personally I think that even if Donaldson’s books don’t speak to your soul, they’re worth reading for the glimpse into someone else’s soul, and indeed into what it is possible for fantasy as a genre to do. If nothing else, if any budding writers out there feel anxious about trusting their instincts and making brave choices, reading Donaldson could certainly help with that!

So I’m not going to leap into The Illearth War just yet. But I am going to keep on re-reading this series, which, as I remember it, keeps on getting darker and more disturbing. [If you haven’t read these books, you have no idea how dark and disturbing it can get. Donaldson doesn’t mess around with gore and profanities, when Donaldson goes dark he goes for your soul.]


In the meantime: well, I’m glad I reread it. It’s deeper, and frankly just better than I feared it might be, and there are real glimpses of something special here. But please: if your manuscripts gets rejected forty-seven times for the love of the gods, think about doing some editing!


[Oh, one little thing that didn’t fit in this review but that I wanted to mention. At one point, Donaldson suggests that the tragedy of the world is that no man is both a seer and an oracle. In the Land, you see, they really do have the ability to tell the future. But some people are seers and others are oracles, and none are both: those who can tell you true and important things about the future cannot know the real meaning of their prophecies, because they cannot see how exactly they will come to pass (and unlike most fantasy settings, the people here are at least aware that prophecies can often be misleading); meanwhile, those who can see the future do not know the truth about it… so Lord Kevin was a seer and saw the desolation of the Land, but didn’t realise he would cause it, whereas Lord Mhoram is an oracle, and can give out helpful prophecies, but he does not know what they mean or why they are important.]


I like the simplicity.

I like the simplicity.

Anyway, scores…

Adrenaline: 2/5. Avoids the minimum score by having some exciting scenes and a good helping of dread and tension throughout. But badly let down by long sections without enough happening.

Emotion: 3/5. The elevated style makes things seem important, but also distant, and the protagonist is also hard to empathise with. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of emotion flowing around in the book and it’s hard not to experience some of it vicariously. It really puts its characters, all of them, through an emotional wringer.

Thought: 4/5. It’s probably fair to complain that Donaldson’s ideology is a little simplistic, and sometimes too obvious. Nonetheless, this is a book that is all about big ideas, and that isn’t afraid to address them both explicitly and symbolically.

Beauty: 3/5. As well as the ugliness of some of what happens, much of Donaldson’s weighty prose is just ugly. On the other hand, there are a lot of really fantastic lines (the problem isn’t that Donaldson is too loud when he’s loud, it’s that he doesn’t know how to turn down the volume in the quiet scenes).

Craft: 2/5. Honestly, while there’s a lot to like about the book, all its virtues have to fight against Donaldson’s limitations as a writer – in terms of prose, characterisation, pacing, structure, plot, everything. On the other hand, some of those fights are won. Donaldson is clearly both a bold and a clever writer, and he does get some things very right.

Endearingness: 3/5. It may not be a book that I want to curl up with for a comfort read – it’s prickly, cold and weighty – but it is a book I want to like. It’s a book that to me feels worth reading, and worth re-reading.

Originality: 3/5. It is a unique book. On the other hand, almost no element of it feels original. Yes, that’s almost a paradox; there are a lot of them in this book.


The iconic cover


Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. There are certainly truly bad things about the book. On the other hand, there are some truly good things about the book too. I think ‘not bad’ probably is fair overall. It’s an interesting ‘not bad’, though. And of course, this is only Book One.




20 thoughts on “Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson

  1. Nathan says:

    This may be the longest review I have ever read, but damn it was good. I fully plan to read this one…someday. It joins a long list of classics I have not yet read. Ok, most of them.

  2. Thank you! Yeah, it seems when I review a book I rarely know whether I’m going to write 1000 words or 6000…
    And yes, I think that reaction is probably right: it’s a book (/series) that I think fans of the genre (or people who might be interested in the genre) should read at some point, but it’s not something I would suggest everyone has to go out and read right now.

    It’s been damaged significantly by the way the genre has developed, unfortunately, because, as I say, this feels very different to later fantasy (which I guess is part of its love-or-hate appeal). It would have made a lot more ‘sense’ standing on shelves with The Lord of the Rings, The Worm Ouroborous, The Well At The End of the World, The Once And Future King and so on, rather than with The Eye of the World, The Hafling’s Gem, and the like.

    But then again, the rise of grimdark has taken away some of its appeal too. One reason people love Covenant is that for many people these books were their first experience of darkness in fantasy, and while that hasn’t completely gone away (as I suggest above, Donaldson might be outdone by modern writers in gore, but I suspect few can match him in existential darkness), the ready availability of blood-drenched books about antiheroes does reduce some of Donaldson’s traditional appeal.

    [Putting those together, here’s a theory: Donaldson is to Tolkien what grimdark is to eighties epic fantasy? And if we’re looking at direct comparisons, then beyond Covenant’s darkness I think it may be significant that this is a portal fantasy and he’s a modern American man – because a lot of grimdark also seems to involve a movement toward more relatable, ‘realistic’ (ie anachronistic) protagonists. (Also, Covenant swears constantly. Although it’s very theological swearing – a lot of ‘hellfire!’ and ‘damnation!’)]

  3. hwoosh says:

    Behold, dude, this review got linked to on io9 (here: http://io9.com/10-authors-who-wrote-gritty-realistic-fantasy-before-g-1695063524)! I’ve lurked your blog for a long time (I used to hang out on the ZBB, many years ago), and I’m glad to see you getting a little exposure, even in such an oblique way.

  4. Bruce Baugh says:

    Oh wow. Vacuouswastrel, you are literally the first person outside my head I’ve ever seen comment on something I think is crucial to the series: the absence of moral cheat codes. Nothing gets glossed over, no consequences get omitted, just because it’s the hero doing stuff. So much entertainment (in so many mediums and genres) sets up ways for the heroes to do bad stuff but it’s okay because Reasons. A huge part of why I remain so deeply attached to Donaldson’s work here is that he’s got a moral framework that keeps holding true.

    Granted that I had the advantage to read them as they came out, starting when I was (gulp) 12. Not sure I’d recommend them to a 12-year-old now, to put it mildly.

  5. tsrthomas says:

    The Chronicles of T.C. was some of the earliest serious fantasy fiction I read as a child (around 11 or 12 yo), and it had a huge impact on my formative years as a fiction reader (and then writer). I was so enamored of Donaldson’s work that I actually had my H.S. class ring made of white gold. It sticks out in my mind as one of the most influential pieces of prose, up there with Tolkien and a few others — and yet I’ve never re-read it after all these years, for all the reasons you laid out.

    It really is remarkable how a book (series) with so many flaws can still remain firmly lodged in my consciousness. I think it’s BECAUSE Covenant is such an everyman in many ways, without redemption, that I (and many readers) watched him and thought, “There but for the grace of god go I.” I could actually envision myself as a friendless grouch with no optimism toward the world’s future. That’s not something you can get from most (larger-than-life) protagonists. Covenant is compelling because he is so believable, which is why so many people hate him so much.

  6. Avatar says:

    Damn man. 😀 I found this through the IO9 thing which somebody posted on a forum I’m a member of, which happens to have originally been (and mainly still is) a Donaldson discussion board that’s been active for more than 15 years.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your piece. I’m already looking forward to your review of The IllEarth War, (my favourite of the 1st Chrons) and even better, The Wounded Land, (my favourite of the 2nd.)

    Send me a mail when you write them, and I’ll post links from the forum. Or even better, drop by Kevin’s Watch and post them yourself. (Plenty of literary discussion there, we branched out from just SRD many years ago, and as you might imagine, people who enjoy his work enough to seek other people to discuss it with are a pretty eclectic bunch.)

    That said, if you haven’t read them, I highly recommend his sci-fi Gap series. His best writing IMO.

    Great read. Thanks. 😀

  7. hwoosh: thank you! Although, insane view counts aside, this sort of ‘exposure’ generally lasts a few days and then disappears entirely. Which may be good, in a way – I always want more people to read my stuff, but if more people actually DID read my stuff I’d probably feel under pressure.

    Bruce: in theoretical discussions, I always say that I’m in favour of letting kids read whatever they want to read. And then I go and re-read some of the things I used to read when I was young (sometimes very young – I was a precocious reader, so a lot of my formative fantasy reading was pre-teen), and I think “why the hell was I reading this!?”…

    tsrthomas: yeah, they stick in the memory. A lot. Hence a 6000 word essay on a book that, in the final analysis, I basically decided was mediocre. Sometimes, though, interesting mediocrity can be more valuable than run-of-the-mill brilliance.

    I think there are probably two ways to approach books like these: look at all the problems and go “this stuff is shit, I’m not wasting my time”; or sit it out and actually think seriously about it. The former approach in some ways isn’t entirely misguided (there ARE better books out there these days)… but the latter is probably more rewarding. Unfortunately, people these days have so much good, professional, polished stuff to be reading that strange, unique, rough books like this may struggle to hold their attention.

    Avatar: I know Kevin’s Watch! I used to read through it regularly about… a decade ago, I guess (I eagerly bought Runes of the Earth the day it came out, but still haven’t gotten around to buying Fatal Revanant… not sure why, since I didn’t hate RotE or anything, but I guess my interests and priorities changed. Anyway, I don’t think I ever registered at KW, but I do remember the place.

    I should warn you it may be a while before I get around to the next book in the series. I do intend to read them, but I found LFB really slow going in places. I’ll remember to let you know when I do, though, one way or another.

    Oh, and going from memory I think I agree with your rankings in each of the first two series. Although I also have a soft spot for The One Tree, on the grounds of what the fuck am I reading what’s going on. [and White Gold Wielder has the best moment of all: “Nom”.]

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words, people!

  8. tsrthomas says:

    [I think there are probably two ways to approach books like these: look at all the problems and go “this stuff is shit, I’m not wasting my time”; or sit it out and actually think seriously about it. The former approach in some ways isn’t entirely misguided (there ARE better books out there these days)… but the latter is probably more rewarding. Unfortunately, people these days have so much good, professional, polished stuff to be reading that strange, unique, rough books like this may struggle to hold their attention.]

    The landscape of fantasy fiction today — given the glut of material, particularly self-published, and the wide range of quality — means people’s patience for putting up with average to poor writing, no matter how much it makes you think, is undoubtedly much reduced from when we were kids first getting our hands on Donaldson’s stuff. If he were trying to get it published today, he probably wouldn’t have waited for 47 publishers to reject him before self-publishing. Then again, he might not even try to get it published, given the difference in landscape; he might be writing in an entirely different genre and/or style in this day and age. As you argued at the beginning of your review, LFB was the exact book it needed to be for its time and place in the history of fantasy fiction.

  9. Avatar says:

    Hahaha, our infamy precedes us. 😀 (Go, register. And any other fans (or critics) of the series are welcome as well, commenters. 😀 )

    The Last Chrons have definitely been the most polarising among aficionados. 😀 And I must say FR is probably my least favourite, at least the first 2/3rds of it.

    Anyway, I linked to the review from the forum. If the worst comes to the worst, drop a comment here when you post the next one, and I’ll link to those too. I subscribed to the thread so I’ll get a notification.

    But you’re more than welcome to join us on the Watch. We love people who love books. 😉

  10. With respect, I’m not sure ‘welcome’ is the word. The response to your mention kind of reminds me why I’m not on any author fan forums – because there are no authors I can commit to with 100% dedication. And on fan forums, that means getting flamed a lot. In ten replies, three different people accused me of “bullshit” (including one count of “complete and utter bullshit”). Also I’m “flat-out wrong”, “trying as hard as [I can] to find fault with the book” and “just plain nuts”. I think this attitude is part of why I stopped browsing your forum in the first place. Certainly it makes the idea of signing up just to put myself in the stocks and have shit thrown at me somewhat unappealling.
    Nor, for future reference, does this sort of attitude from fans really encourage people to like books more. If anything, quite the contrary.

    To address a few complaints:
    – I don’t know Martin or Donaldson personally, but I’ve heard reports from fans that they are friends. Googling their names gives a post on your own forum claiming this: it quotes a report by GRRM fans saying that Martin “told some anecdotes about Stephen R. Donaldson, who also lives in New Mexico and is a long-time friend.” I can’t right this moment find any hits of either man discussing this directly, although quotes from each being complimentary toward the other aren’t hard to find. If your forum has any concrete evidence that my impression is untrue, please let me know and I’ll correct my post.

    – Sod all happens. I know this because I’ve just read it. In fact, I’ve spent years not believing this, despite many people telling me it… but having read it again, I just can’t deny it. Sod all happens. The opening chapters set things up. Then they go for a long walk, observing some things in passing. Then there’s some infodumping and people talk a lot. Then they go for a long walk, observing the aftermath of a battle along the way. The walk continues, and they meet some people, and have a chat, and they look at some horses behaving in certain ways. Then they go for a walk, until they reach the destination. Once at the destination, they go for a walk until they reach the climax of the book, at which point something happens, and then they walk away and then the book ends. Page after page goes by with no meaningful event occuring, and in particular with no purposeful action being performed, only an awful lot of rumination, some banter, and a bit of observation of things beyond their control. When things do happen and things are done, it’s usually pretty quickly. The overall impression is of the famous criticism of Wagner: great moments, and very dull quarters of an hour.
    And yes, “the whole quest for the Staff of Law” does indeed amount to sod all happening. Because that quest amounts to “let’s go on a quest to that place over there… great, now we’re here! oh shit we didn’t think in advance about what to do at this point! oh that’s ok, it all worked out in the end!” Which is kind of thin for a plot that takes up most of the book.
    In terms of the plot of the wider cycle, this may be important. But on a page-by-page basis in this book itself, it does not actually involve very much happening.

    For comparison, since I’m thinking about Pratchett a lot: LFB is twice as long as Mort. Or about the same length as the entire Bromeliad trilogy. Now in one column, write out the things that happen in LFB, and then in another column write out the thins that happen in the Bromeliad. I’m not saying the Bromeliad is better that LFB, but it’s certainly MUCH faster-paced.
    Hell, LFB is 30% longer than Only Forward! But if LFB had been written in the style of Only Forward it would have been about 50 pages long…

    – Characterisation is weak. Yes, that includes Foamfollower, who at least in this book is a collection of hints and cliches, rather than a unique and fleshed-out character. That’s not a scathing criticism, because it’s true of most characters in most books, but it is still a problem. It goes double for Mhoram, who in this book is not much more than a plot device. Atiaran is the only other character who begins to be a real, and interesting, character, but she disappears surprisingly early in the book.

    – I wasn’t trying desparately to find faults. I was trying to give a balanced review, not just to say “this is great” or “this is shit” because I was scared of being caught being unfanatical or unsure. But just to be clear, the faults in this book are incredibly obvious, which is why almost nobody I know has any respect for it at all these days, and why Donaldson is more likely to be a figure of mockery than one of respect. What I was doing was trying to explain why I felt that a patient and charitable reader could find interesting material here despite the huge problems.

    – More generally, the fact I’m not a blinkered fanboy for Donaldson does not mean that I am a lunatic bullshitter who needs to be, as your friends put it, “schooled”. I’m a fairly bright guy, I’ve read quite a few books in the genre by now, and I’ve read this book multiple times starting in childhood and most recently finishing immediately before I wrote this review. I don’t believe this review is the result of insanity, stupidity or ignorance. I think it’s a reasoned, balanced, nuanced, informed and educated review. You are of course entitled to have different tastes from mine, and to feel that I have leant too far one way or another. But if people assume that my views are only the result of my inferiority as a reader, then I take some exception, and will require some solid evidence of the critic’s own non pareil virtues.

  11. Avatar says:

    Nonsense. 😀 Healthy debate. 😀 You should see the epithets people hurl at each other internally over the Last Chrons. 😉 Nobody is going to agree with everything. Or even most things. But more perspectives is always healthy.

    Regardless, _I_ thought it was a damn sight better than a simple “wow it was great / damn it sucked” review, (which is the only reason I commented in the first place). Whether I agreed with everything in it or not has nothing to do with it.

    And to my mind at least, you achieved your objective to the extent that I considered it a positive review, while being honest about the difficulties or the series. Suppose I better go check the thread. 😀

    The invitation stands. I promise they’re not as bad as they look if you ever want to engage. 😀

  12. Avatar says:

    Hahaha, from your reply above I thought they tried to tear it apart. They weren’t that hard on it. A couple of minor points of disagreement, and mainly focussed on a couple of specific points. Hardly rabid fanboyism to be fair. 😉

  13. Orlion says:

    Oh, but I, however, AM a superior reader! 😉

    I would say the reason why Donaldson is so “obviously flawed” is that he is trying to write two types of books at once. He wants to write an epic fantasy with intriguing ideas and plot, but he also wants to write a book with a higher literary aesthetic. This issue is that, generally speaking, one of these can usually be done good but at the sacrifice of the other.

    Another criticism of Donaldson as a writer is that he tends to be a slow starter. The merits of this approach can be debated, such as saying that setting things up slowly and “properly” leads to a more powerful story and ending. But it also means that most of Donaldson’s first books are slow and can almost never be appreciated outside of the larger work.

  14. […] review of the final Thomas Covenant novel led me back to this pretty interesting post on Lord Foul’s Bane & Donaldson’s Calvinist […]

  15. michido says:

    Reblogged this on Michido's Blog and commented:
    Forgiveness would bring responsibility, and responsibility brings guilt and guilt brings pain. If Covenant can avoid responsibility, he can avoid pain. But this also connects to the idea of the dream world: in feeling responsible for the things in this world, Covenant would have to acknowledge their reality. Conversely, by denying their reality he can deny his own responsibility.

  16. 8forty says:

    Loved reading your review, it’s been a while since my last (and only, so far) re-read, and have now been inspired to queue it up mentally for another. BTW, you somehow missed the cover I spent my time staring at while preparing to read a few more chapters way back when:

  17. […] C.S. Lewis, and peered at them through an ugly light. And he gave us a protagonist that it’s almost impossible to sympathize with, especially in the first book. Thomas Covenant is a self-loathing writer who’s become a […]

  18. […] and C.S. Lewis, and peered at them through an ugly light. And he gave us a protagonist that it’s almost impossible to sympathize with, especially in the first book. Thomas Covenant is a self-loathing writer who’s become a pariah […]

  19. […] Lord Foul’s Bane  by Stephen Donaldson – Fantasy can be complicated and meaningful. […]

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