In this post I will attempt to address the positive and negative aspects to the infamous “Thomas Covenant” trilogy by Stephen Donaldson. Let me begin with the lighter side. First, I will gladly attribute credit to Donaldson for his attempt to challenge the expectations of the Fantasy genre and to bring something new to readers. Thomas Covenant is a loathsome, contemptible main character with no redeeming qualities for the entire first book, and who does not become much better in the following two. For Fantasy readers, especially in the late 1970’s when nothing close had been attempted in that genre at that point (at least to my knowledge), this must have been a difficult beginning to a trilogy to work through. Although I am sure that some people enjoyed the challenge with hopes for a good work to come out of it altogether. If one attempts to understand the psychological struggle which Covenant is going through (a failed marriage, a social outcast, and severe leprosy) then it may be fair to say that the beginning does stand out as an intriguing plot. It gives the story a lot of room for growth and much potential as far as what it could develop into. There is anticipation for redemption, hope for awesome world-building and other characters which influence the character to become more “heroic” or at least balance out his pessimism. I almost had the feeling that this was going to happen, since despite having to be pushed and pulled, Covenant does begin to help the land in a way (or at least gives them hope with the ring and Berek Half-hand prophecy). To summarize: Donaldson, you had an interesting starting point in this work with considerable potential, but unfortunately it was not developed well from there and flopped in my opinion. Here begins the negative aspects.
All of this certainly could have worked out favorably if Donaldson had not gone too far in illustrating Covenant’s misery and angst. To have a character such as Covenant begin the story as lowly as he is, and have him become progressively better (not even completely redeemed, but at least become the controversial anti-hero) would have made it more appealing. Unfortunately, that did not happen. In addition to placing excessive emphasis on the controversial Covenant, Donaldson did not balance the repelling character through other aspects of the work. For example, the Land had considerable prospects to become a well-developed, engaging world, but there simply was not enough creative effort put into the development. The writing style was not my cup of tea, so to speak, either. It seems that Donaldson was attempting to flex the muscles of his English degrees a bit too much. I am much more of a fan of the slow, simple yet captivating prose of Tolkien.
As I mentioned in one of my posts on the discussion board, I believe that the most charitable review of the Thomas Covenant series would be to evaluate all of the trilogies as a whole rather than the first part. It would be quite the accomplishment to create a character that takes up to the third trilogy to finally assume a more “heroic” role. Personally, I would not want to work through an entire trilogy without enjoying it and then continue to the other works, but if I was forced to and to my surprise Covenant became redeemed in the last trilogy, I might have somewhat of an understanding of Donaldson’s intent in this work (I hope).