Sunday, January 25, 2009

A despicable hero - Lord Foul's Bane

It's hard to write something in the genre of high fantasy without it turning into another telling of "Lord of the Rings". Most authors attempt to shift the settings, and modify the characters slightly enough to give the tale a new texture. But in the end it's still the struggle of the little hero against a enormous and corrupting evil. It takes a significant sacrifice by the hero to turn the tide and save the day. We've all read these tales over and over again, and obviously we enjoy them. But still, it can get a little old, after the 35th re-iteration of elves, dwarves, and humans banding together on a quest. How do you really shake things up and make the story even more interesting?

Stephen R. Donaldson took his lead character and gave him the ultimate characteristic of a villain: selfishness. Let's take a look at Frodo, Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker. All three are motivated by their actions to help others. They do what they must because it will save the world (or universe), not because it puts money in their pocket or gives them fame. Frodo is just a good hobbit at heart. He does what he must, because he is the only one that can do it. Harry Potter does he must for the same reason, and even though it gains him great fame, he actually abhors being famous. Luke Skywalker is slightly different because in "A New Hope" and "Empire" we see that he may be motivated by revenge. It isn't until "Return of the Jedi" that Luke realizes that he must forget his needs and the needs of his friends - and save his father. By committing to that act, he saves the galaxy from Empire.

Back to Thomas Covenant, the main character in Donaldson's series "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant". Almost all the actions that Covenant makes in the book are governed by fear, selfishness, and delusion. These three characteristics are what usually govern villains in most stories. In fact these three elements are usually specifically mentioned or hinted at as great enemies in other fantasy stories - the Ring Wraiths and Dementors are fear personified; Yoda specifically mentions fear as one of the paths to the dark side. Covenant is governed by his fear even to the end of the novel, almost all his actions are dictated by his fear for his personal safety or sanity.

This is the key to Covenant and the book as a whole. The only way to make this work well is allow the reader to understand Covenant. Once you understand why he thinks and acts the way he does, his actions at least make sense. The first few chapters of the book show the reader a clear picture of Thomas Covenant. He's a man who had his path down his life perfectly laid out. He was a writer who had just published a highly successful first novel, his wife was pregnant with their first child and he lived in a small village where life was comfortable and pleasant. Then Covenant is stricken with leprosy and everything goes wrong. His wife leaves him, and takes their child with her. His writing career dries up. The people of the village abhor him. He finds that the only way to cope is to turn everything into self preservation. If he doesn't constantly keep this in mind, the leprosy will win and he end up dying a death more horrible than he ever imagined.

Covenant is stubborn, bitter, angry and bent on protecting himself. Then he is pulled into another world (this time, by being hit by a car instead of a magic wardrobe). Covenant finds himself in a world full of life. The people here treat him like the reincarnation of their greatest hero (because he is missing the same fingers as their legendary hero). His wedding band of white gold is now blessed with magic properties. They all expect great things from him.

On top of all this - and most horrifying to Covenant - is the simple fact that this land has cured his leprosy. In a short time, he regains feeling in his limbs. His sex drive, which had vanished, returns with horrifying results. Covenant ends up raping a young woman who wants to do nothing but help this new hero. At this moment, Covenant becomes one of the worst fantasy heroes ever put to the page. I doubt there are many readers who would say they admire him after that moment. However, I was compelled to read on. How can this fearful, angry, and wretched man even begin to survive his adventure here.

It isn't easy. Covenant convinces himself that the whole thing is a dream, but one too perilous to embrace. He feels that if he believes In this world then this delusion will doom him. When the dream is over, he will awaken to find that he is a leper, and his momentary respite will end up crushing his soul and killing him. To deny this path, he spends the rest of the book actively fighting the fate before him. He is dreaming. He isn't a hero. He is a leper. He keeps insisting on this enough times that the other characters in the book look on him with pity, and want to help him come to terms.

This conflict fuels the book. Covenant can not accept the fantasy world, but it keeps insisting on its truth. It forces him to see its beauty. It forces him to use his ring. It forces him to play the hero. Each time Covenant is faced with a choice it is torture to make a decision. The lure of the fantasy is so strong, but the fact of his leprosy weighs on him. The reader keeps waiting for something to snap. When it does things only become worse for Covenant.

At its core, this is a re-telling of Lord of the Rings. There is a quest and here are heroics. There are magical beings, horses galloping over plains, armies of dark creatures, and giants. But at the center of the tale is the very dark character of Thomas Covenant, who dubs himself the Unbeliever. It’s very fitting and intriguing all at the same time.

I found the book to be a good read, even if Covenant wasn't a likable character. I never hated him. I understood why he did what he did. I didn't agree with his decisions most of the time, but I understood him. What was interesting was the way Donaldson used the fantasy world to play off of everything that Covenant was fighting against. The story kept forcing Covenant's hand. Each time it pushed Covenant closer and closer to madness. The story works as a basic adventure with a unique main character. This isn't the kind of book I'd recommend to a first time fantasy reader, but one that would appeal to anyone who's read enough high fantasy to want to read something refreshing in a darker way. Beyond that Donaldson uses his fantasy world as the main antagonist to Covenant, his protagonist. For that reason the book is a fascinating read. The ending was a bit anti-climactic, but this is the first novel of a series and I'm very interested in seeing where Covenant ends up next.

What did you think of Lord Foul's Bane? Have you ever encountered a film or novel with a completely unlikable main character? How did it work for you?

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