Posts Tagged ‘LOTR’

The original cover art of Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane.

The original cover art of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane.

I feel that I must preface this review by saying that it was a foolish idea to dive right into another author directly on the heels of reading Steven Erikson.  After all, who could possibly follow in the footsteps of Erikson without flagging in the pursuit?

Thus, it is with great trepidation that I begin writing this review of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.  Published in 1977, Lord Foul’s Bane (henceforth referred to as LFB) falls smack-dab in the middle of the first generation of epic fantasy that follows John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1955.  As most fans of epic (or high) fantasy will know, it was Tolkien’s work that launched the genre into the public sphere proper.  The Lord of the Rings is also considered to have codified, in some manner, the rules of the genre – as if everything that followed is only fantasy by some relation to Tolkien.

Now, you might at this point be asking, “I’m 173 words in, when are you going to start talking about Stephen Donaldson?”  And you wouldn’t be wrong to do so as the ultimate point of this article is to review LFB, but I plan on taking a winding road (not unlike the one taken by Thomas Covenant in LFB) to get there.

I mentioned Steven Erikson and J.R.R. Tolkien for a reason.  In my mind they represent two ways you can go about writing fantasy.  Tolkien, as stated above, is the quintessential epic fantasy.  It plays by the rules, has a finely-crafted mythos, and is very highbrow in the writing style.  Erikson, on the other hand, eschews the typical tropes of the genre, deliberately obscures and even hides his mythos, and descends into the purely comic or sickeningly brutal at the merest flight of whimsy.  The other contrast that makes these authors so appropriate to the discussion of LFB is in terms of timeline.  Tolkien is old fantasy: his work is a tried and true classic.  It will stand the test of time even if it isn’t always the flavour of the month.  Erikson is new fantasy: his work readily engages with the mindset of the 21st century reader that wants fast-paced action that isn’t confined to the realm of PG-13.  It remains to be seen if Erikson will be seen as one of the classic fantasy authors, but he does possess an uncanny understanding of the current fantasy audience.

Going back to the very beginning, I mentioned that following Erikson with Donaldson was a fool’s errand.  The reason for that is because Donaldson is very far from being Erikson in terms of style and timeline.  Reading Donaldson directly after Erikson resulted in a culture-shock akin to switching genres entirely (e.g. trying to find my way in a Michael Connelly detective novel after polishing off George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows).  What I did find, however, is that Donaldson treads very closely on the heels of Tolkien, and it is this observation that will form the core of this review.

Last time around, when reviewing Erikson’s Forge of Darkness, I mentioned that I should try to say something nice before saying something critical.  However, this time I’m going to be blunt: LFB was an extremely unsatisfactory read.  At first glance, the reason for this reaction might be simple: as an avid reader of fantasy – and new fantasy in particular – Donaldson’s work just might not have touched me in the same way it would have touched people in 1977.  That might be true, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t try to explain my dissatisfaction in more technical terminology.

The first major point that I would like to make is that the similarity to Tolkien that I mentioned above, while positive in the sense that mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, is far too pronounced to see LFB as anything other than an attempt to ride Tolkien’s literary coattails.  Without going too in-depth and revealing too much about the plot, it seemed like every new page contained another similarity to Tolkien, whether it was the “foreign” words that were bandied about (much in the manner that the people of Middle Earth tossed about snippets of elvish like they were English-speaking tourists trying to master French), a race of peoples that were eerily similar to Tolkien’s Ents in both description and mannerism, or the fact that the protagonist sports a ring of great power that his enemies seek to wrest from him.  Even the tone of Donaldson’s writing itself was a throwback to the stuffy, refined style of Tolkien.  To the experienced fantasy reader, or even one who is solely familiar with Tolkien, LFB has a strong air of been-there-done-that about it.  As such, it is hard to take seriously as a stand-alone novel within the greater context of its genre.

A pictorial representation of the monomyth.  Read from top left around the circle.

A pictorial representation of the monomyth. Read from top left around the circle.

Secondly, in LFB, Donaldson sticks far too strongly to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (or monomyth) as expressed in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Campbell’s monomyth features strongly in most fantasy texts.  To an extent, the degree to which a text challenges the strictures of the monomyth is a sign of how readers will respond to the text.  An astute reader will be able to link sections of texts to the monomyth instantly.  They will also be able to recognize when a text deliberately breaks from the mold or seeks to challenge a certain aspect of the monomyth.  A familiar story that sticks to the monomyth doesn’t offer the reader much of a challenge or much satisfaction upon completion, especially when compared to a text that challenges the monomyth in well-thought-out and deliberate ways.  That being said, LFB doesn’t seem to challenge the monomyth at all.  Take, for instance, the first four recognized elements of the monomyth: The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, and Crossing the First Threshold.  LFB follows these elements exactly, even if slightly out of order.  First, the protagonist is literally removed from his/her familiar world when Covenant is transported to the Land.  This doubles as Covenant’s Call to Adventure when combined with the task placed on him by the titular Lord Foul.  And if Covenant’s refusal of that call weren’t obvious in the actions of the character, Donaldson screams that it from the rooftops by nicknaming Covenant “the Unbeliever.”  As those in the screenwriting world are wont to say, that’s pretty on the nose.  Further, to address the last of the four exemplary elements, Covenant receives so much “Supernatural Aid,” both in the form of magic and people themselves that one would be forgiven if one went three-quarters of the way through the novel wondering when Covenant would actually do something for himself.  In short, Donaldson’s subscription to the monomyth is his undoing as it creates an overly familiar, and overly simple, text.

Since I ranted quite a bit about Tolkien and the monomyth, I’ll try to be brief with my last few thoughts on LFB.  Having gotten my major criticisms of the text out of the way I want to offer some specific things about the text that rankled me or were in some way unsatisfactory.  First, at points the novel read like a tourist brochure for the mythical Land.  Donaldson seemed to go out of his way, backed by the flimsy excuses of the characters, to show the reader as much of his fictional world as possible in the 474 pages (mass-market paperbound) of the text.  By page 200 it was getting rather tiresome when, by flipping to the map located in the front, one could trace a simple straight line from A to B and save at least 50 pages that could have been better spent elsewhere.  And one of the best places to spend it would have been to invest the reader more in the characters through segments of introspection or dialogue that revealed each character’s hidden layer.  Readers long to be connected with the characters – and great fantasy thrives on it – but LFB didn’t offer much of that outside of Covenant’s periodic protestations that he is only a leper and should not be expected to save the world.

My last thought is this: despite how unsatisfying I found Lord Foul’s Bane, Donaldson’s text occupies an important place in fantasy history.  As a student of the history of heavy metal, I take great joy in tracing the lineage of creative influences and production (publication) timelines.  And I see The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in the same way I see Judas Priest (apart from the fact that Judas Priest made good music).  Priest occupied the transitional phase of heavy metal from its forefathers – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin – to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and landmark bands such as Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, Motorhead, and Saxon.  Donaldson’s work also occupies a transitional phase between Tolkien and classics such as Robert Jordan (I’m sure that I don’t need to remind you that A Memory of Light is just around the corner) and Terry Goodkind.  Donaldson represents the stage where Tolkien’s work is being mimicked in an attempt to find a successful product.  Jordan in particular found that successful product and it is easy to imagine at certain points when reading Donaldson seeing Jordan do the same and make a mental note to tweak this or that when writing his own novels.

Thus, if for nothing else, one should read Lord Foul’s Bane and the rest of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant for the historical value.  I know I will be.