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The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

[Chronicles of Thomas Covenant] The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever
by Stephen R. Donaldson
Published by Voyager, 1993 (omnibus reissue)
1120 pages
Amazon.co.uk: paperback
Recommended by: Greg Slade

Stephen R. Donaldson's series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever is based upon the character of the aforementioned Thomas Covenant, who hits his head and enters a world which you and I instantly recognise as a fantasy world: magic works, and giants roam the land. Covenant, too, recognises a fantasy world when he sees one, promptly decides that he's hallucinating from the bump on his head, and refuses to believe that anything he sees is real. Thus, he acquires the moniker "the Unbeliever", along with several others, including the title of the first book.

So far, so good. Donaldson provides us with a familiar viewpoint character, an evil force threatening a beautiful world, and a quest to vanquish that force and save the world. All standard fare in fantasy works these days. But Donaldson brings something to the table which is lacking in a lot of similar works, and that is that he has a bit more imagination. For one thing, his characters aren't the run-of-the-mill Tolkien rip-offs. Yes, he does have giants, but he skips the elves, dwarves, and orcs, and instead provides several races which are new and different. (Even the giants aren't your basic average fantasy giants, having a nicely sketched in history and motivation of their own.)

The central character, too, is a nice twist. Many fantasy protagonists are under-appreciated, unrecognised nobodies, who gain enough courage from going through the fantasy quest to win respect (and the girl) in their own worlds. (The more cynical readers among us might be tempted to write off much modern fantasy as nerd wish-fulfillment. Don't tell me you've never met a short, balding, bespectacled accountant who goes by the name "Thrundar the Dragon-Slayer" in his Tuesday night "Dungeons & Dragons" sessions, and who will relate imagined battles to you as if they were real. The other day, I had lunch with a guy who calmly told me about his encounter with a dragon as if it was the most normal thing in the world. It took me a while to realise that he was a "D&D" nut, rather than simply a nut.) On the other hand, Covenant is a leper, and his wish is simply to be left alone. He does not long, however secretly, to be any kind of a hero.

Through all of this tale, Donaldson weaves some fascinating moral issues. The first issue to arise is, are we morally responsible for the things we do in our fantasies or hallucinations? If you "know" a world isn't real, and a threat to it isn't real, then are you justified in doing nothing about the threat? Can one commit crimes in a fantasy world without any moral repercussions? Donaldson also places a lot of emphasis on the historic interaction between the disease of leprosy and the traditional presumption of guilt on the part of those who are afflicted with it. In his own world, Covenant is a pariah, not because of any sin he has committed, but because he is a leper. The assumption still runs that anyone suffering from something that nasty must have done something pretty bad to deserve it. Finally, Donaldson uses the series to raise "the problem of pain." How could an all-powerful, loving God allow suffering in the world He created? Donaldson wrestles with that issue for the entire trilogy, and while I believe that the answer he comes to in the end is fundamentally flawed, at least he is asking the question. (September, 1998)

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