The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever Essay - Critical Essays

Stephen R. Donaldson


Shortly after publication of the first Covenant trilogy in 1977, Stephen R. Donaldson received the 1979 John W. Campbell Award as best new writer of the year. The trilogies reveal Donaldson’s familiarity with medieval literature, his knowledge of leprosy, and his heavy indebtedness to J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1968).

Although a hero on quest to right a wrong is an ancient theme, Donaldson’s twist—Covenant is a leper—creates a protagonist who seems woefully inadequate to the task, as does Tolkien’s hero, the hobbit Frodo Baggins. Blended with the theme of the quest to free the Land from evils inflicted by Lord Foul are the familiar medieval themes of alienation and impotence. Covenant’s leprosy isolates him from society and prevents him from accepting the Land and his restored health as real; it also causes the sexual impotence that translates into a futility of spirit when he is swept by the Creator into the dreamlike Land.

Because Donaldson’s physician father specialized in the treatment of leprosy, Donaldson possesses an esoteric knowledge of the disease that he uses to good effect in his depiction of Covenant and in the metaphors of health, decay, and numbness that pervade both trilogies. The leper’s physical survival tool, visual surveillance of extremities (VSE), becomes Covenant’s metaphorical survival tool as he struggles with appearance versus reality in the Land. Both leper and moral being must answer this question: What must one do in the face of death—what is the proper response to destruction?

Donaldson’s debt to Tolkien appears most clearly in his creation of the characters and characteristics of the Land. Lord Foul, whose twisted perceptions cause him to despise the good that remains beyond his grasp, clearly derives...

(The entire section is 747 words.)