Top Shelf: Unbelievably Fantastic Saga

In the early 1970s, Stephen R. Donaldson dropped out of a Ph.D. program and dedicated himself to writing. Energized by the additional time and focus, he crafted a bold, 250,000-word fantasy novel, his modern response to Tolkien. Over the next four years, however, as he rewrote the book and penned two sequels, his work was rejected 47 different times.

Finally, however, Donaldson resubmitted to Ballantine, headed by a new, visionary editor Lester del Rey. Del Rey asked to see the second and third books as well, and ultimately decided to take a chance. Thus was The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever born.

The initial trilogy (Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War, The Power That Preserves) tells the story of Thomas Covenant, a successful author whose wife abandons him, taking their son, when Covenant is diagnosed with leprosy.

Shunned by his community and isolated by the measures required to keep his illness under control, Covenant has just resigned himself to solitude when he finds himself translated to a different world. The Land, as its inhabitants simply call it, is a place of breathtaking beauty and natural magic. As a leper, however, Covenant refuses to believe in its healing power. To do so would be to break the safe routines that keep him alive.

Over the course of the trilogy, however, he comes to accept responsibility for the world, whether because it really exists or because it is a reflection of his own soul. The people of the Land, led by the Lords of Revelstone and aided by the Unhomed Giants, see Covenant as the reincarnation of a great historic hero. His wedding band, a ring of white gold, is a mighty talisman, able to channel “the wild magic that destroys peace.”

Covenant is drawn into the Land’s struggle against a dark, chaotic figure known as the Despiser or Lord Foul. Trapped since the creation of the world, Foul seeks to push Covenant into using his ring and losing control of the wild magic, so that the Arch of Time is destroyed and the Despiser freed. But when Covenant finds a way to balance his unbelief with his compassion, the leper is able to confront Foul and achieve a victory.

Donaldson followed this trilogy with seven more books, the final of which was just released. If you’re a fan of fantasy and haven’t read them, you should definitely give them a shot. Not only a stirring tale, of magic and adventure, but also a moving meditation on guilt, powerlessness, and second chances, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever will make you fall in love with the Land as much as its reluctant savior does. 

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  1. Pingback: TOP SHELF Reviews from 2013 | David Bowles

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