Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

Few series in the fantasy canon are as divisive as the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. This was true in the late 70's when it was published, with the dividing line being that boys like the series while the girls reviled it, and true today, where many men join many women in reviling. What is it about this series that polarizes the readership so much?

This series is not escapist fantasy. If you want to be someone else for a while, Thomas Covenant isn't him. Although the Land has many attractive elements to it, to live there during the depicted time ought to rank very low on your to-do list.

The war depicted in these books is not the great and noble battles of old, but the war of post-Vietnam America, where body counts were the totals of the day, and incendiary bombs rained upon villages. Our hero is a leper whose hands no longer feel, his disease rotting him from the inside, much like the world around him rotted from the inside. There is no heroism in war. There is no sanctity in peace.

To escape the fundamental allegory is to escape the fundamental exploration of our modern unheroicism. Without the allegory, the novel has no meaning, delivering you only ambivalence and the gritty taste of ashes in your mouth. Only with the allegory does the series delivery any reward at all, but that sort of reward takes thinking from the reader, one who all too  likely has become exhausted in the reading of the work.

Yet there is a slice of the reading population jaded by heroes that never face consequences, where morals are won at the point of a sword, where kings rule by right, and the divides between good and evil are wide and verdant. For those readers, the very aspects which drive many readers away bring these readers in. To this day, I can't think of a fantasy series so relentless in its deconstruction of the cult of heroism, so willing to deliver the bad news that war is hell and heroes are just people who believe in their world's illusions more than anyone else.

Thomas Covenant is the unbeliever. He doesn't believe in the land, what is stands for, or the health it offers to him, because when he returns to the real world, that belief will destroy him. Illusions will destroy him. False belief will destroy him. Heroism grants him nothing. The only thing that keeps him alive is the non-self-serving belief that leprosy is permanent and nothing will cure it, much as the sins of mankind are permanent and nothing will destroy them, even if we life in a fantasy world with magic and wonders. Remember, we are as lepers, rotting from the inside.

Having warned of you what's here, I can neither recommend nor pan this series. It's up to you to know what you want from your fiction. There are no correct answers here. If you aren't up for the experience, then move on. You know your heart.