Donald Stevenson: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

The word: “Guilt”

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a lesser known but very worthwhile fantasy book series, written by Donald Stevenson. It consists of three sets, the first two trilogies and the final being four books. Though protagonists and some setting carries over between each set, the stories in each are separated with a lot of time, so that each story is very different from the last.

One thing to note is that Stevenson’s writing is very dense. He tends to use complicated words where simple ones will do, and sometimes will go off on a philosophical tangent before returning to the story. On the other hand, he is quite gifted in making the reader connect to the rich inner life of his main characters. He will write at length about what the character is thinking, how his or her entire life’s experiences up to that point relates to the character’s current situation, and how his or her next actions are motivated by these thoughts.

The titular and arguably most interesting character in this series is Thomas Covenant. Covenant suffers from leprosy, a disease that destroys nerves. As a consequence, Covenant can no longer feel parts of his body, not even pain. This numbness alone does plenty to shape his psyche, but of even more importance is the scorn the disease brings him from his fellow human beings, who seem to implicitly blame him for contracting a disease that has since ages been associated with sin.

Covenant is grim and cynical. Because of his disease, he can easily get wounded without being aware of it. Therefor he must never loose his tight grip on himself, constantly checking himself for little scrapes or nicks. He believes that hope is the one thing that will kill him: it could cause him to forego the iron discipline and brutal realism that is the only thing keeping him alive.

Covenant is more conflicted in his reaction to being stigmatized for his disease. At times he condemns those who blame him for a condition beyond his control, and with intense passive aggression confronts them. At other times he accepts the stigma as inevitable, even deserved.

One day Covenant finds himself in a fairy tale world, where everyone is happy and health is a quality so strong that it can be directly perceived. The people there think him the reincarnation of a lost hero of legend. Covenant is convinced that the world he finds himself in is not real, that he is hallucinating and loosing his precious grip on reality. On the other hand, the world before him is as real to every sense as the normal world.

Scared and frustrated from the transition, he commits heinous crimes while insisting he cannot be blamed for things that happen in a dream. The burden of these crimes stay with him, piling on the ambiguous guilt felt for being a leper. It becomes apparent that his wedding ring, his last tie to the woman who abandoned him after he contracted leprosy, is a token of power in this world. But Covenant is scared to use such power: to feel powerful in a dream is to risk losing his grip on the iron discipline he needs to survive in the real world. As the fantasy world comes under attack, Covenant refuses to intervene. But he grows ever more conflicted over this decision as admirable people and great beauty are destroyed in the process.

It is not easy to pick out a single true theme for the Covenant series, because the stories feature a great number of themes. A major theme of the first book “Lord Foul’s Bane” for example is whether the world Covenant finds himself in is in fact real or not, and whether Covenant is a fool or a hero for choosing not to believe in it. Though this question is never definitively answered, and the theme never disappears completely from the books, it becomes less prominent in later volumes.

There is another theme, however, that underlies all books in the series. It is the relation of guilt and innocence vs power and powerlessness. The two are related, Covenant decides, thus: only the powerless can be innocent. Those with power either use force, losing their innocence, or stand by when they have the power to intervene, and thus gather guilt.

Covenant wants to see himself as innocent, the victim of a mysterious disease, but cannot help but see himself as his fellow human beings see him: guilty, his disease the physical proof of his sins. Once he enters the fairytail world however, he is given great power. He cannot maintain his self-image as a victim when he clearly holds the power to intervene. But when the frustration grows to strong, and in the heat of battle he decides to use his power, he kills his enemy almost without effort. Again he finds himself guilty.

This theme continues through all Covenant novels. Sometimes Covenant finds himself powerless, in which case he can maintain his innocence but is also unable to fight for the people who take such care of him, or to preserve the world he comes to love. Sometimes he has power but must withhold it. And sometimes he uses power, but inevitably finds his efforts insufficient or having worked into his enemy’s plans.

To resolve his conflict, Covenant must find what he calls “the eye of the paradox”, a state of mind in which he is able to embrace two opposing views. Though the world he inhabits is real, it is also a dream. Though nothing in this world can affect him, he is deeply connected to it. Though he holds power, he is powerless. Though he is steeped in guilt, he is innocent.

Like I said, Stevenson’s writing style is quite dense, and as you may have noticed, carries heavy philosophical notes. You’ll rarely crack a smile while reading the Covenant novels, and it may feel like a chore more than once. Even those who greatly enjoy these books struggle at times to get through them. But if you can live with this, reading the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant can be quite a profound experience.