On Thomas Covenant

I’m a big fan of the Thomas Covenant series, having read them at least six times through.  (Only once in the last decade, though.)  Covenant is actually a huge influence on my writing, at least as big as Star Wars.  And yet I feel a little afraid to hate this, as Covenant is one of those things that is hated in many circles – and hated correctly.

The things people hate about Covenant are perfectly accurate, and yet one of the things that draws me to it.  (WARNING: Spoilers for a forty year-old fantasy series follow.)

Covenant is one of those stories that draws its strength from hatred, knows it’s designed to be hated, and yet somehow manages to harness that power.  Because the protagonist of Thomas Covenant is a leper rapist, which should tell you how incredibly subtle this series is.

No, he does not rape lepers.  Actually, Thomas Covenant used to be a bestselling author, but he got leprosy and endured a country music horror story where his wife left him lest their child catch the disease, the town he lives in wants him gone, and of course he cannot write because there is nothing good in his life.  The only reason he is alive is because of his constant Visual Surveillance of Extremity checks – as a leper, with degenerating nerves, unless he checks himself daily, he will acquire scrapes he is unaware of, which will become infected and kill him.

He lives a very locked-down life, living out of spite, until the day he is hit by a car and knocked into a dream-land – called, imaginatively, The Land – where he is a) threatened by the Big Bad of the series, b) told that he is the hero and champion of the land (with a mysterious magic contained in his wedding ring), and c) healed of his leprosy, allowed to feel again.

So he rapes his teenaged healer.

The justification, if one can call it that, is that a) Thomas believes this is a dream, and b) that he is so intoxicated by the sudden resurgence of his potency that he is acting even out of his own character.  Certainly he despises himself for the act.  Still, The Land is so vivid that I don’t think any reader buys it as a dream, and even if it was, it’s pretty clear that a dude who, even in dreams, would go, “Hey, I’d really like to dream about raping a girl” is not someone you’d want to invite to parties.

At which point a lot of people check out.  I don’t blame them.  Reading involves wanting to follow someone through the next 400 pages to see what they do, and really, when a guy’s raped one person your natural inclination is to find someone less excruciating to follow.

But if you thought that was bad, the rest of the series involves everyone relentlessly and repeatedly forgiving Thomas for the worst possible sins because he’s the Chosen One.  He’s prophesied.  He wears the Ring.  He’s even got the half-hand of legends of old. He’s going to save The Land, and so the wisest people in the place go through astounding contortions to justify why this seemingly grumpy asshole must be a hero in disguise.  They don’t just court his favor, they take his assholery as evidence that they must not understand his grandeur, and feel bad for not understanding him.

And while I hate the rape, for me, what drives this series is the discomfort we’re supposed to feel, as Covenant becomes the only one who consistently holds himself accountable for what he’s done.  Covenant hates himself, because he knows he’s insufficient to the task in either world.  Covenant knows his sins sharper than anyone else, and a major portion of the book is him wondering whether The Land is his psychological ploy to drop his guard so he can finally – and correctly – kill himself.  And yet he’s thrust into a world that has scripted him as their Big Damn Hero, and the juice I get from the saga is that underpinning knowledge that there should be a moral accountability, and nobody is willing to give his reckoning to him because he’s the Savior.

And it gets even worse – after three whole books of being bathed in ridiculous amounts of unearned forgiveness, Covenant starts to believe in the Land.  He’s an asshole, he knows that, but by God someone should fight for this place – and if the only one who can do it effectively is him, then he has to step up.  And then, after abandoning all his hopes and dreams in the quote-unquote “real” world, he actually saves The Land.

So what’s that make Covenant?  He’s never forgotten his sins, in fact the Land is littered with the wreckage of all the stupid decisions he made… but on one occasion, for the One Thing he was prophesied to do, he came through.

So what’s Covenant?  Is he a hero?  Or is he a jerk who managed?

I like that moral complexity.  I’ve never forgiven Covenant for that central sin of rape (or all the horrifically Godawful stuff he does later, like practically dating the adoring daughter of the woman he raped in a later book).  Yet to this day I oscillate between rooting for Covenant or against him, because on one level he’s scum and yet on another level the fundamental question is whether if a bad man is swamped with enough kindness, maybe he can accomplish something more than evil.  He does manage to develop a love he never had before, and he does manage to purge the Land of Lord Foul’s influence.

But really, was the saving of one man worth the cost of all the other damage he had to do?  Should The Land have had to suffer, having been seemingly created explicitly for the redemption of one man? Does Covenant’s self-awareness of his own toxicity mean anything compared to the corrosive effects of his self-hatred?

I don’t know that it should.

The magnificence of Thomas Covenant is that all of the accusations leveled against the book are absolutely true, and yet it knows this; in fact, I’d argue that’s why it was written.  And the later books, which attempt to cast Covenant in more of the heroic mold (but never a Big Damn Hero, oh no), are less successful.

If you hate it, I see absolutely why.  If you couldn’t read it, I’m totally with you.  Covenant is the train wreck that I probably shouldn’t be watching, but can’t look away from.  Because it plays with a really hideously dangerous morality, and to this day I still wonder about Covenant more than I do any other book.  Donaldson made Covenant the anti-hero, someone beyond redemption, and put him in a place where he got as close to redemption as was possible – yet still raised questions of whether this was a good thing.

I dunno.  Maybe it’s because I read it when I was fourteen, and it was my first real shot of moral ambiguity.  Yet I’m up in the air about it, and that ambiguity of blurring oscillation about what’s actually the right course – whether some things can ever be justified – is what drives a lot of my fiction.

Though Lord knows I’m never writing about rape.  Because at this point, it’s become too much of a shorthand, and I think there are far more interesting tales to be told without it.

1 Comment

  1. Cat Rennolds
    Jan 15, 2014

    I’m glad to hear this so clearly articulated. I’ve read it through twice, and partially any number of times, trying to figure out why it caught me and repelled me at the same time. Two points: More than his one salient crime, what bothers me about Covenant is his total and constant self-pity. He uses guilt to evade change, pain to avoid responsibility, martyrdom and victimhood to manipulate and keep the world focused on him. Because of course the Land IS Covenant. This was a lesson perhaps I needed to learn. The second point is that everyone forgives him not because of what he is, or even what they are, but because they have to. They too are Covenant, externalized and separate, again so he doesn’t have to identify with the work of changing himself.

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