Thomas Covenant had leprosy. We don’t hear a lot about leprosy these days, but the mere sound of the word still conjures up images of deformed and mangled flesh. What leprosy does is kill the nerve endings so you lose all feeling. When you can’t feel pain, you can easily overlook a small injury, which can then become infected and cause big problems. That is how he lost his right pinky and ring finger. Such was the reality of Covenant’s life.
Even though the progress of his disease was halted and he was not really contagious, he was shunned by everyone around. Even his wife, who knew the facts, couldn’t handle the thought of raising their young son with a leper, so she took the boy and left. As the story opens we find a solitary man whose body feels nothing and whose spirit and soul have become deadened as well. His focus is survival, and while he is alive, few would call it living. He is simply existing.
Out of this isolated existence, Covenant is summoned to The Land. It is another world so full of life that even his dead nerves are rejuvenated. In addition to coping with his physical healing, his missing fingers make him a dead ringer for the Land’s mythic hero. To top it off, his white gold wedding ring is a talisman of enormous power and everyone expects him to save The Land from Lord Foul. All this is more than Covenant can handle. Any one of us would question our sanity if we woke up in another world, but Covenant was already on the edge. The only way he can keep from going off the deep end is to deny it all – it is only a dream. Hence his moniker, Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
I first read these books as a teen in the early ‘80s. I read them again last year. Donaldson does a magnificent job creating another world. By the end, you can almost believe the land is real, whether Covenant does or not. I think his greatest creation, however, are the characters. You will grow to really care about what happens to them and their home. Against that backdrop is Thomas Covenant – one messy guy. You will feel Covenant’s pain and understand his stugle, and yet you will also want him to get his act together since he is The Land’s only hope. He is not quite an anti-hero, but he certainly finds about every way possible to screw-up his new life in The Land.
Will he manage to get a grip on himself long enough to save The Land? You’ll have to read and find out.