The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

"The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever" is a trilogy of fantasy novels by Stephen R. Donaldson. It was followed by "The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant", also a trilogy, and "The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant", a planned tetralogy.

The main character is Thomas Covenant, a cynical writer afflicted with leprosy, shunned and despised by society, who is destined to become the heroic saviour of an alternate world - or, perhaps, only of his own sanity. Throughout six novels published between 1977 and 1983, Covenant struggles against the evil Lord Foul — "The Despiser" — who intends to break the physical universe to escape its bondage and wreak revenge upon his arch-enemy "The Creator". Many elements of the story correspond to those of Richard Wagner's epic "Ring Cycle", but with inverted values.

In 2004 Donaldson returned to the chronicles with a new series, intended to be the last chronicles.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

# "Lord Foul's Bane" – (1977)
# "The Illearth War" – (1978) ("Gilden-Fire" - First Published 1981) [ [ Gilden-Fire] ]
# "The Power that Preserves" – (1979)

The story "Gilden-Fire" first appeared as an independent novella but is most widely available as a part of most versions of the Donaldson short story collection, "A Daughter of Regals", 1985. [ Interview] ] It is an excerpt cut from "The Illearth War" that describes an episode from the doomed mission to contact the Giants. "Gilden-Fire" is told from the point of view of Korik, the senior Bloodguard on the mission. It describes Korik's selection process of the mission's Bloodguard, and then narrates the mission's crossing of Grimmerdhore forest where they defeat an ambush of ur-viles and kresh (wolves). The narrative ends as the mission leaves the forest. Whether "Gilden-Fire" can be considered series canon is open for debate, as per the author's foreword. "Gilden-Fire" was originally part of a larger planned section that followed the mission to the Giants in "real time." It was cut due to space restrictions as well as point-of-view inconsistency with the rest of the "Chronicles". The events during this crossing of Grimmerdhore are not mentioned in the published "Illearth War" narrative; indeed, one passage in "Illearth War" suggests the crossing was uneventful. Some information shared here on the origin and motivation of the Bloodguard does appear in other contexts in the published "Chronicles." The rest of the mission after the Grimmerdhore crossing was included in the "Chronicles" via the narrative device of Bloodguard messengers.

Major Themes in the First Chronicles

An issue of major importance in the First Chronicles is the question of the reality of the Land. From Thomas Covenant's perspective, the Land may be only a delusion of his disturbed mind. Stephen R. Donaldson goes to great lengths to make this just as plausible as any other theory ("e.g.", Thomas Covenant is indeed mentally unbalanced, events in the Land seem to parallel his subconscious struggles, his physical condition upon exiting the Land is always precisely identical to his condition upon entering the Land, etc.) This raises the 'Fundamental Question of Ethics' that appears at the very start of the Chronicles, which can be rephrased as "do actions performed in dreams have any significance?" A deplorable act performed by Covenant in the first book (which will have consequences throughout the story) can be seen as an attempt to test this theory. One interpretation of the First Chronicles sees the reality of the Land eventually 'proven' to Covenant; another interprets Covenant's eventual decision to act for the Land as understanding that, be the Land real or not, it is of significance to him.

Covenant tried to test the reality of the land several times during the first and second chronicles by growing a beard (after choosing not to discard his pen knife, the only object he has with him apart from his clothes) however this fails when he inevitably shaves his beard. Another test of the reality of The Land is the fact that Covenant enters the land after sustaining damage (e.g. being hit by a car in the first book, bashing his head on a coffee table corner in the second and a series of incidents at the start of the third including cutting his gums on razor blades hidden in bread buns, falling down a stoney hill, and sucking snake poison from the wound of a young girl) but he is always returned to the same state that he entered shortly before leaving, such as the wound on his forehead that he sustains bashing it on a coffee table before entering the Land is healed, only to be wounded again after being attacked with a staff by Hile Troy (Who claims to be another real person in the land.)

Another major theme, closely related to the one just mentioned, is the psychological symbolism of the Land. It very clearly parallels Covenant's own psyche: he is filled with self-hatred, manifested in the Land as the Despiser; he is ravaged by a corrupting disease that eats away at him, similarly to the Illearth Stone, and so forth. Covenant is forced to decide whether the fundamental health and beauty of the Land is worth struggling to preserve, whether it's "real" or not, mirroring the choice he must make in his own life. In this way the fantasy genre allows the author to explore Covenant's inner workings in a very effective way.

After his return to our world, Covenant resumes his writing, publishing seven novels in ten years. Although he will never be able to return to the life he had before contracting leprosy, he seems to have come to terms with his condition and the events that transpired in The Land.

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

# "The Wounded Land" – (1980)
# "The One Tree" – (1982)
# "White Gold Wielder" – (1983)

Major Themes in the Second Chronicles

Where the First Chronicles were involved with Covenant himself, his psychology, and his relationship with the world of the Land, the Second Chronicles add a second character, Linden Avery. The interaction of the two characters becomes a major topic, with relations warming up and cooling off at different times, but in the end settling on mutual respect and warmth. Covenant is forced to re-evaluate his experiences and the conclusions he's come to in another context, namely when other "real" peoples' "real lives" are affected.

The resolution of the crisis and the defeat of the Despiser reveal another theme. Covenant discovers despite in himself, and thus that the Despiser is part of him, in a sense (figuratively, or, perhaps, even literally). Thus he does not need to combat him directly - indeed, direct conflict failed to defeat the Despiser more than once. Hence he surrenders his ring to the Despiser, and allows him to fail in his attempt to destroy the Arch of Time.

The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

# "The Runes of the Earth" – (2004)
# "Fatal Revenant" – (2007)
# "Against All Things Ending" – (expected 2010)
# "The Last Dark" – (expected 2013)

Peoples and Creatures of the Land

"See also:" The Land - Peoples and Races of the Land

Cavewights are dimly intelligent subterranean creatures skilled in metal working and mining. They are weak willed, and are easily intimidated by Lord Foul into serving him (though they once traded openly with the humans of the Land). They are described as having "long, scrawny limbs, hands as huge and heavy as shovels," plus "a thin, hunched torso, and a head shaped like a battering ram." Drool Rockworm is a cavewight.

The Creator is the mysterious being who created the Land and the universe in which it exists. This universe is referred to as "the Earth" but is clearly a different reality than Covenant's world. The fundamental structure of the universe, the "Arch of Time", prevents the Creator from intervening directly in events in the world of his creation, and he never appears in physical form within that world. He can, however, manifest himself in the "real" world - he appears to Covenant and Linden as an old man in an ochre robe - and guide those who attempt to make contact between the universes. Demondim are an extinct race spawned by the Viles. They have a semi-corporeal nature, and can only achieve physical presence by animating dead bodies. (They are somewhat like zombies in this respect.) They were not originally wholly evil, but their inherent self-loathing was used by Lord Foul to gain their allegiance. They spawned two other races, the Waynhim and the Ur-viles.

Elohim are a race of spirits who possess god-like powers. To mortal perceptions, they appear as beautiful men and women in a remote, sealed-off region of the Earth, and spend their time in dazzling physical transformations. In their own perspective, they constitute the animating principle of the Earth, and the history of the Land is the manifestation of events in their own consciousness.

Forestals are beings who serve the forests of the Land, the remnants of the "One Forest", the great sentient wood which once covered The Land. They are human in appearance, but according to the "Elohim" they were created by the One Forest itself using knowledge from another "Elohim" imprisoned within the Colossus. The Forestals actively protected the remaining forest from destruction by encroaching mortals. They were more numerous in the distant past but few survived into the era of the New Lords. By the time of the Second Chronicles, when the remnants of the ancient forest (with the exception of Giant Woods in the Lower Land) were long dead, the last remaining Forestal lived in Andelain. His name was Caer-Caveral, though he was originally Hile Troy, a man from Covenant's world who had once been Warmark (commander-in-chief) of the Lords' army.

Giants are a race of extremely long lived humanoids of unusual height and strength. Giants are known for their stone lore (similar to but not identical with that of the Stonedownors), their skill at seamanship, and their love of story-telling. A common Giantish interjection is, "Stone and Sea!" Giants are resistant to cold and cannot be harmed by ordinary fire (though it does pain them). In return for a favor performed for the mysterious "Elohim" long ago, the entire race of Giants are endowed with an innate ability to speak and understand all languages. The Giants' own language is very florid and verbose, and they find human speech to be rather curt and inexpressive. The Giants of the Land are sometimes called the Unhomed since they were separated from their homeland long ago, and although the Giants love children, they are not fertile and their numbers in the Land in the time of the Chronicles have dwindled to a very few. Kevin Landwaster entrusted them with the first of his Seven Wards before the Ritual of Desecration. They sometimes refer to humans as Rockbrothers and Rocksisters, in honor of the ancient alliance they made with High Lord Damelon Giantfriend. Saltheart Foamfollower is a Giant.

Griffins are winged lions. They are sometimes ridden by ur-Viles.

Haruchai are a hardy race of warriors living in the Westron Mountains, west of the Land. The Haruchai shun the use of weapons or magic, taking pride in their own physical prowess and the purity of their service, which is never given lightly. They also have the ability to communicate amongst themselves via mental telepathy. Outwardly stoic, even seemingly emotionless, they could also be considered arrogant in their beliefs. It's revealed on several different occasions in the series that the Haruchai are a deeply passionate race, capable of swearing a lifetimes worth of service if sufficiently moved. The first of these commitments came when an army of Haruchai marched into the Land, some 2,000 years before Covenant’s coming to the Land. The Old Lords, led by High Lord Kevin, refused to meet the Haruchai in battle, lest the noble Haruchai be destroyed by the Lords' Earthpower. Instead, the Lords gave the Haruchai precious gifts. The wonders of the Land, and the compassion and wisdom of its Lords, moved the Haruchai to swear to The Vow, an oath to protect and serve the Lords. Swearing The Vow caused the best 500 of these Haruchai to become the Bloodguard; functionally immortal, never growing old, never sleeping, and allowing themselves to be separated from their former families in the Westron Mountains. When a Bloodguard dies in battle, his body is sent back into the mountains for burial, and another Haruchai comes to Revelstone to continue The Vow and take his place among the Bloodguard. If the body is destroyed or otherwise unrecoverable and cannot be sent back, no Haruchai replaces them and the number of bloodguard is diminished. During the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Bloodguard disbanded in shame after three of them were corrupted by a fragment of the Illearth Stone and made to serve Lord Foul. In the Second Chronicles, Haruchai are frequently chosen by the Clave for blood rites ostensibly intended to ward off the Sunbane: their blood is considered especially potent because of their endurance and vitality. Thomas Covenant is told "Redeem my people. Their plight is an abomination." Several thousand years later, in the time leading up to the Final Chronicles, the Haruchai claimed authority over The Land, dubbing themselves its "Masters." As such, they made it their mission to prevent any and all uses of Earthpower, which they had come to see as leading inevitably to disaster in the hands of mortals, since mortals are capable of despair and desecration. To this end, they suppressed the history of the land so that its inhabitants would forget about the Earthpower, and detained anyone they found who had learned enough to make use of it.

The Insequent are a mysterious race of people who dwell to the west of The Land. They are characterised by their hunger for knowledge, their near-magical skill in warfare and their ability to travel through time. They have a bitter and long-standing rivalry with "The Elohim", which has not yet been fully explained. They rarely reveal their true names, but prefer to be identified by their titles. So far only three Insequent have appeared in the stories: The Madoubt, the Harrow and the Theomach. A fourth, the Vizard, is spoken of by the Haruchai.

Lords are the leaders and stewards of the Land, also known as Earthfriends. The standards for Lordship are high, so they are generally few in number. In order to become a Lord, a person must master the martial arts and the use and application of magic. These skills are called the Sword and the Staff respectively, and together form the First Ward of Kevin's Lore, an ancient repository of knowledge. A student who masters both parts of the Lore – and does not opt to become "Unfettered" in order to pursue a private vision – is invited to join the Council of Lords at Revelstone, also known as Lord's Keep. The Lords carry special staffs that allow them to channel their power, and are easily identified by their sky blue robes.

Lord Foul is the most commonly used name for the ancient enemy of The Land, given to him by the Council of Lords. He's also called 'The Despiser', the 'Gray Slayer' (his name in The Plains), 'Fangthane the Render' by the Ramen and 'a-Jeroth of the Seven Hells' by The Clave. He also called himself a-Jeroth during the time he served on Kevin's council. He is described as "the wicked son or brother of the Creator's heart" and is the source of all evil in The Land. He is a being of pure spirit, although capable of taking on human form, and is apparently immortal: he cannot be killed, but his power can be reduced to near insignificance. On occasions when this has happened he has always been able to restore and regenerate his power over time.

Ramen are the tenders of the Ranyhyn (see below). The Ramen life's work is to serve the Ranyhyn, whom they hold in very high esteem. Traditionally they do not ride or otherwise subjugate the great horses, and can grow resentful of those who do. The fact that the Lords of Revelstone and the Bloodguard often ride the great horses is a major point of contention, but the Ramen tolerate this in deference to the Ranyhyn, who choose to give their service. When defending the Ranyhyn from Kresh (large wolves in service to the Despiser) or other predators, the Ramen frequently use ropes as garottes to break the attackers' necks. Ramen are organised into three "ranks": "Manethralls" who are the leaders, "Cords" who assist the manethralls, and "Winhomes" who perform domestic supporting duties. Two other ranks are mentioned in Runes of the earth, Keepers and Curriers, but their placement within the Ramen hierarchy is not known.

Ranyhyn are the great horses of the Land. These horses live on the Plains of Ra, and are tended to by the Ramen. The Ranyhyn are akin to normal horses, but are larger, always have a star and are in some indefinable sense enhanced by the Earthpower of the Land, so that their speed and endurance, as well as their intelligence, far outstrips that of a standard horse. The Ranyhyn can be ridden by individuals they deem worthy, but a person who seeks such a mount must travel to the Plains of Ra and offer himself to the horses for consideration. If a Ranyhyn accepts a rider, it is loyal to that rider until death. All of the Bloodguard (apparently) are accepted by the Ranyhyn, but not all Lords have been deemed worthy. The Ranyhyn also have a limited ability to perceive the future; these horses can "hear" when their rider will need them, hearing their calling days or weeks before the rider makes the call. Thus, when the rider summons his Ranyhyn, it appears shortly thereafter, regardless of the distance between them.

Ravers are bodiless evil spirits with the ability to possess and control some lesser creatures, and most humans as well. Giants and Bloodguard are typically immune to this power, and there are no known instances of a Raver possessing a Ranyhyn. There are only three Ravers, ancient brothers who each have many names but are commonly called "turiya" Herem, "samadhi" Sheol, and "moksha" Jehannum. Their greatest hatred is reserved for the trees of the One Forest of old, and their loathing of the Earthpower and all good things has led them to become Lord Foul's willing servants. The Despiser is somehow able to enhance their abilities when he pleases, but can prevent them from possessing individuals he deems too powerful. (They were not allowed to possess Thomas Covenant, for instance, because his ring would make them too powerful for Lord Foul to control.) This possession can, and in some cases needs to be facilitated by some external power. In the 'Illearth War' the Ravers were only able to possess their giant 'hosts' when they worked in harmony with the power of the Illearth Stone. They often serve as leaders in Lord Foul's armies, or as spies among his enemies.

Stonedownors are humans descended from The Land's original inhabitants. They are known for their knowledge of stone lore and live in stone huts. A master of stone lore is called a "Gravelingas", or a "Rhadhamaerl" which also refers to the craft of stone lore. Stonedownors are typically dark-skinned, squat and muscular, though this isn't always the case. Trell and Triock are both unusually tall for Stonedownors. During the Second Chronicles, their leaders are known as Gravellers, and sacrifice members of their village to use the blood to call forth the power of the sunbane. Sunder, the Graveller of Mithil Stowndown, manages to use the power of Loric's Krill to Summon forth the power of the Sunbane without shedding blood, and learns to manipulate the sunbane to his own uses.

Ur-viles are creatures of jet black color and are constructions of an extinct race named the Demondim. They are highly magical, possessing a number of supernatural abilities, including shooting acid, creating bolts of pure energy and the like. They are also blind, but have a preternatural sense of smell. One of their most distinctive features is that when assembled in a wedge formation, the leader (or "loremaster") at the apex wields the combined power of the entire group, without weakening any of their kin in the rest of the wedge. The Ur-viles initially served Lord Foul, but later turned against him by creating the creature Vain (from which the new Staff of Law was created). In "The Runes of the Earth", the Ur-viles have actively joined the side of "good", though their motivation remains unclear. Because they were made rather than born, the Ur-viles loathe their own bodies and often redirect this rage towards other targets. They also do not die (except when killed) or reproduce.

Viles are an extinct race who spawned the Demondim. They were non-corporeal, but nonetheless very powerful. Initially a proud and gifted race, they were led into self-hatred and despair by the Ravers. They were eventually destroyed by the Council of Lords, under High Lord Loric "Vilesilencer".

Waynhim are another race of creatures spawned by the Demondim. They closely resemble the Ur-viles (having no eyes, super-sensitive smell and hearing, and magical abilities), though they are smaller and lighter in color. Like the Ur-viles (who are their long-standing nemeses), the Waynhim were made rather than born. However, they do not share their cousins' self-hatred, and have dedicated themselves to serving the Land and the Earthpower according to their own peculiar ethical system, the "Weird" of the Waynhim. Like the Ur-viles, they fight in a wedge formation with a loremaster at the apex.

Woodhelvennin are humans descended from the Land's original inhabitants. They are known for their use of wood lore and living in tree-top villages. A master of wood lore is called a "Hirebrand," or a "lillianrill". ("Lillianrill" usually refers to the craft of wood lore.) They are typically fair-skinned, tall and slender.

Places and concepts

Andelain is a focal region of the Land, where the Earthpower is especially strong. It is similar in concept to Lothlórien from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, being a place of concentrated strength and "goodness". In the Second Chronicles it is the one place immune from the Sunbane, as it is protected by the Forestal Caer Caveral.

Languages: Human inhabitants of the Land (together with Giants, Cavewights, and the human inhabitants of other regions of the Earth) all appear to speak modern English, though their style of speech is usually rather formal and archaic. The strange commonality of language between Covenant and the Land's inhabitants is never addressed in the books (though the corresponding phenomenon in the "Mordant's Need" books "is" remarked upon). There are, however, other languages extant: For example, in "Lord Foul's Bane", Atiaran tells Thomas Covenant that a different language was spoken in the age of the Old Lords. (However, this appears to be contradicted in "Fatal Revenant", when Linden Avery and Berek Halfhand converse together in English.) Non-humans also have their own languages, for example the barking speech of ur-viles and Waynhim, the Giants' language, and the native tongue of the Haruchai. In the Second Chronicles it is explained that the Giants received "the gift of tongues" in a bargain with the Elohim (with "the gift of tongues" traded for a simple tale), and the Bhrathair, a people who live on the edge of the Great Desert, also speak a different language.

Worm/Word/Weird. In the cosmology of the Land, the Earth's core consists of a coiled-up serpent called the "Worm of the World's End". When Covenant attempts to sever a branch of the One Tree by using the power of the white gold, he risks rousing the Worm (which is not fully asleep, but merely resting) and thus destroying the Earth. The Waynhim and Ur-viles believe in a principle of ethics or destiny called the "Weird". The Elohim have a concept which appears to do duty for both these beliefs: it is impossible to determine whether the sound used for this is "Worm", "Word" or "Weird", as it comes out in a blurred form sounding something like "Würd".


In the Thomas Covenant stories, Donaldson takes several terms from Sanskrit that are significant in Hinduism and Buddhism and reassigns them meanings in the Land. For example, the term "moksha", which in Sanskrit refers to liberation from the cycle of sorrow, is given as the original name for a creature of depravity and evil called a Raver. Another Raver, Satansfist, is called "samadhi", which in Sanskrit refers to a state of mind in which one achieves oneness with the object of one's concentration. The third Raver, Kinslaughterer, is called "turiya", Sanskrit for a state of pure consciousness. Donaldson has commented on his website that moksha, samadhi, and turiya are ways the ravers describe themselves, while their other names are given by others. [] Note that Donaldson's use of the term "raver" preceded the modern rave culture, so their overlap is likely coincidental.

Donaldson repeats this application of Sanskrit terms to seemingly unrelated aspects of the Land to other terms, including: "dukkha", "dharmakshetra", "ahamkara", and "yajna".

The Chronicles also contain names of Semitic origin. For instance, "samadhi"/Satansfist is also called "Sheol", (Hebrew for the grave, the abode of the dead), "moksha"/Fleshharrower is also known as "Jehannum" (similar to the Hebrew "Gehinnom" and the Arabic "Jahannum", for Hell or Purgatory), and "turiya"/Kinslayer is also "Herem" (Hebrew for banned, excluded, excommunicated). The name of the fairy race of "Elohim" is the Hebrew for God or gods.

The name "Bhrathair" (for one of the peoples encountered by Covenant in his sea voyage) is Irish for "brothers".

Book Covers

The UK book covers for the First Chronicles (Lord Foul's Bane, The Illearth War, The Power That Preserves) can be placed side by side to create a single panorama of The Land. This is true of both the front and back covers.

Related Works

* Citation
first = Karen Wynn| last = Fonstad
author-link = Karen Wynn Fonstad
title = The Atlas of the Land
place = New York
publisher = Ballantine Books
year = 1985
isbn = 03453314336


External links

* [ Interview (excerpts)] with Donaldson in Locus magazine
*SciFan entries for:
** [ The Thomas Covenant Universe]
** [ The First Chronicles]
** [ The Second Chronicles]
** [ The Last Chronicles]
* [ The Land] fansite with analysis and plot summaries
* [ A guide to the works of Stephen R. Donaldson] Manuscripts held by Kent State University Special Collections and notable published editions of each. Online listing last updated 1996.
* [""] A fansite with "official unofficial" message board for the series.
* [ Le Fief de Covenant] French fansite with a lot of informations about the chronicles.
* [ Stephen R.] The author's website.
* ["Despair in Dreams"] A fanlisting for the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

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