Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever is an epic fantasy trilogy first published in 1977. Its titular main character, Thomas Covenant, is from a 20th century town in our world. He’s a leper, and eventually he’s going to lose his limbs, his sight, and the feeling in his nerves. His wife has divorced him and the townspeople have gone so far as to home deliver his groceries so he doesn’t come near them. Just when it seems things couldn’t get any worse, he’s then kidnapped by magical means and transported to the mythical world of the Land. There, his possession of a white-gold wedding band results in him being seen by the ruling authority, the Council of Lords, as the only man who can save the Land from destruction by the evil Lord Foul.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is infamous for one polarizing scene: Shortly after his arrival in the Land, Covenant befriends a beautiful young girl. Overcome by the Land’s rejuvenation of his leprosy-deadened nerves and believing he is trapped in a hallucination, he rapes her. From this early point in the trilogy, it is clear that Thomas Covenant is anything but a typical hero.
The Craft of That Scene
Donaldson is very careful not to glorify the rape scene that forms the defining moment of Covenant’s character. He very subtly shifts the point of view (POV) away from Covenant and into the POV of Lena, the victim. ‘But even as she cried out she knew that it was too late for her. Something that her people thought of as a gift had been torn from her.’ We are meant to identify with the victim’s sorrow during this scene, not Covenant’s lust. It is deftly handled, and allows Donaldson to avoid making the scene gratuitous. Donaldson reinforces the reader’s sympathy for Covenant’s victim when, the next morning, Covenant reflects briefly on the incident. ‘He [Covenant] did not think about Lena; he knew instinctively that he could not afford to think about her.’ Covenant’s lack of remorse is in stark contrast to Lena’s hurt. Clearly, it is the effect on Lena, not Covenant that is at the heart of the scene. Many crime novels such as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon intercut scenes from the killer’s POV for a similar effect. In those scenes, we don’t need to strictly identify with the killer. Such scenes are often driven by conflict or by sympathy for the victim. Donaldson’s shift in POV assists our moral judgement to stand objectively removed from Covenant’s act.
Later in the novels, however, Covenant’s act has serious repercussions. Unknown to him, the rape results in a child, Elena, who goes on to become one of the High Lords who rule the Land. Due to the time differential between the Land and Earth, she is in her thirties when Covenant returns to the Land after an absence. Covenant certainly professes remorse for the rape with such lines as ‘I wouldn’t do it again – attack a girl like that. I would take it back if I could.’ But we are always wondering how honest these self-recriminations are, especially in light of his apparent sexual attraction towards Elena.
Perhaps what makes Covenant so enduring is that he is a conflicted character whose true motivations are murky, even to himself. Even the rape, an obviously despicable act, is committed while he is of the belief that the Land is a hallucination, so his moral responsibility and his motivation are made uncertain.
The Advantages of Being a Man of Moral Mystery
Morally grey characters such as Covenant are unpredictable. When a morally grey character controls the narrative, you can never be sure where the story will go. For example, no one is prepared when Covenant rejects an offer the intelligent horses known as the Ranyhyn make to him. ‘He could hear the amazement of the Ramen – amazement too strong for them to feel any offence at what he had done. He was beyond them; he could hear it.’ He even shows compassion for his earlier rape by asking the Ranyhyn to treat his victim to a visit from them once a year. He’s doing the unexpected, and no one can predict precisely what he will do next.
Ultimately, the fate of the entire Land depends on Covenant’s unpredictable moral choice about whether or not to be its saviour. Early on, the lords of the Land sing to Covenant a song containing the following lines:
and with the one word of truth or treachery
he will save or damn the Earth
because he is mad and sane
This choice to save the Land is not a choice that would provide any tension if Covenant were purely good. A choice between good and evil for a good character is no choice at all. If Covenant were good, of course he’d want to save the Land. A choice between good and evil for an evil character is likewise no choice at all. After all, we’re certainly never in any doubt that Lord Foul wants to destroy the Land. A choice between the lesser of two evils for a morally ambiguous character – now that’s a hard choice.
But Covenant is also morally ambiguous in another way: his motivations for doing good are questionable. It’s like being nice to an elderly uncle solely because you want to get written into the will. Sure, your actions might be good, but your motives certainly aren’t. In the third novel, The Power that Preserves, Covenant vows to destroy Lord Foul, but his companion, Triock, calls into question his motivation. Does Covenant really want to kill Lord Foul to save the Land, or does he want to kill Foul because it will satisfy his own hatred? Triock alleges that Covenant will ultimately fail because the Land will not be served by hatred. At the trilogy’s end, as Covenant struggles with the dilemma of whether to kill Lord Foul, Covenant himself thinks: ‘Anger was only good for fighting, for resistance.’ Covenant must grapple with the choice between satisfying his hatred or truly saving the Land.
To make matters even more complex, a morally grey character’s actions are often not true indicators of what’s going on in their head. That is, they lie, they cheat, they scheme. Thomas Covenant is certainly a liar and a schemer. He lies to keep secret the rape he has committed and even accepts the rape victim’s mother as his unwitting guide. He schemes to shift responsibility of saving the Land onto his daughter Elena’s shoulders. This lying and scheming often involves dramatic irony, which allows the reader to grasp far more of the situation than the characters themselves. Yes, lying and scheming makes for good entertainment. Just look at how Cersei and Tyrion in Game of Thrones are still around for season seven, but poor Ned Stark got beheaded in season one.
But Covenant is more than simply a liar and a schemer. He also has many decent qualities. He risks his life to save a young child bitten by a snake. He deeply misses his wife and his child. The moral complexity of his behaviour is similar to that of Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones , who pushes Bran out a window, yet also returns to rescue Brienne of Tarth from the bear pit. We love morally ambiguous characters because of this inner conflict, because these characters are not what they seem, because they are not simple.
Why Covenant can’t be a Nice Guy
As story guru Matt Bird states: ‘The hero is the person who has the quality that everyone else lacks in this situation, even if it’s a quality that would make the hero seem villainous in other situations.’ 
The Land is a world with tightly defined strictures and rules. The Lords have the Oath of Peace. The Despiser and the Creator are bound by Time. The Bloodguards are bound by their vow of allegiance to the Lords. All the other characters are bound by the law, strict moral codes or the constraints of good and evil. Only Thomas Covenant is not so bound because he is from the morally grey realm of our world. Crucially, he is not a hero for all worlds, but he is the hero this world of the Land needs.
Lord Foul’s Bane was published well before Glen Cook, George R.R. Martin and David Gemmell. It is decidedly not a grimdark novel, but Thomas Covenant could well be considered a grimdark protagonist. He is a social outcast, a literal leper no less. He is a rapist and he is a coward.
Despite his faults, there is undeniable sympathy in his predicament of being a man hitting rock bottom through no fault of his own. While Covenant often acts like a selfish ass, his behaviour comes from a place we can empathize with. This is why the sections of the novels that take place in the real world are so important, because they show the grounding for Covenant’s belligerent behaviour. Every one of the three novels begins with a section in the real world showing Covenant being unfairly laid low by forces out of his control. In the first novel he has just been divorced for his leprosy. In the second novel, The Illearth War, he is subjected to the bigotry of a truck driver and the local sheriff. In the third novel he saves a young girl, yet is reviled by her father for his leprosy. We can empathize with his predicament, if not his actions. This is Donaldson’s entry point for convincing readers to willingly accompany Covenant on his journey.
When All is Said and Done
Donaldson proved that a morally ambiguous protagonist could carry a bestselling fantasy trilogy. He showed that the grittiness of real life could successfully be blended with the fantastic. By doing so, he extended the traditional boundaries of epic fantasy. Since The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker and others in the vanguard of grimdark have continued to champion the morally ambiguous protagonist. There is no denying the debt owed to Stephen Donaldson for paving the way.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #9.