In truth, I can't ignore Covenant; nor do I want to. Without him, what we get is a run-of-the-mill Tolkien knockoff. With him, we get an extraordinary dynamic for fantasy.
The first thing you should know about Covenant -- indeed, the main subject of the first nearly 30 pages -- is that he has Hansen's disease, a.k.a. leprosy (which author Stephen R. Donaldson learned much about from his father's medical practice in India). It sounds even worse than I thought. He loses two fingers to gangrene, his wife abandons him, and he abandons his writing career, letting his condition factor into every move he makes.
I can't say for sure what I'd do if I ever caught the disease, but I can't see myself behaving like Covenant does. Rejecting a helpless advanced leper's advice to commit suicide, he resolves to keep living at all costs. He makes a point to go out in public once in a while, despite having to warn strangers not to get too close, usually with the odd grammar of "Leper outcast unclean!" His main emotions are anger, shame, and fear; while he occasionally feels awe or even peace, I don't think he laughs or smiles once in the entire volume. It's as if his brand of leprosy were more mental than physical. Clearly, he does not subscribe to the philosophy of Andy Dufresne: "Get busy living, or get busy dying." I just don't see the point in holding onto life without joy or hope for oneself or others.
After a strange encounter, Covenant finds himself transported to a magical realm collectively known only as "the Land," populated by both humans and humanoids. When asked for his personalized lordly title, he chooses "Unbeliever," not because he's an atheist but because he doesn't accept the Land as real. We readers are left to decide whether he's right and, if so, whether it's a dream or a hallucination.
The funny thing is that most people would probably envy his situation on some level. First of all, apart from the forces of Lord Foul, the Land is relatively idyllic. Denizens usually show more patience and hospitality than I expect in our world. They have a more harmonious connection with nature, which provides excellent nourishment and remedies on the go. Not only has no one there ever heard of leprosy, but Covenant regains feeling in his remaining digits.
Second, they believe or at least strongly suspect that Covenant is their foreordained champion against Lord Foul. He bears a superficial resemblance to bygone hero Berek Halfhand. His wedding ring, saved as a memento, is made of a mineral that's very special to the Land. And certain magical things react differently to him.
But Covenant only partly reflects the likely sentiments of the audience in response to the Land. He does not welcome its beauty and kindness, because he sees them as stepping stones toward a self-destructive degree of madness. He certainly doesn't see himself as champion material, convinced that his leprosy makes him just as powerless here as on Earth. When he does do something heroic or impressive, it's on instinct, kinda like early Harry Potter.
Indeed, Covenant spends most of his time either withdrawn or acting like a jerk. I had forgotten nefaria's warning that he would soon do something to challenge our empathy. I can guess which moment that is, and forget empathy; mere forgiveness is iffy. I've wished death on characters for less. His only mitigating factor is his unbelief in the Land. OK, he does feel guilty almost immediately, but he refuses to confess or punish himself. (Of course, there are only so many ways a self-depriving leper can punish himself without giving up on life.)
And who better than a jerk to allow folk to demonstrate the aforementioned patience and hospitality? I'm not sure whom I relate to less: them or him. Then again, sometimes they indicate that they wouldn't go so easy on him if he weren't both a stranger and the alleged chosen one.
So who are these other characters anyway? Mostly humans, coming from different walks of life. The most badass of the bunch are leaders called Lords (some of them female), who make the calls on how to handle the threat of Lord Foul; and their Bloodguards, who defy our understanding of what mortals can do. Personally, I find most of them rather dull, especially late in the story when they demand paragraphs of attention away from Covenant. My favorite is Saltheart Foamfollower, a rarity among rock giants in that he can stand not to be too prolix by human standards, tho he values stories and songs. He laughs more than anyone else, and when he feels down, he asks in vain for Covenant to laugh.
Lord Foul never actually appears, tho we hear his voice a few times, particularly when he has an important message. Initially I pictured him as being like Sauron, but he's more like Satan, not least for his numerous monikers. Ever the puppet master, he sets the conflict in motion by teaching a Cavewight named Drool Rockworm (yes, really) how to obtain and use the Staff of Law, powerful enough to turn the moon red. He also appears responsible for drawing Covenant to the Land, probably because this unbeliever would make a poor "bane" to him and might even join his quest to quench hope.
While there is mild evidence to the contrary, I for one like to think that it's all Covenant's dream. The premises -- another world of English-speaking humans, a mix of exotic names and the likes of "Lord Kevin," a purer black and white morality -- are silly bordering on comical. But Covenant would do better not to deny them. I think his disregarded creative spirit is working overtime to get him back on track, to teach him that positivity and contribution need not be pitfalls for him. There's probably enough material in this one chronicle to keep a college seminar going for hours on what it really means.
I wouldn't care to meet Covenant. I wouldn't care to read about everyone in the book except Covenant. But put them together and it's an interesting cocktail. If only the series didn't reportedly decline later, I might dare to continue someday.
Now I've decided to get away from both fantasy and sci-fi for a while. Fortunately, on my last vacation, I got talked into taking a bunch of books with me, one of which is No Time for Sergeants by Mac Hyman. Ordinarily I'd watch the movie instead, but this looks promising.