I just finished the first volume in the first chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Lord Foul's Bane, and there are some resemblances or parallel themes to The Lord of the Rings that I found striking, among them:

  • Drool Rockworm trying to bite off the white gold ring from Covenant's finger much in the same way that Gollum bit of the ring from Frodo's finger.
  • The army of cawewights pouring forth from Mount Thunder in the same way that Sauron's army poured forth from Mordor.
  • The architecture of Revelstone as a promontory like Minas Tirith.
  • The evil antagonist Lord Foul comes from a higher, divine level of existence to corrupt the material world in the same way that Sauron is a fallen "angel".

Did Stephen Donaldson ever say anything about these resemblances?

  • 4
    So, ah, is there a Mount Doom is that series? Because that would have been at the top of my list of similarities if so.
    – Adamant
    Feb 10, 2019 at 12:17
  • 3
    @Adamant Actually the mountain is called Mount Thunder. Feb 10, 2019 at 13:39
  • 1
    Interesting. I've only read the summary from Wikipedia, but Thomas Covenant's themes and influences seem to be very different to The Lord of the Rings', so I'm guessing these resemblances are coincidental.
    – Andres F.
    Feb 10, 2019 at 15:52
  • 1
    Despite the similarities, there's one major difference: LOTR is a very interesting read, Covenant &c is both boring and depressing.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 10, 2019 at 17:58
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    LotR is one of the foundations of fantasy. Its influence almost goes without saying. Feb 10, 2019 at 18:13

1 Answer 1


According to the Donaldson, Tolkien's works (which he's read and admires greatly) was an influence for own writings works, but certainly not the only or even a key influence. On several occasions he mentions Heart of Darkness as being a more apt model.

Q. What, if any, connection is there between The Land and Middle Earth? There are some similarities between the two, is The Land homage to Middle Earth or is Middle Earth a model for what the Land is?

SD: Tolkien's work made what I do possible. In that sense, "Lord of the Rings" is an inspiring model for "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant." But Middle Earth itself was never a model for the Land (except in the sense that Tolkien showed me what could be done within the bounds of epic fantasy). Looking back, I can see "echoes" of Middle Earth in the Land. But then, I can see "echoes" of lots of things in the Land (Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" leaps to mind).

An interview with Stephen R. Donaldson

He also addresses the element of the ring being a key part of the book series and the general similarities within the fantasy genre.

Q. If a new reader came to you and said they'd heard of Thomas Covenant but didn't know much about the series, what would you say to describe it to them?

SRD: I consider this an impossible question. I'm the wrong person to offer a reader's perspective on my own work. When people ask me, "What's your book about?" I often say, "About 650 pages." What else am I going to say?

But when the question is phrased differently, I sometimes say, "I'm playing in the same ballpark as J.R.R. Tolkien, but he's playing softball and I'm playing hardball." And sometimes I say, "Do you know Tennyson's Idylls Of The King? I'm trying to accomplish the opposite."

In Tennyson, one pure, self-sacrificing, honorable hero--Arthur--is eventually destroyed by his venal, petty, self-serving, or misguided knights. I'm taking one weak, despairing, self-serving protagonist and exploring the question of whether or not he can be redeemed by pure, self-sacrificing, honorable companions.

Q That truly a hero's journey. And it has been a long, long road to reach this point. Where did it all begin? Specifically, how did Thomas Covenant come to exist?

SRD: I don't want to repeat the answer I usually give. After a while, it becomes tedious. Instead I'll say this: During my "formative years" (as an English major in college and graduate school), Lord Of The Rings was at the height of its popularity, regularly selling a million sets a year; but in my intellectual world those books were regarded with what I'll call affectionate contempt. I was the only person I knew who took them seriously, not as "a good read", but as literature.

As a result, I felt as alien and misguided among my peers as Covenant first does in the Land. So now I think it's fair to say that I wrote the first Chronicles in an effort to discover why I considered fantasy important when no one else in my world did.

Interview: Stephen R. Donaldson and the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Ending the Tale of the Land


Q. Many fantasy writers consciously or unconsciously model their work on that of Tolkien and map their stories to Campbell's "Hero's Journey". I would suggest that you have not, rather pointedly. Would that be a fair assessment, or do you interpret these two influences differently?

SD: I don't actually know what Campbell had to say about the "Hero's Journey", so I can't claim that I was influenced, either positively or negatively. But I don't think of my work as a reaction against Tolkien's. In fact, I believe that he made what I do possible, and for that I will always be grateful. Instead I prefer to say that when he opened the door I walked through it.

I'll only give one example: THE RING (since that's the basis on which I'm sometimes dismissed as an imitator of Tolkien). Sure, Tolkien's ring is important in his story. But it's specific shape and substance aren't actually relevant to the personalities and dilemmas of the characters who carry it: since all they have to do is carry it and endure it or reject it, it could just as effectively be a torc, a bracelet, a necklace, an armband.

But in The Chronicles the ring as a ring takes on an entirely different kind of importance: as a symbol, first, of the voluntary commitments which people can make to each other, and, second, of the alloyed nature which defines and bedevils virtually every human being. (Which is probably why I consider my game hardball rather than softball.)

Interview: Stephen R. Donaldson and the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Ending the Tale of the Land

  • 1
    +1 So good old "it's complicated" then? :P
    – Andres F.
    Feb 11, 2019 at 1:20
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    @AndresF. - More like "I ripped off Tolkien and I'm unwilling to admit it". With the proviso that Tolkien was quite happy to rip off Beowulf and Gilgamesh.
    – Valorum
    Feb 11, 2019 at 1:32
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    Everyone rips off someone, but some hide it better than others. Sadly, Donaldson's Tolkien-ripping-offing was so blatant that when I read the stories back in the late 70's I couldn't enjoy them much - I was spending all my time noting the similarities to Tolkien. Feh... Feb 11, 2019 at 3:57
  • @BobJarvis My reading experience was quite the same, hence the question. But I don't see it as ripping off (i.e. stealing an idea and repeating it), rather I think that Donaldson created a variation on certain themes and motifs in the LotR, contrasting Tolien's more bucolic setting with his own negative premise of a hero with a character formed by his leprosy. And indeed he is quite explicit about it when he speaks of "hardball" versus "softball".
    – user111539
    Feb 11, 2019 at 8:03
  • @Bob Jarvis: I would not in the least have minded the (similarities to | ripping off of) Tolkien, had I not been so busy wishing I could give that Covenant guy a swift kick. In fact, IIRC I bought the book hoping from the cover blurb that it would be like LOTR. Wouldn't have minded so much if I'd gotten the book from the public library, but $3.95 or whatever a paperback cost back then was a lot of money for me in those days.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 11, 2019 at 18:14

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