The Belgariad: David & Leigh Eddings
Few fantasy series have ever made as great an impression upon me as the Belgariad did, when I first read it. It took the seriousness and dread mythology of the genre to a somewhat more lighthearted level, was readable, and moved along smartly. Dave Eddings’ first foray into fantasy stretched into an epos of five volumes (followed some years later by another, lesser set of five and many of the same characters) and mixed elements of the High Quest, bildungsroman and sword-and-sorcery with sharply drawn, quirky characters that are in turns tragic, heroic, comic and at all times interesting.
The five books of the Belgariad are: “The Pawn of Prophecy”, “Queen of Sorcery”, “Magician’s Gambit”, “Castle of Wizardry” and “Enchanter’s Endgame” and no, they have no real connection to chess – the titles were an affectation of the author and his publishers, though some argue that the game of Destinies described is a backhanded reference to it.
While occasionally digressing into the viewpoints of supporting characters, the majority of the series reflects the experiences of a scullery boy, Garion, and is mostly about his youth, adolescence and maturity over the period the books are set. His guides, in the standard tradition, are an old wizard called Belgarath, and his own Aunt, Polgara. The story is peopled with magic, affairs of nations, evil sorcerers, Gods who occasionally communicate with men, and, as always, an Object which must be recovered.
This almost sounds like “The Lord of the Rings”, but several things draw the Belgariad apart from that grand epic. One of these is that while the object is eventually recovered, it is not destroyed, and remains in the hands of the heroes, nor is it the objective of the Quest to do away with it, as it had been in Tolkien’s work — it is assumed that the good guys remain good and can use this Object without “evil intent” (and in any case, the Orb in this story has a mind of its own, and prevents its own misuse – an intriguing philosophical point). Secondly, no elves here. Thirdly, there is an underlying sense of humour about the secondary characters and their mannerisms and speech which I had never seen before in such a tale, and I loved it.
Like with Dickens’ carefully imagined England, the supporting cast of characters is full and rich and juicy. Silk, the rat-like spy, Barak the hairy northman, Durnik the honest smith, Mandorallen the brainless knight and Ce’Nedra the wilful little princess all have carefuly constructed personalities and definite roles to play, and there’s never any confusion over who anyone is. And as the series grinds on, it is clear that Garion himself is part of a grand prophecy involving many people and is the culmination of many events in the past. Eddings certainly worked out his prior history in some detail (although no-one can, of course, match Tolkien for sheer volume and microscopicity in this regard), and it shows in the depth of detail he brings to the events.
Is Garion just a scullery boy? Is his relationship with the devious little princess going to end in love everlasting? Do all seemingly minor characters have something to do with the prophecy? Is a frog’s butt waterproof? The Belgariad does not pretend to earnestness or grandness: it’s kind of toungue in cheek about itself, and the genre as a whole, and even the way Eddings ties up all loose ends in a neat bow at the end bears this out. Still, philosophically speaking, Eddings managed to bring a few new things to the table of a somewhat shopworn genre: Belgarath’s relationship with Polgara was complex and well handled – and occasionally really poignant – and the section dealing with how magic is accomplished by the mind is intriguing, Belgarath’s past history and the death of his wife was a fascinating digression, and led to a one-off “prequel” volume some years later, all about his exploits which are only alluded to here. The difference between Gods and Men is well handled. The description and characterizations of entire nations, versus the attributes of their nationals is another concept that has not previously been dealt with in this fashion. That said, the descriptions of battle and sweeping wars, the mobilization of the entire world to fight a Last Battle while Garion contends with a god, are stirring. Over it all, there is the jaunty, self-mocking banter of all characters with each other that is really something unique (though purists might argue that Robert Shockley had done it before in sci-fi).
Eddings tried to place his entire series in some kind of technologically medieval world populated with archetypes like the Norse, French, British, Duth, the steppe nomads like the Huns, with races and nations further afield roughly corresponding to the asiatic hordes (the Malloreans). The only really unique race (to me) are the warlike Murgos, though their utter lack of complex inner lives reduces the series, to my mind. Enemies are faceless bodies to be hewn down. For something of such scope, one could be forgiven for expecting more.
If I had a fault to find with the series, it is in the separation of roles between men and women, and the lack of any characters of colour. The West is seen as the saviour of mankind (as is our sandy-haired white hero). I was old enough to see this in the eighties and its just as obvious now: whether it was because medieval stories are intrinsically European in nature, whether Eddings was writing for an American audience, or whether his background in the American northwest influenced his worldview are not questions I have answers for. I just find it kind of irritating. If John Norman’s (far lesser, though longer) series in the Gorean cycle can take an entire world and populate it with other races of colour and appearance, I don’t see why an ambitious series like this one can’t do it. Though I must concede that other fantasy series (there never seems to be just one book, and they always come in multiplicate) often share this weakness.
Putting these issues aside, as with all serious and successful fantasy writers who have captured our attention, Eddings has managed to create a parallel world, and populated it with believable people, interesting events, a full history of gods and men, geography, politics, comedy, tragedy, sorcery and warfare, and tied it together with a fascinating coming-of-age storyline. If it lacks the detailed plotting of the Martin’s “Cycle of Ice and Fire,” the sheer annoying volume of Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” saga, the stern greatness and emotional tragedy of Guy Gavriel Kaye’s “Fionavar Tapestry”, or the historical and linguistic depth of Tolkien, well, at least it manages to carve out its own unique little niche. For colonizing my imagination with a colourful cast and a rousing story with often hilarious dialogue, and creating a world of its own, I give this fantasy series a high recommendation to anyone.