The Belgariad
David Eddings

Category: Fantasy
Tags: ,
Morality: D
Writing: D

(Note: this series is composed of the books Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician’s Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanter’s End Game.)

Our hero, Garion, is a teenaged boy living on a farm in the homey little country of Sendaria. He knows nothing about his dead parents, which right away tells you that he is heir to a Fabulous Destiny. When the story opens, Garion’s Aunt Pol and a strange old storyteller called Mister Wolf drag Garion away from the farm on a mysterious quest. It soon turns out that they are pursuing the magical Orb of Aldur, which has been stolen by a servant of the evil god Torak. As they journey through various countries, picking up the requisite band of quirky companions, Garion learns first that Aunt Pol and Mister Wolf are actually the ancient sorcerers Polgara and Belgarath, and then that he himself is the prophesied Child of Light who will fight Torak.

The books are fast-paced, and can be fairly humorous at times. Unfortunately, they have some serious problems. For one thing, the worldbuilding is simply appalling. Eddings creates cultures by giving each country one personality. All the Tolnedrans are greedy. All the Drasnians are spies. All the Arends are brave but stupid. All the Sendarians are sensible. All the Nyissans take drugs and assassinate one another. I began to wonder if his world was actually a giant alien experiment in mass brainwashing.

But then, Eddings seems to be generally clueless about how the world works. He has a supposedly worldly-wise character say that “the stupidest man in the world can be a king if he has the right parents.” Yet a simple thought experiment (not to mention a quick look at history) would show that a stupid king will be overthrown quickly unless (a) someone powerful and smart is backing/manipulating him, or (b) he is a mere figurehead. Later in the series, when the characters get to Arendia, they find that almost all the serfs are so repressed that they have to live off tree roots and grass. Right. And if they’re that starving, how can they possibly be strong enough to work their masters’ fields?

Now, books can have bad worldbuilding and still be valuable. Narnia, for example, is constructed in a very sloppy manner; yet the Narnia books are well-written and highly enjoyable. Unfortunately, Eddings also fails at characterization. The side characters are basically caricatures; each one not only has a distinguishing quirk, he is nothing but that quirk. The main characters are slightly more fleshed-out, but they are all wildly immature. Garion and Ce’Nedra start out with the excuse of being teenagers; but by the end of the series, after leading armies and facing down malevolent gods, they have barely grown up at all. Polgara and Belgarath are even worse: they’re supposed to be ten thousand years old, yet they’re about as mature as their teenaged proteges. I simply can’t believe in an ageless sorcerer who finds anything attractive in getting drunk. Or a noble sorceress, who has devoted thousands of years to the cause of Right, having a week-long temper tantrum and breaking everything in her room.

There is also a serious dramatic flaw in the use of fate. The premise of the series is that long ago destiny was split in two, and there are now two rival destinies working towards a confrontation that will decide the fate of the universe; and each destiny is expressed in a prophecy. Okay. But Eddings’s idea of destiny is extreme: until the final confrontation, nothing in the universe is up for grabs, but rolls inexorably towards its fate. Several characters are told that it doesn’t matter what they want to do; if the Prophecy says that they will do a thing then by gum, no matter what, they will do it. Choice is nothing. This idea of fate, needless to say, is death to any kind of dramatic suspense. Furthermore, Eddings then has the final confrontation decided by the (supposedly) free choices of two characters. After five books of pell-mell, inevitable prophecy, this denouement rings completely hollow.

(Compare, for a moment, the working of providence and destiny in Lord of the Rings. Sauron is defeated not by Aragorn’s brave war, nor even by Frodo’s courage in his trek thorugh Mordor, but by the mercy that Bilbo, Frodo, and finally Sam show towards Gollum. Middle-earth is a dynamic, unpredictable world where providence co-exists with chance; where acts that seem insignifigant, even meaningless, become the hinge of destiny; and where good deeds done merely because they are good, without any hope of return, are what finally save the world. Beside it, Eddings’ world of inexorable fate, where almost every decision of the heroes is made because The Prophecy Says It Must Be This Way, seems shallow and uninteresting.)

Finally, there’s the use of archaic language. Eddings has the Mimbrates speak in archaic English, which is a neat idea. Fantasy novels could do with more linguistic variation. But not only are the Mimbrates’ speeches so crawling with awkward -eth and -est forms that they’re a headache to read–Eddings also fails to realize that “thou” is an informal form. It was used when speaking to friends or inferiors; addressing a stranger or superior as “thou” would be an insult. When Mandorallen addresses his king with this form, and the king uses it for Belgarath, my suspension of belief went into convulsions and died.

Morally, I found The Belgariad to be highly problematic. Content-wise, there are some bits of rather nasty violence, along with some sexual innuendo; but books with very strong content can be morally uplifting, and none of the heroes attempt to sleep with their girlfriends until they’re married. There are a bunch of pagan gods, of course, but in the fantasy setting I didn’t find them very problematic, especially considering that most of the time they were treated in a fairly comic manner. No, what I really found disturbing in these books were the attitudes the author expressed. Some of them were involved in the treatment of minor characters: for instance, there’s Relg, the Religious Fanatic Who’s Terrified of Sex. (Never fear, he marries the Sexy Slave Woman and learns to have fun.) Then there’s Hettar, who dresses in black leather and is completely obsessed with killing Murgos to avenge the death of his parents. Admittedly, all the Murgos that Hettar kills are soldiers attacking peaceful countries. But it doesn’t matter how just your war is; killing hundreds of people to satisfy your personal bloodlust would be incredibly corrosive. Eddings treats it as an amusing personality quirk.

Furthermore, Polgara and Belgarath show a disturbing tendency towards “god-playing”: dishing out doom right and left without a whole lot of consideration. For instance, in the first book a blind woman with the second sight begins raving to Garion about his destiny; Polgara, who doesn’t want Garion finding out just yet, restores the woman’s sight–and takes away her visions. In the last book, when a bad guy kills one of the semi-main characters, Belgarath seals him inside a rock, to remain there alive and conscious until the end of time. “That’s monstrous,” another character objects; but, “So was that,” Belgarath says, pointing to the dead person, and considers himself justified. Excuse me, but who gave him the authority to make that call? And since when was death worse than eternal torment?

But worst of all, the book has really nasty attitudes about marriage and gender, which are exemplified in this passage:

“How are you two getting along?” Belgarath asked, ignoring the droning voice of the clergyman.
“Who knows?” Garion answered helplessly. “I can’t tell from one minute to the next what she’s going to do.”

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Aunt Pol told him.

Eddings seems to embrace the idea that men and women are fundamentally at odds. For instance, both Relg and Lelldorin are initially reluctant to consummate their marriages; after their wives convince them otherwise, they walk around looking “foolish,” with expressions of “almost perpetual astonishment,” while their wives are described as looking “smug.” This equation of sex with power–wives getting one up on their husbands by being sexier than expected–left a very bad taste in my mouth. There is one relationship (I can’t really say who the characters are because it would be a spoiler) which does seem to be based on equality and trust. Unfortunately, it’s overshadowed by Garion’s happy marriage to Ce’Nedra, which is based mostly on manipulation and raging attraction. Here’s how the happy couple gets on: “Each time he tried to put his foot down and absolutely refuse one of her whims, her eyes would fill with tears, her lips would tremble, and the fatal, ‘You don’t love me any more,’ would drop quaveringly upon him.” In the real world, this would be a seriously dysfunctional relationship that would progress like a road accident in slow-motion. Eddings, however, seems to think it’s sweet and attractive.

One could argue, of course, that The Belgariad is meant to be light entertainment, like a popcorn movie, to which people do not look for either upstanding morals or deathless prose. It’s true that I don’t think “just for fun” books need to be judged as strictly on a moral or literary level. (After all, no one would accuse The Princess Bride of being bad because it promoted piracy and revenge.) And I’m quite capable of enjoying mountains of fluff. But “just for fun” books need to be, well, fun. I didn’t find this series fun. I found it highly annoying.

Posted by Rose | December 22, 2003

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