Favourite Fantasy Books Part 3: The Belgariad Quintet by David Eddings (and also Leigh Eddings as it was revealed)
This is a series of posts about fantasy novels that I love, or loved, and that really got me into fantasy. Some of them have not really stood the test of time, some I grew out of, and others are still great. But all of them fed into how I came to love fantasy and how I perceive the genre.
The Belgariad (starting with Pawn of Prophecy and ending with Enchanter’s End Game) was a series I read as a young reader. I devoured the five books over the first week of my summer holidays. I absolutely loved them. So much so that I got my local bookstore to advance order the next books as they came out. But before I get into discussing them, this is a series about Fantasy books that I loved that may not have stood the test of time and that my more modern, jaded and cynical self sometimes cringes when I think back. Annnnnd, yes, the Belgariad falls foul of the modern gaze. So what I am proposing is that the first part of my discussion will be a little more about what I loved about them when I first read them, and then I will give a warning before I go on to discuss some of the more problematic areas of the series that I see now. Fair enough? That way if you love them you can enjoy reading the first sections, and can entirely skip my mean-spirited destruction of nostalgic childhood reading memories.
The Belgariad is a five book series from David Eddings that still reads as a great fantasy primer for anyone wanting to get their kids into reading fantasy. It may not have originally been intended to be a young adult series, but it really works as a children’s/young adult fantasy. There is a young orphan boy hero, Garion, who has a special destiny and a hidden lineage. There is a grumpy, old wizard, Belgarath, who guides the young Garion on a quest to recover a magical orb in order to defeat the evil God Torak. They are accompanied by Polgara, initially introduced as Garion’s aunt, who turns out to be Belgarath’s daughter and the most powerful sorceress on the planet. The small group also picks up Silk, or Prince Kheldar as he is also known, a Drasnian spy, assassin, merchant and all round cynic, and who also provides much of the dry wit and comedy of the series. Durnik, a simple smith and good hearted fellow, also tags along to provide a much needed father-figure to Garion. Barak, the Cherek Earl (read Viking Jarl), a berserker and mountain of a man, and Mandorallen, the Mimbrate knight (Renaissance Anglo-Norman knight really… more courtly love than historical fact) also join the band of adventurers. Over the course of the books they also pick up Ce’Nedra, a young Dryad who is also a Tolnedran princess (Roman-ish analogue) with her flame red hair, her love of money, and her passionate personality she is of an age with Garion <wink wink>. There are a few others who join up with them; Hettar the Algarian Horselord, Lelldorin the Asturian archer (think Robin Hood), Relg the Ulgo zealot and diviner, and Taiba a Mara woman.
All in all, it is a pretty full roster of heroes and companions, each with different personalities and traits, and all dedicated (in one way or another) to the quest to defeat Torak, the god king of the evil Angaraks. Eddings does the smart thing by not throwing all these characters in at once, and you meet them gradually over the course of the series as the core, smaller group, moves from locale to locale, slowly exploring the world through Garion’s eyes, as they gradually track down the famed Orb of Aldur. This magical stone is meant to possess amazing power and will allow the heroes to fulfil an ancient prophecy that leads to the destruction of Torak, the evil god. So we have a guiding story arc provided by a mysterious prophecy that serves to give the quest a shape and end goal, and a series of different lands that the group explores and has various exciting encounters in as they advance toward their goal. So there is a nice blend of the bildungsroman and picaresque as the series depicts Garion on the road to becoming a man, both literally and figuratively.
In terms of characters it was Silk and Belgarath that I really loved. Belgarath’s gruff, grumpy wizard who was less mysterious and more just crotchety, backed up by a careless sense of his immense power was an antidote to the more standoffish Gandalf figures who seemed loath to use their powers. At one point Belgarath causes an apple tree to grow from a twig just to prove a point to an arrogant guard, something that I think Gandalf would have looked down upon as a slightly showy and flippant use of magic. Belgarath, with a few exceptions, seems far more ready to join in the fight with a rousing blast of magical might than I had been led to expect by previous fantasy mentors and wizard characters. Silk, on the otherhand, was a sarcastic weasel of a hero, far more in the vein of a Trickster, who just had all the best drawling lines. He was conniving, cunning, sneaky and a bad ass acrobat assassin. Also, he wasn’t a large guy and got by with quick wits, quicker reflexes and an abundance of knives. What is not to like? Garion was a bit of a whiner but soon shaped up into something more interesting and his mysterious heritage and future provided something of a hook, and his evolution from child, to teenager to young man, was both believable and identifiable for the young me. The false bravado, the need to be self-aggrandizing and overly-self confidant because you were actually unsure until you actually learned better, grew up a bit an tried to take responsibility for your actions… all those teenage tropes that we have come to know and love in YA fiction. Plus, he had to learn how to use a sword and a bow and wasn’t naturally good with them, something that more fantasy heroes should actually have to do. In fact, Garion spends a lot of the earlier books being rescued and being a witness to things happening until he actually gets old enough and powerful enough to take a more active hand.
Then there are the villains. Eddings has a range of villains in the series from assassins and nameless foot-soldiers, through various levels of magic wielding priests and priestesses, as well as more than a few magical monsters and scary creatures. The series runs the gamut before the ultimate confrontation between Garion and Torak. So there was a nice variety of foe for the group to face off against. Not only that, but there were a variety of different plots and types of confrontation, it wasn’t just battles. What made this even better for me, was that while the group was on this magical, mystical quest, the various rulers of the kingdoms were far more concerned with the mundane threat of Torak’s armies and kept dragging the group away from the job at hand to intervene in various political storylines. These detours helped create a real sense of the dual worlds that Belgarath inhabited as a nigh on immortal advisor to the various royals, and his job as a disciple and champion of the god of magic. So the books just trip along at a furious pace.
I even loved the covers of the paperback editions I had that showed a tiny group of figures in the foreground looking away from the reader toward a fantasy scape in the background. (which is why I inserted throughout this article). The next book then had the figures at the previous background locale looking onward to the next destination. I loved how this made the scope of the world and the story seem so huge and vast and reduced the human element to these tiny figures caught up in it. The fact that each cover led to the next also gave a sense of progress on the journey of the characters and hinted at new places and adventures. So as a kid, this was for a time, my favourite series.
Now is the bad news. If you don’t want your nostalgic view of the Belgariad sullied you may want to look away now.
Sooooooo, from a modern perspective what we have here is fantasy by the numbers. The blonde haired, blue-eyed orphan kid with a hidden divine right to rule (long lost heir to a throne and so forth) and access to awesome magical abilities, as well as a destiny to overthrow the Dark Lord™, goes on a fantasy adventure that explores each of the constituent lands outlined on the fantasy map, aided by a group of companions who all have basically one defining skill or trait. The forces of good are, of course, horrendously outmatched, under-provisioned, and constantly lurching from one episode to the next. There is a magical MacGuffin that will aid the hero defeat the overpowering evil that is inconveniently not where it is supposed to be, so they have to go find it… and do so, just in the nick of time. There are a series of episodes that allow each of the companions to show off their one particularly skill or ability. The hero ultimately becomes better than all of them, or at least, nearly as good, to show that he is in fact the one true chosen one. Thankfully, despite never having had any real training or experience, he is also an innately great ruler and all round good person.
The companions then. Barak the Viking warrior is gruff, surly and a physical powerhouse in combat, because every group needs a big, burly man to hack things with an axe and be the powerful warrior who can dispatch nameless enemies and faceless minions with ease, all while being brawny. The sneaky assassin thief is a sneaky, sarcastic quip machine, and decidedly unfazed by the repeated killings and assassins he performs in cold blood. Of course being a conman and thief, and a merchant, even despite having a really obvious ‘tell’ he can’t resist deviating from the quest he is dedicated to just to make a fast buck. The mage mentor old man guiding figure is definitely not Gandalf because he doesn’t wear a pointed hat. Nor is he Merlin because most guiding mentor figures hide the heirs to thrones on farms throughout history, so it isn’t at all clichéd and overdone. Also, being over five thousand years old, you The noble knight is so exaggerated that you could be fooled into thinking he is meant to be a comedic parody of a chivalric knight. The master archer has the impulse control of an ADD-raddled child hopped up on pure sugar, with the common-sense of a three year old child faced with unlimited sweets and chocolate. But it is the female characters that get the worst of it. The most powerful sorceress in the world is a nagging housewife and histrionic caricature. Polgara, at over three thousand years old, an experienced ruler and the most powerful woman in the world, still suffers from hissy fits and acts like a prissy matron round the campfire. Ce’Nedra, a princess is a spoiled, irritating child with a materialistic fixation on money that borders on the psychotic. But what is worse, is that both these major female characters ultimately serve as love interests to two of the male characters.
Polgara’s big role in defeating Torak is to refuse to marry him and she only gains the power to do so because she remembers the sweet honest love of Durnik, the smith. Thankfully his death is reversed and he gets to come back to life, gain magical powers and gets to marry to her. So his reward for the quest is to become an immortal, gain the power of sorcery, and gets to marry the most powerful woman in the land. Polgara’s reward on the other hand is to marry Durnik. She gains a husband. That’s it. It turns out that after three millennia, the only thing missing from her life was a man.
Ce’Nedra, predictably enough, is the love interest for Garion. Although even my younger self could not fathom why he would be interested in such a self-centred, egotistical, money grubbing, shrew of a woman. Despite this, they both fall madly in love. So Garion gets a kingdom, a wife, an heir, a magic sword, a magic stone, the power of sorcery and basically makes out like a bandit. Ce’Nedra on the otherhand, has to leave her home, gets married off to Garion, loses her right to inherit the Tolnedran throne, but gets to spend her free time counting money that Garion leaves lying around. So it all works out. Even Barak gets reunited with his wife as a result of the quest. Relg gets Taiba as a wife, and by get, she is rescued from slave pits where she was raped and abused from childhood and is unceremoniously made to love and marry Relg because a god interferes with her free will and makes them fall in love. The other male characters also manage to snag wives out of the deal, although in some cases it takes the second series to see this happen. So it is good to know that if you are a man on a quest that you can expect to land a bride out of the deal, plus any swag you can loot from the bad guy’s lair. On the other hand I suppose it beats internet dating and could make for an interesting reality TV show…
For a more thorough discussion of Polgara, Ce’Nedra and Mara you can read further remarks here.
But don’t worry, the conservative sexual politics don’t end there. The evil female characters are clearly evil because they are sexually active before marriage. Salmissra is basically evil because she is pumped full of so many drugs by the priests of the temple that her libido runs rampant and she tries to seduce Garion as the latest in a long line of lovers that ‘service’ the queen. So her enforced sex drive is justification for Polgara to turn her into a snake and ‘cool’ her blood. I mean, it would make no sense whatsoever for Polgara to free Salmissra from her enforced captivity (she was sold as a child slave to the temple and groomed to replace the previous high priestess), and turning her into a snake when the woman is clearly a victim of child abuse and indoctrination is totally the heroic thing to do. Other female characters (with the exception of Velvet in the sequel series) who have sex before marriage are equally damned in the eyes of the heroes. But, as a YA series, one kind of expects this sort of black and white prudery and moral absolutism.
Speaking of clichés, Torak, the Dark Lord himself, is such a painful rip off of Lucifer without any of the interesting nuance and history that have built up around his character through innumerable stories, that he is a two dimensional cut-out of a villain. He wants to conquer the world … because reasons. In fact, the whole fight between him and Garion is anti-climatic because neither he nor Garion are actually doing the fighting, it is the various prophecy spirits doing war upon each other through them. He spends almost the entire five book series asleep in his temple, and it is his various priests and functionaries that provide the main antagonists. But despite this, almost all the villains are remarkably easily dealt with. Given that as a race the Murgos and Angaraks in general are scarred, swarthy and practice ritual murder, they are an entirely irredeemable race in the first series. So the Orientalised nature of the foe and the dubious racial politics criticised in Tolkien are even more obvious here.
Which brings me on to the world building. The whole renaissance feel to the series is somewhat undone by the hodge-podge of various historical races, countries and cultures, that Eddings ransacked, looted, and taxidermied to suit his purpose for the world. The bald-faced analogues are, at best, two dimensional, and never make a lick of sense even within the world’s own internal logic. Every culture has one type of soldier. Every culture has one major trait. Every culture has one major ethnic type (and for the heroes that means Anglo-Eurpoean… if you are at all swarthy and dark-skinned you are probably suspect. Although I seem to recall that Mandorallen was olive skinned, so he could be from Southern Europe.) Every country has one major type of landscape. This wouldn’t be so bad if the world itself had a coherent and internal logic, but as with so much else in this series, the logic is seemingly decided on by whim as the narrative dictates rather than any attempt to make the world real. You need Mandorallen to sweep in and save the day to show how brave and fearless he is, sure, have your magic users not use magic for no real reason and need his help. You need Relg to show off his special stone manipulating ability, sure, have Silk be conveniently thrown into a pit made of natural rock walls rather than a manufactured cell.
So basically, everything in this series corresponds to the most readily identifiable clichés of the fantasy genre. Quest for magical item: Check. Balanced quest party made up of single trait characters who all possess one main skill: Check. Evil dark lord to over throw: Check. Needless, unnecessary and unbelievable romances that favour the men: Check. Blonde, blue-eyed hero: Check. Nonsensical fantasyland made up of barely disguised and horrendously simplified historical settings: Check. At least one scene in which a character gets to show off their special ability almost as if the entire scene was set up just for this opportunity: Check.
Listen. When I was younger I loved this series, and when I teach fantasy I use it as a brilliant example of how fantasy can be written to a blueprint and clichéd formula. It is a great YA series for the younger side of the spectrum, but, as far as adult fantasy goes, this one has aged terribly badly.