The Birds

It starts with Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor of George Pal’s The Time Machine) trying to buy a pair of love-birds for his kid sister. But, in a way, all the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film are love-birds. Most of them, though — the un-caged ones — are furies of the repressed, denied, and frustrated forces of love. On the one hand, The Birds is a horror film about the possible end of the human race in a war with a hundred billion birds; on the other, it’s about a mother and her new potential daughter-in-law learning to relate to one another. Seen in this way, it’s even got a happy ending.

When Mitch goes to the pet-store to buy his kid sister a pair of precisely modulated love-birds (“I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative… At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof…”), the only thing that catches his eye is Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a bird of a slightly wilder variety. (She has a gossip-column reputation involving an incident in a fountain in Rome, where she was enjoying La Dolce Vita.) The two engage in a poker-faced battle of wits, ending with Melanie, determined to get the upper hand, buying the love-birds herself and delivering them by hand to Mitch’s city apartment. But Mitch has a carefully compartmentalised private life: he spends his bachelor weeks in San Francisco, and his weekends at Bodega Bay, where he lives with his mother and sister. This particular bird has flown, so Melanie sets out after him.

At the bay, the bird attacks come at emotionally significant moments. The first occurs after Melanie has boated across the bay to sneak the love-birds into the Brenner family home. Heading back, she sees Mitch find the birds and run out of the house. She lets herself be seen, and the two adopt the sort of expressions you’d expect from a duelling early-stage couple in a screwball-comedy, each trying loftily to pretend they’re not that interested in the other. Then the first of our furies swoops down to gouge into Melanie’s perfectly-coiffured head.

The next incident — not an attack, but significant all the same — comes when Melanie has taken a room for the night with local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth. Annie is a previous pretender to the title of Mrs Mitch, and knows what stands in the way: Mitch’s widowed mother, Lydia, who’s terrified of being left alone because she let her now-dead husband do all the emotional-warmth side of things, and now finds she has nothing but criticism and disapproval to keep the family together. Just then, there’s a knock at the door, and as both women are thinking of Mitch, they perhaps hope it might be him. But no, it’s a bird. It’s just killed itself slamming into Annie’s front-door.

The third attack is at a kids’ party. Mitch’s little sister Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright, who’d survive all these killer birds only to fall prey to a xenomorph in Alien) and her friends are playing in the garden while Mitch and Melanie go off a little way to have their first unguarded conversation (in a scene written entirely by Hitchcock himself). Here, we learn that Melanie’s mother abandoned her when she was young, leaving her scornful of the very idea of mother-love. Which makes it doubly difficult if she’s going to try to fit into Mitch’s family: Melanie is a woman who does not want a new mother; Lydia, apparently incapable of love, does not want a new daughter; but both want Mitch, so who’s going to give way? The couple return to the party and, charged as they are with this stirring-up of old, difficult emotions, induce a bird attack. The birds swoop down on the kids, as though to underline the point that all of the coming violence and trauma is rooted in childhood vulnerabilities.

Mitch tries to convince Melanie to stay in Bodega Bay, and Lydia does her best, within civilised bounds, to encourage her to leave. A swarm of sparrows burst in through the fireplace (the hearth being the heart of the home), and wreck the living room. It’s like a poltergeist visitation — pent-up, unconscious forces lashing out with no control. The next day, Lydia goes to see a neighbour to discuss the fact that neither of their chickens are eating. She finds him dead, with his eyes pecked out. It’s a (literally) pointed reminder about her dead husband, and all the reasons she has to fear Melanie’s influence on her family.

Now the attacks become more frenzied and destructive, as though the forces let loose by Melanie’s arrival in Bodega Bay — the warring unconscious wraths of Melanie and Lydia — have given up trying to be specific and personal and are now just going to flail about, smashing everything in sight. Cars blow up, men catch fire, horses run wild, everybody’s screaming. A mother at the café skewers Melanie in an outburst that only makes sense if you think of her as somehow being possessed by Lydia’s dark half, giving vent to what that ultra-controlled, over-cool woman really wants to say to her new potential daughter-in-law:

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said that when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!”

By now Melanie’s only rival Annie is dead and everyone’s in retreat. Holed up at the Brenner house, Melanie has that peculiar horror film urge to go upstairs, alone, to investigate the noises coming from a room (a child’s room?), whereupon she finds herself locked inside it with a tempest of birds, lashed and scratched and screeched at till she’s almost catatonic.

And it’s at this point, finally, that the new family starts to gel. As they leave the house and get into the car, Melanie squeezes Lydia’s wrist and Lydia responds with a smile. It’s only when they’ve both been terrorised to the point of trauma, and the house has been wrecked, that the two women can, at last, begin to relate to one another. Melanie, babyish with speechlessness, has gained a mother, and Lydia, forced to flee her wrecked and violated home, has found the ability to show this new daughter a hint of affection.

From one point of view, the world is on the verge of an apocalyptic war between birds and humans. From another, what we’re seeing is the Brenner family’s true inner landscape revealed — a world filled with small but fierce, barely quiescent furies of thwarted and frustrated love, which everyone must tiptoe around, like so many sharp-beaked family secrets. Cathy brings along the love-birds, and perhaps we can now understand Mitch’s wish to give his kid sister an example of love in its not-too-demonstrative, not-too-aloof form: just look at what repression, possessiveness and jealousy does to the place.

(Mrs Bundy, ornithologist:) “Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind—”
(Waitress, in the background:) “Sam—three southern-fried chicken!”
“—It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.”

The Belgariad by David Eddings

Asked what he and his co-author wife Leigh had brought to the fantasy genre (in an interview by David J Howe for Dreamwatch magazine in March 1999), Eddings’ reply now seems about 180 degrees off target:

“Quite probably, our major contribution has been gritty reality. Our people get hungry; after a week of strenuous activity, they stink; they do argue with each other; the boy-people do notice the girl-people (and the girl-people notice them right back.) We tried our best to ignore Alfred Lord Tennyson and Tolkien and to return to Malory—which is where the good stuff is.”

Compared to the likes of Game of Thrones, “gritty reality” The Belgariad most certainly ain’t. Its characters may sweat and bicker, but none of the main ones die, and nor are they ever in any serious danger of doing so. All the good characters, though lightly flawed, are clearly good, and basically get on with each other. Only the clearly-telegraphed villain-types ever stab anyone in the back, and they get their comeuppance right away. Even the comparison to Malory is stretching it, as The Belgariad has nothing like the moment in Le Morte Darthur when King Arthur dies and suddenly all that’s good and noble goes out of the world, leaving it nothing but a bloody battlefield strewn with dead or dying knights being looted by opportunistic peasants. In The Belgariad, things go wrong only to be, at the end, set right back to how they were at the start — if not better.

Pawn of Prophecy, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Eddings admired Tolkien (fondly calling him “Poppa Tolkien” in interviews, and including The Lord of the Rings on the syllabus of a lecture course on “The Modern Novel” he gave while teaching in the 1960s — see this article for some interesting insights into Eddings’ teaching days), but — particularly now we have the Peter Jackson films, whose success and style paved the way for Game of Thrones — it’s hard to judge The Belgariad as “gritty reality” compared to Tolkien’s harrowing epic of endurance in the face of overwhelming despair, or his insistence that power can corrupt even the noblest of souls. There are no serious betrayals in The Belgariad, and the series’ five book quest is hardly harrowing, its central character, the boy Garion, being pretty much constantly in the company of his super-sorcerer guardians, along with a solid cadre of highly capable helpers, to protect and guide him every step of the way.

What Eddings probably meant by “gritty reality” is that his characters, far more than Tolkien’s and Malory’s, come across as very ordinary. They bicker, they complain, they have a sense of humour, they make friends with one another, and they remain friends. The thing that really powers the books is the gentle everydayness of their emotional lives — in particular the boy Garion’s relationships with his Aunt Polgara and Grandfather Belgarath (both, in fact, age-old sorcerers whose relationship to him, though genuine, is far more distant), and his mostly comic romance with the Tolnedran Imperial Princess Ce’Nedra. Garion is, perhaps unlike any prior teenager at the centre of a world-saving fantasy epic, a real-seeming adolescent, given to moodiness, sulks, and stubbornness, as well as occasional bursts of good sense.

Queen of Sorcery, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

(The same goes for Ce’Nedra, and if The Belgariad does have a claim to have made an advance in the fantasy genre, it may be that it contains more interesting, active, and real-seeming female characters than the commercial fantasy epics that came before it. It’s no feminist landmark, but it certainly outdoes Tolkien and Malory, as well as Donaldson and Brooks, in this respect.)

Even Eddings’ millennia-old sorcerers — on the good side, at least — make sure we know that, deep down, they’re basically ordinary folks. After every grand gesture or (brief) moment of high poetry, someone says something to deflate the situation, to bring it back to normal, to let us know the characters know they’re putting it on:

“Dost thou question my word, Sir Knight?” Mandorallen returned in an ominously quiet voice. “And wilt thou then come down and put thy doubt to the test? Or is it perhaps that thou wouldst prefer to cringe doglike behind thy parapet and yap at thy betters?”

“Oh, that was very good,” Barak said admiringly.

Magician’s Gambit, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

If it’s comparable to anything, I’d say The Belgariad is most similar to Star Wars. Begun in about 1979, and published between 1982 and 1984, its five books came out mostly in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Garion’s learning to harness his burgeoning sorcerous abilities is strongly reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s coming into his powers as a Jedi. The Belgariad’s “Will and the Word” is pretty much identical to the Force: only a few (Jedi/Sorcerers) can do it, and it’s all about imposing one’s will via mind-force on the world. Even the way Belgarath teaches Garion to do it — by having him move a big rock — is similar to Yoda’s getting Luke to try levitating his beswamped X-Wing.

But the main thing that makes the two so similar — apart from their huge success, of course — is the way both made no bones about their blatant reliance on basic templates from myth and fairy tale. Both Luke and Garion start out as orphaned farm-boys who come to learn that they have royal/Imperial connections and sorcerous power, and that their family history is deeply tied up in long-term world/galactic conflicts between good and evil. As Eddings says in his introduction to The Rivan Codex:

“I planted more mythic fishhooks in the first couple of books of the Belgariad than you’ll find in any sporting goods store.”

Castle of Wizardry, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Inevitably, The Belgariad has come under a lot of criticism. One man’s archetype is another’s cliché, and anyone who didn’t fall under the series’ spell tended to be affronted by its commercial success and accused it of being nothing but a cynical rehash of genre clichés. (As also happened with Star Wars.) And it’s hard to argue against this, The Belgariad is so nakedly archetypal. Its fantasy world is nothing but a grab-bag of characteristic historical eras (in an interview with Stan Nicholls, Eddings called it “dropping three or four aeons of western European culture into a blender”), with its equivalent of Imperial Romans (Tolnedra) peacefully coexisting with Norman-era French (Arendia), Vikings (Cherek), Cossacks (Algaria), and a sort of overheated Weird Tales version of Ancient Egypt (Nyissa). (The ghost-haunted land of the Marags, presided over by an eternally-mourning god, is perhaps its most original and quietly powerful touch, in this respect.)

In addition, so that none of Eddings’ world-building goes to waste, the quest for the vaguely super-powerful Orb takes our heroes on a convenient tour through every land on the map. But to say this is contrived is to miss the point. The quest, in The Belgariad, is like a Hitchcock Macguffin — an excuse to get the story started, and to keep it going, while the real stuff happens. The search for the Orb isn’t really the point about The Belgariad, and all the time it’s going on you, as reader, if you’re captured by the series at all, don’t actually want them to find the Orb — not in the same way as, when you’re reading The Lord of the Rings, you really, really want the One Ring destroyed.

Enchanter’s End Game, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

What I think The Belgariad is doing while you’re following its characters on their vaguely world-shaking quest, is casting a readerly spell of gentle enchantment for the duration of its five books. It’s not a particularly forceful or wildly magical spell. Perhaps the best word for what it does is the simplest and least magical of all magical terms: it charms. Its charm is in the easy humour of its characters (sometimes belaboured — Eddings has a tendency to underline his punchlines not once but twice), their low-scale emotional ups and downs, and in the quiet but lasting development of their friendships, loves, and companionship. All this is leavened with a generous smattering of lightly thrilling adventure, and an evenly-paced uncovering of the series’ mysteries — about Garion’s identity, and the true nature of the quest they’re on — drip-fed at just the right speed.

The Belgariad perhaps only works if you come to it at the right age — Garion’s age, early adolescence. Fortunately, I did, and I have to say the books certainly worked their charm-spell on me, as well as convincing me of the undeniable power of a simple, fairy-tale coming-of-age narrative — and, perhaps only because I came to it when I did, it continues to work the same spell whenever I re-read it.

The Belgariad may not have the grit of Game of Thrones, it may not confront the darker forces that The Lord of the Rings does, but I’d certainly miss its charm, its air of comradely companionship, and its gentle fairy-tale power, if the genre were ever wholly given over to nothing but “gritty reality”.