The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

The World Broke in Two (cover)Bill Goldstein’s book looks at a single year (1922) in the life of four writers — Virginia Woolf, E M Forster, T S Eliot, and D H Lawrence — all of whom were at some sort of creative impasse at the beginning of the year, and all of whom, by the end of it, had set out in a new direction:

“Behind these four writers’ creative struggles and triumphs and private dramas—nervous breakdowns, chronic illness, intense loneliness, isolation, and depression, not to mention the difficulties of love and marriage and legal and financial troubles—lay a common spectral ghost: the cataclysm of World War I that each of them, in 1922, almost four years after the Armistice, was at last able to deal with creatively.”

None of these writers fought in the war, but all were deeply affected by it. Lawrence, for instance, had pretty much been hounded out of Britain; first being found unfit to fight, then being suspected (because he had a German wife) of being a spy. Woolf’s mental suffering during the war might have happened anyway, but it certainly can’t have helped to know that, while she was fighting her own inner battle, the world on the outside was tearing itself apart. Eliot’s breakdown — partly due to overwork, partly to his troubled marriage, partly to the effort of writing his poetry — expressed itself in The Waste Land, but chimed well enough with the post-war mood that, when it eventually came out, was taken to be expressive of the times. E M Forster, meanwhile, had been stuck on his “Indian fragment” for more than ten years. His previous novel, Howard’s End, had come out back in 1910, and some people were assuming he’d died.

The War shattered the world, and with it all the old certainties. To these writers, it was as if the very nature of human being had changed. How could anyone write in the same old way? But all four very much needed to write, and needed to find a new way of doing it, to say what they had to say:

“The techniques these writers experimented with in 1922 were an attempt to make personal and artistic sense of a dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now, and between the artists they had been then and the pioneers they were becoming.”

What each of them needed — or had found, but needed the confidence to see through — was a way of exploring their inner worlds, of expressing dissonant, complex inner states, where there was no established technique for doing so. It was as if, as far as the novel was concerned, human beings had ceased to be defined entirely by their position in a society bound by shared values (as they were to the Victorians), and now had to be understood, each of them, as a world of their own. Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps most purely about that sense of isolation and separation; Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, with its narrative centre skipping from character to character, combines that sense of each us being our own, separate, vibrant inner world of memories, sensations, regrets, judgements, and passing notions, with the sense of constantly brushing against the equally distinctive worlds of others, all the time apart from them, but at the same time connected, by shared memories and experiences.

Eliot finished The Waste Land near the beginning of the year — during his convalescence from a breakdown — but seems to have spent most of the rest of 1922 being difficult with his potential publishers, on the one hand asking for as much money as he could get, on the other failing to type up the poem and let his publishers see what they were actually paying for. Forster returned from an official position in India, stopping in Egypt to see a man he’d fallen in love with years previously, only to find him dying. Woolf began the year in bed, recovering from illness. Lawrence, the writer who, of the four, I know least about, is the most distant from the others. While Woolf, Eliot and Forster all met up quite often in England in 1922, Lawrence was in Italy, Australia, Ceylon, and then America. (Perhaps for the best. As Goldstein says: “There was very little about Lawrence that wasn’t irritating to someone… The only possible permanent reconciliation with Lawrence was a posthumous one.”)

E M Forster, painted by Dora Carrington

The thing that seems to have acted as a turning point for at least the three novelists covered here was reading two books. James Joyce’s Ulysses had been serialised between 1918 and 1920, but was published in hardback in 1922, and it was in this form that Woolf, Forster and Lawrence read it. This was also the year that translations of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu started coming out in English. And generally, among those three novelists, the basic reaction seems to have been the same: that Ulysses was technically impressive, though something of a drag to get through, but Proust was a revelation, offering proof that there was a way to explore the new inner life in a novel.

Eliot told Woolf that Ulysses was “a landmark, because it destroyed the whole of the 19th century”, but that wasn’t what a novelist desperate to find a way to start a new novel wanted to hear. Woolf felt Ulysses was important, but found it “a mis-fire” — “Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.” Lawrence and Forster made similar remarks. With Proust, though, the language is very different. “I plunged into Proust,” Forster wrote. Woolf longed to “sink myself in” Proust “all day”, and, Goldstein notes, although she realised she couldn’t write like Proust, soon enough, having read him, “she was writing like herself again.”

By the end of 1922, Woolf was working on Mrs Dalloway; Forster on A Passage to India; Eliot had published The Waste Land; Lawrence, in Kangaroo, had written directly of the experiences that had led him to leave wartime England.

The Worm Ouroboros, cover by Keith Henderson

Inevitably, I can’t help thinking about the fantastic and supernatural fiction of the time. I’ve covered some of it on this blog: 1922, for instance, saw the publication of E R Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which certainly wasn’t seeking new models of what it meant to be human, but can still be seen to be addressing the aftermath of the war, though in a very different way. Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), and J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920) are both post-World War I works, and Tolkien’s experiences in the war certainly shaped The Lord of the Rings. But it was the supernatural fiction of the 1890s that seemed to have already been writing about a new way of understanding what it meant to be human. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray both addressed the idea that the old model, of people being a single, distinct personality both within and without, no longer worked. Modernist works like Mrs Dalloway and The Waste Land seemed to be trying to work out how to write about what it meant to be human when you threw away this idea of being a single person altogether. The Waste Land takes fragmentation as its central metaphor. Hesse looked at the same idea — of one person being multiple — in his 1927 book, Steppenwolf. His idea was that that inner multiplicity could only be fully accommodated by indulging every part of it to the full. (Which reminds me of what Krag says to Maskull as the reason for his having to make such a violent, disturbing, and personality-changing journey across Tormance in A Voyage to Arcturus: to “run through the gamut”.)

Mrs Dalloway, first edition, cover by Vanessa Bell

But it seems to be Woolf, in Mrs Dalloway, who accepts and finds a way to work with the idea that we are not of “fixed and enduring form” (as Hesse puts it), by presenting her protagonists less as characters in the Dickens manner (with fixed external traits and not much else besides) than as constantly-changing centres of experience, whose personalities alter depending on whom they are with, and what memories or sensations come foremost to their mind. It feels like the most healing of the ideas made in response to this “world broke in two”.

But, of course, it has its dark side, in Septimus Smith, the most explicit victim of the World War presented in any of the four works Goldstein discusses. Smith is an example of what can go wrong with this new idea of human beings, when they lose their delicate centre and become trapped by violent memories and unfaceable emotions overpowering their present reality. Smith’s “writings” — his obsessive and often nonsensical ideas — are his way to try to fix some sort of centre in his wildly-decentred inner world, but they are unworkable (“there is no death”, “there is no crime”, “trees are alive”). Where Mrs Dalloway herself slips nostalgically into the past and drifts back to the present, all the time making new, minor adjustments to her understanding of herself, Smith flounders in a storm of experiences that no idea of what it means to be human can ever help him with. For him, the world is The Waste Land, but it’s debatable whether reading Eliot’s poem would have helped him. Perhaps reading Woolf’s novel might?

A Voyage to Arcturus — the Séance

The first chapter of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus can seem a bit of an anomaly. It introduces eleven characters, all but three of whom (and they’re the last three to be introduced) are forgotten as soon as the chapter ends. What’s more, we get enticing hints about these soon-to-be-forgotten characters, making it seem Lindsay might have had some sort of a plan for them. Montague Faull, for instance, the South American merchant at whose Hampstead home, Prolands, the séance is to take place, obviously has the hots for another character, Mrs Trent. (Backhouse notices “the concealed barbarian in the complacent gleam of his eye” when Faull looks at her). There’s plot material there, but it never gets used.

As more people arrive for the séance, it almost seems as though Lindsay were bringing characters on stage for the purpose of auditioning them to be his novel’s protagonist. After Backhouse — who’d certainly make the subject of an interesting, if depressing, novel (Lindsay tells us something of his fate) — and the rascally Faull, we get Lang, “the stockjobber, well known in his own circle as an amateur prestidigitator” — surely set to be the hero of his own series of Raffles-like adventures, in which he beats cat burglars at their own game on the tiled roofs of interwar London. Then we get Professor Halbart:

“He was the eminent psychologist, the author and lecturer on crime, insanity, genius, etc., considered in their mental aspects. His presence at such a gathering somewhat mystified the other guests, but all felt as if the object of their meeting had immediately acquired additional solemnity.”

Ballantine cover, art by Bob Pepper

Surely Halbart is to be our hero, the man who, perhaps by teaming up with Backhouse to gain a clue or two from the netherworld, will prove Montague Faull to be the murderer of Mrs Trent’s husband at the exact same moment Faull was hosting the séance! Or perhaps, working alone, he’ll discover Backhouse to be a criminal mastermind using his weirdly tangible apparitions to commit a series of daring robberies or anarchistic assassinations.

But no, it’s none of them. At what seems the last moment, Lindsay brings on the peculiar double act of Maskull and Nightspore, one the evident man of action, the other “consumed by an intense spiritual hunger”. What sort of adventure would require such a pairing? This Voyage to Arcturus novel is growing stranger and stranger by the moment…

But still Lindsay isn’t done. As though daring himself to go one step further still, in leaps Krag, who’s another order of being altogether. His first act, after loudly greeting his astonished host, is to murder Backhouse’s apparition by twisting its neck in two precise movements.

Part of me loves the possibility that Lindsay sat down to write a novel set entirely in Hampstead, and got shanghaied by some wild strain of his own imagination. This quote from a letter to E H Visiak makes it almost seem possible:

“I do not know how it is with you, but my books up to the present have turned out quite other than I have originally intended, so that it is almost fascinating to watch them developing themselves on their own lines.” — Letter to Visiak, 21st October 1921, printed in Adam International Review Vol XXXV.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

But I can’t believe he simply busked the rest of the book, particularly as there’s the weird way that moments of Maskull’s journey tie in with incidents on Earth, as though the two were happening both subsequently and simultaneously — or perhaps, on some mythic plane, perpetually — most evident of which is Maskull’s at one point lying down on Tormance to die, only to find himself waking up, briefly, as the very apparition whose hand he shook, at the séance he attended several days previously!

So here are a few other ideas. I’m not presenting any of them as convincing arguments. I’ve come to enjoy re-reading A Voyage to Arcturus as a way of opening up its possibilities rather than trying to solve it as though it were a crossword puzzle, and I think the more I do that, the richer, as a novel, it becomes.

The most obvious interpretation sees the séance chapter as part of the general pattern of all of Maskull’s later adventures, in which a new region of Tormance is introduced, along with its inhabitants and their world-view or philosophy, only to have it all proved to be another of Crystalman’s ploys, by having the “vulgar, sordid, bestial” grin appear on yet another corpse, like the rubber stamp of Lindsay’s disapproval. In this context, the Hampstead séance is just one more rejection — the primal rejection, you could say, as it rejects the writer’s own world and culture wholesale. Exactly what the rejection is of is difficult to say, as it seems to be rejecting so much, though the ennui that leads these successful Hampstead residents to indulge in a little light séance-ing is perhaps best summed up by Joiwind’s later comment:

“That’s a strange word. It means, does it not, craving for excitement?”
“Something of the kind,” said Maskull.
“That must be a disease brought on by rich food.”

At this time, most works of imaginative fiction used a framing device — as in, for instance, The Turn of the Screw, where everyone stands around a fireplace, taking turns telling ghost stories — and it could be that Lindsay simply included the Hampstead chapter as a convention, as the accepted way to tell a fantastic tale. In this interpretation, the trip to Tormance doesn’t actually take place, but is played out before us as part of the séance. After all, the voyagers-to-be, Maskull and Nightspore, make their first appearance the moment after Backhouse has announced the séance has started — so is Maskull and Nightspore’s entrance its first manifestation? And is all that follows in fact a vision channelled through Backhouse for Montague Faull and his guests’ amusement and/or instruction? (But if so, we ought to get their reactions at the end. I can imagine Faull applauding politely while throwing a glance at Mrs Trent to see if he might get her alone later in the evening, while Professor Halbart jots a line or two in a pocket notebook.)

Turkish edition, from İthaki Yayınları, 2016

Another take on the séance chapter is that Lindsay is setting up a contrast. Maskull will set out on a journey of spiritual enlightenment, guided by the mysterious “Muspel Light”, whose name refers to the realm of fire, Muspelheim, in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Hampstead are, at the start of the book, “illuminated only by the light of a blazing fire”, a hearth-fire that in no way compares to the mystical and otherworldly blaze coming from Muspel. It could be that, in this way, this séance in a Hampstead drawing room sets up a very Lindsay-esque comparison, as though he were saying that Maskull’s trip to Tormance stands in the same relation to a drawing-room séance as a séance stands to an average evening social gathering in a Hampstead drawing room. Just as the séance is a breaking through of the wondrous and sublime into Hampstead normality, so the trip to Tormance outdoes the séance by multiplying its wonders and sublimity exponentially.

It could be, though, that Lindsay was doing something necessary to his own creative process in the séance chapter, because it has echoes with the set-ups in his later novels, as though he had certain alchemical preconditions necessary to begin working his literary magic. These preconditions involve the coming together of two opposing but complimentary elements, most often embodied, in Lindsay’s fiction, as a man and a woman. As he says, in another letter to E H Visiak:

“You remark — ‘Poetry is generated by the clash of the male and female elements in the personality.’ I go further and say that all the works of creative genius are the children of the union of the male and female elements, and that it is the female that produces them.” — Letter to E H Visiak, 9th Feb 1922; printed in Adam International Review 346-348

The first of these elements at the séance is Backhouse the medium. Backhouse is presented as an aloof, disciplined man, who, despite the fact he hires himself out as the entertainment at soirées such as this, takes his work very seriously. Of what he does, he says: “I dream with open eyes… and others see my dreams. That is all.” He makes no attempt to explain or understand what he does — which makes it so fitting when Krag calls him a “spirit-usher” — nor to embellish or mystify it in any way. In this, he’s a bit like Lindsay himself, whose prose style has wrong-footed some readers into thinking it no style at all, or a bad style, simply because it does none of the usual things that a fantasy prose style of the time (Dunsany’s, for instance) was expected to do. It works none of what Clark Ashton Smith calls “verbal black magic”, but instead seems intent on cutting all the magic out, so as to present its wonders in a plain, straightforward, take-it-or-leave-it style, with no rhetoric and no poetry. The facts are left to speak for themselves, thus making them seem all the more like facts. What Backhouse says of himself might count for Lindsay, too:

“I am a simple man, and always prefer to reduce things to elemental simplicity… Nature is one thing, and art is another.”

In this, he’s like another Lindsay protagonist, Nicholas Cabot in Sphinx. In that novel, Nicholas is working on a machine to record the deep-sleep dreams we can never remember upon waking. He, too, is seeking to “dream with open eyes” — conscious, rational, waking eyes — and his approach is as scientific and inartistic as Backhouse’s.

Which is why the medium is so discombobulated when he turns up at Prolands to find he’s to work on what is, effectively, a theatrical stage. It’s all down to our second alchemical element, Mrs. Trent — of whom Lindsay says, “It was evident that aesthetically she was by far the most important person present.” She represents the creative element Backhouse represses, denies or lacks. And though her contribution is, on the face of it, simply to have the séance room done up with theatrical scenery and a hidden orchestra, what she’s also doing is bringing the power of Mozart, and the Temple scene from The Magic Flute specifically, to magnify Backhouse’s powers as a medium. In a way, it could be this — mediumship plus Mozart — that takes Backhouse’s normally dry but impressive séances to the next level, turning this one into the start of a journey to another world. (Also, of course, Mrs Trent is the one who invites Maskull and Nightspore to the séance — her apparitions, ready to mix with Backhouse’s.)

Lindsay was obviously deeply affected by Mozart, particularly this one scene from The Magic Flute. And in his description of the séance room, it’s evident he’s thinking of one specific production of the opera:

“Having settled his guests in their seats, Faull stepped up to the curtain and flung it aside. A replica, or nearly so, of the Drury Lane presentation of the temple scene in the ‘Magic Flute’ was then exposed to view: the gloomy, massive architecture of the interior, the glowing sky above it in the background, and, silhouetted against the latter, the gigantic seated statue of the Pharaoh…”

In England, The Magic Flute received its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in March 1838. Obviously, Lindsay didn’t see this one. It was revived, though, in 1914 by Sir Thomas Beecham, as part of the repertoire of his Beecham Opera Company, which was formed after the Covent Garden Opera Company shut down during the First World War. Beecham toured his company around England, but settled at Drury Lane in 1917, putting on performances between May and July, and September and November, of that year, which is when I guess Lindsay (still in his first year of married life, at the time) might have seen it. Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s stage designs for an 1815 production are the images most associated with The Magic Flute:

But Beecham’s company employed Hugo Rumbold as designer, and in the 30th May 1914 issue of The Sphere, there are some drawings of Rumbold’s stage set-ups in an article about the opening of Beecham’s new opera season. They don’t seem as impressive as Schinkel’s designs, but perhaps this is what Lindsay was thinking of as the setting for his séance:

“A Fanfare of Trumpets in the Temple. Act II, Scene I”. Drawing by D. Macpherson, of Hugo Rumbold’s stage design for The Magic Flute. Source: the British Newspaper Archive; The British Library Board. © Illustrated London News Group

So, the séance chapter may have been all about setting up a sort of chemical reaction: Backhouse’s link to the netherworld combined with Mrs Trent’s link to “the beautiful and solemn strains of Mozart’s ‘temple’ music”. Result: Maskull on Tormance.

Perhaps, though, it’s easier simply to think about the effect the séance chapter has on the rest of A Voyage to Arcturus. If Lindsay had started with Maskull, Nightspore and Krag setting off for Tormance — or even if he’d started with the second chapter, where Krag, in the street outside, convinces Maskull to accompany him and Nightspore — it would be all too easy for the reader to see the rest of the book as a fable or a flight of fancy. By beginning it in a realistic setting, with realistic-seeming characters, Lindsay sets his reader up for something realistic. This makes the shift to the fantastic setting both more bizarre and shocking and, in a way, more meaningful. Also, that shift from the realistic to the fantastic is a deliberately destabilising move in a book that’s all about destabilising moves. (In an era when other modernistic works, such as The Waste Land, were taking the jarring displacement to a new level.)

I think the reaction the séance chapter often gets is down to that feeling of displacement. The effect is deliberate and meaningful, but it can leave readers who are used to having their science fiction and fantasy provide them with rigorously self-consistent worlds dismissing Lindsay’s effect as a mistake — or, considering the book was published in 1920, dismissing it as ingenuous, when it is, in my opinion, ingenious.

A Voyage to Arcturus is a rich book, one that repays many close re-reads and re-interpretations. I’ll hopefully write some more about other aspects of it, and Lindsay’s work in general, soon.

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”.