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”.

The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany by MJEIn 1903, at the age of 25, four years into his title, Lord Dunsany went to see a play called The Darling of the Gods, written by David Belasco and John Luther Long. Long’s 1898 story, “Madame Butterfly”, had made use of his sister’s stay in Japan as the wife of a missionary (though apparently it bears too many similarities to an 1887 French novel, Madame Chrysanthème, for this to be the entire inspiration), and had been adapted by Belasco for the stage in 1900. The Darling of the Gods, a success in New York and newly transplanted to the London stage (where it was produced by the wonderfully-named Beerbohm Tree, and starred Lena Ashwell as Princess Yo-San), was also set in Japan, or, rather, a fantasticated version of Japan that was the sort of place an early-20th century Western audience wanted it to be — a storyland of escape, exoticism and picturesque tragedy, an embodiment of all the lingering dreams of the Decadent and Arts & Crafts movements of the late 19th century, that had so fallen in love with the aesthetics of imported Japanese prints and lacquered wood. In a further act of what Harold Bloom might have called a ‘creative misreading’, Dunsany, watching the play, was overtaken by the poetic possibilities of creating a pantheon of gods, and the result was his first published (and only self-funded) book, The Gods of Pegāna, brought out in 1905. (Online text here.)

OrientalStories1932

cover to Oriental Stories, Winter 1932

This is a situation that recurs throughout the history of fantasy: one culture, encountering another, becomes overwhelmed by fantasies of that distant place and creates its own version of it, a version that becomes increasingly stylised and storyfied, till it enters the realm of pure invention. At the start of the 18th century in France, for instance, the first translations of The Thousand and One Nights were followed by increasingly creative ‘translations’ of other, obscure, ‘newly-discovered’ collections of Eastern tales, footnoted to varying degrees of veracity, till finally the whole thing becomes a convention and people openly pen invented ‘Oriental Tales’ using all the pre-existing backdrops, props and costumes of this imagined version of a distant culture, with no relation to the facts at all. (And when William Beckfod wrote Vathek, he was doing the same thing at a double remove: he wrote his mock-Oriental Gothic tale in French, as though it were a ‘genuine’ French imitation Oriental tale, rather than a poor English one.) A similar thing happened in the 19th century, with a different meeting of cultures, this time when the Brothers Grimm began to investigate the folk tales of the peasant classes. Which is why, when Victorian England fell in love with fairy tales, they pictured their heroes and heroines in Germanic peasant dress and dark, endless forests.

Lord Dunsany’s Pegāna, then, is mock-mock Oriental. But it’s also, thanks to its prose style, mock Biblical, and perhaps it’s by being pulled in two separate directions that it breaks free from any definite cultural associations and starts to seem like a wholly new thing. Which is why it’s regarded as one of the first books of truly modern fantasy. Pegāna, though, is not a separate, invented world. The name refers to a sort of Olympus, a dwelling place for Dunsany’s invented gods, though one that exists ‘Before there stood gods on Olympus, or ever Allah was Allah’.

Before our world was created, two forces, Fate and Chance (like Moorcock’s Law and Chaos) cast lots ‘to decide whose the Game should be’. Nobody knows which of these two won, only that the winner went to the primal creator, MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ (whose name is always shouted like that), and told him to create the gods.

In the Land of Time by Lord Dunsany (Penguin Classics)Dunsany’s world is founded on the fact that Man can never know the answer to the important questions. Whichever one it was who won that initial casting of the lots — Fate or Chance — as far as we’re concerned, our fate is decided: Man was created by Kib, and each man will be killed, in time, when Mung (Death) makes ‘the sign of Mung’ to him, and between those points he must follow the path set out for him by Dorozhand (Destiny), who alone knows the ‘reason and purpose of the Worlds’. In the face of this, all a man can do (and it is ‘man’, because there are no women in Dunsany’s first book) is distract himself in the works of Limpang-Tung, ‘the God of Mirth and Melodious Minstrels’. The gods, meanwhile, enjoy nothing more than to laugh at their creation, all the while knowing that, when their own maker MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ wakes from this sleep (which will end the world), he will laugh at them for their pettiness in creating it.

We poor humans, meanwhile, have nothing but fatalism for our solace:

‘All that is is so because it was to be. Rail not, therefore, against what is, for it was all to be.’

Dunsany has a lot to say about ‘Prophets’. There are prophets who speak the truth, and there are those who lie. Those who speak the truth speak the one and only truth any honest man can: that he knows nothing of the gods, and has no influence over them. This sort of prophet is not very popular. The people would rather have a prophet who gives them a comforting lie, and The Gods of Pegāna has its fair share of such false prophets: Yug, who claims to know all things, but dies all the same; Alhireth-hotep, who claims to speak with Mung (Death), so Mung comes calling; Kabok, who goes so far as to say he advises Mung, but does a runner when Mung starts lurking in his garden at night; and Yun-Ilara, who genuinely does not fear Mung, to the point that he spends his days in a high tower shouting insults at the god of Death… Only, in his weary latter years, to regret this, and instead spend his time begging for Mung to visit.

"Mung and the Beast of Mung", by Sidney Sime

“Mung and the Beast of Mung”, by Sidney Sime

Most of these tiny tales are poetic parables mocking false hope and the empty promises of religion. Dunsany’s invented names — one of the hallmarks of his writings — are at first of two types. There are the brutal-sounding single syllables, which he gives to most of his gods: Skarl, Kib, Sish and Mung. And there are the overblown, overlong names, like MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ, or Yoharneth-Lahai. I get the feeling these names started off as basically comic: the short names are meant to emphasise the primitive, nonsensical nature of some of the gods of Pegāna; the long names emphasise the over-grand nature of others. In a similar way, the mock-Biblical language is used to satirise religious writing with its entirely tautological way of enforcing belief:

‘Kib is Kib. Kib is he and no other… Because this is written, believe! For is it not written, or are you greater than Kib?’

But a sort of poetry creeps in, both into the invented names, and into the prose:

‘Then Mung went down into a waste of Afrik, and came upon the drought Umbool as he sat in the desert upon iron rocks, clawing with miserly grasp at the bones of men and breathing hot.’

The first section to really read like modern fantasy — evoking wonder for wonder’s sake — is ‘The Eye in the Waste’:

There lie seven deserts beyond Bodraháhn, which is the city of the caravans’ end. None goeth beyond. In the first desert lie the tracks of mighty travellers outward from Bodraháhn, and some returning. And in the second lie only outward tracks, and none return.

The third is a desert untrodden by the feet of men.

The fourth is the desert of sand, and the fifth is the desert of dust, and the sixth is the desert of stones, and the seventh is the Desert of Deserts.

In the midst of the last of the deserts that lie beyond Bodraháhn, in the centre of the Desert of Deserts, standeth the image that hath been hewn of old out of the living hill whose name is Rānorāda — the eye in the waste.

About the base of Rānorāda is carved in mystic letters that are vaster than the beds of streams these words:

To the god who knows.

Now, beyond the second desert are no tracks, and there is no water in all the seven deserts that lie beyond Bodraháhn. Therefore came no man thither to hew that statue from the living hills, and Rānorāda was wrought by the hands of gods…

The penultimate chapter, ‘The River’, is perhaps Dunsany’s best prose-poem in the book, about silence, sleep, dreams, and the end of all things:

‘It hath been said that when Skarl ceases to drum, and MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ awakes, and the gods of Pegāna know that it is the End, that then the gods will enter galleons of gold, and with dream-born rowers glide down Imrana (who knows whither or why?) till they come where the River enters the Silent Sea, and shall there be gods of nothing, where nothing is, and never a sound shall come. And far away upon the River’s banks shall bay their old hound Time, that shall seek to rend his masters; while MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ shall think some other plan concerning gods and worlds.’

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightIt’s strange to think that, in her 1973 essay ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, Ursula Le Guin would call Dunsany ‘the most imitated’ writer of fantasy, whose archaic prose style, and mode of poetic invention through fantastic names evoking distant, story-misty cities and hinted-at magics, made him ‘the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy’. This style of fantasy, heavy on magic and imaginative invention, can be found in, for instance, Michael Moorcock’s method of writing Elric books with a list of fantastic-poetic concepts like ‘The City of Screaming Statues’ by his side. But nowadays (and things may have come to an end starting with Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara), the dominant mode of fantasy, as typified by George R R Martin, is at the opposite extreme: minimal magic, minimal poetry, maximal grit. But perhaps the outlook on life is basically the same: both share a cynicism about the promises of religion, and an insistence on the inevitability of death (not to say Death working overtime, in Game of Thrones).

The final word, as ever, belongs to Mung, who will always have the final word:

And Mung said: ‘Were the forty million years before thy coming intolerable to thee?’

And Mung said: ‘Not less tolerable to thee shall be the forty million years to come.’