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”.

Mills & Barsoom

It’s always been a problem, what to do with young men, bundles of sex and violence that they are. Each age has to come up with new ways of channelling their youthful energies, or face the consequences. The Middle Ages, all too aware of the dangers of having a bunch of steel-plated, lusty young knights roaming the countryside, developed a pair of social codes: chivalry, which said that only a fight between equals was truly honourable (so, no bashing peasants just for the hell of it), and courtly love, which said that the purest expression of a knight’s devotion was to dedicate himself to the service of a (preferably married, certainly chaste) woman, whom he could worship from afar, obey her every command, and pine for. The fiction of the times is full of honourable knights and sighingly tragic longing. Lancelot was the ideal, and though nowadays he’s most known for his massive failure to merely worship from afar, Malory, at least, was convinced of his virtue, saying that anyone who didn’t believe in it was corrupted by the cynicism of the times:

“…nowadays men cannot love seven nights but they must have all their desires… But the old love was not so; for men and women could love together seven years, and no lecherous lusts were betwixt them, and then was love truth and faithfulness. And so in like wise was used such love in King Arthur’s days.”

A Princess of Mars - Bruce Penngington cover

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is a direct descendent of the same school of fiction. I first read it when I was 19 or 20, and perhaps because it was so short and so very readable, quickly moved on to its sequels, which proved just as moreish. (I think I got as far as The Master Mind of Mars (6th in the series), or perhaps even Synthetic Men of Mars (9th) — things get a bit blurry after the first three. It’s the uber-cliffhanging ending of the second, Gods of Mars, which has stuck with me.) Even while caught up in them — and they really did have that read-it-in-a-single-sitting compulsion — I knew they were basically an endless series of riffs on a single formula. The thing was, the formula was so primal, it worked even though I was aware of it.

A Princess of Mars - Michael Whelan cover

It’s the romantic male daydream of rescuing a beautiful princess, either from death or a fate-worse-than, again and again and again, raised by the power of its exotic setting (one of Dejah Thoris’s would-be ravishers, Tal Hajus, is “the most hideous beast I had ever set eyes upon… like some huge devil-fish”), and delivered at such a breathless pace, the narrative barely gives you time to recover from one iteration before it lands you in the lap of the next. The hero, John Carter, goes from death-defying extreme to death-defying extreme, at one point having his flying machine shot down to crash in the middle of warring hordes of savage Tharks (six-limbed, twelve-foot-tall green Martians who think the death agonies of their enemies the funniest thing going), only to find himself fighting next to (and saving the life of) the one Thark on all the planet who knows him. The plot has enough holes to sink a heavier vessel (why does Carter, having just freed Kandos Kan in Zodanga, instead of going on to free his beloved Dejah Thoris in the same city, elect to fly all the way to the distant city of Helium, a place he’s never been to before and in which he will not be recognised, in order to get help?), and I felt, on this re-read, some of Carter’s actions were more barbaric than heroic (to rescue Dejah Thoris from being wed to the warlike Zodangan prince, Carter assembles a horde of Green Martians to massacre and imprison the whole city, many of whose inhabitants, it has been pointed out, are against the actions of their leader) but the whole thing stays buoyant through sheer narrative pace as it zings from one romantic peril to the next. Like a shark, it survives only because it keeps moving. But this shark moves fast.

A Princess of Mars - Frank Frazetta cover

It’s not just physical peril, though, that stands between John Carter and the beautiful Martian princess Dejah Thoris (she lays eggs, don’t you know). The exotic setting allows Burroughs to put problematic cultural barriers between the two of them, from Dejah Thoris taking insult at the culturally-ignorant Carter’s unintentional faux pas at the beginning, to her later telling him that, having promised her hand in marriage to the hated Sab Than because she thought Carter dead, honour dictates not only that she cannot go back on her word, but that, should Carter kill Sab Than, she and Carter will never be able to marry.

It’s courtly love all over again.

(Apparently there’s a film out, or something.)

Le Morte Darthur

Malory’s world in Le Morte Darthur is one where “Right lends Might”, where “God will have a stroke in every battle”. Sir Lancelot is the hero of Malory’s book, a super-knight whose prowess at combat means he can never be defeated, whatever the odds:

“With that came in Sir Lancelot, and he thrust in with his spear in the thickest of the press; and there he smote down with one spear five knights, and of four of them he broke their backs. And in that throng he smote down the King of Northgales, and broke his thigh in that fall.”

So great is Malory’s love of Lancelot, he paints himself into a corner, as in each new combat Lancelot must top his previous performance, fighting that many more knights in one go, or, if really forced to fight only the one (such as the wicked Sir Meliagaunt) offering to do so partly armoured and with one hand tied behind his back:

“‘Well, I shall proffer you a large proffer,’ said Sir Lancelot, ‘that is for to say I shall unarm my head and my left quarter of my body, all that may be unarmed as for that quarter, and I will let bind my left hand behind me where it shall not help me, and right so I shall do battle with you.'”

But with the final battle, Le Morte Darthur suffers a change of style that, while it ought never to work after such near-ridiculous heroic heights, is profoundly moving. The fatal wounding of Arthur forces a shift from superhero romp to tragic, gritty realism, and suddenly it’s as if all the nobility and chivalry have gone out of the world, leaving a grim place of grievous, messy injuries and (far worse, to Malory) death by ignoble hands:

“So Sir Lucan departed, for he was grievously wounded in many places. And so as he rode, he saw and hearkened by the moonlight how that pillagers and robbers were come into the field to pillage and to rob many a full noble knight of brooches and bees [arm or neck rings], and of many a good ring and many a rich jewel. And who that were not dead all out, there they slew them for their harness and their riches.”

and:

“Then Sir Lucan took up the King in one part, and Sir Bedivere the other part, and in the lifting up the King swooned; and in the lifting Sir Lucan fell in a swoon, that part of his guts fell out of his body, and therewith the noble knight’s heart brast [burst]. And when the King awoke, he beheld Sir Lucan how he lay foaming at the mouth, and part of his guts lay at his feet.”

It’s the mythic picture of a dilemma that’s still with us. Ideals are illusions, but they’re all the magic we’ve got in this world. Messy realities, though they’re the sort of truth you can verify, can’t be all we live by. Human beings are half animal and half imagination, and the tussle between the two creates a similar tussle between fantasy and realism in great works of art. And Le Morte Darthur is certainly one of them.

(Quotes from Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript, Oxford World’s Classics, ed. Helen Cooper.)