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”.

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterOne of the things that makes the original Alien so effective is how lean and sleek it is, plot-wise — what you might call its structural perfection. You can’t help but admire its purity. It’s a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…

The original film’s one allusion to a backstory or mythology, the Space Jockey scene, is so brief yet mind-blowing that all it does is hint at what a vast, scary, and utterly unknowable Lovecraftian universe there is behind the xenomorph’s existence. It’s as if, with the Space Jockey scene, the film is saying, “All this stuff with one killer alien is merely scratching the surface of the horrors that are out there.”

Aliens knew what it was doing when it left any question of mythology alone. Like a need-to-know-only military briefing, it stuck to the xenomorph, and the xenomorph only. Anything beyond that was unnecessary to its story. Prometheus changed all that, but Prometheus was trying to be a different sort of film altogether, only tangentially related to the Alien franchise. That wasn’t what audiences wanted, though, so now, instead of a Prometheus sequel, we have Alien: Covenant, a DNA-fused hybrid that promises a return to the Alien franchise proper, but that also wants to keep things going on the Prometheus front. We know the xenomorph is endlessly adaptable, but I can’t help thinking of that pathetic human/xenomorph thing at the end of Alien: Resurrection, that seemed, to me, more unintentionally comic than evolutionarily impressive.

(And why ‘Covenant’? Aside from it being the name of the ship carrying human colonists to the distant planet Origae-6, there doesn’t seem to be any actual covenant involved.)

Alien: Covenant posterI enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but only in a so-so way. I think the trouble with it is that, by this time, the series has picked up so many story elements it feels the need to give the nod to, none of them can get the attention they deserve. There’s the xenomorphs; there’s the Engineers; there’s the synthetics; there’s David (from Prometheus) in particular; there’s the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; there’s its ageing founder… And somewhere amongst all that, there’s the new characters who must be introduced in each film, if only to give them some sort of story before they’re infected, impregnated, punctured, dissolved, burned, torn apart, experimented on, or whatever other gruesome fate awaits them. In a need to be both a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant spends all its narrative energy running around ticking boxes, doing its best to add its own particular twists (yet more variations on the xenomorph and its ever-mutating gestation cycle, yet more new ways for characters to die), trying to at least hint it’s going to connect with the original film in a meaningful way, while all the time trying to provide some justification for its existence as a film in its own right.

All the scenes that made Alien and Aliens so great get stuffed into Alien: Covenant and hastily run through, but with none of the necessary build-up in character and tension that made them work in the first place. Who is that getting torn apart by the latest variety of xenomorph (a pale, fleshy creature more than a little resembling Pan’s Labyrinth’s eyeless Pale Man)? I don’t know. Which means I don’t care.

Michael Fassbender as David in PrometheusWhere Alien: Covenant does get to create some sort of unique identity as a film, it actually starts to work. The one thing it’s got going for it is the fact that it has two superficially identical synthetics, David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender (who is, I suppose, the prequel series’s Ripley, though an anti-Ripley). This is a new situation for the Alien films, and Alien: Covenant manages to do something with it. The trouble is, it only gets round to doing it in the last few minutes, once the film has finished dealing with all the other Alien/Aliens/Prometheus stuff it feels so contracted to deal with. (Perhaps that’s the covenant in Alien: Covenant? A contract between Ridley Scott and his audience who, he seems to feel, need, not a sleek, tense, killer of a film, but a series of ticks against an ever-increasing list of must-have scenes, twists, and backstory updates, however shoehorned-in.)

Prometheus left me reeling at how nihilistic it was. Alien: Covenant never gets round to making any sort of equivalent statement. And I think this is the curse of backstory, or mythology, or whatever you call it, generally. Backstory works as backstory, not as the main plot of a movie. That’s why the Star Wars prequels could never be as good as the originals. It’s great to have, in the original Star Wars trilogy, references to what went on before — the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and so on — because those throwaway references gave the story-world a bit more dimension, and uncovering hidden past events and family secrets added some counterpoint to the main action of the plot. When Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father, it was a great, though crude, shock moment. But it certainly wasn’t the justification for three new films. (The Harry Potter books/films did it better, in terms of interweaving discovery of past events with present-time plot advancement.)

Star Wars Rogue One posterI really enjoyed Star Wars: Rogue One, and a good deal of that came from its being so free of the tangles of established backstory — certainly, of the ponderous, melodramatic, Gothic weight of the ‘Saga’ of the (let’s face it, majorly dysfunctional) Skywalker clan. Granted, Rogue One took as its kick-off point a detail from the original story — Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans — but that, and its being set in the recognisable Star Wars universe, was all it took. And all it needed.

Alien: Covenant doesn’t actually add much to the Prometheus mythology, which makes it all the more annoying how weighed down it is by including so much of it. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but what I think the Alien series needs is to jettison this dead weight of trying to build a mythology, and get back to being the sleek, simple but mind-blowing killer beast it used to be, with only the occasional between-the-fingers glimpse of a wider, even more terrifying, cosmic reality behind it all.

Star Wars day…

For Star Wars day…

Princess Leia by Murray Ewing

 

Princess Amidala by Murray Ewing

The Films That Time Forgot

Time for a Doug McClure triple bill! Once upon a time, it seemed you could always catch a Doug McClure, a Ray Harryhausen Sinbad, or George Pal’s The Time Machine on a Sunday afternoon. As a kid, I watched them all, religiously, each and every time they were repeated — to the extent that, once, my dad had to set up a black & white portable telly in the car so my brother and I could watch At the Earth’s Core as he drove us back from visiting our Gran & Grandad in Selsey.

Writing about Tom Baker in Nicholas and Alexandra a few mewsings ago led to me wanting to watch one such film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, again, and that urge led to me buying the whole Harryhausen Sinbad trio and watching the lot. (Golden Voyage remains my favourite, with Tom Baker the best Sinbad sorcerer-villain, and Kali the coolest Harryhausen monster.) That led to the even stranger urge of wanting to watch a Doug McClure film or two. I say “even stranger” because, well, at least with the Sinbads, I knew the monster sequences would stand up to a re-watch, but even as a kid I knew the monsters in those 70s Doug McClure films were not exactly convincing. Still, the urge was there, and The Doug McClure Fantasy Adventure Triple Bill box-set called…

The Land that Time Forgot was the first. Released in 1975, based on the 1918 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, it starts with a German U-Boat torpedoing a civilian vessel, from which only a handful of survivors escape. Among their number, of course, is the heroically-chinned Doug McClure, who immediately sets about organising a rowboat attack on the Germans. What I didn’t know about this film all those many times I watched it as a kid was that it was scripted by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn. And the script is one of two things that really stands out in this film — the story develops at a good, even pace, with it being a full half hour before there’s even a hint of the fantasy element to come. Before that, it’s all about the tension between the British and Germans as they struggle to gain or regain control of the U-Boat. And the good script goes hand in hand with the other plus point that makes this the best of the three films in this box-set: the actors. Like so many British films (such as the Harry Potter films nowadays), even the minor roles are taken by faces you know or half-know from British TV and films. Here, we have Anthony Ainley (later to play the Master in 80s Doctor Who) and Susan Penhaligon (who played Lucy in the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula — the best adaptation of the novel, in my opinion), to name just two.

It’s only after that half-hour of tussling for control of the U-Boat that we get a brief shock-glimpse of the first of the film’s monsters. This, the one element that got me watching these films as a kid, is the part that least stands up now, but it’s not the total disaster I was afraid it’d be. In The Land that Time Forgot, the monsters are mostly puppets, and when they’re on their own, while they wouldn’t ever be described as convincing, they’re at least not bad, as long as you enter into the spirit of things. It’s when they do what Harryhausen does so well — a battle between humans and monsters — that things don’t go so well. The dinosaurs of The Land that Time Forgot have a tendency, when fired upon, to just stand there roaring and waving their paws until, after a tedious back and forth between roaring monsters and firing humans, the monsters cave in and fall over (usually rather stiffly). It’s almost as if, as puppets, they know there’s a line they can’t cross, and their human prey are on the other side of it. There are a couple of examples of life-size props being used in human-monster fights (a pterodactyl taking a neanderthal in its jaws and gliding woodenly away, a bendy-necked lake dinosaur jabbing at Doug McClure), but the monsters are always at their most effective in short bursts. The trouble is, the film tends to milk them a little too long. (That first, very brief, appearance of a lake monster lunging at the U-Boat’s periscope is the best monster moment in the film, if not the entire box-set.)

At the Earth’s Core, another Burroughs adaptation, was released in 1976, and this, perhaps because it’s studio-bound, has much more of a period feel. Here, there’s barely ten minutes build-up before we’re in the lost world of Pellucidar, with its glaringly artificial pink light and its drastic step backwards in monster effects: for the puppets have been replaced by men in suits, complete with stiff but rubbery-flappy taloned feet and dry wobbly rubber tongues. But Earth’s Core is less of a serious affair, with Peter Cushing playing a stiff-backed professor almost like a reprise of his earlier take on Doctor Who (for the same studio, Hammer’s rival, Amicus). Meanwhile, there’s a lot more action, which means a lot of rather dull fights between square-chinned Doug and an array of thuggish men in varying degrees of masks & make-up.

This, really, is how Edgar Rice Burroughs should be adapted. I know there’s a big-budget version of A Princess of Mars in production at the moment, and I’m sure its CG Barsoom will look brilliant; all the same, there’ll always be a part of me that feels Burroughs is better served by this style of slightly naff effects, by-the-numbers acting, and general air of filmic pulpiness.

If The Land that Time Forgot worked pretty well as a film, At the Earth’s Core is at least fun. We’ve got Peter Cushing’s comic turn, Caroline Munroe giving us a twirl, and the malevolent Mahars… I don’t know what it is about these reptilian super-parrots with their stiffly blinking eyes and complete rubber-suited lack of grace, but they still have an air of menace about them. Plus, they explode when they die!

Between At the Earth’s Core and the next film in the box-set, Warlords of Atlantis, everything changed. Earth’s Core was 1976. Warlords was 1978. And in 1977, of course, there was Star Wars. As a result Warlords of Atlantis was not an Amicus film, nor was it predominately British in cast. It also had a proper budget behind it, which meant some pretty good sets and plenty of location work. What it didn’t mean, though, was better monsters. We’ve still got the men in suits. The suits are slightly better (with more reptilian warts, if nothing else), and they are, also, occasionally doused in water, which makes them a little bit more realistic, but some of them — particularly the four-legged ones — move with less grace and realism than a pantomime horse, and the humans-versus-monsters sequences are still a question of cutting between shots of the humans firing guns and the monsters standing back and roaring. If this is how the dinosaurs behaved, it’s no wonder they became extinct.

Ah well. But at least there was a surprise waiting for me in the credits. The screenplay was written by Brian Hayles, who provided some classic Doctor Who scripts, including The Celestial Toymaker, The Ice Warriors, and the two Peladon stories, as well as writing a number of Target novelisations. And the plot of Warlords could well be a repurposed Doctor Who submission, with Atlantis the remnant of a destroyed planet, hidden on Earth, kidnapping mariners (by use of a giant octopus) to use as slaves to repair and defend their crumbling, once-great cities. The Atlanteans themselves have mastered such mind-powers as levitation and being able to see into the future, but nothing, nothing, nothing can prepare them for the mighty chin and fist of Doug McClure. He socks them good, and they go down.

Warlords of Atlantis is the only original (non-Burroughs adaptation) of the three. It’s also, despite its bigger budget — or perhaps because of it — the most disappointing. Perhaps because the nice sets and glittering costumes hint at the better film that could have been made if only they hadn’t stuck to the men-in-rubber-suits philosophy, or perhaps it’s just that the pulpy man-fights-Empire-with-his-bare-fists storyline was so much better suited to a low-budget, creaky-effects approach than something that looked as though it had, at last, seen the light of Star Wars. (The monster sounds are a lot better, which helps. Perhaps that was a Star Wars influence.)

Overall, the films are enjoyable, pulpy, adventurous fare. Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching them, but I was more than happy to make allowance for the naffness of the effects as long as the storylines were working. In a way (and I want to write a mewsings on this at some point), I prefer effects that are obviously artificial — not necessarily creaky, but stylised, artful, like Ray Harryhausen’s Kali. They give an air of magic, of something other than reality, and call for an imaginative response from the viewer which super-dooper CG lets you all-too-easily opt out of.

There was another Amicus Doug McClure film, The People that Time Forgot, in 1977. I can’t say I’m quite inspired to track it down and actually pay to see it, but if it comes on TV again, some idle Sunday afternoon (not that I have many of those anymore), I’m certain to watch it.