FROM JASON’S BOOKSHELF — Let’s get off on the wrong foot. I think J.R.R. Tolkien is given far too much credit.
There. I said it.
Tolkien has some unique strengths: He more or less defined the high fantasy style with The Hobbit in 1936 and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the mid-1950s. In doing so, he made minute detail and elaborate back-story hallmarks of the genre.
Unfortunately, I think he goes too far. He makes many descriptions laborious and oftentimes paying more attention to world-crafting than character-building.
Half a century later, in 1982, along came David Eddings with The Belgariad. It’s admittedly a simpler series of books but far more accessible. And, in my opinion, far more engaging, thanks to Eddings’ pacing and uncomplicated attention to motivation.
It also has a special place in my mind because it was my first fantasy. Oh, I’d been bred on Star Wars, Legend, Willow, The Dark Crystal — all the sword and sorcery movies. My fourth grade teacher had even read The Hobbit aloud in class. But there’s something far more intimate in turning the pages yourself, and The Belgariad sucked me in.
I was amazed, and moved on to The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (which tells the same basic fantasy formula story, only from the perspective of Welsh mythology).
It didn’t take long to get to Lord of the Rings, then on to The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, The Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist, and the heavyweight of them all: Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.
I was hooked. That was almost 20 years ago, and I still return (like I did yesterday morning before work) to Eddings almost on a yearly basis.
The story of The Belgariad is deceptively simple: There are seven gods, one of whom was driven mad for power. Torak coveted a jewel made by his brother and stole it, but the magic stone — the Orb of Aldur — disfigured him with fire and put the him in an eons-long slumber.
The sorcerers who have watched over the orb since then also wait for the prophecies to be fulfilled. They protect a royal line, hiding the successors in obscurity until the day that Torak wakes.
The story begins in earnest when the stone is stolen, and Belgarath the sorcerer gathers all of the pawns of prophecy needed to recover it and put an end to Torak’s reign. At the center is Garion, a special boy with a hidden power and a destiny.
Eddings’ characters do suffer from the “one of each Dungeons & Dragons class” syndrome: There’s the main character — the boy hero who will quest until he is a warrior-magician-king. There are his wise sorcerer and sorceress mentors, the knight, the giant/barbarian, the thief/spy, the archer, the dwarf, the rogue, and the goodman.
What Eddings is good at is blurring archetypes. He starts with a caricature and molds it into a character — something too many fantasy novelists forget to do.
Instead of being a knight through and through, Mandorallen faces a crisis of cowardice. Instead of being the typical barbarian, Barak is rather cultured (for an Alorn) and despairs about a mysterious curse placed on him. Rather than conform to the ruddy little dwarf brand, Relg is a religious zealot who must overcome his hang-up with moral “purity.”
Each party member has at least one prominent problem and a host of other shortcomings. It’s the character flaws that make each one so engaging — and a running theme is that those flaws are just as important to the grand cosmic chess game being played by the Prophecies as are the heroes’ strengths.
There’s also a magic sword (there’s always a magic sword. The damned things are inescapable). Just once I wish the protagonist would charge into the climactic clash of good and evil armed with a magic lance, or a magic spear, or a magic yo-yo.
Even though Eddings doesn’t wade in a cesspool of back-story like Tolkein, The Belgariad still features a nicely-fleshed-out mythology that lends a great deal of credibility to the books.
There are seven gods, six who lead their own unique race impressed with their personalities. A sixth race has been exterminated, leaving the seventh god to weep ceaselessly for his lost children. An eighth race rejected by the rest of the deities worships the father of the gods. There are also a handful of sub-races and non-humans, as well as monsters to deal with.
One thing that I really like about this series is that the characters are generally very good at what they do. They rarely make stupid decisions. They outwit their enemies. There’s a general message that a team tapping the strengths of its members can’t be beat.
A second series, The Malloreon, continues the story with the same cast of characters, now fully realized in their powers. There’s a slight dip in quality but a complimentary surge in both darkness and intricacy, especially since the exposition’s already been shuffled out of the way in the first five books.
Later Eddings novels, though, decline rapidly. They’re still worth a read, I suppose, but they’re quickly rendered transparent.
The Elenium, for example, recycles The Belgariad’s character templates shamelessly, sending the heroes once again chasing a magic stone around the world — this time with the direct help of a goddess.
In The Redemption of Althalus, a mash-up version of the thief and wizard characters from The Belgariad pursues a magic book through time and space. With the help of a goddess. And he’s immortal. And he lives in a magic tower. Even some of the characters’ quips are reused. Can you hear my sigh?
At any rate, I highly recommend The Belgariad to both young and old fantasy fans. I guarantee it will be a quick read, and you’ll want more.