The Belgariad

Pawn of prophecy / David [and Leigh]* Eddings

Pawn of prophecy is the first of the Belgariad, a quintet of fantasy novels that are remarkable in their minimalism.

Like the Dresden files, the Belgariad was written to prove a point. While the Dresden files were written to be an intentionally bad mish-mash of genres, the Belgariad was written to demonstrate that a series can have the most clichéd, cookie-cutter plot possible but still be entertaining as long as the characters are interesting.

It’s mostly successful, to the point where it serves as a useful point of reference for other works of epic fantasy. It’s also personally significant for me which may color this review somewhat.

*Context: Leigh was a coauthor on the books but M. del Rey insisted her name be left off because he thought it would have a negative impact on sales. Books first published after his death properly credit both authors.

Brief plot summary

There’s a mysterious magical artifact that was stolen! A farm boy with a mysterious past finds himself drawn into the quest to retrieve it, accompanied by a grey-bearded sorcerer. Accompanied by several colorful comrades they must travel through many countries, each one with a population mostly defined by a few highly distinctive cultural traits.

So how is it?

It’s really good. In many ways it’s the Platonic ideal epic fantasy series. Every fantasy cliché is here, with the exception of the evil hordes not being green-skinned. While this might seem like a bad thing… it’s really not. The lengthy descriptive sequences that form a major barrier to readers of the Lord of the rings trilogy are absent. The characters can take center stage which results in an experience that’s just … fun. It’s not a comedy series, but the books themselves are genuinely funny. By populating the world entirely with clichés and cultures obviously drawn from real world national stereotypes the Eddingses are free to concentrate entirely on creating an engaging story and having fun with the characters.

Epic fantasy in practice frequently ends up with unfortunate racist implications. Tolkien himself realized that this was a potential issue with his work and talked about attempting to rectify it but he never fully succeeded. Coupled with the heavy influence of D&D on the fantasy genre we frequently end up with simplistic ethnic divisions where whole populations are just inherently evil. It does get uncomfortable at times because of the absurd heights to which the Eddingses take the “each nation’s entire culture can be summed up in one sentence” thing. It reads more satirical than lazy to me, and the later novels in the series go to great lengths to demonstrate that the “evil” people aren’t inherently so.

 

All of the fantasy tropes are pared down to the bare minimum. The magical system dispenses with anything beyond “people who can do magic want something to happen so it happens”, which is really what magical systems are underneath the fancy rules that writers seek to use to hide that fact. The plot is essentially justified by “because prophecy”. There are no plot twists that aren’t readily foreseeable. It’s great.

The real fun of the Belgariad is the characters. Each one of the companions has a highly distinct personality and most of the series is really about the interplay of these characters from different cultures and the sparks that fly.

Because of the diversity of character it’s also an interesting way to provide the reader with someone to identify with. Epic fantasy is pretty much inherently a Eurocentric genre which limits one’s options somewhat, and there’s a serious gender imbalance in the main cast (less so when supporting characters are considered but still).

One thing that’s interesting to me is how different my reading experiences have been when reading this series at different points in my life.  I still largely identify with the same characters but my perception of Garion and his relationship with his aunt Pol has changed completely – and I think that’s a great thing. It’s a rare story that can feature a relationship between a child and an adult that reads as equally real to readers in both situations. I identified with Garion’s self-centered concerns when I first read the series in elementary school, but coming back and reading it as an “adult” I found myself firmly on aunt Pol’s side.

Which brings me to another point: the Belgariad is one of those rare series that truly is fun for both children and adults. Rereading it now I’m amazed at how many jokes I missed that I now understand. There’s a huge amount of subtext that’s not particularly “sub” as an adult but went totally unremarked by me when I first read them.

It might seem like it’s easy to dismiss this series as style over substance, ignoring things like “plot development” or “credible worldbuilding” in favor of witticisms. I’d argue that it’s more a case of “substance being somewhere other than where you expected it to be”. At its heart, the Belgariad is a coming of age story where two young persons eventually come to realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them, even if they are central figures in a millennia-old prophecy. Garion’s character development is subtle and effective.  Comparing his attitudes from the end of the series with those of the beginning it’s amazing how much he grows up without any obvious “here’s the part where they grow up” moments. It’s entirely credible and very well done. Princess Ce’Nedra’s is somewhat less so. I blame the “spoiled princess” archetype that she’s clearly embodying here.

If that’s not convincing then I doubt my other counterargument, “style over substance isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se” (alternative: “style vs. substance is a false dichotomy predicated on excessive proscriptivism”) will be more warmly received. My one-person war on “merit” continues to be mostly unsuccessful.^ This is also probably why Grant Morrison is one of my favorite writers and I frequently find Alan Moore tedious.

When it comes to faults, there are two incidents that stand out, both early on in the series. There’s an implied marital rape in the first volume (it’s possible that the implication was unintentional and I’m just hyperaware of those things but at this point in time it’s hard for me to read it any other way). There’s another moment early on where Silk, the master spy, starts behaving totally contrary to his established character so that our young hero can reveal a conspiracy that should have been obvious to just about everybody. Silk’s sudden stupidity aside, the series is usually very good at maintaining its characterization. This is probably made easier by its reliance on broad archetypes but even this reliance is subtly satirized.

Recommendation

The Belgariad is another one of those things that it’s hard for me to recommend because so many of the people I would recommend it to have already read it. That said, I do recommend it on a fairly regular basis – to children. On one occasion, it was because a precocious child had come across a copy of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the new sun on a display and I recommended the Belgariad as an alternative. It’s my go-to recommendation for youngsters who have largely outgrown the “J fiction” section (or YA, but I’m much less likely to recommend this series to teens as it’s pretty “uncool”).

As the retroactive Ur-text of epic fantasy, it’s my go-to comparison for other series. It works because it’s the purest distillation of the genre I’ve encountered, so comparing other works against it provides a good sense of how reliant the series is on genre tropes.

^Yes, this whole blog is actually part of an attempt at c******* a h******** as an extended r***** to t******** the c******. Functionally, it’s just my a****** to i********** the e******* in some sense. [nonsense redacted –ed.]

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