Belgariad by David Eddings

January 5, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 4 Comments

I started reading Belgariad with some trepidation. For years, JRR Tolkien was all I felt I needed to read from the fantasy genre. I had no patience for the sorry bunch of imitators that his work had spawned. Slowly of course I have been exposed to good fantasy and have been more willing to give such work a chance. Eddings was the last hurdle because on one hand his books are quite popular but on the other hand he doesn’t have a very good reputation among the net literati.

The verdict is in: Eddings is no Tolkien imitator. Like Tolkien, he bases the structure of his work on the epics of the past. However, unlike Tolkien, he has very different goals. In the introduction to my edition, Eddings states the map of the world came before anything else. The tempting contrast is Tolkien creating first the Elvish languages. Although this is not the place to describe Tolkien’s motivations, suffice to say he was motivated primarily to develop a history and stories in that history that served as elaborations on themes and values that were central to his thinking. The world he created predated even the early work on his epic, Lord of the Rings, by decades. Eddings, on the other hand, seems to have started with the epic structure and his geography and worked his way from there. The result is an epic that is thorough in very odd areas and curious unformed in those I personally consider more important.

Did I mention it is pretty good? If I do an entire review as a comparison to Tolkien it’ll sound awful, but Eddings has two things going for him. First, he rigidly adheres to some of the most successful storytelling patterns in history. You may not be surprised by much, but surprise is overrated in fiction (unfortunately that discussion is also out of the scope of this review). Second and perhaps more importantly, as a writer Eddings is very good with light moments and banter between his many named characters. He uses all the right tricks to make sure you will remember the important aspects of a character and is content to sit back and let them chew the scenery. For the rest, Eddings is capable enough. That is why I give it four stars. If you have read it or are otherwise interested in a little bit of spoiler discussion I’ll go into the reasons why it’s a low four stars and not higher:

As I mentioned in the non-spoiler review, the fact Eddings started with a map weighs heavily on the finished product. It is what in my personal lingo I call a “Grand Tour–every separate spot on the map is visited. Once I realized how the characters were carefully zigzagging through the map it took a little away from the story. Drasnia was skipped in the initial run to retrieve the Orb so I could plan the route the second stage of the quest was going to take before the first stage had even ended. Another thing that must be said about the geography is that Eddings does himself no favors with Tolkien fans when he sticks the good guys in the northwestern corner of the world and even sticks the “Overlord of the west” on an island in the western sea. Also, if it wasn’t for the fact the initial exit from Sendaria was south, the path followed by Garion etc. on the first stage of the quest would probably be exactly the same as that followed by Frodo.

More problematic was the ruthless stereotyping. Eddings says in the introduction to my edition he wanted to write a more realistic epic. It didn’t seem all that gritty to me–I can only guess he means he mentions supply trains when the big army has been assembled. What I cannot understand is why he would then make such a mockery of his nationalities (leaving aside his frequent misuse of the word “race”). The only reason the army has supply trains (and thus supplies) is it brought along a King with the practical stereotype. Lucky for them it was Sendarians, not Tolnedrans, who were Practical! I suppose I lied, I do understand why he does it: it’s a crutch that allows him to use a much larger cast than is really necessary. Since all the characters adhere so rigorously to their types you simply have to remember the reigning type for each nationality and there’s no need to flip to a dramatis personae. What’s surprising is how fluid his characterization can be when it comes to actually writing dialogue…although really he gets away with reiterations of the same character note many, many times.

Of course, this stereotyping is also done sociologically, which is even more disastrous. Somehow each nation seems to have a homogenous military force, for example. Vo Mimbre produces knights, Sendaria produces archers, etc. This is so ridiculous it doesn’t need to be attacked. However since it is also applied to the customs and politics of the cultures, the nations really come of as a sham. Particularly bad was the conflict between Mimbrates and Asturians and the lame way in which is was resolved. Maybe if I hadn’t read Lions of Al-Rassan I wouldn’t have noticed, but Kay if you ask me is the Tolkien of societal conflict and you try to cross that territory at your own risk.

That gets to another weakness of the book…nothing in particular happens. The characters don’t change very much, and when they do it tends to be either by authorial fiat (Merel for example) or simply irrelevant to the story (i.e. whatever Garion is feeling at the moment…who cares, fate is at the wheel, not him). The story’s plot and themes could have easily been reduced to a single volume not much longer than the first book, but I admit it probably would have been a commercial failure. There’s something to be said for a nice long story, and the padding–bickering and repartee between characters–is where Eddings’ writing is strongest.

Unfortunately, when he gets to padding actual plot it becomes less sound. The pseudofeminist subplot where the queens take over the kingdoms is bizarre for a number of reasons. For one thing, why make a big deal about modernizing male-female relations when you’ve got a bunch of feudal governments (oh, sorry, only Arendia has an oppressed peasantry…right)? And, if you’re going to do it anyway, why draw all of your important female characters using the classic chauvanist caricatures of “complete ditz” or “complete bitch”? On a related note I was unsure as to why I was supposed to give a damn about Ce’Nedra, or want Garion to be involved with her in the least.

One of the major elements of the story is the concept of fate and prophecy, but unfortunately Eddings seems to have included it because he felt it was expected without actually thinking about too hard. Unfortunately, fate is really more of a Greek issue while the rest of Eddings story comes from Christian (specifically Romantic) sources. If you ask me, the tiny role prophecy and fate played in Lord of the Rings was something of a mistake but at least it was part of a larger theme relating to his monotheism and the toleration of evil. The only justification for Eddings’ material here is a bunch of handwaving about the universe. His seems to have come up with the two prophecy concept as an attempt to give his main character free will, but giving him about 5 minutes of free will (during which, I might add, he makes no choices other than a hand-waving psychological gambit). The attempt is laudable, I suppose, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Five minutes of free will doesn’t justify the “dry voice” hauling Garion around for the preceding four and three quarters books with the marionette strings completely visible.

The other problem with his metaphysics is the empty religion he has provided, again without seeming to give it much thought. His gods are bound by fate, not the enforcers of it, and seem to have been given all the fallibility of man. It all begs the question, what are they doing in the story? Not much, of course–like Tolkien’s little-G gods, they keep to themselves for the most part. But since there is no thematic use of them why are they there at all? It was also a mistake to align gods, when they are aligned at all, with animals instead of with values, but since they seem to be there “just because” it is understandable Eddings would not see the reasons for this.

My last complaint about the metaphysics is the sorcery and how many important elements were left unsaid. The “will and the word” was all well and good, but why is Belgarath immortal? Is Durnik in his new form immortal? Was Polgara choosing mortality when she thought she was giving up her power? Belgarion has the power, is he going to live forever? Might be difficult since one assumes Ce’Nedra is not. Additionally, since the only stated limitation is not being able to destroy matter (if this can even be called a limitation, since functionally speaking disintegration accomplishes the same goal) on the whole it seems wasted. Can they restore a normal person’s youth? How is their power affected by distance? And so forth.

Also I should add that it was difficult to swallow the characterization of Belgarath and Polgara. Polgara is thousands of years old and throws a days-long temper tantrum over what she surely can see is good sense and, for that matter, seems completely bound by fate anyhow? Belgarath in particular is childish, and while it is occasionally hinted this is a sort of disguise, there’s no real evidence of this. While his constant squabbling with Polgara was cute, I just didn’t buy this as the sort of relationship two people who had known each other for thousands of years would have.

I’ve done a lot of complaining here, but that speaks to the strength of the format and of Eddings’ execution, at times. I always have the most to say about books that were tantalizingly close to being great but fell short. The Eddings who wrote this story is probably not capable of writing something I would give five stars to, but there’s always hope he will improve (although his age when writing the Belgariad takes away some of my optimism).

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