On the Importance of the Belgariad
1991. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Gas cost…well to be honest I don’t remember, but a whole lot less than it does now. A can of coke could be had for .50 cents from the local vending machine. And I was a nervous 14-year old boy about to start High School in New Hampshire. Being the anti-social sort of twerp who preferred to sit in the corner of the lunch room sneering at the rest of the herd while completely oblivious to the fact that making friends was difficult as a result, I usually brought a book with me. In this case it as a slender tome recommended by someone who would eventually become a good friend – PAWN OF PROPHECY, the first book of David Eddings Belgariad. Needless to say, it was one of the books that changed my life.
Eddings is an interest author in the fantasy genre. So many of us were geeks from the get-go, who started with Tolkien, graduated to Dungeons & Dragons, and the ended up writing our own stories, or comics, or screenplays…and so on and so forth. Buy David Eddings, by his own admission was not one of that. He started out as a writer of thrillers, who one day went into a book store and saw that the Lord of the Rings was still not only around, but selling like gangbusters, which for Esdings resulted in a genre shift and greater success in his writing field than he’d enjoyed thus far.
Eddings path into the fantasy genre was thus far more mercenary than both…he saw the opportunity and he took it. He’s not the first writer in history to jump on a bandwagon in the hopes it takes him to the bank, and sometimes that can lead to interesting results, since the writer in question often approaches the subject or genre from the outside, which can lead to interesting things.
Thematically the Belgariad is not innovative all all. If Joseph Campbell had written a dumbed down cheaters guide to writing a story, Eddings would have followed it step by set. What sets this story apart are the very well fleshed characters (with a few glaring exceptions) and the world building. The main character, Garion, is probably the weakest, a type-2 wide-eyes innocent farm boy. But as time goes on he does become more interesting, in a way. The real interests, as it always is, is with the supporting cast. Not burdened by the need to be The Hero, they are free to be their fullest bad selves. There’s Belgareth the Sorcerer, an immortal wizard who is also Garions many-times grandfather, the most powerful wizard in the world…who is also a drunkard, a lecher and thief(though not to explicitly, this is a story that is partially aimed at a young audience.) His daughter Polgara the Sorceress, who raises Garion as his Aunt Pol, and is also the most beautiful woman in the world. Silk, a thief and spy, Barak a Viking-esque berserker, Princess Ce’Nedra, probably the most annoying princess ever written, and so on.
So why does this matter? For me, Eddings offers a valuable lesson for anyone writing fantasy of speculative fiction, which is that finely crafted characters and realistic, entertaining dialogue count for as much as the setting, Too many stories from that era (and today for that matter have a combination of cardboard cutout and Mary Sues, resulting in unwatchable movies, unreadable comics, and uninteresting novels. Eddings Belgariad might be hackneyed and troperiffic, but all that more than balanced out by one important achievement; it is very entertaining.
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