Meeting another person who has read David Eddings is something akin to meeting someone who is a member of the same cult as you. Over the years, whenever I have mentioned The Belgariad to someone else who has read them, I have been met with a happy monologue of how much they loved them; I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’d read them and not enjoyed it. The series consists of 5 books: Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician’s Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanter’s End Game.
With the first book in the series originally published in 1982, for me the series typifies everything that was great about low-fantasy in that era. It sits alongside The Princess Bride (1987) and Dungeons and Dragons: the kids in Stranger Things would read these books. In the 2017-19 80s revival, I feel it’s time that these books enjoyed a new wave of glory.
I recently posted on Facebook that I had started re-reading Pawn of Prophecy, and it immediately elicited a stream of excited comments, including:
“oooh I grew up on these books! might be time for a re read”
“I remember that summer I spent reading every one of these. The most I’ve ever read in my life 😂”
“Oh yes. Garion!”
“Ooh I loved these books!”
…and my personal favourite:
“omg i fucking loved that series when i was a kid!”
These days, the basic plot and premise of the books seems either tropey and outdated or gloriously retro, depending on your outlook. The reason that the plot seems so familiar, maybe even overdone, is because of all that came after these books and how popular these themes have become in the genre in the years since. True, they weren’t the first of their kind by any means, but Eddings did it so well; to this day, I’d be surprised if you could find a Waterstones that doesn’t have the first 2 books – Pawn of Prophecy and Queen of Sorcery, respectively – in stock.
“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm.”
The plot line of a simple farm boy growing up in the care of his aunt, who ends up whisked off into an adventure with powerful people in a world overwhelmingly bigger than anything he’s hitherto experienced, is a familiar one. It barely even qualifies as a spoiler to say that, of course, he finds out that the people he knows are not the simple folk he thought they were, but rather inconceivably important and powerful. He himself is, in the end, The Chosen One. You can see where these books are going a mile off – but that doesn’t dampen the enjoyment of them even one bit. 16 years after I first opened Pawn of Prophecy as a teenager, even thinking about that first line gives me a feeling not dissimilar to that of sinking into the perfect hot bath. It’s warm, it’s comforting, and it makes me feel about a million times better no matter what is ailing me.
Far more than Garion himself – though I will, of course, love him forever – it is the supporting cast that make these books so beloved. Silk – the erstwhile rogue of the party, a spy and acrobat and reluctant Prince of Drasnia – has yet to be knocked from his spot in my Top 3 Favourite Literary Characters of All Time. The group of adventurers that join Garion, Aunt Pol and Mister Wolf on their quest also includes Barak, your friendly neighbourhood Viking beserker; Hettar, a warrior who can telepathically speak to horses; and Mandorallen, a knight who speaks in ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s.
These cast members are a collection of important people from various countries within the world (though not all of the countries, since there are loads of those). The countries themselves are an oddity of this series that I’m yet to encounter elsewhere in any book; as indicated by the above, for the most part each one correlates to a specific stereotype of a historical time and place.
Sendaria and Arendia are your typical mediaeval-England affair popular in low-fantasy (and, indeed, high-fantasy) generally. The Chereks are Vikings. The Tolnedrans are Romans. The Algars are indigenous Americans. The Nyssians are, for all intents and purposes, jungle-dwelling Egyptians. It’s an interesting way to go about world-building, and because it leans so heavily on stereotypes it’s one of the few things that date these books really badly.
Though not without its problems – another of the things that date the books – overall I enjoy the way female characters are done. They are consistently, but in varying ways, clever and kind. They are almost universally equipped with an acerbic wit, and can largely handle themselves in their own ways without the assistance of male characters.
Women in the Belgariad are multi-faceted and strong-willed for the most part. They all have a mix of stereotypically feminine and masculine characters traits. They know what they want, none of them take any shit from the male characters, and they are generally a little kick-ass and awesome. That doesn’t mean that they’re flawless – they all, as with the male characters, have their own issues and are far from perfect – they’re just really awesome women who I would like to hang with. Even Pol, and let’s face it, she’s possibly one of the most unnecessarily patronising characters ever written, but it comes from a place of love and she mostly doesn’t mean it nastily so I’ll let it slide and I won’t hear a bad word said about her, ok? Ok, breathe.
In the Belgariad, everyone is awesome, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. The men know the women are, like them, awesome and either flat-out respect them as equals, begrudgingly accept them as equals, or are actually a bit intimidated by them. A few are sexist but they get called out or get their comeuppance, which is satisfying because that’s still so rare in real life. The women know they are awesome and have a tendency to get a little cocky about it at times, but I can’t say I dislike that in female characters. After all, the men get to know their own worth and be a little arrogant about it if they want to be and it’s called self-confidence, so why can’t we get in on that?
The books certainly aren’t perfect in this regard, and some of the interactions and dialogue would be panned as cheesy-as-hell if they were in a book released today. There are parts I actively dislike, such as large groups of grown-ass men laughing at and mocking teenaged Garion’s interactions with teenaged girls. Poor Zubrette gets a raw deal. There’s an incident where a flirty Cherek girl is clearly trying to lure Garion away to kiss him, after having met him around 30 seconds prior… yep, super realistic, that bit. The less said about Barak and his wife the better. However, the redeeming feature of all this is the importance of communication in these books. Even in the bad-Barak-situation, in the end, communication fixes it (the one instance where, actually, it shouldn’t have).
The characters in these books care about each other. In between fulfilling prophecies, fighting baddies and kicking-ass, and they put in the work needed to develop and maintain not only romantic relationships, but familial ones and friendships as well. Everyone has each other’s backs, with a delicious side helping of cutting remarks. To this day I’ll blame these books as to why I’m always meanest to the friends that I like most.
Though these books may have their low points, their high points are truly sky-high. They’re an epic adventure story, with an admittedly weird but very well built world. The history behind the current adventure is fully fleshed out. These books are hilarious. You come to care deeply about the characters, including each’s personal journey, and I love finding out who someone’s respective favourite is (mine is Silk by a country mile, but I’d love to hear who yours is in the comments!). The plot is classical low-fantasy but intricate, gripping, meticulously executed and absolutely first class. There are moments in these books that leave me with my jaw on the floor every time. I know they’re coming, and I’m still left stunned by how well they’re executed. Its immensely satisfying.
I’ll be finishing this with a quote from Samwise Gamgee because, weirdly, it’s appropriate: “Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why.”
I have read the Belgariad 3 times, and am currently reading it for the 4th. I have lent my copies to countless friends across 14 years. These books have made me laugh, they’ve made me cry. Most importantly, these characters and this story have burned themselves into my soul from the first time I read them. These books have stayed with me, and had a hand in shaping who I am as a person. They should be a staple in any fantasy-lover’s bookcase.