And so we come at last to Castle of Wizardry, the next-to-last volume in David Eddings’ magnificent epic The Belgariad. Fleeing from the ruins of the Murgo fortress, the company eventually comes to the island of Riva, where Garion claims both the Orb and the throne. In assuming the throne of Riva, Garion has now set the stage for the final, dreadful combat between himself and Torak, a clash that will quite literally determine the fate of the world.
As the penultimate novel in the series, Castle of Wizardry spends a great deal of time setting up the actions that are to come. However, it still has that sense of breathless pacing that makes The Belgariad as a whole such a pleasure to read. Somehow, Eddings manages to strike the right balance between keeping the story moving forward at good pace while also slowing down to immerse the reader in the world that he’s created. Once again, we have the evocative descriptions of scenery and natural beauty, as well as those tender domestic scenes at which he seems to excel (I found myself tearing up while reading the moment when Garion, overwrought with the burdens placed on his shoulders, puts his head on Polgara’s lap, as he did when he was a child).
The novel, for the first time, has an extended sequence told from C’Nedra’s point of view (while there were chapters that were this way in the earlier novels, the entire last section of Castle of Wizardry is all about her). Some will no doubt find C’Nedra a rather irritating character, and it’s true that she’s not one of the more compelling female creations (Polgara, however, continues to shine). However, looked at in the right light she can be a bit charming. She is, after all, a young woman who has spent her entire life being taught that everything revolves around her, and the quest has thrown all of that into confusion and doubt. More than that, though, she also has a key role to play in the unfolding of destiny. While it’s true that she is as much of a pawn of prophecy as Garion, she does take the initiative in some important ways, and this entire part of the book is a subtle (sometimes too subtle) poke at the conventions of fantasy that have consistently sidelined women. Her manipulation of the other kings of the West in fact relies upon their own prejudices regarding the intellectual faculties of women.
My personal favourite part of the novel, however, was the confrontation between Belgarath and the witch. She’s a woman who has been cast out from the world of men because of her powers, and as a result she has taken the creatures known as fenlings (who appear to be something akin to a beaver or a muskrat) under her wing, changing them so that they are somewhere between human and animal. In one of the book’s more haunting passages, she blackmails Belgarath into granting them the power of speech, so that they won’t be hunted after she dies. He does as she wishes, and the results seem to good but, as any good sorcerer knows, sometimes the consequences of one’s actions can’t be seen immediately.
That’s the thing about so many of Eddings’ works. While they are seemingly simple stories that are a fleshing out of the basic archetypes of epic fantasy (and of just plain epic), there’s so much else going on here. He genuinely seems to have an interest in the workings of the human heart, of the ways in which people–especially young people–contend with the weight of responsibility that is put on their shoulders. In that sense, this really is a coming-of-age novel, in which Garion (and, to a lesser extent, C’Nedra), have to leave behind the trappings of their childhood so that they can enter into the world of adulthood. When Garion takes a side trip with Polgara to Faldor’s farm and, with just a glance, says farewell to Zubrette, it’s a wrenching reminder of the prince that must be paid when one leaves such things behind.
At a larger level, of course, the novel is also a rumination on the power of free well, and whether or not humans have it. Of course, the idea of a young person (usually a man) having to fulfill a destiny is a staple of epic fantasy, it gains some much-needed complexity in the work of Eddings. Here, it’s not just that the hero is reluctant; it’s that he literally has no choice about the course that his life is going to take. His sole function, so far as he knows, is to fulfill the purposes of the prophecy, just as Torak is fated to fulfill the purposes of the other great destiny. All of human time, and indeed all of cosmological time, has led up to this pivotal moment. Garion’s burden is that he has to figure out how to carry the weight of time on his shoulders without breaking. Oh, and he also has to fight Torak to the death.
Some might decry this as lazy writing, but to me it’s a compelling question, and it’s one that both philosophers and writers have struggled with for centuries, though of course it has taken on a particularly added relevance in both modernity and postmodernity. One can see in the work of Eddings a reflection of the 1980s, when the concept of a strong America was resurgent, but in Eddings there seems to be some healthy skepticism toward the idea of a superman savior, though obviously even he can’t leave such things aside altogether.
I’m not sure that I’d say that Castle of Wizardry is my favourite entry in this series, since it’s not quite as compelling as the ones that preceded it, and it doesn’t have the sense of closure that looms ahead in the final volume (Enchanter’s Endgame). However, there is a lot to to enjoy, and I’m looking forward to finishing the final volume and then moving on to The Mallorean.