Sometimes, you just want to read a book that hits all the right notes of its chosen genre, that doesn’t really try to be something it’s not. So, when I decided that I wanted to read an epic fantasy in a style that isn’t quite as popular that it once was, I dug out my omnibus copies of The Belgariad and The Mallorean and decided to give them a re-read.
I’m glad I did. From the moment that I started reading Pawn of Prophecy, the first installment of The Belgariad, still retains much of the charm that drew me to it when I was an adolescent in the late ’90s, always looking for my next fantasy adventure to lose myself in.
The novel follows a young boy named Garion, who’s been raised on a farm in the practical kingdom of Sendar. Very soon, it becomes clear that he is part of something much vaster than he originally thought, and that his “Aunt Pol” is in fact the powerful sorceress Polgara, while the vagabond that he’s known since he was a child is Belgarath, Polgara’s father and a powerful sorcerer in his own right. They soon set out on a quest to recover the Orb of Aldur from a man who has stolen it, picking up several companions along the way.
It’s clear from the outset that this is going to be an epic adventure story in much the same mold as those that preceded it (most notably, perhaps, both The Lord of the Rings and the Shannara books by Terry Brooks). The book doesn’t take many risks when it comes to plot, and the reader is well aware from the first page where all of this will end up, particularly since the book begins with a young boy struggling to find his place in the world. The characters that appear are the archetypes that one expects from epic fantasy: the orphan hero, the wise old man, the rascal, the warrior, etc. And the plot is somewhat episodic, as they make their way through the lands of this world, foiling several plots along the way.
Don’t get me wrong. Though Eddings’ plot might follow the traditional beats of an epic fantasy, there are some moments of unique beauty here. The bond between Polgara and Garion, in particular, is one of the most affecting parts of the entire novel. The idea of the orphan as the epic hero is one that seems baked into the genre, but Eddings’ skill as an author allows us to see the negative impact that this status has on Garion’s sense of self, particularly after he comes to realize that Aunt Pol isn’t really his direct aunt (though, as it turns out, she is his many-times-great-aunt, just as Belgarath is his many-times-great-grandfather). Given that she has been one of the most constant aspects of his life, it’s very disconcerting for him to find that she isn’t who he thought she was. The moments when Polgara embraces him and Garion responds to her kindness are incredibly heartwarming, and they are a reminder that the family is as important to the genre of the epic as the more adventurous aspects.
Eddings’ skill as a storyteller is that he manages to keep his book light and breezy, even as he explores some of the darker, more sinister aspects of the epic form. There is a lot of violence in Eddings’ world. Even when the characters are joking with one another, it’s clear that theirs is a very unstable world, one in which politics can lead to bloodshed in the blink of an eye. There are some elements of grimdark here, to be sure, but Eddings prefers to keep things from getting out of hand.
Now, it has to be said that Eddings’ work is problematic in at least two regards. First, there is the question of gender. Unsurprisingly, most of the main characters are male, with the important exception of Polgara. However, while some have said that her inclination to perform domestic tasks takes away from her power, I’ve always thought that she was one of the best characters in the book. Though she might look like someone who’s content to simply do her work in the kitchen, she makes it pretty consistently clear that she’s as formidable as her father Belgarath, and that her choice to work in the kitchen is just that, a choice. (It’s also worth noting that, several years after this book was published, she would get her own volume exclusively about her life and told from her perspective).
The more glaring problem is Eddings’ tendency to associate “west” with “good” and east with “bad.” Of course, Eddings isn’t alone in this tendency, since it crops up literally everywhere, including in The Lord of the Rings itself. More importantly, he has a tendency to associate the races of his fictional world with certain (seemingly immutable) characteristics. Thus, those peoples that inhabit the west and north tend to be associated with goodness and justice (even if they are sometimes a little dense) and those from the east and south with sinister purposes, guile, and often just plain evil. Again, this isn’t exclusive to Eddings, but it’s one of those aspects of epic fantasy that has definitely come under significant (and well-deserved) scrutiny and criticism in recent years, and it’s one of the things that really dates this particular effort.
That being said, there is quite a lot to enjoy in Pawn of Prophecy. While the genre of epic fantasy seems to have moved on from some of its most basic conventions, for better and worse, there’s still something to be gleaned from these earlier examples of the form. I’m already making my way through the second volume of the series (like I said, it’s a quick read), and I’m still amazed at how powerful this story remains.
I can’t wait to share my thoughts on the books of this series, as well as Eddings’ other work, with all of you!