Fantasy Classics: Belgarath the Sorcerer (by David and Leigh Eddings)

Now that I’ve finished both The Belgariad and The Mallorean, I figured it was time to finally finish both Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress.

The novel is, for the most part, told in first person, that person being Belgarath, who begins his life as a young boy named Garath. As it goes on, we get Belgarath’s perspective on the many great and momentous events that were in the distant past of the main series. We learn of his discipleship to the God Aldur, the theft of the Orb by Torak and the subsequent cracking of the world. We learn of the retrieval of the Orb and the beginning of the Rivan Kings. Perhaps most importantly, we see the ways in which the old sorcerer plants the seeds of the events that will shape the destinies of the entire world, making sure that certain family lines prevail and that events proceed as they should. By the end, of course, we reach the point where Garion is born and Belgarath must rescue him from the evil Grolim who burns his parents to death in their own home.

We also encounter Belgarath’s many griefs. As a man who will, it seems, live forever, he has to deal with the fact that many of those that he lives will not. First he loses his wife when he goes on the mission to retrieve the Orb from Mallorea, and then he ultimately loses one of his twin daughters to an illness, his grief compounded by the fact that he is too late to say goodbye. Eddings has always had a gift for conveying the power of human emotion, and that is fully in evidence here, as we witness Belgarath’s slide into near-madness as he copes with these griefs.

The dramatic irony of Poledra’s death is quite potent. After all, we in the audience know that Poldera is alive and well and, thus, that all of Belgarath’s grief is misplaced. However, one can’t help but feel for him as he reels from both the death and his guilt over the fact that he wasn’t there for her when she needed him the most. For all he knows, she is well and truly gone, and so it’s no wonder that he drowns himself in alcohol even though that means, of course, that he also abandons his children to the care of his brethren in the Vale.

From the beginning, it’s pretty clear that Belgarath is going to be a pawn of prophecy, an instrument through which one of the great forces that governs the cosmos is going to see its will manifested. That’s an awfully heavy burden to bear, and one can’t help but admire Belgarath’s ability to do so without going completely mad (sometimes, we tend to forget that being immortal is as much as a burden as a blessing, if not more so). As the millennia go on, he comes to have a rather distant approach to his many descendants, an attitude in marked contrast to his daughter Polgara, who becomes intensely emotionally invested in their well-being (which is understandable, since she’s the one tasked with seeing that they reach adulthood without falling prey to mishap).

The best thing about the book, however, is that we’re invited to genuinely like Belgarath. He’s always been one of the best characters that Eddings created, and in this novel he really gets the chance to stretch his wings and become more fully-fleshed out. Reading this book, one can’t help but get the feeling that Belgarath, perhaps more than any of the other characters in the series, is a representative of Eddings himself, or at least the way that Eddings liked to imagine himself. Belgarath is wise, certainly, and probably one of the most powerful men to have ever inhabited this world, but he wears his learning and his power lightly. There are quite a few sly asides that suggest that the wily old man knows not to take himself too seriously (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether I’m referring to Belgarath or Eddings).

Philosophically, I also enjoyed the ways in which Belgarath, and by extension the book as a whole, is aware of the fundamental nature of history. As someone who has literally lived for thousands of years, Belgarath has had quite the opportunity to view human foibles from a very long perspective. Thus, he has an understanding of human nature that most people who only live one lifetime never attain. More than that, as he himself notes, is the fact that there can be no absolute objective recounting of events. In fact, the passage where he makes that observation, right after the Battle of Vo Mimbre, is one of the most erudite in all of Eddings’ works, and it’s a potent reminder that he himself was a professor (and thus dedicated to the life of the mind).

Stylistically, I found this a vast improvement over some of the later volumes of The Mallorean. While Belgarath is prone to sly asides now and then–usually poking fun at Polgara–for the most part Eddings seems to have found a way to rein in some of his bad habits. He allows us to immerse ourselves in this story and to enjoy getting this new perspective on the people and places that become ever more important as the story goes on. I was particularly impressed with his compelling conversations with one of the many Salmissras, a young woman who has become queen despite the fact that she would much rather have led a life in obscurity. It’s a haunting reminder of the cruelty of the real world.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. While there obviously isn’t that much tension, since we already know how the story ends up, Eddings is a strong enough storyteller that he’s able to keep us invested in this character and his adventures. And besides, it’s just plain fun to see all of our favourites again.

Now, it’s onward to Polgara. Stay tuned!