Fantasy Classics: “King of the Murgos” (by David Eddings)

King of the Murgos, the second book of David Eddings’ sries The Mallorean, picks up where the previous volume ended. Garion and company are now on the trail of the mysterious figure known as Zandramas. They make a few stops in some of the already-established locales–including Tolnedra and Nyissa–before meeting Urgit, the new King of the Murgos. By the end of the novel, they are now the “guests’ of ‘Zakath, the Emperor of Mallorea, who seems to have his own plans for what will become of them.

As I noted in my review of the various entries of The Belgariad, there are times when Eddings tends to lean too heavily on the idea of cultural determinism, i.e. that certain groups of people will be guaranteed to act in certain ways, largely as a result of what racial group they happen to belong to. While this book doesn’t entirely undo that tendency, there is an important moment when the company comes upon a Murgo homestead that has been slaughtered by the invading Malloreans. Garion in particular feels the pain of this moment, and it causes him to reflect on the fact that there is far more in common between himself and his supposed enemies than he had ever thought possible. It’s one of those moments at which Eddings excels, showing us as readers the very real consequences of war and conquest. It also suggests that, beneath all of the racial and cultural differences that sunder this fictional world, there are still some things that are universally human.

This incident also inspires Garion to commit a brutal act of vengeance when he slaughters a group of Malloreans in the forest, all while in a sort of trance. He doesn’t know for sure that they were the ones responsible for the slaughter, but he still feels justified in killing them because they would do the same thing as the other group. It’s a morally ambiguous moment, and it reveals that there is a dark side to Garion that isn’t always appear on the surface. You can’t help but feel that, if he isn’t careful, he might just become the thing that he most abhors. It’s another of those moments that reveals that, beneath the seemingly simplistic quest narrative there are some philosophical questions being raised.

This novel is also full of reunions of various sorts. For one thing, we get to again see Queen Salmissra, whom Polgara memorably transformed into a serpent as a punishment for her attempt to kidnap and enslave Belgarion to her whims. By the time of this novel, she has slipped further into her identity as a reptile, but she does still have enough of her old spite, and she seems to take an especial delight in informing Polgara of the fact that Zandramas is a woman. Even Polgara, who always seems one step ahead of almost everyone, seems taken aback by this revelation.

What I particularly enjoyed about King of the Murgos was that it gave us more insight into the culture of the Angaraks. In previous books they have been the antagonists, but now there are some new shadings to their characterization. The titular king, a man by the name of Urgit, for example, is a fascinating character. For one thing, as the novel reveals, he is not in fact the son of Taur Urgas at all; he is, rather the result of an affair that his father had with none other than Silk’s father several years previously. Through Garion’s influence, he gradually learns to shake off the traumas of his childhood in order to become a more effective king for his people. However, there are also a number of other interesting Angarak characters that appear, and it’s fascinating to see the ways in which their culture has had to contend with the fact their God, the dreadful Torak, is in fact dead, leaving them to pick up the pieces of their shattered faith.

Indeed, this novel, and the series as a whole, is far more preoccupied with questions of faith and fate than its predecessor. Gods here are not just impersonal forces that exist outside of the world, but are instead beings that have literally shaped the peoples over which they have ruled. While Torak might have been a brutal tyrant, he was also one of the only things giving shape and purpose to the lives of an entire people. Though the novel doesn’t quite right out and say so, there’s something almost tragic about the fact that the Angaraks are now left without a god to guide their footsteps, something that few of the other major peoples have had to contend with. It’s a haunting reminder that even the most laudable quests often have unintended consequences.

The other fascinating character is ‘Zakath. We briefly met him in The Belgariad, but here he’s a more fleshed-out character, a man haunted by his past and yet capable of acts of truly horrendous cruelty. It’s hard to say, exactly, whether we as readers are necessarily supposed to like him, but there’s no question that he’s compelling, if for no other reason than that he seems to be a relatively mild-mannered person to be the leader of one of the most powerful and far-flung nations in this fictional world.

Philosophically, King of the Murgos continues to explore the big issues alluded to in the previous book. Garion and the rest are still caught up in events that they can’t quite control, and he in particular feels the weight of responsibility. What’s more, he also frequently thinks about the fact that Torak, for all that he was evil, was similarly a plaything in the hands of a destiny far greater than either of them. Things are even more complicated because of the presence of the Seers, who seem to believe that they are the ones responsible for deciding the fate of all of creation. In particular the one known as Cyradis seems to think that she has the ability to remain absolutely impartial, though this remains to be seen.

All in all, I quite enjoyed King of the Murgos, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts on Demon Lord of Karanda. Stay tuned!