Getting the band together: the Belgariad, Book One

Tehani and I have decided to re-read The Belgariad, and – partly to justify that, partly because it’s fun to compare notes – we’re blogging a conversation about each book. We respond to each other in the post itself, but you can find Tehani’s post over here if you’d like to read the conversation going on in the comments. Also, there are spoilers!

Pawn of Prophecy: Book 1 of The Belgariad
David Eddings

My introduction to David Eddings came when I was about 13. I think it may have been because of a boy… anyway, David Eddings was, aside from Tolkien which I didn’t think counted, my introduction to fantasy.

I loved it. I adored the characters, I thought Polgara was the greatest character, I basically recognised Garion, and… yeh, I was hooked.

I re-read the Belgariad and the Mallorean when I was in first year uni, so about age 18. I read one a day for ten days. I still enjoyed it. I don’t remember whether I had a different opinion of the characters and plot from my first read, but I certainly read the whole lot.

I’m nearly 31, now, and I decided to read them again for the first time since then. Actually, I re-read Polgara because I was craving something familiar and reassuring. And then I realised, actually, that I enjoyed it. I still liked Polgara, I still enjoyed the world, and it was indeed familiar and reassuring. So I decided to re-read Pawn of Prophecy, which is the only one of the two series that I actually own. (I do own Belgarath and Polgara. In fact, I gave Polgara to myself as a Christmas present the year it came out in hardback; signed it as being ‘from Santa’, confused the hell out of my family for all of about 30 seconds.)

I was a relative latecomer to being a fantasy fan. When I was 19, a friend of mine handed me Magician by Raymond Feist and said I’d love it. I stayed up until 3AM on Christmas Eve and read pretty much right through Christmas Day. On Boxing Day, I handed it back to him and said he was right. Then he gave me the first book of The Tamuli, and said I should try that too. And then I was hooked.

I came to the Belgariad backwards, having read The Elenium and The Tamuli first, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed it any less that first time round, and it was a staple annual reread for about five years. When Alex said she was planning a re-read I thought that sounded like a great idea (despite the groaning shelves of To Be Read books) and I realised it’s been at least five years, possibly more, since I’ve read these. So it’s almost like reading them for the first time!

Now that I am more familiar with fantasy tropes and stereotypes, I understand that Eddings is totally stereotypical. In fact, I also recently re-read the first book of the Elenium, and I realised that most of the knights could be directly mapped onto tropes from the Arthurian mythology. I don’t think the same applies to the Belgariad, but of course most of the characters are recognisable stereotypes from other places. Some of them are in Tolkien, some are in medieval and earlier mythology. Some have become stereotypes perhaps because of Eddings. And … sometimes that matters. Sometimes it doesn’t.

I wonder though how many later fantasies have enforced the stereotype and so the characters now seem more stereotypical? At the time the Belgariad was published, was there that much quest fantasy around? I think also that because the Belgariad is essentially YA, the “tropes”, such as they are, are okay for the audience. A good introduction, if you will!

Well, quests were all the rage in ancient and medieval literature, but I’m not sure whether they went out the window in the early modern period – it’s possible that happened, and that Tolkien and Eddings etc reintroduced the concept. I think you’re right about Eddings being a good introduction to the ideas, though.

Anyway, Pawn is essentially all about getting the band together. We’re introduced to the young man on a quest – although we don’t really know, early on, that he will be the central character. I don’t know whether I guessed, the first time I read it, that he would be the main character; it seems so obvious now. He’s a foolish young boy, who makes very silly mistakes and has some fairly shallow young friends; he lives an idyllic farm life, with all good things around him and an aunt who cares for him deeply. Then, of course, he’s ripped from that life and thrown into turmoil. He doesn’t know why, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and he’s forced to go along with it.

And isn’t it done well? It all makes perfect sense, and it all happens at the right time for the story, I think. There’s enough set up for us to really start to get to know the characters, then BAM! All of a sudden things are afoot and happening, and they start to change before our eyes. I think it is one of Eddings’ biggest positives, the way the characters evolve in what seems a very natural way. Unlike so many of the modern fantasies, where characters start out from nothing and are all of a sudden all-powerful!

Two things strike me about this section of the book. One, I think Eddings captures whiny teenage boys quite well, actually. Garion’s just tagging along, and he doesn’t know why, and he eventually gets roundly ticked off. Sounds much like most teenaged boys I’ve met.

The other is of course another stereotype of the genre: no one seems to go to the toilet. Although there’s reference to being tired, and occasionally to eating, making camp and a fire and generally living rough all seem remarkably easy. It doesn’t actually bug that much because I’m so used to it, but I did actually notice it this time. And it may also be because this time, I skipped over at least some of those sections… they’re just a bit boring. And don’t add much to the story.

They do bathe though! Polgara insists on it regularly.

I read so quickly that I routinely skim that sort of stuff – I think it’s one of the reasons I used to enjoy re-reading books so much, as I’d missed so much the first (or second or third!) time! It didn’t strike me as too onerous in Pawn though. I think because the book is short (relatively speaking), so I didn’t mind those bits to plump it up.

As for the other characters: I love Silk, and I always have. The thief, the guide – so witty, so clever, so always-after-the-profit. And so entertaining. Barak? The enormous Viking-type, keen to have the biggest warship in the Cherek navy. The kings and nobles? Well, at least they’re a bit different from one another. Again, they’re stereotypes, but they are interesting. I like King Anheg: he’s awesome. I really like that he looks stupid but is actually really, really smart.

I’m also a Silk fan. In fact, as I was reading I really felt he was the most interesting character in this book. I love all the characters, but in this first one, Silk is the only one who is really fun, I though

One of the most important aspects about the Belgariad is the magic – the Will and the Word. There’s not a whole lot in Pawn, but there’s enough to realise that magic is enormous in the context of the world, and presumably will be in the rest of the series. I quite liked the tantalising hints about magic in this introduction. And this leads, of course, to talking about Belgarath and Polgara.

I still hugely enjoy that Belgarath starts as a tramp, a storyteller, and no one really cares about him in that guise. I like that it’s an effort, sometimes, for him to prove who he is. I like that he’s a grumpy old man, that he hates ceremony, and that he’s so blunt with everyone. Polgara? She is still awesome. Yes, she stereotypically cooks for everyone: but she likes cooking, and you know, I’m fine with that. I like cooking, and I still get to be a feminist. She also has delightfully snarky dialogue, she’s calm under pressure, she puts up with her father and a whingey teenaged boy, all with immense grace. Plus, she’s tall, and beautiful, and intimidates every single person she tries to, and most of those she doesn’t.

Polgara really IS awesome! I found myself admiring her even more than I remembered. Her inherent power and will, despite everything going on, in the face of the general patriarchy of the nobility, is awe-inspiring, and becomes even more so as her backstory unfolds and you begin to realise exactly what her very very long life has been like. She’s one of my favourite fantasy women of all time

I really enjoyed Pawn of Prophecy. Again. In fact, to the point that I decided to reread the entire series. Because as far as I remember, it only gets better. And yes, it has also made me realise that I am easily pleased, especially when it comes to nostalgia (and especially of the kind where the bad CG doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment. Terminator, I am looking at you).

Yep, you didn’t have to talk real hard to convince me either – have Queen of Sorcery underway!

7 responses

  1. As the provider of the series for you to read, I feel obliged to make a comment.

    I discovered Eddings when I went to high school. I must have been forced into the library (a school portable…) for some reason – I was not a book nerd back then – and it somehow ended up in my hands. I can’t quite recall seeing a blazing aura surrounding it at the time, but maybe there was. It didn’t matter. I was 12, and there was a picture of a kid holding a sword on the cover. Good enough for me. Were there people standing behind him? Maybe there was, but I couldn’t be sure and it didn’t really matter. Like most teenagers, I would have assumed that Garion, like all teenagers, was simply the product of his own awesomeness rather than of any nurturing or support structures.

    When I first read Pawn, all that farm stuff seemed to go on FOR EVER. It’s not that it was boring (or, in retrospect, even that long a part of the book): I guess I just wanted in to hurry up and get to the bit where he picked up the sword and used it. If only I had realised how long this would take…

    Yes, the whole thing is rather stereotypical, but what sets it apart is the level of sheer degradation that Garion is subjected to. We all want our heroes to be humble (and often from humble origins, “wrong side of the tracks”, etc), but Garion really cops it because his emotional growing pains are broadcast in widescreen technicolour not only to the reader, but also to his companions who are living in each other’s pockets for months on end. Maybe it would have been more dignified to see him go to the toilet after all?

    (As an aside, I would like to say that the series loses nothing at all for omitting bodily functions from the action. The scene where Garion meets Ce’Nedra at a forrest pool would have been far less alluring if they had have meet while Garion was squatting over a hole.)

    Anyways, I just started writing about why I like the Belgariad in comparison with later Eddings works when I realised that I was preempting later Random Alex posts, so I will keep these comments for later episodes.

    One of the great features of Pawn which isn’t able to be replicated in later works is how Garion’s ignorance of his world, his identity and the identity of his companions is exactly the same as the reader’s. Minster Wolf’s cryptic comments are cryptic to the reader too. When Silk teases Garion about his ignorance (“what do you think we’re looking for?”, “who do you think Aunt Pol really is?”), Eddings is teasing us too. However, he is also drawing us in: this is not the story of a farmer looking for a lost chicken, so stay with it. When Silk talks about why its better to be alive when momentous events take place (and Garion replies that he’d prefer to live in one of those quiet centuries when nothing much happens), it’s a carrot for the reader to keep turing pages.

    I also love the simplicity of the scale of the adventures. The thump of the stable doors when Brill departs, or the scene in the spice shop and Asharak’s red gold, are all rendered dark and sinister even though there’s not much going on. There great scenes because we feel Garion’s fear of the unknown. Compare this with, say, Sparhawk’s STUPID teleporting (what would he possibly have to fear?), and you’ll understand why books like Pawn are infinitely more re-readable than the later stuff, even if we now know who everyone is from the start.

    And of course when he does eventually pick up that sword, it is so totally worth it.

    1. Yes, I did rather hope you would let me get a word in about the other books… 😀

      I absolutely agree about the teasing nature of Eddings’ revelations. I really can’t remember what I thought originally. I really hope I had an idea that Garion would be a Big Deal, but I’m not positive. And I don’t necessarily want my characters going to the loo all the time – but if they can talk about looking after the horses, a veiled reference to ‘seeing to necessities’ wouldn’t be hard!

      Simplicity is exactly what these books bring. I love it. It’s so easy to read. So reassuring, and comforting.

      One quibble, though: Sparhawk is one of my favourite characters EVA. Don’t be dissing his teleportation!

  2. It only just occurred to me right now, hearing you describe Polgara – wouldn’t Lucy Lawless play her brilliantly if they filmed it now??? I think the old Xena icy stare would transfer beautifully to that role.

    1. I think you have what might be politely called an obsession 😀

      I’m not sure – not being a Xena fan – are you sure she’d be tall enough? I always imagine Polgara as quite tall. And I can’t imagine Polgara in Xena’s outfit, which despite BSG is how I always imagine Lawless…

  3. Hee, no she wouldn’t wear that outfit. She’s older than she was when playing Xena, and can carry off long dresses. I think she’s certainly tall enough – I will be reviewing Spartacus: Blood & Sand soon which has her as a Roman matrona. A wicked one!

    Whack her in a dark blue dress and another dark wig with a silver lock and she would SO look like Polgara.

    1. T, I am still unconvinced, to be honest. Maybe with a wig…

  4. I love Sparhawk too. And I adore the Elenium.

    It’s just that I preferred it when Bhelliom, like the Orb, was a power that was forever tempting it’s bearer to unleash but which was rarely used.

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