Racial stereotyping and plot development: the Belgariad, book 2

Tehani and I continue our re-read of David Eddings’ The Belgariad. Tehani’s got it over here, if you’d like to read the comments she gets; there are more spoilers ahead!

Queen of Sorcery: Book 2 of the Belgariad
David Eddings

I’ve never figured out whether the title refers to Polgara or Salmissra, but that’s ok. Maybe it’s both of them.

I reckon Polgara. Salmissra is a queen, but not a sorcerer really is she?

But she’d like to be… and Polgara’s not a queen. Maybe it’s an amalgam of both of them??

One of the really interesting things about the Belgariad when I think about the stereotypes is that not only are the people stereotypes, but so are the nations. I think the Sendars are probably meant to be British: solid farmer-types, a mixture of every other race, practical and polite. The Nyissans – well, I’m fairly sure they’re meant to be the Egyptians: snakes, hot weather … and, I dunno, maybe the stereotypes of using poison? Y’know, I like the Nyissans. They’re so different from all the other cultural groups. And the countryside itself is also different – horribly represented, so far as I’m concerned, child of the tropics that I am, but nonetheless: I like it. The Chereks are Vikings. I haven’t figured out who the Drasnians are, but the Tolnedrans are Romans: they like building roads, they are inherently merchants, oh and they have legionnaires. And an Emperor.

I actually wrote a mini-thesis on this when I was at uni! It was called “Representations of reality in fantasy fiction” or some such (much edited and published in an issue of Andromeda Spaceways some years ago!). Fun fact: my very first forays on the Internet were researching this topic, which gives you some idea how long ago that was… There’s a lot more on it in today’s digital world, and Wikipedia gave me this. Which tells us that Drasnians are kind of Western Russians with a twist of Renaissance Italians!

It’s an interesting thing Eddings did here, because by making the “evil” characters analogous to nations such as Egypt and the Middle East, it casts a social commentary of the time. Of course, Eddings might turn around and tell you it’s all completely unintentional, as Tolkien tried to claim of his own worldbuilding…

Ooh, interesting! I’d have loved to write something like that!

All of this makes me think about the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, and it makes me wonder if they’re a little microcosm of ancient Greece – and Athens specifically. You know: philosophy, thinking more deeply than everyone around them… Belgarath as Socrates, maybe? Beldin as Diogenes, the original Cynic who lived in a tub on the streets? And … does that maybe make Belzedar Xenophon, going off to serve with both the Spartans and the Persians? Does that make the Angaraks Persians?? I’ve always considered the Angaraks to be Generic Racially Stereotyped Asians (GRSA) – after all, it was written in America, in the “eee Yellow Peril!!” ’80s. Maybe I’m just reading way too much into this.

Wow, you’re good! The articles DOES suggest the Angaraks are Persians (with a hint of China in the worldbuilding). Well done!

So, yes: the Angaraks. Often described as having slanted eyes, I recall, adding to the GRSA feel. I could start speculating on what nationality each of the sub-groups was meant to be based on, but that way leads to buying into some frightful racism, I think. I have always felt sorry for the Thulls, being roundly loathed by everyone.

On to the plot.

I think Garion getting kidnapped by Salmissra is about the most interesting thing to happen in these first two books. She is cool: the very idea of her is cool. A woman picked at childhood, trained to become exactly like the original Salmissra, and fed so many drugs to keep her looking young that weird things happen to her system. A genuine hedonist, someone so totally and utterly self-obsessed that the entire world basically revolves around her – at least within the palace. Hmm, sounds like a particularly misogynistic Roman way of thinking about Cleoptara…. Anyway, there are flunkies who make everything work, and Sadi is another reason why I like Salmissra. He is the consummate politician; in fact, he is basically the Nyissan Sir Humphrey, and there’s a certain glory in that.

Sadi doesn’t get as big a showing here as he does later in the books though, right? He plays a much bigger role in other books in the series, and I didn’t realise that he was really only a bit player in this one. Which is in itself kind of cool, because it makes you realise that Eddings really was clever at utilising his established players.

Yeh – I think I love Sadi here remembering what he becomes. He’s like an awesome, possibly-evil possibly-good (does that make him chaotic??) vizier.

When Garion is kidnapped, we also get two awesome appearances, with Polgara being Most Awesome and Terrifying, and Barak turning into Big Scary BearMan. They scare the crap out of all the Nyissans in the palace, and get the boy back. Hurrah. And the queen gets turned into a snake. That is cool.

One of the other major events of this book, and which has ongoing repercussions, is that Garion finally realises that he too possesses the ability to use the Will and the Word, and the first time he consciously exercises it is to kill someone. There are all sorts of things to be said about this occurrence, but one of the big ones is: there is no external judgement for what he does. Yes, he keeps beating himself up about it, but eventually that just goes away. Yes, Chamdar was a dreadful enemy. But still, the fact that Polgara is able to fool everyone about who actually did the deed (and later, when it’s revealed Garion can do magic, no one bothers to dig this story up), and that it doesn’t have ongoing repercussions? There’s one of the biggest indications that these are seriously fluffy fantasy books. Despite the fact that burning to death is a horrible, horrible way to go.

That’s a really good point – throughout the books, there’s little consequence for the frequent death dealing and maiming. Yes, Garion is distressed by what happened, just as Durnik expressed his horror over killing a man in the first book, but they kind of just … get over it? Get used to it? I understand that it’s the medieval setting thing, and the brutality of life blah blah, but it’s also a little bit, hmmm, privileged? As in, because they are on the side of might and right, there are no consequences? Maybe I’m off base with that…

No, I think you’re right on track. It is might is right, when right is might. And Belgarath, Garion et al are inherently good and therefore their actions are inherently good. Very privileged and problematic.

We have some more fun characters in this book. Greldik: The most stupendous ship’s captain in the history of narrative, with the possible exception of Odysseus. Always drunk, but always willing to take the crazy option and get through. Mandorallen: the ridiculous, most stereotyped – consciously stereotyped – knight since Don Quixote. (Actually, I only just thought of that. I’ve not read Cervantes, but I know a little about him. Mandorallen isn’t totally deluded, but maybe he’s what Quixote wanted to be?). It was really when Mandorallen got going – and Barak too – that I realised something quite remarkable about this series: it is so bloodthirsty. Limbs go flying, people get their throats cut, and there is general mayhem every few pages. And there’s no “oh, no one really got hurt.” No, people die, all over the place – and it’s not just Murgos, that dastardly race. Random Arendians frequently die, people who get in Polgara et al’s way frequently die, and there is a remarkable lack of scruples about death more generally.

Then we have Hettar, one of the less stereotyped characters. Not in his taciturn, “You killed my father, prepare to die!!!” attitude, but in terms of being the Sha-Dar, and communicating with horses. Again, being good with animals is nothing new, but I think Eddings gives it an interesting twist. And the fact that it is most definitely not linked to magic is also interesting; in other books, Belgarath would have been snooping in Hettar’s mind to figure out if he was somehow using the Will and the Word. But not here. Of the other members of the band – Lelldorin gets remarkably little airtime, really, for all that he’s meant to be Garion’s bosom-buddy. Durnik just hangs around in the background. And then there’s Ce’Nedra.

Ce’Nedra may be the most difficult character in this entire series for me to deal with. She’s so awful, so stereotyped, such a little princess – she drives me nuts! But… even this early on, she starts to show some interesting character traits. The fact that she is so manipulative is actually kind of interesting, as is the way she plays some of the other (male) characters. And her attitude towards Garion does actually have some complexity, which is nice. I remember her improving as the series goes on.

Regarding the characters, I was reminded early in this book that one of Eddings’ real gifts is writing characters – we’re bombarded with a huge cast in this series, but each of them is quite unique, which makes them easily identifiable and great to read. And while they may be stereotypical, as we’ve noted already, they are actually still multi-dimensional and their characters have growth. Sometimes it’s an unfolding of personality which is actually due to backstory (such as for Polgara, Belgarath and Silk), others is actual new growth, as for Garion, Ce’Nedra and Durnik. Even bit characters, such as those random legionnaires or castle guards that the band come across and generally intimidate into submission have their part to play and do it well!

Sadly, this book ends on a very frustrating note, for me. Barak is going to kill himself because he’s the BearMan and he finds that unbearably humiliating. Fair enough. Then Polgara tells him he’s going to have a son, and he decides that’s worth living for. Fair enough. But. BUT. There are so many things wrong here. Firstly, he has two daughters already: aren’t they worth living for? I wish I could see this as Eddings’ take on a character like Barak, but he’s already shown him to be the doting father of the two girls. Maybe it’s the surprise that there’s a third on the way that made him remember his family? … yeh, I doubt it. And then there’s how his wife Merel got pregnant. The suggestion is very, very strong that Barak forced his wife to have sex with him, when they met in Val Alorn. And he gets rewarded with a child – a son, no less. This makes me angry and sad by turns.

Nonetheless, I choose to continue.

I totally didn’t notice Barak with the son thing when I was younger – I guess it wasn’t on my radar at all. But I sure did this time around, and yes, it’s a pretty backward idea. However, I think I disagree on the Merel thing. The way Merel is written in the last book suggests to me that she actually does like/love Barak, but it still hooked on the situation of their marriage. She is supportive of him when it counts, which speaks volumes. And, well, Polgara did have words with her… It is a lazy plot device though, I agree.

And I too continue – the books are getting a little fatter as they go on and the cast of characters continues to grow. I find myself looking for the breaks in the books that indicate the initial trilogy The Belgariad was supposed to be! And thoroughly enjoying the ride.

6 responses

  1. It’s funny, looking back I never remember these books as individual volumes, but your discussion of Salmissra reminds me that this sequence was one of my favourite parts of the Belgariad – this, and Ce’Nedra’s army, I think!

    I’d like to propose an alternate suggestion about the Drasnians: they are in fact LANKHMARians rather than having a distinct analogy in our own culture. The combination of the renaissance style nobility and the glorification of theft is straight Fritz Leiber.

    Also the whole horse people thing feels very much like a combination of Conan and Eowyn’s people in LOTR. Mandorallen is kind of like Rinaldo from the Song of Roland accidentally ate the entire Arthurian Round Table…

    Eddings of course was my first fantasy writer so I made none of these associations at the time! Now of course I am deeply uncomfortable with the whole ‘evil race’ aspect, and I do think that one of the few strengths that the Mallorean had over the Belgariad is that it did at least start to interrogate some of the most awful racist assumptions in the first series, to show that actually there were some non-evil people belonging to those races. The rehabilitation of Sadi as companion rather than villainous sidekick was also an important step in that.

    1. Tansy, I think your point about the Algars being like the Rohirrim is a really good one. I’ve never read Lieber, so I’ll take your word for it… but yes, Mandorallen is the entire Round Table. On steroids.

  2. Eddings himself (themselves?) commented on the national connections with real-world races and nations in The Rivan Codex (which is sort of a clip show book). The link between the brotherhood of sorcerers and greek philosophers is a new idea to me but makes perfect sense.

    I think this book has some of Eddings’ best descriptive language. Each of the countries they traverse has a definite look, smell and feel which is distinctive and memorable. (The Diamond Throne is good like this too.) The familiarity of races and cultures, coupled with natural and fluid dialogue, makes these books so easy to read.

    BTW, even 12 year old, misogynist DB also thought it was weird that Barak didn’t seem to worry about his daughters but thought a son was worth living for. I can only imagine at your reaction (and stopping reading seems somewhat mild).

    1. heh, yes – themselves indeed.

      I own the Rivan Codex, but couldn’t get through the whole thing… you’re right though that one of the distinctive things, and appealing things, is that each race is memorable.

  3. The reason people use stereotypes in film is because the familiarity enables you to establish character fast and effectively, without a whole bunch of time given over the characterisation. And those of us who get all cynical and jaded then look beyond that, roll our eyes and say ‘oh no, not again.’ Once overused, or done badly, and once the audience sees what you’re doing, the stereotype ceases to be useful because the audience fatigue gets in the way of the job it’s supposed to do.

    I suspect that the use of fairly rich stereotypes is what enabled Eddings to pack so much in, and to get a reading audience to accept so many characters, and part of what makes the books so easy to digest. It is to his credit that while he used stereotype to hit the readers with instant characterisation, he did develop most of them much further – and it’s that development which makes rereading the books so pleasant even as your cynical adult brain is still pointing out all the behind the scenes mechanics.

    I loved Silk too – the way he plays a role within a role within a role. And basically he’s the Han Solo of these books, isn’t he?

    1. I can see the Han/Silk parallel, but rather than asking whether Han shot first it would be more – did he slit my purse before or after selling me this fake fur?


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