I was looking around on the internet last year for a list of fantasy recommendations from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s and found the results wanting. Since I have a number of pocket recommendations from those decades already I decided that this year I would make a guide myself. But first, I wanted to fill a number of gaps in my genre reading around certain iconic series from fantasy’s formative years. Enter my recent decision to read The Belgariad. An iconic five-book series (Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician’s Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanters’ End Game) by David Eddings (and his wife, Leigh Eddings, to an unclear degree) that took the torch from Lord of the Rings and expanded on what fantasy could be. It’s the classic coming-of-age story about a prophesied farm boy with a sword who gathers a party of unlikely companions, an aged mentor, and sets out on a quest to smite a great evil. Several of these tropes have their origin in this iconic story. It is a series that has some surprisingly timeless strengths and some possibly insurmountable baggage.
The five books tell a fairly continuous fantasy version of the hero’s journey focused on Garion, our young protagonist. Many centuries ago, seven gods looked down on creation and decided to populate it with people in their image. Each deity made humans based on their ideal personalities and temperaments and created a number of powerful nations for them to live in. Two of these gods, Aldur and Torak, took to tactics slightly different than their siblings. For fun, Aldur decided to live in isolation, make an immensely powerful and destructive magical artifact, called The Stone, and train a generation of sorcerers. Torak decided he was going to be a dickbag and attempt to steal all his siblings’ toys and rule everything. Torak’s play for Aldur’s Stone goes awry, with inconceivable consequences. The land is sundered, Torak is put into a coma, and the other gods depart the land fearing more action on their part will make things worse. They leave humanity with a prophecy that one day a boy will be born, he will pick up the Stone/Orb, and he and Torak will have the duel of the century to decide the fate of existence.
Thus we have Garion, a young farmhand raised by his aunt Pol. Time and circumstances eventually reveal that he must leave his quaint farm and go on an adventure with his aunt and grandfather, who happen to be legendary ageless sorcerers trained by Aldur. The orb has been stolen by maleficent persons and must be recovered so that the prophecy must come to fruition. Thus we begin our large hike of this fantasy world and slowly collect interesting individuals on the way, culminating in an enormous duel between the farm boy with a sword and an ancient dickbag deity.
I struggled a lot with my thoughts on this series, to the point where I definitely think it has excused itself from a possible recommendation list but I still want to talk about it. There are some serious issues with this story that have aged really, really poorly. Some have to do with the time this book was written and others are just personal demons of Eddings. On the other hand, there are elements of this story that are phenomenal. They are few, but so surprisingly strong that I am in shock that 40 years later they still stand out as some of the best examples of them in the genre. I have decided to start with the bad because anyone who wants to bow out from this series on principle is entirely entitled to do so, and I don’t want you to get excited only to be overwhelmed with the bad.
Let’s begin with the biggest wart on the frog: biological determinism/essentialism. If you are unfamiliar with bio-determinism, the long story short is it’s the idea that a person’s personality, ability, and traits are determined mostly or solely by their parentage and genetics—and it is a common springboard to some of the most heinous racist takes you will ever see. Many fantasy books have struggled with bio-determinism as a theme as it has always been a nasty part of the genre, but I have never read a series that leans into it as hard as The Belgariad. Each god in this book creates their people, and so each of them is a monoculture reflection of that god. Every single member of a people is quick to anger, bad with money, slow in the mind, impatient, or chivalrous depending on which country you are looking at. On top of being a really boring way to world build, it also leads to the problems surrounding the Murgos, the people of Torak. Because Torak is a selfish, greedy, evil god, every single one of his creations is inherently evil. We spend the entirety of the book watching our heroes struggle against any number of Murgos, who are always bad without exception. They may sometimes appear to have hearts and feelings, but it is always a trick because no one with an evil origin could be good. On the other hand, when heroes are being heroic, it is driven by the bloodlines they were born into – not their individual merit. I hope the issues with this are extremely apparent immediately, it is a style of worldbuilding that has aged incredibly poorly.
On top of the racist undertones, the books are also really sexist in a strange way as well. Women are not treated very well in The Belgariad. Surprisingly, there are a number of very deep and well-written female characters, some of whom become secondary leads behind Garion. His aunt, Polgara, is one of my favorite mentors in fantasy, and on top of being an amazing character in her own right, she also has one of the best mother/son relationships with Garion that I have read in the genre. The problem is that in every one of these instances, it is made abundantly clear that these female characters are the very rare exception to the rule: that women are the lesser gender with fewer mental faculties and abilities than their male counterparts. In fact, most of the well-written women struggle with throwing off their need to do things like household chores or their obsession with clothes. This feels a little bit of a relic of the time it was written, but these books are from the early 80s, so I don’t think they deserve much leeway.
What may be the strangest revelation about these books is that it came out fairly recently that the Eddings were jailed for child abuse in the 70s. I would describe Polgara and Garion’s relationship as one of my favorite familial bonds in all of the genre, so I am not sure if they learned a lot from the incarceration or if I am just massively missing something. The Eddings are both dead now, so none of your money spent on these books will go to them, but I thought it important to be upfront with all of these issues. I ultimately enjoyed these books, but it was very much in spite of the issues and I was able to separate the good from the bad. Then again, I am a white male so I have less unpleasantness to eat than others when reading it. If you find everything I just covered too much to ever read these books, I completely understand. For those of you who stuck around and are still curious, here’s where The Belgariad starts making some traction back towards positive.
The blazing North star of quality in this series is the chemistry of the adventuring party. The core meat of what makes up this story is Garion, his aunt, and his grandfather setting out on a world tour and collecting a varied group of people to build the prophesied adventuring party. Many of them fall into your typical fantasy tropes: the rogue, the barbarian, the knight, the ranger, the zealot, etc. Their identities are not particularly special (though it is worth noting that these would have been fairly original at the time of publication), but their chemistry is fabulous. The give and take of these characters in the larger group is effortless, entertaining, amusing, and fun at all times. The story constantly has the crew breaking into smaller sub-groups for mini-quests and the dynamic pleasantly shifts depending on the breakout. It means that the books remain gripping and entertaining regardless of circumstances, which is important because there isn’t a lot going on.
Jumping back to the bad for a moment—this series is five books long and almost 90% of it is made up of walking through generic fantasy landscapes. There are a few memorable locations, but the general formula of the story is: the party gets a lead on the location of The Stone, goes to the location, finds out The Stone has moved, battles the local Murgo population, has to flee with a mob on their tail, gets a new lead on The Stone, repeat. It makes it particularly hard to keep the books disparate in my mind as it all blends together into one giant stroll. And yet, I only found myself realizing this in hindsight as the crew is so entertaining at the moment.
Returning to the good, one thing that is particularly wonderful about the cast of characters is their complexity and relationship with Garion. The quest party essentially functions as a commune raising Garion through a very formative time. Each member of the party has strengths and weaknesses (that are determined by bio-essentialism, not individual identity, which I hate but moved past). While they are teaching Garion, the mentors always try to pass on their strengths and use their self-aware flaws as a lesson on what not to do. And it’s really compelling. We get to see Garion slowly transform from this good-hearted bumbling child to an adult worthy of the prophecy about him. This is an incredibly satisfying element of this story and did a lot to buoy up my irritation with some of the earlier problems. It is particularly interesting to me that Eddings nailed this element of the book given his track record with his own children. It is also interesting that I have read countless stories inspired by this group and few of them ever achieve this level of chemistry.
Now for some rapid-fire cleanup. The magic of the series is fine. It’s your standard ‘manifestation of will on the world around you.’ It isn’t particularly interesting, but it gets the job done and allows for some fun teaching moments with Garion. The prose is clean and easy. I do appreciate that it feels accessible to both a younger and older audience. The ending is what you would expect from a good vs. evil coming-of-age story. It lacks many nuances, and it’s kinda boring, but you get what you sign up for.
Circling way back to my first paragraph about why I read The Belgariad, I don’t think this series will make my cut for the best of the decade list. It has some strong strengths and I enjoyed the experience myself, but it is too weighed down by baggage to still feel relevant to a modern audience. Now if you asked me would I recommend you read The Belgariad? That’s a maybe. It certainly has a value from a historical lens of how the genre evolved and it was genuinely entertaining. It would ultimately come down to whether you think you can separate the pros from the cons and not let them taint your reading experience.
Rating: The Belgariad – 7.5/10