Getting the band together: The Belgariad, book 1

Alex 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 Alex’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 thought.

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!


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6 responses to “Getting the band together: The Belgariad, book 1

  1. Anonymous

    I read and reread these books so many times. Loved them, couldn’t wait until the next one would come out. I recently reread them for the first time in around 15 years. I still enjoyed them, especially the humour. What I found less easy to take was much of the interaction between men and women. I dislike that all the relationships are based on a juvenile game of women being bossy and men ‘letting’ them do it to keep them happy. That marriage is a trap set by women to stop men drinking and having fun. And I know that much of it is in fun and the happy marriages are VERY happy marriages and even the ones that start bad end well, but when it comes to Ce’nedra using tears and that old standby “don’t you love me anymore?” to manipulate Garion (and she’s not the only one, by a long stretch) my tolerance was dissipating.
    I still think they are excellent books to introduce new, younger readers to the genre, but I don’t think I’ll bother again. There are so many other books that suit me better these days.
    I will always hold a special place in my heart for Silk though *grin*.

    • Anonymous

      Silk rawks πŸ™‚ Am halfway through book 2 and while Polgara really comes into her own as the books move on, Silk is still the funnest πŸ™‚
      I think Alex and I will talk more about some of those issues as we discuss later books, because you’re right, they are problematic to an adult reader, definitely.

  2. Anonymous

    Oooh you guys are making me want to read these all over again! I had a very similar introduction to fantasy – started with Tolkien, fell in love, and went hunting in the local library for MORE. That’s when I found The Elenium.
    I read that first, so I will forever have a soft spot for Sparhawk, but moved on to the Belgariad and Mallorean after that. I wanted to BE Polgara when I was a teenager!
    I love Eddings’ ability to write character. The dialogue, the interaction between characters, is addictive! His books make me laugh loudly in public at inappropriate moments πŸ™‚
    I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    • Anonymous

      Sparhawk is made of win. And yes, I too have laughed inappropriately when reading! They still have that power, even now!

  3. Anonymous

    You are inspiring me to reread! I started with Belgarath when I was a young teen. It was one of the books that hooked me into fantasy. I went off them years later when I realised how stereotypical they were – but your review has made me think of them fondly again. They *are* a valuable intro to fantasy tropes. πŸ™‚ I do remember being annoyed at how similar his other books were to the Belgariad, though – I read the Rivan Codex and he actually told people to write formulaicly! So I got bored before I read the Tamuli.

  4. Just commented on your Elenium post and hadn’t noticed this one about the Belgariad – definitely feeling very nostalgic about my David Eddings books now – after reading The Hobbit and the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in primary school, at 13 the David Eddings books were my first big series that got me absolutely hooked on fantasy. Definitely pulling off the shelf to re-read! I loved Dragonlance too – might have another look at those too!

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