On Second Thought: "Pawn of Prophecy" by David Eddings
On Second Thought will be a semi-regular feature revisiting novels from the past with the perspective of the present.
We all know that old phrase, “You can’t go home again.” Just as the hero’s journey changes the hero so that he can’t fit back into his old life, the trappings of our past often fit poorly in the present. Experience, maturity, learning--these things change us. And something that appealed to us when we were younger might seem disappointing after a second look.
We all know the feeling. That movie that you loved and watched 537 times in your childhood now seems like painfully saccharine crap. The television show that you watched for years doesn’t hold up under your adult gaze. The book so beaten and battered by the onslaught of the child-you’s fingers now seems stiff and wooden and obvious.
It happens to us all.
Jo Walton coined the term “the Suck Fairy” to describe this idea; that while you were busy growing up and having a life, the Suck Fairy came in and made your book suck. Whatever the reason-- tastes change, perspectives shift, and often the weaknesses that once remained hidden are all on display. Often they crop up as issues of race and sex. Sometimes they’re just references that become obvious later, such as the Christian allegory in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books.
So why go back at all? A case can certainly be made for leaving these things in the past, letting that loving glow remain over your memories. But sometimes we just can’t resist. Sometimes we’re curious. And sometimes we just want to revisit an old favorite to see what works and what doesn’t.
Pawn of Prophecy, the first book in David Eddings’s Belgariad, was one of the popular works of high fantasy when I was younger. Eddings was one of the first epic fantasy writers I turned to after I stopped reading Piers Anthony and Dragonlance. It’s the perfect kind of epic fantasy for a young man. Like other books of its type, it follows a young farmboy (Garion) who gets dragged into an epic quest to save the world.
Pawn of Prophecy reads almost like a YA novel would today. Garion is fourteen throughout most of the book, ignorant of his heritage, knowing only that his parents are dead. He is cared for by his Aunt Pol, an intense, powerful woman who keeps him in the dark about a lot of things. An old man with a connection to Aunt Pol, Old Wolf, appears at the farm and soon Garion is swept on a journey throughout the nearby lands, often facing danger with a group of companions that includes familiar archetypes--the burly warrior, the thief/spy, and the stalwart small-town Samwise stand-in who’s always in a little over his head. Much of the first book is given to Garion bristling at the restrictions placed on him, and the adults’ unwillingness to let him do things or even explain what exactly is going on. While it can be infuriating at times, it also makes Garion sympathetic and helps draw you into his story.
Back when I first read Pawn of Prophecy, I devoured it, moving quickly on to the rest of the books in the first series (The Belgariad) and then on to the next series (The Mallorean). I remember being drawn to the characters, finding them likable and distinct and enjoying their interactions. And I remember liking the depth of the worldbuilding and the system of magic. And I remember being invested in the story, wanting to see the protagonists succeed, wanting to see their enemies fail.
Upon returning to Pawn of Prophecy I quickly realized a few things. The first of which was that Eddings’s writing is competent. He’s no great prose stylist, but he tells his story clearly and effectively. The characters were just as likable as I remembered, each one having a distinct voice and personality.
I also realized how much this book, like others of its kind, owes to the Lord of the Rings. The prologue itself reads much like Tolkien’s work--you could substitute Gandalf for Belgarath, the sorcerer, and his companions for elves and dwarves and it would be close. There’s the theft of an ancient artifact of great power, and a dark lord who covets its return. And the cast of supporting characters that also happen to be mostly royalty. I didn’t remember the comparisons being as strong.
The rest of it is pretty standard epic fantasy fare as well. Garion is the young farmboy whose road leads him to the heights of leadership with hitherto unrealized powers and abilities. There’s the Gandalf/Merlin character to guide him, and the brave companions. The epic quest. There’s magic and a coming war. And not surprisingly, given the book’s title, a prophecy. It’s fairly by-the-numbers stuff. However, I read that Eddings did this on purpose, that he wanted to write an engaging version of the standard fantasy tale, and I suppose in that aim, he most likely succeeded.
Where the book failed me, though, is in its truly limited depiction of the so-called races of the world. Eddings clearly maps out the differing countries of the fantasy world, and populates them with people of almost identical personality traits. So that you have one nation of sea-faring Norse-like people who like to drink and fight. And you have another nation of merchants who also double as spies and most of the people there have some role in intelligence. There’s also the pseudo-Roman country where everyone loves money, the chivalrous knight country where everyone is concerned with honor, and the home nation of our young farmboy hero where everyone is steadfast and down to earth, if a little thick-witted.
That people in this world would have stereotypes about their fellow nations would not be questionable. But Eddings gives the strong impression that they’re actual traits. It’s what TV Tropes calls a Planet of Hats. And it might not be as distracting if the characters didn’t talk about their nationalities all the time. It’s like they wear name tags on their chests saying, “I am this race and therefore here’s a list of my personality traits." I kept waiting to encounter a person who ran against type and yet there didn’t seem to be any.
It gets even worse when it comes to the so-called enemies of our heroes. All of the adventuring band (so far) is made up of Alorns, the clear “good guys” on the book. The “bad guys” are the Angaraks. Where the Alorns are based on cultures like the Romans and Europeans, the Angaraks are based on Eastern cultures. Yes, yet another high fantasy where the Easterners are the bad guys. Furthermore, the Angaraks are also lumped into these large baskets--the Thulls are brutish and stupid, Murgos are fighters, etc. And these traits seem to be accepted as fact. I found this to be the most distracting of all. I seem to recall that this is softened in later books, but here it’s on disturbing display.
You might say that it doesn’t matter, it’s a fantasy world. Maybe this world does have nations split on such lines, with similar personality and character traits among the populace of each country. Sure, that’s Eddings’s prerogative, but it stinks of lazy writing to me. And I find it so simplistic that it takes me out of the story. Even worse, the constant harping on it seems almost pathological.
That aside, it was a quick, easy read and I can see why it was so popular when I was younger. It hits all the high notes of epic fantasy with an easy-to-read style and plenty of adventure. I can understand why the younger me read it. But as someone who has since read through Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it seems overly simplistic. Even much of the YA I read these days has more complexity to it.
All this being said, I enjoyed the first book enough to read on to the second. Who knows--I might read my way through the whole series.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with this book or others that you’ve revisited from your younger days. I’d also welcome recommendations for other books to revisit now that I’ve opened this door.
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