Monday, January 30, 2012

Pawn of Prophecy, or How To Become A Wish-Fulfilment Demigod In Five Books

So, having dipped into Stephen Donaldson's Covenant Chronicles and started on the Julian May's Saga of the Exiles, we come to the third of the authors who set me on the path towards geekery at an early age - David Eddings and his Pawn of Prophecy (1982).

That's Book One of the Belgariad, people:

Or, How To Become A Demigod In Five Books
Or, Let's Write The Same Darn Series Twice Over
Or, Yes, Reader, You Will Get To Visit Every Country On The Map

Over and above their writing chops, Donaldson and May are still interesting to me because their books fizz with ideas and idiosyncrasies. Eddings is interesting not for his perfectly serviceable writing, but mainly because he helped to define a template for a whole generation of modern high fantasy.

And sold several shedloads of books into the bargain.

I could spend a few happy paragraphs criticizing Eddings' bad habits: regarding nationality as characterization is a particular pet peeve, as is having your villains into scarification and wandering round in black robes. Y'know, for the avoidance of doubt?

Instead though, I want to use Pawn to try and understand why the Eddings formula worked.

1. The [teenage] [male] reader self-identifies with the hero.

Garion is not in himself an interesting protagonist. But Pawn and its sequels allow the reader to grow with him from a adolescent farm-boy into a hero. Garion takes us through rites of passage like first fight, first kiss, leaving home, first prophecy-fulfilling killing of a deity - the usual teenage stuff.

Bingo - a target audience gratified. Which is not something you can say about the Covenant Chronicles.

2. Cliche weaving

If you want a complete list of tropes Eddings uses - see the TV Tropes entry for the Belgariad. But a quick survey of Pawn of Prophecy alone includes:

- A Gandalf
- A mysterious orphan adrift in the world (see above)
- The classic big man/little man warrior combination a la Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser
- Mysterious prophecies
- Missing magic McGuffin
- Remixed Vikings and Romans
- The slow assembly of a Team to take down the Big Bad.
- Good is rewarded, evil punished.

The point is less that Eddings is working with cliches and old ideas and more that he is weaving them into a very effective formula. So much so, that he re-used it at least four more times in subsequent series.

3. Say what?

I've never read any fantasy writer other than Eddings who crams so much banter into their books. His indisputable grade A talent as a writer is for dialogue, especially light verbal sparring between characters. Otherwise one-dimensional characters come alive through these conversational and behavioural quirks.

He may not be quite up there with the immortal Georgette Heyer, but it's a suitable point of comparison.

“Could you penetrate this palace, Prince Kheldar?" King Anheg challenged.

"I already have, your Majesty," Silk said modestly, "a dozen times or more."

Anheg looked at Rhodar with one raised eyebrow.

Rhodar coughed slightly. "It was some time ago, Anheg. Nothing serious. I was just curious about something, that's all."

"All you had to do was ask," Anheg said in a slightly injured tone.

"I didn't want to bother you," Rhodar said with a shrug. "Besides, it's more fun to do it the other way.”

Having said that, repetition of these tics does mean that five or six books in Garion's companions begin to sound like characters from The Fast Show.

4. The Chronicles of Cosiness

Or the Cosyiad, perhaps?

Pawn and its sequels are fantasy with all the wierdness taken out. Or at least with the remaining magic and strangeness presented in such matter of fact terms, alongside all the domesticity and banter, that it becomes normalised.

The charge, the spark of fantasy comes from its connection to the subconscious, to dreams, to the symbolic language of fairy tales and myth. This means that great fantasy - whether it's Lovecraft, Peake, Tolkien, Moorcock or Mieville - has the power to unsettle through its imaginative leaps.

Eddings does without any of this, but what he loses in greatness he gains in readership. By severing the plot conventions of fantasy from the uncanny, the transgressive, the morally ambiguous or amoral, and the sheer bat-shit unhinged that made it interesting but also disturbed people, he creates a space for 'safe' mass audience high fantasy writing.

So, yes that does make Pawn softcore fantasy. :-)

Tolkien created his own mass market space too, but it's much easier to imitate Eddings than to copy the Professor, who had a pocket universe of scholarship to melt your brain with even if he did pretty much invent cosy fantasy.

5. Brevity

Pawn clocks in 330-odd pages - practically punk rock by the indulgent tendencies of much fantasy novels. And once you pop... Part Two beckons.

To channel my undergraduate economics briefly, the opportunity cost of reading Eddings ain't gonna break your time bank.

I won't be re-reading the rest of the Belgariad, but I've come away with a lot more respect for David Eddings than I expected considering my dislike for what high fantasy has become.

Hmm. Magpiemoth feels conflicted.

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