‘On a quiet hillside some distance from the struggle taking place on the north bank, the simpleminded serf boy from the Arendish forest was playing his flute. His melody was mournful, but even in its sadness, it soared to the sky. The boy did not understand the fighting and he had wandered away unnoticed. Now he sat alone on the grassy hillside in the warm, midmorning sunlight with his entire soul pouring out of his flute.
The Malloreon soldier who was creeping up behind him with drawn sword had no ear for music. He did not know – or care – that the song the boy played was the most beautiful song any man had ever heard.
The song ended very suddenly, never to begin again.’
– David and Leigh Eddings, Enchanter’s Endgame.
It is now almost four years and six years respectively since the deaths of David and Leigh Eddings, the formidably imaginative, articulate and talented husband and wife team (though they preferred the term ‘co-conspirators’) that brought us such great fantasy epics as The Belgariad; The Malloreon; their two prequels; The Tamuli, The Elenium and The Redemption of Althalus. Through a discussion of The Belgariad and The Malloreon, the two works with which she is the most familiar, Her Ladyship pays tribute to the Eddingses’ inestimable contribution to the world of fantasy literature and mourns the gaping hole they have left behind.
Reading The Belgariad and its sequel The Malloreon is an unforgettable imaginative experience; the descriptive style of the writing appealing so vividly to the senses that when crossing the perfectly flat, never-ending grass plains of Algaria, you feel the wind as it hits your face from the force of travelling across all that open space. In the Vale of Aldur, you listen to the silence broken only by the sound of trees, and feel peace wash over your entire being as you comprehend Aldur’s presence in this place. In Riva, you smell rock, the sea and salt; in Cthol Murgos you feel your retinas popping out at the garishness and just plain ugliness of the architecture, and in the swamps of Nyissa, you curse at the humidity and swat at the insects before realising that the whole world is beautiful: ‘you just need to know how to look at it.’
David and Leigh Eddings were the best world builders since Tolkien, and no contemporary fantasy writer has equaled them yet. While their world is every bit as complex as those of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin, for example, there is none of the exhausting and often exasperating voluminousness of these last two: the Eddingses are capable of expressing what they wish to express in a quarter of the page space that Jordan or GRRM would take, and on top of this, they do it better. National traits, tendencies, industries, likes and dislikes are so well integrated into the story through plot and especially through character that even the most casual Eddings fan will be able to tell you, when asked, that Alorns would chop an enemy in half without blinking an eye but would never dream of poisoning him; that Arends are not to be trusted with anything and I mean anything that would require even a sparkle of brainpower; that one should never ask a Tolnedran for a favour unless you’re willing to pay (a lot); and that trying to keep a secret in Drasnia is completely and utterly impossible. You’re very likely being spied on by spies who are being spied on by other spies. The Eddingses spread this gorgeous complexity across northern and southern hemispheres and an entire world map; each separate kingdom, culture and people completely unique. Who could forget the marble majesty of Mal Zeth, spreading as it does across an entire valley, or the opulent, artificial beauty of Melcena, where even the mountains are manicured? Think of the gorgeous, impossibly huge natural mountain loveliness of Kell, the mournful ruins of Vo Wacune and the towering castle walls of Vo Mimbre. Think of the immense subterranean labyrinth of caves where the Ulgos sing a constant hymn to their God UL, their song reverberating off the walls forever, travelling from one network of caves to the other. These are the Kingdoms of the Alorns and the Angaraks, and their intricacies and subtleties are infinite.
It takes impressive characterisation to accomplish such a melting pot of cultures in such a short space of time (well – if you can call twelve books a short space of time), and the Eddingses’ characters are unique in that almost all of them are traditional fantasy types that have been transformed into thinking, feeling, three-dimensional human beings.
Belgarath, the saga’s mighty wizard, is a case in point. Though portrayed in much Eddings cover art to be a cardboard cutout of Gandalf, right down to the white robe, he’s actually a superbly original departure from stereotype. At approximately 7000 years old, he’s past caring about a lot of things. This is exemplified by his continual sporting of an ancient tunic spotted with last century’s grease, which he ties with a bit of rope, and, having been unable to find a single pair of shoes that is adequate to his needs, mismatched boots. He is also partial to large quantities of ale at all hours of the day and night, and to ladies seeking to provide recreation in exchange for money. He’s crotchety, cheeky to kings and peasants alike, and a ruthless, sometimes cruel enemy. On the surface, he’s comical, rude and extremely useful in a tight spot. Only those close to him know of the suicidal depression he suffered after the death of his beloved wife Poledra and how it caused him to initially neglect his twin daughters Polgara and Beldaran, causing him suffering and guilt that persist to this day and that he hopelessly attempts to ignore. The great wizard is thus a human being who suffers like other human beings and loves like them too: he doesn’t waste time hanging around attempting to look wise.
Another feature of the fantasy epic is the light-footed master of humour and sarcasm. Function: comic relief, thievery and fighting. When inserted into one end of the Eddings imaginative machine, this stereotype is spit out at the other end as Silk, whose name should appear on every ‘greatest fantasy character ever’ poll in existence. A Drasnian prince who discovered an early affinity with his kingdom’s national industry (spying), as well as the emptiness of titles and honours, Silk is arguably the greatest spy alive. Capable of changing identity as well as his facial features and voice at a moment’s notice, he can talk himself in and out of any situation and place, cannot be held by any prison for a great length of time (well, there was that one time when we started to get worried); is a master observer (and consequently a great cheat at dice), a deadly fighter, a financial genius (from street level to corporate level) and can blend into any crowd or group of people like a ghost. He also enjoys irritating his friends to distraction (and his enemies to worse) with his biting wit and relentless sarcasm, and has become so confused by the vast number of identities he’s assumed over the years that he often doubts who he actually is. All of this is fairly standard fantasy, and indeed fairly standard fiction, stuff. But like Belgarath, a significant portion of his life has been dominated and marked by tragedies and disasters. Not only is he under the obligation to lie constantly to his mother about the extent of the horrific disfigurement and blindness she suffered during a plague, he also (in The Belgariad) has the misfortune to fall deeply in love with his uncle the King’s young wife Porenn, a fact that is so awfully obvious in his consistently sarcastic behavior towards her that none of his friends can bear to mention it. The scene in which Silk, dead drunk and alone following one of his dreaded visits to his mother, cries like a child in Porenn’s arms, is possibly one of the saddest things ever written. So while Silk may have grown out of a fantasy type, his character is far from stereotypical.
The sagas’ female characters are also portrayed with great subtlety and allure, the Eddingses poking continual fun at the subservient position they occupy in Alorn and Angarak society by providing us with a stream of powerful women that make some of their male ‘superiors’ (notably the otherwise enlightened King Anheg of Cherek) froth at the mouth at the use of ‘powerful’ and ‘woman’ in the same sentence. There is, of course, the eternally resilient and beloved Aunt Pol, whose renown and power transcends her gender; there’s Porenn, the Queen Mother and Regent of Drasnia, a political genius and of appropriate shrewdness for the ruler of a nation of spies; there’s Cyradis, the fragile young Seeress whose choice will determine the fate of the universe; and of course, Liselle, who possesses equal skills in combat and espionage to Silk and rather charmingly specialises in strangulation. One notices that Liselle is the only one of these formidable ladies who knows her way around a sword, and though others like her exist (like Garion’s cousin Adara), the vast majority of Eddings women find a way to transcend gender roles that do not involve sword play, and stay ordinary women for most of the time. Aunt Pol has lived large sections of her life in a state of permanent domesticity as she guards the bloodline of the Rivan king in obscurity, something that she has come to cherish just as much as the ideals that motivate her in the fight against Torak. Lady Tamazin, one of the wives of the psychopathic Murgo King Taur Urgas, overcame her terror of her husband for one night to be with a person she felt a profound connection with: Silk’s father. And let’s not forget about Ce’Nedra, who liked to scream, cry, go shopping and count money, activities which she briefly suspended to raise an army, wear armour and win a war without fighting in it, before going back to screaming, crying, shopping and counting money. Notwithstanding this rather original approach to feminism in fantasy, which advocates the importance of ordinary people during extraordinary times, Eddings women are also portrayed with astonishing realism and insight as to how women really think and feel, a quality that is considerably lacking in conventional fiction, both at the time The Belgariad and The Malloreon were written, and today. Wikipedia assures us that we have Leigh Eddings to thank for this aspect of the sagas’ narrative strength, which makes me only too happy that her considerable contribution to David Eddings’ work is now being recognised by printing both their names on new editions of their work (though getting photographs of her online is apparently impossible).
The Belgariad, The Malloreon and their two prequels Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress are magnificent and awe-inspiring testaments to the heights to which imagination can soar, to the detail it can acquire and to the way in which great writing can bring a reader into that vision, so that they don’t just see it: they touch it and feel it as well. The many kingdoms of the fantasy genre are somehow smaller without David and Leigh, veering like some huge pendulum between the mythological and the modern. The Eddingses’ works are unique in that they strike a perfect balance between the two. They’re consequently epic beyond description, moving, eccentric, despondent and very, very striking, as much a cinematic experience as a literary one.