David Eddings employs the usual fantasy stereotypes to perfection, with a collection of different characters on a quest, an assortment of magical items, and the clash of good and evil all pulled together in a simple and smoothly flowing narrative. The plot is so predictable there's no point giving it away — not just predictable in the sense of unoriginal, but predictable in that one could just about write the outlines for the last four books in each series after having read the first.
The writing style is clear and simple, avoiding the worst excesses of some similar series. It doesn't really offend, but neither does it attract. Compare the following passages:
Then Theoden was aware of him, and would not wait for his onset, but crying to Snowmane he charged headlong to greet him. Great was the clash of their meeting. But the white fury of the Northmen burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter. Fewer were they but they clove through the Southrons like a fire-bolt in a forest. Right through the press drove Theoden Thengel's son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black serpent foundered. Then all that was left unslain of their cavalry turned and fled far away. (J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King, Chapter 6)
And then in the midst of the household guard, Cho-Hag saw the blood-red mail of Taur Urgas himself. Cho-Hag raised his bloody sabre and shouted a ringing challenge. "Stand and fight, you Murgo dog!" he roared.
Startled by that shout, Taur Urgas wheeled his horse to stare incredulously at the charging King of Algaria. His eyes suddenly bulged with the fervid light of insanity, and his lips, foam-flecked, drew back in a snarl of hatred. "Let him come!" he grated. "Clear the way for him!" (David Eddings, Enchanters' Endgame, page 250)
[followed by another two pages in similar vein]
This is a bit of an unfair comparison of course, but note that the entire Eddings passage could be deleted without doing more than reducing the size of the book, whereas the passage from Tolkien is essential to our understanding of Theoden.
Eddings' characters are completely one-dimensional. They seem to have been created the way characters are created in some role-playing games, by amalgamating an assortment of attributes and character traits; there is no unitary vision of an individual anywhere. Also, the reader always stays safely with the omnipotent narrator, and never feels fear, love or anger with the characters; we learn about their emotions by being told about them. In a similar fashion, although the series cover huge distances in space and large periods of time, the writing completely fails to convey any sense of the immensity of space or the passage of time (compare this with War and Peace, or once again with Lord of the Rings). There is a difference between telling the reader how big the Algarian plains are and actually giving her some feeling for their size. Perhaps most worryingly, there is nothing in the entire series which will make anyone think; nothing happens that might disconcert the reader even a little.
So it's clear that Eddings is not a great novelist, but surely that was obvious already. Is that enough to condemn his books? Surely their purpose is entertainment and they should be judged on their success in that area? I wish to argue that they present a critically oversimplified view of the world and, most dangerously, a view of the world which takes a particularly narrow ethical stance as normative, without even conceding the possibility of alternatives. As examples of this, consider the treatment of politics and sex.
The view of sex and relations between the sexes presented by Eddings is naive and antiquated. Women are portrayed "hunting" men (Zubrette, Ce'Nedra, Prala, Liselle) or, in the case of the evil characters, using their bodies to obtain power (Zandramas, Chabat). Everyone ends up happily married to a member of the opposite sex, with no suggestion that any other way of life is even conceivable — homosexuality is completely non-existent, there are no unmarried mothers, and so on. A number of events are particularly disturbing: Barak rapes his wife Merel [POP 212] with no suggestion that anything untoward has happened at all — presumably it's acceptable because they make up later. There is some gratuitous (and definitely implausible) detail in Hettar's account of his parents' death [QOS 92]. In general the approach to sex is prurient in a typically adolescent fashion (perhaps reflecting the target audience).
Much of the two series is taken up by politics, but the political systems and events presented are parodies or caricatures of reality. (The Tolnedran political system, for example, is a completely implausible mish-mash of historical bits and pieces.) It is clear that Eddings has little understanding of social processes and only a very superficial knowledge of history. He takes no political stance at all within the series, with the exception of a couple of pages devoted to condemnation of a caricature of feudalism. (No one goes hungry in good old democratic Sendaria, of course.)
Similar examples can be found in areas other than sex and politics. It is clear that these books rest upon a very restricted view of the world, and that they will reinforce some extremely undesirable falsehoods, as well as discouraging criticism of "conventional" standards. This may not do serious harm to someone who has already thought about the issues involved and has read more widely, but someone who lives on a diet of similar books is likely to end up with a completely false view of how the world works, as well as set of reactionary moral standards. Many of the teenagers at whom these books are targeted probably fall into this class.
My conclusion is that these novels probably do far more to damage peoples' minds than pornography does, oversimplifying a wide range of subjects to the point where false stereotypes threaten to replace reality. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but at over a million words the ten books combined can hold their own! I certainly wouldn't advocate banning this sort of pulp fantasy (any more than I support bans on pornography) and if I had any children I wouldn't actually stop them reading The Belgariad. I would not, however, encourage them, as I would with A Wizard of Earthsea, The Lord of the Rings, or any number of other fantasy novels.
July 1992 [updated March 1996]
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