Belgarath the Sorcerer by David Eddings
I have so many memories of the time I spent reading David and Leigh Eddings’ books as a teenager that I was almost afraid to go back to them as an adult. Still more as an adult whom chance (or some other more benevolent agency), has furnished with a dog called Riva, and (in a fulfilment of my oddest teenaged crush), a wonderful, tiny wife who actually does resemble a dryad, albeit one with a far more sane and distinctly nicer personality than Princess Ce’Nedra.
When however, I returned to The Belgariad and Mallorean earlier this year, I was astonished to find that while my perceptions of some things had changed, my overall enjoyment of the series had not, indeed I am rather sorry that I only noticed too late that this site is missing reviews for several books in the Mallorean, since I would’ve been glad to contribute them.
Belgarath the Sorcerer is not a prequel in the usual sense. The book opens literally the same night that Seeress of Kell finishes with Polgara having just given birth to twins and Belgarath and Garion (later joined by Durnik and an ale barrel), sitting in Polgara’s kitchen musing about life and how things have come to where they are. This homely speculation quickly leads into a discussion of the events that lead up to Garion’s part in the story, and finishes with a cooperative browbeating of Belgarath into writing an account of his own history. The main bulk of the story therefore comprises Belgarath’s account (delivered apparently under much protest), an account of a life spanning close to seven and a half thousand years, littered with battles, politics and a rather unusual amount of snark.
One of the first things therefore that makes the book slightly unique from a prequal perspective, is its viewpoint. Belgarath is not just a usual first-person account of events, but a first-person account very much directed at others in the series, especially the young king of Riva. This means the book is peppered with little asides, aspersions, comments to and about other characters or nations, as well as the old sorcerer’s musings on the workings of the world and indeed the future events of the series. This makes it almost as much a commentary upon Garion’s adventures as a prequel, and therefore something which should only be read after them despite the events it details mostly taking place beforehand.
Probably more than a lot of the Eddings’ other books, Belgarath is written in a far breezier, upbeat tone, indeed on many occasions it reads almost like a light-hearted critique of fantasy tropes in general and The Belgariad in particular than an entirely serious tale in its own right.
On the one hand, this can create some wonderfully engaging moments, such as when Belgarath details far more quirky and far less doom-laden retellings of the mythological events previously only heard in highly stylized versions as prologues to the main books of the series, along with some jaded complaints on the need of priests to over-dramatize a narrative.
On the other hand, the light-hearted style, the fact that Belgarath is close to omnipotent and rarely himself takes events seriously, and the fact that this is of course a prequel so we already know how most events turned out often made the book feel a little too frivolous. While character invincibility is a problem in both the Belgariad and its sequels, (and to a lesser extent most of the Eddings’ works), there at least we had the inexperienced Garion as our point of view character; a callow youth who was not certain that everything was destined to come out right. Following the all powerful and rarely ruffled Belgarath however, for the most part the possibility that anything bad could happen is not even on the map. I was quite disappointed that even though we are told early in the novel that the light prophecy wins only half of the conflicts, we rarely if ever saw the good guys lose out, especially since as is also inevitable in much of Eddings’ work, the self-destructive tendency of the villains often makes them less than threatening.
That being said, it is part of the Eddings skill as authors that even in such a seemingly predictable plot, they can still write highly engaging and delightful characters, and even occasional moments of pathos. Often throughout the book when I found my attention flagging at yet another rather self-important sermon by Belgarath on how stupid his opponents were, I found myself caught by a sudden character moment, an odd insight or a small touch of description, like the tragic history and motive of the Nyissan queen who was behind the assassination of the Rivan king’s family. This indeed is another respect in which the book succeeds well at being a prequel, putting a human face on such epic figures as Riva Irongrip, Queen Salmisra and several of the gods.
Speaking of characters, the book is something of a mixed bag. With its format as basically a set of long anecdotes interspersed with political commentary spanning seven and a half millennia, most characters introductions are fairly brief and often cursory, indeed a habit I did not appreciate was Eddings’ tendency to literally supplant characters from the Belgariad and say, “this person is like this person” (there are about three different versions of Mandorallen, one who doesn’t even get a name). This tendency to write quick, in and out character moments also rather short changes characters who by rights we should have learned more about. Belgarath’s two missing brothers, Belmakor and Belsambar are only given personality sketches and a little dialogue before they’re both lost, while all we learn of Belgarath’s beloved daughter Beldaran is that she was beautiful, kind, and liked sewing. Of course, the Eddings’ being the writers they are at least some of these reused or briefly introduced characters still had their moments, albeit I did notice the tendency to simply tie new characters back to the ones we knew increased markedly as the book progressed, meaning that Riva Irongrip whom we meet early on was rather less like Garion than the warder Brand is like his descendant from Castle of Wizardry who we meet a good few centuries; and reading hours, later.
On the plus side, the interaction between Belgarath and his various brother sorcerers is extremely fun to read, especially the spiky, good hearted dwarf Beldin, and while we don’t learn any shocking insights about Belgarath or the other sorcerers, it does lead to some extremely amusing moments, such as a no holds barred brawl between Belgarath and Beldin following Belgarath’s years of grief after the death of his wife, probably the closest thing to a major conflict Belgarath has in the book.
In fairness, the lack of major character pyrotechnics may well be due to Belgarath himself. Belgarath admits that he tends to take a fairly long view of history and is thus able to take the loss of others (with the exception of his wife), in stride, thus making him naturally a rather static character. This is I suspect one reason David and Leigh were plainly planning another prequel with Polgara as protagonist, particularly since Polgara tends to take the more emotional line, indeed frequently Eddings sets up conflicts which Belgarath skates across (such as Beldaran’s death), which I suspect will be a far more major deal when seen from Polgara’s side in the next book. This is possibly also why Beldaran at least was slightly short changed as a character though to what extent this was a lack of attention and to what extent simply the recognition that Polgara would be closer to her twin sister than her mostly absent father I don’t know. I will confess I found Polgara herself less than congenial company here, given her domineering and on occasions down right unpleasant personality. The sniping Belgarath’s daughter aims at him frequently steps over the line from bickering into offensive, while I believe the Eddings’ intended to show Polgara’s attitude softening from teenage rage to adult affection I really found little difference in the way she behaved towards her father throughout most of the book, It is actually a little sad that the chief change in Polgara’s character we see from child to adult is a purely cosmetic one although again perhaps we will have more of this in Polgara’s own story later. In fairness I will confess Polgara was never a favourite character of mine although I suspect her story will be interesting reading when I get to it.
As anyone will gather who has read any of the Eddings’ books before, Belgarath is also built on certain strong background assumptions about gender and about war. Some of these I found mildly adorable in a rather chivalrous way, such as Belgarath’s wonderfully naïve misunderstanding of why his wife would want him to tell her he loved her, or Garion’s continual surprise at how tiny and fragile Ce’Nedra seems given how large she looms in his affections, a view I definitely share with regards to my lady who is also tiny. Others however are less pleasant, such as Belgarath’s casual dismissal of the time he spends as a sexual slave in The Wood of the Dryads, treated literally as property and passed around between different dryads for breeding purposes, (I don’t think either Eddings or most readers would be quite so sanguine were this a woman being held as the sexual property of a group of men). Then again, since Eddings mostly has these gender differences employed in comical ways and usually not to the detriment of his characters (fortunately there are no damsels here), I found myself able to overlook the more irritating parts reasonably well, and take the comments mostly in the spirit in which they were meant, i.e. as humorous.
Similarly, the Eddings’ have their usual attitude to war, namely that slaughtering enemies is jolly good fun unless it actually goes too far and gets really nasty. To an extent I could just go along with this, particularly because Eddings tends to be fairly clear on the differences between military and civilian, and make sure the military side at least of his enemies have shown themselves to be atrocious enough that we as readers don’t need to feel too sorry for them getting blown away (a good idea in fiction at least, albeit a terrible one in reality).
However, I will admit that the use of some more barbaric weapons such as boiling oil even on enemies did give me a little pause, where for example magically smashing enemy catapults or mowing enemies down with arrow storms did not. Again, for the most part I could take this sort of thing in the adventurous spirit in which it was meant though even for vile, human sacrificing Grolim priests burning alive or total slaughter of a defeated army felt as if it were going a bit too far.
The most major problem I had with the book however was the repeated use of the prophecy as part of the plot. Far too often Belgarath goes to places just because “he feels he has to” or makes events come out a certain way “because the prophecy told him to”. Indeed, according to Belgarath the Sorcerer quite literally the whole world gets set up the way it does (largely by Belgarath and Polgara), because “the prophecy needed it this way”. This means that frequently conflicts, whether interpersonal, emotional, political or military simply are resolved because the prophecy says so. This both occurred on a smaller character basis (Belgarath was surprisingly ready to give his favourite daughter to marry the Rivan king), and on a far wider political basis. Indeed, it surprised me given how many countries in the real world have been turbulently formed from warring smaller kingdoms or splitting up of larger ones, how comparatively easily everyone except the Angarak’s actually got along, indeed most of the political conflicts in the book usually get resolved by Belgarath bullying the monarchs into doing what is best for the prophecy. I will say some reviews I have seen criticise the amount of political and economic commentary in the book, though as I am generally a fan of books detailing the background of my fantasy worlds I didn’t myself have an issue with this, particularly given the light-hearted tone in which such sweeping international changes are explained. The problem was how much of the history seemed to default to “because the prophecy wanted the world this way” which made the international landscape feel more of a stage setting than a truly dynamic, evolving world. Even the one major political upheaval we know about, the destruction of Maragor has little effect or prominence in the plot given that Maragor is an isolationist matriarchy which seemed to have no other effects upon the world than the chance to make a few more odd sweeping gender statements; I severely doubt in reality it’s quite as easy to shrug off genocide. Of course, the idea that an atrocity “must” happen while the main characters stand by is a very unique source for conflict (it’s often generated some wonderful plots in Doctor Who), however again Belgarath’s rather Laconic attitude here robbed the event of much actual force.
Likewise, I was rather surprised how often and how easily Belgarath was able to simply pop in on enemies such as Torak’s Disciple Ctuchik for a friendly chat, though this did give something of the idea of a chess game with prescribed moves and countermoves (even if the opposition always seemed to play it very badly). And yet, whether bullying monarchs, fencing with foes, sparring with his brothers or passing adroit remarks on the series as a whole, Belgarath is still a huge amount of fun to spend time with, albeit that things did seem to drag towards the book’s final section and I began to feel that even Belgarath’s Bonomi got a bit stale over 27 hours, particularly because character introductions, political moves and resolutions started to seem far more cursory towards the book’s latter half almost as if the authors were slightly running out of steam.
The book’s last part was unfortunately rather laboured, mostly due to Eddings desire to have Belgarath involved with all of the cast of the Belgariad before we met them, often in rather pointless ways which just seemed to exist for name dropping reasons. While seeing the murder of Garion’s parents did have a nice bit of circularity to it, at the same time I fully agreed with Ce’Nedra’s comment in the epilogue upon reading Belgarath’s manuscript that the story basically just peters out, though unlike Ce’Nedra I don’t attribute this to the need to hear Polgara’s portion of the story so much as the Eddings’ not really being sure how to finish it in the end.
Oddly enough, I enjoyed Belgarath the Sorcerer rather more this time around than when I first read it as a teenager, probably I suspect because I was able to take it far less seriously. If you are looking for classic David Eddings, for an epic quest with the world at stake with characters you engage with, this is probably not the book for you. Neither is this an especially unique history of the series which will give you any new insights into the world Eddings creates or the characters you’ve spent time with. If however your looking for a fun and familiar romp with a little self-reference and some sly digs at the characters you already know and love, then sit down by the fire with old Mr. Wolf, draw yourself a mug of good ale (provided Mr. Wolf has filched a barrel from Mistress Pol), and settle in for a long and rambling recollection of the old days with the world’s favourite itinerant story teller.
This Belgarath the Sorcerer book review was written by Dark
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