First Loves and Bad Fantasy: Re-reading David Eddings

My father’s library took up most of his office and much of our living room–hundreds or thousands of books lovingly acquired over the course of his life, a hard core of hyper-masculine, mostly Jewish writers of the 60s and 70s surrounded by a much larger library of pulp fantasy and science fiction. Because the library was so tantalizingly forbidden, hanging quite literally over my head, as a precocious child I would scan the titles and vibrant pictures and beg to borrow something only to be pawned off with library runs and chapter books. As such it is a distinct memory when, at five or perhaps six, my father succumbed to my pleas and after a long and careful ponder handed me a battered paperback copy of The Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings from off his shelves. I loved it, was subsumed by it, read it until the spine broke and the pages fell out and then purchased another copy from my exceedingly modest allowance. It was a gateway drug to decades of genre reading and unquestionably played some role in my career as a writer of speculative fiction. It is also, and there is no real way around this, irredeemable dreck—and Eddings was, as it would turn out, something of a monster.

Before George RR Martin, before Robert Jordan (though long after Tolkien), there was David Eddings. At the peak of his fame, his books were predictable best sellers, moving millions of copies across dozens of different languages. Most famous for a pair of interlinked quintologies entitled The Belgariad and The Mallorean, respectively, Eddings’s work tells the story of an everyman (boy) who discovers that he is in fact the most powerful and important person in all of existence, heir to a throne, a giant sword, and enormous magical powers. This is fantasy in every sense of the word, a vast if uncomplicated tableau of gods, nations, and heroes, all of whom exist for the single purpose of affirming our hero’s unique importance and of furthering his crucial mission. Once recognized as a grandmaster of the genre, Eddings and his fellow 90s mainstays—Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, and the like—have in more recent years largely fallen down the memory hole, forgotten entirely or seen as somewhat shameful touchstones for modern readers and authors. Nonetheless their influence, particularly in the young adult space, seems indisputable. The addition of an English public school drama to the “chosen one” conceit created the most popular book series of all time, and it is probably fair to say that variants on the basic theme continue to account for several hundred million dollars in various media formats a year.

Which is not to suggest that Eddings’ work is deserving of any sort of critical reassessment, though it does function as a useful synecdoche for a particular style of fantasy. Like most successful books of this genre, Eddings’ work has its vice or virtue in extraordinary simplicity, one that could probably only exist in the early state of a genre’s development, before the audience becomes educated to the tropes and cliches inherent within. Jokes are extended excessively, basic information is frequently repeated, relationships between characters are impossibly obvious. Authorial intrusion is constant, with characters frequently abandoning their own dimly drawn personas to lecture in a sort of “house tone,” and midway through the series, a super-divine presence reveals itself within our protagonist’s mind, guiding the action and speaking more or less nakedly as Eddings himself. On the upside, this offers the book a form of immediacy which is probably engaging to a younger reader and certainly moves the plot forward at a brisk pace. It is clear that Eddings is very much enjoying himself. He thinks his jokes are funny, his observations wise, and he seems so certain that occasionally one is tempted against the undeniable reality of one’s aesthetic judgment to believe him.

This genial lack of sophistication extends to the cast of characters, which is large, colorful, and thinly drawn. In classic fashion, each tends to have a single attribute (one is sneaky, one over-pious) along with a distinct weapon or special power, and any interaction with said character is sure to mention these peculiarities, often utilizing language more or less identical to previous descriptions. Many characters are described zoomorphically, as bearish, wolfish or rat-like. Often these characters are also able to turn into these animals, which helps clarify the metaphor. Insofar as any of them could be said to have a character arc, they generally run towards a slight softening of whatever singularly excessive quality they initially presented. The fanatical priest becomes less fanatical, the arrogant princess more humble.

This world-building is similarly schematic, with polities and people described with all the complexity of a Milton Berle routine. Like individual characters, nations are formed around distinct and simple traits. The peoples of the “West”—perhaps a bit blunt even by the standards—include in their ranks nations of drunken Vikings and thoughtlessly noble knights, who stand in opposition to a similar conglomeration of unabashedly evil peoples, brutish servants of a dark god. It is a slightly softened version of Tolkien’s peculiar reworking of original sin as being specific to individual “races,” inasmuch as most characters are human and even possess some possible hope of redemption, rather than being consigned to the eternal barbarity of orc-dom. As a member of either the “greedy merchant” race or the “drug-using snake-worshipers,” I found it to be less actively mean-spirited and more generally shallow, but it is unquestionably cringeworthy, and another reader might find themselves less forgiving.

This linguistic and narrative superficiality is matched by a thematic moralizing of similar depth. Violence solves every problem—the final conflict which decides the fate of the universe is a literal sword fight—and our heroes are the best at violence, the apotheosis of Voltaire’s misappropriated dictum that “God is on the side of the big battalions.” The villains are undeniably, pointlessly evil, primarily concerned with human sacrifice and the conquering of other nations by which they can gain more humans to sacrifice. As with Tolkien’s Sauron, whose ambitions extend to tearing up trees and burning things, Eddings’ work presents evil as effectively nothing more than an arbitrary impulse to commit cruelty, and lacks appeal to any but the strictest sociopaths. It is a vision which is sometimes frightening but never enticing, a Beelzebub stripped of his primary purpose and chief weapon.

That this banal sanctimony somehow coexisted with Eddings’s nightmarish history of child abuse is an issue of such disturbing peculiarity that it seems to warrant breaking out into a separate paragraph. In the pre-internet days in which Eddings was famous, no hint of these crimes escaped to darken his reputation. However, that some years before he began his career as a fantasist Eddings (and his wife Leigh, with whom he would co-write his later books) spent a year in prison for abusing their two adopted children is a matter of legal record. The case was well-covered in the local press at the time, and sufficiently horrifying—news reports speak of young children being kept in cages—to give even the most desperate fan pause. Indeed, after researching the matter in preparation for this essay, I felt some grudging relief that my reread of Eddings did not reveal him to be some forgotten genius, thus relieving me of any tedious moral calculations regarding the distinction between artist and art. As to the work itself, apart from the disconnect between reading depictions of domestic bliss written by a man who confessed in a court of law that he “on regular or separate occasions as part of a general scheme, did consistently willfully and unlawfully cruelly punish and neglect a child under the age of 14,” there is little evidence of Eddings’ authentically evil past to be found. In truth, the books are too shallow for such undercurrents; there is nothing more to the work than what is on the page, and there is not very much on the page.

In sum, David Eddings was, in my estimation, a bad writer, and in the estimation of the state of Oregon, also a pretty bad person. What of it? Reevaluations of his books thirty years after first reading them, and for that matter horrifying posthumous revelations of his personal misbehavior, do nothing to alter the reality of my youthful passion, nor the effect his works had on my literary and personal development. My formative years were spent in obsessive consideration of his characters and plots. His badly drawn love interests inspired my earliest notions of romance. Returning to Eddings after some twenty-five years, I found my recollection of his epic remained uncannily accurate, nearly prophetic. I remembered the names of virtually every character in the book; I remembered action scenes, specific jokes, and particular (often awkward) turns of phrase. In a page or two he’s going to discover he can turn into a bear, and then they make the joke about the baby. I would like to think that my own work shows little evidence of Eddings’ influence, but in fairness it seems obvious that the passion it inspired in me, the hours spent quietly cultivating that quality of imagination which in distant decades would provide my living, was in part the result of having come into contact with Eddings and other writers like him.

We can accept that love for another person is often complex and multifaceted. That it can spring from the better or worse aspects of our character, be tainted by undercurrents of bitterness or savagery or selfishness. To love a story seems simpler, and superficially less dangerous. Locked in time, unable to reciprocate our affection, existing simply to please us, we cannot imagine a book might become a source of difficulty or impediment. Perhaps we would be wiser to look on lost literary loves with the same wariness one develops for unhealthy romantic attachments, but fandom generally speaking does not seem to work this way.  Long after the names and faces of our childhood crush has faded into obscurity, we remain loyal to the fictional friends of our youth.

At its worst this unreflective arrogance represents fandom at its ugliest and most stupid—an exaggerated regard for anything one ever enjoyed, as if any reassessment represents some base betrayal. In time this feverish loyalty (or really, self-obsession) can operate as an active hindrance towards aesthetic development, keeping us forever in the mindset of someone who could enjoy the thing we learned to love at twelve, or ten, or eight. Unquestionably this instinct has proved a stagnating influence on fantasy as a genre, which is constrained by the limitations of being the first form of fiction to which we, as children, are introduced.

But there is, I think, a softer side to it as well. To maintain loyalty to old aesthetic allegiances can be a manifestation of kindness towards our younger selves, a form of self-focused compassion. Even works of the most dubious merit have as their grace the fact that we remember them, and have attached to that memory a collection of others—where we were when we read it, what we were listening to, what we were doing, who we were.  What new book, come along so late in the day, could possibly compete with that rose tint of nostalgia? My most beloved works of adult fiction have not occupied the tiniest fraction of the time I gave over to David Eddings.

The Belgariad is about 1500 pages, and I read it in three or four days on a beach earlier this summer, admittedly skimming some of the broader dialogue. While I confess there were moments where I wished my father had been a bit more circumspect with his literary offerings, essentially it was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise in commiseration with a past self. Whatever its ultimate worth, Eddings’ work composed some portion of the manure in which my personality took root, and the basic requirements of mental health demand that I deem it of some personal value.

Perhaps this is all another way of saying that we love the things we love because we love them. We would probably be wise to accept that our aesthetic affections are in some large part the result of the same enigmatic and capricious factors which give rise to our romantic attachments. And, as with romantic love, once the pain of heartbreak fades, there is at last nothing left but the simple strange fact of the thing itself—I was twenty-five once, and I loved a woman. I was seven once, and I loved David Eddings.

Daniel Polansky is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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