From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Window of Wonder Closes: David Eddings

David Eddings, the author of numerous fantasy novels including the connected series The Belgariad and The Mallorean, died on June 2 at the age of 77. Oddly enough, the last literary hero of mine to pass away was J.G. Ballard a few weeks back. It might not make a lot of sense that David Eddings was equally influential to me; after all, the two writers–although roughly of the same generation–couldn’t have been more different. Ballard specialized in avant-garde science fiction that strained the boundaries of the genre to the point of obliteration. Eddings crafted a kind of epic fantasy that synthesized and solidified all that had come before, without really adding anything new to the mix. In fact, in Eddings’ The Rivan Codex, the author detailed how he and his wife/collaborator Leigh (who died in 2007) carefully analyzed myth, legend, and the traditions of fantastic literature in an effort to formulate, as it were, the ultimate fantasy novels.

That sounds kind of bloodless, doesn’t it? And yet, Eddings’ writing is anything but. I remember the first time I read Eddings’ fantasy debut, Pawn of Prophecy, the first book in his Belgariad series. I was 11 years old and a rabid science fiction and fantasy reader, and my uncle bought the book for me on the merit of its cover. Up to that point most of the fantasy I’d read had come from the pens of folks like Roger Zelazny, Gordon R. Dickson, Stephen R. Donaldson, Fred Saberhagen, and Piers Anthony–writers who, while having very distinct styles, all sought to somehow subvert or at least toy with the Tolkien high-fantasy tradition. I didn’t realize it at that young age, but most of those writers were unabashedly self-aware–often painfully so–of the genre in which they operated. In many cases, that translated into cynicism. Even at that young age I was a healthy little cynic, so that was fine by me. But something happened when I read Pawn of Prophecy that had never happened to me before when I’d read a fantasy novel. Quite simply, quite ridiculously, I fell in love–not just with the prose, not just with the setting, not just with the action and adventure and wit and ideas. I fell in love with the characters.

To those who likewise grew up with The Belgariad, you know exactly what I mean. The mere mention of the names Garion, Polgara, Belgarath, Silk, Barak, and Ce’Nedra (to name just a few of the series’ indelible inhabitants) is enough to evoke vivid images of those people–and equally vivid emotions. Never before had characters in a book breathed so deeply. Never before had their voices rung in my ears long after I’d closed the book and put it on the shelf. And, as embarrassing as it still is to admit, never before had mere books made me cry.

As spelled out in The Rivan Codex, Eddings knew what he was doing when he wrote these books. He knew the archetypes and heartstrings he was attempting to manipulate. But that calculating deliberation doesn’t make the power of his creations any less real. A relative newcomer to fantasy–not just as a writer, but as a reader–Eddings looked beyond the often insular limitations of the genre. He knew how to strike universal chords. He knew how to make a boy who was the savior of the world seem like the boy down the block. Anyone who’s ever seen Star Wars or read Harry Potter already knows the basic story of The Belgariad and The Mallorean. But the way Eddings wove deft characterization with fresh, down-to-earth takes on magic and prophecy was truly revolutionary at the time.

Granted, his later series–The Elenium, The Tamuli, and The Dreamers, not to mention the standalone novel The Redemption of Althalus–offered diminishing returns and often tired riffs on Eddings’ warehouse of themes, characters, and even jokes. But reading a David and Leigh Eddings book (David would later admit that she’d been an uncredited coauthor of all his fantasy novels) was always a great way to lose an afternoon or ten, always a wide-open window of wonder to tumble through. When I was a kid and consuming each book of The Belgariad and The Mallorean for the first time, I’d get a palpable sense of apprehension, a tightening in my chest, as I neared the final pages. I didn’t want to finish, didn’t want to close those pages, didn’t want to let go of those people I’d come to care for as if they were my own family. And I feel the same way about the author himself. I’ll always admire Ballard for the way he cracked opened my brain–but I’ll always love Eddings for the way he did the same to my heart.

When not sifting through the beautiful wreckage J.G. Ballard made of reality, Jason Heller writes about popular culture for The Onion A.V. Club and various other publications. His weird fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Sybil’s Garage, Farrago’s Wainscot, Apex Magazine, and others. He’s also currently trying to break his inexplicable habit of quoting Iron Maiden lyrics every 15 seconds. Can I play with madness?

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