Long ago, so the Storyteller claimed, the evil God Torak sought dominion and drove men and Gods to war. But Belgarath the Sorcerer led men to reclaim the Orb that protected men of the West. So long as it lay at Riva, the prophecy went, men would be safe.
So reads the back cover of a Del Ray fantasy novel released in 1982. That book, Pawn of Prophecy, would kick off one of the most successful fantasy series and fantasy writing careers of the past twenty years. David Edding’s Belgariad is the epitome of the world saving quest fantasy series that would dominate fantasy literature in the 80s and the 90s. While lacking the grand depth of Tolkien’s singular achievement it contains the major elements of medieval quest literature (Eddings held a Masters of Arts in Middle English) and is firmly rooted in fantastic literature from the medieval world on.
My personal relationship with the series is mixed. I got into it between the publication of the third and fourth book, having resisted due to two teenage trends, rejecting the popular and idealism (the quickness they came out seemed fake). At the time I devoured them and awaited the fifth book anxiously (the fourth having come out while I was reading the third). About a decade later an attempt to reread failed to get me through the first book and I put them in the “things that didn’t having staying power from my youth”. However, I recently reread them prepping to run a game for some people I know in the local music scene and consumed them in either seven or eight days and enjoyed them thoroughly.
The series follows a fairly standard path. Garion, a farmer boy, spends his early life in the care of his aunt until one evening an old storyteller reappears and leads them off on the quest to recover a magic gem. Along the course of their journey they travel every land in the obligatory maps at the front of each novel, ancient prophecy is fulfilled, a war is fought with the followers of an evil god, a fated group of companions is assembled, and Garion finds a destiny much greater than that of a farm boy. You’ve read it a dozen times. It was old even before Eddings wrote it and has become downright cliche since he did. Yet he was able to fashion a very good novel with only a handful of flaws, mostly of language and slight omission, especially in the last book.
What then makes Eddings in my mind the epitome of the 80s fantasy quest to save the world and an huge influence on those who took up D&D at the time it was published. In my mind there are two main influences he brought to bear on fantasy RPGs: a literary realism and a knowledge of pre-Tolkein influences which imparted a fairly formalized structure. Although there are many other influences he had, especially on the path of fantasy literature, I want to concentrate on these two.
Eddings had earlier published a mainstream novel in the early seventies and spent most of that decade trying to publish more. In his later book of series background, The Rivan Coex, he admits the success of Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson lead him to take up a mythical map he had placed away in a drawer to not distract from serious work. While earlier writers had introduced politics, weather, and other travails of everyday life these had fallen into two broad categories. The first, exemplified by the storm on Weathertop in The Lord of the Rings, treated even mundane items as part of the magical framework. The second, exemplified by Kurtz’s early 70s novels, placed the mundane in charge and basically put a fantasy patina on fairly conventional novels. The later was common enough by the mid-70s to inspire Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie on what made fantasy more than trapping. Eddings’s succeeds in walking a line between the two.
Eddings admires Tolkien but has knowledge of the same sources that Tolkien drew on and was influenced by them as well. In fact, in the above mentioned Rivan Codex, he criticized later fantasy writers for thinking the genre began with Tolkien. The result was a kind of formalism that later fantasy literature would imitate. This shows most directly in two ways. First, each and every country on his map is visited. In fact, he uses this fact to structure the books into segments that, with two exceptions, carry the name of someplace on the map. The second is the usage of character archetypes. Instead of the fighter, magic-user, cleric, etc that D&D players know he used types more familiar to mainstream and medieval literature: “the wise man”, “the knight protector”, “the princess”, and “the questing knight”.
Which brings us to Eddings’s role in influencing Silver Age D&D and later fantasy literature. As James M has pointed out the Silver Age was about realism. The Dragon had many articles in the same time frame about weather, encumbrance, what horses could really do, and so on. Each reflected the same concern with making sure the world seemed real while being magical that the Belgariad did. Up until that time a common refrain in the letters column and around game tables was fantasy couldn’t be real. I think the power of a popular, well written fantasy series showing the exact opposite weakened that camp and gave their opponents some justification.
The most easily seen influence on fantasy literature, however, is in his character archetypes. Unlike Brooks or even Dragonlance he uses historical archetypes directly instead of through the lens of Middle Earth. It is also here that I lay down my opposition to an idea that game writers as diverse as Ron Edwards (in Sword & Sorcerer) and James Maliszewski (in How Dragonlance Ruined Everything) have championed. Their argument is fantasy literature, as a commercial genre, is now dominated by the influence of D&D and similar games. Maliszewski even goes so far as to specifically reject claims that the blame rests with Brooks by saying Dragonlance was known to more D&D players who went to become the next generation of fantasy authors.
My counter argument is simple. In drawing on medieval archetypes directly Eddings wound up with an all human cast (although one member was technically a Dryad) where the archetypes expressed national differences, not race ones. If Dragonlance was the dominant later influence, or even Tolkien or Brooks, then we would expect a party of elven archers, dower dwarfs, and so on just as we see in D&D all the way down to fourth edition. In literature, however, the names that would dominate the best seller lists and just the genre section are overwhelmingly human centric with the diversity of types provided by nations and cultures. Excluding Eddings, who would be a best seller through the 90s, we have Mercedes Lackey, Robert Jordan, Anne Bishop, Robin Hobb, Elizabeth Haydon, Katherine Kerr, and L. E. Modesitt, Jr just to start. Lackey and Jordan alone would argue that Dragonlance was not the major influence on the period. In fact, outside of the RPG based novels such as Dragonlance and The Forgotten Realms the only major elvy/dwarfy writers in the period are Brooks and Dennis McKiernan who both pre-date Eddings by several years.
There is also the fact that Eddings was a published mainstream author who turned to fantasy for commercial reasons, at least in part. He did this in 1978 and would publish his first fantasy novel as the Dragonlance project was just beginning.
What is my final judgment? Anyone interested in the evolution of fantasy literature or gaming during the 80s should read The Belgariad. When Eddings passed away last June it didn’t raise much of a fuss. Many people saw him as another forgettable author of bog standard post-Brooks fantasy. Yet, I think he is as important in the establishment of fantasy as a separate commercial genre as Brooks and Donaldson were. While the latter two proved that the success of the Lord of the Rings was no fluke Eddings proved that quest fantasy that didn’t slavishly imitate Tolkien could be successful without being weird or edgy like Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant whose main character was so reprehensible that many people couldn’t get past a certain incident in the first book. The Belgariad created the pattern for fantasy series up through Jordan who finally abused the form to the point is fell out of favor (modern quest fantasy seems to have smaller horizons). I can’t promise you’ll like it but I can promise that if you read it in context with its times you gain a lot of understanding of modern fantasy.