Tolkien Gestures Book 12: Pawn of Prophecy

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we reach one of the genre’s later “big” names, and one of the genre’s later “big” book series.

Theres an interesting comment in the “about the author” section of my edition of Pawn of Prophecy, which states that David Eddings was brought to write it by a desire to explore certain “technical aspects of the fantasy genre”. I’m not actually sure what that means, but i’d hazard that that it means that the intent of the Belgariad (of which PoP is merely Book One) is to look at the genre to date, and draw it all together in a definitive myth cycle, combining the epic scope of its founders with the sense of character and evolved structure that later writers have laid out. It means you don’t need to be original, simply create a sort of elemental fantasy novel, a condensation of all that has gone before, to allow future genre contributions to stand upon your shoulders and move the genre forward in new and unfettered ways.

I guess I’m not David Eddings, because it’s certainly not what he’s done here.

So, the plot of PoP is pretty simple, but worth mentioning. There’s this farmboy, right, who grows up in rural idyll with this friends. He’s an orphan, of course, because all heroes are. So one day this old storyteller turns up and tells old stories, but seems to have some sort connection to the heroes Aunt, and then some sinister types turn up and the old geezer and the aunt make him leave. So they go to this small town, whose name escapes more, but for the sake of argument we’ll call it “Bree”, and meet up with some other adventurers; a small weasily one and a big vikingey one, and then travel to a larger town with a nice pub. Again the name escapes me but lets call it “Rivendell” to save time. For some reason they manage to avoid any sorts of Mine although this feels like there should be one somewhere, and instead get waylaid by a minor King, who reveals (shockingly) that everyone in the party apart from the hero is some sort of Prince, Noble, or ancient sorcerer in disguise, and then sends to them to yet another city (lets call this one….Minas Tirith?) where they have a big conflab and some sort of fight breaks out in the background. Then the Kings of Minas Tirith send them all off somewhere else, which isn’t told in this book.

You’ll notice that at no point in this synopsis does the hero actually do anything. In fact, the hero is defined by not doing anything. Ever. In fact, he’s constantly being told not to do anything. Or ask any questions. Or talk too much. I’m not actually what the point of him is. Well, I mean, I do – because he’s heir to King of Kings (seriously, every character is Aragorn. Apart from the old geezer, who is Gandalf) and has a Destiny, and can become a great magic user and so on, but he’s not actually allowed to know or do anything in the whole damn book so hes relegated to the sort of “But Doctor, what could this mean?” role usually played by busty blondes in 50s b-movies, and then told to shut up and stop asking questions.

So, the greats of teenage literature, both before and after Eddings understand a few basics about your audience identification figure. Firstly, and most importantly, when the adults (who are often the problem, not the solution) tell you not to get involved, then you damn well should be getting involved. He’s the audience proxy, the eyes through which your reader sees the world, and Garion’s passivity makes the whole book relegated to sub-tolkien travelogue. When there is a council, Garion is excluded. When there is a fight, he runs away. Obviously he can’t start book one waving a magic sword and casting firebolts from his eyebrows, and whilst the desire of the adults to keep him out of trouble is understandable, it doesn’t excuse his lack of desire to anything but gawp and complain.

And whislt I’m at it, the travelogue ain’t that great either. I think I’m being generous taking cheap shots about Bree and Rivendell and the like, because even at his clunkiest Tolkien can make locations feel evocative and distinct. Garion and his band of miscellaneous Aragorns travel a huge distance but there is very little sense of difference between each place – everyone talks pretty much the same, flavour detail is non-existant and the only place that gets much description, the ancient, Gormenghastian palace at the end of the book feels woefully underutilised for what should be a very cool location. Garion finds a secret tunnel. Gets lost in it. Aiieee! Drama!

My wife thinks I’m harsh on a book that for many became “my first fantasy novel” in their early teens; a sort of entry level into epic questing, but Earthsea did it earlier and better. The Hobbit is clunkier at times but its hero is proactive and it’s “grown ups” distant when they need to be. Saying it’s for 12-14 year olds, or it’s a first (well, second) novel doesn’t cut it when there is better, pre-existing examples. Saying it “gets better” or “things change” is no help when the initial story is so damn weak.

If Eddings had written Star Wars, then Owen and Beru would have waved Luke and Obi-Wan off at Mos Eisley, Han would turn out to be King of Corellia, the Death Star wouldn’t make an appearance and the climax would be Bail Organa’s tea party in the Palace of Alderaan.

And thats without getting into any of the more stylistic foibles, like all the evil people you meet being smelly and ugly, and the heroes all being white guys, and the only female characters either mothers, surrogate mothers, or somehow dubious and “not right” and advised to become mothers to “calm them down”. Or the Viking Aragon raping his wife and that being, i dunno, culturally the norm.

Reading back this makes it sound like I hated it. I didn’t. There isn’t enough to it to hate, it’s like railing against Tofu. There is a wonderful exchange in Casablanca between Bogart and Peter Lorre’s seedy racketter; “You hate me, don’t you Rick?” – “Well i would if i gave you any thought”.

Next up – we’re going darker and grittier (thankfully), with Glen Cook’s The Black Company.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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One comment

  1. Crimson Archer /

    I have to admit that I agree with your wife, but also with you, on this one. I read the whole Belgariad series when I was 12-14, and LOVED them. They were the first series I had read with a multi book narrative and I devoured the whole thing. I fell in love with the characters, invested in them, cried & laughed at the right moments… it remains to this day one of my treasured memories from my childhood.

    …however. I went back to re-read these in the mid-20s and couldn’t get through them, for all the reasons you’ve said. I’m still looking forward to reading these (along with Earthsea) with my daughter when she’s old enough, but mostly because I’ll get to see them through her eyes and not as the adult I am now.

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