Tag: Belgarath

Guest Post: Paper Idols, or: You Should Never (Re-)read Your Heroes

Posted September 8, 2013 by Guest Post in Guest Posts / 2 Comments

Pawn of ProphecyAs a teenager, I was a voracious reader of fantasy. My father – a religious conservative who believed the only kinds of books worth reading were about religion or science – forbade me to indulge my habit, but undaunted, I would sneak novels about swords and sorcery home from the school library, hidden between my Physics and Chemistry textbooks; volumes about enchantresses, faeries, forbidden forests and knights in shining armour (with complimentary damsels in various degrees of distress, of course). I read on the bus to and from school, at lunchtime, under the covers at night, sometimes even in class under the desk, devouring every heroic epic, every saga of fallen heroes from far off, fantastical lands. My favourites I would borrow again and again, re-reading them until they were like old friends, the twists and turns of the tales within becoming worn and familiar, a comforting escape for a teenage girl who didn’t always understand or know how to deal with the everyday realities of her life.

Chief amongst those favourites for many years were the collective works of David Eddings. Eddings, a legend in the fantasy world, is a trope-codifier on par with the likes of Robert Jordan and Raymond E Feist – Christopher Paolini, of Eragon fame, credits him as a chief inspiration. With his wife, Leigh, Eddings co-authored almost half a dozen fantasy series, several companion novels and a standalone novel, The Redemption of Althalus, a high fantasy adventure about a thief who unwittingly becomes a kind of god. My younger self saved every spare penny from school lunches to buy Eddings’ books, including an omnibus edition of one of his trilogies, The Tamuli, a mammoth tome of more than 1500 pages, which I’ve read cover-to-cover at least half a dozen times. My first love, a boy I met in medical school, was a fan of Eddings – we would discuss his books between classes, savouring the best quips, the sharpest shows of wit, as I imagined myself the Velvet to his Silk.

Eddings is known not for the originality of his stories – which, in fact, rely heavily on standard high-fantasy tropes (something which is acknowledged with a nod and wink by the author) – but for his characters and their excellent banter. Their witty repartee transforms Eddings’ work from derivative cookie-cutter high fantasy into something special, something with heart: stories about people you want to meet and befriend, people whose lives and struggles seem relatable regardless of the fantastical setting in which their adventures take place. Ask any fantasy fan what they love about Eddings and they’ll gush enthusiastically about the lovable rogue, Prince Kheldar (alias Silk), daring international spy and man of many faces, or the deceptively brutish and incredibly dry Sir Ulath, equal parts hulking ur-Viking and deep-voiced philosopher. They’ll quote the banter between Belgarath and Polgara, the legendary father and daughter sorcerer team. They’ll acknowledge an argument lost with a wry, “that’s one for your side.”

Indeed, Eddings’ legacy – for he passed away in 2009, to the dismay of fantasy readers everywhere – is not his stories, nor even his prodigious body of work, but the wit with which he transformed fantasy archetypes into living, breathing, loveable characters. Their cleverness is timeless, enduring.

Or so I remembered.

In recent years, I’ve become less of a reader, burdened down by the trivialities and time-sinks that make up life in the digital age. But last year, bedridden with some kind of flu, I decided to do something I hadn’t done in years – I took down the five books of the Belgariad, Eddings’ first (and perhaps most celebrated) fantasy series from my shelf and decided to give them a re-read, for old times’ sakes. I opened Pawn of Prophecy, eagerly awaiting a return to that world of fast-talking con-artists with royal titles and wisecracking sorcerers disguised as tramps. I remembered with great fondness the sharpness and wit that animated the characters and slavered with anticipation at immersing myself in their world, delighting in their banter and sarcasm.

I think it was about a hundred pages in that I realised something: twenty-two-year-old me didn’t find David Eddings nearly as clever nor as witty as fifteen, or indeed, seventeen-year-old me had.

There’s an old saying: you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Perhaps you shouldn’t re-read them either. As I trudged down the worn and familiar paths of the Belgariad, I felt comfort – the comfort one feels upon returning to an old haunt and realising nothing has changed. But I also felt a little sadness, because the vim and vigour that had so delighted my teenage self-seemed somewhat stale now. The lines I once quoted and re-quoted to my friends and emblazoned upon my forum avatars didn’t seem to have the ring they’d had when I first read them, all those years ago. Try as I might, I couldn’t summon up the same sense of joy and wonder I’d felt when I’d first cracked open those pages in my school library at lunchtime, completely unaware of what surprises they might hold.

I finished the entire Belgariad, all five books, in a day. I enjoyed the series and will probably re-read it again in a year or two. But some of the magic – some of what made Eddings so special – is gone now. Perhaps I am too old, too jaded, too cynical to see it. Perhaps what was funny to me when I was fifteen years old just isn’t as funny now. Or perhaps Eddings’ famed wit was never all it was cracked up to be, and my younger self just bought into the hype more easily. Either way, whilst I still enjoyed visiting my old fantasy companions in their world of high drama and impossible adventure, the Eddings of my teenage years – that paragon of acerbic wit and humour – is forever gone to me. Perhaps he is waiting to be discovered by another teenager longing for an escape from a life she finds dull and dreary. I like to think so. I like to think that there will be others – perhaps even my children, some day – who will read his books and find him incredibly droll in the way I and so many before me did. But the magic, as it were, seems to have an expiration date, and for me, that date has come and passed.

Eddings will rightly be remembered as one of the titans of contemporary high fantasy – a man who took the old and familiar and breathed new life into them, a man who turned stories as old as time into something new and exciting. I treasure his books and always will. But they no longer occupy the place in my heart they once did. I no longer see them as the rare and spectacular works of wit that I did in my teenage years. They’re just stories – good stories, comfortable stories, even fun stories, but just stories nonetheless.

When you place someone on a pedestal, you allow them room to fall. So it was for me. I still pull out my favourite books and re-read them every now and then, but with fewer expectations. Not every novel has to be the best novel one has ever read in order to have value. Sometimes, a story’s value is in the memories of a time when it helped you escape, when it was your refuge from a world that was too cold, too real for you. These days, Eddings’ novels are a reminder of a time when I needed just such an escape, and whilst they’ll never be the best I’ve ever read, I’ll always be glad I read them.

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