Re-reading the Belgariad …

So, this comment in this post from Shamus Young resonated with me:

It has been bugging me for years: maybe the problem isn’t the games. Maybe it’s me.

Now, I never really had this for games, because with games I was generally able to like some and dislike some of both old and new games, and also because with games I was usually able to figure out and outline exactly where I felt the new games were going wrong and where the old games had gone right, leading to the conclusion that a lot of modern games really weren’t as good as older games, for all of their technical wizardry. I felt the same way about TV shows and movies, although I was a bit concerned about the fact that I rarely laughed out loud anymore, even at comedies (this was clearly broken when it came to “WKRP in Cincinnati”).

But after doing the Hugo Award Assessment, , and noting that the only books I really read were movie and TV show tie-ins, it did get me wondering if it was just nostalgia, or if the older books really were better than the newer ones. That was a reason to re-read “The Status Civilization”, after having already re-read Zelazny’s Amber series because I needed to remind myself of what happened in it for an Amber Diceless game that I was running. But in David Eddings’ “The Belgariad”, I faced my greatest test yet. Of the three series that he had completed when I started reading them — along with all of my friends in high school — the “Elenium” was my favourite. I also recalled trying to re-read it a year or so ago and finding it a bit clunky. So I was prepared for frustration when I read it, but needed stuff to read and wanted to go through all of the Eddings books — including “Belgarath the Sorcerer” and “Polgara the Sorceress”, which I definitely liked — to both keep my reading time occupied and to, well, re-read those series that I recalled liking at some point. So with trepidation I started reading it and …

… came to the conclusion that it was just really entertaining.

I’m not sure what changed. Maybe it just was my mind having that comparison to works that were incredibly clunky and boring that the minor issues with the “Belgariad” faded away. But, at any rate, it was far more enjoyable and worked so much better than any of the “Hugo Award” nominees, including the ones that the anti-Puppies really liked. And as far as I can tell it didn’t actually win any awards.

And it’s not like the series is male-dominated. One of the most powerful beings in the world is a woman, Polgara, and she’s actually presented as being more competent than Belgarath, even if he’s more powerful and more tricky. There tends to be a bit of a give and take between men and women in the series, even if men often take more than they probably should. So it’s not really male power fantasy either. It seems like a series that even the Social Justice side in fantasy could enjoy, so it’s not like I enjoy it because it avoids or rejects those lines.

So what’s good about it? The characters are entertaining, and the history is detailed and told in an interesting way. The plot is a little shaky, but the links to that deep history make up for that. The plot, then, fades into the background and instead is replaced by interesting characters walking their way through the history and, in fact, creating history themselves by fulfilling the prophecy. The world is properly detailed and we find out things about it when we need to and in interesting and compelling ways rather than it being a complete info dump for no reason. Sure, the introductory prologues could be seen as that, but that’s why it’s a prologue: it gives you the information you need to know in an interesting format if you like history.

So, so far, I’m pleasantly surprised. I’m enjoying reading it much more than I expected. And since I liked “The Mallorean” better — or, at least, remember it more fondly — this bodes well for my reading of everything Eddings did that I liked.

6 Responses to “Re-reading the Belgariad …”

  1. natewinchester Says:

    leading to the conclusion that a lot of modern games really weren’t as good as older games, for all of their technical wizardry. I felt the same way about TV shows and movies, although I was a bit concerned about the fact that I rarely laughed out loud anymore, even at comedies

    I used to think it was a phrase, but now I believe it is an iron law: “Art from Adversity.” Or to put another way: Challenges and restrictions make artists better.

    Older games for example, had much less space and room to work with, so the artists had to think more about the story and how to convey it as well as clear boundaries to push on to realize the gameplay itself. Nowadays? You can put in a cinematic of movie quality and toss in almost anything else you want, there’s not much of a challenge on the game makers anymore unless you find a self-imposed challenge.

    Likewise, the various network and movie behavior codes meant that with what couldn’t be shown, writers had to get creative with implications. So jokes got funnier, romances got steamier. For those wanting a practical comparison, look at George Lucas. He went through hell to get the first Star Wars made, and it’s legitimately a great work. Years later, he has no restrictions on what he can do, and he makes the prequels – far inferior works.

    Now with novels… hm, there’s a thinker.

    See also:

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think it’s more a combination of both being able to do more superficially technical things to drive enjoyment and NEEDING to take the time to do those sorts of things. Persona 5, for example, is very slick and stylish, but I’ve felt that the story and S-links are more hollow than they were in the previous games. There are improvements in almost all areas, but at the end of the day the characters and story get a bit of short-shrift.

      As you say, with the early games you couldn’t dazzle them with graphics, so you had to focus on either story or gameplay — or both — to make a game that people would want to play. You don’t need to do that as much anymore, and doing so takes time away from the graphics and stylistic features that so many people look for. The same applies to movies and TV shows; not only can you get away with using special effects and the like to dazzle audiences, they even expect it.

      For books, I think it’s more the “artistic” side that’s driving things. Authors feel the need to make a point, and do that so strongly that they forget to make the work entertaining. TV shows and movies get this, too.

  2. Andrew Says:

    The Belgariad was fresh, witty, and quirky, with the classic peasant made great core plot and an entertaining supporting cast, embedded in an epic plot that was not particularly deep but carried the story along as a fun romp.

    Then Eddings decided to tell the same story three more times, with essentially the same plot, same character archetypes and same style of humour. And then decided to re-tell the original story twice over.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      As a big fan of the Eleniim/Tamuli, I have to disagree on that. The characters and story, at least, are sufficiently different in those two series to make them interesting. Sparhawk is not Belgarion, being far more weathered and cynical and worldly than Belgarion was. Kalten is probably the Silk ex-pat (or maybe Talen) but they are, in fact, significantly different from him, as Kalten is less sneaky while Talen is less experienced and has the relationship with Kurik to fall back on. I suppose you could compare Kalten to Barak instead, but other than being big men who like to fight and drink they aren’t a lot alike, in my opinion. Bevier is the Mandorallen counterpart but they have significantly different personalities. Sephrenia maps loosely to Polgara, but again their personalities and roles are quite different. Ehlana is almost nothing like Ce’Nedra. There isn’t really a Belgarath counterpart at all, and fitting the other knights and characters into the archetypes from the Belgariad would be difficult.

      As for the plot, sure there are similarities, but the Elenium has direct politics as a major plot point, which is fascinating . Sparhawk’s role is quite different, as it’s not so much about him killing the god because of how powerful he and the Orb substitute are, but just about his being able to bring it to the right spot. The big combat is not between Sparhawk and Azash, but instead between Sparhawk and Martel, and Martel is far more sympathetic than Torak was. He also manages to get the death of a companion right, unlike what happens in the Mallorean. Yes, Eddings loves his “jewel with powers on the side of good takes on a god and also a jewel with powers on the side of evil” plot, but the overall themes of the Belgariad/Mallorean are quite different from those of the Elenium/Tamuli.

      • Andrew Says:

        I mostly agree. Certainly the main protagonist is different – I think Sparhawk draws a lot on Beldin, and the resulting romance subplot is more mature than the Garion / CeNedra teen romance. The characters don’t map over (except Eddings is rather fond of his super-powerful, extremely wise mother figure / subtle leader), but you could pick up the dialog interplay between Belgarath / Barak / Silk / Polagara and their antagonists and drop it into Sparhawk’s band with only minor modifications.

        The problem is that reusing the epic plot macguffin accentuates the similarities. If he’d gone for a different overarching plot, it would be “Eddings-style storytelling” (in the same way that the Dirk Gently series is Douglas Adams but not Hitchhikers). The obvious core plot similarities instead draw attention to the other points of re-use and make the Elenium feel like “same story, grittier setting & characters” rather than a new work.

        Re-telling the original story using different viewpoint characters doesn’t help either. (After reading “Polgara the Sorceress”, my reaction was that either the character has a serious ego issue or Eddings really loves his female Mary Sues).

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I agree that Eddings uses a similar style for banter, but think that the differences in characters and relationships makes the conversations interestingly different. The banter between Kalten and Sparhawk, for example, can hit different notes because they were childhood friends than what you get from, say, Silk and Barak, and Sephrenia’s personality is different enough from Polgara’s to make her interactions with Sparhawk and the others different from what the others have with Polgara … especially Vanion and Sephrenia, which is completely different from Durnik and Polgara but also, for obvious reasons, different than from Belgarath and Polgara.

        Also, I don’t see much of Beldin in Sparhawk. The closest I can see is a more responsible Belgarath, but even that doesn’t quite fit.

        As for the plot, again I agree with the similarities but think that how it was done is interestingly different enough to get it into “Eddings-style work”. The Elenium/Tamuli focus far more on politics and religion, the god Azash is background in the Elenium while Torak is the prime antagonist — at least the big lurking threat — in the Belgariad, and the relationship and personality of the Bhelliom is different than that of the Orb, allowing for a lot more and a lot different issues to be raised and dealt with. If anything, I’d almost call the Elenium and Tamuli Edding’s Author’s Saving Throw: a way to take the original basic framework and do it better, making it shorter but able to dive into some of the other things that he backgrounded in the first two series.

        As for Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress, I recall liking them as “And now you know the rest of the story”, which is their intent. I don’t think they work as separate works. But as for Polgara, I think the latter is more likely to be true [grin]. But the rest of the works are usually good enough that I can get past that …

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