Thoughts After Re-Reading “The Elenium”

So, working my way through the David Eddings series that I actually liked — I think I tried reading one of “The Dreamers” and disliked it — I’ve just finished re-reading “The Elenium”. Remember, this — possibly along with “The Tamuli” — was my favourite of the series when I first read them, and this time after reading them back-to-back I was deliberately trying to compare them. And after doing so, my conclusion is … “The Elenium” is indeed significantly better than “The Belgariad” and “The Malloreon”.

One of the reasons, I think, is because it’s three books instead of five. It’s a bit shorter — looking at the collected books themselves, I’m not sure it’s that much shorter than the Belgariad, although it is definitely shorter than the Malloreon — and being only three books means that he doesn’t need to have as many reasonable endings to build towards to end that book on a high note that can be picked up in the next one. So, overall, the story can flow more and doesn’t have as much extraneous content.

Another reason is that for the most part the main cast is small and pretty much stays together for the entire series. Yes, he uses the tired old excuses of “The Younger Gods like symmetry!” to explain it, but we don’t have as many characters moving in and out of the story as we saw in the other works. That lets us get more used to the characters and so feel more attached to them, as well as allows him to elevate them above being simple stereotypes and archetypes. Also, when the characters do move out of the story they usually aren’t doing anything that important, allowing us to remain focused on Sparhawk and the other more main characters and so develop their plots and characterization without undue interruption. This means that pretty much all of the characters are more interesting and more developed than they were in the previous series.

Additionally, they don’t have the super-powerful, god-like characters of the previous series. Sparhawk is the main character, but while skilled he isn’t really a super-powerful, chosen-by-destiny character. Yes, they hint here that he is Anakha and so is outside of destiny, but in this series that’s mostly meaningless, other than that essentially he’s destined to be the guy who wields Bhelliom and probably because of that no one can tell what he will do with it. But Bhelliom here is a tool, not a presence. Sparhawk is skilled but no more overwhelming than any other magic-using knight would. The most powerful “normal” character is Sephrenia, and while she is very knowledgeable and very skilled at magic — and, again, very long-lived — she doesn’t know a lot of things and in general needs protection from physical attacks, unlike Belgarath and Polgara. Sparhawk is the person who is doing most of the investigation, and he doesn’t have a lot of advantages to make that all that much easier. The most powerful regular character is Aphrael, but she doesn’t do that much and really tends to act a lot like a Deus ex Machina most of the time. What this does is allow us to relate more to the characters because they are far more like normal people than most of those in the previous series.

This characterization also carries over to the villains. All of them are far better characterized than the villains in any of the previous series. As I’ve commented before, in “The Belgariad” Torak is the main villain and his henchmen mostly asides, but Torak isn’t developed enough for us to feel any pity for him at all, even though at the end we’re clearly supposed to. Ghwerig is only a minor villain, and yet in one short scene Eddings does more to get us to feel pity for his loneliness than he managed for Torak. While Azash is the god stand-in for Torak, the main antagonist is Martel, and his ending where Sparhawk finally kills him but Martel comments that he dies in the company of the only two people he ever really cared about is both emotional and fitting for that character.

Also, the quest structure and the dropping of specific prophecies to follow actually allows Eddings to work in those little side events that he loves so much more naturally. He can easily divert Sparhawk to rescue a besieged patriarch because while restoring Ehlana is important to the world, it’s not seen as being the one thing that can save it, and so it is easy to convince Sparhawk that while he has strong personal reasons for putting Ehlana’s life first, sometimes the at least seemingly “greater good” is to put that aside for some time and so other things. And since for most of the first two books they have no idea what they need to do to save Ehlana, they can chase all sorts of dead ends that serve no real purpose other than to do things that Eddings wants to do. In the previous series, it seems like an irrelevant distraction. Here, it not only seems less like that, but we can definitely feel that Sparhawk feels the same way, but has very good reasons to stop and do it.

And it also gets far more into politics than the previous series do. Yes, this is one that definitely appeals more to me personally than it does to others — after all, I also really like the political scenes in the Star Wars EU — but I loved the politics around electing the head of the Church and how all of that played out, and even wish it could have been longer.

That being said, I can see how some people might prefer the previous series because this one is far less “fantastical” than they were. The main religion is pretty much some form of Christianity, with the Church politics being modeled, it seems, a lot on Catholicism. The realms are very similar to standard medieval realms that we are all familiar with. The Styrics and the prejudice against them remind me a lot of the Jews. Thus, all of this is very, very familiar, whereas the history and institutions of the previous series were quite different. This also means that the previous series had a much deeper and more interesting lore than “The Elenium” does. So I can totally understand if someone finds “The Elenium” to be a bit pedestrian when compared to the previous series.

Also, I had thought that “The Elenium” and “The Belgariad” were quite different in story structure, but on reflection they actually aren’t. The first part of both is going out and finding the super-powerful jewel that they had lost and the second part is taking that jewel and going out to destroy the menacing god who is invading to try to get it. But I still think “The Elenium” just handles that so much better overall than “The Belgariad” did, with more interesting characters and a more interesting path to doing those two things.

Next, I’m reading “The Tamuli”, which I will also compare to the other works.

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