David Eddings passed away yesterday, at the age of 77. At the risk of sounding cliched, he’ll be missed.
He wrote epic quest fantasy in the grand style, with heroes who discover unsuspected destinies, companions who ply their various specialties on behalf of the hero and their shared missions, highly-placed evil schemers, and the lot. But as I discovered when friends persuaded me in college to try the Belgariad (not long concluded) and the Malloreon (then just beginning), he brought several personal advantages to his work.
First, he studied Middle English along the way while getting an MA in American literature. When he wrote archaically, he did it right. This is from the prologue to Pawn of Prophecy, the first of five volumes in the Belgariad series:
When the world was new, the seven Gods dwelt in harmony, and the races of man were as one people. Belar, youngest of the Gods, was beloved by the Alorns. He abode with them and cherished them, and they prospered in his care. The other Gods also gathered peoples about them, and each God cherished his own people.
But Belar's eldest brother, Aldur, was God over no people. He dwelt apart from men and Gods, until the day that a vagrant child sought him out.
That’s something you can read out loud and hear it working. Real people have written and spoken like that.
Second, he brought a deep love of place to his work. J.R.R. Tolkien did that, of course: Middle-Earth infused with its creator’s abiding interest in the world and its details, and the ways places and people shape each other. Not all of those inspired by him were equally in love with nature, or as attentive. Eddings, however, was. And where Tolkien built up a secondary creation out of English and other European material, Eddings did with American elements, most particularly the Rocky Mountains. This is from The Seeress of Kell, the fifth and final volume in the Malloreon series:
The air was thin and cool and richly scented with the odor of trees that shed no leaves but stood dark green and resinous from one end of their lives to the other. The sunlight on the snowfields above them was dazzling, and the sound of tumbling water seething down and down rocky streambeds to feed rivers leagues below on the plains of Darshiva and Gandahar was constantly in their ears. That tumble and roar of waters rushing to their destined meeting with the great River Magan was accompanied by the soft, melancholy sighing of an endless wind passing through the deep-green forest of pine and fir and spruce which clad hills that reached towaid the sky in a kind of unthinking yearning. The caravan route Garion and his friends followed rose up and up, winding along streambeds and mounting the sides of ridges. From atop each ridge they could see yet another, and looming over all was the spine of the continent where peaks beyond imagining soared upward to touch the very vault of heaven, peaks pure and pristine in their mantle of eternal snow. Garion had spent time in mountains before, but never had he seen such enormous peaks. He knew that those colossal spires were leagues and leagues away, but the mountain air was so clear that it seemed he could almost reach out and touch them.
If John Muir wrote quest fantasy, that’s what it would have sounded like. This is Muir in “Windstorm in the Forests”, describing his experiences at the top of a hundred-foot-high Douglas spruce tree in the middle of a storm:
In its widest sweeps my tree-top described an arc of from twenty to thirty degrees, but I felt sure of its elastic temper, having seen others of the same species still more severely tried--bent almost to the ground indeed, in heavy snows--without breaking a fiber. I was therefore safe, and free to take the wind into my pulses and enjoy the excited forest from my superb outlook. The view from here must be extremely beautiful in any weather. Now my eye roved over the piny hills and dales as over fields of waving grain, and felt the light running in ripples and broad swelling undulations across the valleys from ridge to ridge, as the shining foliage was stirred by corresponding waves of air. Oftentimes these waves of reflected light would break up suddenly into a kind of beaten foam, and again, after chasing one another in regular order, they would seem to bend forward in concentric curves, and disappear on some hillside, like sea-waves on a shelving shore. The quantity of light reflected from the bent needles was so great as to make whole groves appear as if covered with snow, while the black shadows beneath the trees greatly enhanced the effect of the silvery splendor.
It’s very easy to picture the young Eddings up there with him, taking notes and comparing inspirations.
Third, Eddings steered his stories reliably through the Scylla and Charybdis of quest fantasies: threats to interesting groups. On one side of the channel, there are stories in which the characters never have any real problems with each other, never differ in anything significant, and traipse along like a preschool outing where nobody ever loses their lunch sack or needs a nap. On the other side, there are stories where people who really do need to work with each other disagree so often, so intensely, and so fundamentally that it takes a constant flow of plot devices to keep them moving toward mutual enemies and dangers rather than into combat with each other.
Eddings’ characters argue, often and vigorously, but not stupidly. They disagree about things that matter, and then they work out something to do. They take their responsibilities seriously. Furthermore, his characters actually have responsibilities and decisions, including female ones. His societies have medieval-ish structures and sharp division of roles between the sexes, but his women are called upon to do more than simper adoringly. They don’t get the range of possibilities that would occur to writers giving women’s status and conditions more prominent attention, but I remember noticing at the time the general absence of cheap sexist throwaway gags.
Finally, Eddings handled the social and spiritual complexities of life with prophecy very well. He laid out a grand scene in which recurring cycles of action mean different things each time because of their different circumstances, and where people’s individual natures and choices genuinely do matter even as cosmic forces align and collide. This quote, from Castle of Wizardry, the fourth Belgariad book, is one I found I remembered correctly even though it’s been some time since I re-read the series:
All of this is part of a series of events that must occur in proper sequence and at the proper time. In most situations, the present is determined by the past. This series of events is different, however. In this case, what's happening in the present is determined by the future. If we don't get it exactly the way it's supposed to be, the ending will be different, and I don't think any of us would like that at all.
One other feature of Eddings’ work deserves special mention in memoriam: his constant public appreciation for his wife’s contribution to his work. He apparently always wanted her to get shared credit for his fantasies, but co-author credits were rarer in the early ’80s than they are now. As soon as he could arrange it, though, he did, and long before that he’d been acknowledging the importance of her critiques and revisions to the finished work. Her death in 2007 broke the team. Now the circle closes...for this cycle, at least, his characters might say if consulted on the matter.