In 1969, David Eddings, who is the subject of this column, was convicted of child abuse and served a year in jail. At the time this column was posted in 2010, we and John Ottinger, our guest columnist, like many others, were unaware of this. The essay addresses the elements that John enjoyed in Eddings’s work. We cannot ignore what Eddings did or the pain he caused. A statement from Eddings’ son is included in the comment section. (This disclaimer was added on April 5, 2021. The remainder of the column appears exactly as it did when first posted in August 2010.)
Our guest this week for Why You Should Read… is none other than the illustrious John Ottinger III, the chap behind Grasping For The Wind. He can also be found on Twitter as @johnottinger — and his subject today is David Eddings, one of the most beloved fantasy author icons.
David Eddings is my all-time favorite author. As one of the first authors of fantasy I ever read, his work has a nostalgic quality for me. It’s a reminder of those days in middle school when I could spend an entire day reading (I was homeschooled) and finish one of his 600+ page novels in one sitting. Eddings (who wrote most of his work in conjunction with his wife Leigh) also made reading fun, using wry humor and silly yet fond interpersonal relationships to turn his epic quests into delightful romps. He also built big, huge worlds that were always imperiled and required unusual casts of characters to save it. His party quest stories were unabashed copies of Tolkien’s, yet where Tolkien was dark or morbid, Eddings was lighthearted and funny. He also built interesting histories for two of his characters, Polgara and Belgarath, that were as high-quality as the epic quest novels of the Belgariad and the Mallorean.
Sadly, many younger readers are only familiar with THE DREAMERS series of his novels, which are really poor showings compared to his grand fantasies of the 1980s and 90s. THE BELGARIAD/MALLOREAN and ELENIUM/TAMULI series were masterworks of formulaic fiction in the time when large epic fantasies were the norm, and everyone was emulating that style. Science fiction had gone by the wayside in favor of the Tolkienesque tales of Jordan, Goodkind, Hobb, Brooks, and Martin. Eddings was one of these elite epic fantasists, a regular bestseller on many lists, yet he never received an award for his work. Perhaps his work was too escapist, too focused on enjoyment rather than being literary to garner any significant awards (though he was nominated for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature for Queen of Prophecy.
“I was in my mid-teens when I discovered that I was a writer. Notice that I didn’t say “wanted to be a writer.” “Want” has almost nothing to do with it. It’s either there or it isn’t. If you happen to be one, you’re stuck with it. You’ll write whether you get paid for it or not. You won’t be able to help yourself. When it’s going well, it’s like reaching up into heaven and pulling down fire. It’s better than any dope you can buy. When it’s not going well, it’s much like giving birth to a baby elephant. You’ll probably notice the time lapse. I was forty before I wrote a publishable book. A twenty-five year long apprenticeship doesn’t appeal to very many people.” (from the introduction to The Rivan Codex)
But thankfully, he kept at it, writing fun fiction that can honestly be called “escapist” without it being derogatory. As Eddings himself said, “We’re writing for fun, not to provide moral instruction. I had much more fun with The Belgariad/Mallorean than you did, because I know where all the jokes are.” (The Rivan Codex)
Graeme Neill (in an obituary) quotes Eddings as saying “’I’m never going to be in danger of getting a Nobel Prize for literature, I’m a storyteller, not a prophet. I’m just interested in a good story.” How could you not want to read a book by a guy who just wants to entertain you? Not create a new genre, not try to be “literary” or “push boundaries” — just tell a good story? This was something he did well, and his commercial success reflects that, even if he garnered no significant awards from his peers.
For Eddings, fiction was fun, and his writing reflects it. He did churn out a couple of contemporary serious novels, The Losers and High Hunt, and the psychological thriller Regina’s Song (which would actually be classified as “paranormal fantasy” these days) but the majority of his work was congenial, entertaining epic fantasy. A good place to start is The Redemption of Althalus, a stand-alone novel (with two different covers) that encapsulates all of the goodness of Eddings, without the large series commitment. But if you are willing to be sucked in, the best novel to read is Pawn of Prophecy, the first book of the BELGARIAD, and the opening up of a complete series of exciting novels full of “Good vs. Evil, Nice Guys vs. Nasty Guys (or Them vs. Us). It has the usual Quest, the Magic (or Holy) Thingamajig, the Mighty Sorcerer, the Innocent Hero, and the Not Quite So Innocent Heroine — along with a widely varied group of Mighty Warriors with assorted character faults. It wanders around for five books until it finally climaxes with the traditional duel between “Our Hero” and the “Bad Guy.”(Would it spoil anything for you if I tell you that our side wins?)” (from the preface to the 2002 trade paperback edition). When an author winks at you conspiratorially, puts his arm on your shoulder companionably and treats you like you are both in on some grand joke, how could you not want to enter into any story he might have cooked up?
Sadly, Eddings died in 2007 at the age of 77 with a manuscript left unfinished. I hope, one day, someone with the same tone, the same fun yet thorough writing style might pick it up and finish it for all the fans out there.
So why is it that you should read the work of David Eddings? Because he makes you love reading. Like going to an all-action flick or standardized romance movie, you go to David Eddings because in his worlds you can just relax into the narrative, knowing that you will leave satisfied and with a grin from ear to ear.