Tuesday, June 23, 2009

R.I.P. David Eddings

David Eddings died a few weeks ago.

This was hard on me. June 6. His wife had died a couple of years earlier. He was 77. They wrote amazing stories together (and I was pleased when he acknowledged her role in his writing). David & Leigh Eddings, the books would say. A power couple.

So when he died, I took it kind of hard.

It is hard to quantify just how much the Eddingses have affected my life and informed my writing. Especially when I consider that I've only read the iconic Belgariad, the Mallorean, Belgarath the Sorcerer, Polgara the Sorceress (and I got it backward, I started with Lady Polgara's story, then Belgarath's, before reading the rest in the proper fashion) and the Redemption of Althalus.

Was he a formula writer? Oh yes.

Were his characters sometimes silly caricatures? Oh yes.

Did he use some of the most awful cliches ever? Hell yeah.

But he did all of that on purpose, and I love him for it. He just wanted to write a good story, that would entertain generations to come. He was inspired by Tolkien (who he called "Papa Tolkien", so I guess I'll say "Grandpa Tolkien") and started with a map and just busted on scene with this amazing epic.

And the characters never stayed away from me. There was typical white-boy Garion who was frequently confused but always, always driven by a sense of goodness and affection for his friends and family. There was impetuous Princess Ce'Nedra, from money grubbing Tolnedra who shocked Garion's prudish sensibilities and didn't give him, her Destined True Love, an inch. She raised a fucking army! Not only that, but she stole a whole fucking army from her dad! Wise but with a nasty explosive (literally lol) temper was Lady Polgara, and her father the alcoholic wizard Belgarath who was the most famous man on the planet but never acted that way were the most well-balanced mentor figures for Garion - and myself.

And there were PoC! Ce'Nedra herself is one, and not just because she's a Dryad - her culture was clearly modeled after the Romans so she's probably Mediterranean. The Ulgos, like Jews and Muslims in their devotion. Sadi, the eunuch, was definitely Middle-Eastern (though one could argue he was also South-Asian). Zakath had to be Asian. The Malloreans had to be -they hailed from the Far East and Garion et al were shocked at their level of civilization. Zakath was so urbane and non-chalant about it. I loved it. Although I sometimes imagine Zakath as a kind of Moor. Either way he's probably hot.

One of the things I loved about the stories is the amount of agency that female characters got. Eddings never portrayed a rape scene because there were plenty of other ways to menace his female characters, and they dealt with all that with great equanamity. Polgara was the only woman with talent, but the other women held their own even without magic: Ce'Nedra, Velvet, Vella. In the Mallorean we had the wonderful villainess Zandrama who was really quite the threat and never once did Eddings use sexuality as a bad thing. Even characters living in strictly patriarchal societies showed a strength of character.

Sexuality was held up as a good in the Eddingses world, which I think is a wonderful reflection of their marriage. When Garion sighs to Belgarath that he and Ce'Nedra have yet to produce an heir, Belgarath demands, "what have you been doing, boy?" Whilst adventuring in Mallorea, Ce'Nedra is feeling pecky and wants to pick a fight, but instead opts to have sex with Garion. Velvet and Silk have nookie. With hilarious results!

"She had that snake in her bosom!"
"Who?"
"Liselle!"
"... And tell me, Prince Kheldar. Exactly what were you doing in Magravine Liselle's bosom?"

I wanted to die so bad. But although Del Rey told Eddings, "fantasy is the prissiest genre" and Eddings notes that "Tolkien's women ended at the neck", Eddings brilliantly brought sexuality in as a natural part of life, without hypersexualizing the characters or tiltillating the readers. With the exception of the Nadrak women, but hell, that was part of their culture, and off-stage, Vella was just another strong woman whose assets weren't just her appearance and ability to dance. Althalus regularly admires Dweia's arms. Her arms, for chrissakes. Relg the zealot had to overcome his asinine distaste for sexual activities since he was, in fact, a sexual being and was just denying himself, and by doing so, he found happiness with Taiba.

Eddings dealt with a whole range of peoples - from Emperors to peasants - and made them just... other people. He brought a human face to so many of his characters: each of them had something they did which had nothing to do with their role in the story. Zakath had his pet cat. Which kept on having kittens. (And his pet cat made friends with Sadi's pet snake, which was lovingly described.)

The Eddingses dealt with war, poverty, grief. One of the most poignant moments in the Belgariad is when a young mute boy who wants nothing more than to play his flute does so when he thinks he's done fighting, and he is killed by an enemy soldier. Another hard moment is Ce'Nedra offering bread to two starving peasants, and they swear to serve her to the very end, and she realizes that she's just fed the two men so they would join her and they might die. The Eddingses didn't shy from this, didn't spare the reader from these ethical questions. Ce'Nedra's been possessed and has gone delusional - what do they do? The city of Mal Zeth is facing a plague and they have to escape - what do they do? A woman in Karanda is birthing a demon baby, her body distended beyond belief, and Polgara takes care of it - what do they do? Ce'Nedra and Garion are particularly upset, since they're on a search for their own son.

Those were hard questions and they taught me that life is never so simple. Even if Eddings thinks he was trying to simplify life and present a world where one knew when things were aright and when evil was afoot, he was also bring the complexity of being human to his readers, and that was amazing.

I was suffering from depression when I first read his books. They alleviated the pain because they were simply, truly funny. Belgarath and Polgara, having gone through so much damn life, had aphorisms and advice for just about every occasion. And sometimes, they just said nothing, and it was the appropriate response. The characters faced all kinds of pain - loss, grief, anger, rejection, and the various ways they dealt with the pain, the differing amounts of time before they found resolution, or how they sometimes never found resolution.

Sometimes the characters were just plain petty. And this, too, was shown to be just another part of growing up and living, and it either passes into maturity, or it results in bickering that they just have to resolve themselves.

And above all, despite Eddings' pessimism, his characters were good and kind and giving and didn't go around imposing their idelogy on people but showed the way towards better living. They were affectionate with each other and learnt that it was good to be honest about their love. Even Book 2's villainess, Salmissra, welcomes Sadi home in Book 10 and tells him how much she truly missed him, in a completely non-sexual but sincere manner.

The Eddingses gave me worlds I could believe in, people I could emulate, thoughts I could carry with me to help me through those tumultuous days of angsty adolescence and even my half-angry adulthood.

I can't quantify how much I was shaped by their writing in those days. But I know they did, and they did it profoundly, and I can only feel gratitude.

2 comments:

  1. Jha: You are my new best friend. Thank you for writing this.

    I've been trying, and failing, to write my own David Eddings tribute for two weeks now. What you have to say isn't the same stuff I've been thinking so hard about, but I agree enthusiastically with every single word of it.

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  2. a bit late but just wanted to say - nice article, but am re-reading DE almost 30 years after I first discovered him... when there was no internet and I thought I was the only one who loved him!

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