The Fall of David Eddings

My most recent re-read of the Eddings catalog has reminded me once again of where he went astray. (A lot of people will tell you he started out astray, but we won’t listen to them.) It’s fairly well-agreed that the Belgariad and Malloreon are pretty good, the Elenium is Eddings’s best stuff, the Tamuli is not quite as good, The Redemption of Althalus is okay but still not that great, and The Dreamers is awful. Where people disagree is why this is.

Some people will tell you that it’s because of his frequently-blatant recycling of characters, themes, plotlines, and even lines of dialogue, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s not like his characters were paragons of originality in the first place. Eddings has been mining history and myths since the beginning, and he’s a big believer in archetypes. It’s not surprising that he’d draw from the same wells — and really, I don’t think a story is necessarily worse because it draws from well-trodden ground. I’ve loved tons of stories that contained nothing new or surprising at all. It’s all in the execution.

No, I think that Eddings’s descent can be traced, simply and shortly, to the fact that at some point he lost sight of the necessity for tension.

The Belgariad is about Garion’s rise from useless teenage farm kid to incredible badass of destiny. His development as a character is very organic and gradual — he starts out as a little kid who is somewhat cowardly, short-sighted, and with no real skills, but over the course of the story he learns how to pull his weight, deals with various psychological crises, and comes to accept his destiny. However, and this is important, the threats he’s facing keep pace with his own development. At the beginning of the story Garion is more or less powerless, so anything and everything with power of any kind — physical, magical, political — is potentially a threat to him. He needs his friends and allies to look after him, and whenever he’s separated from them it means he’s in real danger. Tension is maintained.

Later in the story he learns how to use his sword and unlocks latent magical potential. He can handle himself now, and he’s no longer the most useless member of the group. (Hello, Ce’Nedra.) However, by that point his weak starter villains — the Earl of Jarvik, Asharak the Murgo — are mostly behind him, and he’s facing tougher people like Salmissra, Ctuchik, and the Hierarchs of Rak Cthol, people who are (in theory, at least) still a notch above him. Garion’s no longer useless, but it’s not inconceivable that he could still lose. Tension is maintained.

Finally, Garion is crowned king and comes into his birthright, inheriting the extremely powerful artifacts the Orb of Aldur and the Sword of the Rivan King. He’s now a force to be reckoned with… but now his opponents are whole armies (against which he is vastly outnumbered, even with his allies on his side) and Torak, the Dark God (who is no one to be trifled with, Orb/Sword or no). Garion can still win, but it’s no sure thing. Tension is maintained until the end of the story, when it’s released. At no point during the Belgariad, right up until the final battle, is Garion’s victory a foregone conclusion. Nor does it even seem like Garion has the advantage at any point. He has to get stronger and face impossible odds because the enemies he’s facing require it of him.

The Malloreon tried this again, even though Garion was at the peak of his game by this point, by raising the stakes — demons and dragons and emperors — but ultimately it took the fate of the universe out of Garion’s hands and put it into those of a third party, retaining tension somewhat — by making the final confrontation about something other than force of arms, there was a chance Garion could still lose (even though we the audience knew he wouldn’t). Tension maintained.

Move to the Elenium. The heroes of this series start out a fair bit more badass than Garion did at the beginning of his: They’re seasoned, hard-bitten professionals. However, the bad guys here have an extreme amount of political and sorcerous power; they’re holding all the cards, and most of the series is the heroes searching for ways to circumvent this. Eddings is great in the Elenium about pulling the rug out from under the heroes every time they thing they’ve found something that gives them the edge. Found out what poisoned Ehlana? Yeah, the cure’s a one-of-a-kind item that’s been lost for centuries. Cured the queen? Yeah, Annias is on the verge of being elected Archprelate. Stopped that, or at least slowed it down? Martel shows up with an army to besiege the city. Think your allies will come to raise the siege for you? No, Martel’s waylaid your messengers. Outlasted the siege? Annias and Martel are running to the evil god Azash for help. It’s never hopeless, and the heroes do make progress, so it doesn’t feel like Eddings is putting arbitrary obstacles in their path, but it’s never a sure thing either. Again, the heroes have to be good, because they’re facing tough foes; if they were any less good, they’d lose.

Now we move to the Tamuli, where things start to fall apart. It starts out well enough — a massive conspiracy is threatening civilization as we know it, and the heroes don’t even know where to start looking. They begin investigating, and find things here and there, but the bad guys still have vast magical and martial reinforcements, and it becomes clear that the heroes are still overmatched. So the heroes go raise Bhelliom, the MacGuffin from the Elenium… and that’s it. Tension over. They recruit a race of telepaths who can fish out traitors for them. They figure out the mastermind and begin dismantling his organization. They overthrow the Tamul Empire’s government (with the Emperors’s connivance) to keep it from being used against them. They call in military reinforcements and begin crushing the bad guy’s army. Some people have called the appearance of Klael in book three of the Tamuli random and jarring… but really, he’s necessary, because without his presence book three is basically just “good guys steamroll bad guys”. (That’s basically what book three ends up being anyway, it’s just a little more circumspect about it.) Klael is necessary, because the mastermind of books one and two isn’t strong enough to serve as a credible enemy when the good guys are willing and able to bring the kind of overwhelming force at their disposal to bear.

The problem is that the protagonists have become too competent. They’re strong and smart and able to predict the bad guys’ moves before they make them… which drains the tension out of the story. They launch clever schemes and massive deceptions, figure out the bad guys’ weaknesses and win crushing victories. And it’s fun to see them romp merrily through the bad guys’ ranks… for a while. After that while, though, it just gets boring. There’s a reason why most fantasy stories are about a ragtag bunch of misfits overcoming impossible odds. There’s a reason why Gandalf doesn’t just have the eagles carry the Fellowship to Mount Doom. A victory that’s too easy doesn’t have any value. If you want smart protagonists, your antagonists have to be either stronger or smarter still. Tamuli doesn’t — it has antagonists that are both weaker and dumber.

Then you move to The Redemption of Athlalus, which makes only token gestures towards tension — both the heroes and villains get the exact same powers, and the heroes are much smarter about using them. The only times they’re ever in danger, even in theory, is when the plot contrives to remove some of their powers from the field, and even those instances are fleeting.

Finally you get to The Dreamers, universally regarded as Eddings’s worst work, and there’s no tension at all. It’s like… have you ever played a game where the bad guy’s AI was manipulable, and you could trick it into making the exact wrong move every turn? That’s what The Dreamers is like. The villain here is literally mindless. Every scene in the whole series reads something like this:

Character A: The bad guys are about to do something that could be bad for us.

Character B: Well that would suck, wouldn’t it? Let us enact a counterstrategy that will stop their plan before they’re even able to enact it.

[They do. Everything goes exactly according to plan.]

Forget losing a battle; I’m having a hard time recalling an instance where the good guys even suffer so much as a setback in the whole series. They’re one step ahead from beginning to end, never surprised, never ambushed, never forced to operate on less-than-ideal terms, never forced to deal with a problem they can’t easily handle. It’s hard to see why you should invest yourself unless you just really enjoy watching curbstomps. Then it turns out that one of the protagonists is one of the creators of the universe with self-inflicted amnesia and could have solved the whole conflict with a snap of his fingers if he felt like it. Yeah, a lack of tension is just the start of this series’s problems.

It’s still the biggest problem, though. David Eddings started sucking the very moment he became so enamored with his characters that he couldn’t bear putting them in real danger. Once that happened, the tension vanished, and so did the reason to read. No one really reads David Eddings for his incisive commentary on gender relations, after all.


1 Response to “The Fall of David Eddings”

  1. 1 Annie Stone (@AnnieStone90) February 22, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Yeah and David Eddings is also terrible with dialogue and only seems to create races which are utterly shallow and stereotypical. Well, he’s dead now and so are his crappy books. I can’t believe I used to like his books when I was a kid.

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