The first time I was conscious of a book changing my life, I was 10 years old and reading The Belgariad.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this classic by David and Leigh Eddings, it’s a big doorstopper of a series. 5 thick, wonderful fantasy books. The Eddings have been credited with starting the fantasy trend of a Prologue reaching back into the aether of their fantasy world. It’s old schtick now, but back then I remember opening up the first pages and being immediately drawn into a world of old gods and prophecies.
The Belgariad takes the archetypal teenage farm boy who is secretly a long lost King and pits him against the Evil God. There’s a magic sword. There’s a wiseass thief. There’s a Good Prophecy and an Evil Prophecy, and they’ve been locked in a climactic battle since nearly the beginning of the Universe, moving their pawn pieces around until it all culminates in an epic final battle.
I loved it. And I loved watching the character grow up from a sullen farm boy to a spoiled teenager and then to a responsible hero. It was in the second book, Queen of Sorcery, when he railed against his maternal figure Polgara the Sorceress, and she fired back that he had no idea what she’d given up for him, that I felt something shift and click in me. I realised I was him. I couldn’t burn people to ash with my bare hands or wield legendary swords, but I was a spoiled almost-teenager who regularly clashed with my mother who just wanted the best for me.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I like to think that after that point, I grew up a little. I became far more conscious of what other people wanted and their best intentions and the completely different worlds locked inside their heads. I like to think I became kinder.
Years later, I returned to The Belgariad. It was like eating my Mum’s chicken and potato curry with rice. Comforting and delicious. Just enough badass fighting to raise the tension, just enough sedate knowledge that nothing would ever really go badly wrong and the good guys would always win. I started noticing a few other things, though. By this point, I’d read a lot more other fantasy, delved into some Jungian psychology, and knew the basics of the Hero’s Journey. I could see the archetypes waving their arms wildly at me from the pages and jumping up and down. It didn’t lessen my enjoyment, it was like seeing really old friends that I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Sure, sometimes they’d say something and it felt a little uncomfortably sexist or racist, but I laughed it off. These were my old friends. They were just joking.
Years later still, after graduating from university and ostensibly becoming an adult, I read The Belgariad again while I was on holiday in Singapore. In the sticky, sweaty heat, I lay back in bed with my partner, and steadily ate my way through the whole series again, followed by sequel series The Mallorean. And this time it was different. Still comforting. Still like eating chicken and potato curry with rice. But now I was an adult and noticing the thick taste of the coconut cream sitting under the curry, and the way it sometimes clung uncomfortably to the roof of my mouth. As I read, I realised how ridiculous it was that nobody ever told Garion, the farm boy, that he was the King until much later. That everyone was so super mysterious. That maybe even if there was a danger a bad guy would read his thoughts and learn he was the King, Garion had a right to be angry that they’d never given him any skills or preparation. Or maybe I’m just mad that he isn’t even taught to read until the second book.
I don’t know if this means I’ve reverted to becoming a selfish teenager again, or whether I’m just so old and grumpy now that the “We’ll tell you when you’re ready” tropes just grate on my nerves. But for the first time in a long time, as an adult who’d entered the working world and become comfortable with taking directions from people who most definitely knew better than me, I identified more with the surly teenager wondering why the system was so stupid. And maybe it was because I’d started working and become intimately and angrily familiar with the massive gaps between theory and practice and best practice and the real world that I was once again siding with the whiny protagonist.
But on top of that, it didn’t help that now I could see the glaring racism and sexism screaming at me from the pages. I’d be enjoying a passage and one or the other or both would suddenly jerk me out of my reverie. Some time away from my old friends and a bit more life experience had made me realise they weren’t the nicest of people. I’d settle back into the reading, but it was no longer like immersing myself in a hot bath and idling away the hours. Or rather, it was like soaking in a spa and occasionally having someone throw cold water in your face.
But just like you might still exasperatedly love your racist aunt who says terrible things about immigrants… I still love The Belgariad. Reflecting back on my journey with the series reminds me of how much books take on the aspects of both their human authors and their very human readers. I’ve yet to come across a perfect book. I don’t think one exists. Books, like their authors and readers, are aspirational and flawed and the products of their time. As I’ve stumbled my way through my life and my journey of understanding ‘isms’, I’ve come to realise that if I stopped consuming art or stories that weren’t in some ways racist, sexist, transphobic, classist, etc… I wouldn’t have anything left to consume. And that would sort of negate the purpose of art of throwing angles of the world back into your face.
Reading The Belgariad makes me really, really glad that there’s a growing awareness in the industry of the importance of diversity. On my part, I aspire to write more diversely myself – that’s why I made it a point that of the seven stories in my book Division: A Collection of Science Fiction Fairytales, only one of them had a white male protagonist. But I know I can do better. And that the industry can do better.
And at the same time, I have to thank The Belgariad for deepening my love of fantasy in the first place and nudging me along my writing journey in the first place. For helping me grow up and be kinder. For helping me examine my own judgement against other people and against old social mores that belong in a museum.
And of course, for helping me sail off every few years into pure escapist fantasy. Because sometimes I want the uncomplicated evil gods and innocent heroes and the knowledge that nothing will ever go wrong. And that’s ok.
Postscript: I was super excited to discover Ebony McKenna, the award-winning author of the Ondine series, writing about how The Belgariad should be adapted to television as the next Game of Thrones. Hell yes!