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Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Eddings Codex


David J Howe speaks to David Eddings, best-selling author of the fantasy series The Belgariad, The Malloreon, The Elenium and The Tamuli.

David Eddings first emerged on the fantasy scene in 1982 with the first novel in a series called The Belgariad. Pawn of Prophecy was met with great acclaim and was followed by four further books, Queen of Sorcery (1982), Magician’s Gambit (1983), Castle of Wizardry (1984) and Enchanter’s End Game (1984). This series was in turn followed from 1987 to 1991 by The Malloreon, a further five-book series featuring the same characters, and two prequel novels published in 1995 and 1997.

Eddings’ love of fantasy stemmed from his discovery of medieval romance while at graduate school and the realisation that almost all contemporary fantasy stemmed from the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and Sir Thomas Malory amongst others. After graduating, Eddings taught English literature and started to define for himself the nuts-and-bolts structure of fantasy fiction. He eventually developed a ten-point list of elements which he considered all fantasy contained to some extent. This list is detailed and explained in the introduction to his latest book The Rivan Codex, but, in brief, the ten items are: 1) A Theological Arena; 2) The Quest; 3) The Magic Thingamajig; 4) Our Hero; 5) Resident Wizard; 6) Our Heroine; 7) A Villain With Diabolical Connections; 8) Obligatory ‘Companions’; 9) Ladies attached to the Obligatory ‘Companions’ of point 8; and finally 10) The Kings, Queens, Emperors etc who form the governments of the kingdoms of the world.

With this ground work established, it took Eddings a great deal of time before he enjoyed published success with The Belgariad. Born in 1931, he graduated in 1949 and it wasn’t until the early seventies that he tried his hand a writing a novel ‘for real’. This was High Hunt, a mountain-adventure novel published in 1973. In this period he also wrote The Losers, an allegorical tale of good versus evil and the struggle for the soul of the novel’s hero, eventually published in 1992.

It was while unsuccessfully developing a further novel, that Eddings, in the throes of boredom, doodled a sketch of a map, which then lay dormant until the realisation some years later that J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was in its seventy-eighth printing. This set Eddings on course to search out his doodled map and to try his hand at creating his own fantasy world.

The detailed development of The Belgariad is, again, covered in The Rivan Codex which collects together numerous articles, maps, histories and character studies which were all completed prior to The Belgariad being written. Eddings considers that the articles on ‘The Book of Alorn’, ‘The Battle Before Vo Mimbre’ and ‘Testament of the Snake People’ were seminal to the creation of the series. As he explains: ‘I had people out there asking questions, and all the answers were contained in my “Preliminary Studies”. I’d also just finished a five book contract and there was nothing else in the line of fire. Therefore, as Lester del Rey was also keen to release the work, we thought “why not?”.’

It seems as though Eddings has spent most of his life immersed in literature of one form or another, and yet his initial burning desire was not to be a writer at all. ‘Nobody in their right mind wants to be a writer,’ he smiles, ‘you either are or you aren’t. A writer is somebody who is compelled to write – even if it’s only a diary. They do it whether they get paid for it or not.

‘I wanted to be an actor, believe it or not, which might explain the emphasis on dialogue in my work. I started writing when I was about thirteen. I attended various schools, served in the army and did honest work back in those days. I did write a novel for my Bachelor’s thesis and another for my Master’s thesis but neither was publishable. So much so that my thesis advisor in graduate school was convinced that I’d never make it as a professional. That might give you some idea of just how bad my work was back then.’

Despite these early forays into fiction, with the development of his ‘ten rules’ Eddings had an immediate grasp on the genre. ‘They were mostly common sense,’ he explains, ‘and also came out of the fact that I had a fair grip on medieval romance. My wife, Leigh, and I developed them by trial and error mostly and, I stress, that this is only the way we approached writing. It worked out fairly well for us, but others may have their own ways of working which succeed equally.’

Having developed the background to The Belgariad, the next task was to try and sell it to a publisher, and happily Eddings found a keen supporter in Lester del Rey at Ballantine Books, who quickly got Eddings under contract, at which point the process of writing the series started in earnest.

‘Publication dates are not related to actual completion of manuscript dates,’ explains Eddings when asked about the schedule he was up against. ‘We were half-way through The Magician’s Gambit before Pawn of Prophecy was published. Publishers try to hurry you right along as soon as they’ve paid an advance (they want to sell enough books to get their money back), but it usually takes at least a year for a manuscript to get translated into print. Once you’ve sent it to the publisher, everybody (including the janitor) has to approve it. Then they send galley-proofs (the final laid-out book before it is printed and bound up into “real” copies) to the author for final proof reading (along with the usual letter advising him that the proofs were due back last week.)’

The Belgariad was instantly a success, and eventually developed into a series of ten novels. Over the course of the series, the nature of ‘the quest’ become apparent, and more is learned about the world in which the action is taking place. The use of this type of narrative within fantasy is natural to Eddings. ‘All fantasy involves a quest of some kind. That’s what fantasy is all about. The character “questing” to find something: whether it be the Holy Grail, the treasure of the Niebelungs, Frodo’s Ring, and so on. As I mentioned in The Rivan Codex, if you don’t have a quest, you don’t have a story. I might even go as far as to say that a quest of some kind is involved in all fiction: Detective – “find out whodunit”; Current Romance – “find a husband”; Western – “find out who stole all them thar cows”; Serious Fiction – “find out why I should be locked up in an insane asylum”. The reader becomes more involved in the story when there is a quest element, and if the characters are strong, then the whole thing takes on the right dynamic for a good solid read.

‘World building and character building have to be integrated. (Mandorallen wouldn’t make a very good spy, for example). I generally had more fun with the German folk myth ‘Til Eulenspiegel’ characters – the ‘jolly pranksters’, Silk, Tyarblek, Strangen, Talen and so on. Almost all of our characters are based on real people (I won’t mention any names – libel laws, you understand.)’

After over ten years of successful fantasy novels, in 1995 Eddings’ books started to be published with another name on: that of his wife Leigh.

The reason for this was simple. ‘My wife and I have always collaborated. I wanted to use dual authorship from the beginning, but my publisher told me: “dual authorship books never sell”. Recent best-seller lists suggest that he might have been wrong. I customarily write a first draft; then she tears it apart and tells me how to fix it. I do it again. Then she does it again. We keep doing it until we get it right. My editors believe that she’s worth her weight in gold. (Incidentally, she’s also Polgara in many, many ways).’

After The Belgariad, Eddings moved into a different world for the next sequence of novels, comprising two more series of three books each: The Elenium and The Tamuli, published from 1989 to 1994.

‘An editor from a rival publishing house happened to meet my agent at one of those “conventions” and announced in a rather off-hand way that she’d be willing to pay a million or so dollars for a “new fantasy series” by Eddings. Now that’s the kind of number that gets your immediate attention! After I heard from my agent, I constructed the world of Elenium/Tamuli in about six weeks, cranked out a forty-page proposal, which my agent then put on the market. Ballantine Books (who has me chained to the wall working for them), outbid the competition, including the keen rival editor, so I was still locked in place with the same publisher. I was alternating books for a while – One for The Malloreon and then one for The Elenium. “Literary schizophrenia” is the scholarly term for that particular idiocy.’

Not surprisingly, given the work he has published, Eddings is a big fan of the fantasy genre and in The Rivan Codex he is somewhat disparaging of the science fiction genre. ‘Sci-Fi writers tend to be enamoured of technology, and that makes their characters sort of wooden,’ he explains. ‘Character is the soul of good fiction. To put it colloquially, “if you ain’t got character, you ain’t got story”. Science Fiction can be fun, but the writers keep trying to sneak around Einstein. As the man said: “when matter approaches the speed of light, its mass becomes infinite.” To put it another way, if Buck Rogers hits the gas pedal a little too sharpish, he will become the universe! This somewhat limits space exploration to our own solar system, since nobody’s likely to live for the 40 million years it’ll take to get to any other system. (Don’t blame me: take it up with Einstein.) It all seems so limiting, which Fantasy is not.

‘I’m a purist, so I don’t believe genres should be mixed. “We won the battle of Agincourt with our H-bombs” just wouldn’t do it for me. On the other hand, horror has always been a part of fantasy. (Read Beowulf and take a hard look at Grendel.)’

With over eighteen novels published so far – including prequels to The Belgariad in the form of Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress – what does Eddings feel that he and Leigh have brought to the fantasy genre?

‘Quite probably, our major contribution has been gritty reality. Our people get hungry; after a week of strenuous activity, they stink; they do argue with each other; the boy-people do notice the girl-people (and the girl-people notice them right back). We tried our best to ignore Alfred Lord Tennyson and Tolkien and to return to Malory – which is where the good stuff is.’

There is a trend in genre fiction at the moment to develop novels and concepts into all manner of spin-off products, including films, CD games and comic books. Eddings views these aspects of commercial exploitation with some disdain. ‘There will be no – REPEAT … NO – bowdlerisations of our work into movies, comic-strips, CD ROM games (Nintendariad or Pac-Man-allorean). We write books, not that other junk. If somebody wants our stories, they’re going to have to break down and actually read them, and if they can’t read, then that’s just too damn bad. Anybody who tries to corrupt our books behind my back will hear from my lawyer, and you don’t want to even meet him.’

With David and Leigh Eddings still working on projects, however, there would seem to be no danger of the books drying up in the near future. ‘We’re currently at work on a book called The Redemption of Althalus, which starts in the bronze age. (I was getting tired of shining armour and all that medieval stuff). If this one goes according to plan, it won’t be a series, but a single book (mostly, I think, just to find out if we can actually write a story in one book.)

‘After that, who knows? I might even decide to write a western: “Go for yer shootin’ iron, Kal Torak!”.’

David Eddings, thank you very much.

© David J Howe