David Eddings' spiraling descent from the most influential American fantasy writer to self-derivative obsolescence has been painful to behold. All the more painful when you take into account the true height of his success.
The Belgariad was great, and the groundbreaking nature of its success can't be underestimated. It stormed the bestseller lists back when fantasy (especially scenery-chewing high fantasy) wasn't supposed to do that sort of thing.
Now that Harry Potter has given us a temporary resurgence of Geek Chic, a bit of sword and sorcery can be publicly acknowledged... but when Eddings released his truly epic (good god, 10 volumes?) series, that sort of sales behavior was the wild exception.
Eddings also made high fantasy palatable to the more discerning fan of the genre - deftly avoiding several of the traditional bugbears facing the hack and slash world. Although after 5,000 pages, the characters were exposed as a little... thin... the cast was still good enough to hold your attention.
Even the women weren't all swooning beauties (although they did frequently lapse into the 'I'm going to sew, cook, and cry and BE PROUD OF IT' school of covert anti-feminism).
Introductory rant aside, Eddings' eventual decline paralleled his initial success - he had found himself a working formula, and, by gum, he was going to stuck to it. For the first ten books - great. But by the time we saw Belgarath and Silk (in form and function, if not name) in yet another four book series, it got a little old. Even the one-shot wonders like The Redemption of Athalus starred predictable characters, poached from previous epics. The return to the world of the Belgariad was the final straw - the entire series, retold from the view of Belgarath? With the unapologetic explanation that Silk's ancestors... acted just like Silk? That's tough to swallow (although, again, bestseller - so hey, perhaps I'm the only one that choked).
Similarly, although there was a Sweeping Prophecy and a Hero Born to Save The Universe, both of which were treated with, for lack of a better word, humility. And charm. It is easier to enjoy - and empathize with - a 'Why me?'-spouting Garion than all the spoiled brattiness of Harry Potter.
Also, and, although this is a personal bugbear, our heroes (especially the protagonist, Garion/Belgarion) acted his age. Again, not in a squealing adolescence like the aforementioned Mr. Potter, but in genuine 'going-to-do-something-a-little-stupid', 'ooh-bosoms!' and 'I'm totally in over my head!' ways - the ways you never actually see in a fantasy novel. Too often a series spends the first half-dozen pages detailing the trials and tribulations of youth, only to show the hero as Completely Mature by the close of the first chapter. [Note: Perhaps the worst offender is Tad Williams - Memory, Sorrow and Thorn's hero, Simon, fulfills a half-dozen epic quests during the trilogy - all within three months of his sixteenth birthday. Even putting aside the ridiculously packed time-line ('What did you do on your summer vacation?'), he storms through the series with a maturity that is entirely implausible.]
In an ironic twist... Eddings is actually a very, very good writer. High Hunt, his first book, adorns my shelf with pride. A contemporary novel of masculinity in the Northwest, it is one of my favorite books - unfortunately, only twelve other people have read it, so it isn't exactly cocktail conversation. His second book, The Losers, is hard-hitting contemporary fiction about a twisted relationship between two university students - a difficult, well-written, character-driven piece.
Like High Hunt, it was commercially unsuccessful, and despite repeated attempts at republication... no dice. Apparently Viewers Like Us are more eager to swallow Belgariad Mark VII than some decent fiction. And, equally likely, Viewers Like Them are going to shy away from anything marketed as by 'THE AUTHOR OF THE EPIC FANTASY SERIES....'. Caught between a genre audience addicted to doggerel and a closed-minded mainstream. Ow.
David Eddings has seen better days - but even if his literary future is dark, the past is still rosy. Treat yourself to a winter re-read of The Belgariad, or buy a copy of High Hunt at your local second-hand bookstore; make yourself some hot chocolate and curl up in front of a roaring fire.