Review written by Clark Valentine.
Pawn of Prophecy kicks off David Eddings’s Belgariad series, which chronicles the adventures of the ancient sorcerers Belgarath and Polgara, with their young companion Garion, in a quest to save the world from the evil god Torak.
It is Nope Not At All Just Like The Lord Of The Rings No Sir. Ahem.
So, yes, okay, it’s derivative, but it’s also a sweeping, epic hero’s journey that many of us loved every page of when we read it 20 years ago. And for good reason. I enjoyed my reread of Pawn of Prophesy quite a lot. It’s a terrific (if not especially original) setting, richly detailed without bludgeoning the reader with useless triviality. Eddings’s prose is solid and efficient without being dull. Pawn of Prophesy is of a digestible length (my copy is a 260 page Del Rey paperback from the early 1990s), rather than one of those 600 page tomes that so many fantasy novelists seem to want to write.
But upon a more mature reread, it has its issues.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
This isn’t a book explicitly aimed at middle grade readers. The plot is simple enough, but it seems like the execution of it is likely to be a bit beyond the typical tween. There’s a lot of traveling and talking; while world-building and intrigue is wonderful for certain readers, it’s not often up the alley of the average 10 year old. There’s just not enough action in Pawn of Prophesy to drag along someone looking for swashbuckling adventure every step of the way. My guess for the minimum age for a good audience here would be middle schoolers or precocious fifth graders.
The heroes are all very much white people, and mostly men.
The protagonist is Garion, a 14-ish year old boy living on a farm. Garion’s parents died when he was very young (the story of their death is told near the end of the book) and he’s being raised by his Aunt Pol. Garion doubts his blood relationship to Aunt Pol, which makes him feel very alone in the world.
Aunt Pol keeps Garion on a very short leash, coming down hard on him for stepping the slightest bit out of line or doing anything remotely dangerous. Garion chafes at the restrictions, but his objections are portrayed as childish rebellion that he needs to apologize for rather than the natural actions of a teenager exploring the world around him. There’s a reason for this that we discover in later volumes of the series, but in Pawn of Prophesy we’re just left with Aunt Pol being a tyrant.
The folksy, homespun virtues of farm life (classic Protestant ethic stuff: honesty, hard work, piety, respect for your elders, etc.) are lauded over the supposedly shallow, greedy people who live in the big towns and cities.
Humanity is divided into several nations that are each mostly racially homogeneous, and the characters all speak of members of these races with a universal essentialism that’s entirely unquestioned. Thulls are dull-witted and good at manual labor. Drasnians are spying schemers. Murgos are greedy schemers, although somehow they’re all inherently evil while Drasnians are not. Sendars are pragmatic and hard working. Murgos and other Angaraks may not set foot in the nation of Cherek, on pain of death (“Our oldest law,” it’s declared with great reverence). Nobody ever questions these generalizations.
The uniformly evil Murgos are described as “dark” and having “angular eyes.” They are, of course, from far to the mysterious East. Somehow I am certain that this is Just A Coincidence. The type of Just A Coincidence that makes me uncomfortable.
Characters we’re supposed to sympathize with speak of wiping out the entire race of the Angaraks “once and for all.” Remember that these aren’t orcs, these are races of humans they’re talking about.
There’s a distinct lack of female characters. Most are minor and have little plot impact. The exception is Garion’s Aunt Pol, who is portrayed as a tyrannical, if loving, guardian. I found her completely insufferable, and I suspect this was intentional.
A girl caught in chaste teenage kissing with Garion is called a “little minx.”
On the farm where Garion was raised, girls are spared corporal punishment (“you don’t hit girls”).
Important decisions are left to the men: kings, princes, and lords, with the women (aside from Polgara) explicitly excluded. It’s hinted that this sort of thing is not universal and is seen as old-fashioned in parts of the world, yet it’s accepted mostly without comment.
A woman who aspires to learn magic and speaks to Polgara as a peer is ridiculed.
Aside from Aunt Pol, women are only important based on their husband’s position. Women’s anger is treated as comical; men fear it with a wink and a chuckle.
Violence Against Women
It’s hinted that one of the protagonists raped his wife in the past, and she’s portrayed as bitter and vindictive for carrying a grudge about it. Many kids won’t catch the reference, but some will.
Garion’s heritage is kept from him by well-meaning relatives, and he’s scolded for asking about it. Many facts are kept from Garion “for his own good.” An evil sorcerer places a spell on Garion to force him to keep a terrible secret, but once he’s able to speak of it to the right people, they help him. If you discuss this with a kid, it might be worth talking about the book’s title, and how Garion feels like he’s being swept along without much control or knowledge.
Magic and the supernatural are present but subtle, and common people doubt its reality. Sorcerers cast subtle spells—mental compulsions, conjuring small objects. A man is afraid he’s turning into a bear; whether he’s correct is ambiguous. A soothsayer delivers creepy predictions. A blind person’s sight is restored, but this is far more morally ambiguous than you’d expect.
There’s a description of two soldiers hacking away at each other with sword and axe. A sorcerer takes away a seer’s power of foresight, rather cruelly. Corporal punishment for children is discussed. Execution by beheading, committed by the good guys, takes place offscreen.
All that said, I like this book. I’m told that “It’s OK to like problematic text,” and this book pushes the limits of that for me, but I do like it quite a lot.
However, given what I talk about above, it’s not the sort of book that should be given to kids without thought or discussion. This is the sort of book that demands that an adult accompany a kid through it, even if it’s just a periodic debrief and discussion. There are topics that need to be directly addressed, things the protagonists do and say that should be questioned, and that questioning isn’t coming from the text.
I strongly recommend waiting until your child is old enough to handle that kind of discussion, to recognize that a protagonist can be deeply flawed while you still root for them, and to handle a story where the morality may be quite different than your own.
Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
Published in 1982 by Ballantine Books
Book One of The Belgariad series
Read my old personal copy