June 4th, 2009


David Eddings

David Eddings, co-author of the Belgariad and other series, has died. The obits talk about how he made a lot of money and was motivated by cash.

There's something a bit dismissive by those comments, but then I don't suppose Eddings was considered great literature by anyone, not even myself. When I was a teenager I read his series, introduced to them by Dj, and I have to admit, I did dig them at the time. They were an easier and palpable introduction to fantasy than Tolkien was (and is, to my mind, still). Strangely, I'd not given the books much thought until recently when one of the students I have began reading them. In a week, the kid has churned through four of the first five books in the series, and is planning to read the next five, which may or may not seem impressive to you, but in my world, finding books that teenage boys want to read is something of a hassle. A lot of them don't want to read--I work a lot with movies and TV shows and music videos, since the techniques you need to teach for basic English translate a lot through that, and you can slip in books and poems and short stories as needed. Still, though, this kid has torn through the books, and will likely go through all of Eddings work before he's finished. Oddly, he was asking me for what to read next, for both he and his friend. The power will obviously send me insane and he'll find himself reading boring shit within a month, but that's the joy of job number one.

Anyhow, here's a little something to add to the obits floating round:

"I know I'm doing it [writing] as well as I possibly can," he [Eddings] says. "Some people say oh well, what the heck, it's just genre fiction so that's good enough. This is a good way to become enrolled in the large fraternity known as unpublished writers. You have to do it well, because if you don't think this is as good as you can do, then it's going to show." Eddings is characteristically humble about his work. He says that many people tell him that they never liked to read before coming upon his work, but now they read all the time. "I look upon this as perhaps my purpose in life," he says. "I am here to teach a generation or two how to read. After they've finished with me and I don't challenge them any more, they can move on to somebody important like Homer or Milton."

For all he does to distance his work from literature, Eddings has a strong background in the discipline and bases his work in secretly profound ways on archetypes and old written traditions. Eddings, who majored in English at Reed, drew on the Odyssey and Arthurian and Carolingian legends for the mythic underpinnings of the Belgariad and Malloreon. After a term of service in the Army from 1954 to 1956, Eddings used G. I. Bill funds to attend graduate school in English at the University of Washington. Although his field was contemporary American fiction (he wrote a novel for his master's degree), he became fluent in Middle English and fell in love with Chaucer and from there with Sir Thomas Malory. "Since what is called 'epic fantasy' in the contemporary world descends in an almost direct line from medieval romance, my studies of Chaucer and Malory gave me a running head start in the field," Eddings wrote in the introduction to his preliminary studies of the Belgariad series. Just for fun, Eddings wrote a speech in Middle English, from memory, in the middle of his book The Shining Ones: he checked it later and it turned out to be perfect Middle English.

"To be honest about it, I write because I have to write," Eddings says. He began trying his hand at writing at 17, and his Reed senior thesis gave him his first chance to write a sustained piece of fiction. During his junior year a noted writer named Walter van Tilberg Clark visited Reed for a week, read one of Eddings's short stories--about a soldier returned from the military who tries to find out why his girlfriend committed suicide--and suggested that Eddings expand it into a novel. Eddings had been taking a creative writing course from English and art history professor Lloyd Reynolds, who became his thesis adviser for the novel, How Lonely Are the Dead. Eddings recalls Reynolds's inspiring teaching method: "He would bring things in and read them to us. He'd take that pipe out of his mouth and say, 'Now that's writing!' He got his point across and generated a great deal of enthusiasm among the students."