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Why I love... The Belgariad, by David Eddings

When I first started reading fantasy (and to a lesser extent sci-fi), I loved it, of course: the wonderful sense of being transported to another realm, the heroic challenges and the sense that anything was possible. But the initial books I read were very serious.

I'm talking Tolkien, Donaldson, Herbert, Asimov and the like. There was generally a sense of struggle that meant you had to be in a certain frame of mind, ready to deal with complex and difficult emotions as you read.

And then I picked up Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings - the first book of what would be a five-book series, The Belgariad. It had the stuff I loved: heroes, villains, a big and complex world, interesting and innovative magic, fast action... but best of all, it had humour.

It wasn't the first book I'd read that brought humour to fantasy; but those other books had a different type of humour: one that made fun of fantasy itself, and undercut the seriousness of the story. What The Belgariad did was to serve up laughs that supported the story, built up the characters, and deepened the reader's engagement, without undermining the credibility of the plot or story world.

We could laugh at Silk's quick wit, Belgarath's cynicism, the predicaments Garion and Ce'Nedra got into, and all the other charms of these vivid characters, without being dragged out of the illusion that this world was "real". We enjoyed their company, without having the bubble of reality burst.

This was a sharp contrast to the worldly mockery of certain other books and movies - especially movies - of the time, who instead winked knowingly at the reader/viewer, effectively saying, "You don't believe in this silliness really, do you?", as if the writer or director didn't have the courage of conviction to suspend their own disbelief. I wouldn't normally cite an example, but this discussion needs one: I enjoyed the movie "Willow" up to a point, and that point was the 'humorous' leprechaun-thing which managed to be as irritating as Jar-Jar Binks and bring the whole edifice of suspended disbelief crashing down in seconds. You'll have your own examples.

Fantasy needs that suspension of disbelief: it needs to offer the reader or viewer the sense that if you check in some of your reason at the door, you'll be given an out-of-this-world experience in return. Self-mocking - or worse - audience-mocking - humour is the quickest way to destroy that bargain for me.

Being appropriately funny is the hardest trick of all to pull off, in my view. I'm still filled with admiration at how Eddings was able to do it in The Belgariad, and still tell such an engaging story at the same time.

The other GREAT thing about The Belgariad was that my friends and I were all reading it at the same time, sharing the unfolding of the story and waiting avidly for the next instalment. I guess because back then there seemed to be so much fewer books on the shelves (this is provincial New Zealand in the Eighties I'm talking about, by the way), we all read the same stuff, and then had very earnest discussions about our favourites. With a series like The Belgariad that we were all reading, it became a regular topic of conversation, and we'd discuss what we liked and didn't like, and where we thought it was all going. It was a communal experience.

It was the same with music (very few radio stations, and limited budgets, so we all listened to the same things and the charts mattered), and television (only two channels, so we all watched the same shows). We only had two small cinemas so we all saw the same movies. Does that still happen now, with hundreds of channels, books and music downloadable from everywhere? Nowadays when I get together with old friends and we get to talking about TV, music and books, we've often never even heard of the things each other is reading, viewing or listening to, even though we still have similar tastes. That's basically because there are so many options out there now.

I kind of miss that sharing experience. Nowadays it's easier to get product into the mass market, such that we're drowned in sensory input, and end up heading off in thousands of different directions. Swings and roundabouts, I guess: something is lost, something is gained.

Now feeling ridiculously nostalgic, I'll sign off . . . See you next time!


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