Sunday, December 14, 2008

Gender, Race, Body Image, and the Repetitive Cast in David Eddings' Novels

So, I've been thinking a lot about David Eddings' work, mainly because out of all the authors I am familiar with I have read more of his books than any other writer. I mean, with only three of his series, that's over 10 books. There are a number of themes I want to address in all of these works, but this analysis will mainly focus on The Elenium--the series I've completed most recently. I think it should be mentioned that David Eddings is a wonderful storyteller, in that his stories entertain. I first fell in love with The Belgariad when I was in high school, and I thought he was the most amazing writer ever to have existed. Now that I'm older, however, and have been exposed to more writing, analyses, etc., I realize that David Eddings' stories all follow similar patterns and formulas as far as the storylines go, and the themes, characters, and how these characters are gendered. I've already touched on some of these similarities in my previous post on Eddings' work, but I think it's important to expand on these to illustrate that throughout his writing career David Eddings has strayed little in how he portrays his men and women; how his story goes from Point A to Point B with some conflict, but it's still easy to see where it's going; and how the characters all follow the same format: he's just given them different names and sometimes haircolor.

First, I would like to give a quick timeline of Eddings' works, to sort of put it into perspective by attributing a point in time in which each work was published. Here is a list of publication dates; I have chosen to list only the works I will be referencing (since there are a couple of books I have yet to read):
The Belgariad:

  • Pawn of Prophecy (1982)
  • Queen of Sorcery (1982)
  • Magician's Gambit (1983)
  • Castle of Wizardry (1984)
  • Enchanter's End Game (1984)
The Malloreon:
  • Guardians of the West (1987)
  • King of the Murgos (1988)
  • Demon Lord of Karanda (1988)
  • Sorceress of Darshiva (1989)
  • The Seeress of Kell (1991)
The Elenium:
  • The Diamond Throne (1989)
  • The Ruby Knight (1990)
  • The Sapphire Rose (1991)
  • Belgarath the Sorcerer (1995) with Leigh Eddings
  • Polgara the Sorceress (1997) with Leigh Eddings
The Dreamers:
  • The Elder Gods (2003) with Leigh Eddings
  • The Treasured One (2004) with Leigh Eddings
  • Crystal Gorge (2005) with Leigh Eddings
  • The Younger Gods (2006) with Leigh Eddings
Stand alone novel:
  • The Redemption of Althalus (2000) with Leigh Eddings
It should be noted that although his wife, Leigh Eddings, is listed as a co-author, she's technically the co-author for all of the works listed; she's just uncredited.

I will now address each issue of the works in separate sections (this is going to be a long one, so I've tried to divide it up).

I have already addressed th sexism in Eddings' works. A quick overview of his works would suggest that it's nonexistent since many of his female characters are so powerful, but their power itself is sexist. Their power is relateable to motherhood. The women create worlds or universes, and so they mother all creatures. This is evident in Althalus' Dweia, The Belgariad's Polgara, and The Dreamers' Ara. Even as teachers these women are mothers, as Sephrenia is in The Elenium. Sephrenia is a powerful magic user, an instructor to the male knights of the Elene Church, yet even the "endearing" term of address to her is another insult to her femininity: "little mother."

Moreover, these women are veritable Virgin Marys. Their sexuality is modest, or muted, and though they love, they do not lust. Even the ones who are married (Polgara, Dweia, and Ara--most later in the stories) do not seem to exude any physical desires. Sex is a matter-of-fact, for the purpose of procreation. Their husbands blush at any mention of reproduction, and seem to have almost no desire themselves. They are good, pure women. Some, like Polgara, are guilty of flirting, but they are nonetheless virtuous because they do not have sex with anyone but their husbands--and if they do no marry there is no sex. In Polgara's case, she did not marry Durnik until she was well-past 5000 years old. No sex for 5000 years, you say? I find that hard to believe. Though we do find out in Polgara the Sorceress, Polgara was in love well-before Durnik, there is nothing to suggest that she had sex with Ontrose.

Conversely, there are bad women. Their sexuality is explicit, in your face, and portrayed as disgusting. The Elenium's bad girl is Arissa, a Princess who seduced her brother, then spent some time after her brother's wedding to another woman in a disreputable brothel servicing every sailor in a disreputable brothel for a week, not to mention all the men she had sex with in between these events (Elenium 132). Here's a snippet of the conversation between Arissa, Sparhawk (a knight of the Church), and Dolmant (future archprelate of the Church):
"A rumor has surfaced[...]that prior to your being cloisered here, you were secretly married to Duke Osten[...] Would you care to confirm--or deny--that rumor?" [Dolmant asked].
"Osten?" She laughed. "That dried-up old stick? Who in her right mind would marry a man like that? I like my men younger, more ardent."
"You deny the rumor, then?"
"Of course I deny it. I'm like the Church, Dolmant. I offer my bounty to all men--as everyone in Cimmura knows."
She goes on to tell them how enjoyable the time in the brothel was:
"It was both enjoyable and profitable. I made a very great deal of money. Most of the girls there overpriced themselves, but I learned as a child that the secret of great wealth is to sell cheaply to many." She looked maliciously at Dolmant. "Besides," she added, "it's a renewable resource." (132).
She also reads erotic poetry during her confinement at a nunnery--more evidence of her remorselessness and unwillingness to absolve herself of her sins. The mere fact that the authhor points out her remorselessness portrays her as a disgusting slut who should be sorry for having sex. Because she uses her sexuality to gain power illustrates that she's an evil character, and an impure woman. I would also like to point out that the male characters are guilty of adultery (Kurik, who has a bastard son, Talen) and having sex with strangers (Kalten, who often admires naked women, and has sex with a barmaid) are not painted so evilly. Men are neither impure or pure00they are men who either make mistakes, or are just out having some fun.

I could let this slide once, but prior to the publication of the Elenium, you have the Belgariad. The bad woman here is Salmissra, the Serpent Queen, who is a vain, drug-addicted whore. She is an evil, lustful woman, who is only stopped when Polgara transforms her into an actual serpent, and is suddenly rendered desire-less. Therefore, the cure for a slut is the Virgin Mary's intervention.

As for gender roles, they are always well-defined divisions. There is no androgyny; there is masculine and feminine. The men fight with swords. The women stand aside while the men battle (yes, even the powerful sorceresses; the sorceresses manipulate people and events--they do not fight). Polgara manipulates the weather to slow an army, but she doesn't kill. In the Elenium, Flute (the child-form of the goddess, Aphrael), uses magic to age the frightening Seeker, thus passively eliminating it as a threat, but she never fights it (Elenium 479).

In The Dreamers, we are presented with a woman named Queen Trenicia, warrior woman of an Amazon nation. She is the only woman brought in to assist in the war in Dhrall, yet she provides no troops (like Sorgan, Narasan, and Ekial of their respective nations). She is masculinized--a large woman wielding weapons, yet she never takes part in any fighting. She ovserves the men, offers suggestions, but never draws her sword. She does often run ahead of the armies as a scout, but is chided by Narasan for doing so (apparantly she shouldn't be putting herself in such danger without the supervision of a man). Eddings offers us some insight into her character, and we find that her nation is like any other, but the gender roles are completely flipped. It is still clear masculine or feminine, only the women practice swordplay and the men pretty themselves up like vain airheads to attract the opposite sex (apparently there's no agriculture in Akalla). It's just frustrating, because when Eddings finally gives us a tough badass lady, he still manages to stick to his gender roles, and there's the Virgin Mary thing again. Trenicia is pretty much sans sexuality, though she does endearingly flirt with Narasan, the commander of one of the armies; yet the only reason she's so attracted to Narasan is because he's so unlike the apparant ninnies in Akalla--he's a real penis-wielding man.

Similarly, in the latter part of the Elenium, Eddings introduces us to Mirtai, a large woman who acts as Queen Ehlana's bodyguard. At first, she seems awesome: a large woman carrying a dozen unseen blades seems like a great character, but David Eddings just can't give us a bad ass woman unless she's motherly. On page 730, she insists on Ehlana eating, fretting over her like a mother would over her child; on this one page she says it at least twice. She tells her again to eat her breafast on page 760. This seems to be the extent of her character: threatening to dismember a man, or insisting that the Queen eat.

This brings me to my next point. Everyone in the story infantilizes Queen Ehlana. I realize her character is only 18 years old when this story is supposed to take place, but she's a queen. One would think that she should be treated as a woman, yet she is consistently refered to as "girl," or "girl-child" (754). Sparhawk just about constantly remembers how she was when she was a child, and is thus conflicted when seeing her as an adult. On page 744 she carries on like a child instead of a composed monarch, bursting into tears and clinging to Dolmant's sleeve in a pitiful attempt at a tantram. At other times, she acts like a giddy child, clapping her hands together when she wins an argument (718), and a couple of times someone mentions wanting to spank her as one would a child (716), or refers to her a "naughty girl" (714).

Now that I've ranted about women's gender, I will move on to a somewhat related topic. In the Elenium, our foe is Azash, a God of the East who's afflicted by impotence, the cure for which is apparently the coveted blue rose, Bhelliom--a pretty obvious symbol for female genitalia. Azash even states that having Bhelliom would result in having his " 'maleness restored' " (543). Sephrenia even mocks him, enraging him with a scathing speech:
"Then thine endless centuries of confinement have bereft thee of thy wits as well as they manhood[...]Impotent godling," Sephrenia continued her goading, "return to foul Zemoch and gnaw upon thy soul in vain regret for the delights now eternally denied thee" (478).
Despite Bhelliom being a symbol of vaginas--ultimate physical femaleness--no woman uses it (of course not; that would be gay!). In the course of the Elenium's history, only males (human or otherwise) use the blue rose, doing so by channeling their orders through a pair of rings they must wear while holding the jewel. A male troll named Ghwerig crafts the stone, and the Troll Gods infuse it with power, which Ghwerig taps into using the twin rings he makes with shards from Bhelliom. As far as I can tell, these Troll Gods are also male, since Eddings does refer to feminine deities as "goddess." It is Aphrael--Goddess of the heathen Styric race--that steals the rings from Ghwerig. The rings unlock the power of Bhelliom, acting as keys in a lock--thus using them to penetrate the blue rose. This theft results in a loss for Ghwerig; he is no longer able to control the rose.

Later, Aphrael delivers the rose to the hero, Sparhawk, but she doesn't ever use it--she only renders it useless by stealing the keys, or she delivers it to another man. The only other woman involved with Bhelliom is Sephrenia, who coaches Sparhawk on using the rose (the rings he already had, them having been passed down to him by his ancestors as a symbol linking the king's champion to the throne--both male symbols until Ehlana claims the throne). Sephrenia never uses the jewel, but Sparhawk does not know how to use it. Sephrenia is a woman; the jewel is a vagina. She knows how vaginas work, imparting that knowledge to a man. I'm slightly disturbed that Eddings has written it so a waman teaches a man how to control the vagina. It would be different if a woman actually used the jewel, or it had been any other symbol, but Eddings usues a known symbol for female genitalia, makes it a cure for godly impotence, and only has men control it.

Body Image
In many of his stories, Eddings often has at least one fat character, usually a man, though he does describe some women as "plump." The fat men usually stand out, however, because it seems that their "paunch" is a character in itself. In the Elenium, our fat man is patriarch Emban. Like other fat characters Eddings has dreamt up, Emban generally uses his fatness as a joke to put others at ease, as in this example:
"Perhaps, my brother," Emban continued, "This might be the proper time to adjourn for lunch." He smiled rather broadly and clapped his hands to his paunch. "That suggestion coming from me didn't really surprise anyone very much, did it?"
They laughed, and that seemed to relax the tension.
In other places, Eddings causes us to pay particular attention to Emban's fatness, such as when he "laboriously hauled himsef to his feet and waddled" across the room (704). In several places his movements are described as "waddling." Anything having to do with hunger or food is immediately attributed to Emban, such as feeding the hungry:
Besides, Emban did feel a certain compassion for the truly hungry. His own bulk made him peculiarly sensitive to the pangs of hunger (725).
So, according to this, having a larger belly means you suffer from hunger more often than "normal" weighted characters, and can therefore relate to people who haven't eaten in a number of days?

In The Belgariad, The Malloreon, and The Elenium, the good guys are all in the west, and the bad guys are from the east. It's always the eastern kingdoms invading the western kingdoms, and the west overcoming the invasion, pushing them back to the east and decimating the eastern armies so that they can't invade again (at least not for a few centuries).

Besides this east vs. west theme going on, there are some interesting notions of race in these worlds Eddings has created. Here's an interesting conversation between Sephrenia and Dolmant regarding the Zemochs, the race that worships Azash:
"Anyway," [Sephrenia] continued, "when Otha agreed to worship Azash, the God granted him enormous power, and Otha eventually became emperor of Zemoch. The Styrics and the Elenes in Zemoch have intermarried, and so a Zemoch is not truly a member of either race."
"An abomination in the eyes of God," Dolmant added.
"The Styric Gods feel much the same way," Sephrenia agreed. (134-5)
What I can't understand is what exactly is the abomination: that two races intermarried, or that these combined races worship Azash? Either way, it's a strange opinion for Sephrenia to have since she obviously has feelings for an Elene, and is Styric herself.

There is also this generalization of races. The southern Rendors are characterized as "undependable" (682) and mindless "fanatics" (683). There's also talk of exterminating the Rendors. Oh, and the Rendors are so mindless that the slaying of their religious leader effectively ends their attack (708). The Elenes (here, the white, western kingdoms) have their own generalities--mainly they're barbarians, but that's okay because they're working to stop the east from invading. Oh, and they drink a lot, but that's okay too, because it makes them that more loveable.

There's also some animalization of race going on here, with the Zemochs. One character mentions that they " 'breed like rabbits' " (740). This sort of animalization is common, since it's easier to kill an enemy that you don't think of as human.

The Standard Eddings Cast
I would like to conclude this essay with what I've called The Standard Eddings Cast. In all of his series (The Belgariad, The Malloreon, The Elenium, and The Dreamers) and in the stand alone novel The Redemption of Althalus I have noticed that not only are the stories similar (something's invading, generally east into the west; or some god is pissed off and trying to take over the world, etc), but Eddings seems to use the same template for his characters over and over again. So I have made a list of his standard cast of characters, which I have reproduced here:
  • The Hero: This is the guy (yes, it's a man, or as in The Belgariad, a boy) who must conquer invading armies or vanquish angry, evil gods. He generally has high morals, though they are flexible, because the Hero must do everything that's necessary to come out on top. Garion is the Hero in The Belgariad, his task being to kill Torak, the evil god in the east. Sparhawk is the Hero in The Elenium, and he is to face Azash. Both Sparhawk and Garion wield gems: Bhelliom and the Orb of Aldur. Longbow is pretty much the Hero in The Dreamers, though it's a little harder to determine since that series basically ends with "oh wait, none of it happened thank you time-traveling gods." But before the deus ex machina, Longbow's the main man.
  • The Powerful Woman: There's one in every story. She's mighty, she's wielding magic, and she cooks--she's your "superwoman." She's Polgara, Dweia, Ara, and Sephrenia. And they're all pretty much the same. And they all remind the men that drinking is bad. Fucking Virgin Marys...
  • The Devout Religious Man: He's the man who follows his religion by the book, putting his god before all else. He's also ashamed of his penis and abhors boobs and vaginas because it makes his god sad to have sexual desires. He's usually cured by being seduced by a woman who's not ashamed of her lady parts. The Belgariad has Relg, Althalus has Bheid, and The Elenium has Bevier.
  • The Impetuous Man: This man thinks with his weapon first, is often dramatic, and is the epitome of brawn; usually resembles a bear. A big hairy bear. Barak is the bear (literally) in The Belgariad.
  • The Thief: There is always that one guy (or boy) with quick hands and no moral qualms about theft. In fact, he sees it as a game. A woman is never the thief because Virgin Marys, mothers, and whores have other hobbies to occupy their time. Silk is the infamous thief in The Belgariad, Althalus is a recovering thief, and Talen is a young thief-prodigy.
  • The Wise Man: This man is easy to spot since he usually has gray hair and a beard. He's known to drink on occasion, but the younger men flock to him for his wisdom. Belgarath from the Belgariad, Dolmant from The Elenium, Narasan and One-Who-Heals in The Dreamers, are all wise men in their respective stories. They advise armies, and are quite masculine.
  • The Humble Working Man: This man is characterized by his extensive knowledge of everything. He knows this because he's a common man who has worked in all trades at some point in his life. He's the voice of everyman; he's educated in life and can advise all the higher class people. He is Durnik in The Belgariad, Kurik in the Elenium, Keselo in The Dreamers.
  • The Really Obese Man: This man is usually jolly. He makes jokes about his girth, loves eating so much, and is usually very sly. This man is Emban in The Elenium, and Rhodar in The Belgariad.
  • The Easy-to-Spot Bad-guy: This man is obviously bad. Something about him makes him stand out in a crows, enabling the good guys to follow him with ease. Martel in the Elenium has stark white hair though he is a young man, and his henchman, Adus, resembles a gorilla; Ghend in Althalus has fiery eyes; Brill in the Belgariad has pungent body-odor; Naradas in The Malloreon has white eyes, but is not blind.
  • The Snotty/Childish Princess/Queen/Goddess: Though she's an adult, she either acts like a child or is treated as one. She's spoiled and often gets her way. She's also quite shrill, and the men whither at her command. She's Andine in Althalus, Ehlana in The Elenium, Ce'Nedra in The Belgariad, Aracia in The Dreamers. She's also known to be very vain--she's beautiful and she knows it.
I would like to point out that some of the characters sometimes embody more than one category, like how Althalus is the Thief and the Hero. It seems that Eddings has not broken out of this mold because the same characters and storylines are evident in all of these stories, and even in time has not shifted significantly. In fact, with the most recent series, The Dreamers, it seems David Eddings is content to present the same tired story (and with this one, we must suffer through the same battle again and again as it's presented through the perception of another character, making the reader feel like taking one step forward and two steps back), and then he decides that it should end by all the events never taking place in the first place.

So, with that, I would like to request that he stop writing. He's not improved at all, it's the same story, and people, and clearly he's just run out of ideas if he's now ending his four book series by having one of the gods wave their hands and make all the events meaningless.

And so I conclude another Eddings rant. Hopefully it was entertaining, at the very least. I enjoyed being angry about it.

There's more I could have done with gender and race, but this was long enough I think. I welcome any conversation about this.

Works cited:
Eddings, David. The Elenium. Ballantine Books: New York, 2007.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post - thanks.

Just wanted to say that I think constructions of masculinity in the Elenium are also rather crude. Courtiers are often described as effeminate or less manly than fighters like Sparhawk.

Worse - Baron Harparin is depicted rather stereotypically as one of the minor "mincing" villians; Eddings is unclear at first whether Harparin likes young men or young boys - and only later does it seem that he's actually a paedophile. For instance on p.41 after bringing up the rumour of Princess Arissa's 'carnal talents' it states:

'It's not the sort of thing you'd understand, Harparin,' Sparhawk told him. 'I hear tht your inclinations lie in other directions'.

Before Harparin goes into the brothel to speak to Krager he talks to his 'liveried young footman' (presumably not a young boy...?)This is rather offensive...
'I may be a while, love', the nobleman said, fondly touching the footman's boyish face. 'Take the carriage up the street and watch for me'. He giggled girlishly. 'Someone might recognise it, and I certainly wouldn't want people to think I was frequenting a place like this.' He rolled his eyes and then minced towards the red door'.


'The primate said that you might be a little suspicious', Harparin said in his effeminate voice'

'Harparin?' Vanion looked startled. 'In a brothel? He had less business there than you did'.

But he seems to become a paedophile later

p.151. 'Anyway, they went to the house of the Baron who's so fond of little boys'.

This is just in the first book! Anyway, I thought it might be worth mentioning.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was interesting too that Sephrenia states on p.212

'It applies to all women, Sparhawk. Gender is a far more important distinction than race'.

FilthyGrandeur said...

thanks for your comment. i had noticed the masculinity stuff while reading, and found it just as awful as the stuff about femininity. i had thought about writing about it too, but since the post was so long...well. didn't get to it. there may be a part two, but i don't know if i have the energy to explore eddings any more right now. i think the worst part is that these gender construction are found in ALL of his stories. as you may be aware, one could write an entire novel on eddings and gender.

Anonymous said...

There is actually a female thief in The Malloreon. Her code-name is Velvet. And gee, whaddayaknow, she and Silk teams up. Silk and Velvet - hur hur, how smooth.

No, sarcasm aside. One thing that bothered me about all of Eddings' books - even before I started identifying as a feminist - was that everyone seems to get married. I know you dislike fan-fiction, and I agree most of them are utterly horrid, but one of the things I personally enjoy in fantasy literature is to imagine myself into the the story in true Mary-Sue fashion. I like to have a crush. And if that crush gets married ('cause relationships so seldom happen without marriage!) then I can't really imagine myself getting him/her without challenging canon too much.

By now I don't even remember the name of the horse lord in The Belgariad. I got myself a crush on him, he married Adara, I think. Damn, I had to move on. Started fancying Silk, who then married Velvet. Garion married Ce'Nedra, Polgara married Durnik, Belgarath found his wife again, Barak was already married iirc. See a trend?

Everyone gets married! It's as if a character in Eddings' books cannot be complete without getting hitched. It's as if their lives cannot be full or fulfilled before they've established at least a steady partnership and perhaps even family.

Just thought I'd direct your attention to this as well. I seem to recall the same tendency in The Elenium, but since it's been absolute ages since I read it, I can't say for sure. But I do know the tendency is there in Althalus, where even the religious and lust-forsaking Bheid gets married after "bheiding his time" as his betrothed says. I recall this quote so well, because it felt so staged even to a 13 year old.

Other than that I just want to say how happy I am to have found a feminist who reviews fantasy literature - one of my fav genres. I was planning to start reviewing books myself and so I am so greatly inspired by reading some of your reviews. It's also nice to read of things I didn't spot myself :D Woohoo enlightenment! Consider your blog added to my blogroll and followed closely. I'll be back :)

FilthyGrandeur said...

Jemima Aslana:
thanks for the comments. i too noticed that everyone gets married, and i am also frustrated by this--as if no one wants to just be single, or have a lover or something. the elenium is pretty much the same. sparhawk marries ehlana, Mirtai doesn't get married, but she always asks after the man who loves her or whatever...(i also want to point out that in velvet and ehlana's cases, they loved their future husbands since they were children, and i find i'm a bit disturbed by this portrayal).

i don't know if you're familiar with Shakespeare at all, but you'll find this pattern of the end of a play=everyone gets married (except the non-white, which is a whole other rant). it's never a happy ending unless everyone gets hitched!! even the dreamers ends with longbow marrying mistywater (in Eddings' frustrating "oh wait, they went back in time so everything you just read doesn't matter" move)--i mean, the whole point of longbow's character being the way he was was that mistywater DIES. then he takes it all away.

and while i do hate fanfics, i too like to imagine myself in the novel--i just don't write about it.

anyway, i'm glad you like my analyses. i pretty much only read fantasy literature, so you can expect more of this type of discussion from me (i'm still working hard on my upcoming Iron Council post). there's not enough discussion in fantasy.