Content warnings for this blog post: mention of real-life physical abuse of children; mention, some discussion and brief description of fictional violence including against children, rape, genocide, human sacrifice, cannibalism, forced marriage, non-consensual drugging, death of animals, war, war crimes, death in childbirth and other dark content.
Before giving David Eddings’ fantasy work to children, you should be aware:
- His fantasy series (the Belgariad, Malloreon, Elenium and IIRC Tamuli) contain violence, death and other dark and horrific elements, described in places rather gruesomely, though not as much as in some adult genre fiction.
- There is sexual content, some of which is particularly problematic because of age and other consent issues. Things are suggested or inferable, rather than described, though there is some on-page nudity described in sexual contexts.
- David Eddings was a convicted child abuser; I personally find that this throws some of what he wrote into a very negative light, including the physical punishment and coercion of children, a focus on teen sexuality, sometimes with older partners, and a rather tolerant view of rape.
Why am I blogging this?
This isn’t normally a book blog, but I’m in a few fantasy book groups online, and I do use this blog for creating linkable versions of things I find myself repeatedly typing out lengthy comments about in social media.
And one of the common requests in these groups is fantasy book recommendations for a child, and invariably at least one person recommends David Eddings – usually the Belgariad series. When the original post specifies that it is asking for recommendations for a pre-teen child and/or for books that aren’t violent or don’t have sexual content, I always feel I have to jump in with some version of the following. So I’m doing it once as a blog post that I can now link back to.
I understand these have been very popular and many young readers have enjoyed them. I did myself. I’m not saying the writing or plotting is bad, certainly not by the standards of epic fantasy. The storylines are formulaic, the characters are based largely on types, and the plots drag out a bit especially in the pentalogies, but these are standard features of the genre, so you probably know whether you like them or not.
I’m also not going to get much into all the reasons I have taken against them as an adult reader with an adult worldview. I do now find them racist (heavily so), sexist (with a little more nuance), ableist and homophobic (LGBTQIA+ people are largely omitted, but where there is any hint of nonconformity to straight norms it is made out to be a bad thing). But not everyone wants to rule out books based on these kinds of values. Grownups can take an adult decision on whether to read it and how to understand and respond to it if they do.
But, as I say, I often find Eddings recommended for children. For example, in the one that has just prompted me to start this, the potential reader was 10 and the grandparent posting the request specifically asked for non-violent fantasy books suitable for that age. A few days before, the kid in question was 8. Usually the person doing the recommending just says they’re good for that audience and doesn’t justify how or discuss any potential issues. So in these cases I feel I ought to jump in and let the adult who’s looking for recommendations make an informed choice.
I’m going to summarise the issues thematically in this post. In later posts, I will go through the books chapter by chapter outlining the specific content that you may wish to consider. For those who may want to read the books for themselves, I’ve made some effort to limit spoilers by being vague about most of the character names and the plot context for what happens, but I do mention incidents throughout the series. If you’re reading the series and trying to avoid spoilers, don’t look ahead much. But if you’re trying to decide whether to recommend the Belgariad to a child, do read on at least as far as volume two because that’s where some major issues are for me and you don’t really get a complete story reading just one of the books.
Types of content in Eddings
Violence, gore and horror
There is significant violence in the books. It is not described in the level of gory detail seen in some genre fiction aimed at adults, but many incidents do have bloody or horrific description, more so after the first book. Even in the first book a few people are killed, and the body count escalates a great deal later with more frequent deadly fights and large-scale war. There are references to, and some descriptions of, atrocities including war crimes, cannibalism, genocide and large-scale, institutionalised human sacrifice.
Each protagonist group has a majority of violent, warlike characters, who kill when it is (according to the author) justified or necessary, which it often is. Some of the protagonist ensemble are critical of this at the margins, but the author clearly rather likes the hard men. Some of them on occasions carry out acts that are usually condemned even in action stories, like rape or torture, or express a hope of genocide, with little or no authorial condemnation or in-story comeuppance.
Sex and sexuality
There is less sex than violence, and especially when it comes to explicit descriptions – I don’t think the on-page action goes beyond a brief kiss. However, there is some sexualised description of (female) characters’ appearances, some sexual nudity, and a number of sexual incidents and sexually adult themes are communicated by suggestion and implication.
There is a range of relationship types, including old-fashioned romance, romanticisation of less wholesome relationships, clearly toxic relationships, casual flirtation with potential for sex or at least making out, and some suggestions of transactional relationships in which sex is a means to some other end, including sex work for money.
Not all the sexual acts are or would be consensual and in my detailed notes I’ve covered the clearer incidents under violence and/or child abuse. I don’t think Eddings fully acknowledges the consent issues or violence in some of these cases, and some seem to be framed as an exercise of power or breach of propriety not much worse than any other.
Children and teens
I’ve picked this out specifically because the reading public has become aware in the internet age that David Eddings and his wife were convicted in 1970 of physical abuse against two small children they had adopted. They lost custody of the children and served time in prison, which he used to begin writing fiction.
Knowing this puts various elements in the Belgariad and other fantasy series into a different light for me. These elements include physical punishment and coercion of children (by characters portrayed in the books as good people and loving carers) and kids of 16 instructed to marry by their responsible adults (again, the ‘good guys’). There is also (mainly in the Belgariad) recurrent attention to the sexuality of young teenage characters, especially girls. The vast majority of characters described as, or implied to be, physically attractive are female and most of these are described as young, sometimes with heavy emphasis, sometimes for minor characters without clarifying whether they are a) 18+, b) under 18 but considered adult in the fictional-feudal society, or c) children even by that standard. Women and girls in general are generally portrayed as the source of lust and sexuality in Eddings’ work – men and boys tend to respond to this as if they don’t entirely have control over their actions in this sphere. There’s a particularly creepy trope that he uses at least two or three times in his later series, that a young girl developed romantic feelings for an adult man in her life, and secretly harboured those feelings until she could get her man when she had physically matured. Now I re-read the books with mature eyes these child-related themes seem potentially to relate to what Eddings did in his personal life, or might have done had he not been caught and stopped.
This obviously all got past Eddings’ editors last century and (maybe like most readers) I didn’t notice anything wrong with when I first read the books as a kid – I guess I assumed it was how things were in the old days that fantasy settings were modelled on, and/or was still how wise adults understood the world today. But it is precisely this lack of critical perspective on the part of young readers that I think makes it inappropriate for them to read these books. As an adult if you want to read them you can see what is going on and compare it to your established values and understanding. As a child you are still forming your understanding and your values, and as you encounter new things in fiction you try to build them into your thinking.
(Mention of Eddings sometimes sparks a debate about whether the character of the author matters when choosing a book. I know people have different takes on that question, and I just offer a few points of information for those who consider them relevant in their decisions: Eddings and his wife are both now dead; sales of the books generate royalties for the Eddings estate; those royalties go to charities nominated by Eddings in his will; the adopted children Eddings abused were removed from his custody long before these books were published and I do not think that the children benefit from the books. More specific information can be found with a web search. I’m not relying on the author’s character here; I think there are enough issues just within the pages and I only mention Eddings’ abuse because I think it suggests a linking theme between various scattered content elements)
Outline of works
The books I’m discussing are published as two pentalogies and two trilogies. The pentalogies form one continuous sequence of stories in the same setting and featuring most of the same main characters. The trilogies likewise form another set, entirely separate from the pentalogies but sharing many stylistic and thematic similarities with them.
Currently re-reading them for these posts, I’d say that the first pentalogy, the Belgariad, is one large novel in five volumes. The individual books don’t have self-contained plots or complete novel structures, and don’t even all end with a major story beat. (This is relevant if you’re considering offering just the first book since it is less ‘adult’ – the first book doesn’t really stand alone so a reader needs to continue the series to resolve the plot). The sequel pentalogy, the Malloreon, is I think similar, a five-volume extended novel, but I may revise this if/when I re-read it. It is a direct sequel to the Belgariad. I have a vague recollection that the books of the trilogies may be a bit more structurally self-contained, but again each set has an overarching plot. The trilogies are entirely separate in continuity from the pentalogies, but the second trilogy (the Tamuli) is a direct sequel to the first (the Elenium).
Index to book content analysis
1 – Pawn of Prophecy
2 – Queen of Sorcery
3 – Magician’s Gambit
4 – Castle of Wizardry
5 – Enchanter’s Endgame
1 – Guardians of the West
2 – King of the Murgos
3 – Demon Lord of Karanda
4 – Sorceress of Darshiva
5 – Seeress of Kell
1 – The Diamond Throne
2 – The Ruby Knight
3 – The Sapphire Rose
(which I don’t own so probably won’t analyse for this blog)
1 – Domes of Fire
2 – The Shining Ones
3 – The Hidden City