My Year in Re-Reading After 40: Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
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Got in a minor Twitter brouhaha the other day about GMO and Roundup™ and the evils of Monsanto, etc. etc. etc.
For me, the discussion is intensely personal because I spent whole chunks of my childhood summers with a hoe, amongst endless rows of soybeans, bandana draping my neck, and bottle of water perched in the dirt on one end of the field, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with weeds. This was in the day before the magic of RoundUp (TM), when farmers routinely mixed up a witch’s brew of pesticide chemicals using their own home-brew recipes, and it still wasn’t enough to keep the weeds from conquering whole fields. Hence, me, as a kid, with a hoe. (To say nothing of the legions of migrants, always Hispanic and invariably polite, who washed over the country each summer for $9-an-acre work.)
But of course this isn’t about big evil agribusiness multinationals or bragging about eating organic food (people on the Internet do this, if you can believe such a thing) or ignorant journalists who wouldn’t know a windrower from a one-pass. It’s about literature.
See, when you grow up like this:
Harvesting beans with my dad, 1979. Safety regulations? What safety regulations?
on a place like this:
The farm off Lake Alice Rd, Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, 1980
you spend your days longing to be on an epic journey somewhere like this:
No, not NYC [Image credit: Mladjo00]
When you’re a farm kid with a big imagination and it’s a million miles to the city, you do things like make a sword out of a shovel to fell stalks of corn that serve as stand-ins for marauding orcs. (“Jesus, son,” my dad said when he saw the carnage, “we grow that corn to sell, you know.”). You pretend the hills beyond the bean field are magic mountains where goblins stalk and treasure is hid. That pretty girl from two towns over with a bob in her hair who you see at church every Sunday? She’s a princess who’s one burning castle away from setting out on an epic journey with you. (At the end of which I suspected we might kiss, though I wasn’t sure why. Nine year-old fantasies are chaste fantasies.)
Which brings me to this month’s book in my Year in Re-Reading: Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings, Book One of the Belgariad.
The main thing I remember about this book: Aunt Pol. She has a white streak in hair, as evidenced on the cover, and she’s a sorceress.
Caption: This isn’t Aunt Pol, but I’m pretty sure Christa Faust stole Aunt Pol’s hairstyle.
Aunt Pol is the only character I can recall by name. There’s also an uncle who’s also a sorcerer, a princess, and a boy. The boy, needless to say, has a magical destiny. He’s a prince, or something, and that’s why he has a pair of sorcerers guarding over his youth. Until it’s time to leave the farm and head out on a grand adventure.
Not so hard to figure out why this book might appeal to a lonesome farmboy.
Hell, I’ve racked my brain, but for the life of me I cannot recall what epic adventure they are setting out for. Rescue a princess? Defeat the dark forces massing in the East? Retrieve a magical scroll? Storm a dark tower? Does it matter?
Not to me, not then, not at nine years old. Swords would get swung, bad guys would get slewn, adventures far, far from the farm would be had. As I recall, the book ends up with the boy-hero fighting a freakin’ god who stands taller than the Empire State Building and also for some reason has a sword, and winning. And getting to be king, or at least knighted. This after travel through dark and dreary forests and facing down a whole host of other, lesser enemies (basically the plot to every video me me from the ‘80s). Maybe those video games stole their plots from Pawn of Prophecy? After all, the book came out in 1982, when Pac-Man was still the height of arcade fun and you turned to Dungeons & Dragons if you wanted questing fun (though I wouldn’t have read it till 1985, or thereabouts).
To be honest, a lot of what I think I remember from Pawn of Prophecy is likely to be derived from any of the other dozens upon dozens of books I devoured as a kid, before some English teacher forced me to read Wuthering Heights and I began to discover that books could be vastly more than mere stories. I recall it was one of those books that I read with such enthusiasm that the very sentences and words almost got in the way of the story. It’s magical, that kind of reading, the kind you don’t get to have as an adult with critical faculties. Reading was a lot more fun back when it required no edification beyond entertainment.
That said, I’m more than a little afraid that the books will be painfully poorly-written, and that it might descend into a long slog to reach the end. I sure hope not. I mean, I don’t expect to be inspired to go attacking local corn stalks with a shovel again, but I hope I won’t be driven to take sanity breaks, either.
You know when you watch one of those old-timey movies, black and white and ponderous, where some girl takes about a hundred and fifty years to look at herself in the mirror or the gumshoe walks up the dark alley for roughly seventeen nights? That’s what Pawn of Prophecy felt like at times. Those were a long 258 pages, friends. Though it was gripping in places, the book itself is one long set-up for the four books that follow, a time-honored cliffhanger tradition that reaches all the way back to the earliest pulps and cowboy dime novels from the 1800s. No epic swordfights with actual gods or ginormous battles where whole races of bad guys are exterminated: those come later, evidently. Pawn of Prophecy features a lot of walking and riding and boat-riding and even more talking around round tables, square table, inn tables, stable tables, in castles, inns, fields, forests, and on boats.
And after all that, I still didn’t get to find out exactly what the heroes, a young boy named Garion and his merry band of companions (yes, including Aunt Pol) are after. Only that they’re chasing a bad guy, who’s trying to get to even badder guys, for reasons which are unclear. Oh, there are broad hints: it’s clear Garion will be kicking some evil ass down the road, but if you want to know for sure, welp, read the next (four) book(s.)
No doubt my impatience says a lot more about my acquiescence to the Culture Of Now than it does about Pawn of Prophecy. It’s just the 40-year old in me, ever conscious of the minutes trickling away, irretrievable. Meanwhile, the farm boy in me? He was freakin’ thrilled.
“At the top of the hill he stopped and glanced back. Faldor’s farm was only a pale, dim blur in the valley behind. Regretfully, he turned his back on it. The valley ahead was very dark, and even the road was lost in the gloom before them.”
Are you shitting me? ARE YOU SHITTING ME? This, this right here, this is exactly what I dreamed about, fighting corn stalks with my shovel. A secret destiny! An adventure with a sorcerer and a sorceress and a warrior and a thief into lands of legend! Enemies on every side, danger lurking about every corner, trusty sword at my side! Ditching the farm for a noble yet mysterious quest!
Practically the oldest story going, in other words. And thus guaranteed to thrill the heart-cockles of lonesome farmboys and would-be farmboys everywhere.
As a boy I loved — L-O-V-E-D — tales of fantasy and magic and high adventure like this book. As an adult? Superheroes annoy me, magic bores me, adventure tales send me a-snoozin’. I haven’t at all understood the resurgence of comic book movies and yeah, I watch Game of Thrones like everyone else, but my least favorite parts are when some sorceress births a demon shadow assassin in shitty CGI. Why? Re-reading A Pawn of Prophecy, I figured it out.
You see, all those years of longing to get somewhere, anywhere but the farm (and not just on some boring highway, but on the back of a noble steed, or maybe a dragon, or at least in a covered wagon with a wizard and a dwarf) left their mark on me. The older I got, the more magic kept on not happening. And as it dawned on me that I was gonna have to do the hard lifting when it came to this living thing and no magical destiny was going to sweep me up in its grand scope, I came to resent any suggestion otherwise. Wizardry? Epic quests? Great destinies? These are the daydreams of childhood, I wisely thought, turning sixteen.
Around which time I moved on to this phase. God, please don’t tell anyone.
Here, meanwhile, is what A Pawn of Prophecy has to say about a magical destiny:
“There’s a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what is possible and impossible.”
The premise and the promise of a thousand fantasy books, and not a single one of them true. It’s a resentment I imbibed, then somewhere along the line decided it’d be too uncool to admit that I harbored such a resentment, and then forgot about it, and now when I see a tweet for some dumb superhero movie (see???), I’m dismissive.
Now, I don’t know that I’m going to run out and catch up on all the fantastical movies and books I’ve missed in the last couple decades or so (life is still short, and this time of year, it’s baseball practice that’s long) but next time Daenerys rides a dragon, I do resolve to give that nine-year old farmboy a chance to thrill along for the ride.
David Eddings, therapist.
HERE LIETH MONEY QUOTES:
The Medieval Bootstrap: “Don’t make things more difficult for your Aunt just because the world isn’t exactly to your liking. That’s not only childish, it’s ill-mannered and you’re a better boy than that.”
The Club of Moral-Lesson: “I now had more gold than I’d ever had at one time before, but it somehow seemed that it wasn’t enough. For some reason I felt that I needed more.”
“It’s the nature of Angarak gold,” Mister Wolf said. “It calls to its own. The more one has, the more it comes to possess him. That’s why Murgos are so lavish with it. Asharak wasn’t buying your services Jarvik; he was buying your soul.”
The Staff of The Training Montage: “Didn’t anyone tell you it’s customary to jump out of the way after the boar has been speared?”
“I didn’t really think about it,” Garion admitted, “but wouldn’t that seem — well — cowardly?”
“Were you concerned about what a pig might think of you?”
“Well,” Garion faltered, “not really, I guess.”
“You’re developing an amazing lack of good sense for one so young,” Wolf observed. “It normally takes years and years to reach the point you seem to have arrived at overnight.”
Back to quotidian reality.
So not three days after I turned in this essay, I watched that latest Game of Thrones episode where Danerys did in fact ride a dragon again. Unfortunately, though, I completely forgot my vow to give fantasy another chance, because this was my first reaction:
While it’s true that she does do a lot of speechifying, this does not exactly jive with my aim of regaining that long-lost sense of wonder. I suppose that means I better engage in more therapy.