Arthur has almost finished reading David Eddings’ The Belgariad aloud to me. I’ve loved this ‘sword and sorcery’ fantasy series since I was a teenager. They’re not particularly well-written fiction (seriously, every wind is a ‘gusty wind’!) but they’re still a rollicking good read with lively characters, witty exchanges and a grand quest.
The main character is a little boy, Garion but he’s surrounded by strong women. There’s his Aunt Pol, a sorceress who is both the most beautiful and powerful woman in the world. And his queen-to-be, Ce’Nedra whose power of manipulation sees that she always gets her way. Then there are the Queens who pop up. My favourite is wise Queen Porenn who fell in love with old, fat King Rhodar and is heavily involved in running his spy network, all while she nurses her infant son! And even though all the gods are male, there’s a profound respect for ‘the universe’, an even more powerful entity than they are, and she’s referred to as ‘Mother’.
Maybe it’s because I was enjoying these characters so much that I never realised what a terribly conservative note the books end on. *SPOILERS AHEAD*
OK, so the whole gang is at Cthol Mishrak, Garion’s just topped Torak and Pol’s willing to give up her power to see Durnik brought back to life. That last bit unfolds according to the god Aldur’s reasoning:
Aldur: Marriage must be a joining of equals, my daughter. How could this good, brave man be husband to thee so long as thy power remains?
To Garion’s astonishment (bless him!) that message is reinforced by Belgarath:
“No marriage could survive that sort of inequality.”
Look, I’m all for marriage being a joining of equals, but let’s just consider whether sorcery is an adequate measure of that power. Garion’s a sorcerer and yet, it’s fine for him to marry Ce’Nedra, whose powers, effective though they may be, are quite ordinary. No, apparently there’s no inequality if the man in the relationship has powers his wife doesn’t have. The only problem if it’s the other way around. Marriage can’t survive a powerful woman, it seems.
Moving on to the second problem. Belgarath considers how different life will be without his daughter by his side:
Polgara’s been almost like a son to me but perhaps it’s time that I let her be a woman. I’ve denied her that for too long.
Take a deep breath, because this has problems on multiple levels. First of all, how can it be that it will be marriage to Durnik that will finally mean Polgara is a woman? Up to this point, she’s been described as the most beautiful woman in the world (and used that to her advantage) and was charged with protecting and nurturing a family line for 1000 years. However conservative your definition of femininity, she fits it! But secondly, why is it that her role as Belgarath’s partner in sorcery is the role of a son, not a daughter? Is it unnatural for women to be powerful or to have a career or to care for their fathers? How are any of those things contrary to what is means to be a woman?!
It is a little disappointing to see Eddings tie up the loose ends in such neat little bows, as if he can allow his powerful female character some leverage, as long as eventually, she conforms to traditional notions of femininity. Not that that will keep me from reading and re-reading these old favourites. Dare I say it’s a woman’s prerogative to be irrational?!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.