Rereading The Elenium

When we moved back into our house, the chore of sorting through what seemed an endless tide of boxes of books fell to yours truly.  It was only fair. A good eighty to ninety percent of the books in this house are mine anyway.  And of course I didn’t mind, reconnecting with what I could consider friends, some of which have been with me since high school.  As I sorted and unpacked, I realized that I wanted to reread a vast number of them.  Now, some of these books I could probably rewrite from memory.  But I wanted to reread them none the less.  Like I just said, some of these books, they’re like friends.

The very first book I picked up was quite timely. But it wasn’t prose however.  Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan begged to be read cover to coda considering the times.  Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my assessment.  However, fuckery and foul dealings can only get you so far, especially when they only cover ten trade paperbacks and the antagonist that the current monster most resembles gets eight years1Also down putting: a barbed aside to “President Rodham” whose record for low approval ratings was broken not by the Nixon-esque Beast, but his victorious opponent, a true psychopath — and Democrat? — The Smiler Gary Callahan..  Needing something more palate-cleansing and harkening back to an older, more innocent time of sci-fi/fantasy, I reopened David Eddings’ second fantasy epic, The Elenium.

I’ve had a weird relationship with Eddings’ books.  They are, by and large, not great fantasy fiction.  His first series, The Belgariad, is a by-the-numbers Hero’s Quest populated with some good characterization for his protagonists.  Eddings would have been better at satire or parody I think; his best creations in that series were his twists on fantasy archetypes.  Belgarath, the wizened mage and Gandalf stand-in, is a drunken sot with a wandering eye and a shaky moral foundation.  Silk, the party thief, is appropriately amoral and capricious.  Their interactions alone make for good reading. But The Elenium doesn’t have as much of this low-calorie fun.  The story is also a Hero’s Quest, but here the protagonist is an older knight, teetering on the pinnacle of his power, facing the slow decline that must surely follow.  It’s a great concept, except the fall never comes.  Sparhawk is as potent of a combatant at the end of the series as he is at the beginning, despite a dizzying quest wherein he lives horseback for six months straight, hitting every big name on the map included before the prologue like a plot-driven tour guide2Even more unbelievable, he reaches Super Saiyan levels in the follow up series..  But it’s got appropriate levels of magic and they end up stopping a power-hungry maniac from being elected as “Pope”, so again, timely.

What struck me rereading this story is how much of an asshole Sparhawk is.  He is a “Church Knight” — a Paladin archetype — who is a semi-cloistered religious champion of the Elene Church3akin to the Papal State.  While he seems to have a tolerant and pragmatic view of the world, he is often a complete bully to those below his station or those who offer him nothing.  One of the first adventures he goes on results in him and his companion taking refuge with essentially the mob boss of their city that he had saved from a hanging.  It is not discussed if the punishment was lawful or not, as the thief in question is unmistakably “the boss” of organized crime in their city.  In this, we’re introduced to Sparhawk’s connection to the criminal world and his tolerance of illegal activity.  This contact serves him throughout the entire series and into the sequel series.  It highlights his diplomatic ability.  Yet, later through the series, we see him constantly berate people for not addressing him as “my Lord”, treating members of an offshoot religion as pure idiots, and straight up bullying people with his rank, weapons, or both.  Sure, he can work with those from other walks of life, but only if needs something from them.

He commits frequent acts of mercy, to the surprise of some of his companions from the other color-coded orders of Church Knights.  His order, the Pandions, dye their armor black and have a reputation for being pragmatically ruthless.  Sparhawk admits that the Pandion order has spread rumors about their viciousness to enhance their reputation, while handing out mercies to the downtrodden. But then as soon as the next person without power gets in his way, he’s running that person roughshod, even going so far to have his horse trample the offending peon.

One of the more enjoyable plot points of the series is that his quest is completed by the second of the three books, and the third book is more about how things keep happening even after the hero kills the troll and recovers the Blue Stone, until the Big Bad Evil is revealed. His reason for gaining ultimate cosmic power is to revive his Queen, ostensibly to block the efforts of one of the main antagonists.  His devotion to the Queen is much more personal, as he was charged with protecting and educating her as a child.  Now she’s eighteen and whoa would you look at that, she’s smoking hot.  (There is literally a paragraph devoted to how her grown-up boobs are causing a problem between the two of them.)  I remember the first time I read the series I thought it a bit sketchy that Sparhawk and Ehlana end up together.  Now that I’ve read the follow up series, I don’t think so strongly about it.  By the second series it’s less of an issue as Ehlana is established more as an independent character, but for this series, she’s just sitting there asleep on her throne encased in diamond like some sort of creepy breathing wax statue.  Then Sparhawk brings her to life and gets to fuck her.  Creeeeeeepy.

Something else I got that I missed before, Sparhawk is a fucking homophobe.  He tells Berit after he sees the younger knight lusting after his wife that he’d be pissed if Berit wasn’t all up on some pretty girl.  Then has a tender “Awww bro” moment.

(Some of this might be Eddings.  There is one “gay” character in The Elenium and he’s a child rapist.  The other characters make light of that, even joking that “an entire generation of little boys will sleep easy” after Harparin’s death.  I get that Eddings isn’t going to be writing about gay characters much, especially in the early 90’s, but what the shit, Eddings?)

One positive thing I noticed on this reread; less of the godawful racial stereotyping that formed the basis of The Belgariad.  It’s still there, but at least its a bit lessened.  Maybe?  In Belgariad, every nation but one is more or less racially pure and each race is based on real cultures.  The good guys are Western and the bad guys are Mongols and Muslims.  In Elenium, it’s a bit less severe.  There are only two races, humans and elves — shit, I mean Elenes and Styrics — and the Styrics are persecuted, live in rustic villages and are considered illiterate and simple.  Sparhawk — again, he’s an asshole — often treats his Styric teacher as an idiot, despite the fact she’s our Gandalf stand-in and supposedly everyone loves her and calls her “little mother”4gag.  The evil race is a mix of Styric and Elene, which both sides are comfortable describing as “disgusting”, despite that our leading Styric lady is falling in love with an Elene.  The Styrics are all magicians, or rather, priests, as magic is divine in this world, and yet, though it’s revealed in the second series that they are organized, protected and quite powerful, in this first series, they are the hopeless natives.

(The second series does a much better job with the Styrics.  They’re shown to have been major assholes in past times, and are trying to make amends for their past sins.  They’re also shown to not be too effective at it, either.)

It’s still not great.  Eddings has this strengths, but world building with real life cultures is not one of them.  The “evil” race of Zemochs is sufficiently alien, based on two millennia of cruelty imposed upon them, but the rest of the national cultures are a bit too simplistic.  Thalasians are Vikings, living on a fjord-studded peninsula.  Pelosians are simple, Lamorks are obsessed with civil war.  Arcians are pious and Elenians — which I’m not sure why they are the name sake nation — are politically devious.  Rendors are pretty bad, a desert country obsessed with their own reformation of the religion.  Those following Isl—, I mean Protes—, I mean Eshandism, are portrayed as being universally fanatical to the point of idiocy.

I read once that Eddings had said one of his big problems with Tolkien was that the women in Middle-Earth are nearly non-entities.  He said he had set out to do better with Polgara and Ce’Nedra in The Belgariad and The Huntress and Zandramas in The Mallorean.  There’s a bit of backsliding here.  Sephrenia is a complex character but is the only female of note in the story until Flute’s big reveal (who then disappears for book three.)  Ehlana has a lot of ground to cover in book three.  The other named female characters, Lillias and Arissa, are sluts.

No, really.  That’s their character.  They’re both sluts.  One wants to fuck Sparhawk and the other wants to fuck anything with a dick.  Literally.  That’s Arissa’s character, even as she is on the run with Annias and Martel, she’s still pining for daily fuck buddies.

Still, Flute/Aphreal is a great character, though she doesn’t really get to take over the story until late in the second book and then is on hold until the second series.  Kalten, Ulath, Tynian and Bevier still provided me with a lot of laughs as the supporting cast.  Tynian and Ulath’s bromance in the second series is great story telling, as is Kalten’s evolution from dipshit frat boy to a caring and responsible person.  Bevier pretty much doesn’t change and is the weakest of the Power Rangers Church Knights.  Kurik’s death always hits me because he was by far the most developed of the ten characters5party size of ten?  omfg raids, and his replacement in the sequel, his eldest son, is even more of an asshole than Sparhawk.

It was fun to give this old series a reread.  Despite the flaws, it’s classic high fantasy with a lot of magic and action and some genuine “oh shit” moments.  This is one of the series that first got me into fantasy, and I spent a lot of time emulating Eddings in my early writing, sad to say.  Maybe this week I’ll pick up The Last Herald Mage and have Vanyel and Tylendal break my heart again.

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