The Belgarath Paradox: A Reaction to Religion in Eddings’ “Belgarath the Sorcerer”
Over the last few months, I’ve been slowly working my way through David and Leigh Eddings book laying out the life and toils of their sorcerer supreme, Belgarath, disciple of the god Aldur. Overall, I find it quite interesting, in a way similar to the Silmarilion–it is more of a history, written towards fans of the series, filling in all the back story for people. I’m a little strange in that I actually haven’t gotten to the Belgariad yet, and I’m still enjoying it. I’m sure there are plenty of “Ah ha!” moments that will make sense later.
All through, there are two notable points that have struck me as odd. I’ll deal with one of them today: Belgarath’s attitude towards religion and the interesting contradiction it poses.
Throughout the book–though centered much more towards the beginning than the end–Belgarath is very disdainful of religion and of priests. They are often presented as small-minded, bigoted idiots. Why? It seems specifically because they are either “religious” or “radical” or some combination of the two.
This is curious because of who Belgarath himself actually is: The first disciple of the god Aldur. He knows the gods exist and he interacts with them regularly. He has met them personally. He worries about provoking them by being offensive. He’s had regular dealings with an even higher sort of supernatural entity (the Necessities ) who communicate via prophecy and even control the gods themselves.
I hope the reasons why I find this odd are obvious. Belgarath himself is the essence of a very religious person and could easily himself be defined as a “radical”. I think it would be hard for a reasonable person to define his devotion to Aldur and later to the Necessities–near constant service over the course of almost 10,000 years–in any other way. What sense does it make for him to be constantly deriding others for aspiring to do only a 1000th of what he has accomplished? He never comes off as that kind of petty, or plain dense, in other senses. In short, none of it makes sense at all, as presented, and therefore rings hollow when I come across it in the book.
The key, in this situation, seems to be that the religions Belgarath dislikes are organized, codified, and the people involved actually believe them. Some commentators have suggested that they are somewhat catholic. All of them have specific standards to which their followers must adhere and they all try to follow them.  He himself never comments on that (that I remember), but that seems to be the common theme. Had he ever made that distinction, things would have been clearer; instead, the Ancient One is caught in a vague, pointless contradiction that sends mixed signals. Belgarath makes all sorts of direct claims on other people in the name of his own religion (and he may just kill you if you don’t agree to follow what the Necessity decrees), but at the same time he condemns others for doing exactly the same sort of thing. “Grat not nice,” after all.
I don’t know the Eddings, obviously, but I would guess that Belgarath probably represents their own biases concerning religion. The vague idea of gods or something beyond the norm is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even fascinating, but when a religion makes direct claims on people and people try to respond to them, it is suddenly is worthy of scorn. This is actually a modern, secular humanist trend that has seeped out into the wider culture: Religion is fine, so long as you don’t actually believe it! If you do, then you’re automatically lumped into the vague, negative category of “radicals.” I could be wrong, but that sounds like a personal issue intruding from our world into Belgarath’s. That intrusion is what helps make it feel so alien.
I think it serves a reminder to authors that we really should think through the philosophical implications of what we’re writing. We’re creating worlds, after all, and that means we have the rough duty of building things–including religion–from the ground up. Obvious contradictions such as the Belgarath Paradox sow confusion by causing cognitive dissonance and therefore distract from the effectiveness of our efforts.
1. While we’re at it, I just have to add that Torak needs to get himself a new Necessity. His, apparently, sucks mud up a straw. It also doesn’t say much for Torak when he spends ten millennia following the failed instructions of a Necessity that just leads to him getting repeatedly maimed and humiliated.
2. The closest he’s come in my reading (so far) is an off-hand comment that all religions resort to mind control–except his of course. That should have been further developed, in my opinion. Then again, it isn’t my book, is it? 😉
Posted on December 8, 2011, in Belgarath, Belgarath the Sorcerer, David Eddings, World Creation and tagged Belgarath, Belgarath the Sorcerer, David and Leigh Eddings, Religion. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.