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 [1]) 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 organizedcodified, 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. [2]  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?  😉

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on December 8, 2011, in Belgarath, Belgarath the Sorcerer, David Eddings, World Creation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I approach these books from the opposite perspective. I have read the Belgariad and the Malloreon but have not yet read the prequels that were co-written with Leigh Eddings. I look forward to reading them now that you have piqued my curiosity. While I think your observations on these books may be valid, it is important to remember that many of the attitudes of Belgarath were developed in the earliest books (published in the early 1980s) in response to the mindless adherence to religious practice that led to violence and death among the various populations of Eddings’ fantasy world. It seems there may be a danger in writing prequels since part of the purpose is to explain attitudes and actions already communicated, without creating a character that is fixed in one intellectual position regardless of experience. It may be time to delve more deeply into the world of Belgarath and Polgara, this time not as a casual peruser but as a thinker and scholar.

    • Hmmm…interesting context, but that really only backs up the question a bit: Why then, in Eddings’ fantasy world, is religion portrayed as violent and bigoted? I can see how writing the prequel could put them in a bind: they have to explain this positive religious figure in a world full of nasty religious dogma.

      I wonder how much of Belgarath’s background they really had thought out in advance, and how much they had to scramble to pull things together they never expected would have to meet? In this case, Belgarath’s origin and their religious depictions.

      Maybe my opinion will change some when I get a chance to read the originals. As the book stands alone, though, I still think its an awkward contradiction.

  2. It has been a long time since I’ve read the series, but I did read all the books. In the end, I believe it comes down to Belgareth being a hypocrite. It is a measure of character (and he is no saint) that he is ego-centric. His god matters the most. His god’s demands matter the most. Therefore, his devotion/loyalty is not measured with the same cynical young-thief-orphan mindset that everything else in the world is.

    You can see this just a bit in his attitude towards infidelity (and this may be spoilers for you if you haven’t read the books of the main series so ….feel free to skip….)
    ….
    ….

    Did you skip? Ahem.
    Anyway – he is referring to a Lancelot/Gwen/Arthur sort of doomed romance. And he says that, essentially, it would have been better if Gwen and Lance had just given in and slept together instead of staying noble. Infidelity being a small thing – it wold have been over and done with. While they were trying to stay noble, they were doing more damage and making it worse.

    Which is fine. But you know very well that if someone had introduced the thought of HIS wife being unfaithful to HIM he would have thought it a very big deal indeed.

    • Good points, from someone with much more background in it than me! I knew that Belgarath was a hypocrite, of course, if for no other reason that Polgara reminded everyone of it regularly. This seemed different though because he always seemed to be an intelligent hypocrite. He knew about the other contradictions and often remarked on them, but I had seen no evidence of that in this situation. That’s what made it stand out.

      Last night I got to the little off-hand comment “all religions–except for mine of course.” That, plus all this context, makes the situation make more sense now.

  3. There does seem to be a contradiction, but I see the portrayal of religion in Eddings’ work as a reflection of religious history from the earliest recorded civilizations. As you know, throughout history atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, both Christian and pagan. Eddings addresses many of the themes found in the practice of religion across the centuries and the dangers that can result from radicalism and fanaticism. The attitudes of Belgarath, especially in the later works, come from his condemnation of blind adherence to the dictates of an elite religious class without respect to the original precepts of the faith to which they adhere. It is the thoughtless belief in a false message that brings Belgarath’s scorn. I recall one particular character in the series, who devoted his life to his god. As a part of his devotion, he lived a monkish life, separated from most of the outside world. Following a series of events, the character was confronted by his god and brought to realize that his separation was misplaced devotion, and that the plan for his life involved several close relationships that would be more difficult due to his prolonged severance from outside society. I am interested now to read the prequels to see if the addition of a co-author changed the tone of the concept.

  4. The more I’m reading through the comments, the more I think that a good bit of this may just be that I dove into “Belgarath the Sorcerer” first instead of the others (it was a Christmas gift, as explanation). I’ll have to try to remedy that, when I can.

    Of course, I have no idea when that will happen. I don’t even have time to really read the books I’m “supposed” to be reading, let alone books I want to read! That’s a problem when you’re an historian….

    I think next week’s comments on the other issue might be of more use. 😉

  5. I wouldn’t call Belgarath a hypocrite, exactly. I think you have to keep in mind the fact that he actually knows the gods, and the gods he knows are polytheistic deities who, like all polytheistic deities, are not perfect beings. So when people start worshiping them in ways that tend to absolutize them, well, Belgarath knows that these gods by their very nature do not and cannot deserve that. So he gets really impatient with priests setting up to know more than they do about the gods and people blindly following them. I would call him a cynic if that word did not carry the connotation of a bitterness that he has somehow avoided. The religions in the Belgariad world, then, are not really comparable to a revealed religion from a perfect monotheistic God like Jehovah, So perhaps the “contradiction” comes from treating them as if they were?

  6. One thing that seems to be overlooked is that Belgarath has a PERSONAL relationship with his god, Aldur. Very few others in the world created by the Eddings and Belgarath really doesn’t have THAT much trouble with them. The most obvious point is the Gorim of the Ulgos. Belgarath not only considers him a friend but also deserving of great respect. And, as seen in Magician’s Gambit, the Gorim has a very personal relationship with Ul. Salmissra of Nyissa also largely escapes Belgarath’s ire… at least until she pokes her nose into the Alorn affairs.

    Belgarath only seems to scorn those who have an impersonal relationship with their deity. Any one that employs or conscripts belief for their own purposes of which Grodeg (High-priest of Belar) is the best example.

    Because Belgarath has this personal relationship with Aldur (and the rest of the gods, by the way) I would EXPECT him to be dismissive of anyone building a cult of personality around the gods. He KNOWS their personal foibles and qualms. He’s seen them act petty or petulant.. angry or derisive. A large organised veneration of Torak or Nedra or the youthful Belar would almost certainly offend Belgarath.

    Cheers!

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