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Recalling the late David Eddings, Lord of Creation

Playing God again, David Eddings dreamed up a deity-divided world on the brink of apocalypse.

Where does a bestselling fantasy novelist with nearly two dozen books to his credit draw inspiration from for a new series? J.R.R. Tolkien? C.S. Lewis? Robert Jordan?

How about William Faulkner?

“Faulkner basically devised a trilogy: THE HAMLET, THE TOWN and THE MANSION,” said David Eddings (who died at age 77 on June 2) in this 2003 interview. He was speaking by phone from his home in Carson City, Nevada, where he stoically suffered through an allergy attack to discuss the first book of his DREAMERS saga, THE ELDER GODS (now of course in paperback). “Those stories dealt with the life of this man, Flem Snopes, and were told from several different points-of-view. The idea of using differing points-of-view was interesting to me. We, meaning my wife Leigh and I, have done that a few times in the past, usually in fairly short sequences. But I liked the notion of coming up with episodes as opposed to chapters for this book, and having each episode explore a different point-of-view character.
It took 10 years, but David Eddings (who died June 2) and his collaborator/wife Leigh returned to series writing with THE ELDER GODS.

“Frequently the characters would reiterate the same things, though, so I got yelled at by my editor at Warner Books,” Eddings added. “She said, ‘There are so many repetitions. We have people going through the same things, fer crying out loud.’ She was right—it can get tedious—and so we cut this down. There are several point-of-view duplications in Book One. I pretty much eliminated that by DREAMERS Book Two. And in Book Three, that will all be deleted. Despite that, Book Three is noticeably longer.”
Eddings’ initial fantasy outing, PAWN OF PROPHECY, began the five-book BELGARIAD adventure

However, that was the least of Eddings’ concerns. He faced some stiff competition promoting a new fantasy universe—starting with himself. The writer’s first fantasy novel, PAWN OF PROPHECY—the beginning of a five-book series known as THE BELGARIAD—hit shelves in 1984 and became a literary success. Eddings struck a nerve in the SF/fantasy crowd, creating an adventure with a popularity matched only a few times since Tolkien had us all thinking bad things about gold rings.

Three more series—THE MALLOREON, THE ELENIUM and THE TAMULI—and half a dozen standalone novels later, Eddings was once again creating literary magic. After a 10-year series-writing hiatus, the author dreamed up a new fantasy world. And this time it wasn’t just wizards and warriors who would be saving the day. As the name of the book implies, these heroes and villains are the gods themselves.
Picking up where THE BELGARIAD left off, the MALLOREON storyline is a five-part sequel to Eddings’ first series.

Though Eddings published his first novel—a non-genre story called HIGH HUNT—in 1973, genre fame didn’t materialize until a decade later. After PAWN OF PROPHECY came a torrent of epic stories, from QUEEN OF SORCERY to POLGARA THE SORCERESS. And while Eddings had an intimate understanding of writing long story arcs, that didn’t always help in creating a new world.

“I believe there are nine episodes in Book One,” he said. “Book Two will come home at 13. It looks like 17 in Book Three. I missed Book Two’s deadline largely because I was scraping it off the wall. That hopefully taught me a good lesson. I have the outline for Book Three, which currently—and this is just the outline—runs in excess of 42 pages. It will probably hit 50. At least I know where I’m going.”

And where was Eddings going? Literally to a world on the brink of rebirth...or apocalypse. The peaceful land of Dhrall is divided into four realms, each cared for by one of the world’s four Elder Gods: Dahliane of the North, Zelana of the West, Valtan of the South and Aracia of the East. While these beings are divine, they have many traits in common with mortals, including the need to eat (albeit lightly) and sleep. Sleep for these deities is an eons-long affair, and the current Elder Gods will soon be passing their respective mantles to their slumbering brethren after a wakeful 25,000-year reign. The wrinkle to this event lies at the very center of Dhrall, in a terrible wasteland where an inhuman god-like being, known as That-Called-the-Vlagh, intends to take advantage of this delicate period of transition and conquer the world.

But Dahlaine, arguably the wisest of the gods, has found a possible solution. He manifests from his slumbering brothers and sisters mortal avatars called the Dreamers, who possess the abilities necessary to defeat the Vlagh. Eleria, the first Dreamer, is given to Zelana as a baby to raise. As Eleria grows up, it becomes clear that she’s no ordinary child. She and her three siblings discover that their dreams not only predict future events, but can also change them.

Eddings’ story takes place in a unique milieu, but contains cultures quite familiar to any history reader. “The first book deals with the difficulty in the western part of this continent,” he said. “Book Two deals with the southern part. And the one I’m laying out now is up north. It involves a region that’s pretty much like Western Canada, because it’s very primitive. There’s the grassland—which is much like the Western United States—where the natives spend a great deal of their time hunting bison. There’s a certain amount of Native-American activity involved. Throughout the books, you’ll see these fellows wearing buckskins and shooting arrows with stoneheads. We haven’t gotten to tomahawks yet, but who knows what might show up by the time we get to Book Three?

“Both Leigh and I have American Indian backgrounds. She’s part Choctaw, and I’m part Cherokee. I don’t look it at all. My grandfather looks like the back of a buffalo nickel. But my mother’s Norwegian, and my brothers and sister all look [like Vikings].”

While most of Dhrall is rather primitive, there are several more-advanced cultures. “There are Vikings, basically, and Romans. They show up in Book Three. There’s an Amazon Queen, and a leader of the Cossacks. No one knows about riding horses in this world. So, in this particular area and time, the Cossacks are the only ones who understand horses. I can play with that.”

But the smattering of Bronze Age cultures aside, Dhrall is a primal place. From the gods’ naïve innocence to their devotion to the Earth and sea, the whole world resonates as primordial. “Yeah, it is,” Eddings admitted. “We’re dropping back into the primeval. They aren’t quite Cro-Magnon—well, they are Cro-Magnon, but they aren’t quite Neanderthal. The cultures, with the exception of the East Coast, are primitive. Another interesting feature of the gods is their inability to kill, owing in part to their strong connection to nature.”

It’s an intriguing and almost unheard-of censure for an omnipotent being, but Eddings managed to make it both compelling and logical. “The gods are very close to Father Earth and Mother Sea,” he explained. “It’s a reversal of Mother Earth. Mothers have to be the sea, because that’s where all life began. But these elemental parent deities are more concerned with preserving life—no matter how nasty, grubby or unpleasant it may be, so killing things is verboten and strongly forbidden. They just can’t go off and waste the Vlagh’s army, so they have to hire mercenaries.”

That’s also the reason they’ve raised the Dreamers. Though they’re divine, standing halfway between the mortal and the immortal gives the Dreamers unique advantages—including a license to kill. “It’s rather peculiar,” Eddings said. “The ancient Mayans and the culture of the island of Bali have a myth about sleeping gods. I’m not sure how those two share the same myth. But yes, this is what brings in the four very potent [demi-gods], the Dreamers. They’re the ones who, by dreaming something, can actually make it happen.”

Eddings took great care to present to his audience a compelling yet elemental realm, and that nature-oriented theme carried over to the main antagonist. Neither a fire-breathing demon nor an undead sorcerer, the Vlagh is nonetheless a being who would give Sauron, Torak or Darkseid a case of the willies. But then, wouldn’t most insects?

“The Vlagh, the queen bee,” Eddings said, describing his unseen overlord, a demonic mother to a titanic army of simple-minded but lethal creatures. “There are other insects that behave in much the same way as the bee, social insects. The queen ant creates a nest, a society, in a similar manner. When you get into creatures such as the fire ant, you begin to see just how dangerous insects can be. The Vlagh is a thief, a plagiarizer. It takes those things it finds useful in nature and adds those particular characteristics to its brood, and it reproduces. The Vlagh has been around since the beginning of this universe, but now it wants to take over the world, using the plants and animals—including people—as its food source. It’s following its instinct.”
Tamuli Elenium
Not a huge fan of standalone novels, Eddings was more comfortable penning epics like THE TAMULI and THE ELENIUM.

But there wouldn’t be much of a story if the Vlagh didn’t have mortals to put in mortal danger. Besides gods and Dreamers, a plethora of humans populate the story and help the deities confront this formidable menace. There’s Longbow, a tall, taciturn man who is—at least in THE ELDER GODS—the best bowman who has ever lived. Red-Beard, a reluctant new leader of his tribe. Sorgan Hook-Beak, a Maag pirate whose loyalty appears to be measured in the gold that lines his pockets. And Rabbit, a tiny man who proves to be bigger than his stature would suggest.

“I had fun with Rabbit,” Eddings said. “He’s a short Viking, a real short Viking. He’s a Viking, and so am I. But I had a pretty good grip on all the characters. There were a couple of minor ones that caused me trouble, but not the major leads.

“You’ll discover in Book Two that there’s someone who basically walks off the street and takes over the story. I don’t know where she’s going. I just totally lost control of her. Her name is Ara, and she’s a little bit different than Polgara. Ara can do things even the Elder Gods can’t. I’ll just say that she’s very affectionate—if people do what she wants them to do. I’m having a lot of fun with her. She picks things up and sends them in entirely different directions.

“Leigh came up with Ara,” added Eddings, singing the praises of his works’ most unsung hero, his wife (who died in 2007). “I hadn’t been able to get the character, and we were both sort of baffled. The standard procedure has always been—from when I first started writing books—that I’ll bounce my story off Leigh before I submit it to an agent or publisher. I get her take on it, and she gives me input. And boy does she give me input! Polgara [the sorceress from THE BELGARIAD] wouldn’t have been half as interesting if Leigh hadn’t dictated everything about her line by line. She tells me stuff about the characters that I need to know, like them needing to take a bath, alerting me that they haven’t eaten for four days or saying, ‘Women don’t talk like that.’

“Leigh’s contributions vary. There were places where I was plodding along, and she wasn’t terribly interested in those. There were a few sections in the ELENIUM/TAMULI series where I got mixed up in church politics, and she wasn’t into that. But when it gets down to interactions between people—especially men and women—she gets right in there. She knows women. Like most men, I don’t understand them!”

Despite the fact that all four of Eddings’ series bore his name alone, he would have been the first to argue that Leigh deserved co-authorship credit. “She worked on them from the very beginning. I had a go-round with [Del Rey Books Editor] Lester del Rey. He said that books have to have one author. Anything with two names won’t sell. As it turns out, he might have been a little wrong, because novels with two authors—if they’re our names—sell. Every now and then we had to step around Lester. He was good, but he had that sort of bulldozer approach to editing: ‘If you don’t do it my way, I do the final edit, and it will appear that way in print.’ ”
“I busted up [the BELGARIAD/MALLOREON] series by making it 13 books with THE RIVAN CODEX,” Eddings noted. “It’s a non-fiction work explaining what we’re up to.”

When STARLOG previously  interviewed Eddings (issue #210), he had four series under his belt: the bestselling five-book BELGARIAD; a five-entry follow-up to that series, THE MALLOREON; a three-novel saga in a different world, THE ELENIUM; and a follow-up trilogy to that, THE TAMULI. And Eddings didn’t stop writing, although the author sheepishly admitted that he had a difficult time penning standalone novels. Compound that with continually being asked to write new installments in his popular series, and it’s no wonder that he added two more books to the BELGARIAD/MALLOREON epic—BELGARATH THE SORCERER and POLGARA THE SORCERESS—to make his first saga an even writer’s dozen.

“I wrote two more because I kept hearing, ‘When are you going to write another BELGARIAD book?’ ” Eddings said. “It occurred to me that there was a gap at the story’s beginning, and it also occurred to me that if I added two books, I would have 12. I thought that if it was good enough for Homer, Virgil and John Milton, it’s good enough for me.”

After writing all those successful series, why would Eddings try his hand again at world-building? Lightning strikes a fifth time only for wizards, doesn’t it? “I was groping around,” Eddings admitted. “I’ve gotta have something to do in the morning when I get up. After all these years, it has become a habit. If I don’t have something on my desk, I don’t know what to do with myself. I keep peculiar hours: I’m usually up by 11 p.m., and I work on through till the Sun comes up. Then I go out and do interesting things, like trying to figure out how to get my sprinkler system to water the orchids.”

Eddings also found the time to tackle some one-shot novels as well. He was particularly proud of his fantasy novel THE REDEMPTION OF ALTHALUS (2000), if for no other reason than that he was finally able to tell a standalone genre tale. “It was an experiment to see if I could tell a story in a single book,” he said. “I have a big bulletin board above my desk, with notes on it like: ‘You have to do this,’ ‘You have to deliver that,’ ‘You have to answer this questionnaire’ and ‘You have to file your income tax.’ And then, on a large sheet of yellow paper in very large letters, I had a note that said, ‘ONE BOOK.’

“It took me 12 novels to tell the BELGARIAD and MALLOREON stories, and six combined for the ELENIUM and TAMULI ones. Hell, it takes me 100 pages to clear my throat. So I wanted to see if I could be concise enough to keep it down to 1,000 pages. I had fun doing that. That had all kinds of interesting stuff. I do nasty things to the gods there. There are two brothers and a sister—Dweia, Deiwos and Daeva—and they don’t get along too well together.”

Next up was Eddings’ first big digression from his fantasy adventures, a psychological thriller about twins called REGINA’S SONG (2002). Interestingly, despite his name on the front cover, Eddings took no credit for creating this story. “That was my wife’s idea,” he revealed. “Something she came up with in one afternoon. Leigh was listening to ‘Winter’ on Sonic Seasonings by Wendy Carlos, and at one point there’s a pack of wolves howling, which changes to the sound of a woman’s song. She thought up [REGINA’S SONG] in that single afternoon, but it took me 20 years to figure out who the point-of-view character was. I started on that thing three or four times, and I couldn’t make it work. But once I came up with a friend of the family [as the POV character], it all fell into place.”
Fans demanding more BELGARIAD got their wish with POLGARA THE SORCERESS.

Considering the great success that Eddings enjoyed writing fantasy stories, one would have assumed that he was a big fantasy reader, but that wasn’t the case. “I don’t read in the field. I can’t,” he confessed. “I have an unconscious burglar living in my mind: If I read something, it’s mine. I can read Middle English stories, Geoffrey Chaucer or Sir Thomas Malory, but once I start moving in the direction of contemporary fantasy, my mind begins to take over.”

Eddings had some strong reservations about how fantasy is written today, especially concerning the genre’s prudishness. He charged the veritable father of fantasy with starting the trend. “Papa Tolkien was such a prissy guy,” Eddings claimed. “I would also say that this is the prissiest art form that there is. That’s what fantasy is about now. Tolkien didn’t want boy-girl relationships. [But during that time], there was a certain amount of hanky-panky going on. Guinevere was an adulterer, and Arthur did have an incestuous relationship with his sister.”
REGINA’S SONG arose from Leigh Eddings’ idea. Whether part of the byline or not, she contributed to all of her husband’s work.

But while Eddings worked to push those sexual boundaries and give readers fun, exciting fantasy-adventures to enjoy, the gods had more important things to do in his latest series than enjoying a dash of hanky-panky. “I don’t think there will be anything like that in THE ELDER GODS,” David Eddings said. “Since they’re gods, they have no need to reproduce. The humans, of course, might have some things going on. And the Amazon Queen may develop a liking for the Roman General. But that all remains to be seen.”

Originally published in FANTASY WORLDS #3 (2003). Revised & abridged for posting here.   

Elder Gods Art: Courtesy Warner Aspect
Pawn Art: Lawrence Schwinger
Polgara Art: Keith Parkinson
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