All hats are grey in the dark

The seventh essai in a series, following ‘Zeno’s mountains’. It first appeared in a slightly different form on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


So far in this series, I have dealt chiefly with points of style and technique. Now I propose to change tack and take up some points of subject matter. And first, because Sherwood Smith was good enough to remind me of it, I shall deal first with a very common fault that is all but guaranteed to knock me right out of a book: the villainous hero.

Now, I have no trouble with flawed heroes; I expect them, and rejoice to see them overcome their flaws, or find ways to succeed in spite of them. I can even find much to admire in anti-heroes. And I have patience with ironic protagonists, the Yossarians and Babbitts and Humbert Humberts, who are never represented as heroic in any way, and whose authors are well content to portray them as the schnooks, schnorrers, and schlemiels that they are. (How did we ever insult one another before Yiddish came along?) What offends me violently is when a character is represented as a Good and Upright and Virtuous Hero, when almost his every act betrays him as a villain of the most heinous kind.

Consider the works of Mercedes Lackey and her horde of collaborators. Lackey writes straightforward, button-pushing wish-fulfilment fantasies aimed at the sort of adolescents who feel unbearably Special and Unique and Misunderstood, but in fact are no better or more sensitive than anyone else their age. She identified and saturated her target demographic of emo kids before emo had a name. Writing for such an audience, the temptation to lower the bar of heroism to the emo-kid level must be almost irresistible; at any rate, there seems to be precious little evidence that Ms. Lackey ever resisted it. She turned the ‘Mary Stu’ story into a commercial genre of its own.

I have, as it happens, only read one book by Lackey, Magic’s Pawn. I am told that it is somewhat below her usual standard, but not unrepresentatively so. The so-called hero of this book is one Vanyel, a thoroughly spoilt teenage boy, a nobleman’s son who is supposed to grow up a warrior and learn to defend his family’s lands, but wants to be a musician instead. Instead of doing anything to make the best of a bad job, he constantly shirks every duty his father sets him, refuses even to learn one end of a sword from the other, and hides behind his mother’s skirts to escape punishment.

So far, we have a good candidate for the title of anti-hero. In the terms of the three classic plot patterns, Vanyel has the makings of ‘The Man Who Learned Better’ in extraordinary abundance. But he is something worse than that. He combines an exceptionally thin skin with a total insensitivity to the feelings of others — not an uncommon combination in real life, but certainly not a heroic one either. One of the first scenes in the book shows him casually seducing a fifteen-year-old serving wench — not even out of appetite, but just because he is a rich pretty boy and feels that it is expected of him — then casting her aside out of sheer boredom, without the slightest regard for her feelings. In fact, he is rather carefully represented as wilfully unaware that she even has such things as feelings. From that point onward I positively hated Vanyel, and wanted him to die slowly of a loathsome disease whilst being lowered an inch at a time into boiling oil. But I was destined to be disappointed.

Instead, he is miraculously sprung from the fate-worse-than-death of doing his hereditary duty, and sent away to study to be a Herald Mage. He discovers that he is actually homosexual, a thing he had somehow never heard of before, despite his precocity in the matter of sexual experience. Lackey as much as tells us that this excuses his abominable behaviour to the serving wench, and indeed all of his other faults. Apparently homosexuality is a positive virtue in Lackey’s world, for it causes its devotees to be unjustly persecuted, and we all know that anyone who has been unjustly persecuted is thereby immune to any criticism whatever. Or something like that.

So Vanyel immerses himself in Herald-Magery, despite having no discernible talent for the work, and a variety of tacky liaisons with men and other boys, playing roughly the part of a ‘College Tart’ at ‘Wyvern’, as C. S. Lewis called his public school in Surprised by Joy. And at the end, in the most disgusting deus ex machina I have ever read, he is struck by magical lightning and instantly receives every magical talent in the world at maximum intensity, fully trained and ready for use, together with the wisdom to employ them properly and heroically. And so the scene is set for the remaining books of the trilogy.

I threw the book against the wall so hard that I broke the wall. It didn’t do the book much good, either, but at least the book was fortified by the hardness of Vanyel’s heart and the thickness of his skull. This so-called hero had spent three hundred pages being a self-centred ass with all the charm of an ingrown toenail, and seemed to have learnt absolutely nothing from the knocks he took and richly deserved. Now all my hopes were dashed: I would never see him run over by a bus, lest his superhuman powers should damage the bus. But I think I have made my objections sufficiently clear.

Now to my principal corpus vile: the collected works of David Eddings, or, as he preferred to be called later in life, David-and-Leigh. (I am irresistibly reminded of 1066 and All That, with its chapter ‘King Williamandmary. England ruled by an Orange.’) For the sake of chivalry and brevity, I shall ignore Mrs. Eddings’ complicity in writing their early books, and refer to Eddings in the singular and masculine.

Eddings really was a man of one book, though he made a fat living for two decades by issuing it again and again under different titles and with different names for the characters. We have the ingenue hero, who either is a farmboy or (as Andrea Leistra points out) might as well be. We have the beautiful raven-haired sorceress, who takes the farmboy off on a quest for a magical blue stone. We have a landscape, or rather a mapscape (for an Eddings series ends only when every country on the map has been visited), stuffed full of amoral sidekicks and painfully incompetent villains for them to kill by the dozen. And when the quest succeeds, we have the inevitable boss-fight against Ultimate Evil, which the hero wins without breaking a sweat. That is the plot of the Belgariad, and the Malloreon, and the Elenium, and the Tamuli, and it made Eddings a wealthy man until the fashion changed in favour of ‘grit’ and ‘edginess’. Then readers (or editors) began to demand that the heroes get beaten up in the process of saving the world, and even bleed a little now and then; and the sunny-side-up fantasies of Eddings lost some of their meretricious lustre.

Aside from their dreary repetitiveness, their really striking feature of Eddings’ tales is the almost total absence of moral depth or insight. Let us consider The Belgariad, since it defined the template, and remains perhaps the best known of his works. Garion, the ostensible hero, is an adolescent country bumpkin without any character of his own, who (without ever seeming to learn much) gradually takes on colour from his older and worldlier companions. And what a lot they are!

We have Belgarath, the 7,000-year-old sorcerer, who was a petty thief as a boy and is one still, even though he could just as easily create things out of thin air as steal them. He is also a grave-robber, a murderer, and a superbly accomplished liar; but let us not flatter him unduly. Somewhere or other in the books, he says frankly that he prefers not to think in terms of Good and Evil, but merely of Us and Them. A franker admission of moral bankruptcy would be hard to find. If we plough right through the 1,200-odd pages of the Belgariad, we will find him living down to his principles in awful plenitude. He arbitrarily punishes one of the villains — Zedar the Apostate, who was Belgarath’s friend, for whatever that may be worth, for ages and aeons before he turned his coat — by immuring him in the living rock for all eternity, without killing him: this for a simple manslaughter of the kind that Belgarath and Company have been performing in nearly every chapter. Within a few pages Zedar’s victim is brought back to life, but a technicality like that is not enough to soften the carborundum heart of Belgarath, and he leaves Zedar to rot.

Polgara, his 3,000-year-old daughter, exhibits the maturity and self-control of a spoilt teenage drama queen. She delights to play the prim and proper lady, and apparently has never heard of sex, but she is a consummate cock-teaser and a master manipulator. She makes no effort to control her awesome temper, which she expresses in tantrums that wreck castles and cities, for which she never shows the least sign of remorse. That she should pay the damages, of course, is simply unthinkable. Her principal occupation is raising a line of small boys, the successive generations of her sister’s descendants, whom she ‘protects’ from their ancient and implacable enemies by keeping them carefully swaddled in ignorance, illiteracy, and incapacity. She regularly loses her temper with Garion whenever he shows a generous impulse to others, or demands a morsel of truth from her.

These protagonists attract about the kind of followers you would expect. There is Barak, the Viking berserker, who counts his enemies by severed heads and has apparently never heard of negotiation. Hettar, who has the trappings of a Rider of Rohan gone very wrong indeed, has dedicated his life to the psychotic mission of committing genocide single-handed. Mandorallen is a stock mock-feudal aristocrat, ripe for the Jacquerie, the kind who knows nothing and cares less about the misery of the peasants who support him. (Such aristocrats did indeed exist. They were never common, except in rare and peculiar cases where they formed a class of absentee landlords, like the French nobility once gathered at Versailles, or the francized Russians of St. Petersburg. That the bloodiest revolutions in European history came to those two particular nations is no accident.) Mandorallen is also, by way of a hobby, a lifelong adulterer. The Princess Ce’Nedra is the world’s most outrageously spoilt brat. She tries to enforce her will by gross emotional manipulation, and would be dangerous if she were any good at it. Relg is a bog-standard religious zealot, totally misconstruing the teachings of his God, with a pathological fear of human contact born of his exaggerated and Pharisaic notions of ritual purity. Silk, a.k.a. Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, is a thief, a spy, an assassin, a crooked merchant, a cheat at dice, and a wholesale purveyor of the finest gold-leaf filigree pathological lies. And so down the line.

Glenda Larke expresses her distaste for

A mass of truly horrible characters none of whom I can empathise with, doing truly horrible stuff, none of which I can sympathise with. You’ve gotta offer me something better than that to keep me reading.


Villains who have no purpose to their villainy except to be villainous. Why? What’s the pay-off ?

The payoff, dear lady, is that the villains exist to make the other horrible characters look virtuous and sympathique by contrast. They are the kettle for the pot to call black. Nowhere is this clearer than in Eddings. His principal villains are the Grolims, an improbably murderous priesthood whose sole religious function, as far as anyone can tell, is to perform wholesale human sacrifices in the Aztec style, carving out the victim’s beating heart to burn it in a charcoal brazier. No matter what problem they are faced with, their inevitable solution is to make another sacrifice. This is intended to frighten their underlings into performing superhuman feats to propitiate the Grolims’ wrath. It never works.

The Grolims also write their sacred scriptures on vellum made from human skin. Belgarath roundly curses them for this, not because it is wicked and wrong to murder human beings for leather, but merely because human skin won’t hold ink. You would think that even a Grolim might have the intelligence to do his writing on a substance that would hold ink, that being the purpose of writing, but these are Eddings villains, whose malice is exceeded only by their stupidity.

Now, obviously a society infested with such rulers cannot endure. (The secular kings of Angarak are little better, besides being as superfluous as boils to a leper.) Not even the Aztecs were stupid enough to sacrifice their own people, or to arrange their horrific rites in a way so bizarrely reminiscent of the old management joke, ‘The floggings will continue until morale improves.’ Even so, the Aztec empire lasted only a few generations before going down to comprehensive defeat against a handful of Spanish adventurers. It existed by force and fear, and burst like a soap-bubble when force and fear were turned against it. But Eddings would have us believe that Angarak has been organized on these lines for thousands of years, going back even before Belgarath’s time.

Of course there is only one reason for all this exaggerated awfulness. As long as Eddings’ ‘heroic’ band of robbers, cutthroats, and bunco-steerers don’t go performing human sacrifices and writing necromantic grimoires on dead bodies, they can excuse themselves for all the other evil that they do. And Eddings can pretend that he is writing about White Hats versus Black Hats, when in fact he is only dealing with two slightly different shades of soot.

This is an old game, but not as old as the ages. Nations at war have told stories about the atrocity of their enemies as long as there have been wars and nations. But it was not until the Boer War that governments systematically used stories of enemy atrocities to justify their own atrocities. The technique has since become a staple of wartime propaganda. If Boers bayoneted English children in the Transvaal, that made it all right for the English to lock up whole populations of Boers in concentration camps. If Belgian nuns were raped by the Kaiser’s soldiers, then it was obviously correct for the Allies to use mustard gas on the Germans. Sometimes both sides in a war justified their own atrocities by attributing entirely invented ones to the other side — one of many practices that made the Spanish Civil War so peculiarly squalid. Even the Nazis had vestiges of conscience, which they could assuage by picturing themselves as Roland at Roncesvalles, defending Christendom against a godless horde. As it happened, Stalin’s apparatchiks really were a godless horde, which made Dr. Goebbels’ job easier; but that did not make the Nazis heroes.

Do we really want to set up the thugs of the SS as our standard of heroism? Eddings does not precisely do that, but given the context of mock-mediaeval fantasy, he comes as close as makes no difference. It stinks of moral cowardice and atrophied conscience. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Eddings assigns his white hats and black hats almost at random, and expects us to accept this as a shorthand for heroism and a substitute for ethics. Now, ethics may not be all black and white, but if they mean anything at all, they are a matter of lighter and darker; and the Eddings method is very dark indeed. He could have saved himself the trouble of buying two colours of hats, though. All hats, like all cats, are grey in the dark.


  1. Do Sauron’s goals actually make any sense?

    • Trying to conquer the world? It’s certainly something that people do.

      My impression is that Sauron’s goals are supposed to have made sense toward the beginning of his career, but by the time of LotR there’s not much left of him.

    • deiseach says:

      Sauron, being corrupted to the service of Morgoth, first starts out as a loyal servant of his master, and acts towards Morgoth’s ends. When Morgoth is cast out into the Void by the Valar, Sauron refuses the chance of repentance through pride and fear, and decides to step into his master’s shoes.

      From serving another – however deceived, and however false the claims of Morgoth – he dwindles down into selfishness and self-will. By setting himself against the Valar, and prosecuting the wars against the Elves, he also by necessity has to fight the Men who ally themselves with the Elves. His destruction of Numenor is a Pyrrhic victory, but having backed himself into a corner, he has nowhere else to go and can do nothing but reclaim his old realm of Mordor, build up his strength, and – since his appetite and envy cannot be content with the apples of Sodom that are all the gain he has gotten by his service to the wrong – he must, perforce, attack the remnants of the West in order to expand his dominion in Middle-earth.

      By the end of things, he cannot change because he has made himself this shadow of what he was once, locked in the rut of the same old failed strategy, repeating over and over his mistakes and the mistakes of his Master until he comes to utter destruction at last. That’s the end of Evil, although it lays such grandiose claims to Truth, to Liberty, to Power. It is not free, since it enchains itself; it is not the true meaning of the world or of life, since it deceives itself and others; it has no power even over itself, but is enslaved by its own habits.

  2. houseboatonstyx says:

    Somehow I’m reminded of Harry Potter and the Good Guys who shape him. Snape (a bastard who is one of the Good Guys), Mad-eye who tortures a spider as a class demo, Dumbledore who does some sort of betrayal toward the end of the series (after I bailed), and who knows who else.

    • I do not dispute that you were reminded of them, and there’s room to argue about whether Rowling excuses too much bad behavior in her designated heroes, but I don’t think these particular instances are good examples of the topic. For one thing, the “Mad-Eye Moody” who was demonstrating the Unforgivable Curses in class was in fact a Death Eater in disguise, and not even a “hero”-by-authorial-fiat. Snape and Dumbledore are both distinctly flawed, but it seems to me that the author and the narration are plainly aware of this.

      • No other adult or teacher is unnerved by what Moody did. On one hand, it is possible that none of them heard it; on the other, it looks as if he didn’t fear that possibility at all.

        • It’s true that the series never eliminates the possibility that demonstrating the Unforgivable Curses on spiders was an acknowledged part of the curriculum. (I’m fairly sure demonstrating them on the students was not.) But it did make the students uncomfortable, to my recollection, and it did turn out to have been conducted by a Death Eater, so it does not strike me as a convincing example of a character being treated by the narration as a paragon.

          • Also, it is by no means clear that Moody cleared this with anybody. McGonagal clearly finds Moody extreme, to say the least. I don’t see why he’d tell the other teachers.

  3. The second worst thing I can say of a book is that it doesn’t matter to anyone else which side wins.

    The worst thing is that I really wish there were some way that both sides can lose.

    • Yup. To riff on TV Tropes—

      The Eight Deadly Words: ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’

      The Six Deadlier Words: ‘So many targets, so few bullets.’

    • While I didn’t hate Vanyel with the same amount of detail that you do, I remember reading The Last Herald Mage for the only reason of wanting to see him die. This does not speak well for a book. The only other book where I had the same reaction was God-Emperor of Dune.

      • GEoD is about how bad things are when someone has, in fact, escaped from death.

        As for the Vanyel trilogy, judging it by the first book is like judging the Covenant Chronicles by the first book. Of course, you aren’t obliged to read what you don’t like. But for myself, I found it the most moving of Lackey’s subseries.

  4. While many of your attacks on Eddings are reasonable and proper, and I will not attempt to answer them because I can hear my 12-year-old self saying “BUT I LOVED THOSE BOOKS,” and I fear it would make any partial defense overly emotional I would like to address just thing. 🙂

    The Grolims maintain power over the Angaraks by fear, but not by fear of their wickedness. (Although it doesn’t hurt.) They maintain power because they have tremendous magical powers which the rest of the population does not have and of which said population is justly terrified. A would-be revolutionary, be he peasant or resistant king, who didn’t find himself hauled over the altar by force of arms might very well find himself just teleported there despite anything his followers might attempt to do in opposition.

    These powers, in turn, are fueled by the will of a God who is not only historically documented, but other than the recent unpleasantness which has put him out of circulation for a bit, actively participated in and endorsed their rule. “God wants it” has always been the cry of the would-be ruler, but in this case God has personally and emphatically confirmed His desires. The Angaraks can hardly be blamed for not rising up, although as you point out in our own “real” world this would be the inevitable result.

    • Do remember that most of the Grolims were not sorcerers — a fact that Garion, at one point, is astonished to discover, because Belgarath and Polgara have been continually at work building up this imaginary bogey of the Grolims as a dark army of omnipresent magicians. And they are often represented as ordering sacrifices for self-serving reasons, to terrorize people into particular actions that they find politically (not religiously) useful; a tendency which I suppose would be only natural for Evil Priests In Red™, while their god is off duty for a few centuries of sleep.

      The thing I find ridiculous is not that the Angaraks never rise against the Grolims, but that the Grolims keep using the same bullying tactics when they never produce the results they are looking for. They might as well bully a blancmange, for all the good it does them.

      • It has been many years since I read those books, but ISTR that the distinction between most Grolims and the sorcerers was that the powers of the Grolims – which were inherently weaker than those of the sorcerers anyway – only worked on Angarak soil (i.e. only on land which was the “property” of their god.) Some Grolims were also sorcerers, who could use magic anywhere in the world, but as you say they were quite rare as were sorcerers in general.

        As far as your objection, it would be a sound one in the “real” world, but again, they were basically emulating and/or obeying their god, who was a petulant, childish bully who was constantly mystified (and insulted) by the fact that everybody didn’t just do what he said all the time. He *liked* them sacrificing people to him, the more painfully the better – and ideally they should be young and beautiful since he deserved only the best. A hard example to get ’round.

        This certainly agrees with your basic complaint that the bad guys are extra-specially bad to cast the “heroes'” more mundane thuggery in a better light, but it’s a plausible reason why the Grolims continued to act in such a demonstrably unproductive way.

  5. Stephen J. says:

    Despite my own love of the Belgariad as a formative story for me in my teens, I can’t say the criticisms here are entirely unfounded, at least so far as basic shallowness of theme and story goes. To be fair, Eddings himself cheerfully admits in The Rivan Codex that he never intended to write more than a fun trope mash-up of a story, nor do I believe he has ever claimed his tales are anything else. The Rule of Funny is far more a law of Eddings’ universe than the Rule of Truth; Polgara’s tantrums are funny because they are a classic image of a certain sitcom stereotype of female anger blown up to magically-magnified ludicrous proportions. To wonder about who pays for the damages is as pointless as to wonder why the zanni characters in commedia dell’arte plays don’t get concussions or broken limbs from their slapstick. But I recognize that the willingness of fans to see wisdom where it may not exist can be very aggravating to put up with.

    For Vanyel Ashkevron, however, I do think that you have genuinely (if no doubt inadvertently) misrepresented him and Lackey, and unfairly so. Firstly, it is explicitly established that Vanyel’s inability to form emotional connections is a result of a legitimately abusive upbringing, not just a personally thin skin — if I tried to fulfill duties I hated only to get beaten whether I tried or didn’t, as Vanyel does, I might be prone to shirk them too. And given Vanyel’s wealth and noble status, I can’t help but wonder if the feelings of the peasant girl he puts aside were more mercenary than romantic — which doesn’t excuse his selfishness, but it does perhaps put it in some perspective. Secondly, Vanyel is not sent off to train as a Herald-Mage; he is merely sent to study at the same school as the Herald-Mage trainees because the lead instructor Savil is his aunt. He does not have “a variety of tacky liaisons” with men and boys; he is only thought to have had them by Savil’s colleagues and the other students as part of the pretense deemed necessary to allow him to stay at the school when he and Tylendel become involved (an ethical violation in itself, perhaps, but one for which everybody pays). And the catastrophe which rips open his powers is hardly a deus ex machina; it is a horrendously agonizing experience which almost kills him, and is simultaneously and directly responsible for killing the only person he has ever really loved in his life to that point (and for which he is unjustly blamed by many). It also happens well before the end of the book, he spends the entire rest of the book in physical and psychic pain from the fallout of that event, and the “wisdom to use them properly” is not acquired instantly but by hard and painful lessons that call on him to, in the end, make the choice to risk almost certain death for strangers he’s never met — a level of empathy and concern for others he was literally incapable of showing at the start of the book. And in the second and third books of the trilogy, Vanyel is as heroic, compassionate and noble-minded as one could ask, and certainly far the moral superior of anyone in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, or any given Joe Abercrombie or Steven Erikson character — perhaps he’s a bit prone to over-angstiness, but this is Lackey after all.

    Chacun a son gout, goes the saying, and nobody can be faulted for disliking what they dislike; but when the fading memory of an experience is filtered through the altogether stronger memory of one’s dislike of that experience (as has often happened to me myself, I freely admit), things occasionally get distorted, sometimes unfairly so. Neither Vanyel nor the book itself care, of course, being respectively fictional and inanimate; but to be unfair to a story is to be unfair to its storyteller, something I’m sure has happened to you yourself before.

    • Ah, well, Eddings did have the virtues of his vices. I read them in college, and so did another student, and he was praising the strength of the dialog: you could read off any passage without the dialog tags and know who was speaking. Then, they always spoke in type.

  6. Stephen J. says:

    All the above disagreement about the evaluation of one book, needless to say, should not be taken as a deconstruction of your general point, which is more than adequately sustained by much of modern fantasy, as Leo Grin, Theo Beale and John Wright among others have pointed out. Please take the foregoing as the reflex nitpicky reaction of a chronic devil’s advocate and not as a deliberate slanging; I apologize for any aggravation incurred.

    • Not to worry. I stand by my ‘deus ex machina’ remark, because (unlike all the other characters) Vanyel didn’t learn his powers; they were conferred all at once, supernaturally, and unearned power (as the old fairytales used to warn us) is a dangerous thing. Unearned power in his hands was not something I wanted to see. The fact that the incident is painful for him in no way prepares him to use those powers wisely. It is lazy worldbuilding and naff characterization to say, ‘And then he got hit by a bus, and because it hurt so much, he became Superman.’ To allude to a later essai in the series, the Customs don’t allow that. It is what John Myers Myers would call a violation of Delian Law, and it has to be paid for. If the character doesn’t pay, the story and the author will.

      As for Vanyel’s abusive upbringing: I know a good deal about that, both from personal experience and from the experience of those close to me. That kind of abuse does not generally produce that kind of self-centred and ‘entitled’ personality; it takes a moral failing over and above that — unfashionable as it is nowadays to talk about moral failings. Once again, suffering is not a blank cheque; it does not entitle the character to do whatever he damned well pleases. Lackey doesn’t seem able to grasp that; or if she is, she suppresses the knowledge so as to cater to her readers’ fantasies of being Special Snowflakes that the World Just Doesn’t Understand. It’s the error of Victoriana, the unbearable poseur in Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress: ‘All great artists are persecuted, and I’m persecuted, so I must be a great artist!’

      To sum up, I take no offence at your objections, but generally speaking, I don’t agree with them.

      • Stephen J. says:

        “To allude to a later essai in the series, the Customs don’t allow that. It is what John Myers Myers would call a violation of Delian Law, and it has to be paid for. If the character doesn’t pay, the story and the author will.”

        I don’t disagree, but I have to admit that what Vanyel goes through during the aftermath of that event certainly struck me as suffering enough to count as “paying”.

        It may also be a product of being more familiar with Lackey’s extended universe; those who read her first series know from the backstory that Vanyel will ultimately give up his life to save the land of Valdemar, so we know that Vanyel is destined to pay the ultimate price for the turn his life has taken. (One of Lackey’s common themes, occasionally explicitly noted by her characters, is: “Glorious Heroes get Glorious Funerals” — so she can hardly be imputed to be unaware that characters must pay for their privileges.)

        “That kind of abuse does not generally produce that kind of self-centred and ‘entitled’ personality; it takes a moral failing over and above that…. Once again, suffering is not a blank cheque; it does not entitle the character to do whatever he damned well pleases.”

        Again, granted; but our moral failings are learned from our environment too, or at the very least must be actively corrected by that environment. And self-centredness and inability to consider others’ feelings are precisely the flaws, it seems to me, one would learn (or could not reasonably expect to be unlearned) in Vanyel’s particular toxic environment — being unhealthily coddled by one parent, abused by the other and respected (in a healthy adult sense) by neither.

        Nor is Vanyel given a blank cheque in any sense that I recall. He is thought very little of by most of the other characters, except for his aunt and his lover, and the mutual emotional indulgence of their affair is precisely what sets all the tragedies of the rest of the book in motion; I do not think one can reasonably argue that Lackey intends us to condone the young Vanyel’s character flaws — at most, what she intends is to argue that they can be forgiven once the person in question sees them and repents of them, which process is what the whole book is about.

        I will let this be my last word on the topic, as I recognize the basic category mismatch of arguing why one “shouldn’t” dislike what one dislikes; I have been on the receiving end of such arguments myself often enough to know how irritating they can be. But I will ask why on the one hand a character must “pay”, presumably through suffering, for his privileges or successes, and yet suffering is never a “blank cheque” to explain or mitigate his flaws or failures; it seems to me there is something of a contradiction there.

  7. Oh, I see. You did get around to Eddings after all. I can argue with none of what you’ve said, but I will add the unbearably tedious (in retrospect) way in which Eddings recycles tag-lines. I haven’t the stamina to check how many times Belgarath says, “You’re a bad man, Silk,” but it is very many indeed.

  8. Oh, and you forgot the other major component of Edding’s single, but oft-published book: The weirdly-wise child who turns out to be a deity in disguise. What a tweest!

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