When you think back to the books that formed you as a reader, I wonder what comes to mind? Is it what you expected? Do they have personal connotations or did they just blow your mind into spaces you never even knew existed?
Books are a pretty huge part of my life. They are my single biggest non essential expense. Though frocks come a close second. I live surrounded by them, a book shelf in every room – except the bedroom. That remains a peaceful space – no shelves, no clutter, no electrical devices. That’ll be why my bedside clock stands on a tower of unread paperbacks then!
To the casual observer the shelves in my house have no discernible pattern. To me it’s screamingly obvious. There’s my treasures on the hardwood shelves in the living room, the books in progress or to be read in the study (and a rack of history books on the desk needing attention). My Atwood collection is on the quirky shelves in the hall, complimented by my Victorian gothic novels. There are dusty cook books in the kitchen. Then there are the boxes hidden in the cupboard at the top of the stairs, a kind of Narnia of books should you step past the old coats. This is the side of my study bookshelf – just the side!
In the dining room there are inbuilt shelves. On here are the older books.Not valuable, just old. I’m not sure I’ll ever read them again but I sure as hell ain’t parting with them. Nestled next to the Pratchetts you’ll find the David Eddings collection. Battle worn and tattered – these books have travelled. They’ve been with me for 30 odd years now. And they will never leave.
Eddings narrates the girl I was. The teenager looking for a home. My first real engagement with fantasy – knowing that I’d found my spiritual genre. But before Eddings there was Blyton. Yes her books have aged. They belong to a whole different era and no amount of tweaking and name changing for modern tastes can ever obscure that. But Blyton remains the first author whose books I consciously chose to buy (followed by C.S.Lewis – I’ll witter about him another day).
As a child there were two sweet shops in my village – one a standard newsagents and the other the old fashioned kind where sweets came in jars and twists of paper. Bright primary coloured globules of sugar. They were well served by the actual sweet factory at the centre of our village, Dobsons, famous for it’s gobstoppers and jelly and custard boiled sweets. Rainbow pips were my favourite. For some reason both shops sold books as well as sweets. I probably bought their entire stock. Their Blytons were the hardback reissues of the 70’s, durable hardwearing covers. I loved them all; the adventures, the secret islands, hidden caves, the use of lemon juice to create invisible ink. Awesome. But none of them grabbed me by my ginger forelock more than the Enchanted Wood and its companion The Magical Faraway Tree.
These books were catnip to a 7 year old looking to escape the here and now. And I was looking to escape. I lived in a pub next door to a chip shop and then the newsagents and could see the sweet factory from my bedroom window. I was a feral creature, swigging back the bottled coke, swinging from the curtains, crawling under the bar seats through pools of stale beer to pocket the cash that fell from drunk peoples’ pockets. I used that cash to buy books. Because my family life was imploding around me.
Step into the enchanted forest. Climb a tree. Meet gentle, curious folk along the way. At the top of the tree you can step into a new world, a new place and find a new you. Reassuringly, not all worlds were good – some tilted and twisted and trapped. Others were like Wonka’s factory floor – covered in edible beauty. I needed those worlds. For years I would walk past trees with gnarls and whorls in the trucks and think that if I could only step through them I’d find myself in that wood, that place. Climb to the top of the tree and exit on the most exciting slide of my life.
The sweet factory burnt down one day. The tantalising scent of roasted sugar hung over the village for weeks. I watched it flare so brightly before the inevitable collapse and smoke from my window, fascinated. My old life was collapsing around me and as Rome burned, I read books.
Step forward David Eddings. I was dimly aware that my reading habits were falling into two main categories – books about horses (perhaps we’ll leave that topic!) and novels that took me to dim and distant places where noble people fought the odds valiantly, usually with the help of a hobbit. Which I enjoyed at the time, in a distracted kind of way. Because that’s the point where life got really hard. A homeless, lone parent family of 3 and a rather bedraggled dog. Relying on the kindness of strangers until after a year the council offered us a house. And I got my first book shelf (still own it in fact, though it’s now in the utility room full of strange unused tools).
There’s a department store in Newcastle called Fenwicks. In the 1980’s it had a pretty decent book section. As my teens hit I was allowed a little more freedom and would often head over there after school with a couple of friends for cake, books and beautiful stationary. And it was there I picked up Pawn of Prophecy. An innocuous looking little paperback. A boy, a statuesque woman and a wizard on the cover. A cornucopia of delights.
It hit me right away that this was my series. My gateway into the world known as fantasy. This was my defining series. A rootless boy who found himself sleeping in barns on a quest, bewildered as the adults quibbled around him. A stern mother figure, a kindly father figure who I now realise subconsciously reminds me of my lovely stepdad, who was stepping up into our lives at this point. I emotionally imprinted with this series and I have read my copies almost to the point of extinction. And they will never leave that particular set of shelves.
If I were to look at the Belgariad with a (kind of) critical eye I’d say it genuinely is a superb entry level series for the younger fantasy reader. The world building is excellent, the magical structures clearly explained and adhered too. The characters have their own individual ‘quirks’ that they stick to. Perhaps a little too well defined – there are few shades of grey in this series. You have to wait for the Mallorean for that to seep in a little. Round the edges.
As a petite redheaded teenage girl the obvious self comparison would have to be with the Princess Ce’Nedra. In actual fact, it was always Garion for me. Sandy haired confused Garion, looking for stability in a world that has shifted in its axis underneath him, stripping him of everything he believed to be solid why at the same time shoving him rudely into puberty. Yep, hello my emotional doppleganger.
Blyton and that smell of burnt sugar are indelibly etched on my memory, entwined together with clarity in what is often a blur of childhood. We’ll forget the dead hamsters and the shouting. Eddings is more permanent, more pertinent. He informed my sensibilities, offered a clear vision of finding home in the people around you, the family you make along the road. Of trying to be good and decent in the face of loss and pain. I’m so glad I found him on my road. Even if I was thinking about cream donuts at the time.
My childhood made me. But these books helped to shape the hidden product. Long may fantasy have that power – to elevate a child, a young adult, a crone such as myself – above the mess that may be seething a round them. Thank you, Enid. Thank you, David.