Tolkien’s Heirs: Tad Williams

When I heard the news that Tad Williams, one of my very favourite fantasy authors, was returning at last to Osten Ard, the sprawling setting of his epic fantasy series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” I was overcome with happiness. While I haven’t yet read the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, I have begun to re-read MST in anticipation of doing so (a full-length novel, The Witchwood Crown, is apparently due out this summer).

As I do every so often, I would like to suggest that Tad Williams belongs to that elite cadre of fantasy authors who truly deserves the title of “Tolkien’s Heir.” In terms of the richness of his world-building, the complexity of his characters, and the emotional depth of his achievement, Williams has truly ascended into the ranks of the great fantasy authors of the late 20th Century.

Now, I know that a comparison to Tolkien’s work is thrown about in review circles anytime a new epic fantasy series sees the light of day. It’s become so extensively used that it’s little more than a meaningless cliché. However, Williams’ work really does deserve comparison to the grand master of the form, the man whose own The Lord of the Rings is truly a masterpiece and one that succeeds as a piece of literature not in spite of but because of its form and content as fantasy.

In my estimation, the same can be said of all of Williams’ work, both the epics (MST and Shadowmarch), as well as the other fantasy works that he has published over his career. Williams constantly shows that there is a certain explanatory and experiential power in the fantasy genre that renders it a uniquely effective way of addressing some of the questions that continue to press us as human beings in a complicated and contradictory world.

Of course, Williams is one of the finest world-builders working in the genre today, and his invented nations seem to leap off of the page into breathing life right in front of us. Whether it is Osten Ard or the many warring nations that comprise the world of Shadowmarch, one can see that the worlds of his imagination of a phenomenal amount of internal consistency. Further, there are histories in these worlds, wells that run deep and troubled and contentious pasts that shape and determine what happens during the novels themselves. The titanic struggles the characters face are often not of their own making, but that does not mean that they don’t still bear a significant amount of responsibility for what occurs.

This, in turn, allows Williams to engage with the thornier questions of morality, justice, and who really gets to claim the high ground in the sort of larger-than-life disputes that are the lifeblood of epic fantasy. For all of Tolkien’s strengths, he was a product of his troubled times, and for him the question of race is, to put it mildly, a vexed one. His portrayal of people of colour is, with a few exceptions, quite negative (though not as repugnantly racist as his colleague C.S. Lewis), but Williams takes care in many of his works to depict people of colour who do not fit comfortably into established stereotypes. This is certainly true of Shadowmarch and sequels, which feature a number of characters that come from cultures that are not typically “white” or European.

Finally, and largely as a result of all of this, reading a Williams novel (or series) is an intense and sometimes overwhelming emotional experience. Beloved characters do die, and sometimes even the deaths of villains are more heart-wrenching than you might have expected. Death is very much a part of Williams’ novels, and you should never become too attached to some of your favourite characters. However, I would also like to point out that while you may feel emotionally wrung-out at

As I embark on my re-reading of Williams’ oeuvre (I hope to have read all of his works by the time the new novel is out this summer), I am astounded again at the richness and power of his prose. Truly, this is an author upon him I hope to model my own writing of fantasy. If I can accomplish but half of what he has, I shall consider myself fortunate indeed.

Tolkien’s Heirs (II): David Eddings

Some time ago, I wrote that Terry Brooks, the bestselling author of the multi-volume Shannara series could and should be considered one of Tolkien’s foremost literary heirs.  Today, I’d like to also suggest that David Eddings, author of several epic fantasy series including The Belgariad, The Mallorean,  The Elenium, and The Tamuli, should also be considered one of Tolkien’s heirs.

Now, at first glance it might seem counter-intuitive to label Eddings one of Tolkien’s heirs, given Eddings’ own rather dim view of fantasy of the Tolkien variety.  He even notes in The Rivan Codex, his compendium of reflections and notes on the two series, that he was surprised to learn that The Lord of the Rings (what he refers to as “this old turkey”) had gone through multiple printings.  All of this seems a bit disingenuous on Eddings’ part, especially since his series, with their rather clear-cut moral universes and traditional epic journey narratives, would never have been able to attain the financial and popular success it did without the success of Tolkien’s work.

In both The Belgariad and The Mallorean, Eddings has crafted a fully-fleshed out world with its own rules, its own exhaustively detailed cultures, and its own magic system.  One can definitely see the influence of Tolkien here, who set the stage for the necessity of this fully-developed world in his own work of sub-creation.  Eddings, however, relies a bit more on ostentatious use of magic (though it is typically referred to as the power throughout the series) than his predecessor, an indicator perhaps of some of the changes that have taken place in the epic fantasy genre post-Tolkien.

While neither of Eddings’s two signature series attains quite the operatic heights of the greatest of Tolkien’s works, there are moments of true brilliance and reflection.  Polgara, for one, emerges from these tales as a woman who has given up almost everything she cared for, even her sister, in order to pursue the Prophecy that governs the fate of their world.  And even Torak, the primary villain of the original series, becomes something of a sympathetic character upon his death, when he cries out in his anguish for his mother, and when his brother gods gather around to mourn his passing.  There is a sense in these scenes of the tragedy of fate, that often gathers up and destroys those that it seeks to use, so that even the most villainous and destructive of characters becomes something a little more nuanced and a little more understandable, if no less villainous in the final analysis.

It this ability to paint even the most evil of characters as nuanced and complex that renders Eddings into one of Tolkien’s heirs.  Recall that even Tolkien’s villains, most notably Morgoth and Sauron, were not evil in their beginning; their falls resulted from their desire for order, which they pursued outside of the aegis of Iluvatar.  Eddings takes this a step further, suggesting that Torak had no more agency in his decisions than did Garion (the main character of The Belgariad and The Mallorean).  This, in my view, is a rather profound view of evil, and it presses against our typical understandings of evil as blankly incomprehensible.  Here, we are instead invited to acknowledge the morally ambiguous place that we occupy in the moral binaries upon which so many fantasy series are built.

However, it is also important to note that Eddings has his flaws as a writer.  He tends to rely too much on witty dialogue that sometimes comes off as trite and unconvincing, frequently puncturing otherwise compelling scenes with dialogue that seems forced and cliche.  Furthermore, everything in Eddings’ world is a little too neatly divided along the axis of good and evil, with the people of the West (the Alorns, the Drasnians, and especially the Rivans) clearly coded as the saviours and those in the East and South (the Murgos and the Nyissans, respectively) fall prey to the old stereotypes as evil and as ethnically “Other.”

For all of this, however, Eddings is still a competent writer and storyteller. And if his plots get a little repetitive at at times, at least it is the type of repetitiveness that speaks of the tried and true nature of the epic tale formula.  While Mr. Eddings sadly passed away in 2009, I still take great pleasure revisiting the worlds that he took such obvious care and delight in creating.