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The Literary Sorcerer

David Carroll Eddings ’54

David Eddings ’54, whose fantasy fiction became wildly popular the world over, hoped his books would spur young readers to delve into Homer and Milton.

Author David Eddings, whose fantasy fiction became wildly popular the world over, died in June, 2009, at age 77 in his home in Carson City, Nevada. His death came two years after that of his beloved wife and collaborator, Leigh.

Writing, and an abiding love of literature, marked his life. An English major—and proud of it—David frequently said that his profound hope was that his work would spur young readers to read the classics.

“Let television tremble. Big Dave and Little Leigh are coming to black out those screens,” he wrote in his preliminary studies for his two blockbuster fantasy series, the Belgariad and the Malloreon. “Maybe that’s our purpose in life. We’re here to teach a whole generation how to read—not everybody, perhaps, but enough to possibly make a difference. And after they’re finished with us they can move on to somebody important like Homer or Milton.”

David made that sense of purpose concrete for generations of Reed students with a gift of $18 million in addition to his literary estate and archives. He directed his gift primarily toward the study of languages and literature, including scholarships to help students of limited means attend Reed; an endowed professorship in English literature; and unrestricted support for the college’s endowment.

His generosity perpetuates a legacy of guiding young lives through his works. Fantasy is a particularly powerful genre for adolescent readers. With their strong basis in Jungian archetypes, David’s books provide a between-the-lines manual for young adults trying to puzzle their way through the world. Upon hearing of his death, many of his fans remarked online about how he taught them to persevere in the face of adversity, to respect strong women, to bear responsibility for their actions, and to find humor and humanity through life’s adventures.

One fan wrote, “At a point in my life when I needed direction—any direction—the most, these novels…positively affected my life in ways I still may not be fully aware of… I’ll bet there are millions of fantasy fans out there who read the Belgariad and/or the Malloreon in their teens and had similarly moving experiences.” Another wrote, “I would not be the man I am today if it were not for David Eddings and his work on the Belgariad. His work helped an insecure boy, failing English one year, become a book lover the next. He not only entertained but laid the foundation for my academic success and later opportunity. RIP—you will be missed.”

Although he was grateful for his readers, David scorned the cult of celebrity and was for the most part unwilling to relinquish his privacy. “I do not hunger, neither do I thirst, for the kind of celebrity that involves the spilling of my guts in public,” he wrote. “My guts are fine where they are, thank you.” He refused to tour to promote his books (after a near-collision during one flight, he vowed never to fly again) and almost never granted interviews.

Eddings lived most of his early life in Spokane, Washington, where he was born on July 7, 1931, to a family of modest means. He began writing when he was 17, and always assumed he would wind up being a writer. He also enjoyed performing; acting was his second passion. He participated in theater, speech, and debate in high school and in Everett Junior College. “I tore that junior college up,” he wrote. He won a statewide oratorical contest, played the male lead in most productions, and maintained a 4.0 GPA. These accomplishments led to him winning a scholarship to Reed.

“Reed turned out to be quite a bit more difficult,” he wrote. He started out as a theatre major, but switched to English after one semester because he had to get a part-time job to pay for his living expenses, and had no time for rehearsals. He didn’t mind changing majors, he said, “because I was going to be a writer anyway.” Teachers such as Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [English 1929-69] and Prof. Don MacRae [English 1944-73] introduced him to works he would never have read otherwise. David enjoyed the intense workload, the freedom from grades, and above all the intellectual challenges. He spent many years thinking about a question that Prof. Ed Garlan [philosophy] posed for a final exam: explain the difference between Right and Good. (“I think I finally figured it out,” he said in our 1997 interview. “Right is an ethical choice, good is a moral choice. There is a difference.”)

David wrote his thesis, a novel titled How Lonely Are the Dead, under Prof. Reynolds, with encouragement from a visiting writer, Walter van Tilberg Clark. After graduation he was drafted and posted to Germany, where his training in German from Prof. Kaspar Locher [German 1950-88] served him well. Following his discharge, he bagged groceries to save money, then enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington, thanks to the G.I. Bill. Despite his major in modern American fiction, he spent time with the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and Sir Thomas Mallory, and developed a love for Middle English, all of which were key to the creation of the universes of his later works of fantasy.

After graduate school, David again worked in grocery stores (he later blamed his bad back on lifting heavy milk cases) before landing a job as a purchasing agent for Boeing in Seattle. There he met and married the love of his life, Judith Leigh Schall (whom he later described as a world-class cook and a crack shot). They moved frequently around the country as “missile bums” until they ended up in New Orleans, whose climate was dangerous for the asthmatic Leigh. David quit Boeing to teach English and creative writing for at two small colleges in the Midwest. He left academia after he became angered that administrators but not faculty had received pay raises—which opened the door to see if he could make it as a writer.

David spent a year living on his savings and wrote High Hunt, a contemporary drama about a group of deer hunters in the Northwest, published by Putnam in 1973. “It was astonishing to me,” he said. He and Leigh moved to Spokane, where he wrote The Losers, a gritty novel about a Reedie whose luck runs down. Putnam didn’t want it—nor did anyone else. Returning to the grocery business, he wrote several other contemporary novels that no publisher would touch. One day, as a distraction from writing a book that he found unbearably dull, he started doodling a map of an imaginary place. Although it intrigued him, he put it away and went back to stocking shelves.

Some time later, David chanced upon a copy of The Lord of the Rings in a bookstore, and was surprised to see it was in its 78th printing. He rushed home and exclaimed, “Leigh, this is where it’s at.” He realized that genre fiction could be a solid way of making money, and he also knew that his background and talents made him particularly well suited for the task of writing it. He went back to his half-completed map and spent almost two years, after work and on weekends, methodically creating the universe of the Belgariad and Malloreon, complete with distinct cultures, politics, holy texts, timelines, mythologies, and a unique system of magic. He then went on to write the books from this background, adding the humor, generosity of spirit, and well-realized characters that marked his work.

During this time, David and Leigh developed their working partnership. Because of his bad back, he would get up at 2 a.m. and write until 8 a.m. Then he would read his night’s work aloud to Leigh, who would catch inconsistencies, tighten the plot, add the details and color that came naturally to her, and rewrite what the women said (David maintained that he was baffled by women). David always wanted Leigh to be named as co-author, but his publisher argued that would be a detriment in the market. It took a few years, but Leigh finally received that recognition and was listed as co-author in all subsequent books.

The Belgariad series was bought and published in 1982 by the noted editor Lester Del Rey; every single one was a bestseller. David was finally able to quit his day job and devote his life to his writing, producing an enormous and beloved body of works for his growing legions of fans.

David and Leigh lived out their lives in Carson City, Nevada, a peaceful and beautiful town that they loved. Their last few years were difficult: Leigh suffered a debilitating stroke in 1999; David lovingly cared for her until her death in 2007, although diminished himself by growing dementia. Endings in life, as well as in books, are often poignant, but David leaves behind an extraordinary, life-changing literary legacy.

—Nadine Fiedler ’89

Books of David Eddings

How Lonely are the Dead 1954
(senior thesis)
Man Running 1960 (MA thesis, UW)
High Hunt 1973
Belgariad series
Pawn of Prophecy 1982
Queen of Sorcery 1982
Magician’s Gambit 1983
Castle of Wizardry 1984
Enchanters’ End Game 1984
Malloreon series
Guardians of the West 1987
King of the Murgos 1988
Demon Lord of Karanda 1988
Sorceress of Darshiva 19899
Seeress of Kell 1991
Related books
Belgarath the Sorcerer 1995
Polgara the Sorceress 1997
The Rivan Codex 1998
The Elenium
The Diamond Throne 1989
The Ruby Knight 1990
The Sapphire Rose 1991
The Tamuli
Domes of Fire 1992
The Shining Ones 1993
The Hidden City 1994
The Losers 1992
The Redemption of Althalus 2000
Regina’s Song 2000
The Dreamers
The Elder Gods 2003
The Treasured One 2004
Crystal Gorge 2005h
The Younger Gods 2006

Appeared in Reed magazine: Autumn 2009

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