The Rivan Codex by David and Leigh Eddings
Illustrated by Geoff Taylor
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the old days, readers tended to let the backstory of a world remain backstory. At most, they might bug the author for a prequel or two set before the action of the main books. But generally they were satisfied to leave the snippets of history and legend and song that were dribbled out here and there be hints of an imagined whole.
There were the occasional exceptions, like HP Lovecraft's imagined grimoire, the Necronomicon, or Robert W. Chambers' imaginary play "The King in Yellow" in the story collection of the same name. The latter in particular so captured the imaginations of readers that there are at least two different attempts to reconstruct the entire play from the snippets in the stories.
But it was the publication of JRR Tolkien's monumental The Lord of the Rings that really set readers to clamoring for more information about a world so deeply and subtly realized that it felt as real as our own. Two different unauthorized guides in encyclopedia format were produced, as well as materials on the languages, music and other aspects of Middle Earth. Particularly after the success of the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth in which Christopher Tolkien undertook a scholarly analysis of his father's papers, it became clear that there was a serious market for the backstory materials of popular series.
Unfortunately, this volume seems to have simply ridden on the coattails of that popularity, having been published right as the last several volumes of the History of Middle Earth were coming out. When Tolkien creates an essay that is feigned to be a transcript or translation of a document made by an ancient elvish scholar or an Anglo-Saxon sailor, it really feels like something that's come through the ages from just such an antiquated origin. And when we get to see successive manuscripts of a text, whether it's a straight narrative or a feigned translation from an imaginary document, we gain insights into the process of writing, at least as Tolkien undertook it.
The Rivan Codex simply doesn't have that sort of insight. Quite honestly, I found the best part of the book to be David Eddings' introduction in his own voice in which he tells how he and his wife went about creating the Secondary World of the Belgariad and Malloreon, discussing his methods of drawing upon literary sources, particularly those of tradition and antiquity such as myth and legend which lie firmly in the public domain.
By contrast, the various feigned documents which comprise the bulk of the book never really spring to life. They feel forced, as if the authors consciously sat down and cranked them out according to a diagram. Quite honestly, the only one that really came close to feeling like an actual artifact of a living culture was the selection of the Proverbs of Nedra -- they actually have that gnomic feel of sayings passed down through the generations until the wisdom has been distilled into a sharp an concise phrasing. I really got a kick out of comparing them to the wisdom lore of another merchant race -- the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. While the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition come across as glorifying the sort of business tactics that make caveat emptor a common phrase, the Proverbs of Nedra uphold honesty and prudent dealings as the foundation of long-term business success. (One might wish that some of the financial and other corporations here in the Primary World had conducted their business in the spirit of the Proverbs of Nedra rather than the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition). Of course Gene Roddenbery originally conceived of the Ferengi as a new villain race to replace the Klingons (who had allied with the Federation), not comic relief as they ultimately became, whereas David and Leigh Eddings intended the Tolnedrans to be one of the Good Guys, so it's hardly surprising that the two creators would give their fictional peoples different moral compasses.
The encyclopedic entries on the various countries may have been interesting to the authors in keeping their creations straight across twelve novels, but quite honestly, I can't really say that they make interesting reading as they are. Now perhaps if we had gotten to see how they changed during the course of the writing of all those novels, as the authors reconsidered various elements in the light of things they discovered in the writing process, that might have actually been interesting. But presented as they are, they really only would have been helpful when actually reading the novels for the very first time.
In summation, this book is really only for completists who absolutely, positively have to have everything related to the Belgariad and Malloreon universe. It's not really a book for someone who wants to do serious scholarship the way the History of Middle Earth can be used by someone doing research on Tolkien's creative process.
Review posted January 31, 2010.
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