Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Science and Sorcery in Magician’s Gambit

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During the Cold War, science shaped the world. From the Space Race to nuclear fission as an energy source and a weapon to the thousands of little things that made life easier, they all came from the years of the Cold War. As we have seen before, the events of the Cold War shaped how David Eddings wrote the Belgariad. Science’s influence is clearest in Magician’s Gambit, the third book in the series, which was initially published in 1983. Much of the world-building surrounding magic and how it works is solidified in this book.

Spoilers for Magician’s Gambit and the previous two books in the series.

What Happens

In Magician’s Gambit, we see the party leave Nyissa after Garion’s abduction. Garion gets some explanation about how his magic works. They head to the Vale of Aldur for instruction, passing through Maragor on the way. Maragor is the cursed valley where the Marags lived, and several hundred years ago the Tolnedrans killed them all. In revenge, the god Mara cursed the valley so that anyone who enters it without magical protection is driven mad.

During a storm after Maragor, they hole up in a cave. One of the pack mares gives birth to a dead foal, and Garion brings it back to life. Once they reach the Vale of Aldur, we meet Bedin, Beltira, Belkira- Belgarath, and Polgara’s fellow sorcerers. We also meet the God Aldur. Belgarath continues the education of Garion in sorcery, because Garion has done several foolhardy things with his magic.

After this they head to Ulgoland, where they leave Ce’Nedra and add a man named Relg to their party. Relg is a diviner who can pass through stone and find caves. They then pursue the Orb to Rak Cthol, where Ctuchik, the disciple of Torak lives. They confront Ctuchik and recover both the Orb and the innocent child used to steal it. Ctuchik uses a forbidden spell and he implodes. This leads to the collapse of the city as our heroes desperately try to flee.

The Interplay of Sorcery and Science

How does Sorcery Work?

As Belgarath tells Garion, sorcery at its essence has two components: the Will and the Word. Only certain people have a brain that can gather in power from their surroundings (the Will). That power is then channeled through a word (aka the Word), which completes the spell. A sorcerer can theoretically do anything with magic, but the good ones don’t test those limits. Each use of sorcery creates a noise that other sorcerers can hear.

If you try to do something outside the limits of your power, you can die. Such a limit is personal, based on how much power you can channel, and it’s different for everyone. If you try to do something outside of that power limit, your life energy is pulled into the spell, which is what kills you.

There is one universal prohibition, from the lowliest magician to the gods. You cannot uncreate things. If you do it, the spell will uncreate you instead, as Ctuchik finds out at the end of the book.

How This Relates to Science

One of the mistakes Garion makes is attempting to move an enormous rock. Unfortunately for him, he attempts to pick it up.

Though he had not touched the rock, its weight had nonetheless been upon him…With dismay Garion realized that he had sunk up to his armpits in the firm soil of the meadow. (Magician’s Gambit, p. 128).

He stays there until Hettar and Silk dig him out.

When Belgarath finds out that Garion had done this, he further educates his grandson about the nature of magic.

“You have to brace yourself,” Belgarath explained. … “As much of your will goes into holding yourself immobile as it does pushing against the object you’re trying to move.” (Magician’s Gambit, p. 131).

As Garion’s experiment ultimately proves, magic works within the laws of physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, even if the action is prompted by a spell, rather than by actual force. Such as Garion’s interlude with the rock.

Because of this interplay of science and magic, sorcerers spend years learning how to manipulate the forces of nature. We see this in Belgarath’s tower, where he has a multitude of papers and trinkets. They range from devices to prove the purpose of mountains to a stick with only one end. Not only are the mechanics of magic related to science, but those who practice it are akin to scientists. Further, the divisions between practitioners is related to the Cold War disputes.

Scientists and Sorcerers

We see two different groups of magic users in the Belgariad: the Disciples of Aldur and the Grolims. As with everything in Eddings’s universe, these two sects can be tied to the Cold War.

Belgarath specifically calls Ctuchik a magician instead of a sorcerer. He even says the word ‘magician’ “with a note of profound contempt in his voice.” (Magician’s Gambit, p. 16). At another point he uses magician as a deadly insult.

Ctuchik in return is contemptuous of Belgarath. His entire plan hinges on Belgarath stupidly bringing Ce’Nedra to Rak Cthol. He weakens his defenses to allow them entry without verifying that Ce’Nedra is there.

The feud between them has lasted for centuries, much as the feud between scientists in the Cold War lasted for decades. Both were contemptuous of the other. American scientists derided failed Russian grain experiments for making heartier cold-weather grain. Russian scientists mocked the Americans when the Soviet Union was the first to launch a man into space.

This conflict lead to things that were impossible a generation before. Variations of plastic, microwaves, and thousands of other amenities were created because Russia and America hated each other. In the same way, the feud between the Grolims and Belgarath leads them to greater feats of magic. We see magical camouflage, summoning ghosts, and attacks on a person’s mind. We see the fall of a city, raising the dead, and characters turning into animals. This grants them a measure of awe, as both scientists’ and the sorcerers’ discoveries make them seem to be miracle workers.

Science, Magic, and Religion

The next way that science and magic interplay is in how they both interact with religion. Despite the fact that both sects of sorcerers are at their core religious groups, they are not particularly respectful of religions. This is similar in many ways to how religion and science, especially at this time, were at odds. As seen, for example, in the decades long debate about the place of evolution and religion in schools during this time.

There is a pattern in Eddings’s writings, where he develops religions and then does not write them realistically. Aldur is the only god that does not take a large group of people to guide. Instead he teaches a small, select group of people sorcery.

The Grolims that follow Torak are more religious, but they are not skilled at magic. Only some Grolims have magical powers, and the most powerful are Ctuchik, the already derided magician, and Zedar. Zedar was once a follower of Aldur, but he became an apostate when Torak stole the Orb. Neither of them serve as any major opponent to Belgarath and Polgara though.

The fact that the Grolims are a more religious organization ties this metaphor to the Cold War. One of the major critiques of communism was that it was ungodly. The USSR had no religion, and religious institutions were not upheld in the same manner as Americans did. The Grolims in Edding’s Belgariad committed daily human sacrifice. By having the Soviet analogues involved in an evil religion, Eddings was critiquing communism by showing the inverse.

The Inherent Dangers

The most inherent example of the dangers of science is the atom bomb. Because of it, the specter of nuclear winter hung over the Cold War like a pall, and people wondered if science had gone too far.

Eddings has two parallels to nuclear weaponry in the Belgaraid. The first is the forbidden magic. As we know, sorcerers are forbidden to uncreate anything. Doing so completely destroyed the towers of two of Belgarath’s old compatriots, Belmakor and Belsambar. Ctuchik uses such magic to try and destroy Garion in a frantic moment of panic and, “ the Disciple of Torak exploded into nothingness.” (Magician’s Gambit, p. 302-3). That explosion also destroys the city of Rak Cthol, and the destruction inherent in the aftermath of this spell is comparable to nuclear weapons.

The second item that is comparable is the Orb of Aldur. In addition to serving as the impetus of the story, it’s an incredibly powerful magical item. It was used by Torak to crack the world in half and in return, it melted his face off. After that, it could only be touched by a descendent of Riva, an Alorn king, or by a total innocent. The potential  of Garion touching the Orb lead Ctuchik to utter his final spell.

The Orb is an item that must be used with great care, lest one destroy the world. The fact that it can only be used by a ruler or by a total innocent is reflective of those who should access such weapons: only those who won’t use them. Not all that different from what someone might say of the atomic bomb.


In many ways science is as important today as it was during the Cold War. We are a society that lives through technology and whose lives are bettered by science. It’s odd that we can learn lessons on how science was viewed in a time through a fantasy novel, but that’s what David Eddings does here. Through Magician’s Gambit we see science through how the sorcerers work. We see it in their rivalries and their religion. It is present in the dangers that it represents as well. While the rivalries are mostly gone, science still works this way in the present. History is about learning through the past, and fantasy is about re-imagining it. Eddings manages to show us both here, and that is both a triumph and a lesson.

Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books

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