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If you are reading this I hope it is safe to assume that you have read the previous three parts to this essay, and that by now you are aware that this document will contain spoilers. As I mentioned at the end of part three of this essay, anticipation for Book Four was very high on the forums and in the shurtugal.com community. I and thousands of other fans were eager to discuss and theorize how the various promises and expectations left to be fulfilled would be met in the concluding book of the series, and in addition to reviewing Inheritance itself in this essay I will also discuss what some of my expectations were leading up to the release of book four, how and when they were met, exceeded, or in some cases, where the story perhaps fell short. After that I will share my final conclusions and reactions to The Inheritance Cycle, and what the series has meant to me.
During this waiting period there was plenty of material to sift through and discuss. Forum topics in the years awaiting the release of Inheritance included: who the Green Rider would be, whether or not Eragon and Arya would get together, what was in the Vault of Souls, what Brom’s seven words were, whether or not Glaedr would get over his grief for Oromis’ death, what was the fee taken from Eragon by the Menoa tree, who would become the King or Queen of the Empire after Galbatorix’s death, whether or not Murtagh would be able to change his true name, whether or not we would ever learn more about Angela the Herbalist, whether or not Galbatorix would fly out and lay waste to the Varden (as had been suggested so many times as to be expected to only be a matter of time), what would cause Eragon and Saphira to leave Alagesia, and of course there were tons of questions about the final resolutions for all the characters and great speculation as to how Eragon might actually defeat Galbatorix.
I felt some of these questions had been so obviously foreshadowed that there could only be one answer. In my mind Arya was the only real candidate to be the new Rider. I wasn’t sure if Eragon and Arya would get together but I hoped they would. I had no idea what was in the Vault of Souls, but because of the promises laid out at the end of Brisingr I expected that it wasn’t Eldunari and that it would of course help Eragon and Saphira defeat Galbatorix. I thought Murtagh would change his name and that he would do it because of love for Nasuada (which was foreshadowed twice from both Murtagh and Nasuada earlier in the series). I thought Nasuada would become Queen. I was sure Glaedr would get over his grief (otherwise why give Eragon his Eldunari?). I was also pretty sure Galbatorix would finally fly out on Shruikan and largely destroy the Varden and/or the Elven army. I was pretty sure Christopher Paolini would keep leading us on with tidbits about Angela but that we would never get any satisfactory answers about her (he has said in interviews that he enjoyed teasing his readers with information with no intention of giving answers to some of the questions raised. This is an aspect of his writing that I despise; I don’t like my emotions being played with for someone else’s amusement).
It was with high hopes and these expectations on my mind that at 1:23pm on November 8, 2011 I spent most of my weekly grocery budget to pick up Inheritance off a display at Wal Mart (Don’t judge me. There was no bookstore in the tiny college town I lived in at the time). By 8pm the next day (I went to class) I had finished. My initial reaction was… complicated. There were several unexpected and pleasant twists, several awesome and powerful scenes, several moments of dissatisfaction, and one crippling problem that I felt cast a black spot on the satisfying resolution of the series. After waiting so long to see the series through to its conclusion, after having my hopes so high, despite what I knew were the plentiful flaws and occasional disappointments of the earlier books in the series, I really, really, wanted Inheritance to be as good as I hoped it would be. But, after finishing it for the first time the feeling that predominated was a sense of disappointment.
I gave the book to my roommate and asked him to read it and tell me what he thought (he had read the previous three books in the series, but not as recently as I had). I got online and started reading the forum posts from people who were finishing it and posting their initial reactions. I was not surprised to find that I was not alone. This is it? Really? were the comments that seemed to touch upon my own feelings. Everyone seemed to agree that their were some things they really liked, but only one or two fans I interacted with said that it had lived up to all their hopes and expectations. My roommate finished it over the weekend and told me that it was “pretty good, I guess.” We later discussed it in more detail and found disappointment in a lot of the same moments.
Now, let’s be reasonable. Its perfectly possible (and highly likely) that I and the rest of the fan community had raised our hopes and dreams for the book to an unreasonable level. After all, Christopher Paolini is only a mortal man writing a book. As readers we knew that Inheritance could never please or satisfy everybody, but one common bond of the Inheritance Cycle fan community that I have rarely found elsewhere was such a deep love for the books. Everyone wanted Inheritance to be the best book ever written. They wanted their favorite characters in this wonderful world to have a spectacular finale. To me it seemed that as Christopher wrote the book we weren’t in a hurry for it because we were the hungry-hungry-hippos of epic fantasy fans (I’m looking at you Rothfuss fans. I love them too just keep your pants on, quit whining, and let him do the job right), but because his love for the series was so palpable when he talked about it, and because we shared that love with him and couldn’t wait to enjoy it too. We were more like fellow fans hanging out with the ultimate fan, and we all loved the series and wanted it to succeed. That’s why the disappointment with book four was so poignant. That’s why my feelings were mixed and why I’ve had such a hard time defining my ultimate reaction to the Inheritance Cycle as a whole, and why I’ve written an 18,000 word essay trying to put my thoughts into words and find out.
I pondered this a lot and at length I think I found the reason behind this phenomena. I think this unusual relationship and reaction of fans to the author is because of the way Eragon was marketed. They made such a huge deal of the fact that Christopher had written the book when he was fifteen, and that this was a book written by a young person for young people. This made Christopher feel like one of us and helped us feel like we were like him, instead of having a more typical separation of audience to creator. This excited readers. This inspired people. It inspired me. When I first had the idea to write my own story (which I related back in Part 1) I still thought that there was something “special” about authors that made them different from normal people. One of the things that gave me courage to start writing my own stories was enjoying this series and thinking: “Well, Christopher Paolini was the same age I am now when he wrote Eragon. If he can do it, why can’t I?” This made it all the more painful when the conclusion of the series left me with such disappointment.
Now lets dive into the review and discussion of Inheritance itself. I’ve said that there were things I loved, hated, and were surprised by when reading the book for the first time. Lets get specific. The book begins in media res with Eragon and the Varden fighting to secure Belatona, one of the few remaining imperial cities under Galbatorix’s control. Right off the bat I was happy we didn’t need to read about the setup for this battle because it basically would have been identical to the set up for Feinster and the Burning Plains in the previous two books. Christopher Paolini rightly recognized the needlessness of that, and gets us right into the book where we need to be: moving forward against Galbatorix. One comment I have about this battle and the war in general is that in a real medieval or similar type military campaign most cities would fall as the result of a siege, assaults being far bloodier and riskier for the attacker. Every city that falls during this war does so as the result of an assault, which may be somewhat unrealistic due to the logistical, tactical, and strategic difficulties of capturing fortified cities. Christopher Paolini does correctly draw attention to the difficulties of supply and resources for an army in the field, but having five fortifed cities fall to assaults in a period of a few months seems doubtfully realistic to me. At the very least I can’t think of any historical precedent where this has actually happened.
Within a few short pages of battle two significant things happen. One, Eragon’s companion elves which have for the entirety of the last book were Blodgharm’s nameless companions suddenly start having names, which to me was a clear indicator that one or more of them are going to die soon. Unfortunately subtlety of foreshadowing has only occasionally been demonstrated in Christopher Paolini’s writing. Second, the reader is first introduced to the
spear of deus ex machina, or, in the ancient language, the dauthdaert. This happens when the imperial soldiers and magicians attempt to use it to kill Saphira. A dauthdaert is a magical spear made by the elves in ages past during their war against the dragons. It is enchanted with properties that help it break through wards and otherwise wreak gruesome death on dragons. This is horrible foreshadowing because we have never heard of these fancy spear things before (when there were good opportunities in Eldest to slip it in), and conveniently, we are expecting Eragon to have to kill a dragon later on in this book. At this point in the battle Roran is nearly killed, and other then him turning out to be alive nothing of great significance occurs before the battle of Belatona is finished.
After this an alliance is formed between the werecats and the Varden, a development that I knew was coming after it was teased in the deluxe edition of Brisingr. I didn’t particularly care for it. A few pages later (P.36 hardback) Eragon and Saphira pause after the battle to eat roast-pork belly, and strangely, after all the fuss made in the last two books, absolutely nothing is said about Eragon’s aversion to eating meat. Also, on the same page Saphira quotes Gollum from the Lord of the Rings:Two Towers movie.
The story continues as the army begins making its way north toward Dras Leona. Elain, a kindly pregnant woman from Carvahall, finally has her baby and there is some very interesting interracial conflict stuff going on here where humans are expressing their distrust of elves. I wasn’t expecting this when I first read the book and found it fairly confusing. Despite the comments about Urgal culture and conflict in Brisingr and Eldest (which I thought were just interesting tidbits added to get Eragon to become more mature and quit being racist) I did not at all expect one of the big surprises that Christopher Paolini had in store near the end of the novel. On re reading these moments of interracial conflict are pretty clearly foreshadowing the need for this event to take place. I liked them better reading Inheritance the second time around than on my first impression.
On P. 91 as the Varden are slowly trundling towards Dras Leona Eragon begins a series of sword fighting sparring sessions with the elves. After Brom, Arya, and Oromis establish and mention Eragon’s exceptional skill with the blade, this felt really repetitive and regressive for Eragon to be dealing with something as trite as his sword fighting skill when the obvious challenge ahead, based on the promises at the end of Brisingr, was in using his brains to figure out a way to get past Galbatorix’s wards and overcome his Eldunari. Were I in Eragon’s situation I would be wracking my brains constantly and learning everything I could about Galbatorix to try to understand him and try to think of a way to defeat him, much the way Harry Potter and his friends spend a lot of time in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows agonizing over the possible locations of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s Horcruxes, and how to find and destroy them and then defeat the Dark Lord. When comparing the two books the problems facing the heroes against their respective nemeses are surprisingly similar at this juncture. What Eragon is doing here is like Harry Potter suddenly deciding the only way he can beat Voldemort is to spend day and night practicing his dueling skills, even when he already knows the horcruxes are his weakness. Even though these scenes later leads to Glaedr teaching Eragon a lesson that does indeed prove valuable against Galbatorix and Murtagh, when you read it here it doesn’t make sense.
Also during this segment with the Varden on P.109 Angela the Herbalist tells a silly story and makes a Monty Python reference. Nothing like cheap humor to maintain the mood when your hero is about to face off against the most evil villain on the planet. There is also a minor canon issue when on P. 118 a man is describing his dislike of elves and says: “there’s not a one of them that can’t use magic.” In Eldest Oromis directly contradicts this by saying that not all elves can use magic, but as I mentioned in an earlier part of this essay we never actually meet a magic-less elf. Its also possible that Christopher Paolini could explain this away by saying that the man is ignorant. Whether or not that’s the case I just think its worth bringing attention to.
At this point the viewpoint characters split up. Roran takes a few men and races to Aroughs because the Varden allegedly have it under siege (with fewer than 1,000 men) and Nasuada wants him to end the siege in like three or four days. Besides being a strategic nightmare and a sick joke for any commander to assign to someone, its the perfect set up for yet another Ridiculous Roran moment. Yay? After arriving Roran comes up with another harebrained scheme to use the canal system and a barge loaded with flour and slate as an improvised battering ram to breach the city’s fortifications and capture it. This is just as hard to believe as any of the Ridiculous Roran moments earlier in the series, only this time a few more obvious and believable solution presents itself without terrible difficulty. A few ideas that came to my mind 1) break the siege. The force inside Aroughs really wasn’t large enough to be a major threat to a fortified Surdan city, a couple hundred cavalry could easily keep an eye on them and check any incursions into Surdan territory for as long as necessary, and, if all else failed, Eragon and Saphira could fly south and lay waste to their city in a day or two. 2) Pull some sort of sneaky ninja night time incursion. If Roran took a small, handpicked force they could probably scale the wall with grappling hooks or something and sneak into the main fort at night with no greater difficulty than they did in the early morning raid as it is narrated in the novel. If they could have captured and held Aroughs’ lord hostage it would have been a small matter to get the city to capitulate. Or if not they could have just killed him and they would have been deprived of leadership. 3) It is never satisfactorily explained why Carn can’t just use the words of death to slowly pick off soldiers or citizens in the city. It would be impossible for the lone enemy magician to ward everybody, and after killing a few soldiers and possibly innocents perhaps that could have turned the populace against their own soldiers just to get the Varden to leave them alone. Who knows? Any of these idea just seemed more reasonable than this Ridiculous Roran moment, which on top of being being an unbelievable feat is made even less believable by Nasuada’s ridiculous time limit.
Things continue apace at Dras Leona. Which is to say that Galbatorix used too many rare candies on Thorn so now he just loafs around instead of using his flamethrower attack. At long last the stalemate is broken when Eragon, one his newly-named elf buddies, and Angela and Solembum enter a secret tunnel into Dras Leona that was discovered by Jeod. This leads to a very long side altercation where the elf is killed, Eragon and Arya get captured and we find out that priests of Helgrind actually worship the Ra’zac. Angela pulls some ridiculous stunts to save Eragon and Arya, including a spell that either gives her super speed or manipulates time, (which she naturally doesn’t share with anyone who’s planning to fight Galbatorix anytime soon). After they get free of the catacombs Saphira attacks the city and wrecks the Cathedral (very cool scene), which gives Eragon time enough to run to the gates and drain Aren’s energy reserves to blow them open so the Varden can attack. When that happens a lot of theories go out the window as to how Eragon will have energy to resist Galbatorix long enough to beat him when they finally face off in battle (question never answered: did Islanzadi’s elves recover Naegling? The crystal in the sword was also a vast reserve of energy that after being lost I and many other fans assumed Eragon would be able to tap into for the battle with Galbatorix). This victory is soured when the night after the battle Murtagh attacks and kidnaps Nasuada, sending everything to crap.
Up until this point the action scenes in the book had been pretty good, but a lot of the plot things going on were odd, unexpected, or lame. Many fans on the forums considered all of the sword fighting scenes, Roran’s trip and battle at Aroughs, and the birth scene of Elain’s baby utterly plot less and a waste of pages. My criticism doesn’t go that far, but I was really confused why we were 300 or so pages into the novel and Eragon hadn’t even spared a thought for how to defeat Galbatorix, and the only developments we had seen on that front were Glaedr starting to wake up and the discovery of the spear of deus ex machina(which happened on page 11). Meanwhile we were reading silly and stupid things like Ridiculous Roran goes to Aroughs, Angela nonsense, Gollum, Doctor Who (p. 389), and Monty Python references, and the “story seeds” for possible future novels in Alagaesia that are so far off on the horizon that it was maddening for words to be wasted on them when this story was in dire need of a rescue.
The army of the Varden begins their trek to Uru Baen and Eragon decides to ignore his new responsibilities as leader of the Varden when with Glaedr, Arya, and Solembum’s help he finally learns that the Rock of Kuthian was on
t̶h̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶l̶y̶ ̶p̶l̶a̶c̶e̶ ̶l̶e̶f̶t̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶a̶p̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶v̶i̶s̶i̶t̶ Vroengard. He leaves the army behind and begins the long flight north to the ancient habitation of the Dragon Riders.
These travel scenes with Eragon are staggered with Nasuada viewpoints where she is being interrogated and later tortured by Galbatorix. Murtagh also befriends her and confides in her his wretched state and helps Nasuada endure some of Galbatorix’s torment. They recognize their feelings of mutual attraction and Murtagh promises to try and devise a way to help Nasuada escape. During these interrogations Galbatorix brings up the overpowered nature of magicians in Alagaesia, and tells Nasuada about his plans to control them using the name of the ancient language. Interestingly, Nasuada and Galbatorix connect on this issue and agree that magicians can’t be allowed to exist outside of the rule of law. Galbatorix just doesn’t include himself in that assessment.
After the frequency of the action and political scenes since the start of Inheritance I found it refreshing to read about Eragon and Saphira returning to the old Inheritance Cycle standby of introspective travel scenes. A couple pages later, as Eragon and Saphira are flying Glaedr tells them the very cool story of how Oromis and Glaedr were captured and battled with two members of the Forsworn simultaneously. They eventually escape, but not without Glaedr and Oromis both being inflicted with the debilitating injuries we met them with. After Glaedr tells the tale their journey continues into a scene that was regularly lambasted (with mint sauce) on the forums but which I contrariwise consider it the most beautiful and best written scene in the entire Inheritance Cycle. It begins on P. 478 of Inheritance. Read it slowly, visualize it in your minds eye, and enjoy one of Christopher Paolini’s finest passages. Immediately following they arrive on Vroengard. Eragon and Saphira take awhile in introspective reflection before discovering their true names in the ancient language, which they need to know so they can enter the Vault of Souls. I thought this sequence was fairly well done, but it didn’t hit me nearly as poignantly as the flying scene. Once they enter the Vault of Souls this great writing is left behind and overshadowed by the greatest storytelling error of the entire series: the hidden trove of Eldunari in the Vault of Souls.
In several episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast and in other books and articles on writing writers such as Brandon Sanderson (author of Mistborn and other awesome fantasy works) discuss the nature of what makes an emotionally compelling story. Brandon Sanderson says that the emotional satisfaction a reader finds in a story comes from the making and fulfilling of promises by an author to a reader as they read the book. Eragon comes to a satisfying conclusion because Christopher Paolini makes dozens of small promises that were later fulfilled. These promises are fulfilled either by having a foreshadowed future event take place, or by a future revelation of information by the end of the book and/or series. In hindsight and after multiple re reads these become much easier to spot. The following is a short list of promises I noticed during my series re read preparing to write this essay: (all page numbers come from hardback Eragon) P.48 Brom coming to Carvahall had something to do with Eragon’s birth. P.50 Eragon, like his namesake, is the first of a new age of Dragon Riders who will impact the world. P.52 Brom has a mysterious past, some people think he is dead. P. 52 Being a Dragon Rider will change Eragon and his life– perhaps in some ways unpleasantly. P.67 Galbatorix and his minions are scary and to be taken seriously etc. When you know what to look for these things become fairly easy to see.
As I mentioned in Part 3 of this essay Oromis states that it is “inconceivable that any great store of Eldunari might by lying hidden somewhere, ready to help us if we could but locate them.” on P. 431 of Inheritance Eragon asks Glaedr if the Vault of Souls could contain Eldunari and the elder dragon says: “No, it is impossible.” Now, Christopher Paolini does a perfectly adequate job of using internal magic of the story with the Eldunari’s power and the tampering with names and memories to explain away this “red herring” statement as I’m sure he sees it. Nevertheless, this is a horrible storytelling error because it breaks a promise that was made to the reader: that Eragon would need to defeat Galbatorix using his brains, without the use of eldunari to enhance his power to any great height. As any one who has ever broken a promise knows, you can’t just explain it away and expect everything to come out all right. Christopher Paolini promised his readers that whatever was in the Vault of Souls would help Eragon and Saphira defeat Galbatorix, and that it wouldn’t be Eldunari. He broke his promise and lost my trust. This above anything else marred the satisfactory conclusion to the book and the series.
On the other hand, the second revelation of dragon eggs in the Vault of Souls was both surprising, exciting, and satisfactory in its explanation as to how they got there. The eggs can’t specifically help Eragon defeat Galbatorix, but it does provide a major hope for the future of their race that was quite dim with only 4 dragons left in the world. That was good storytelling.
How very contradictory. Honestly, even if like 5 Eldunari were in the vault to guard the eggs, it would have been believable and if it hadn’t been the only helpful thing in the Vault it would not have broken the promise in such a huge way.
After this Eragon, Saphira, and his shiny new Eldunari fly back to Uru Baen where the Varden and the elves have linked up and are preparing to attack. Eragon has a brief but tender moment where he wants to share is true name with Arya. She tells him the story about how she learned her own true name, which would be really cool if it didn’t violate canon in Eragon (page 147 hardback) where Brom says that “elves know their true names instinctively.” Sigh.
As the Varden prepare to attack suddenly there is a pretty crazy moment where Shruikan flies out of the city and circles around a bit…. only to turn around and fly back inside. I’m not sure what this was supposed to do but it turns out to be Shruikan’s finest moment, which is pretty disappointing.
At long last, the final battle is about to begin. During the waiting period while Inheritance was being written I was one among only a few forum contributors who discussed real ideas about how Eragon and Saphira might actually defeat Galbatorix. The field was pretty wide open with possibilities here, all we really knew was that however the mad king was defeated it would have to be good, and explained fantastically well. When contributing my own ideas on how Galbatorix would be defeated I approached brainstorming by asking myself who most deserved to kill Galbatorix. My list came out something like this: 1. Shruikan, 2. Murtagh and Thorn, 3. His Eldunari slaves. 4. Various dead people 5. Eragon and Saphira.
For this reason my theory was a group effort that would go something like this: I assumed Murtagh would be plotting and coming up with ideas to hurt Galbatorix almost constantly, just in case he was able to change his true name he would need a way to hurt or occupy Galbatorix in order to escape. I guessed that Murtagh’s true name would change and then he would cast a spell to occupy Galbatorix and/or remove some of his wards, (I was pleasantly surprised when this part was fairly close to how the book turned out). This would then allow Eragon to attack. I guessed that he would cast a spell that would break the enchantments binding Shruikan to Galbatorix (because this is an indirect way to attack, and hard to really defend against). This would cause Galbatorix to go crazy reliving the worst moment of his life when his first dragon died and he went mad from the severance of the life-bond with his partner (with how consuming Glaedr’s grief and anger was at the start of this book I thought it encouraged the possibility of Eragon attacking this way). In Eldest when Oromis teaches Eragon the secret of drawing energy from living things he tells Eragon that he doesn’t think Galbatorix knows this secret of magic, in my mind therefore opening up a pathway to use it against him. I thought after Shruikan was free he would let Eragon into his mind and Eragon would use energy from Shruikan, Saphira, Naegling, Brisingr’s sapphire, the belt of Beloth the Wise, Glaedr, Aren, and maybe even from Galbatorix’s own Eldunari (if possible) to fuel an attack. With Galbatorix going crazy he would lose control of some of his Eldunari and Eragon would be able to overpower him or at least weaken him long enough for Shruikan to eat Galbatorix or something. I also thought it would be cool if Shruikan died doing something noble to save Saphira’s life and therefore the future of the dragons. Also, I assumed that there would of course be a crazy aerial dragon duel in the air above Uru Baen while the armies clashed below. The lack of that part at least, was a huge disappointment.
The reality of the encounter when the book was finally released had some similarities to my theory, and also a lot of differences. The first time I read Inheritance I was disappointed with how the encounter went, but after I let the books rest for a year and re read them I found the encounter more satisfying the second time around.
First though, Eragon and his strike team had to break into Galbatorix’s citadel under cover of the elves diversion. The threat of having to break through a hundred years of ingenious traps and magical defenses in the fortress was a pretty cool opportunity for Christopher Paolini to raise the stakes by showing some of Galbatorix’s creativity. I found the traps disappointing. In my opinion they were far less interesting than the traps in any of the Indiana Jones movies. Using Elva to overcome them was expected, and I was both surprised and pleased with how her character arc humbled her in the fourth book. It made her a lot more likeable and added some depth to her character.
While Eragon and his strike team are breaking into the citadel we see the battle outside through Roran’s viewpoint. The early parts of this battle were well-written and cool, and I enjoyed the action. It was especially awesome to see all the races of Alagaesia united and working together against the Empire. Later on when Barst comes out I found the sequence growing increasingly lame, especially when Islanzadi was killed (which violates canon in Eragon’s Guide to Alagaesia). Then we have the final Ridiculous Roran moment where he organizes the plan to overwhelm Barst’s wards and try to shatter the Eldunari. I thought the plan was a good one. It is ridiculous because when Roran gets to the physical fight he succeeds where Islanzadi and dozens of elves failed. On the bright side, at least he comes out horribly mangled.
Eragon, Arya, Saphira and Elva make it past the traps and magicians into Galbatorix’s throne room only to fall for the cheapest, most stupid trick in the universe. The evil genius mastermind of evil really couldn’t think of a better way to force Eragon’s hand than to threaten a couple little kids? Nasuada was right there, he could have threatened her just as easily and with Eragon’s sworn oath that would have added a fascinating conflicting element of motivation for him and Murtagh. Galbatorix could have even threatened to destroy the Green Dragon egg and kill Thorn (if his true name hadn’t changed, Murtagh wouldn’t have even been able to stop him from doing it!) Their memories of the eggs in the Vault were erased. How much stronger a motivation would that have been for Eragon and Saphira (while making the reader scream because they know something our heroes don’t)? The green egg could have been destroyed (wouldn’t THAT have been a surprise?) and Thorn killed and Saphira and Eragon could kill Galbatorix and Shruikan and still consider the encounter a total failure only to later have their memory restored and realize all wasn’t lost. What a powerful moment that could have been! Sorry little kids, this reviewer is a sadist and thinks the heroes of this fantasy epic had come way, way too far to stop their attack when all they gained was the possibility of saving two more lives when we can’t even begin to guess the body count that was already at this madman’s feet. No matter what happened the kid’s deaths would have been Galbatorix’s fault. Eragon and Arya shouldn’t have caved so easily.
After Galbatorix forces them to capitulate we have an almost identical scene to Return of the Jedi when the Emperor makes Vader and Luke fight. I half expected Galbatorix to say “I’m afraid this citadel is quite operational…” and order the death ray to fire. Instead he just says: “outside, the battle fares badly for your friends.” Just like Emperor Palpatine. Murtagh and Eragon then duel with their
l̶i̶g̶h̶t̶s̶a̶b̶e̶r̶s̶ colorful indestructible swords, and then they wound each other and Eragon sort of wins. After that everybody attacks Galbatorix and Shruikan together and the fighting goes back and forth for a bit. Shruikan is attacked by Thorn and Saphira. He basically just shakes his head and is mad until Arya stabs him in the face with the spear of deus ex machina. He dies ( in my mind what a wasted opportunity). Shruikan was a twisted and fascinating character with so much potential and he ends up as nothing more than exotic transportation for the bad guy who stays home. The battle continues and Eragon casts a spell that tries to communicate with Galbatorix and make him understand how much everything he has done has hurt people. Since this isn’t exactly the sort of attack you can ward against, the spell is effective and after a bit more fighting Galbatorix goes nuts and uses a spell to basically nuke himself and the end the voices in his head. So, at long last, ends the reign of Galbatorix. Like I said above, the first time I read Inheritance I wasn’t pleased with this encounter. The second time I found it more emotionally satisfying than before, mostly because I read it more slowly and noticed a few small things more closely (and was less distracted by cliches and Star Wars similarities and just tried to focus on the story).
The main reason I found this final showdown dissatisfying is because Eragon doesn’t follow Brom’s advice to use his brains and find Galbatorix’s weakness. When he casts the spell it comes across as instinctive and spontaneous, like when dragons use magic. He also never uses Brom’s Seven Words. For being called the Inheritance Cycle it is pretty lame that all Eragon does with his inheritance from his father is blow a gate open and ignore the rest. When asked in an interview after book four came out about Brom’s Seven words Christopher Paolini made some comment about how Eragon has a long life ahead of him and the time he may most need those words might not have happened yet. My response: if an epic battle with the Evil Lord of Evil who has ruled his empire with an iron fist for a century and toppled the mightiest force for good the world has ever known doesn’t qualify as a time of “great need” (P. 275 hardback Eragon) in your life then what does? I’ll also immediately counter a possible argument and note that in my mind its out of character and therefore inconceivable that Brom’s advice wouldn’t have had something to do with toppling Galbatorix. It seems to me that like a few other points of canon Christopher Paolini seems to have forgotten about it (which is easier to do than it sounds because the writer has been immersed in ALL the drafts of the manuscript, and may easily mix something up that was one way in an early draft, but got cut or changed in the final). Either that or he ignored it, which strikes me as unlikely.
After the immediate aftermath of the battle is concluded the story then makes a very awkward viewpoint shift. I don’t know of a better way to wrap things up, but after having the entire series in tight, real-time third person limited stepping back to a broader scope viewpoint is jarring. The final hundred or so pages have a couple cool surprises and a few lame things. The first surprise is Eragon instituting an Olympics-like thing between Urgals and Dwarves to try and end some of the conflict between the Urgals and everybody else. I didn’t see this coming and thought it was a pretty cool solution to a problem that I just assumed Alagaesia was stuck with. The coolest surprise is Eragon changing the Pact made between elves, humans, and dragons to include all the races of Alagesia. This change in the world creates a much friendlier symmetry to the balance of things as they have been in the series as we know it. I didn’t see this coming at all, and I thought it was an awesome thing to include in the book.
Other major points of character, plot, and world resolution were handled well in most cases. Nasuada as queen made the most sense. After giving us so much reason to dislike Orrin in this book the astute reader could see this coming from a mile away. After Islanzadi’s death I expected Lord Dathedr to become king (he was mentioned a lot, enough for you to not get a chance to forget him). I thought Arya becoming queen was pretty lame, even though it most fits the theme of inheritance. I thought Firnen and his relationship with Saphira was tacked on and unexciting. The first time I read the book I disliked that Eragon and Arya weren’t together, but the second time around I picked up on some subtle r things that suggest to me that they may very well end up being together in some future state. Near the end of the book particularly Arya is a lot more affectionate with Eragon than we have ever seen her before. Roran, Elva, Murtagh, Sloan, and Jeod’s resolutions were fine. Angela has no resolution, she just makes another Doctor Who reference (P. 814). Eragon’s reason for leaving Alagaesia was adequate (as long as we assume that even with The Word he couldn’t have just cleaned up Vroengard), but hardly had the drama I expected as the result of his triple-prophetic-cursed state. The only thing left largely unresolved and dissatisfying is with Nasuada and her concerns about policing the magic users. The problem here lies in the worldbuilding of Alagesia more than in anything Christopher Paolini wrote in Inheritance. A magic system that lets people take over other peoples minds and kill them with practically no effort is bound to mess up your world and your story a bit.
I think that’s everything I have to say about Inheritance itself. I hope after reading the review section you better understand what I meant at the beginning of Part 4 when I said my original reaction was predominantly disappointment. After letting the book cool for a year, the re read yielded more satisfaction than the first time through, but Inheritance still has plenty of ‘warts and all’ to its name. As does the series. Having read and liked the trilogy and then cycle for years before growing up and out of the ideal target audience age group, I have enjoyed a varied perspective and relationship with these books. I think my interest in writing has only broadened and enriched my ability to appreciate the diamonds as well as identify the rough. I hope that this essay has been able to convey some of my appreciation, and some of what I’ve learned from the series as both a warning and an inspiration.
I’ve often wondered what I might say if I ever had a chance to meet Christopher Paolini face to face and talk about his books with him. Unless he reads this someday (which I highly doubt) he wouldn’t have any idea how many tiny and nit picky things I found a reason to complain about, and I wouldn’t want to ruin the conversation by bringing them up. He wrote the outline at fifteen and after Eragon was published had no choice but to live with the consequences of the decisions he had made for the next decade of his career. He knows the flaws, he knows the weaknesses. I know because as each book came out a lot of the previous ones were done away with. The adverb problem that plagued Eragon was dead and buried by Brisingr. This is awesome because he gets better with each book, which is all a writer and his readers can ask for. If I were to ever meet Christopher Paolini I would ask him to sign my books, and then I would thank him for inspiring and helping me in my journey to become a writer. I would also want to thank him for the hours and hours of enjoyment I got reading, and afterward imagining and thinking about his characters and world. If I could think of it in the moment, I would like to ask how he came to make various storytelling decisions, to pick his brain and see how the process works for him, so I could learn from it and improve my own writing. I would ask a lot of questions about how to handle various challenges of writing as a craft and how to turn a hobby into a career. I would probably try to think of a question about his life and interests, maybe something that he might like to talk about instead of just answering fan’s questions all the time. I don’t know. Its an imaginary conversation, and I have no idea if I’ll ever get to have a real one, but I still think my primary feeling would be appreciation.
As far as quality of craft and art and contribution to the genre, lets face it: these books are just okay. They became a fad read like Twilight and The Da Vinci Code that sold disproportionally well in comparison to the quality of the writing. It happens. From some perspectives these books are good, and they certainly have great moments, but there are a lot of problems to make them less than amazing. In Stephen King’s On Writing he talks about the importance of reading both good and bad books, for the value of learning that can be gained if you know what to look for. I have learned a ton from the Inheritance Cycle, and that alone has made it worth their space on the shelf, at least for me. Will I read Christopher Paolini’s next book? Yes. I’m going to get it from the library. I’ll give him a chance and see what he can do with a 30 year-old’s outline and fifteen years of writing experience behind him. If its amazing, I might even buy it and read the one after that. If it has as many or some of the same problems as Inheritance? Well, in that case I’m going to turn the page to other writers and other stories. Life is too short to settle for mediocre books. Lets get reading.
One thing I am laboring to convey in this essay (which will contain spoilers) is a balance of the many points of appreciation and criticism I have for the Inheritance Cycle. I want to voice my concerns and disappointments where I feel the story genuinely falls short, but I also want to make sure it is communicated how much I enjoyed reading the series despite them. So, to make sure and give credit where it’s due: Christopher Paolini doesn’t repeat this mistake twice; after Eldest’s rocky beginning Brisingr takes us to the action and gets Roran, Eragon, and Saphira into combat with the Ra’zac after just a few short pages.
I feel it was really critical in this book to put Eragon on the offensive. Since the beginning of the series he has basically been running away from the empire and this opening to Brisingr marks a critical turning point from Eragon being a reactive character to an active character in the overarching conflict against Galbatorix. Now that his journey to really become a Rider is complete its time to start making good on all the promises (both by the author and Eragon) that have been made and start giving the reader real results and progress against Galbatorix, who up until this point has been a lofty, distant, indestructible force rather than a real character. This arc, climaxing in the reveal of the Eldunari, is essential to the compelling resolution of this book and the set up for Inheritance. Throughout this essay I will discuss events in the novel that serve this purpose, as well as some that detract from it, and have drawn criticism from fans and reviewers alike.
Immediately after the battle Eragon sends Saphira south with Roran and the newly-freed Katrina, staying behind to kill the final Ra’zac and to free Sloan, Katrina’s father and the traitor of Carvahall. Eragon faces a moral dilemma in that he can’t bring himself to kill the butcher despite feeling there is plenty of justification in doing so. A lot of fans on the forums and critics in reviews I’ve read and heard were unhappy with this segment of the book (it does add like a hundred pages as Eragon deals with Sloan, and then has to travel on foot back to the Varden). Their frustration is somewhat justified seeing how many conscripted soldiers Eragon has unhesitatingly killed that were surely less deserving of death than Sloan. This frustration will later be aggravated further when on the way back to the Varden Eragon kills another conscripted soldier who is pleading for mercy. This event made Eragon look like a hypocrite to many readers, and I admit that the “necessity” of his death as he and Arya word it seems ridiculous when you consider the multitude of ways in which magic could have been used in a non-lethal delaying solution that would have given them time to get far away. Thorn and Murtagh were already looking for Eragon, giving them accurate data of where he was hours or days previously wouldn’t have made their situation any more perilous (after all they already knew he had been at Helgrind, and it was obvious that he would have been traveling towards the Varden).
Despite these concerns, I think the moral question is a legitimate one to consider because it explores the nature of Dragon Riders and what kind of real, secular power comes with the title and the advent of magical powers. The importance of this theme and its consequences for the story becomes far more important in Inheritance. Eragon of course takes the most complicated route to solve the problem and after discovering Sloan’s true name ensorcells him with a punishment that in our legal system would certainly be considered cruel and unusual. He then begins his journey south through the empire.
When Saphira returns to the Varden and tells Nasuada and company that Eragon remained in the empire Arya heads out to meet him and make sure he gets back safely. After Eragon and Arya reunite there are several interesting scenes where they have their first (and really only) meaningful one on one interaction in this book. These scenes carry enormous weight and do more to add depth of characterization to Arya than any other scene in the series. For me, the campfire scene with Arya was the first time she felt like a real person. Not that before this her character wasn’t powerful, intriguing, and important to the story; but her motivation before these scenes was flat. She always puts her people before herself with little depth or individuality to color our perception of her. Now, when Eragon is faced with the moral question of life and death and his role as a Dragon Rider, Arya considers the question again and seems concerned that perhaps she was overconfident in making her own decisions. She admits that like Eragon she is disgusted and pained by killing, and shares with him her methods for coping with the mental and psychological strife this causes. Arya also opens up about the murder of her friends and the months of torment she experienced as Durza’s prisoner. She finally, finally, lets her endless barriers down and reveals a delicate, pained psyche. This revelation of personal pain and weakness does the exact opposite for her character of what you might expect. Arya as we see her becomes stronger. She becomes a real, dimensional, feeling character and as a reader I admire and love her far more for revealing her weakness than I ever did after two books of her posing on her pedestal as the beautiful, untouchable slave of duty and love interest. This is huge, and Christopher Paolini hits a home run with the campfire conversation scene.
Eragon and Arya return to the Varden, which shortly thereafter is simultaneously attacked by Murtagh and Thorn and a company of imperial soldiers enchanted so they won’t feel pain. This aerial Dragon Rider duel of awesome (which from an action standpoint is a highlight of the series) is an excellent bout which pits Eragon and Saphira against Murtagh and Thorn when they are fresh and rested, unlike their battle on the Burning Plains. They also have the assistance of twelve elven spell casters who recently arrived from the North. In addition to being an awesome action scene, Paolini does some fantastic characterization here as well. Throughout the battle Saphira demonstrates her formidable talents and experience in aerial combat and bests Thorn at every turn. At the same time Eragon and Murtagh exchange blows both physical and mental and neither is able to gain advantage over the other. With the help of the elves Eragon prevents Murtagh from capturing him and/or Saphira, which would have been disastrous, but in turn he fails to capture or kill Murtagh. Saphira has an opportunity to kill Thorn but holds back to give Eragon time to think of a plan to stop them without killing them.
Having a single battle in which Saphira wins and Eragon loses is a brilliant stroke that highlights Saphira’s talents and Thorn’s disadvantage due to Galbatorix messing with his body, while also raising the stakes for Eragon and Murtagh as characters without wrecking the status quo of the war, in which the Varden are in desperate need of a Dragon Rider. This is bold, excellent storytelling and a very effective scene.
After the enchanted soldiers are dealt with, Roran and Katrina get married and Roran is sent off on a raiding mission. Eragon also fulfills his promise and tries to reverse the blessing/curse he cast on Elva. He fails to stop the spell completely, but is able to remove the compulsion that forces Elva to try to prevent the pain she senses around her, this likely saves her life. Somewhere around here there is another repeat of the threat of Galbatorix flying out and blasting everything to smithereens. Once again, it raises the suspicion that that will actually happen, leading to greater disappointment in Inheritance when it doesn’t. Meanwhile Saphira and Eragon split up so that Saphira and the elves can maintain the illusion of Eragon protecting the Varden’s army while Eragon goes to Farthen Dur to try and speed along the process of the coronation. Like other political subplots in the series, this rather long-winded section just doesn’t maintain tension the way it needs to, and until the attempted assassination (and for awhile afterwards) it is truly boring when compared to the quality action scenes that were going on earlier. On the fan forums this section of the book was almost universally bemoaned. The good points for this section is that it successfully resolves the trouble foreshadowed in Tarnag back in book two, and Orik’s speech during the clan meet voices Eragon’s important role in the world and to the dwarven race in particular, which while not terribly important now turns out to be a big deal in book four.
Lets talk about Roran. As you may remember from Part 2 where I discussed Eldest, Roran’s viewpoints throughout the Inheritance Cycle are marred by what I call Ridiculous Roran moments. That is, scenes where his determination and heroics cross the line from exciting or impressive to being ludicrous. Brisingr has four Ridiculous Roran moments that in my opinion constitute the second greatest weakness in the entire series, and that nearly ruin the book. Certainly they garnered more scorn from the fan community than any other topic on the forums or amongst readers I have spoken with.
The first Ridiculous Roran moment is during a Varden raid on an imperial supply caravan. During the attack, an ox turns its horn and gashes Roran’s leg as he rides by on Snowfire. This is obviously a fairly serious injury, and it would be perfectly reasonable for Roran to be favoring his leg for the rest of the book, or at least until a spell caster can get around to healing it. Still, it doesn’t stop Roran from continuing the fight, which shows impressive fortitude and capacity to endure pain. As the fight progresses five imperial soldiers take refuge behind an improvised barrier of three wagons set up in a triangle. Roran sees this from some distance away, and observes that his position is advantageous to attack the soldiers because their focus is on another group of the Varden’s soldiers. “A plan occurred to Roran. In any other circumstances, he would have dismissed it as ludicrous and impractical, but as it was, he accepted the plan as the only course of action that could resolve the stand off without further delay.” (page 404 Brisingr hardback). He urges Snowfire into a gallop, then lifts himself out of the stirrups and stands on the saddle. Of a moving horse, while his leg is torn open. As Snowfire rides by the wagons Roran leaps over the wagon barrier and “the soldier’s body cushioning his fall” (people might be squishy, but they most certainly don’t make for a soft landing, especially when wearing armor) he then proceeds to kill four soldiers who after proving themselves to have the wherewithal under pressure to set up the barricade prove utterly incompetent when facing one idiot with a hammer. To be fair, during the fighting after this ridiculous stunt Roran does sidestep, at which point his leg then fails him, and he falls down and has to be saved from the final soldier by Martland Redbeard. I find this sequence dubious. Also, this is the most believable of the four Ridiculous Roran moments in this book.
Awhile later Roran is on another mission with another commander in which they are outnumbered and the battle is going badly. This leads to Ridiculous Roran moment number two which is by far the worst culprit of any in the series. The incident in question begins about page 515 in the hardback edition of Brisingr. There is a group of five hundred enemy soldiers clustered in the center of this small town, who have been firing thick barrages of crossbow bolts to massacre the Varden’s cavalry charges. To prevent total catastrophe Roran calls off his charge at the last second and his men take cover in between houses while he comes up with an alternate strategy. He orders some of his men onto nearby rooftops where they can fire their bows at the enemy from relative cover, and then orders his men to use an abandoned wagon and a bunch of corpses to make a barrier/funnel thing that narrows the passageway between the houses so the soldiers can only come at the Varden one or two at a time. Roran then opens his mouth and proceeds to shout insults so caustic that they cause the disciplined, combat-trained soldiers of Galbatorix’s army to swallow a stupid pill, break formation, and come running to get revenge for their now-sullied manhood. To add injury to insult, Roran then proceeds to sully our manhood with this horribly cliched exchange:
“But Stronghammer, we cannot kill that many men ourselves!”
Roran glanced back at Harald. “Of course we can! We fight to protect our families and to reclaim our homes and our lands. They fight because Galbatorix forces them to. They have not the heart for this battle. So think of your families, think of your homes, and remember it is they you are defending. A man who fights for something greater than himself may kill a hundred enemies with ease!”
When armed with magic, explosives, or machine guns Roran is probably right. Under circumstances such as these, fat chance. Not to mention the likelihood that a man who is trained to fight, equipped to fight, and facing the alternative of gruesome death shouldn’t have too much trouble mustering the heart for this battle.
Anyway, this battle continues to the completely ridiculous conclusion that the five hundred soldiers all rush into this funnel and the archers kill a bunch and Roran personally slays 193 men himself as they come at him in ones and twos through the funnel while he is protected from the crossbow bolts by a ward. He does this while standing on the growing pile of corpses beneath him, which by the end supposedly is as high the eaves of the nearby houses. Now, I’ve never stood on a pile of corpses (because that would be gross), but I can attest that the last time my defeated enemies were heaped before me for inspection the mound in question was both large and thoroughly saturated with slippery fluids of varying viscosity. It would not be to conducive to peace of mind, stability of footing, or believability of story to suggest this is possible to do without dying a hundred times over.
Another possible believability issue arises with the archers. As you can imagine, even if 193 people lined up like bowling pins it would take awhile for Roran to kill them with a spear or a hammer. As the soldiers are bogged down in the funnel thing the archers on the rooftops are allegedly pouring arrows into them constantly until at last all the soldiers are dead. In a note at the end Bernard Cornwell’s excellent historical novel Agincourt he talks about the reality of the arrow supply in that battle and cites reputable research that says that experienced English longbow archers could fire fifteen arrows per minute, even archers of low skill and experience could shoot ten arrows per minute. Using those numbers to calculate a rough estimate we can get a fair idea of what these humans would realistically be capable of. We are told that Roran had 56 archers on the rooftops. Even if each man had a quiver of say, thirty arrows, the entire company would have released all of their arrows within 3-5 minutes assuming they are losing some firing time ducking down beneath the edge of the roof to dodge return fire etc. Even if they carried a larger quantity of arrows, like fifty each, they would be out of arrows in less than eight minutes. If the archers do fire at this rate, and even kill the suggested 250-300ish soldiers in that short a period of time, (when the enemy had good armor, shields, and presumably could have used the houses or debris for cover like the Varden were doing) that still creates a weird time skew where Roran would be killing soldiers while balancing on a slippery pile of corpses and his men would have no choice but to stand around twiddling their thumbs waiting for him to finish. Those are the reasons I find this feat difficult to believe.
The third and fourth Ridiculous Roran moments occur when he returns to the main Varden camp from the raid I just discussed. He is relieved of his command for insubordination, with no consideration given for saving the lives of his men and defeating the imperial company that would have butchered their entire force. As punishment for these crimes Nasuada orders Roran to be made an example of and publicly whipped before an assembly of the Varden. Nasuada orders fifty lashes. I think this Ridiculous Roran moment is best expressed by the title of the thread topic on the Inheritance Forums: “Anyone else bothered that Roran was whipped more than Jesus?”
To offer some perspective, in The Bounty Mutiny by William Bligh the Captain orders a seaman to be whipped for mutinous and insolent behavior. He orders twenty-four lashes, and then tells the reader: “This might have seemed harsh, for six blows make the whole back raw, and twelve leave a man’s back in ribbons.” If we accept this example from a real life story as an honest representation of what humans are capable of enduring then from my perspective fifty lashes would leave a man as good as dead. On the forums this led to a rather heated discussion over what kind of whip, scourge, or noodle was being used to whip Roran and whether or not it could actually be realistic. I have my doubts.
As part of Roran’s punishment he is forbidden from having a magician heal his back. Nevertheless, Nasuada then orders Angela and Trianna to heal some of the damage because she wants Roran to leave the next day to lead a raiding part of mixed humans and urgals in a political stunt to prove they can work together. This is partially successful until at the end of the raid Roran finds the Urgals torturing a prisoner. Roran puts the man out of his misery which leads to an altercation with a big urgal named Yarbog. The urgal then challenges Roran for leadership and they strip down and have a little wrestling match, which Roran supposedly wins even though its only been two or three days since he was whipped to death. This is the fourth Ridiculous Roran moment, and thankfully the final one of this novel.
I hope I didn’t sound unreasonably critical in the previous paragraphs. My goal was only to express the facts of the narrative as presented, compare them with what I know of human nature and capabilities, and draw reasonable conclusions as to whether or not these actions are realistic. I don’t think they are, and the story suffers for it. Don’t get me wrong, some of the things Roran accomplishes (such as leading the villagers exodus from Palancar Valley in Eldest) were awesome and demonstrative of impressive determination and leadership. Unfortunately, in the events highlighted above, he stops being a cool character to enjoy reading about and instead becomes a farce. One strength of Roran and Nasuada’s viewpoints throughout The Inheritance Cycle are to demonstrate what plain humanity is capable of in a world where magic is so grossly overpowered. I would rather read about ridiculously overpowered magic than be force fed lies about what human beings are capable of.
After Roran’s return from his raid the Varden prepare to attack the major imperial city of Feinster while Eragon and Saphira fly to Ellesmera after Orik’s coronation. Their arrival and the scenes with Oromis and Glaedr there are the crowning jewel of the novel and the critical turning point of the series. There are two major points revealed in these scenes. The first is that Brom is Eragon’s father, not Morzan, as both Murtagh and Galbatorix believe. We learn more about Brom’s intriguing past as the founder of the Varden and the chief enemy of Galbatorix and the Forsworn in the decades after the death of Vrael and the fall of the Riders. We also learn more about Eragon’s mother. Saphira shows Eragon a memory of Brom speaking to him through her as his father instead of as the village storyteller. On page 624 (hardback) Brom gives Eragon a critical piece of advice on how to defeat Galbatorix. This, along with Aren and the seven words he told Eragon on his deathbed, are Broms final contribution to the defeat the evil king. He says:
“I am not a strong spellcaster, nor are you, compared with Galbatorix, but when it comes to a wizard’s duel, intelligence is even more important than strength. The way to defeat another magician is not by battering blindly against his mind. No! In order to ensure victory, you have to figure out how your enemy interprets information and reacts to the world. Then you will know his weaknesses, and there you strike. The trick isn’t inventing a spell no one else has ever thought of before; the trick is finding a spell your enemy has overlooked and using it against him. The trick isn’t plowing your way through the barriers in someone’s mind; the trick is slipping underneath or around those barriers. No one is omniscient, Eragon. Remember that. Galbatorix may have immense power, but he cannot anticipate every possibility. Whatever you do, you must remain nimble in your thinking. Do not become so attached to any one belief that you cannot see past it to another possibility. Galbatorix is mad and therefore unpredictable, but he also has gaps in his reasoning that an ordinary person would not. If you can find those, Eragon, then perhaps you and Saphira can defeat him.”
This is absolutely pivotal. Throughout the series Eragon hasn’t exactly built his reputation on being the sharpest tool in the shed. Brom’s advice promises the reader that Eragon is going to have to be more than smart, more than clever, he is going to have to be utterly brilliant in order to defeat Galbatorix. It is a thin, slight crack of vulnerability in Galbatorix’s invulnerable aura. The next major reveal will turn that crack into a gap, and maybe, just maybe, an actual weakness and the hope and possibility of defeating him.
Oromis and Glaedr then reveal to Eragon the source of Galbatorix’s immense magical power. Since the beginning of his quest against the riders the evil king has been gathering and enslaving the minds of Dragons in their Eldunari, crystal-like spherical objects that can house a dragon’s consciousness beyond the dragon’s physical death. These Eldunari also act as a battery of sorts that can hold reserves of energy that an allied or dominant spellcaster can use for support just as a rider uses their dragon or energy stored in crystals as an extra resource to power their spellcasting. Galbatorix has a trove of hundreds of captured and enslaved Eldunari and that is how he has accomplished so many seemingly impossible feats. This is also how Murtagh and Thorn have had the power to contend with Eragon in their previous encounters. This reveal is monumental, and like with the earlier campfire scenes in humanizing Arya, this reveal finally turns Galbatorix into a man instead of a force. He is crazy, intelligent, immensely powerful, but he is also a man and he has a possible weakness: if you can take away his Eldunari you can strip him of the majority of his power, if you can think of a way to get past his wards, he can be harmed.
This reveal also characterizes the most important promise ever made in the series, and what ultimately leads to the greatest failing of the entire Inheritance Cycle (which I will discuss in detail in part 4 of this essay). This occurs when Eragon asks Oromis whether or not there might be any Eldunari elsewhere in Alagaesia not under Galbatorix’s control that they could find and use to become more powerful. Mark Oromis’ response:
“It is inconceivable that any great store of Eldunari might be lying hidden somewhere, ready to help us if we could but locate them.”
Brom’s lesson and the reveal of the Eldunari and Oromis’ words make a huge and unequivocal promise to the reader: Galbatorix has a weakness. He can be defeated. It will be tough, it will require Eragon to be smart, it will require him to overcome the power of hundreds of Eldunari without having a supply of his own, this is the only way he and Saphira can ever hope to defeat the evil king.
This of course sets clearly before Eragon (and the reader) an incredibly high bar to overcome. We are awed by the revelation because by clearly defining Galbatorix’s power in terms we can understand it actually means more to us than the message we have repeatedly read that he is invincible and has incalculably vast power. Added to this promise we have other foreshadowing that gives more promises that may help Eragon and Saphira in the coming conflict. We know when all hope is lost he is going to be able to go to the Rock of Kuthian and get some kind of help. We know he has the energy in Aren, plus in the Belt of Beloth the Wise, and of Glaedr’s Eldunari (which he entrusts to Eragon and Saphira in a very powerful moment at the end of this scene), we know that Eragon and Saphira will have the help of the Elves and all the free people of Alagesia. We know Elva’s power may enable them to identify Galbatorix’s weaknesses and fears, we know Murtagh may be able to change his true name and escape slavery to help them in the battle. The stakes are also raised even higher because we also know (if we aren’t as stupid as Eragon) that Galbatorix is close to finding the name of the ancient language and that if he does then no one will have any hope of defeating him.
It is so difficult then, to realize how powerful a climax this is to Brisingr? It’s fantastic writing and despite the Ridiculous Roran moments I was swept along in a fervor of anticipation for Inheritance just as millions of other readers were. After this incredible series of scenes the most important thing for Christopher Paolini to do was to the end the book as quickly and cleanly as possible and leave us on the edge of our seats waiting for the next installment. Unfortunately, the denouement to Brisingr has several problems and a ho hum ending.
After Eragon and Saphira acquire Brisingr the sword (question that is never satisfactorily answered: why can’t Eragon just use an elf-made sword that can handle his strength even if it isn’t a Rider’s blade? It works for his bow) they prepare to leave Ellesmera and rejoin the Varden at the battle of Feinster and Oromis and Glaedr tell them that they are leaving the forest to join Islanzadi and the elven army in battle at Gilead. Anyone with a brain in their head knew the instant this was revealed that Oromis and Glaedr were going to die. In my opinion it would have been far wiser to leave them alive through the end of the book and build anticipation of their death at some point in the next book than to kill them off like two chapters later. Perhaps we could have even enjoyed a slam bang finish 2v2 aerial dragon battle with Eragon, Saphira, Oromis, and Glaedr vs. Galbatorix, Shruikan, Thorn, and Murtagh. Alas, it was not to be.
Long story short: Eragon and Saphira fly back to the Varden and join the battle at Feinster which for some reason apparently needed to have a new shade tacked on to it. It would have been far more effective to have the battle marked by some trickery or effort by Galbatorix (like we saw with the pain-resistant soldiers earlier) to hinder Eragon and the Varden that would have reminded us of his genius and power than to have a few rogue spellcasters be stupid enough to make a shade and give the story a new character that gets killed off three pages later. While this battle is going on Eragon, through Glaedr’s Eldunari, witnesses parts of the aerial duel over Gilead between Oromis and Glaedr and Murtagh and Thorn. Shortly before Oromis and Glaedr would have won Galbatorix intervenes and after using a spell to hold them in place, he talks a bit and Oromis has a seizure and Murtagh takes the opportunity to cut up a cripple, checking off another item on the evil-things-for-evil-people-to-do list (along with betraying your friends, murdering kindly old dwarf kings, having your long black hair flow sensually in the wind, etc.) In a fit of rage Glaedr becomes about ten times more badass than he already was but Thorn is able to kill him anyway. Sad and predictable.
When discussing the Eldunari climax I already said a lot about the State of the Series at this juncture, but I want to add a few more words to conclude part three of this essay. First, at this point the anticipation for the conclusion of the series has never been higher. With all the Ridiculous Roran moments and other issues it is without question that this story is flawed, but there are still so many things going well that as a reader I was willing to suspend judgment at least long enough to see the thing through to the end. That said, the burden on Christopher Paolini to deliver an amazing finale couldn’t have been higher. When a reader sticks around through the bumps and bruises this story has in it, its unsurprising that he or she might feel “owed” an incredible finish to the series. To a certain extent I know I felt this way. I had been following the series for almost a decade and waiting out the long gaps between books required a lot of patience. The wait between Brisingr and Inheritance was particularly agonizing as time passed for so long without even the faintest hint of a title or a release-date, much less the actual release of the book. I, like many fans, had absorbed all the promises and possibility of the series to this point and whiled away a lot of time on the forums in theorycrafting, discussion, or just plain guessing at what the next book would be like and whether or not these magnificent promises could be satisfyingly fulfilled. In the fourth and concluding part of this essay I will discuss the anticipation of Inheritance, the reality of the book when it was finally released, my initial reaction, and my now final feelings after letting the book rest for a year before re reading The Inheritance Cycle and absorbing it all as a completed whole. Stay tuned.
As you may remember from Part 1 of this essay my first experience reading Eldest was soured considerably after reading Eragon right after watching Star Wars and becoming aware of their near-identical adherence to the Hero’s Journey plot archetype. It was fortunate then, that so many things in the novel were well done, or I likely would have given up on the series and missed some the great things yet to come. Before I jump right in on Eldest I remind you that this and the other three parts of this essay contain plot spoilers.
Eldest begins right after the battle at Farthen Dur and we know from the ending of Eragon that this book will involve him traveling to visit the elves and continue his training. After being seriously wounded by Durza it is pretty obvious that Eragon still has a long way to go to become a real Dragon Rider, much less one capable of challenging Galbatorix. The main arc of this story is Eragon’s transformation into a real Rider; a process that requires improving his mind, his maturity, and overcoming the debilitating physical suffering inflicted upon him by the wound on his back. He and Saphira must become closer, stronger, and more self reliant than they have ever before been to face the trials ahead. The two secondary arcs of this story introduce Eragon’s cousin Roran as a viewpoint character, and his journey to defy Galbatorix and join the Varden; and Nasuada in her leadership role as the new head of the Varden and the beginning of the war with the Empire.
Unlike Eragon, Eldest begins with Paolini falling flat on his face. From a writing perspective killing off a main character right at the start (P.6 of the hardback) of a book, when you just had a battle at the end of the last one, was a mistake. Ending Eragon with the death of Ajihad and the disappearance of Murtagh and the Twins would have added a melancholy and bittersweet weight to the defeat of Durza and the Urgals. It also would be a dash in the face with some cold hard reality, reminding us just how powerful Galbatorix is, and how uncertain the fate of these characters are. The very glory of the victory would have been marred by the uncertainty of the Varden’s future. This would then add greater meaning to Nasuada’s success in taking command in Eldest. One might argue that Eragon’s injury already does these things, but seeing as we have no knowledge of the seizures the wound wrack hims with at the end of Eragon, the effect isn’t the same.
The reason killing off these characters right at the start doesn’t work is because its blindingly obvious that Murtagh isn’t dead. There is a very common rule of thumb in fiction (that became common as a response to clichés) that if you don’t see the body the guy ain’t dead. Even at thirteen when I first read Eldest I didn’t for even two seconds think he was actually dead. This is harmful to the story because I and any other reader that came to the same conclusion just became smarter than Eragon, and thinking a main character is stupid makes the reader less sympathetic to his cause (and when the main characters 2nd best friend just died sympathy is what we are supposed to be feeling).
Anyway, after that rocky start and the political drama with the Varden and the dwarves Eragon, Saphira, and Arya finally begin their journey to Du Weldenvarden. There are two points to address here on the early part of their journey, and then I will comment on Christopher Paolini’s writing style. First, when Eragon is in Tarnag he receives a handy little amulet that prevents people from scrying him and saps his energy when someone is trying to do so. This is just fine except that on P. 240 of the hardback edition of Eragon Brom says: “as far as I know its impossible for anyone to know if they’re being scryed upon.” He says this in response to Eragon asking about his strange dreams concerning Arya when she is imprisoned. This becomes a canon issue because unless Brom was lying to Eragon (for which there is no good reason) it is pretty much impossible for him not to know about wards and amulets or whatnot that can protect against scrying, and when those wards are activated the spellcaster knows someone is trying to scry him or her. This happens to Eragon more than once during the novel, and surely Brom would have learned about such things and used them as a Rider and then in his resistance efforts leading the Varden and fighting Galbatorix and the Forsworn.
Second, around this part of the book we read for the first time of the potential threat of Galbatorix just flying out on Shruikan and laying waste to the hopes and dreams (and cities) of Eragon, the Varden,the Elves, and all the free people who resist Galbatorix. This threat is mentioned at least seven times throughout the series and it never happens. This disappoints me. How are we supposed to appreciate the sweet nectar of victory if we can never compare it to the depths of despair? Over and over Christopher Paolini reminds us of the worst possible thing that could happen and then never has it happen.
Why not have the evil embodiment of evil be evil? Why not give the good guys a taste of victory and then dash it away in such a momentous way as to destroy their army and kill thousands and leave them weeping in the dirt like children who haven’t the faintest hope of defeating Galbatorix? Would not that then make the eventual victory all the more unexpected and wonderful and emotionally powerful? Solembum’s advice to Eragon in the first book (P. 206 hardback) says: “when all seems lost and your power is insufficient, go to the rock of Kuthian and speak your name to open the Vault of Souls.” The moment this threat of Galbatorix forsaking Uru Baen to fly out and destroy everything was foreshadowed not once, but twice (and later again and again) I expected that him doing so would meet the requirements for all seeming lost, and Eragon’s power insufficient. If the Varden’s army was destroyed then Eragon surely would have felt no qualms flying to Vroengard, which was largely glossed over in Inheritance (he leaves and flies hundreds of miles away while technically the actual head of the Varden). In book four when the actual event happens that counts as all being lost Nasuada is kidnapped by Murtagh, the army is low on supplies, and the Varden and elves have little hope of victory when they reach the capital. In my mind that certainly sucks, but it hardly satisfies the dramatic requirements of “all being lost.”
Third, a few words on Christopher Paolini’s style. When I became active in the Inheritance Forums I found that a common criticism of the series (and of many other fantasy novels) is that instead of having a plot they are a travelogue, where the character goes everywhere in the world and all the prose is just describing him traveling around and what he learns while he is doing it. Eragon was loaded with travel scenes and Eldest is too, especially here near the beginning. The only reason Eragon, Saphira, and Arya don’t fly to Du Weldenvarden is because King Hrothgar wants Orik to be there to represent the dwarves. This reason is politically valid, but given that it turns weeks of absolutely critical training time into scenes that are largely them traveling across Alagaesia, many readers criticized this decision. Brisingr and Inheritance also have several long travel sequences and criticism for those scenes as delaying or even being devoid of plot was common. I have mixed feelings on the subject.
The journeys in Eragon were a useful writing device for a number of reasons. They introduce the reader to Alagaesia and the empire at large, they give us conflict with the Urgals, they tell us something of Brom and the world’s back story, and as time passed and Brom is teaching Eragon we are introduced to the magic, history, and worldbuilding we need to understand for the story in a way that isn’t a total info dump. This passage of time shown through travel also shows the clear development of Eragon’s skills, a process which begins in Eragon, takes leaps and bounds in Eldest, and continues to be significant right up until the end of Inheritance. The travel scenes in this part of Eldest do a lot to characterize Arya, establish Eragon’s infatuation with her ( though still clumsily handled here), and prepare us to enter the world of the elves. In addition to being a useful writing tool, the travel scenes are an ideal way to invoke a sense of beauty and wonder at the world (which matters in this story) and also showcases some of Christopher Paolini’s best writing. All of his best descriptive and introspective writing occurs when his characters are basically alone in the wilderness. The question remains: does he use this device and these scenes too much? I don’t know. Apparently it was enough to bother some readers. I was rarely bothered by the slower pacing of the travel scenes in Eldest because they were staggered with faster-paced scenes from Roran’s viewpoint. I can only think of a sparse handful of times when reading the Cycle that I wished he would “hurry and get to the good stuff” and I was never bothered enough to skip ahead. I will discuss this topic a little more in Part 4 of this essay, when we get to the scene which I think is the best written of the entire series.
As Eragon, Saphira, and company are traveling to Du Weldenvarden the plot thickens in earnest for Roran and the villagers in Carvahall. As you might expect, and as is foreshadowed in Eragon, Galbatorix sends the Ra’zac back to Palancar Valley to capture Roran so he can be used as leverage to manipulate Eragon and Saphira. There is pretty good conflict as the Ra’zac manage to get the entire village angry and freaked out with them when they eat Quimby. Roran, Horst and the other villagers fight against the soldiers and Roran gets engaged to his love interest Katrina. Unfortunately for everybody, Roran defies tradition and doesn’t ask for Sloan’s permission to marry Katrina and offends the butcher. In his wrath, her father murders a watchmen and helps the Ra’zac and a bunch of soldiers sneak into the town where they capture Katrina and seriously injure Roran.
Here is the first of what I call the “Ridiculous Roran” moments. Roran is obviously a strong and determined individual, and this motivates him to accomplish some very difficult things throughout the series. Occasionally these feats come across as more than realistically possible, no matter how determined a person is. The first Ridiculous Roran moment is when six soldiers and the two superhuman Ra’zac break into the bedroom where Roran and Katrina are fast asleep. According to the book Roran is undressed and armed only with a hammer, and is also burdened by trying to protect Katrina. Despite these disadvantages he is supposedly able to kill three soldiers and wound two without suffering any injuries himself. The soldiers are well armed, armored, and we assume have combat training. The Ra’zac have superhuman strength and speed and can cloud his mind with their evil breath (which they later do, allowing Katrina to be captured). If six well armed, armored, and trained soldiers can’t overpower one angry naked guy who has been caught by surprise and is trying to protect someone then these soldiers are a joke. Roran also has no combat training, and very limited combat experience, though he no doubt has considerable physical strength and stamina. I find this event a tad unbelievable, though it pales in comparison to the Ridiculous Roran moments to come in Brisingr.
Following this serious setback Roran is motivated so greatly by his love for Katrina that he delivers a powerful speech persuading the villagers to adopt a rather desperate scheme to gather up the whole village and take them across the mountains and steal a boat and sail it to Surda and join the Varden. I am willing to buy this turn of events, it speaks well of Roran’s devotion, and the cornered and frightened villagers latch onto Roran as someone to lead them out of the mess he and Eragon got them into. I find this believable, and it puts a momentous task ahead what with the Ra’zac still trying to capture Roran.
Meanwhile Eragon gets to Du Weldenvarden and begins his training, which occupies a large portion of the book. On the fan forums there was a lot of criticism for how long and detailed Eragon’s training was, but I think it is really the meat of the novel and does more to turn Eragon into a likeable character and quality Dragon Rider than any experience before or after in the series. Oromis and Glaedr are excellent characters and their sequences are very well written. Contrastingly, Eragon’s rather pitiful attempts to flirt with Arya were less well written. Paolini’s portrayal of Eragon’s teenage infatuation is believable, but I think the story would be better served had that subplot been subtler. One other concern related to this is how Arya is portrayed in this novel. We learn more about her, which is necessary for her to gain depth and not just be the love interest, but where Arya’s characterization falls short for me is because she is only ever shown having one motivation. Like Fredric in Pirates of Penzance, Arya is a slave of duty. She has committed herself to her people and to defeating Galbatorix, but that is really the only thing we ever learn about what drives her as a person, and in my opinion its a little one sided. Even small daily behavior and decisions made by people are usually motivated by multiple things, and with Arya we only ever see her as a slave of duty in Eldest.
Other than that, the training is excellent. The scenes that bring Saphira and Eragon together and strengthen their bond are gems of the book. The Agaeti Blodhren and Eragon’s transformation are awesome scenes that bring depth of wonder to the book and really give Eragon the boost he needs to reach a strength and competence we can admire, and see in him a real ability to face the grown-up problems that will shape his future.
The third viewpoint character in Eldest is Nasuada, the new leader of the Varden. She leads the army to Surda and begins to make war on Galbatorix towards the end of this novel. From her viewpoint we are introduced to Elva, a side character that is fascinating for her impact on the story. Another gem of this novel is when Nasuada devises the scheme to help fund the war by using magic to produce inexpensive lace and sell it in the empire. It was both a clever and awesome way to solve the problem she was faced with, and further developed the complexity (and overpowered nature) of the magic system in this series. In fact, on page 325 of Eldest Nasuada brings up a key point of how magicians basically break the government because no one can enforce their behavior but a stronger magician. Galbatorix is basically an immoral magician whom no person or government can restrain.
The overpowered magic problem is exacerbated when Oromis teaches Eragon the twelve words of death and explains the nature of how magic is used in warfare in Alagaesia. Basically, regular soldiers who aren’t protected by wards can be killed with a single word that requires hardly any energy. This causes huge problems in the story and the world because it makes the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of normal human beings and other non magical people such as Roran practically worthless when even a weak magician can kill them with impunity. Its hard to even describe how messed up this world would be if Paolini didn’t write it not that way. Elves are a super human race because of their ancient pact with the dragons and though we are told not all elves are magicians, we never actually meet one who can’t use magic. (wouldn’t a non-magical elf make a fascinating character in their culture?) Other than their generally moral behavior as a race, nothing but Galbatorix is stopping them from enslaving everyone in the world. For some reason I have a hard time believing that with so many people who could use their super powers for evil that so few of them in the story do. Or at least, that there isn’t a crazy destructive amount of superhero/supervillain type conflict between good and bad magicians. Also, Nasuada’s scheme shows us that competent and creative magicians should all be fabulously wealthy. That’s another reason that the magical people can and realistically probably should be holding poor non magical people in thrall. The issues with the overpowered magic system are a major issue in Inheritance, and I will discuss it further in part four of this essay.
Long story short, after considerable hardship Roran gets the villagers to Surda and they join the Varden. He swears that he is going to find Eragon and force him to help rescue Katrina. The Empire’s Army heads south to meet the Varden and they have a big battle on the Burning Plains (which are very cool). Eragon finds out about this in barely enough time to jump on Saphira and get their just before the battle begins.
Ah, the Burning Plains. Eldest has a fantastic conclusion with this battle. Eragon demonstrates all the amazing new powers he has spent the whole novel gaining, and there is a huge reveal *gasp* as Murtagh turns out not dead, but that the Twins were traitors and they captured Murtagh and carried him off to Uru Baen where Galbatorix enslaved him and one of the two remaining dragon eggs hatches and he becomes a Dragon Rider. Murtagh kills King Hrothgar and engages Eragon in an incredible aerial Dragon Rider duel of awesome. It is easily the highlight of this book, and one of the best fight scenes of the entire Inheritance Cycle. Ridiculous Roran also kills the Twins when he is without wards; the Twins are inexplicably not warded against being hit by his hammer. These events make it a fantastic conclusion because Eragon finally arrives somewhere meaningful as a character and is able to turn his improved abilities into an asset, making his presence on the battlefield not only useful but critical to the success of the Varden in this battle. For all of Eragon and Eldest I’ve been repeatedly told why Dragon Riders are so amazing, now Eragon is finally showing me.
The State of the Series at this juncture is one of progress and excitement. Eragon’s lackluster wits and power in the first book have been surpassed thanks to his training and the transformation of the Agaeti Blodhren. This raises the stakes of the magic, the combat, and the story to new heights. The reveal of Murtagh as a new rider and his baffling power that rivals Eragon’s own brings the focus back to the mystery of Galbatorix’s power, which of course is a major revelation for Brisingr. Despite a few ridiculous Roran moments and a rocky beginning, in my opinion Eldest is the strongest individual installment of the series. It has the most satisfying ending, and it does more for Eragon’s character than any of the preceding or succeeding novels; it also brings the real scope of Alagaesia and Christopher Paolini’s creative genius over the horizon and into the reader’s view. It’s a beautiful sight.
The prominent Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden once wrote that “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” This essay will not be poetry by any possible definition, but it will be my best effort to communicate strong and sometimes conflicting feelings regarding a series that has been as frequently labeled derivative trash as “An authentic work of great talent” (NY Times Book Review) or “A breathtaking and unheard-of success” (USA Today). Word to the wise: when you are buying books take a look at the blurbs or reviews on the outside covers. Pay attention to who they’re written by. An author blurb (especially from an author you like and have heard of) is worth infinitely more than a thousand reviews from newspapers or other sources. That isn’t to say that the reviews and recommendations of these publications are devoid of value, but if there are few or no recommendations from reputable authors that silence should communicate something to you. Authors rarely if ever withhold positive comment if they have it.
From a strictly economic point of view, the USA Today review isn’t far off. As of this writing some 33 million books from the Inheritance Cycle have been sold. These kind of sales aren’t unheard of, but they are remarkable. Only a handful of fantasy works have done better, namely such genre titans as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time, Discworld, Dark Tower, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Many of the aforementioned works having both more books in the series and many more years to sell books than The Inheritance Cycle, the final volume of which was released in November 2011. Economically then, yes. Certainly Eragon and its sequels are a huge success and Christopher Paolini and the sales and marketing people at Knopf and Random House are to be congratulated. When analyzed from other paradigms however, that clarity becomes muddled.
As readers (collectively), the audience to an entertaining work, opinions on this series are divided. As writers, analysis of the piece as a series to be enjoyed or as a sample of the craft to be studied yields both features to be admired and raises warnings to the established or would-be writer. Throughout all four parts of this essay, and from both of these perspectives, I will share and compare my personal experience from reading the books and my reactions compared with those of the communities I have interacted with; and try to understand and communicate my feelings on the subject. I will wholly avoid any attempt as literati or intelligentsia to discuss the concept of art, what makes good art, and whether or not this series qualifies. If I wanted an existential or philosophical discussion I would probably… Nope. I can’t even imagine myself wanting an existential discussion.
Be advised: this review will contain more spoilers than a shiny European sports car. The intended audience of this work is for those who, like me, have read the series and finished it with a mixed or disappointed reaction. If this is you, then read on. If you are reading this review to decide whether or not to read the series, you would be better off seeking a review elsewhere or just reading the series and finding out. Again, I will first share my experiences reading the books and my initial reaction. Then, I will discuss how my reactions changed as I gained interest in and learned more about writing and began to analyze Eragon as more than just a fan.
I first heard of Eragon in 2003 when I was 11 years old. Its noteworthy that at the time the first book came out I was exactly in the target audience the book was intended for: younger teen readers interested in fantasy and adventure. I was sitting on the floor in the library of my elementary school. The book fair was setting up and several students in my grade were giving short presentations about new books coming out that would be on sale at the book fair. I don’t remember any of the presentations before or after, but at one point a girl named Tory stood up and showed us a book with a beautiful painting of a blue dragon on the cover and told us that Eragon was a story about a boy who was hunting in the mountains when he found a magical stone that turned out to be a dragon egg. The egg hatches and the dragon becomes his best friend and he becomes a legendary dragon rider. Later on the bad guys come and kill his uncle and Eragon and his dragon go on a journey to get revenge.
That’s all there was to it.
She basically just blurbed the back of the book to us and told us she had read the whole thing and really liked it. I remember being interested right off the bat. 1) the boy was hunting. I was in blazer scouts and was excited to soon be in boy scouts, and I loved camping and seeing the outdoors. A book about an outdoorsy guy did (and still does) appeal to me. 2) The guy gets a pet dragon and as best as I could tell became the fantasy equivalent of a Jedi Knight (I was pretty much right, on page 401 of the Eldest hardback Oromis says: “We are the Riders, we stand between the light and the dark, and keep the balance between the two. Ignorance, fear, hate: these are our enemies. Deny them with all your might, Eragon, or we will surely fail”). To a kid obsessed with Star Wars and already into fantasy thanks to The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and Magic: the Gathering this book sounded golden. Like any kid with an impulsive urge to buy a thrilling new book that just came out, I hurried to the public library and put it on hold. Eventually I got it, devoured it (though sometimes found the vocabulary a bit challenging), and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I remember thinking it was super cool that the author had written the book when he was only fifteen. My sister read the book too and the next Christmas it showed up under the tree with her name on it. Naturally, today it has a prominent place on my bookshelf and I’ve read it at least double the numbers of times she has. Such is the nature of these things.
When I first read Eragon we still had dial up internet and its use to connect with people to discuss books or anything else was far outside of my experience. I recommended the book to friends and we talked about it and generally they all seemed to like it. I didn’t start participating in the Inheritance Forums on Shurtugal.com (the official Inheritance fan site) until well after Brisingr was out. Without any dissenting opinions, my first impression remained much the same for years, until two major changes occurred.
The first change was happenstance, though no doubt I would have later heard this criticism online. In the summer of 2005 my older brothers decided to have a big sleep over and Star Wars movie marathon party. They invited over a bunch of friends and I tagged along and we watched episodes 1 and 2, then went to watch Episode 3 in the theater. After that we came home and played Star Wars video and board games for most the night; then the next morning we woke up, ate pancakes, and watched IV, V, and VI and played more Star Wars video games. It was a blast. About that same time I heard that Eldest was about to come out. I put the book on hold at the library and two days after our Star Wars marathon I started rereading Eragon.
It was a horrible.
I already knew and loved Star Wars and had read Eragon at least twice but having both of them right next to each other opened my eyes to the shocking (to a thirteen year old) truth. Suddenly Eragon was Luke and Brom was Obi-wan Kenobi and the fun fantasy story I had enjoyed was ruined. I felt like I’d been swindled. I had read the story assuming it was creative and original and it turned out to be a copy of a story I already knew! They were exactly the same. The story started with the beautiful princess having her guards killed and sending an egg/message away and being captured by the evil servants of the emperor. The egg/message is found by a young farm boy of mysterious parentage who gets help from a Wise Old Man with magical abilities and finds out that he himself has the potential to be a Dragon Rider/Jedi Knight and when his uncle is murdered by the servants of the evil empire he leaves his home to get revenge. They travel around for awhile and meet some new people and train with his magic abilities and then eventually the old man dies, the farm boy gets captured by the bad guys, rescues the princess, and they escape and run to the hidden rebel base, inadvertently leading the enemy right to their door. Luckily, the farm boy and his magic powers end up saving the day when all hope is lost and the bad guys are defeated but now the war is joined in earnest and he has been set on a path to oppose the emperor once and for all etc.
The worlds were different, the names were different, but the story lined up on so many points that it just felt wrong. I was scarcely a teenager and my youthful innocence and trust of authors died a horrible death. Now of course, I know that both stories are based on archetypal hero’s journey plots; however, the success of Star Wars and any other successful story that is archetypal is decided by the ways it isn’t adhering to a formula. When Eldest came out I read it, and I still liked it, but the similarities with Star Wars popped out everywhere and soured the experience somewhat. The trend continued with Brisingr. My sister got both of those for Christmas too.
The second experience that dramatically changed my relationship with the Inheritance Cycle occurred when I began to develop an interest in writing my own stories. I was sitting in my 10th grade World Civilizations class with Mr. Davies (to date the worst teacher I’ve ever had). The class was chaos and we hadn’t done anything and weren’t going to do anything so I decided to pass the time until the bell rang by reading my history textbook. I’m a big history nerd and I decided to skip way ahead toward the back of the book and read about World War I because basically all I knew was that it was even bloodier than World War II but for some reason no one ever talked about it. I didn’t even know how the war started. I started reading and learned about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the crazy dominoes of suffering that resulted. I’ve always had a fascination with these Kidnapping-Helen-of-Sparta-turned-Troy type events where one seemingly innocuous act leads to a disproportionately huge effect. I was fascinated by the real history, and as I was reading I remember thinking a seemingly innocuous thought that has had a disproportionately huge effect on my life:
“Man, it sure would be cool to read a fantasy story where the assassination of Archmage Ferdinand leads to this big war.”
“Yeah. That would be cool.”
“What do you mean?”
“The only way you’ll ever get to read that story is if you’re the one who writes it.”
That thought stuck with me. I wrote down the idea I’d had in the back of my notebook and from that day on I’ve written down every good idea I’ve had, and plenty of bad ones besides. Someday when my writing skill can keep up with my imagination that story is going to be told.
That event shaped my relationship with The Inheritance Cycle because I began to care about my writing, and about the way stories were written. Once you cross the threshold from a spectator to a participant in the craft you can never really go back. It changes your perspective and effects your relationship to the art, sport, or whatever you are participating in. This doesn’t happen all at once. In high school and shortly thereafter I learned how to write good sentences and paragraphs because that mattered for success in school. As writing became more important to me and I realized it was actually something I really wanted to do I felt the need to learn how to write bigger stories. I started reading books about writing and listening to pod casts such as Writing Excuses, all the while worldbuilding and doing my best to plot out huge fantasy novels.
Shortly after I had read The Elements of Style by Strunk&White and Stephen King’s On Writing among other books on writing, the release date was finally announced for Inheritance: the long awaited finale. Since I had already invested so much time into the series, I already knew I was going to finish it, if for no other reason than just to see if Christopher Paolini could pull off a good ending for the story. Keep in mind, despite being upset when I noted the similarities to Star Wars, I didn’t hate these books. In fact, there were many things I loved about them, which I will discuss in more detail later. Part of the ending of Brisingr was stunningly good, and left me along with the millions of other fans sitting on pins and needles waiting for the book to be announced and finally released so we could see how the series would end. In fact, my interest in discussing and theorizing about book four is why I got involved in the forums. By this time my feelings were already mixed on the story, but I wouldn’t have missed out on the ending for anything.
As the release date drew nearer I started re reading the series so I could be refreshed and ready to jump in for the final installment. Just as reading Eragon after watching Star Wars had made it a totally new experience, reading it after learning what I’d been learning about writing made for another different, if equally shocking, experience. Even with my novice writing abilities I noticed that Eragon was practically flooded with amateur mistakes that the books and pod casts I’d been learning from had cautioned against.
Here is an example. In On Writing Stephen King states his case against the the overuse of adverbs, especially in dialogue attribution. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” He says authoritatively (because he’s Stephen King). Now, perhaps you disagree with Stephen King or White&Strunk or other writers who agree with this philosophy. Some writers do, J.K. Rowling is one writer who uses quite a few adverbs, but is still an indisputably excellent writer. The only thing I have to say in the defense of what I’ve learned is the only thing I will ever need to say: following the advice in The Elements of Style and On Writing has strengthened my writing. That’s the only proof I need to accept the advice, use it the best I can, and keep writing.
Now: back to Eragon. When I started reading I noticed so many adverbs it was overwhelming. I started tallying them until it was so distracting I couldn’t focus on the story. In the first 111 pages of the hardback edition I counted 266 adverbs, many of them in dialogue attribution. Extrapolating that number to the end of the book that’s about 1,100 adverbs in a 500 page book. Its an obvious sign of the amateur mistakes of a young man writing his first novel. Most writers are fortunate enough that there first few novels never have a chance at getting published and will never have to be read by anyone. By the time they get their writing to publishable quality (for many writers its not until their fifth, sixth, or even tenth novel) its at a solid professional level. Christopher Paolini’s writing (which has improved with each novel) is out there for everyone to see from very early on, and that’s just something that he gets to deal with as part of his career. It doesn’t seem to have harmed his sales.
Eragon and to a lesser extent Eldest still suffered from a lot of common mistakes of amateur writing. The single-tear motif was used six times in those two books, the use of impossibly eloquent eyebrows was used seven times, and the phrase “every fiber of his being” was used twice. Now, I’m nitpicking a little. The point is that professional, successful, talented writers who’s writing I admire warned me against these very things, and I was surprised to be seeing them all over the place in a published and successful novel after being warned that the gatekeepers of the industry would be rejecting my work for these very mistakes. It was disconcerting, and also, strangely inspiring. It sounds mean to say it, but its reassuring sometimes to read something and think “I can do better than this.” I’m not suggesting that my work will someday be a mega bestseller or something, but it can be comforting to see something that is published, printed, and in your hands and knowing that when your work gets published it won’t suffer from the same mistakes you are seeing in front of you.
Other than some of these issues, Eragon and Paolini’s style has a lot of things going for it. One of my favorite aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing is his ability to describe nature in a beautiful and inspiring way. Christopher Paolini has a similar knack for vivid descriptive language, though every once in awhile his prose is a bit “purple” and flowery. Here are two examples I really liked. Immediately after the egg appears to Eragon near the beginning of the book we read “In the center of the blast radius lay a polished blue stone. Mist snaked”–great verb– “across the scorched area and swirled insubstantial tendrils over the stone.” I find it both easy and exciting to imagine that physical scene in detail. Imagining it invokes in me a sense of awe that is one of my favorite joys of reading fantasy. Here’s another great sentence from the beginning of the book: “a silvery cloud drifted over the mountains that surrounded him, its edges glowing with ruddy light cast from the harvest moon cradled”–another great descriptive verb– “between two peaks.” Now out of context these sentences don’t paint the whole picture and give you an immersive, imaginative experience, but hopefully you can get the idea. In my opinion its during Paolini’s outdoor and nature scenes where his best writing appears. This continues throughout the series.
There is only one other thing in Eragon that bothered me since the first or second time I read it, before the Star Wars incident and my interest in writing. Near the beginning of the story Saphira kidnaps Eragon and takes him into the Spine to hide when the Ra’zac attack. Though this likely prevents Eragon from coming to harm, it also stops him from warning his uncle, who is shortly thereafter murdered by the Ra’zac. For a few moments Eragon is rightly enraged at Saphira for essentially sharing the responsibility of Garrow’s death. It always felt to me like this anger at Saphira disappears too easily. In a past interview I’ve either read or listened to Christopher Paolini said that in a way Eragon came to life out of the question “What would happen if a boy like me found a dragon egg and it hatched and the dragon became your best friend?” the last thing a reader might expect as the answer to that question (and what therefore would make a great story) was that the dragon would be responsible for getting your family killed and basically ruining your life. This moment of Eragon’s anger at Saphira has a huge amount of story potential, and I feel like it wasn’t capitalized nearly as much as it might have been. How emotionally powerful a story might have come out of Eragon being angry with, or perhaps even outright hating Saphira for a portion of the novel? In my opinion it would have made his subsequent growth and embracing of his role as a rider far more emotionally meaningful, and would have added more depth to arguably the most important relationship in the series.
Oh well. It’s not my story; its just a what might have been.
I will conclude each part of this essay with a paragraph or two that analyzes the State of the Series at this juncture. At the end of Eragon we have an imperfect story that is nevertheless engaging and has fantastic potential, it ends well and teases for a lot more excitement to come. When I finished the first book I had bright hope for the enjoyment of the rest of the series. Alagaesia is vivid, complex, and interesting and if you enjoy that aspect of the book there is plenty more coming. Eragon as a character feels like a generally good person, even if you sometimes want to punch him for his ignorance and occasional outright stupidity. Saphira’s characterization is adequate but lacks much of the depth she will gain in Eldest and Brisingr. This is part of the reason for my comments above. Brom is the grumpy old man and at times his secret keeping makes so little sense as to feel like Christopher Paolini is simply hiding information from the reader for the sake of maintaining an aura of mystery. This can be irritating. Arya is still very alien and unknown to us, with very few words or screen time for her characterization. Eragon’s attraction to her is incredibly obvious and handled somewhat clumsily (both by Eragon and in the way it is written). Murtagh is an interesting character, and there is a lot of obvious quality potential for him in the next books. Orik is basically Gimli. The early pokes into the political world of the Varden are pretty boring in Eragon, but as the politics become more important right off the bat in Eldest it is important that the groundwork be laid.
There are a few things in Eragon that lead to canon issues later in the series, but I’ll discuss them when the issues arrive in the later books. The only thing about that I want to bring up now is when Brom mentions the superhuman physical and magical nature of elves; this instance introduces the first major problem with how Alagaesia works. These words becomes far more important later in the Cycle, but this shows us one massive problems in the series that isn’t even resolved by the end of Book Four: an overpowered magic system.
Part 2 will continue this essay with a discussion of Eldest and the further development of the series.
This is probably one of the best biographies I have ever read. Bob Thomas’s background in journalism shines through in the concise, detailed prose. He quite simply says what there is to say, leaving the qualities and the vices of the man openly visible without judgment. I was amazed to learn about the hardships of Walt Disney’s youth. It was also incredible to consider his remarkable career: the ascent from his beginnings as a young man with little more than curiosity, energy, and a talent for drawing and the peak of his career as the founder and leader of the greatest family entertainment company in the world. And to think it all began with a mouse…
One of my favorite parts of this biography was learning the valuable lessons that Walt Disney learned throughout his career and adopted as the policy of his organizations. Here are a few of my favorites:
1) A friend of Walt’s speaking about some big movie producers who refused to pick up some cartoons said: “Those guys don’t know what good is until the public tells them.” Walt took this advice to heart and time and again took his product to the public and shot down all the naysayers and hum-hawers who doubted him.
2) After the immense success of Walt’s Three Little Pigs cartoon in 1933 the executives who had distributed the cartoon wanted him to create sequels. Walt grudgingly did so, and though they were well received, they never reached the heights of the original. Afterwards Walt said: “You can’t top pigs with pigs.” and so it became his mantra. Perhaps Walt Disney’s greatest accomplishments was his constant drive for raising the stakes and innovation toward the future. When his cartoons were at their peak Walt Disney was obsessed with creating an animated feature film. When Disney had mastered their animated films Walt turned his eye toward live action movies and TV, and then toward Disneyland. He was obsessed with quality and insisted that if the product was good enough the public would return their investment. He was nearly always right, and never more so than with Disneyland.
3)In the final weeks of his life Walt returned to work after having serious surgery. His previously boundless energy was flagging, and it showed when he was working at the studio, learning the progress of the various projects and offering advice on scripts and what have you. To one of his producers he offered advice that to me summed up what by then was decades of experience: “The story’s the most important thing. Once you’ve got the story, then everything else’ll fall into place.” As a writer I found that very interesting.
Walt Disney’s life story is truly an above-and-beyond telling of the American Dream. This book tells it well. I highly recommend it.
I reread the first three books over the last week and I have just finished Inheritance. Here are my first impressions:
I was pleased with the following:
-There were some good/interesting surprises such as there being eggs in the vault and in Eragon changing the Dragon/Rider spell to include all races.
-I was pleased with Angela’s role during the events of the battle of Dras Leona, I was not satisfied that Paolini left it alone after that and in the acknowledgements said “basically I like it better with the readers unhappy”. I’m sure that wasn’t his intention, but with Tenga, and with Angela speaking urgal in Brisingr and also the continued hints that we were going to learn more in Inheritance, I was dissatisfied with her resolution.
-I was pleased with the resolution of Elva.
-Islanzadi had a fitting death scene, though anyone with a brain saw what was coming the moment it began.
-The actual writing itself was much tighter. He had a lot to get done in a limited number of pages and the pacing was much better than the previous novels. (though there were still frustrating loose ends)
-Eragon was less stupid than in previous novels. This was necessary and if it hadn’t been fixed I would have nerdraged completely. Anyway, it was good to see.
-I liked hearing the story of Oromis and Glaedr fighting the Forsworn.
-Nasuada’s kidnapping was at first unexpected and enjoyable. Later it just felt like a tool to get Murtagh going where CP wanted him.
-Carn’s death in the Battle of Aroughs was both unexpected, cool, and emotionally intense. I appreciated that we finally saw the “ZOMG” possibility if magicians fight before breaking into someones mind.
I was displeased with the following:
-No main characters died. They were supposedly fighting the most dangerous and evil mad man of all time ever and no one important died, or was even injured beyond repair or anything. It is dishonest to the characters and to the readers to suggest a reality in which the ultimate evil bad guy would fail to kill anyone of significance in a struggle of this magnitude.
-I was displeased with multiple character resolutions. With the way things were set up in Brisingr I strongly suspected that Islanzadi would die, and that Lord Dathedr would take her place. This belief was even reinforced with the continued political importance of Lord Dathedr in the later segments of Inheritance. Arya becoming Queen was quite simply Deus ex Wrench. It was Paolini’s device in which to toy with his readers (something he admits to enjoying, and that I find insufferable and frustrating). He destroyed the possibility of a relationship for which there was significant evidence in previous novels to support as a possibility. He did this, not because the story or the characters demanded it, but because he made a PLOT decision that it would either make a better story or otherwise serve his interests. In my opinion Arya becoming Queen was not in accordance with the readers understanding of her motivations. If we were to ask ten thousand readers if Arya were offered the throne, would she take it? I believe most of them would agree that she would not.
-The disappearance of the Belt of Beloth the Wise, the words with the Menoa tree, and Roran being saved by the unnamed heroes are clearly seeds for other stories in Alagaesia. I would have much preferred to see the current story resolved satisfactorily than to read those scenes.
-I disliked that the Vault of Souls contained a horde of Eldunari, no matter how much magic was able to explain it away. In Brisingr Oromis and Glaedr told us in no uncertain terms that there were not Eldunari hidden from Galbatorix. While the explanation of the story technically makes it “ok” it was actually a false promise to the readers that Christopher Paolini was going to introduce something new, unexpected, and amazing that would somehow allow Eragon to defeat Galbatorix. A stash of Eldunari just felt stupid. Instead he has a lot more power and whole lot of no good reason that he should have been able to defeat the king.
-Brom’s Seven Words from Eragon were completely ignored. The memory from Saphira in which Brom tells Eragon to use his brain when dueling was completely ignored. He cast the spell that defeated Galbatorix on an instinctual whim, more like a Dragon, then in actually use his brain to Know his opponent.
-Murtagh’s character resolution felt dissatisfying to me. His feeling attraction to Nasuada didn’t feel profound or important enough to me to result in a fundamental change of his true self. His conversation with Eragon at the end felt cliche and a pretty dumb way to end things.
-Not enough Aerial Dragon awesomeness duels.
-Shruikan’s death was stupid. We never got to see him fly and fight like a real dragon, we never got to get inside his head and see what this fascinating character was experiencing as a false-bonded dragon. He wrestled with Thorn and Saphira for two paragraphs and got stabbed in the eye. GG to the supposedly most powerful dragon on the planet.
-The Magic System remains overpowered and Paolini finally had to get around to dealing with it. The need for political change was foreshadowed well but when it came down to “Lets police them and use the Name of Names” as a resolution it was utterly unsuccessful. This problem was so bad that Christopher Paolini didn’t even try to get it resolved properly.
-I stopped caring about Roran and Katrina. She was “loving wife Katrina” and he was still action hero ridiculous stamina Roran. Nothing new, exciting, or interesting to report.
-I disliked how whenever CP started naming characters that used to be “nameless villager” or “one of the elves” it meant they were about to die. It was a clumsy ploy that an astute reader could see from a mile away.
-Galbatorix failed to walk the walk. Paolini spent forever and a day setting him up as the most powerful and amazing villain of all time and he quite simply failed to deliver. The supposedly unbelievable traps in the Citadel were unimaginative. As was his torturing of Nasuada.
-Arya becoming a rider felt inevitable. Firnen felt tacked on, as did his relationship with Saphira. Eragon leaving felt like it was following CP’s outline instead of what the characters would actually do.
-The Eldunari were just another plot device to let magicians be more overpowered. That was dissapointing.
That’s all I can think of off the top of my head. Gotta let the story stew a little bit and then start discussing it more as people finish reading.
I read Eragon when I was 11. I have followed the series for 8 years, and forgiven the weaknesses therein (for they are weighty and numerous) in the hopes that this conclusion would blow me out of the water and undo all past wrongs. It didn’t.
Many problems the series faced were from an outline that is over ten years old. I’m sure if CP started the series today he could improve upon a great many things. However, as it stands I will give Christopher Paolini one more chance to amaze me with something new. After that, if it doesn’t get better, I’m going to stop reading his books. After all, why should we keep reading if we’ve already learned all his tricks?
Mistborn: the Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson is a book that changed my life. My sister recommended it to me in 2009 and I finally got around to reading it for the first time about a year ago. This was the first book of Brandon Sanderson’s that I read, and it led me to his website, and then of course to Writing Excuses. Those of you who know me well know that the podcast has had had a huge impact for me in coming to know myself and deciding to make writing a bigger part of my life. I really love this book, and I am a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson in general. In fact, there may soon be a bonus post in which I will share my experience in meeting Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells in person last weekend…
Mistborn: The Final Empire is the first book of a trilogy set on the world of Scadrial, a strange and cheerless world where ash falls from the sky during the day, and mists cloak the world at night. The Final Empire itself is ruled by the immortal Lord Ruler, a god-like deity who defeated the hero of ages and has ruled Scadrial with an iron fist for a thousand years. The peasant Skaa struggle to survive in the cities and on the plantations while the nobility live a life of luxury. In this sad and broken climate, Kelsier, a half skaa thief turned revolutionary is assembling a team to carry out the caper of the Millennium. Target: the Lord Ruler himself. The other main character is a street urchin named Vin who discovers that she is one of the famed and terrifying Mistborn. A rare and extremely powerful type of magic user who has to learn how to trust Kelsier and his crew in order to learn how to use her powers and survive being hunted by the Lord Ruler’s most terrifying servants: The Inquisitors.
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is a complex and intriguing story with many fun twists and turns. Scadrial is truly a unique world and the magic systems are wonderful. It is delightful to follow the characters as they run into trials and have to use their powers and as a reader I was running through the list of their abilities trying to figure out how they could possibly win. The character’s were realistic, complex, and interesting and I had reasons for liking (or fearing) all of them.
The story was fast paced and fun and I devoured it. I highly recommend Mistborn: the Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson.
Grave Peril is the third book of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. The series continues as we follow professional wizard Harry Dresden into another thrilling and terrifying adventure in modern day Chicago. Grave Peril begins with Harry and his knightly friend Michael jointly combating a rampaging ghost in a hospital, one in a long line of ghosts that have gone berserk across Chicago in recent days.
Dresden and Michael must work together to investigate why the ghosts of the Nevernever are appearing so frequently and behaving so hostile. Harry has a lot to lose by getting too involved in the Nevernever, namely intervention by his mysterious and rather deranged faerie godmother Leanansidhe seeks to enslave him so as to “keep him safe”. Matters are made worse when Harry is invited to(and forced to attend) a party thrown by Bianca, the red court vampire who he so royally pissed off in back in Storm Front. All of these conflicts intertwine to cost Dresden and his closest friends a great deal of pain and trouble as well as introducing us to a large number of various fae and supernatural creatures of the Dresden universe. This book blows open a wide hole of story possibilities that make it easy to understand.
This book was intense and fast paced and continued the trend of increasing darkness as we delve deeper into the underworld of the Dresdenverse. I enjoyed the book, though it wasn’t my favorite of the series so far. I found working with the faeries and the vampires very confusing and it was somewhat difficult to keep up with all the new characters and world details and conflicts that we all being introduced one after the other throughout the entire novel. After I got over the learning curve however, I loved getting into the mind of Harry as together tried to solve the mysteries and fight the battles of Grave Peril.
Another great urban fantasy novel, I highly recommend Grave Peril by Jim Butcher.
This book review rant is about The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I was first exposed to this novel by my 9th grade English teacher (and one of the human beings I have the most respect for) Mr. Christopher Carter. I selected The Once and Future King for my honors’ project and I have loved it ever since. Admittedly, it is very much “literary fiction” and the plotting is a bit slow. Despite that, I enjoy this this book because it has considerably more to offer than just the plot. The Once and Future King tells several of the traditional Arthurian stories (which I’ve always been a sucker for) wrapped very beautifully in compelling themes of power, the right to use it, leadership, honesty, love, trust, innocence, and friendship, among others. I can’t help but giggle every time I read White’s depiction of Merlin and yet my mind can’t help but run wild contemplating the wisdom he teaches to young Arthur.
In The Sword and the Stone (part I, my favorite) I love how Merlin teaches Arthur to empathize with others by turning him into animals so he can experience what life is like for those who have grown up and lived differently. This helps Arthur develop several of his key personality traits: patience, understanding, and love. Most importantly of all, Merlin teaches him to think! Though Arthur later calls it his curse because ever since he started thinking he hasn’t been able to stop, the gift of being able to look at the world with his head as well as his heart is what makes The Round Table and the peace it creates possible. One of the reasons this part of the story is so poignant to me is because Mr. Carter is the teacher who taught me to think about what I was reading and see more than the words on the page, a gift (and sometimes a curse) that I will forever be grateful for. In addition, I love Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast. In addition to being amusing, it is a fantastic metaphor for us and our lives. We each have our own “Questing Beast” that only we can catch, and we must again and again alight atop our noble steed and chase after it. I have always found his death later in the novel to be extremely depressing, as he is one of the truly innocent characters in this novel (assuming you count the accidental death of Sir Lot of Orkney as an innocent mistake, which I do).
Arthur struggles throughout his life to create an ideal society in his kingdom of Merry Olde England. The original concept of the round table was to create a constructive outlet for man’s inherent aggression and promote Might for Right. As the story continues the purpose of the table and Arthur’s thinking is forced to adjust as the situation metamorphoses into a many headed beast that cannot be destroyed by a physical manipulation of power, but only through inherent and eternal change within each person and society as a whole.
The bitterness and anger of the Orkney clan was to me symbolic of how letting those emotions stew within us can be so incredibly destructive. Agravaine, Modred, and Gawaine each embody different emotions taken to a destructive extreme. Gaheris represents the danger of not thinking for oneself and simply going along with the crowd. Gareth alone is able to transcend his family’s clannish grudges and is able to love and be loved by Arthur and Lancelot, and is ultimately by far the best knight of the family (he is also my favorite knight of the Round Table). His forgiving attitude, which could have healed and corrected all the hurts of this story, was ultimately lost. His demise is the catalyst for the fall of Arthur’s Kingdom and the end of the Round Table.
Lastly I suppose I must of course consider Sir Lancelot. T.H. White’s incarnation of Lancelot reminds of Heracles from Greek mythology, he is a man of extreme extremes. First he is extremely devoted to becoming a great knight, to the exclusion of all else. Then, he is obsessed with being worthy of performing a miracle to all else (which he succeeds at, only to be inebriated and seduced), then he is obsessed with Guienevere, then he is obsessed with his own self-loathing, then he is obsessed with becoming pure and pious, then he is obsessed with Guinevere again, then he is obsessed with his own self-loathing, and so it goes. Ultimately I had a hard time relating to Sir Lancelot, his emotions are so conflicting and his sense of what is honorable and right becomes so skewed that I find it very difficult to appreciate him. To a certain extent it comes back to the Questing Beast metaphor, loving Guinevere is his questing beast and no matter what is right or good he can’t seem to get away from it until he eventually accepts it and embraces it, even though it ultimately harms him, his lover, and his best friend.
A central theme of this novel that jumps out to me is the need for self-mastery and individual morality(Lancelot, Guinevere, the Orkneys etc.) and mental integrity (Arthur, Gaheris, Merlin etc.). Sadly, the silver-tongued Mordred is a symbol that even the greatest of us can make mistakes. Arthur’s being seduced by Morgause (and his subsequent treatment of infant Mordred) was as much a keystone to the eventual fall of Camelot as Lancelot and Guinevere’s infidelity. Gawaine, so loyal to his family that it proved destructive to himself, his Lord, and his brothers ultimately failed to put Right for Right’s sake before his dogged loyalty.
Ultimately one of the key lessons I got from The Once and Future King is that there is no force on Earth we can rely on other the human principle of unbiased goodness. Arthur tries to channel anger into a productive tool, it ultimately fails him and begins to consume itself. Even justice, which he labors so hard to institute above human emotion must be guided by a moral heart, or else it could be manipulated to destroy the people he loved. Lancelot tries to convert his lust and inner weakness into outer strength and ultimately he was defeated by problems that only inner fortitude could resolve. All the loyalty and power in the world couldn’t replace the need for love, forgiveness, and a personal understanding of self-worth for Gawaine and his brothers.
I love The Once and Future King because it teaches me about myself and the people around me in this crazy little world we live in. I recommend reading it very slowly, I read it over eight or nine days with a notebook next to me so I could write down some of my favorite quotes and impressions. I love the Once and Future King because here I sit, more than three weeks later and I’m still thinking about it, making new connections and understanding more about the characters and what T.H. White was trying to help me see. I love The Once and Future King. Give it a try, I bet you will too.