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.