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.