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.