First, let me say that these books are fun. “A boy and his dragon” always has potential for a fun romp through fantasy land. These books keep that promise, for the most part. They are not “perfect” but they are really fun to read. That’s why I recently picked them up to read them again. I was in the mood for reading an adventure tale that was loads of fun.
The fun begins quite early. But it quickly enters the realm of human reality. I don’t want to subject you to “spoilers” so I won’t say much about the plot. I do want you to know just what these books are. So, without popping ‘spoilers’ on you by discussing the plot, I will tell you why this cycle is great writing. To start, this boy and his dragon go for a romp that equals the ideas of the hero which Joseph Campbell outlines. We have the evil king, the training of the novice knight, dragons, elves, dwarves and evil monsters: most of the elements we enjoy in our fantasy-fairy tales. But it’s all rolled into a world that is cohesive and logical. As we read we experience joy and heartbreak. We are subjected to puns and jokes and other sorts of humor as well as heroism, loyalty, integrity, unbroken friendship and, of course, death of loved ones, betrayal, humiliation and the agony of defeat.
When I first read Eragon I had no idea that this book was written by a teenager. Of the hero tales I have read, none of them deal with “teenage angst” the way this story does. The character, Eragon, sometimes does things that are quite immature. He is a flawed human who tries to overcome his deficiencies, and, to the character’s credit, he does a decent job of it. It is to Christopher Paolini’s credit that the way in which Eragon acts is believable. It is also to Paolini’s credit that nothing seems “contrived”. There is no fake suspense as a character enters a house where the evil monster lurks. The characters in the story and the readers both know what’s going on. We suspect that, when the hero enters the house the monster will be destroyed, but we don’t know that. The suspense here is long-term. The description of the fighting is realistic. The characters feel the stress of their quest and so do we, the readers.
In addition, the world that Paolini creates reflects the reality of our world, and Paolini uses the reality of his imaginary world to comment on our world. As the story flows, we readers are asked to consider for ourselves the meaning of war, evil, religion, and other human cultural characteristics. Not in a barrage or a sermon, but as Eragon explores his world, he asks questions. In the first novel the boy turns 16. For many of my ancestors, 16 was the age one married and began to live as an adult. I and my friends were getting our driver license at 16. However, Eragon is charged with a quest, not one that he chose, but one that was thrust upon him. With the quest thrust upon him, Eragon must quickly enter the ‘adult’ world. Yet he is still a youth, and some of those he meets will do their best to remind him of this.
In order to deal with this, Eragon asks questions about the “meaning of life” and so we, the readers, are confronted with the reality of immortality, the true nature of magic, the existence of God and other philosophical and ethical questions. For example, one of the elves that help train Eragon asks him, “Why do you fight?” This is not so Paolini can preach his opinion of war. It is essential to the plot that Eragon understands why he fights against the empire. But, in Eragon’s pondering and his dialog with others, we, the readers, are given a chance to think about the necessity of war. Eragon makes the choice the plot demands…but…we are not forced to agree with him.
Much later in the story I found a section that discussed war in a different sort of way. It reminded me a little bit of C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and a discussion that occurs that story. In Out of the Silent Planet Lewis describes a world that is not “fallen”. The inhabitants of this world are not “bent” toward Sin the way humans are. However, they enjoy certain activities that provide for heroic effort and courage. And that is, as I recall, one of Joseph Campbell’s themes. Humans need to prove themselves through heroic effort and courageous acts. He offers, I think, that religion provides a framework for this type of endeavor.
The concept of privacy is examined through the mechanism of mental telepathy. Moral responsibility is examined in all sorts of ways. The racism of Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Urgals permeates the story. Paolini does seem to address much of this directly. That is because his main character is always asking questions, meeting new & different “races” such as dwarves and elves, and goes into an intensive training. As this main character, Eragon, learns about the world beyond his little village, we, the reader, must also deal with these questions. That makes these books more than merely escapist reading.
There is a scene in the third novel that comments on much of this ethical pondering in a way that is most typical of Paolini. Eragon and a Kull (a giant Urgal humans and dwarves mistrust, mostly because they are a very warlike race, like the Klingons of Star Trek) are on a mission together. They are camped in the mountains when a giant wolf native to the mountains wanders by their camp. Eragon, through telepathy, talks to the wolf. At this point, Eragon accepts the wolf and invites it to eat the entrails of the deer they have cleaned and is currently roasting on a spit. The Kull, not being a telepath, does not know what has transpired. He accepts Eragon’s warning not to attack the wolf, but he displays his distrust of the animal. Paolini does not delve into the racial comparisons of Human, Kull and Wolf. Instead, he just tells us the story and we, the reader, can bring into the scene our understanding of how the Kull frequently battle these wolves and dislike them. But Eragon, with no history of fighting these wolves, befriends it. Paolini does not preach, he describes the situations his characters play out. The rest is up to the reader.
Again, I’m commenting on on the non-plot aspects of these tales because I hope you will be able to enjoy these books as much as I do. As I re-read this tale, I remember that the plot was the main point for me on first reading. I was astounded by the twists and turns that Paolini implements on his characters. But I sometimes am astounded by the events characters in my stories find themselves facing.
The magic that is practiced in Eragon’s world is much more believable than that of the Harry Potter books. Using magic in Harry Potter’s world does not ‘cost’ him anything. Harry has the ability to flick his wand chanting some words and thus he can bring forth a cup of tea. A magician in Eragon’s world can say words that will produce a cup of tea, but he will expend the same amount of energy that it would take to produce it without using magic. In Harry Potter’s world those who use magic do not normally interact with those who do not. In Eragon’s world the magicians and other humans live together, and work together. Not that the “non-magic” fully accept magic. For the most part they seem to tolerate it, but they do not actually like it. That magic is the industrial technology of Eragon’s world is emphasized by the fact that, at one point, magic is used to manufacture a product that can be sold to raise money.
For us, on Earth, the equivalent could be the Industrial Revolution. We like the products of industry, but we dislike the way industry dehumanizes us. We like the way industry has removed the pollution of animal feces which resulted in typhoid and other horrid illnesses. But we dislike the way industry produces water and air pollution that could end up making water undrinkable and air unbreathable.
Now that I’ve said all the above, you’re probably wondering how in the world this story could be fun to read. Well, I give Christopher Paolini credit for telling a wild, crazy tale. And…I have skipped over the plot. This is written without ‘spoilers’ so that you can enjoy the books as I and other readers have. As I have said, there is very little preaching. Instead, the writing here is very action oriented. It is through the dialog and actions of the characters as the story progresses that these philosophic concepts are encountered. But that’s the fun part. These stories as marketed as “Teen” stories. But they truly are, in my opinion, written for both teens and adults. (Personally, I think the publishing industry labels books “Teen” if they do not contain lurid sexual encounters and plenty of English curse words. That Paolini chose the ‘high ground’ and avoided lurid sex and English curse words makes these books more enjoyable.) We encounter these concepts, but we are left to draw our own conclusions. I bring them up because I want you to understand that these books are not simple fairy tales with little else to recommend them.
All this, in my opinion, makes The Inheritance Cycle more than fantasy genre, it moves the book into “literature”. Not that the story is as refined and polished as Lord of the Rings, but that it can sit on the same shelf.