The Inheritance Cycle

 

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 also must deal with the same questions he has.

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 my characters 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.

The Fantasy Tale: An Observation

 

I love fantasy tales. This section of Always Rejoicing contains my thought on some of my favorite fantasy tales. Consider that, for most of us, the first literature we encounter is commonly called a Fairy Tale such as Cinderella. This site is about Joy. It’s about the things that point to Joy and to Heaven. Fairy Tales and Fantasy have a way of pointing to Joy. They have a way of helping us understand Heaven.

That’s because Heaven is, for many, a fantasy. However, Fantasy has its roots firmly planted in Reality. There are many qualities that make a story a Fantasy. But any story that has talking animals is, basically, indulging in a fantasy. So, by that definition, Animal Farm is a fantasy. Yet Animal Farm helps us understand the Reality of our world.

Another element of fantasy is the wondrous machine. Included in this would be the famous time machine. Space ships are also included—but they will be fantasy for not too many more years. What you might not realize is that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged also contains wondrous machines, including the steel alloy that one of her characters invents. Those who have read it should now realize other elements of that story that are wondrous machines. ‘Nuff said…I don’t want any spoilers for those who have not read it.

The use of magic is probably the most frequent quality that identifies a fantasy story. Diana Gabeldon’s Outlander stories include a sort of magic. She structures it in such a way that it almost appears to be a real scientific quality. The Harry Potter stories are probably some of the best know magic tales. What we don’t often recognize is that the fantasy story does not work well if the magic or wondrous machine or talking animals are the focus of the story. There must be something else for the story to work.

That quality is called the “plot”. The fantasy stories that are best are the ones that employ the “quest” as the foundation of the plot. If you read my story about the Stone Circle you’ll see that the protagonist experiences events, but he does not actually do anything. However, if I told you that the story was chapter one of a novel, you would immediately see that there are many options for a quest plot. That’s why we love stories like The Oddessy. We enjoy reading about the hero and his quest.

That brings me to the first point of this essay. I have read many critics of the fantasy tale which complain bitterly that the author has ‘borrowed’ from stories like Lord of the Rings to tell his/her tale. They say that these ‘borrowed’ elements detract from the story. The critic wants a new story with new elements. Or the critic complains because vampires don’t work the way the author portrays them. Or the story contains elves that look exactly like elves in LOTR. Or—worst of all—they are upset because the hero meets a mentor who teaches the hero the things needed to accomplish the quest, just like in Star Wars.

What I think these critics do not understand is the foundation of the fantasy quest story. That’s in spite of the fact that Joseph Campbell’s works, including The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth tell us exactly why these stories seem to be similar. They also explain why vampires in one story are different from vampires in another story or that the dwarves or elves seem the same. (What qualities must a creature have vs. an author’s concept of how that creature might work.) Or why the protagonist meets a mentor who teaches him how to accomplish his quest.

What I’m actually saying is that a genre of fiction must produce certain qualities to satisfy the requirements of that genre. And when a critic complains because a story does not meet his/her criteria my first question is, “Do you understand the genre?” Complaining because a dragon can or cannot fly, because the hero meets a mentor, because the elves look like elves in another story, et cetera, reveals that the critic does not know what he/she is talking about. Would you complain because the hero in a “Western” rides a horse or uses a pistol or seems to be much like John Wayne?

Please do not misunderstand me here. I do not subscribe to all the nonsense that Joseph Campbell offers in terms of theology and religion. I do think he has a valid and very useful point about how the concept of the hero on a quest works. Shakespeare employs these ideas in many of his plays. Some of the best King Arthur stories follow these ideas. I think these hero concept ideas work even in the detective mystery story, the straightforward drama, even romance novels.

Finally, I’d like to address the idea that stories that involve magic are inherently evil and Christians should avoid them. To understand this, one needs to understand exactly what “magic” really is: it is the manipulation of the elements of this world in order to achieve a personal goal. For example, if I employ a magic carpet to carry me from my home to the store then I have used magic to accomplish a personal goal.

But,” you say, “the Bible tells us that sorcery is a sin.” And I must agree. It does say that. My answer starts with a question: “What’s the difference between using an automobile to go to the store and using a magic carpet to go to the store?”

Magic is a technology. By saying the right combination of words one can manipulate the environment. We, in the ‘modern world’ use what we call Science and Technology to manipulate our environment. What, I must ask, is the difference between a crystal ball and using Skype?

In these fantasy stories we can easily see how magic is extremely difficult to use “for good only”. In fact, that’s one of the main ideas of LOTR: many want to use the ring for good, but we see that it would only end up being used for evil. While that idea is not so clear in the Harry Potter stories, we easily see it in the King Arthur stories.

And that brings me back to my question about the magic carpet and the automobile. What the fantasy story can do is show us how a technology, magic, is very very dangerous. The problem is that sorcery is sinful, not because of what it is, but because of what we are.

So, yes I do enjoy Fantasy. An author can make racial comments about elves and dwarves without sounding ‘politically incorrect’. And magic can be a comment on science and technology. But mostly, it’s just fun to read about imaginary worlds–or our world with imaginary elements added. It’s fun to read about how the ‘farm boy’ struggles with impossible obstacles to rescue the damsel in distress. We cheer for Luke Skywalker, just as the ancient Greeks cheered for Jason.

And, no, I have not really dealt with the question of the Bible and Magic. That’s far beyond my intention here. I do intend to discuss it in my comments on my favorite fantasy tales. For now, let me ask this question: Should one read or watch a story about lust and adultery; is a story about a swindler or murder sinful in and of itself? Be careful how you answer this…for the Bible contains these types of stories.

Alternity

When I was twelve, thirteen maybe, I saw alternity.

Perhaps it is a dream,

a vision,

a peek into the future.

Whatever it is, it is vivid.

Reality vivid.

I am strong.

I am agile.

I am fearless.

I run fast through the city.

I leap fences, jump walls, climb buildings: bounding from rooftop to rooftop, almost flying.

No one is chasing me.

I run alone.

It is imperative that I run.

Ahead, a large concrete wall.

I jump, my hands reach the top, legs swing up and around, half a spin and I am over the wall; then Splash!

I land solid in a puddle. Water spraying everywhere.

I sprint.

Forward.

Movement everywhere.

Fellow runners surround me. I don’t know where they come from, but they are here, jumping the wall, splashing the puddle, sprinting away.

We move.

Cheetahs, ghosts of motion, we move.

A Wolf-pack, a blur speeding through the streets, we move.

The Joy of running, jumping, practically flying

over walls and fences, leaping up steps, jumping rooftops.

Immaculate movement for the joy of movement.

Simple action for the love of action.

Pure speed for the thrill of speed.

Joy unbounded.

Joy surrounded.

Joy uncounted.

He is there.

Leading the way.

I am not sure who he is. Just the leader.

We follow him.

Sometimes he leads the way. Sometimes I lead the way. Sometimes others lead the way. Sometimes I am alone. Yet even when I am alone, he is near.

We run day and night, never stopping, never resting, never pausing.

Constantly running.

Then it ends.

He disappears.

Everyone walks.

Wanders.

Seeks direction.

There is no direction.

Halt.

Wait.

Rest.

Others wander close by.

Someone knows where he is.

I hear a shout, “Follow me!” Many go.

I hear it again, “Follow me!” Some go.

Again, “Follow me!” A few more go.

Others make a different choice. I am one of them. I chose my own direction.

No direction.

I just run.

Alone.

I run.

over fences I jump,

over walls I leap,

up steps I bound,

across rooftops I fly,

movement for the desire of movement,

action for the avarice of action,

speed for the lust of speed,

pushing hard against the wind, feeling—almost—complete.

I am awake, in the ‘real world’ of my bed, looking at the alarm clock. I have five minutes before it rings.

Occasionally, randomly, unpredictably, I had this dream, this vision, this glance into another reality, this peek into alternity. Eventually, I began to run. It was good exercise. I found a parkour squad. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Inner desire becoming reality? I did not think much about it, I just ran. The squad taught me; I learned quickly. Soon I ran, jumped, leaped, flew, over fences, up walls, across steps, rooftop to rooftop, like a wild animal. I grew. My youthful body grew strong, muscles matured into rope, bones tempered into steel, senses sharpened, reflexes quickened. Years of training. Years of running. Years of pushing, pushing hard.

I could do it! I did do it! I would not be stopped!

I was Batman, I was Spiderman, I was Superman.

I run: Therefore I Am!

A friend of mine. A ‘couch-potato’ nerd. He knew computers. He knew computer games. He knew technology. He could run, jump, leap, fly, over the barriers of technology.

He was invincible playing his game.

I was invincible playing mine.

One day I told him about my dream. He told me about his. It was the same, except he dreamed technology while I dreamed parkour. We had turned our dreams into our reality. We were alone in our dreams, alone in our reality.

And just as someone in my dream seemed to lead the way, there was a person in his dream that led the way. And just as my leader disappeared, so did his. And just as I did not bother to follow when called, neither did my friend. And just as I had chosen to go it alone, he had chosen to go it alone. We would do it our way. We would follow no one.

Love entered my life. Well, maybe it was lust. Eventually we married. Eventually there were children. Eventually we divorced. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is solid. Nothing remains the same. Entropy.

And then I had another dream,

or vision,

or peek into alternity.

I paddle my canoe in the creek near my house.

The canoe moves

quietly and swiftly through the water.

Overcome with Angst

I want to see more.

To do more.

To be more.

I paddle.

Then,

I see the world through another’s eyes.

I see the world as a beautiful creation.

I see the world as it is meant to be.

All is beautiful.

All is peaceful.

All works together toward the desired end.

But it is not my desired end.

It is another’s.

Someone I do not know.

I wake up five minutes before the alarm rings.

I pondered this dream, or vision, or peek into another reality. It was not another reality. It was the only reality. The world was beautiful. I decided to enjoy it. I started running again. I bought a canoe and began to paddle around the creek. I celebrated the beauty of the world with anyone who would enjoy it with me. Everything, if seen in the proper perspective, was beautiful.

Rich was beautiful.

Poor was beautiful.

Luxury was beautiful.

Squalor was beautiful.

Health was beautiful.

Sickness was beautiful.

The whole world was beautiful.

Everyone could be happy.

Everyone could be beautiful.

Everyone could have joy.

Everyone could decide to see the beauty and enjoy it.

Alternity returned.

This time I start in the creek, paddle downstream, enter the river.

This time the river is a flood.

This time

city streets fill with water rushing,

water urgently, horrendously speeding through the streets.

Everything not secured is washed away.

Moving water,

incredible power,

beautiful power.

I see beauty as water rips through buildings.

I see beauty as water cleans the streets.

I see beauty as water washes away the city.

Beauty is a Joy to behold!

This time from my canoe I watch the incredible.

This time I see the amazing.

This time I see people caught in the flood.

Trapped on rooftops.

Trapped in cars.

Trapped in fear.

The flood swallowing people and washing them away.

From my canoe I see the beauty of the flood.

I see beauty in the faces of people.

Their fear is beautiful.

Their screams

a sort of catastrophic music accompanying the roar of the water.

It is the beauty of death.

Suddenly there are others

in canoes and rowboats rushing downstream

carried by the raging flood. In our boats we talk

about the beauty of the flood.

We share the joy of the moment with each other.

We watch people in the city

cascading down streets

drowning

as we share how beautiful the world is.

Again I wake up five minutes before the alarm sounds.

I got dressed and went to work. Later, I told my friend, the technology couch-potato, about my dream. He, too, had dreamed a dream like that. And, like me, he did not know what to make of it.

Haunted by the dream, the vision, the peek into alternity, I worked harder. I ran more. I paddled more. I jumped, leaped, hopped, ran, climbed, sprinted for my self. I could do nothing for others. I did not know how. I knew how to save myself. Was that not the way of the world? You can only save yourself, you can’t save another, can you?

The peek into alternity came again.

In a vision.

In a dream.

In a canoe.

No paddle.

The current swift and strong.

The beauty of the water splashing on the rocks.

The beauty of the rainbows in the spray.

The beauty of the canoe as it splinters on the rocks.

The beauty of the red blood flowing from my head

turning the water a delicate pink.

The alarm is ringing. I shut it off.

I know that no matter what I do I cannot save myself.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16

A Stone Circle Story

October 5th. Our son, Andrew, was born on this day. Unfortunately, he lived only 11 days. Perhaps I will tell that story sometime. Today I tell him a story.

Link to Stone Circle Picture

Aidan took a deep breath and stepped into the stone circle. His grandparents had told him about stone circles. It was his Aunt Bridget who had told him about this one. She had said some other things, too. At any rate, this would be an adventure.  He looked around and saw that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He walked around, touching the standing stones. They were, as most stones are, cool to the touch. And a bit rough, like heavy sandpaper. He made a final circle, touching each of the stones. Disappointed, he took off his backpack and sat down next to one of the stones. It cast enough of a shadow so that he did not have the hot sun beating down on him. He took a drink from his water bladder and then pulled out his lunch: a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, some cheese flavored tortilla chips and some apple slices.

He was rather disapointed. It would have been wonderful to experience the power of a stone circle. But not everyone got to do that. The peanut butter sandwich was quite tasty. And the apples were better than he had remembered. The crunch of the chips was louder and crispier than he had noticed before. Even his water tasted sharper, clearer than water usually tasted. He noticed that it seemed to get a bit darker. Clouds were forming. Low clouds that looked like rain. He could see that they were some distance away, but rolling in from all sides. And he could see them so very clearly. The air felt heavy and damp. This might be a very strong storm. Quickly finishing his lunch, he started to stand up. But he could not. His legs seemed to be asleep. They were not tingling. They did not feel funny. He just could not move them.

Rain splashed his face. He was quickly soaked. Except it wasn’t rain. He was floating in a lake. Looking around, he was quite close to shore. A short swim and he was standing on a mound of tiny shells. Some of the snail-like creatures that had made the shells began to climb onto his sneakers. He tried to flick them off without hurting them, but they seemed to adhere to the leather. A big wave splashed his sneakers and some of the snails washed off. So he stepped back into the water and the remainder of the snails quickly floated away. He stepped out into deeper water. He had enjoyed his swim and thought another good swim might be fun.

A large splash attracted his attention. Then he had a weird shock: the creature that made the splash was like nothing he had ever seen before. It looked like a pony with the head of a duck and the flippers of a dolphin. It was splashing and jumping and frolicking—if one can frolic in a lake. It seemed to be laughing. Aidan stared at it for an extra long minute.

The creature moved toward him. It seemed to be smiling; offering friendship. Then it began to splash the lake surface with its flippers, splashing him with water. Aidan suddenly realized that this creature was not a happy, friendly animal. It was terrified of him. That was not a smile, but a grimace. It was not frolicking, it was frightened.

He started to turn away from the creature, then thought better of that. So, he backed up, slowly. A quick glance and he saw that he could safely back up; no mounds of snails were behind him. As he backed onto the shore, the creature seemed to calm down. It began moving back toward the center of the lake.

As the creature was no longer facing him, he took a long look around. The lake was maybe a couple of miles wide. However it stretched from horizon to horizon. Across the lake he could see cliffs rising up above the lake and something green that extended beyond his sight. Behind him, rising up over a hundred feet, was a wall of rock. He could see something on top of the cliff, but he did not recognize it. The shore beneath the cliff was an expanse of sand, dried brownish seaweed, an occasional piece of driftwood and billions of tiny shells.

He noticed something odd in one place on the rock wall. Moving closer, he realized that it was a stair: someone had carved steps into the wall of rock. About halfway up the side of the cliff he noticed a rather large platform. Climbing the stairs took much less effort than he thought it would. At the top of the stairs was a large platform built of inlaid stone of various colors. The inlaid stone formed a rather beautiful pattern. Standing on the edge of the platform, he looked out at the lake.

While he could see the objects in front of him very clearly and in sharp focus, he had difficulty recognizing exactly what he was observing. His impression that there was a cliff on the other side was apparently correct. He could see no sign of any buildings, only what now appeared to be a vast forest. There was a disturbance on the surface of the lake, maybe two or three hundred yards out. When he finally understood what he was observing, he was astounded. It was a whole herd or flock of the creatures. Some were babies. Others were much bigger than the one that chased him out of the lake. These creatures really were frolicking. He could see that their movements were now much different.

Link to the original Picture

Turning his attention to the pattern of stones in the platform floor, he was surprised that he recognized the pattern. It was a very ancient design, familiar to him because his grandparents had a rug with the design hanging on the wall in their hallway. While he had always wanted to take the rug down, lay it on the floor and walk around the pattern, he never had. Today, with the pattern on the platform before him, he would walk the design.

As he took the last step he felt the floor give way. He was dropping through space and time, it would seem. He quickly lost consciousness.

He woke up in the stone circle, sitting up against the standing stone. The sun had moved and was now beating down on him. He could move his legs and so he stood up. That’s when he realized that he had been wet. The sun had dried the front of his shirt and jeans, but his back was still damp. And his sneakers were still wet. He must have slept through the rain.

A couple of steps and he felt something in his shoes. Sitting down, he took them off. In his shoes, stuck to his socks, were a few of the tiny shells from the lake shore!