Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings- all franchises that move fans to great and terrible lengths even as critics sigh and try to maintain an air of respectability by finding fault with the food of the masses. Dislike those titles if you will, but put them aside for a moment as we delve into a fantasy series that rips off all three- namely the first two books in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance trilogy (recently expanded to include a fourth book), a series that gained our attention when it was made into a film in 2006.
Eragon: a hero in the making
Eragon, whose name unimaginatively appears to have been created by taking the word ‘dragon’ and replacing the D with the next letter of the alphabet, is, unsurprisingly an average farm boy living in a village surrounded by level one monsters. As per fantasy convention, he doesn’t actually know his real parents (leaving room for cliché revelations about his family), instead living with his uncle and cousin. One fateful day, he finds a dragon egg in the mountains, and in due course the dragon hatches out in order to become his Destined partner Saphira. This is especially remarkable as only three dragon eggs remain in the world, the rest having been destroyed by evil dragon rider and current emperor Galbatorix (more on him later).
Naturally, whenever a destined hero receives his first key item, it falls to some high level boss to show up, burn his village (or in this case his farm) and then go away so that said hero feels compelled to level up and go after them. Eragon is no exception, and so after the death of his uncle, he decides to pursue the killers for revenge (seemingly because he has no better plan of action). Happily, he doesn’t even have to go alone- he also gets to take Old Man Who is More Than He First Appears Brom, an old storyteller who is good with a sword, can use magic, and just happens to have picked up extensive knowledge about dragons. Could he be a former dragon rider? Surely not!
Brom: So anyway, I know a lot about dragons, including practical information like making saddles for them. I can even use magic too.
Brom: Yes- most humans can’t, but dragon riders can.
Eragon: You know, something really stupid just occurred to me- I know it’s complete nonsense, but were you a dragon rider once?
Brom: Of course not, I just, er, had a friend who was a dragon rider once. Yes, that’s right, a friend.
Some time later…
Brom: Eragon, I have something to tell you- I was once a dragon rider!
Eragon: Really? I never suspected a thing!
As well as handling story requirements such as which town to visit next, Brom’s duty is to help Eragon level up by giving him lessons in magic and swordsmanship. Despite having grown up on a farm and not really being anything special, Eragon is magically able to master both these disciplines thanks to his main character status, soon surpassing Brom and earning the infamous words “I have nothing more to teach you.” Other people have to work hard for many years to master a discipline, but Eragon is able to become the best human swordsman in a matter of weeks- you go, Destiny powers.
Naturally, Destined Heroes need a variety of allies, and so it is that once Brom gets killed off in a confrontation with their enemies, he is randomly joined by Hotheaded Swordsman Murtagh on the next leg of his journey. There will be more on Murtagh when we get to Eldest, but for this part of the story he basically starts travelling with Eragon for no reason other than to stop him getting a Game Over.
Next on Eragon’s recruitment list is the token female character Arya, a beautiful elf who he just happens to have visions of partway through the story. Arya is clearly the wish fulfilment female, and once Eragon dashingly rescues her, his hormone driven response is to immediately fall in love with her- despite the fact that she is an elf and many times worthier and far more experienced than he ever can be. Admittedly, she remains in a coma until later in the story, but the way in which Eragon just starts randomly having visions about her is convenient beyond belief.
With his party thus assembled, Eragon must now journey to the base of the Varden, the obligatory rebels against the evil empire. Of course, such a journey is not to be a simple one, and all the way through they are harried by the generic minions of evil, who have overwhelming might but a tendency to hold off killing the heroes in favour of being slaughtered by deus ex machina.
Of course, no book is complete without a final boss of some sort, and so it is that once he has linked up with the Varden, Eragon and his allies are attacked by the forces of evil, as led by the shade Durza. Durza is a man of incalculable magic power and a swordsman of consummate skill, but he has one great weakness- he isn’t the main character. Thanks to this, he loses to Eragon, who stabs him when he is distracted by Arya and Saphira shattering a massive underground jewel- some may call it cheating, perhaps, but this is a world where the evil Galbatorix was able to defeat a previous hero of good by kicking him in the private parts. More fictional characters should obtain victory in this way- I can’t help feeling it would save a lot of time and effort.
Eldest: second book syndrome
Second books in trilogies always fit certain clichés, and as a series devoted to showcasing such clichés, Eldest managed to achieve all of them. As with so many second instalments, part of the book is devoted to picking up a separate story thread told from the perspective of a supporting character, which in this case proves to be Eragon’s cousin Roran. Having been left back in the farming village where all good minor characters should stay, Roran’s life becomes complicated when the forces of evil target him for being a named character with connections to Eragon. Determined not to fall to the generics, Roran organises a mass exodus from the village, in the hopes that he can take his people to meet up with the Varden.
For many years, secondary plots such as these have been dull interludes to a more interesting main plot, but nothing could be as laboured and uninteresting as Roran’s journey. Even another sub plot about the Varden’s new leader Nasuada and the socio-political problems of running a resistance have nothing on the monotonous stretches following a dull man and his generic village followers on a journey seen in a hundred fantasy tomes before this one was ever published. If there was an edited Roran-free version of the book, I would recommend it over the current version.
Anyway, whilst this is all going on, just what is dearest Eragon doing? The answer, of course, lies in prior series such as Star Wars and Lord of Rings. Recall how Luke Skywalker (Eragon) first learned about his powers from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Brom), who had previously seemed to be nothing more than an average old man? And how upon Obi-Wan’s death, he went to study with the last surviving Jedi, Yoda? Yes, Eragon has a Yoda too- in this case an elven dragon rider named Oromis and his dragon Glaedr. Unsurprisingly, they live in the conveniently safe lands of the magical, mystical elves, where Eragon can train and level up as much as needed. Who doesn’t love a good training arc?
Whilst his training largely goes well, poor Eragon is hampered by something no destined hero should have to face- a scar on his back inflicted by Durza that causes him great pain from time to time. Eragon cannot possibly level up to his full potential with this crippling injury, and so one obligatory festival night, a tattoo of a dragon on the back of a pair of elves somehow not only heals him, but also physically alters him to become more like an elf. I’m not sure how a mere tattoo- even one imbued with draconian magic- could even achieve such a feat, but nonetheless Eragon levels up considerably, even defeating his elven sparring partner in combat the next day.
During this training phase, our destined hero also learns more about the nature of magic, and it is here again that I must sigh, for series upon series has tried to quantify magic, and it seems that the more you look into, the more inconsistent it becomes. Up until this point, all we knew about magic was that one had to speak words in the ancient language to activate it, but as it turns out, this system was somehow created by an elder race; should you so desire it, you can invoke magic without words- albeit with some risk of it going wrong. When using the word method, however, it is no longer just a case of calling out words like ‘fire’ and ‘ice’- now one can invoke all sorts of detailed things like “slowly reduce the pressure on my legs” and, presumably, “heat this water to 100°C for three minutes to boil this egg”. Call me pedantic, but I prefer it when magic preserves an aura of mystique, because any attempts to rationalise it usually make the whole system seem rather stupid.
Anyway, to get back to the story, the time inevitably comes for that cliff-hanger confrontation with the generic forces of evil, starting with one of those large scale battles that test our heroes to their limits, whilst also straining the ability of the reader to remain interested in generic descriptions of magic and swordplay. Finally, however, the personal touch is added, as
Luke Skywalker Eragon is forced to confront his evil father Darth Vader brother Murtagh, who, having apparently been killed in a pointless skirmish at the beginning of the book, was actually forced to work for the side of evil together with his newly hatched but somehow already matured dragon Thorn. Of course, Murtagh is now much stronger than Eragon, but we all know that he will be defeated in the future, and that on his deathbed he will recant his evil ways.
In the months and years to come, the next two books in the series will come out, and no doubt they will be as replete with cliché and narrative convention as their predecessors. Whether this makes them unintentionally amusing or downright dull must be left to the individual to decide.