Thursday, November 23, 2006

Eragon: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

My brother is very selective about his reading material, so when he enthusiastically recommended Eragon to me, I started reading Christopher Paolini's precocious debut fantasy novel with high expectations.

It fell a little short.

Fine, I'll take into consideration that the author was all of 15 when he started writing Eragon, but I can't help but be uncomfortable with all the stark similarities his creation has with other master works of fantasy and science fiction, specifically J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (I'll draw the parallels by and by). To give the kid the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was really inspired by LOTR and Star Wars, and built his story using the same scaffolding. However, I believe that if you wanna play with the big boys, you gotta hold your own, so I still find this lack of originality disappointing.

Eragon, Book 1 of the Inheritance trilogy, introduces the reader to the land of Alagaesia, ruled by a tyrant named Galbatorix (the name doesn't roll off the tongue easily; even when I'm pronouncing it in my head it's clunky). The evil ruler was once one of the Dragon Riders, an elite and powerful group of "gifted" individuals who, uh, rode dragons (duh).
In other words, they were strong in the Force, and pretty much acted like the kingdom's Jedi Knights, keeping the peace and standing for truth, justice and the Alagaesian way. When Galbatorix's dragon was killed, he succumbed to the Dark Side of the Force, and went on a murderous rampage, slaying all Dragon Riders save those who pledged allegiance to him (much like how Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader massacred all his fellow Jedi). The Riders' steeds were not as fortunate, and the poor dragons were wiped out by Galbatorix. They were thought extinct for many years, but 3 eggs survived-- 2 remained in Galbatorix's clutches, but 1 was snatched from his grasp (spirited away by the elf-maiden Arya in a chase sequence reminiscent of Arwen's frantic horseback ride with Nazgul on her tail, as she bore Frodo to Rivendell in the movie adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring).

Enter Luke Skywalker, in the form of titular character Eragon, the unwitting farmboy-turned-hero. He falls into possession of the 3rd dragon egg, which "chooses" to hatch for him. The dragon, Saphira, attaches itself to Eragon, who eventually becomes a Dragon Rider, the first since Galbatorix got rid of the lot. It is on this new generation of Riders that the fate of Alagaesia rests, and the 2 major political forces in the kingdom are battling to gain control over them: Galbatorix and his crew of baddies, and the Varden, an underground (figuratively and literally) group of resistance fighters who seek to restore the old glory of the Riders (think the Empire versus the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars). In the meantime, Eragon is trained in the ways of the Dragon Riders by Brom, an eccentric old man living in his village (Obi-Wan Kenobi, is that you?), and sets out on a quest accompanied by Murtagh, a guy with a shady past (i.e., Han Solo).

My biggest peeve with the story was its mythology, which to me, reeked of Tolkien: long-haired, aristocratic elves who came from "across the sea"; grumpy dwarves who dwell underground (Paolini's dwarf city is called Tronjheim, a counterpart of Tolkien's Moria) and monopolize the mining industry; monstrous anthromorphic beasts who serve as the chief villain's foot soldiers (Paolini calls his Urgal; Tolkien's were orcs); bastard human-Urgal hybrids called Kull (Tolkien version: the charming Uruk-hai); scary henchmen with scary powers (Paolini has the Ra'zac and the Shade; Tolkien had his formidable, freaky Nazgul). Heck, even the name "Eragon" sounds too much like "Aragorn", Tolkien's human hero, and "Arya" like "Arwen". I have a feeling the coming film adaptation of Eragon is going to play out like a shorter, less grand version of Peter Jackson's LOTR movies.

I could go on, but I should stop lest I inadvertently reveal some plot spoilers (even if the plot is pretty predictable). Overall, I'd give Eragon final marks of B- for entertainment value, C+ for writing style, and D for originality... but I'd give young Christopher Paolini an A for effort. We may see true creative genius from this kid yet, if he learns to blaze his own path rather than follow those who came before him.


At Monday, November 27, 2006, Blogger Sean said...

When it comes to Fantasy literature, I've noticed that it's extremely easy to fall into some of the clich├ęs of the genre. I suspect that that's because Fantasy tends to be more of a "monkey-see, monkey-do" arrangement: Those people who write Fantasy were probably heavily influenced by it in some way, whether it involved bedtime fairy tales or MMORPGs. Tolkien is one of the big influences in this regard.

But then again, seeing that Tolkien was the first author of modern Fantasy, then it's inevitable that we say that all Fantasy authors either directly or indirectly take some measure of inspiration from him. Writing Fantasy, in a sense, is like playing in Tolkien's backyard. Otherwise, we'd be coming up with stuff that's so far removed and original that it can barely be called "Fantasy" to begin with.

At Tuesday, November 28, 2006, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Granted, Tolkien's the great-granddaddy of the genre. But many gifted fantasy writers manage to hold their own even when they deviate from the Tolkien template (look in a mirror, buddy ;p). I'd like to think that someone with Paolini's potential can do better than recycle the material of his forebears. I blame his youth and inexperience more than anything. Give the kid a couple more years and we may see true talent emerge.

And I always thought that "stuff that's so far removed and original" is precisely what fantasy is all about: breaching the boundaries of the imagination, reinventing old worlds and creating new dimensions, transforming the commonplace into the uncommon and uncanny. But that's me, and I'm no expert. :)

At Tuesday, November 28, 2006, Blogger Sean said...

I'm detaching myself from my writing for the sake of this discussion, actually. (While I did start with a Tolkien-based perspective, I'm attempting to move away from that direction.)

Yes, I think that any attempts at breaching the bounds of imagination should be encouraged. This is the kind of genre that needs creativity... and not just plain creativity, mind you, but new and unfettered creativity.

My point regarding Tolkien, however, is that I believe that he defined Fantasy to the point where we can no longer separate his elements from the genre. If that is the case, then should anyone ever come up with a Fantasy work that has no elements in common with Tolkien at all... then could we still call it Fantasy? (This probably has more to do with a proper definition of the genre than anything else, to be honest. Talk about the stuff of headaches.)


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