The first time I read Eragon, before I even had finished the first chapter, I had a strong impression that I was reading a bad plagiarism of Tolkien. I fought back the feeling and finished the book, and I’m glad I did. While the writing style of the first book was horrible, Paolini has matured incredibly since then and the last book was very well written.
But the similarities between Paolini’s world and Tolkien are so painfully obvious and so distant where they differ that I felt I needed a whole new spot to rant.
We must give Paolini a little room here. After all, Tolkien did re-invent the world of fantasy, especially as regards the sentient races (Men, Dwarves, Elves, and the Orcs. The last come in many different forms nowadays, but the stereotype is, it seems, a crucial piece of the fantasy world). Dwarves are cemented (pardon the pun) as creatures of stone and earth, renowned for their work in weaponry and jewelry, notorious for their gold-lust. Elves are tall, graceful beings, mostly immortal. And they always seem to come from over the sea…. Tolkien remains the only one to use the race of Hobbits, partly because they were all his brainchild (as opposed to a redefinition) and partly because anyone using the Hobbit stereotype would be far too obvious.
So if Paolini steals from Tolkien here, we can sympathize. We can all agree that Tolkien is the undisputed master of fantasy, and who are we to imitate if not the greats? But if Tolkien IS the master, then all fantasy, at least his broad epic genre, must be judged against him.
One of the more pertinent points that I think needs special attention is one that I’ve found in several different places, not just Paolini. If you’ve read the Inheritance Cycle, you of course will know of the Urgals.
The Urgals are, for the uninitiated, minotaurs (for simplicity’s sake). They are the stereotypical Orcs: the grunt troops of the Bad Guy (Galbatorix in this case).
But where Paolini diverged from Tolkien is interesting. The Urgals are shown [SPOILER ALERT] in the later books to not be evil at heart, despite their unfortunate love of killing and violence (and these traits are okay, why, exactly?).
The root of this problem, I think, is a subtle political maneuver against racism. I’ve read it elsewhere (don’t ask, I don’t remember), and it pops out at me like a recurring theme. It’s painfully obvious in Inheritance, though, because we have extended scenes inside Eragon’s head where he wrestles with the concept, against his nature, of allying himself with these creatures.
This is neither the time nor place to enter into a discussion of racism, and the basic idea is fine. But it’s a more common theme in politics and actions today of overcompensating and barely disguised hatred.
We can see this trait in other stories. In HP, Hermione campaigns for the house elves, and Lupin fights discrimination against werewolves. Dolores Umbridge discriminates against creatures that she regards as half-humans, such as werewolves, mermaids, centaurs, giants and the like.
It comes up to some degree in Twilight (I infer) as discrimination against vampires. I assume it must be the literary Zeitgiest of the 21st century. The message is all about looking past how a person acts and looking past their stereotype to who they “really” are (sounds kinda like what we’re doing here). IMHO, this is mostly propaganda. While I am against profiling in general, sometimes it’s useful (salesmanship comes to mind). And how someone acts usually reveals who they are inside. The whole thing reeks of “hippy-ness” and “tolerance.” Profiling and stereotyping is very useful in some cases.
What you are on the inside will always show on the outside. If you do drugs, you can’t hide the effects, no matter how well you hide your habits. Your actions betray your heart. The way you act DOES in fact show how you think and feel about the world around you.
Are the books that teach, for example, about animal behaviors stereotyping? We are taught that lions eat meat, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a lion out there with a tie-dyed mane eating grass and smoking banana leaves. Does this mean the textbooks are wrong? When we read books about other cultures and learn that the Japanese people learn martial arts from a young age, are those books racist when we find a native Japanese man who doesn’t know kung fu from jiujutsu? Of course not! Stereotypes are an integral part of who people will grow to become. You can tell a lot about someone from the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, the car they drive, and the football team they cheer. Stereotypes help us laugh at each other. I don’t hear anyone calling Jeff Foxworthy a racist for his redneck jokes. But we can laugh at ourselves because we fit that stereotype. More on this to come.
I already mentioned a subtle political maneuver against racism. But it’s obvious that this trend is also against the Christian faith. We, of course, are always stereotyped as intolerant of people not like us (i.e. irresponsible man-worshipping God-haters). So the weak Christians vote for gays and let Muslims pass laws, send their children to be schooled by Marxists and are afraid to talk to the Jew in the next cubicle about what he really believes.
Enough of that. The point I’m trying to make is that in LotR, the Orcs are twisted creatures. They ARE evil. My views on twisted creatures and evil have been before, I refer you to my post on Dragons.
This may be just me ranting, but it irks me that the stereotype for evil grunts has been turned on its head and made to accuse the humans who have spent their lives in terror of these beasts. Far too much time is spent inside Eragon’s head every time he comes into contact with an Urgal ally, and valuable writing appeal is lost in the transaction.
You just don’t press “Undo” on hundreds of years of anti-Urgal conditioning. There’s a reason to hate and fear these creatures. Experience has shown they can’t be trusted. It isn’t “prejudice.” It’s self-preservation. The real world doesn’t work like Paolini and so many others seem to think. Someone who knows that a snake is dangerous does not go and stick his hand in a vipers nest to prove his impartiality (yes, one day these will be safe, we are told, but this is because of a change in the vipers, not the person sticking his hand inside).
As far as dragons go: review here. I will say this: Paolini’s dragons are arrogant. Incredibly. But that’s a character trait, not specific to dragons.
“Destiny,” fate, or “wyrda” play crucial roles in the development of the storyline. As far as story-telling devices go, it’s crude (Greek pagan thinking) but not completely unacceptable. However, it clashes with my next point: that of deity.
There are, or seem to be, gods in the Paolini universe. When Eragon is inducted into the Dwarvish clan, he is briefly educated in their origins and theology. This turns out to be an odd mix of Norse legend and Tolkien’s own ideas (especially in the creation of the Dwarves: made in secret by a lesser god. The legend is the same in both Tolkien and Paolini. Tolkien was also influenced a huge deal by the Norse legend, so I guess calling this a mix is a bit redundant). I don’t mind theology of this sort in stories so much; it makes for an interesting case study of how the world works, and if the worldview is consistent. But what’s really odd is that the King of the Dwarf gods is actually seen crowning the new king of the Dwarves. Saphira passes it off as a spirit from a by-gone age, but Eragon is not so sure. Later, Eragon prays, even though he doesn’t know what to, and a Dwarf woman offers, surprisingly, a presuppositionalist argument for the existence of her gods (did Paolini study van Til, perhaps?).
The Elves do not believe in a god, referring instead to a more evolutionist view of creation and the world. We don’t hear much about the human gods, but we can gather that there are household gods and things of that sort: no strong faith as in the Dwarf clans. The one human deity we do hear references to is Death. There is also the occultist worship of the mountain of Helgrind. And the Urgals worship a matriarchal set of gods.
Marriage is another odd perception here. The Elves do not believe in marriage, but the Dwarves and humans do. When faced with the question of why, Eragon’s Elvish mentor, Oromis, replies with some rhetorical questions of his own, thoroughly confusing Eragon. The funny thing is, without God, marriage means nothing and is therefore unnecessary (as everything else would be, but this is theoretical).
My last point for discussion is of the Elves themselves. They follow Tolkien’s model, of course, but they are a stereotype simultaneously for something far different. They represent, at least to me, the “perfect” race, and the dream of Marxists, Socialists, Communists, and Eugenicists worldwide. They never need to work, “God” is unnecessary, they devote their time wholly to leisure and pleasure, marriage is looked down on, everything is easy, and courtesy and decorum are followed with a vengeance. They’re proud and haughty. And they are immortal to boot.
At first glance, this may seem like the perfect society. But I’ve read Animal Farm. I’ve studied Brave New World. I’ve gone over Marx’s Planks of Communism. I know better. This utopian society is possible in real life only through blatant disregard for God and blasphemy of His Name. It is built upon selfishness and the backs of all who are not beautiful or skilled enough to gain the top dog status. It is a society of Satan.
This view of utopia is, sadly, the prevailing one today, thanks to Marx and the French Revolutionists and the pagan Greeks. Most people don’t realize what it means, and so they pursue their Botox and dreams of youth down this road. So they abort their babies that they don’t want. So they engage in genocide, whether they know it or not. Some favor eugenics and euthanasia. So did Hitler, people.
We are fallen creatures, and when we don’t have work to occupy us, we usually turn to “other” pursuits, not all of them God-honoring. Remember the old adage, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” A whole society of endless leisure is sure to breed discontentment, anger, and eventually strife.
I’m not saying that Paolini endorses any of this. But his stereotypical Elf is a clear picture of the culture he was raised in. If we’re not careful, we could start thinking like this. After all, the Elves lead a great lifestyle, right? Most people already think like this. Maybe they don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe they do. But ignorance is always our biggest opponent. Which is why we have the Church, to educate these masses in the Truth of Christ.
That was my biggest piece of beef with Paolini. I enjoy his stories and his writing style improves with every book. We can only pray that his worldview improves as well.
Among the good things (and they exist) is especially his conception of the Ancient Language. This concept is not entirely original but his treatment of it as the language of magic, in which lying is impossible, in which oaths cannot be broken, is quite interesting and very stimulating. It is a crucial, defining piece of the Inheritance Universe, and, to my knowledge, is entirely unique in its repercussions.
The Dwarves seem to me to be the best of all races. While believing in polytheism and plagued by internal troubles, they are the most assured in their faith of all. They never flinch, and never shirk hard work. If I were in Alagaesia, I’d be a Dwarf.