Saturday, May 19, 2012

Homeschool Fantasy: A Review of the Inheritance Cycle

Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle is a homeschooled kid’s fantasy. Yes, it has a youthful protagonist who stumbles upon an impossible yet predestined quest (stop the near invincible antagonist). Yes, it has swords and dragons and dragon lore. It has magic-wielding elves, fortune-telling herbalists, clans of dwarves, and even werecats. And in this four part epic story, there is also the fantastic fulfillment of an adolescent dream.

Paolini is hardly the first teenager, homeschooled or not, to write stories. Inspired by favorite stories or films, they concoct wild tales with less direction than finesse. If persistent, they construct outlines and draft a few tortured chapters. If bold, they share with family and friends. Their output, mercifully, is usually euthanized when the family computer expires and is replaced.

But Paolini was inspired, persistent, and bold. At an age when most kids are progressing from simple algebra to simple trigonometry he sketched a complete fantasy world, and with it the trajectory of the entire Inheritance Cycle. He then showed the draft of the first book, Eragon (with his parents, impressing them enough that they published it through their home business and launched a family book tour. The tour failed, but it did put Eragon in the hands of a published author, who passed it on to a big publishing house. After a full round of editing, Alfred A. Knopf re-published Eragon and turned it into a best seller.

Despite the success of Eragon (including a feature film) and the ensuing books, I found considerable criticism as I researched for this review. Some of it is justified; the writing is sophomoric at best and the storytelling suffers from this and other maladies of inexperience. My notes are laced with invective on these points. Since the author was indeed a sophomore when he did most of the writing, I decided not to share them.

Other reviewers complained that Paolini created his fantasy world by ripping off a dozen other authors, adding little to nothing of his own. This is a common complaint against even the greatest fantasy writers; only Tolkien seems to be sacrosanct when it comes to borrowing versus stealing. In this case, the charge sticks because the world he created is firmly standard fare. His elves are haughty, sylvan creatures who outdo humans in both physical and magical pursuits. His dwarves are suspicious metalworkers who build vast underground cities networked by tunnels. The boy Eragon develops predictably in line with the quest motif. But stock characters are what define genres. You can only do so much with an elf before he is no longer an elf. Few authors can transcend genre, especially in fantasy. Tolkien was ahead of his time and produced a revered classic. J.K. Rowling wrote something truly original that outgrew all the rest. And more recently, George R. R. Martin has used the genre to play a Hobbesian tune, reminding us that life is indeed nasty, brutish, and short.

For most authors, including Paolini, art begins with imitation. And most artists spend a lifetime with little progress. The best learn to combine the basic elements with some originality, or at least to put new twists on the techniques of their forerunners. Only the transcendent actually create something new - this is why Picassos only come along once or twice per generation. So to conclude Paolini’s defense, it is in fact remarkable that a boy of 15 could create such a robust story by applying imagination to imitation.

Despite the above complaints, the story itself is truly compelling. The quest motif may be formulaic, but that diminishes none of its appeal as a great element in human narrative. It is David against Goliath (except Eragon gets to ride a fire-breathing dragon and share her thoughts and powers). The reader rides along, with romantic and irrational love for the underdog suspending despair. Paolini treats one theme with a great deal of maturity, and that is the intersection of hope, fatalism, and prescience. Eragon knows that he must face the evil and powerful Galbatorix. He knows the odds. But he will not relent. He continues to search for ways to improve his skills and find some new advantage for himself and his dragon. As long as people maintain their belief that they can manipulate outcomes, hope springs eternal.

Eragon also discovers a tension he must navigate as his power increases. He finds he is not so different from young Galbatorix, whose power eventually consumed and corrupted him. Galbatorix is the product of unchecked nature; Eragon responds to nurture as the hour of need insists he become both a great man and a good man. This tension builds as the stakes increase. Early in the story, Eragon chastises his friend Murtagh for killing a brutish Urgal when it might have been avoided. By the end of the story, he routinely and dispassionately performs the cruel calculus of war to find the lesser evil. The power and responsibility harden him, making him more like the fiend he must defeat.

These are the strongest themes; otherwise, the series is quite ordinary. The action scenes and battles should be the strongest, but they are hamstrung by weak writing. The panoramic descriptions are likewise rich in precision but devoid of grandeur. Paolini fails to satisfyingly develop most of the major supporting characters, and he too often resolves conflicts between individuals and priorities with perfunctory arguments and tautological reasoning. When he tries to make profound observations on basic human problems, he sometimes succeeds, but other times falls flat. For example, when the rebel forces capture a key imperial city, Eragon glibly instructs them to give all the slaves a gold piece and set them free. There is no assimilation plan to back this noble sentiment, and it is never mentioned again. When the rebels move on two pages later, the slaves are left without vocations or any guarantee of safety, presumably at the mercy of their former masters. Any 8th grade student of American history knows that you cannot amend slavery in two sentences.

The Inheritance Cycle is best regarded as a few hours of light summer reading, exciting but not especially enriching. It is strictly a tale of adventure, imagination, and dragons. There is enough violence to deter the very squeamish (battles, physical suffering, even torture), but not enough romance to deter the young lads who will appreciate the story most (Eragon’s romantic pursuits are far less successful than his primary quest). As a young adult offering, it makes a great gateway from Tolkien, Lewis, and Pullman to the wider fantasy landscape. But although a gateway, it will not ultimately stand out much from the crowd. I could perhaps rank it in the top 12-15 fantasy series that I’ve read; it might drop to the 20s with enough introspection. (That is less an indictment of Eragon than a nod to how wide and densely populated that greater fantasy landscape is.) But as an introduction, it serves its purpose well. And with the Inheritance Cycle, Paolini begins what may be a very promising career as a writer.

By Daniel Archer. Daniel is a friend and former classmate of ours at Patrick Henry College.

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