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Epistle the FourthEdit

In His Heart Lay Dragons… or Maybe NotEdit

“I have visions of lizards. Not just little rock lizards, or even something as big as an alligator, no – I see gigantic, majestic flying dragons. I have visions of them all the time, whether in the shower, sitting on the couch or riding in the car. The problem with seeing dragons is that they tend to take over your mind. And once that happens, you can go a little crazy. Which is probably why I became a published author at eighteen” ~Christopher Paolini

Such a sweet note with which to begin the next Epistle. Any uninformed person, reading it, would be led to believe that it is Paolini’s love of dragons which led him to ‘become a published author at eighteen’ (such modesty! The Epistler can scarcely contain his admiration!). As we all know, the hero of the Inheritance series is Eragon, who is a dragon-rider. His partner and steed is Saphira, the wise and beautiful blue dragon. At various times, Paolini has claimed that the most important part of the story is the relationship between Eragon and Saphira, who are mentally and emotionally bonded and whose destinies are irrevocably entwined.

“The kernel of the story [in Eragon] is about a young boy finding a dragon egg. When Saphira hatched, I didn't know how intelligent I was going to make her. But when Eragon first saw Saphira – I saw her so clearly, she was so beautiful with sapphire-blue scales, that I felt like she had to be this incredible character.”

And:

“I knew Eragon was going to become closely linked with her (Saphira) because they share feelings and thoughts.”

There is only one problem with this. Very well, the Epistler lied; there are several problems with this. But the main one is that Saphira is not an ‘incredible’ character and that she and Eragon are not all that ‘closely linked’. In fact she and her relationship with Eragon are one of the most hollow and disappointing parts of the books. Their relationship, far from being a central part of the story, is extremely shallow and uninteresting. As Paolini famously (and idiotically) said; “characters are born out of necessity”. It is certainly true that characters are born out of necessity, or at least that he treats them as if they are, and Saphira is probably the most striking example of this. She is, at bottom, a flying, talking plot device. And the other dragons in the story are equally unmemorable. Far from making dragons the focus of the story, Paolini handles them very uninterestingly – physically speaking they are identical to the most stereotyped, boring version of dragons which readers have seen a million times before, character-wise they are little different than the non-dragonish characters and, all in all, they have nothing striking or unique about them. And, of course, bear in mind that there is a total of exactly two dragon characters in the story – Saphira and Glaedr. And they serve exactly two purposes: to provide ‘wisdom’ (or at least a lame imitation of what Paolini thinks passes for wisdom) and to make their riders more powerful. That’s all. Although Saphira occasionally provides some painfully unfunny comic relief.

Epistle the Fourth shall examine the characters of Saphira and Glaedr in order to explore this point, and will also discuss the handling of dragons generally, and both you and he will find out whether Paolini’s claims about being obsessed with dragons are as lame and meaningless as they appear to be.

Saphira


Saphira hatches at the beginning of as is well-known. Depressingly, given her excuse for a character arc following this event, her hatching contains a modicum of interest. At first, while she is still an infant, she has no dialogue. This adds an element of mystery to her – the reader does not know what she is thinking, but he does know that she’s intelligent. It makes her feel a little alien, and the reader is intrigued by her, as well as moved by her inherent cuteness – a newly-hatched dragon with big dewy eyes is automatically cute. It provides some welcome relief and interest in the story, since until this point the reader has been forced to spend all their time with Eragon – the thick-headed, whiny and singularly unlikeable ‘hero’ – and very little has happened so far that contains any interest (a word of warning to developing writers – boring opening chapters in which nothing happens are a very, very bad idea). Hereafter we see Saphira begin to grow and develop, and watch as Eragon tries to find a way to deal with her sudden entry into his life. This part of the book is actually moderately enjoyable, as we see Eragon start to become fond of Saphira, and she remains voiceless, expressing herself through expressions and actions instead. At this point she reminds the reader of a cat or dog – and as owners of either pet will know, cats and dogs have ways of communicating their feelings to their owners in a way that goes beyond mere words. So far, so good – Saphira is an animal and acts like one, and is also cute. Not exactly ‘majestic’, but still endearing.

The Epistler advises readers to treasure this part of the book, because not long afterwards the bottom begins to fall out of it. Saphira begins to speak.

This scene is easily mockeable; Eragon starts to hear her voice in his head (the dragons are telepathic, which will be dealt with later). At first all she says is his name over and over again (this becomes quite irritating), and when he crabbily asks her if that’s all she can say she says ‘yes’. ‘Now it has a sense of humour’, Eragon thinks. Sadly, yes, and the reader will be subjected to an agonisingly long string of examples over the course of the rest of the book and into the sequel.

Thereafter we are treated to a scene where Eragon names Saphira. This part would possibly be interesting, but for the fact that it was lifted almost word-for-word from a book called Jeremy Thatcher: Dragon Hatcher which Paolini admits was his favourite book as a child (for some reason he seems to think it is all right to steal from books he particularly enjoyed. Still, if one must steal, why not steal from the best?). Shortly after this, Eragon starts sulking over the fact that his cousin Roran is planning to leave home and get married. Luckily, Saphira is there to comfort our self-centred brat of a hero:

“Saphira was a balm for Eragon’s frustration. He could talk freely with her; his emotions were completely open to her mind, and she understood him better than anyone else.”

The text then goes on to talk about how she goes through a ‘growth spurt’ during this time, and the Epistler is left to tear his hair out in frustration. What, exactly is wrong with this little segment? It reveals just how clueless Paolini is about character development. It’s a classic case of telling rather than showing. So Saphira understands Eragon better than anyone else. Any author – ANY author who knows anything about his art – would know how this ought to have been handled. The reader should not be TOLD that Saphira understands Eragon better than anyone else. It should be SHOWN. Instead of a few sentences, there should have been a scene to demonstrate that Saphira understands Eragon better than anyone else. Taking a shortcut like this is an extremely bad move. If Paolini actually cared about the relationship between Eragon and Saphira, he would had dwelt on this point. He would have shown, not told. The focus isn’t on their developing relationship at all; instead it is on Eragon’s endless complaining over Roran leaving. As if it weren’t bad enough that Saphira has been shoved into the background (where she remains until the plot requires her to do something), the reader is also given more reasons to dislike Eragon – his objections to Roran leaving make him look very childish indeed. Saphira’s growth into adulthood and thus into an adult character is skipped over in exactly the same careless way. Many have complained about this and said they would have liked to see more of her babyhood, but this is not provided.

Worse still is that the character she becomes is nowhere near as interesting as the one she started out as. As one reviewer on Amazon.com put it; ‘She’s like this talking, perfect Lassie’. After Saphira begins talking, she reveals that she doesn’t have to spend time learning anything thanks to the magic of racial memory (this is an actual and extremely loopy pseudo-scientific theory long since disproved). “I may be younger than you in years, but I am ancient in my thoughts”, as she puts it toward the end of the book.

This is nothing short of pathetic. Saphira is only a few months old; a baby, to all intents and purposes, but she speaks and acts as if she had lived for centuries. Paolini explains it away with the reliable old Deus ex Machina known as ‘magic’, but it is still ridiculous and unbelievable. It feels as if Saphira the adult – Eragon’s infodumping grandma, as one person called her – simply came out of nowhere, fully-formed and knowing more than Eragon. So there is already a problem with the oh-so-deep relationship between her and Eragon – it’s unequal. If they were truly partners and equals, they should have developed side-by-side, both learning about the world and slowly becoming stronger and wiser. But no. Instead Saphira becomes a female counterpart to Brom – another wise old mentor who has to steer the wayward young hero onto his Path of Destiny, etc and so forth. Their mental bond is a very shallow one – in essence it is limited to their being able to communicate telepathically and occasionally share images of things they have seen. That’s it. They don’t share their emotions or have any kind of deep understanding – most of the time Eragon is nagging at Saphira because she won’t do what he wants, or she is lecturing him for being stupid. Much of the time they feel more like mother and son than partners. They are very much like Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket – one is naïve and stupid (and also made out of wood), and the other is the worldly-wise character who must do all his thinking for him and generally teach him about life.

A way to make Eragon and Saphira equal would have been to have them both act as if they were young. If they were BOTH immature and inexperienced, the reader could have seen them grow and develop together, learning from each other and the world around them. Having Saphira magically not need to learn anything means that the focus is taken off her and is instead placed on Eragon, the eternally ignorant child. So their relationship is not an equal one and thus it does not feel as if they are truly linked on that deep, magical level.

As for Saphira… what exactly does she do in Eragon?

The Epistler decided to make a list:

1. She hatches and bonds with Eragon, thus turning him into a magical super-warrior.

2. She drags him away from his uncle’s farm, thus dooming this poor abused minor character to a melodramatic death.

3. She accompanies Eragon on his subsequent journey, remaining off-screen for much of the time, and provides a string of amusing or pseudo-philosophical remarks.

4. She helps rescue him from Gil’ead.

5. She distracts Durza so that Eragon can kill him.


…and that’s about it. Bear in mind that the book is hundreds of pages in length. Saphira’s role in the plot is quite a small one. She does less than Brom, less than Murtagh, and far less than Eragon. She barely even counts as a sidekick for our hero. Although Eragon’s character development is minimal (something of a Paolini trademark), hers is even less. Much of the book’s very dull plot consists of monotonous travelling – pages and pages of it. Eragon and Brom ride along on horses together (not much actual dragon-riding is done by Our Hero), and Brom teaches Eragon about swordplay and magic and other boring things. Meanwhile Saphira… flies overhead. Staying high so no-one sees her. They stay in Teirm for a while, where Eragon meets an old friend of Brom, has his fortune told in the marketplace, throws a tantrum over the evil slave trade (which he forgets about awfully quickly), and nearly gets caught by guards. As for Saphira, she hangs around outside the city while all this is going on and does, well, nothing. Aside from acting as a convenient mental telephone to help Eragon and Brom stay in touch, anyway. Truly, there never was a dragon more magnificent.  

But, the reader may protest, what about Eldest? Saphira does much more than just hide and be Eragon’s conscience there!

Very well. Here is another list of what Saphira does within the pages of the Red Book:

1. Stops Eragon dating a sorceress (matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match, indeed).

2. Accompanies him on the long, long, very long trip to Ellesméra.

3. Undergoes some sort of training with Glaedr, most of which we don’t see and could care less about.

4. Tries to get it on with her senile teacher, much to the reader’s disgust (however, she’s still happy to tell Eragon to stop hitting on Arya. Hypocrisy much?).

5. Fights alongside Eragon on the Burning Plain.

Now, in Eldest, since our heroes are with the Varden, it’s no longer necessary for Saphira to stay in hiding all the time. Therefore, we should in theory be seeing more of her. But we don’t. Or, at least, she’s around but doesn’t do anything. Her character becomes even worse than it was in Eragon she stops lecturing Eragon all the time and becomes… nothing. This is where we see her finally become what Paolini really intended her to be from the beginning – an accessory for Eragon. She’s no longer a real character; all she does is stay by Eragon and agree with him all the time, and carry him around like an overgrown horse with wings. We could almost imagine Eragon keeping her in his trophy cabinet next to his archery prize. Other characters adore Eragon because he’s a Rider (oh, and he killed Durza), and he’s only a Rider because he has Saphira. Without her he’d be just another idiot with a shiny sword (which he more or less is anyway, but let it pass). This is Saphira’s function; she makes Eragon cooler and more powerful. When he attends councils and gets involved in some boring political struggles, she does absolutely nothing. Many people, even in official publications (eg. the Entertainment Weekly article which named Eldest the worst book of 2005) have referred to Saphira as ‘the hero’s pet dragon’. The Epistler has a strong suspicion that Paolini is annoyed by this, but the truth is that Saphira, along with all the other dragons, more or less IS just a pet. A talking pet, maybe, but still a pet. The Epistler is reminded of occasions where someone is walking their dog and other people come up to pat the dog and compliment the owner on having a nice pet. In the Inheritance trilogy, people more or less come up to Eragon and tell him what a nice shiny dragon he has.

We do not get any insight into Saphira’s mind in either book, which we logically should have given that she and Eragon supposedly ‘share thoughts’. Eragon confides in Saphira very frequently, turning to her when he needs advice and sharing his feelings with her, but Saphira does not reciprocate. She never tells Eragon how SHE feels, never asks him for advice, never treats him as a true friend. When they talk, the focus is always on him. Eragon never asks her about herself, and all in all he takes her for granted, always assuming that she will be there when he needs her and never stopping to consider whether she might need him. And Saphira appears to be completely unbothered by this. Again, they are neither equals nor true partners. A true partnership – even a close friendship – requires that both give and take from each other. But this does not happen between Eragon and Saphira. Eragon does not act as if he truly cares about Saphira’s feelings. All he does is take and take and take from her, as if she were some sort of eternal wellspring. In a realistic world with properly developed characters, Saphira would probably be nursing a grudge against him and he would eventually be forced to confront his own selfishness, but it is a fair bet that this will not happen, as both characters are being handled by an author who would not recognise a real character if it stole the glasses off his nose. Instead Saphira, like every other ‘good’ character, behaves as if her life revolves around Eragon. Their conversations are all about him, him and only him, as if he were some kind of metaphorical sun around which even a wise, mighty dragon must orbit. It is the same for every other character. Everyone and everything in Alagaësia revolves around Eragon, and that includes Saphira.

In terms of Star Wars, which as most people know is where Paolini got his plot from, Saphira’s obvious equivalent character is in fact two characters – the droids R2-D2 and C3PO. This may seem absurd at first, but on examination it is quite plausible. Like the droids, Saphira is the catalyst for the hero’s adventure and the reason why the rebels accept him, and she also tags along on the adventure where she does nothing much except provide comic relief and exposition and once or twice help the hero out at some crucial moment. If during Empire she begins saying ‘oh my!’ or bleeping at frequent intervals, the Epistler will not be the slightest bit surprised.

What is most aggravating about all this is that it didn’t have to be this way. Saphira did not have to be the nothing character that she is. She had the potential to be every bit as incredible as Paolini felt she should have been. If only he had handled her properly.

If the Epistler had had the chance to provide a little advice during the writing of Eldest he would have suggested that instead of making Roran and Nasuada new ‘viewpoint’ characters, Saphira should have been allowed to come to the fore. If parts of the story were told from her point of view, it would have been an excellent way to develop her character and show the reader everything that he wanted to know about her. Readers constantly talk about how much Saphira interests them, and if she had been a viewpoint character and there had been various subplots told through her eyes in place of Roran or Nasuada’s subplots, both of which were pointless and uninteresting, it could have been a great improvement.

Saphira and Eragon’s relationship could have been a deeply moving and affecting thing which had both a positive and negative side, which helped develop them both as characters and which gave the reader an emotional connection with the story.  A story told about characters like this, with a truly well-developed and involving link, could have been great no matter how generic the plotline was. If Eragon and Saphira’s relationship had truly been the ‘kernel’ of the story, it could have gone a very long way toward redeeming Paolini’s ripoffs and endless list of clichés.

But the point is that it wasn’t and it didn’t. Paolini failed miserably – failed both his readers and his characters. And no amount of boasting or exaggeration on his part will ever change that.

Glaedr

If Saphira is a nothing character, then Glaedr is even less than nothing. He is the partner of Oromis, Paolini’s Yoda clone, and like Oromis he fills the mentor role vacated by the late Brom. When the Epistler says that he is less than a nothing character, he means it literally. The Epistler simply cannot think of a way to describe Glaedr’s personality, for the simple reason that he does not have one. He is simply words on a page; a vehicle for some tedious lessons on morality and philosophy which the Epistler does not remember nor care to remember, in spite of having read them several times. He is supposed to be Oromis’ counterpart, who teaches Saphira while Oromis teaches Eragon. He fulfils his plot device role, and otherwise does absolutely nothing and has no character development whatsoever. The Epistler honestly cannot think of anything more to say about him.

Thorn

Not a character at all. Thorn has a total of zero lines during his one appearance in Eldest and never does anything character-defining. Murtagh may as well have shown up at the Burning Plains on a donkey.

Shruikan

Has not appeared at any point in the series (although for some reason everyone already seems to know that he has red eyes). Being the steed of the oh-so-evil Galbatorix, Shruikan is black (if you find this surprising, please refrain from breeding). Apparently he was forced to serve Galbatorix by means of evil magic, which at first suggests he may be set free. But then we remember that Shruikan is black. Forget setting him free: he’s evil and must die.

And these are all the dragon characters to be found in the Inheritance trilogy so far – ‘characters’ being a relative term. They have physical descriptions and two have dialogue, so the Epistler is forced to concede that they must be characters, though he cannot help but feel as if he is insulting the thousands of REAL characters that exist in the realm of literature. They are simply uninteresting, and they are certainly not the focus of the story. The focus of the story is all on Eragon and Arya and other semi-humanoid characters. The dragons barely get a mention, and when they do it is never alone. Everything they do is defined by who their riders are – plenty of ancient elven warriors are named and talked about, but not a single dragon is mentioned that does not have a rider. And when it comes to heroic deeds, it is always the rider who does them, not the dragon. This being so, how can it possibly be said that riders are equal to their dragons? We are constantly TOLD that they are equals, but we are never once SHOWN it. All we actually do see confirms the idea that the rider is the important one, and that every rider has a nice sharp sword, fancy titles, magic powers and a dragon to ride. The dragon is simply a tool, and that is exactly how they are portrayed. And we never see Saphira complain about how Eragon orders her around all the time, either. She does not act like a proud, ferocious warrior of the sky, or even like a character that isn’t human.

One reader remarked that they got some way through Eldest (not having read Eragon) before realising that Saphira wasn’t human. And if a non-human character acts so much like a human that they actually become indistinguishable from one, why bother?

Oh, the reader protests, come now, Epistler, how can you be so stupid? You forgot all the things Saphira and the other dragons do that makes them special! They can fly and breathe fire and everything! Well, setting aside the fact that special abilities do not a convincing character make, let us examine these special dragon abilities.

Dragon Abilities

So what can dragons do in Paolini-land? They can breathe fire and fly. How very, very distinctive. And they are telepathic. Just like the ones in the Dragonriders of Pern novels. Who would have thought it – Paolini didn’t come up with telepathic dragons on his own, after all! But in all seriousness, what does it matter that Saphira is telepathic? Her dialogue with Eragon is no different than ordinary spoken dialogue – she may as well have been given a voice just like any other character. The impact that this has on the plot is limited to the fact that they can communicate over longer distances than most people, and that Eragon has to serve as her mouthpiece when she wants to talk to someone else. Like many other things in the Inheritance books, it seems to have been thrown in simply because Paolini thought it was cool, since it has absolutely zero effect on the plot or the characters. One thing that the Epistler finds most frustrating about Paolini is his lack of imagination – he puts things into his books ‘just because’, rather than because they actually mean something. Saphira’s telepathy is a prime example.

Riders Generally

The Epistler feels that he has already made his point about how dragon riders in the Inheritance series treat their dragons like pets. But he found his daily dose of nutritious irony within the pages of Eragonitself:

“They (the dragons) were no more animals than we are. For some reason people praise everything the Riders did, yet ignore the dragons, assuming that they were nothing more than an exotic means to get from one town to another. They weren’t. The Riders’ great deeds were only possible because of the dragons. How many men would draw their swords if they knew a giant fire-breathing lizard – one with more natural cunning and wisdom than even a king could hope for – would soon be there to stop the violence?”

~Brom

Oh Paolini, how you mock yourself. Brom could very well have been channelling the Epistler himself when he said this. The Epistler hates to break it to you, Paolini, but Brom was absolutely right – and he was talking about you.

the Epistles
Epistle the Third ~*~ Home ~*~ Epistle the Fifth

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