Epistle the SecondEdit
Why Eragon – And Eldest Even More So – Should Be Considered Examples Of Bad Writing
As established in the first Epistle, other writers – and not just young writers, as a matter of fact – consider the Inheritance series unworthy of its popularity because it is poorly written. Writers should of course be expected to know what they are talking about – published or no. And it is not just other writers who think this. The famous (or imfamous, depending on your point of view) Ivy is a professional editor as well as a writer. And people working in publishing – agents, proofreaders, executives, etc. – have agreed with her sentiments. It is common knowledge amongst people in ‘the business’ that Inheritance is merely a sensationalist popular phenomena. Nobody with experience in writing and publishing thinks of it as ‘literature’. Instead the common view among them is that the Inheritance series – Eragon and Eldest both – are ‘airport novels’. Readable, easily accessible, and very little else. It is only fans of the books who believe they are innovative, that they are literature, that they will last for longer than a few months after the publication of Empire, the final book in the trilogy. Fans may be inclined to wonder how the Epistler and others like him can so confidently predict that the trilogy will be quickly forgotten once it has been completed and released. This is what Epistle the Second will attempt to answer.
The reason – there are others, but this is the most important – for these predictions is very simple. The Inheritance series will be quickly forgotten because it is an example of bad writing. Not once in the pages of Eragon or Eldest does the quality of the prose rise above mediocre, and much of the time during Eldest it is not just mediocre but terrible. Epistle the Second will explain, using sub-headings and examples, just how this is so.
Problem One: Clunky. And. Robotic. Emotionless. Writing.
Imagine a friend of yours has just read a good book. He’s got that special glow, that satisfied expression. Clearly, he really enjoyed that book. Here’s an experiment: ask him just why he enjoyed it so much. The odds are very good that he’ll say it was because he really cared about what happened in it. “I just really connected with the characters”, he might say. Or, “it was so exciting! My heart was pounding!”. Anything along these lines would imply that he was able to connect, emotionally, with the characters and the story. In other words, he found himself caring about what happened. Every good book makes its reader care about what happens, and the level of emotional involvement depends on how good the writing is. That’s it. A sufficiently skilled writer can make you care about anyone. George R R Martin, for example, is able to make the reader sympathise with a traitorous murderer who had an incestuous relationship with his own sister. This is because he is an uncommonly good writer. It is a matter of skill, and enough stress cannot be placed on this point.
However, Paolini is unable to do this. At no point during Eragon and Eldest does the reader really care about what becomes of any of the characters. In other words, there is no emotional investment. The reader keeps on reading in the vague hope of finding out what happens next, but if the main character were to die he or she would almost certainly be left unmoved. Even the most rabid and obsessive fans of the series rarely, if ever, express any concern about the ultimate fate of any of the characters. Some even admit to caring more about minor characters such as Angela the witch than about Eragon himself.
This cannot be argued with. It is a solid, immutable fact. Nobody is emotionally invested in what will take place in Empire. And the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of Christopher Paolini. Love him or hate him, it is a flat fact that he has not the ability to put emotion into his writing. It is lack of skill on his part, not lack of intelligence on the part of his readers, that makes Eragon and Eldest so hollow and devoid of spirit.
And how, you may be wondering, does the Epistler know this? The answer is easy. Here is an extract from the ending of Eldest, when Eragon is thinking over the revelation that Morzan is his father.
“Eragon always assumed he would be glad to learn the identity of his father. Now that he had, the knowledge revolted him. When he was younger, he often entertained himself by imagining that his father was someone grand and important, though Eragon knew the opposite was far more likely. Still, it never occurred to him, even in his most extravagant daydreams, that he might be the son of a Rider, much less one of the Forsworn. It turned a daydream into a nightmare.
I was sired by a monster.... My father was the one who betrayed the Riders to Galbatorix. It left Eragon feeling sullied.”
Let us analyse this. Imagine for a moment that it is you who just found out your father was an evil man. Imagine you had just been told your father was a terrorist responsible for murdering innocent civilians. Imagine if your father was known the world over for having beheaded a helpless captive on camera, and shown no remorse for his actions. Imagine that. How would you feel? Unless you happened to agree that terrorist activities are just and noble, it can be assumed that you would be distraught, inconsolable. Most likely you would cry, be depressed, try endlessly to find reasons why it can’t be true. But Eragon does none of those things. All that happens – all the readers gets in the way of an emotional reaction – is the obligatory single tear, a paragraph of shouting, and finally this tiny section where Eragon thinks it over. This part should have been the most emotional of all, as it would logically be taking place when Eragon is able to think more calmly and begins trying to come to terms with the truth. But it isn’t. The writing tells you that Eragon is upset, rather than showing you that fact. And to make it worse, it does the telling in an entirely innappropriate manner, using formal language which makes it feel stiff and distant. Read aloud, this paragraph feels like someone making a formal statement in a court of law. Try reading it aloud, and the most fitting voice to read it in would be a flat monotone. It has no emotion in it. None. A robot could have written it. To cap it all, we then move onto the next paragraph and find that Eragon gets over it. That’s it. In the space of ten minutes he forgets how upset he is, and manages to rationalise the situation, and then everything is fine and dandy again.
“But no...As he healed a man’s broken spine, a new way of viewing the situation occurred to him, one that restored a measure of his self-confidence: Morzan may be my parent, but he is not my father. Garrow was my father. He raised me. He taught me how to live well and honorably, with integrity. I am who I am because of him. Even Brom and Oromis are more my father than Morzan. And Roran is my brother, not Murtagh.
Eragon nodded, determined to maintain that outlook. Until then, he had refused to completely accept Garrow as his father. And even though Garrow was dead, doing so relieved Eragon, gave him a sense of closure, and helped to ameliorate his distress over Morzan.”
This is not how a human being behaves. It simply isn’t. This is how a computer thinks. Cold, logical, utterly emotionless. No-one could possibly recover from such a painful blow so quickly, unless they were sociopathic. And, once again, this is written in the same formal, flat style. It even shows evidence of Thesaurus syndrome. No-one thinks the word ‘ameliorate’. Most likely you will have to look it up before you know what it means. It is a distraction. It does not add colour. Nor does it solve the problem that this passage is hollow and spiritless. How can the reader possibly hope to feel for Eragon’s sufferings if he himself cannot do it?
Here is an example of how a more skilled writer might portray this part of the story:
“Eragon wandered through the battlefield, surrounded by dead and dying men. He could hear the screams and moans of pain from those still alive, and thought grimly that for many of them this would be their only dirge and farewell. But somehow he could not feel for them. He could only feel rage at all that had happened, and guilt that he should be angry. What right did he have to rage against injustice? He was not the noble and righteous Rider he had thought he was. He was the son of a monster. The seed of a traitor and murderer lived inside him, and there was nothing he could do about it. It was irrational, he realised later, but he could not help but feel as if he had betrayed them all by his very existence. Eragon felt his heart shudder inside him, and tried his best not to cry. That would be weak. But he couldn’t help it. Hot tears poured down his cheeks, and he gave himself over to despair”
Not the best writing in the world, but still better than the extract you just read. How so? Because it actually goes inside Eragon’s head. It acknowledges the fact that he is feeling miserable, and shows his sense of duty, along with all else, being subsumed by his emotions. Human beings are emotional creatures, not automatons. And whether he likes it or not a writer is expected to know that and portray them accordingly. Paolini cannot or has not done this.
Problem Two: Purple Prose
Purple prose is a term for writing that is excessively ornate and flowery to the point that it distracts from the plot. It generally refers to description, and in Eldest especially purple prose appears again and again. Here is a prime example of purple prose, although there were many to choose from.
“Every day since leaving the outpost of Ceris was a hazy dream of warm afternoons spent paddling up Eldor Lake and then the Gaena River. All around them, water gurgled through the tunnel of verdant pines that wound ever deeper into Du Weldenvarden.
Eragon found traveling with the elves delightful. Narí and Lifaen were perpetually smiling, laughing, and singing songs, especially when Saphira was around. They rarely looked elsewhere or spoke of another subject but her in her presence.
However, the elves were not human, no matter the similarity of appearance. They moved too quickly, too fluidly, for creatures born of simple flesh and blood. And when they spoke, they often used roundabout expressions and aphorisms that left Eragon more confused than when they began. In between their bursts of merriment, Lifaen and Narí would remain silent for hours, observing their surroundings with a glow of peaceful rapture on their faces. If Eragon or Orik attempted to talk with them during their contemplation, they would receive only a word or two in response.”
Reading this passage made the Epistler feel physically ill. Why? Because there is simply no reason to write so many words and say so little. A more formal expression for writing of this kind is simply ‘overwritten’. This is not beauty or eloquence. This is the author trying to sound beautiful and eloquent by imitating Tolkien. It does not conjure a vivid mental image, but instead bores and irritates.
Purple prose is not the only problem; verbosity is another, related one. Verbosity means wordiness, or an excessive use of words. Every good author knows that economy of language is important. It is a measure of a writer’s skill if he can say a lot using few words. Paolini does not do this. Everything he says is explained laboriously and almost nothing is described in less than a paragraph. He uses many words to say very little. What is worse is that much of the time the way things look is unimportant. For example, he spends a lot of time in this paragraph describing the two elves, even though after the party arrives at Ellesméra they disappear and are never seen again. Hence it was completely unnecessary to introduce them in such loving detail. Developing their actual characters would have been good, but this does not happen. In fact, Paolini draws so little distinction between them that he describes them together rather than individually. And this leads into the next problem.
Problem Three: Worldbuilding and Characterisation for Dummies
Creating an entire world is a hard thing to do. To make one that is realistic, interesting and believable can and does take years. Years. Even lifetimes. The world of Lord of the Rings took a lifetime to create, and even after the Silmarillion had been written and Tolkien was dead there was still a lot left to be uncovered. So creating a world is a slow and involved process. If Paolini had done it, he would still be working on Eragon. But that would have meant putting in a lot of effort for no immediate reward, and today’s modern mind isn’t interested in that. Besides which, if he had waited there would have been no chance to exploit his young age, because he would have been well into his forties by the time he was ready.
>Paolini got around this easily enough: he didn’t create a world at all. Instead he took the one which Tolkien had already made, added a few bits and pieces of other, similar fantasy worlds, tweaked it in one or two places, and called it finished. That is why it took him so little time to have his first novel finished – he took shortcuts. Unfortuantely, he did the same thing with his characters. A real character, according to every true writer on the planet, is a person. They live, eat, sleep, think, dream, fight, cry, fall in love and do everything that real people do. The very best characters feel real and alive to the reader as well as the writer, and so endear themselves and make their story come to life as well.
The Inheritance series does not have characters like that. Instead of living, breathing people, the world of Alagaësia is populated by stereotypes, archetypes, entities and automatons.
For example, the villain. Galbatorix. To date he has not appeared in person at any point in the books, and thus we are given an idea of his character by other characters, who describe him, his past and his actions. And this is all we get. We hear almost nothing of him from people who are not his enemies, hence we only see one view – the one that says he is mad, evil, cruel and tyrannical. That’s it. That’s all we ever get. This being so, how can we truly feel angry toward him or care about his actions? Villains, just like heroes, need personalities and Galbatorix has had no opportunity to display one.
With Eragon, the hero, the opposite is true. Or is it? Unlike Galbatorix he remains central to the plot and is rarely not around. The bulk of the story is told through his eyes. This means plenty of opportunities to develop him as a character. This being so, what do we know about him? He’s brave, impulsive, somewhat naïve, hates Galbatorix with a passion and harbours unrequited love for Arya. But that’s all we know about him.
In spite of the fact that we know all this, Eragon still fails to be a fully fleshed out, three-dimensional character. The reason for this is fairly simple: he is never developed beyond what is absolutely necessary for the plot. He says, does and feels what the plot requires him to, and no more. The so-called ‘epic romance’ (Paolini’s own words, from Eragon) is limited to Eragon’s immature lust toward Arya the elvish woman. He rarely if ever makes a serious mistake, and when he does it is forgiven and forgotten almost immediately and never has any significant repercussions for him. For example, in Eldest it is revealed that he accidentally put a curse on a small child he was supposed to be blessing. In a properly developed book with properly developed characters, there would be consequences for Eragon. For example, he may become unpopular among some people. His reputation might suffer. He could suddenly be deemed unfit to perform complex magic lest he make another mistake. He could suffer a period of self-doubt and need reassuring. But none of this happens. Instead Eragon feels embarrassed for an extremely short space of time, apologises to the child and offers to try and reverse the spell, and then all is well again.
This is not the only deficiency in Eragon’s personality. Many, many important things are never adressed. How does Eragon feel about being a Rider and having so much responsibility rest on his shoulders? Is he afraid he won’t be strong enough to do what he must? Does he miss his old, easier way of life? Does he ever wonder if war is the only answer and whether they could try negotiating with Galbatorix instead of resorting to violence? What does he think of himself? Is he humble? Narcissistic? Does he think he is good-looking or does he wish his nose was smaller? What kinds of food does he enjoy?
Questions like these may seem unimportant, but if they were answered they would go a long way toward developing Eragon and making him come alive. But they are either briefly skipped over or avoided altogether, and the result is, of course, a flat, cardboard cutout of a character. Even fans often claim they are more interested by side characters than by Eragon himself. And, unfortunately, these problems are present with every other character in the series. The ways in which they relate to each other are simple and clear-cut, with no ambiguities or subtleties present. Every character who dislikes Eragon is either on ‘the bad side’ or is unimportant. All the important characters on ‘the good side’ adore him, and he accepts this without question. This points to another problem – this being the fact that Eragon is a Mary-Sue (or Gary-Stu in this case). Mary-Sues tend to be ridiculously powerful – and given that Eragon is a Dragon-Rider, expert magician, elite swordsman and, by the end of Eldest, an elf/human hybrid with heightened senses, he fits that part to a tee. They also tend to be, yes, loved by every good character and hated by every bad character. There are other Mary-Sue characteristics which Eragon also fits, but these are the most important.
And so, with a world which is essentially Middle-Earth, a hero who is a Mary-Sue and a villain the reader has no chance to hate, it is safe to say that the Inheritance series has failed to provide a living, breathing story.
Problem Four: Intellectual Theft. Yes, Theft
The most common complaint from critics: the unnecessarily derivative and unoriginal world and plot of Inheritance. Many have even called it plagiarism. Fans are not happy about this. However, when challenged to name something from the books which is completely, 100% original, they have been unable to do so. This is yet another thing which cannot be disproved. Derivatives, the borrowing of ideas and similarities between books are by no means unknown. They are very common, in fact. The problem with Inheritance is not so much that it is derivitave but that it is nothing else. In other words, it is not unoriginality that is the problem, but lack of originality. Even the most imitative work in the world can be excused if it contains enough truly original material, but Inheritance does not have this. Absolutely nothing in it is special, nothing unique. Instead it is all borrowed material, linked together by more borrowed material. The list of derivatives is long and has been repeated many times, including elsewhere on this site, but a couple of less well-known ones are as follows.
The werecat: some have claimed – incorrectly – that the idea of a cat which sometimes changes into a human is original. It is not: a werecat appeared in Garth Nix’s book Sabriel.
The white raven: again, not original – white, talking ravens appear in the Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and there often serve as companions for human characters.
Even more damningly, the very few tweaks included in order to make the ‘borrowed’ ideas appear unique are either crude or laughably silly. The elves, for example, which are obvious transplants from Tolkien, down to the immortality, the mysterious origin in another land which they are now going to return to and so on, have been given a ‘unique’ philosophy and social system based on the idea that life is sacred. Not only is this poorly done; being frequently preachy and patently ridiculous (the idea that a people so ‘pure’ that won’t even kill animals for food has so few qualms about killing enemies in battle quite frankly beggars belief), but it makes the debt to Tolkien even more obvious – if the elves were the author’s own idea, he would not be making an effort to make them ‘special’ – however clumsily it has been done.
The tweaking – which also includes feeble attempts to respell names by shuffling a few letters here and there – is not just there to hide unoriginality. It is also there to cover the author’s back. Although the various thefts from other books are not sufficient to land the author in court, they are still obvious enough to be spotted, and they have been, numerous times. This near-plagiarism, although just barely legal, is frowned upon in the literary world. It also means that since, as Ivy puts it, the book brought nothing new to the table, there is little reason for it to be remembered. After all, there is nothing in it that can’t be found elsewhere, handled by more skilled writers into the bargain.
Problem Five: Preachy, preachy
>A problem many young authors encounter at some point. After they have mastered – or think they have mastered – the basics of telling a story, beginning authors will start experimenting with the notion of inserting morals into what they write. This is a bad idea, and most authors eventually realise it, because moral lessons which have been deliberately inserted into stories inevitably appear forced and didactic. In Eldest Paolini betrays the fact that he has not yet learnt this, and he includes a few glaringly obvious anti-religious messages, as seen in the extracts below.
“I deny nothing, only ask what good might be accomplished if your wealth were spread among the needy, the starving, the homeless, or even to buy supplies for the Varden. Instead, you’ve piled it into a monument to your own wishful thinking.”
“Enough!” The dwarf clenched his fists, his face mottled. “Without us, the crops would wither in drought. Rivers and lakes would flood. Our flocks would give birth to one-eyed beasts. The very heavens would shatter under the gods’ rage!” Arya smiled. “Only our prayers and service prevent that from happening. If not for Helzvog, where—”
Eragon soon lost track of the argument. He did not understand Arya’s vague criticisms of Dûrgrimst Quan, but he gathered from Gannel’s responses that, in some indirect way, she had implied that the dwarf gods did not exist, questioned the mental capacity of every dwarf who entered a temple, and pointed out what she took to be flaws in their reasoning— all in a pleasant and polite voice.”
And yet, somehow, we are expected to agree and sympathise with her. This segment is particularly annoying because it assumes that the reader will automatically side with Arya… even though there is no reason given to do so. In fact this part is a collossal misjudgement on Paolini’s part, as it does nothing more than offend people with religious beliefs and also make Arya appear rude and self-righteous.
Later on, the subject comes up again when Eragon asks Oromis about what the elves believe in:
“And you don’t put stock in gods.”
“We give credence only to that which we can prove exists. Since we cannot find evidence that gods, miracles, and other supernatural things are real, we do not trouble ourselves about them. If that were to change, if Helzvog were to reveal himself to us, then we would accept the new information and revise our position.”
“It seems a cold world without something... more.”
“On the contrary,” said Oromis, “it is a better world. A place where we are responsible for our own actions, where we can be kind to one another because we want to and because it is the right thing to do instead of being frightened into behaving by the threat of divine punishment. I won’t tell you what to believe, Eragon. It is far better to be taught to think critically and then be allowed to make your own decisions than to have someone else’s notions thrust upon you. You asked after our religion, and I have answered you true. Make of it what you will.”
It could hardly be more clear which side Paolini is on here. The fact that he appears to be unaware that moralistic writing is unlikely to win him any admiration speaks volumes about his ignorance about writing for an audience. Whether you agree with him or not, it is hard to feel anything but irritation over having these morals forced down your throat. Again, this is something a more seasoned and talented writer would know better than to do.
Problem Six: Dullsville Arizona
The final and most sweeping problem of all is this: the Inheritance series is simply boring. What with the emotionless writing, shallow world and characters, and forced, obviously morality, the books simply collapse in on themselves and become tedious. If the reader does not care about Eragon or his struggle against the Empire, then there is no reason to read on. In reading Eragon and Eldest, all the reader can summon is, at best, vague curiosity. Capping this off are other problems – the slow pacing, the needlessly meandering plot, the black and white morality (evil is always ugly and black, good is always beautiful and shining white), and the forced and ridiculously archaic dialogue. All this put together does not make for a gripping read.
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