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Imitation as the Most Insincere Form of Flattery Edit

Let it not be said that the Epistler does not listen to his readers. He is pleased that the fruits of his labours have provided entertainment and proven informative. It has reached his attention that his diagnosis of Eragon’s sociopathy has been challenged. The Epistler admits that he may have been less thorough than he should have been, but would like to add that he sadly passed beyond the mortal plane before he had the opportunity to make a study of psychology, much as he would have liked to. Either way, even if Eragon is not a full-blown sociopath, it remains true that he has severe psychological problems. Much like the Epistler does, but the Epistler would like to believe that his own psychosis is a little more entertaining.

The Epistler would like to take this opportunity to thank those who have put forward suggestions for further Epistles, as he had been having difficulty thinking of a new topic to cover. In order to thank these people, he will now offer the following teaser for future Epistles. The Epistler intends to view the upcoming Eragon movie and will compose an Epistle which gives his views on it – even if the movie proves to be good, which at the moment appears unlikely. He will also obtain a copy of the Eldest Deluxe Edition as soon as he is able to, and will write an Epistle about the “special exclusive features” therein (the use of salesperson language puts a bad taste in the Epistler’s mouth). When the final book of the Inheritance trilogy is released, the Epistler intends to read it and write a running commentary on it, most likely spread over several Epistles. He cannot but feel some trepidation at this prospect, especially if said book proves to be as long as rumour implies, and even more so if people’s impressions of the sample provided in the Eldest Deluxe Edition is found to be accurate and the book surpasses the awfulness of its prequel (now there is a run-on sentence to be proud of!).

And now, without further ado, on with Epistle the Seventh. Of all the topics that have been suggested so far, the Epistler found this one the most challenging but also the most tantalising. Besides which, how can he set out to criticise Paolini’s work without doing justice to what is possibly the most loathed aspect of it? He cannot and shall not.

Of all the crimes Paolini has committed against literature, possibly the most heinous one is his plagiarism. The Epistler absolutely refuses to call it “homage”, “tribute” or “influence” for the simple reason that it is not. Perhaps Paolini thinks it is these things, but if he does then he is wrong. Epistle the Seventh will discuss the difference between plagiarism and paying tribute, and will explain why Paolini should not be excused.

On Originality

True originality does not exist. This is a sweeping statement which many people – including writers – have made and created instant controversy with. The Epistler thought long and hard about it and eventually decided that it was both true and untrue.

Interpreted at its most superficial level, the statement is false. If one reads it to mean that it is impossible to create a work which is distinct, then it is absolute nonsense. Anyone who truly believes this should not be allowed to write novels. Ever. But at a deeper level, it is true. If by “true originality” one means that every story has something in common with every other story, then, no, true originality does not exist. Every story ever written is related to every other story ever written at a fundamental, unchangeable level. No matter how hard you may strive to make your work completely different from everything else, others will always find ways to compare it to something else. All stories have one thing in common: they are stories. If one were to take out the things that make a story – plot and character are the most fundamental – there would be nothing left but a lot of words strung together. And, although there is nothing wrong at all with experimentation and thinking outside the box, most writers are disinclined to create works that other people will not want to read, because a story not read is completely worthless.

In literature, much emphasis is placed on experimental works such as, for example, the French novelette called The Malady of Death, which goes so far into the realm of plotlessness and characterlessness that it is virtually incomprehensible. The Malady of Death is a smoothly written and beautiful work, but very few people would be able to relate to it, even though they may feel sophisticated and intellectual for having read it. What people want – the dirty little secret that lurks at the bottom of literary study – what people truly want from stories is very simple: entertainment. People read stories because it’s fun. The human brain does not take kindly to boredom. Stimulation is what it craves. In other words, entertainment. Stories are a way to make life interesting, a way to escape from reality and a way to define the world and create some kind of order out of chaos and confusion.

The best stories, the ones that provide the entertainment people want, are the ones that are easy to relate to, and hence, in the end, they must have characters and situations the reader finds familiar in some way, and there must be something going on in order to maintain the reader’s interest – in other words, a plot. There is little point in writing a novel if nobody can relate to it. The Epistler has travelled in academic circles and has been forced to listen to a large amount of nonsense about style, trend, literary theory and the importance of showing the world how clever you are by writing a 60-page novel wherein two people do nothing but screw and talk about nothing, and the conclusion he has reached is as follows: pull your head in and just write a good story.

So. The point of this rather longwinded discussion is that, no, in the end the true essence of originality does not exist because at the end of the day stories remain stories and cannot escape from what lies at the heart of their nature and which they all have in common.

But this in no way implies that each story should not strive to be unique.

A story is not just a collection of words. It is, at bottom, an expression of something pure that lies inside every person. Everyone has at least one story in them. And this story comes from them. Not from anyone else. There will inevitably be influences from elsewhere in any given work, but the driving force behind the story comes from inside its writer’s soul. A writer writes to express something. It can be anything, but this something is always something they have felt and been profoundly affected by. This is what every true novel has at its heart. It may not be well-expressed, it may be obscure, it may be false or distasteful, or even boring, but it is always there.

But the Inheritance trilogy has no heart. It is a book without a soul. The Epistler says this with complete seriousness.

Why?

The Inheritance trilogy is pulp. Mindless, empty, bland pulp. It cannot be called literature because it, unlike those novels worthy of the name, completely lacks that sense of truth at its heart. Not a hint of its creator’s soul showed through at any point in the text. It never had the chance. How could it possibly reveal anything about the boy who wrote it when he has utterly failed to include even a hint of original thought or creativity?

The trilogy does not have a “voice”. Instead it is an echo of an echo of an echo. It does nothing but mindlessly and pointlessly regurgitate things which have been done a million times before, in exactly the same way, over and over again. While Paolini has lifted the characters, worlds, ideas and plots of other writers verbatim, what he has failed to transplant is what that really matters about these things. Everything in his books is there “because”. For example, in the Star Wars trilogy, it was revealed that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father because this revelation created realistic and sympathetic conflict within the hero’s mind. It added a touch of darkness and complexity to the story and heightened the viewer’s interest and emotional investment in what was happening. At the time, it was also a relatively new and fresh idea that genuinely surprised people.

In Eldest, it is revealed that Morzan was Eragon’s father and this makes absolutely no difference to anything. Paolini includes this plot point for the gods alone know what reason – most likely because he thought it was “cool” – apparently unaware that it has to do more than just be there. In Star Wars the “I am your father” revelation was shocking and involving. In Eldest the only response from the reader is one of boredom and contempt. Why should anyone find it at all shocking or interesting when it is so familiar? Everyone knows about what happened in Star Wars – the “I am your father” line has been relentlessly copied and parodied and has ingrained itself into popular culture to the point that most people know it before they even watch the movie. The way it is done in Eldest means that the reader feels absolutely no surprise, only astonishment that Paolini apparently believed it would provide a big “wow” moment for his readers.

And yet the idea of the protagonist of a story being in some way related to the villain does not need to be unoriginal. The reasons why Paolini failed to make it work are as follows:

Firstly, it is clumsily done. The fight between Murtagh and Eragon is painfully contrived, and when Murtagh “dramatically” reveals to Eragon that they are brothers it is hampered by Paolini’s excruciatingly stilted writing. There is no sense of drama inherent in the prose at this point; the dialogue remains as horribly forced and unrealistic as ever, and this makes it difficult for the reader to immerse himself in what is going on. Secondly, the theft is so blindingly obvious as to render this part of the book outright laughable. Absolutely no attempt has been made to hide the “inspiration” behind it; on reading it, one instantly recognises it as having come from Star Wars. Some time later the line “look inside yourself, you know it to be true” appears. This is almost identical to Vader’s famous line; “search your feelings, you know it to be true”, and only helps to confirm that, yes, Paolini stole the scene from Star Wars.

And finally, the impact that it has on the plot and characters is virtually nil. Eragon feels a little depressed about it for approximately half a page, and then it is all over and forgotten. The fact that it makes so little impression on Eragon makes the reader dismiss it just as quickly and move on. If Eragon is barely upset by it, why should the reader care? Thus we see the point emerge; we have had the idea without the spirit. Paolini stole the “I am your father” element but completely ignored the whole reason why Lucas used it in the first place. It is simply there, and that is all.

Now, there could easily have been a way to make Eragon be related to a villain without making it an obvious ripoff of Star Wars. There would have been nothing wrong with Paolini using the idea, even if he did get it from Lucas, if he firstly put an original spin on it and secondly made it count. There was no need to have it revealed at the height of a fight scene with the evil emperor’s right-hand man. It could have been known from the beginning. A different character could have revealed it. Eragon could have gone through the whole trilogy not knowing and not found out until the very end of the story. By taking not just the essence of the idea – ie that the hero’s father was evil – but the way in which someone else has already expressed it, Paolini made the ripoff incredibly blatant. The near-identical “revelation” scene means that the reader can easily see the strings, and hence it is not an old idea expressed in a new way, but simply another example of plagiarism.

Paying Tribute: a Tithe to the Greats

In writing, it is common practise to pay tribute to the works of other people. Homages are completely the norm in the creative world. For example, Quentin Tarantino is a fan of old Japanese kung-fu movies and constantly references them in his own works. But this does not make him a plagiarist. Kill Bill is not a ripoff just because it includes a line from another movie called Lady Snowblood. Why? Because the plotline and characters are original, the way in which the movie was made is Tarantino’s own unique style, and the whole production is stamped with his personality. The “revenge movie” is a well-known subgenre, but it is the way in which Tarantino has created his own revenge movie that makes it his and nobody else’s. He created the character of The Bride, he created the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, it was his idea to show parts of the movie out of sequence, to include a segment shot in black and white and to animate another part. This all came from him. But, every now and then, something appears in the movie which is not his creation. When O-ren Ishii says “look at me… take a good look at my face… do I look familiar? Do I look like someone you murdered?” she is paraphrasing Lady Snowblood’s line; “…do I look familiar? Do I look like someone you raped?”. But the line is used for a different purpose and in a different way. It is not there to compensate for a lack of creativity on Tarantino’s part. If he had written a different piece of dialogue that expressed the same thing, the impact would have remained the same. He took the line and used it in a slightly similar scenario (ie someone getting revenge) as a nod to a movie he admired. At the same time, the tribute only extends as far as this one line. There are no major plot-points lifted wholesale from somewhere else – even if there is influence present, Tarantino has put his own spin on everything.

Thus we have an excellent example of a proper tribute. It is not intellectual theft; it is perfectly acceptable, even clever.

Some people, in attempting to defend Paolini on the charge of plagiarism, have said that all his supposed thefts were in fact tributes. But they are not.

For one thing, in all the interviews he has given, although he claimed that some of his names were “tributes” or “contained hidden jokes” (in fact, virtually all of them were lifted from Lord of the Rings with a few letters changed and none of them were either hidden or at all amusing), Paolini never added that his plot-line was taken from Star Wars – hence he did not acknowledge that it does not belong to him, which amounts to pretending that it does. When challenged about his thefts, he simply responded that “all fantasy is derivative”. It is highly probable that he knows his works are unoriginal, but he is apparently under the delusion that this is somehow acceptable. Or perhaps he simply does not care. The Epistler is uncertain as to which attitude is more aggravating.

Another reason why Paolini’s “ideas” are not tributes but thefts is that he has used what he has taken not in order to enrich a world, story and characters that belong to him, but in place of the original ideas that should have been there. Instead of coming up with his own plotline he copied Star Wars, and instead of creating his own world he stitched together a Frankenstein’s monster from pieces of a hundred other fantasy books. Absolutely everything in his books is recognisable as having been taken from somewhere else, and only the barest hint of originality ever shows through. Even the most minor and inconsequential elements are stolen.

Solembum the werecat? Taken from Garth Nix (albeit with an absolutely ridiculous new name slapped on). Angela the witch? Which of any number of “cheerfully eccentric” mystics would you prefer? Elva? Taken from Dune, or possibly The Ring. Arya’s name? Stolen from G.R.R.Martin. Eragon? Perilously close to Aragorn. Even if it was actually created by changing one letter in the word “dragon”, as Paolini claims, the Epistler does not believe it. Saphira? Taken from, of all places, the Bible. Hrothgar? Taken from Beowulf. The Star Sapphire? Step forward, David Eddings. Elves and dwarves? Everyone already knows the answer to that one.

And so on and so forth.

Paolini seems to have written the books in reverse. The so-called “tributes” make up the bulk of the story, and the very, very few vaguely original elements appear here and there and do not make an important part of the story, as if they were taking the place of proper homages.

The reason why his “tributes” are not tributes is because, rather than enriching the story, they are the story. It is all homage, all reference. Eragon and Eldest are nothing more than a pair of extended quotations with a few words changed here and there. Because Paolini has allowed other people’s ideas to take the place of his own, he has stepped very firmly indeed over the line from tribute into plagiarism.

Plagiarism: The Unforgivable Crime

In the literary world, there are few things as despised as much as plagiarism. A book is hard to write, and new ideas are worth their weight in gold. Hence, stealing them is the equivalent of stealing money. It is, in essence, cheating. Not taking the time to think up your own ideas shows open contempt for the creative process, and stealing someone else’s ideas mocks and cheapens their hard work.

Paolini is a literary parasite. He has taken things which do not belong to him and used them as if he owned them, and in the process has made the entire world of fantasy writing look bad. This is not something that should be ignored. Too many people have admitted that he is a thief, but then proceeded to pretend that it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It matters because writing is an art, and one which has enriched the lives of millions ever since the written word first came into existence. If the Epistler stole a necklace from a jewellery shop and then claimed to have made it, even though it still had the maker’s label prominently visible, would you be impressed?

So, you may be wondering, if Paolini is indeed a thief, what should be done about it?

The Epistler is aware that, as far as most people know, none of Paolini’s victims have pressed charges. Unfortunately, copyright cannot be placed on ideas. Paolini had just enough common sense to make enough changes – superficial though they be – to avoid actually breaching copyright laws. However, he need not be taken to court. All it would take would be for George Lucas, Anne McCaffrey, the Tolkien estate, David Eddings or any one of those whose ideas he stole to acknowledge the crime committed against them and, preferably, condemn it. The Epistler does not know why they have not done so. Perhaps they don’t know about it, or perhaps they don’t care. But the Epistler believes that they have a duty to their fans to not let this sort of thing pass unchecked. There should be some sort of reaction.

As for the rest of the world, who are not so fortunate to have been left with an itchy welt from Paolini’s proboscis, if they truly care about creativity, and respect those who take the time and effort to be original, the way to punish Paolini would be to boycott him. Do not buy his books. Do not see the movie or buy any of the tie-in merchandising. Stop putting money in his pockets, because he has not earned it. Stealing is a crime. See to it that it doesn’t pay.

the Epistles
Epistle the Sixth ~*~ Home ~*~ Epistle the Eighth

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