Black, White, Shades of Grey, and Hot Guys With Scars Edit
The Epistler extends his greetings to his readers. Sadly, his suicide attempt was thwarted after some helpful voodoo priest cast a spell of resurrection over his grave and caused him to rise once more, replenished and ready to once again take up his spectral pen. It seems that there is, after all, no escape into the underworld.
It has recently reached the Epistler’s ear that some do not like the anonyminity implicit in his writings. The Epistler’s response to this is that his identity is unimportant and, were it known, it would prove far less interesting than his readers may have been led to expect. Some also dislike the Epistler’s habit of referring to himself in the third person. The Epistler’s response to this is: according to the Surgeon General, the Epistler’s stylistic choices will not cause any lasting damage to his readers. He apologises to those who dislike it, but he cannot please everyone.
And now, let Epistle the Sixth begin. Sit ye down and prepare thyself, mortal.
Character Arcs, X-Treme Edition
‘“SECTUMSEMPRA!” bellowed Harry from the floor, waving his wand wildly. Blood spurted from Malfoy’s face and chest as though he had been slashed with an invisible sword. He staggered backward and collapsed onto the waterlogged floor with a great splash, his wand falling from his limp right hand.’ -Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Pg 489, Bloomsbury Edition, © J.K.Rowling, 2005
And with this simple paragraph, we see J.K.Rowling demonstrate her remarkable skill as a writer in a dramatic but deceptively simple way. Harry Potter, the beloved hero, has just demonstrated that he is a real human being – he has done something morally questionable.
The Epistler sincerely doubts that there is a single human being on the planet who has not yet read Half-Blood Prince yet cares about plot spoilers, so he has no qualms about discussing this scene and its ramifications. Harry suspects that his nemesis, Draco Malfoy, has some nefarious scheme. So far in the book he has spent a great deal of time trying to discover just what it is, only to be frustrated. At this point in the story he comes across Malfoy crying in a bathroom; the poor boy is being forced to work for Voldemort, under threat of death for himself and his family, and now, for the first time in the series, he shows an inner vulnerability. Harry is shocked to see him, but, on being seen spying, he ends up in a fight with Malfoy which ends when he uses a spell on him which he has never tried before – a spell which proves more descructive than he expected. Now, although Malfoy is indeed a villain, and a highly unpleasant person into the bargain, what Harry does to him is both shocking and cruel. And afterwards he is forced to confront that fact. Harry is the hero of the story – we like him and we don’t like Malfoy – and yet he has just shown that he, like Voldemort, is perfectly capable of attacking other people, and not just humiliating them, but hurting them. His hatred for Malfoy got the better of him, and this is the bloody result.
So what does this mean? Does Harry’s behaviour mean that he is no longer the hero? Do we cease to care about him because he has done something unsympathetic? No.
What this scene really achieves is twofold – firstly it demonstrates that good is not all good, and that even the ‘pure of heart’ (as Dumbledore has previously described Harry) are not just able to do bad things, but are sometimes willing to do it, too. And secondly, it is an important character-defining moment for Harry. Previously, with the knowledge that it is his destiny to be the one to kill Voldemort, it seemed hard to believe that our protagonist could possibly do it – after all, he has never killed or really fought anyone in his life. He is still an innocent, and innocents do not kill.
But now it is plain that Harry is no longer an innocent. He has stepped over the line and become a fighter, and fighting has a dark side – at bottom, it involves hurting and, ultimately, killing other people.
It is both moving and, in a way, saddening. For Harry to become a true hero – to finally triumph over the forces of evil – he has no option but to become like them. As he observes to himself during Order of the Phoenix, he must end his life as either murderer or victim.
In war, innocence dies first.
Whether Harry dies at the end of the last book or not, his role will still be a sacrificial one – he must lose his purity in order to be the saviour of all he holds dear. Even if he triumphs over Voldemort in the end, he will never be the same again. Such is the price of victory.
So what is the point of all this, and what does it have to do with Eragon? Yes, the Epistler must finally return to the subject of his least favourite book, much as he would have enjoyed writing about Harry Potter instead.
Well, let us compare and contrast Harry’s character arc with that of our beloved Eragon. To date, in both series, Harry has killed zero people and Eragon has killed hundreds. Did anyone really notice? Not really. Since Eragon is a sociopath (see Epistle the Fifth) he is able to become a mass murderer without suffering any lasting psychological effects. The difference between Eragon and Harry – aside from the fact that one is a cardboard cutout with a mental disorder and the other is a well-rounded, three-dimensional character – is that Harry has a dark side, and Eragon does not. And in this day and age, when reality has made cynics and realists of us all, a hero who is a shining beacon of purity cannot help but feel somewhat farcical.
Black and White and Shades of Grey, Help Us Keep the Fools at Bay
The morality in Eragon and Eldest is extremely simplistic, and that’s putting it lightly. Here is the formula:
White + Beautiful + Sparkly = Good Black + Ugly + Smelly = Evil
That strange breeze you just felt was the Epistler’s depressed sigh. And here is the second formula:
Good Character Does Something = Automatically Virtuous
Bad Character Does Something = Automatically Heinous
That rumbling in the earth was the Epistler bashing his head against his desk.
Out of all the characters in the story, the only one who does not quite fit the mould of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is Murtagh. And coincidently he is widely acknowledged to be the favourite character of many, many readers.
…Let it be now acknowledged that the word ‘coincidently’ did not in fact need to be in the previous sentence. It is not a coincidence at all that Murtagh is the most beloved of all Paolini’s characters.
Why is this so? It is because Murtagh, unlike Eragon, is an anti-hero. He is neither on the side of evil or the side of good – he acts according to what he wants, not according to what someone else wants. Typically his characterisation is as thin and shaky as it is with everyone else’s, but it is possible to read a pattern into his behaviour by applying previous experience with characters in other books and movies. So, completing his ill-defined personality by fitting in parts of other, similar characters, as the DNA of the dinosaurs in Jurrassic Park was completed by splicing it with the genetic materials of frogs, we are able to get a picture of what Murtagh is like (let us pause to remember that we should not have been required to do this in the first place, and we all know who is to blame for it).
So. Murtagh is tough and independent-minded – a rogue not dissimilar from Han Solo of Star Wars fame (is anyone surprised? Of course not). He does not fully trust anyone (not even – gasp! – Eragon) and is self-reliant. He is also not above doing morally questionable things for his own benefit – for example, in Eragon he kills a slave trader who attempted to capture himself and Eragon, when he was disarmed and helpless. Eragon, much to our complete lack of surprise, proceeds to throw a tantrum and accuse Murtagh of murder. Murtagh, however, is unmoved; pointing out that killing the slaver was in their own best interests, since they cannot afford to have anyone know where they are. Eragon, needless to say, is too abysmally stupid and self-righteous to understand, but Murtagh immediately gains the reader’s sympathy because he has, in the space of a few pages, shown more common sense than Eragon has displayed throughout the entire book so far.
Murtagh is also one of the few characters who remains more or less unimpressed by Eragon’s status as a rider. He, unlike even the Kings and Queens whom Eragon later encounters, has the spine to argue with him. He also, much to the reader’s glee, is able to match him in combat – and this is before he becomes a rider.
Murtagh garners even more sympathy after he and Eragon finally reach the Varden, since he is immediately treated with suspicion and locked up for the crime of being Morzan’s son (apparently the Varden believes that Evil is hereditary). Eragon, meanwhile, is greeted with a ticker-tape parade and people wearing t-shirts with his face on them. Which is only just, since he has… uh… done… absolutely nothing beyond becoming a rider and blundering his way into their hiding-place. Which is, uh, highly impressive, to be sure. And no, the Epistler does not ever waste an opportunity to say unpleasant things about Eragon. He thanks you kindly for asking.
In the end, Murtagh is simply a more interesting character than Eragon is. He is morally ambiguous and rough around the edges, and his backstory – since there is a fair amount that we simply don’t know about him – is intriguingly mysterious. When Eldest was released, many of those who read it did so eager to discover what became of Murtagh – the only character who ever had a hope of being even slightly interesting. But Paolini blew it.
Murtagh ‘dies’ during the first chapter and is absent from the rest of the book right up until the end, where he appears just when we most expect it, at the height of the ‘climactic’ final battle, now riding a dragon of his very own. He then proceeds to make Eragon look like the weak, whiny pansy he is for the second time, steals his sword and makes another abrupt exit from the text.
In doing what he did with Murtagh, Paolini may as well have tattooed the words “I Am Clueless” on his forehead. He took the most popular character he created and, instead of enlarging his role in the story, reduced it to a virtual cameo – and a highly disappointing and predictable one at that. So Murtagh ended up working for the enemy. Who would have thought it?
Well, pretty much everyone who has seen Star Wars, actually.
Paolini is an idiot. He took all the potential Murtagh had, used it to clean his lavatory and then threw it into the gutter to rot.
And what will happen to Murtagh in the third and (thankfully) final book in the series? The Epistler will now use his psychic powers to find out. Let the door of knowledge open unto him…
Murtagh will sacrifice himself to save Eragon and thus redeem himself before dying a tragic but honourable death, thereby proving Eragon’s moral superiority once and for all. It is unavoidable. Paolini has already locked himself into the Evil Path of Cliché, and is now lost forever. Fare thee well, thou poor soul.
Once upon a time, every story told was a fairy story. Myth, legend… old stories. These stories were, by and large, fairly simplistic. Today, as the art of storytelling has become more sophisticated, stories have become more complex. And fashions come and go. Once upon a time, it was commonplace for heroic characters to be shining beacons of purity – incorruptible, unconflicted… pure of heart.
In this modern age, however, this has changed. The trend is now toward darker, grittier, more psychologically and morally complex heroes. The readers of today are far too cynical and jaded to be easily impressed by a hero who can do no wrong and never does – today, when we have been forced to admit to ourselves that bad things do indeed happen to good people, when greed and corruption beget descruction and genocide which we seem powerless to stop, we find it far easier to relate to an anti-heroic character. Once we had John McClane and Luke Skywalker. Now we have Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Beatrix Kiddo and Captain Jack Sparrow.
Once we had heroes in children’s literature like Sarah Crewe (incidentally, she is one of the most blatant examples of a Mary Sue in original fiction that the Epistler has ever come across) and Matilda Wormwood. Now we have Harry Potter, who slashed his enemy’s face open in a fit of rage, and Will Parry, who committed murder at the age of twelve.
Paolini is writing from a very childish and naïve perspective – which is only to be expected, given his obviously sheltered upbringing. Having been homeschooled and brought up in isolation, he was incredibly socially inexperienced when he began writing Eragon – it would appear that more or less the only other humans he ever interacted with on a regular basis were his parents and his sister. It is unlikely that he had much wider experience, and to this day, at the age of twenty-two when he is more than old and wealthy enough to move out on his own, he is still living at home and, the Epistler suspects, allowing his parents to screen all his fanmail (it is certainly true that his father is claimed to have been spotted persecuting critics on the internet, along with someone who may or may not be his sister Angela).
Much of this remains moot, but it would certainly explain the simplistic world-view presented in the Inheritance trilogy so far – along with the apparent inability to create realistic characters (human interaction is an absolute requirement to writing good characters).
If Paolini has never experienced real suffering and loss, or spoken to someone who has, how can he be expected to portray that in his writing? He does not and cannot. He is a man who writes like a child, and hence he is completely oblivious to the reasons why it should have been Murtagh, and not Eragon, who was the protagonist of his books.
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