The Inheritance Cycle
By Christopher Paolini
By: G. Shane Morris|Published: December 14, 2011 5:39 PM
Ten years ago, Christopher Paolini, a 15-year old homeschool graduate from Paradise Valley, Montana, self-published his debut novel, Eragon. He couldn’t have predicted that a major publisher would stumble upon his work, or that it would soar to the top of the New York Times bestseller list within months.
Millions of copies later, Paolini’s adventure has become one of the most influential young adult fantasy series of the 21st century. With last month’s release of the fourth and final novel in his Inheritance Cycle already breaking previous sales records, the story is sure to shape not only this young author’s career, but also the imaginations of generations of fans to come.
The Inheritance Cycle, which started with Eragon in 2002, continued with Eldest in 2005 and Brisingr in 2008, and concluded with Inheritance this year, might be described as an extraordinary ordinary story. If Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings fell in love and laid an egg, this series would hatch from it.
In almost every way, Christopher Paolini has woven a standard, archetypal maturation fantasy. So what makes his Inheritance Cycle so popular? Simply put, Paolini did what everyone else has done, better than anyone else.
His saga starts with a simple premise. But that simple premise conceives and animates 2,830 pages, all of which turn quickly: a boy and his dragon (or as it often seems, a dragon and her boy), brought together by fate, transforming into what their world desperately needs them (and fully expects them not) to become. The bond shared by Eragon and his blue dragon, Saphira, tugs at something within the human heart—almost as if (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis), we were made to have relationships with dragons.
When Eragon, a farm boy from the remote north of Alagaësia, stumbles upon a shimmering blue stone in the mountains, he’s certain he has uncovered something valuable. Just how valuable his discovery will prove, he has little idea. Almost immediately, his “stone” hatches into a dragon, who marks Eragon (literally) as her own. When he wakes from his stupor, he finds that the hand that first touched the dragon is branded with a silvery emblem—the Gedwëy Ignasia, a mark of the ancient Dragon Riders. He soon realizes the depth of this bond when the little creature’s thoughts, emotions, and eventually speech begin spilling into his mind.
The young dragon soon becomes capable of carrying Eragon—a skill she employs when the Empire’s forces attack the town, leaving his home and adoptive father gone forever.
Eragon finds himself under the wing of the town’s old storyteller, Brom. The storyteller, a former Dragon Rider, explains to Eragon and his dragon about the dark past of the Empire, and about the man who now sits on its throne—and wants Eragon for his own.
Under Brom, Eragon and Saphira set out to join the Varden, an alliance of races aiming to overthrow King Galbatorix and his Empire. Along the way, Eragon grows in the arts of magic, swordsmanship and flying, becoming closer to Saphira and more powerful every day.
As the heroes engage in ever larger conflicts, Paolini skillfully develops their personalities and, throughout the series, unfolds secrets that lead Eragon and Saphira closer to confrontation with King Galbatorix and his dragon, Shruikan. But not until the final book does the young Rider realize how truly powerless he and Saphira are against the one whom every race in Alagaësia expects them to defeat. Rarely does a story leave readers with such a sense of helplessness. When we finally meet the king, we discover with Eragon how vastly we have underestimated his strength, cunning, and even logic. But Paolini’s last book also reveals the prophesied means by which Eragon can break Galbatorix’s power and restore the Dragon Riders as guardians of the world.
Even so, in his masterstroke, the author leads our farm-boy-turned-Rider to final victory not through might or magic, but through morality.
For an author who denies the existence or relevance of God, Paolini does a smashing job portraying the quest to distinguish good from evil. For though the tyrant of Inheritance attempts to cast his as the part of moral rightness, he must ultimately taste the suffering and grief he has caused others throughout his super-centennial life.
Among other attributes, readers will appreciate the orderliness of magic in this young author’s fantasy universe. Unlike stories that ascribe unlimited power to magicians, Inheritance presents a magic that works by laws and techniques, and has very real limits. Like the magic of Harry Potter, it functions as a kind of biological energy, and draws from a finite source. Thus in this series, magic largely abstains from its traditional dues ex machina role, leaving the characters to actually wrestle for solutions to their problems.
Moreover, the world where this story unfolds, which Paolini says was inspired by his youth among the mountains of the American West, will probably floor you. I’m a nature nut, so the tangible descriptions, sparkling detail and breathtaking scope of Alagaësia leave my imagination thrumming. But even for those less in love with the trees and the bees, Paolini’s eye for minutiae will nonetheless lend believability to your experience.
Perhaps most strikingly, Paolini infuses subtle commentaries on the most relevant issues of our day—marriage, the death penalty, birth defects, government, war, ethics, and the like. While not all of his conclusions jibe with the Christian worldview, thoughtful parents will find golden opportunities in this series to talk with their teens about what matters most, and why Paolini is either right or wrong on given issues.
In particular, his view of power should catch readers’ attention. Paolini, like J. R. R. Tolkien, comes to the conclusion that some power is simply too dangerous for any mortal to wield, and that a willingness to lay it down shows virtue like nothing else.
Unfortunately, Inheritance also has some rough spots. Among the more disappointing areas, Paolini dips far deeper into genuine witchcraft than Harry Potter. Opposite the inanimate force he calls “magic,” readers will encounter the supernatural through possession by spirits among the bad guys, and community with them among the good guys. Mediums, divination, and a sort of nature-worship also crop up on occasion, though Paolini would probably deny that these were inspired by practices in our world.
For another thing, attitudes expressed by several characters regarding marriage fall short. The elves, whom the author frequently portrays as a superior race, do not practice lifelong monogamy, nor do the dragons. Fortunately, sexual activity itself does not explicitly appear in the books.
The violence might leave some readers wishing they had been spared details. Disembowelment, torture, and even flesh-burrowing grubs all appear. But teens who have no problem watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy won’t often feel disturbed.
Finally, Paolini’s apparent agnosticism shows up in one or two discussions, especially in the final chapters of Inheritance, during a conversation between Eragon and the leader of the Varden:
As his characters continue, Paolini throws in a possible dig at Christianity, having Eragon laugh at the idea of “Unulukuna,” whom Nasuada explains is the God who created all of the others, and “who offers life everlasting.”
Beyond this, however, the books neglect serious discussion of religion. Paolini’s assumed lack of a universal Lawgiver makes it even more surprising to step into his morally polarized world where good men aspire to ideals and don’t hesitate to condemn the evil men for their sins. Still, this inconsistency showcases for young readers the truth of Romans 2, which says that even men who know nothing of God have His law “written upon their hearts.”
For the countless fans worldwide who have grown up with the Inheritance Cycle, the final chapter leaves a bittersweet taste. But for millions more, the tale of Eragon and Saphira has yet to begin. As a Christian who feels comfortable passing this foot-thick series to my younger siblings, I can offer caution about its flaws while commending its beauty.
It’s not often that an author can claim to have grown up alongside his lead character. But I suppose that explains why Paolini writes so masterfully. The Inheritance Cycle, at its heart, is a story about growing up. And it’s a reminder that the best adventures are the ones you don’t expect.
Review copies from the author's personal collection. Image copyright Knopf Books for Young Readers.
G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.
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