Listening to: The Battle of Yavin – John Williams (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)
Spoilers follow for: Star Wars, The Belgariad, The Sword of Truth, and of course the Inheritance books.
If there’s one thing that I’m willing to do, it’s give a series a chance. During my high school years, I voluntarily read the Twilight books: not because I expected to enjoy them, but simply so that I could see what the hype was about and, afterwards, be able to feel completely justified deconstructing the hype with all the condescension I could muster. Once that was done with, I never read them again.
The same goes for Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, a series that the more forgiving side considers a waste of a perfectly acceptable map, and my less forgiving side considers a waste of time and space. As an ardent reader of fantasy novels, I’ve waded through my share of substandard material (as per Sturgeon’s Law), but I don’t think I’ve ever taken such a dislike to a book on first reading. Accordingly, I’ve decided to analyze exactly what it is that I dislike about these books.
Yes, it’s going to be one of those posts.
First to go under the sacrificial knife is the plot, summarized here in the least specific way possible. Various trope links have been added for whatever reason.
Sometime in the distant past (one might say a long time ago), an order of knights with supernatural powers were the protectors of a quite extensive territory. Thanks to this order being composed of individuals from multiple races and sovereign states, there was peace throughout this territory… at least, until one of these supernaturally-powered fellows turned evil and decided that he wished to turn the territory into an Empire under his rule. Together with his top lieutenant (another knight turned evil), the Emperor initiated a massive purge from which only two others escaped. One of them retreated to isolation in a deep forest, while the other, after dueling with the Evil Lieutenant and taking his weapon, went to a slightly less isolated farming community to hide out.
Fast-forward enough years in the future for a child to grow to young adulthood, and we are introduced to exactly one such young man, our Protagonist. He lives in a farming community with his uncle (not knowing that his father was actually Evil Lieutenant!). However, after discovering a Plot Device sent into his general area by a princess, things quickly take a turn for the worse when servants of the Evil Empire show up, kill Protagonist’s uncle, and send Protagonist on the run along with the nearby ex-magic knight, who gives him his father’s sword but not his identity, so that he can go and join the rebels against the Evil Empire and rescue the princess and–
Okay, enough of that. Enough of the plot has been established that it’s instantly recognizable as Star Wars. Or, as it turns out, Eragon. The plots are literally identical, at least until about halfway through the third book of Inheritance, where Eragon stops being Luke Skywalker and decides to kill everyone instead.
On the multiple occasions when I’ve given this rant to die-hard fans of the book, I’ve received pretty much the same response. “Of course it’s similar to Star Wars! The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal plot!” While it’s true that both Star Wars and Eragon follow the basic steps of the Hero’s Journey, so too do more complex works such as The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, Harry Potter, and The Journey To The West. The Hero’s Journey is a generalized outline that can be applied to many things. The plot of Star Wars is not.
On the other side of these sweeping generalities are the details, in which the devil lurks. While I could go on about one-handed swords five feet long, or impressive strategic moves that are anything but, there are only two details that continued to bother me: Eragon’s instant expertise at everything he puts his hand to, and the ultimate defeat of the villain. (Yes, this is the spoiler in question.)
The instant expertise is perhaps more jarring from a realistic standpoint (insofar as realism can be applied to a fantasy novel). In the space of the several weeks that Eragon spends traveling with
Obi-wan Brom, he is tutored in magic, swordplay, and other useful things that The Chosen One might find interesting. Curiously, he discovers his magical power when, in a pinch, he shouts a word that Brom had said earlier in the book (which, in context, was described as swearing). Apart from the convenience of that, the mental image of someone deciding that their best chance of survival in an impossible situation is swearing loudly is always worthy of a giggle. Magic swearing. Still, magic is magic, which means that the ways of learning it can’t be related or applied to any real-life pursuit, so his quick pick-up of that gets a pass.
His mastery of swordsmanship, however, gets no such pass. I once read a study that postulated mastery of any one subject was most handily achieved by practice, practice, and more practice (thus vindicating both my mother and my piano teacher in one fell swoop). Ten thousand hours of is the most generally agreed-upon figure for such mastery to occur. The existence of magic provides an easy loophole should you be willing to take it, as demonstrated in the third book of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth novels. The eponymous magic sword allows a true wielder, the Seeker of Truth, to draw upon its power, giving them the expertise of every single previous wielder of the sword, which makes the Seeker’s unique brand of sword-fighting into a kind of magic. Eragon’s sword, however, apart from being fancy and apparently unbreakable, has no magical powers of its own, which makes his metamorphosis from farm-boy to master duelist even more puzzling. Or stupid, depending on how charitable your inclinations are. But enough on that. The villain’s death bugged me more anyway
You see, at the climax of the fourth book, the Evil King Galbatorix has gathered together all of the
Dragon Balls soul gems eldunari from the dragons he’s killed, giving him almost unlimited magical power, as well as using the True Name of the Ancient Language to hijack magic itself so that nobody else could use it during the epic battle against the protagonists in his dark citadel. However, after events begin to go against him (since this story’s composite version of Darth Vader decided to let the True Name of magic slip), he uses a spell of unmaking (the precise wording is translated as “Be not”) to create a massive explosion in which he dies. And that’s that.
What bothers me about this is that this precise plot device had already been used in a fantasy novel that I read previously: David Eddings’ Magician’s Gambit, the third novel of The Belgariad, which was first published in 1983. At the climax of the book, the sorceror Ctuchik (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) engages in an epic battle against the protagonists in his dark citadel. However, after events begin to go against him, he uses a spell of unmaking (the precise wording is “Be not!”), which backfires and causes a massive explosion in which he dies. And that’s that.
My third argument is more of a gripe than anything else. If the name of the series is The Inheritance Cycle, that raises some interesting questions. If Inheritance is the last book of a cycle, does that mean that these events are a recurring loop? Could it be possible that, in fact, the events of Star Wars are actually the same recurring time loop, thrown forward thousands of years into the future after happening again and again and again? Could this be a stealth prequel?!?
No. Probably not.