Reading by Ear: Eragon

Eragon by Christopher Paolini
read by Gerard Doyle

Welcome to Reading by Ear and the first of my audiobook reviews. I’ve made this a separate feature from my regular reviews because I absorb a text best visually, not aurally; this is also why I’ve decided to make the audiobooks I listen to rereads. Otherwise, I feel I wouldn’t be able to provide a proper review, although these will be less in-depth than a review of a book. So, what better way to inaugurate this feature than with Eragon, the legendarily bad 2003 fantasy novel?

Let’s start with some personal context. When I was twelve, I hated Christopher Paolini. (“HOW DARE HE GET PUBLISHED BEFORE ME!” went the old logic. I never said I was a particularly bright or rational child.) To this day, I’ve got an article about his success taped to my wall in my childhood bedroom, just so I could glower at it and be inspired to best him. It took me two years to actually read Eragon, however—and I hated it. I hated it so much that my first essay on the SATs was a rant about Paolini’s unoriginality. (It got a better score than my second essay on The Great Gatsby. Go figure.) So why return to it? Well, I wanted to see Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich hamming it up in the film adaptation, so I thought it was time to revisit my childhood nemesis.

Eragon starts with the young farmboy Eragon discovering a mysterious blue stone. After he fails to sell it, Eragon is astonished when it hatches to reveal a dragon—extremely rare and, supposedly, only under the control of the cruel King Galbatorix, who eradicated the Dragon Riders when he took power from them. Eragon raises the dragon, Saphira, in relative peace until the Empire comes looking for her, destroying Eragon’s home and killing his uncle. With the help of Brom, the local story teller, Eragon sets out to seek revenge. But fate has much more in store for Eragon; he becomes embroiled in a rebellion against the Empire as he struggles to come to terms with his destiny as the first of the new generation of Dragon Riders.

Essentially, it’s A New Hope set in Middle-earth. There’s a difference between consciously using the archetypical Hero’s Journey as the structure for your story, as Lucas and countless others do, and using A New Hope instead. There’s almost a one-to-one comparison here; I joked on Twitter that Eragon was taking forever to figure out that Obi-Wan was a Jedi. We’ve got your whiny farmboy with conveniently murdered parental figure, your charming rogue who doesn’t want to be on one side or another, the beautiful, capable rebel woman who gets the plot moving by sending something important somewhere remote… it’s not homage, it’s the same story, beat for beat until the last quarter of the novel. There’s also a difference between the standard fantasy setting and the Tolkienesque fantasy setting; contrast and compare the early Warcraft universe and The Fionavar Tapestry. (It’s okay to call your orcs “orcs” instead of “urgals”, by the way. Tolkien doesn’t have a claim on it.) I think what really draws the negative comparison here is Paolini’s languages. Everyone who creates a fantasy language is compared against Tolkien and loses; that’s a given. But Paolini’s languages don’t flow well or feel coherent, and, instead of cleverly working with a limited vocabulary to give the same feel as a complete language, he can’t wait to show them off, often having characters use an invented language for no reason. To be fair to both concepts, the standard fantasy setting can be used well with an interesting story with new characters and the basic plot of A New Hope can be enlivened with different characters (what if Luke was a guy like Han?), but Paolini gives us a story we already know in a setting that goes above and beyond to remind us of better worlds. It’s actually sad, because once Eragon gets to the rebel base, Paolini abandons the familiar story and actually finds his feet—the rebel base has an interesting atmosphere and the story becomes more original, which apparently continues through the series.

But there are other problems. Eragon tends to bloat, including several scenes that don’t do anything for the plot. Paolini’s writing is workmanlike at best and laughable at worst; I found the melodramatic chapter titles hilarious and will totally admit to laughing out loud at several points. Evil is evil for evil’s sake; there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the bad guys to be bad, save the occasional bout of insanity and sadism. (To be fair, we do get a fairly well-developed backstory for the Big Bad of this book at the end, which I enjoyed.) Eragon himself is fairly bland, whiny, and almost hilariously obtuse at times, but he’s fundamentally alright as a protagonist. The rest of the cast doesn’t make that much of an impression; again, we’ve seen them all before. The way it’s all pieced together feels inorganic until Paolini finds his feet towards the very end of the novel, but I can’t see a young reader who has seen Star Wars and Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings having much patience retreading the same ground for such a scant amount of originality.

As for the audio presentation, Gerard Doyle does the best he can with the material. Irish-British, he uses several accents of the United Kingdom to differ characters—Murtagh, for instance, our Han Solo analogue, is Irish, and the “quirky” Angela appears to be the only Welshwoman in Alagaësia. (I have to admit, I always thought of this as a very American franchise; the reassuring British accent was soothing.) His delivery is nice and steady, and he handles the dramatic moments well. I appreciated that Saphira was given a rough, gravelly voice, befitting her species, rather than a feminine one—out of this whole experience, it was the one bit I actually loved. The musical underscore that begins and ends the audiobook is pushing it a little, however, as was the echo effect randomly used for a single telepathic conversation at the end. While I no longer hate Eragon as fiercely as I did at twelve, I’m just thoroughly disappointed.

Bottom line: Eragon is A New Hope set in Middle-earth, essentially, without adding anything to either concept and failing in comparison to its source materials, especially the languages; to be fair, hints of an original and unique world come out at the end. Gerard Doyle does the best he can with the material, using the accents of the United Kingdom to vary his characters and giving Saphira the dragon a unique, gravelly voice—the music accompanying the intro and the outro is pushing it, however. Not worth your time.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

7 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Eragon

  1. I skipped this book for many of the reasons you mention and probably won’t read it now either. I saw parts of the movie but I hate to admit that I couldn’t even get into that. Not for me I guess. Love the Star Wars analogy though. 🙂

  2. Like Amy, I never really got around to reading this because it seemed so unoriginal – kind of like the embodiment of a fantasy hater’s stereotypical idea of what the whole genre was like, really. It sounds like reading it wouldn’t do much to change my mind.

  3. I am the same age as Paolini, and I had the same reaction when it was published. I was writing a novel that in retrospect was only slightly more insipid (but aren’t all first manuscripts?), and this kid got published while I’ve been ignored. There are a couple other “fresh out of high school” authors that I feel the same about, too. Yeah, that really resonates. His success did convince of a truth of publishing, tho: it is not just about the book, as much as editors try and say it is. It is also about who you can happen to meet, in Paolini’s case, the nephew (I think) of his publisher.

    I am kind of sad to admit that I don’t hate this book with the same burning hatred, and kind of even like it. Not that I have ever re-read it, but I have read the sequels. It continues to be a very sparsely populated world that pretends it isn’t, although Eldest and Brisngr are more just following the hero’s journey than Star Wars. I won’t really recommend them to an adult, though. There is so much more you could spend your reading hours on that is better. Not a bad introduction for kids, though. I will probably give them to my kids when they get old enough to read them.

  4. I *hate* Christopher Paolini too, but not because I wanted to be published first 🙂 I just couldn’t stand his rewriting of Tolkien’s work and star wars. But I did love Sapphira and did find myself wishing the story had been better just for her sake.

  5. Pingback: Page to Screen: Eragon « The Literary Omnivore

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