So What's It All About?
I'm a jaded old science fiction and fantasy writer, ancient enough to be Christopher Paolini's mother. Imagine my surprise to learn that at the age of twenty, Paolini had sold over one million copies of his first fantasy novel, Eragon. How did this happen, I wondered, and is the book any good?
I rushed out to my local bookstore and grabbed (well, bought) a copy of Eragon.1 Weighing in at 503 pages, the novel featured a dragon on the front cover and the prestigious announcement that Eragon was "The #1 New York Times Best-seller." Totally impressed (remember, I'm a jaded old writer with seventeen books to my name, and I've never sold one million copies of anything), I flipped to the acknowledgments in the back of the book. Here, I learned from Paolini's notes that he began writing Eragon when he was fifteen years old and that his parents' publishing company, Paolini International, LLC, first published Eragon in 2002. His mother arranged book signings throughout the United States, and at one of these events, Paolini met Michelle Frey, now his editor at Knopf Books. The rest is history: USA Today best-seller, New York Times best-seller, an upcoming movie called Eragon being released from Twentieth Century Fox in December of 2006, a second book called Eldest with a first print run of one million copies, and a young author with many millions of fans around the world.
Immediately, I returned to the front of the book and started reading.
Now I assume that you, the reader of this book, have already read both Eragon and its sequel, Eldest.2 If you haven't read these two books in Christopher Paolini's Inheritance trilogy, then I urge you to race to the bookstore and buy copies right away. Of course, if your school or local library has copies, then you can check out the books rather than buy them. The important thing is to read the books because they're a lot of fun. My guess is that schools are letting kids read the Inheritance books for English class, so you may actually get copies simply by going to school and attending class.
So what's it all about, this world of Eragon and Eldest? And why is it so popular?
Basically, the series concerns a teenager whose name happens to be Eragon. At the age of fifteen, Eragon is living with his uncle Garrow and working on the farm, wondering about the identities of his real parents. His mother, Selena, may still be alive. She left when Eragon was born. And his father is totally unknown to him.
Clearly, when a book opens the possibility that someone's mother may still be alive, she'll probably show up somewhere before the series ends. It's like the old smoking gun: if a novel, play, or movie has a smoking gun sitting on the mantel of a fireplace (or elsewhere) in the opening act, there'd better be a reason for the gun later on!
As for the "totally unknown" father, this is another smoking gun. We expect Eragon's father to show up at some point, to be someone powerful (think Darth Vader or a king, major magician, or major good guy), and to either create enormous obstacles for Eragon or to help him. At minimum, we expect to find out if he's dead or alive; same for Eragon's mother.
At any rate, Eragon likes to wander around a no-man's land, a dense mountain range called the Spine, and there he finds a blue stone that happens to be a dragon's egg. Out pops a baby dragon, later named Saphira, and she bonds with Eragon, making him the first Dragon Rider in a very long time.
It seems that thousands of years ago, elves and dragons fought, and Dragon Riders brought peace to the land. Eragon's world is still packed with elves, dragons, black spells, dwarves, and magic of all kinds. There are bad guys, such as the evil king Galbatorix and the Ra'zac, some deadly beetlelike guys. Thrown into the mix are Angela, the herbalist and fortune-teller, and her werecat, Solembum. Eragon and Saphira use mental telepathy to communicate, and the elf princess Arya also uses mental telepathy to "talk to" Eragon.
The notion of Dragon Riders has been in other fantasy novels. For example, a book by Cornelia Funke is actually called Dragon Rider. In ancient China in the Han dynasty, people believed that immortal humans rode dragons. They considered dragons to be closely associated with clouds and the seas, lakes, and rivers.3 If somebody was riding a dragon, it meant that he was in perfect harmony with nature, and hence, would live forever, which is what the word "immortal" means. In the famous Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, Frodo encounters a wraith who is riding a dragon. The examples of Dragon Riders are endless.
Anne McCaffrey, possibly the queen of dragon fantasy novels, wrote the famous Dragonriders of Pern series and explains on her Web site how she came up with the idea of dragons who are good guys with mental telepathy and deep, symbiotic relationships with humans. She says, "Back in 1967 . . . I had to develop a planet which needed a renewable airforce against some unknown menace and came up with Pern, dragons, Thread and humans who Impressed a hatching in a lifelong symbiotic relationship. Rather wonderful to have an intelligent partner that loves you unconditionally. Who wouldn't like a forty-foot telepathic dragon as their best friend?"4
In the Dragonriders of Pern novels (fourteen books have been published to date), Dragonriders are chosen because they are able to communicate telepathically with giant sentient dragons. The lifetime friendship and close bond between Dragonriders and dragons begins when the dragon hatches. Sound familiar to you? It's what happens in Eragon when Saphira hatches and bonds with the hero.
Even the folk song, "Puff the Magic Dragon,"5 refers to a boy who is riding a dragon. In the song (I don't know about you, but my teachers made us sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" from kindergarten through sixth grade), "Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff's gigantic tail."
The first book in Christopher Paolini's trilogy, Eragon, is filled with chases, kidnappings, adventures, sword fights, fistfights, dwarf kings, weird bald magicians, death, friendship, and love. It is a complete book, round and full of plots and subplots, dozens of characters, and dozens of places. It is what is commonly called an epic tale, one of vast proportions and sweeping storylines.
For me, one of the most fun aspects of Eragon is learning about Saphira, the dragon. Sure, dragons have been done before in fantasy books, over and over again. But when an author's really good, his presentation of dragons is unique. In Eragon, Saphira is lovable from the beginning, and readers can't help but enjoy watching her grow up alongside her human friend. At first, she cannot breathe fire or fly well. But she grows very quickly, and soon, rather than standing as tall as Eragon's knees, she is an enormous beast the size of a plane. He makes a harness for her that will grow as she grows, and the description of the harness and how it is created is fascinating. Also of interest is how much Saphira eats. She could probably devour an entire herd of cattle as a midnight snack. And, finally, I really like the way Saphira devotes herself to Eragon. They are true friends. She genuinely cares about him--as much as a mother, close sister, or twin brother would care about him. In return, he is devoted to his dragon and hides her from anyone who could cause her harm. Together, they learn to fly and do good deeds, and this aspect of Eragon--the beautiful and intricate relationship between Eragon and Saphira--is my favorite part of the series.
As soon as Eldest was released on August 31, 2005, I raced out and bought a copy. I was anxious to find out more about Eragon and Saphira and their world. Would Eragon fall for the elf princess Arya? Would the Urgals kill more villagers? Would Galbatorix beat Eragon and maintain his evil control of all life in Eragon's world? And what about Saphira: would she stay safe, gain new powers, and remain with Eragon?
The second book, Eldest, is 681 pages long. I read the entire book during one weekend. I couldn't put it down.
Eldest begins with a lengthy summary of what happened in Eragon, so in case you've forgotten some details, you can quickly catch up and read the next part of the adventure.
In the second novel, Eragon becomes far more elflike and this is useful, given that he's falling in love with elf princess Arya. The Urgals have killed nearly all of the trolls, and Eragon must save everyone, including the elves and dwarves. He studies at length with the dwarves and learns more magic and battle techniques. We encounter a sorceress, Trianna, meet up with Angela the herbalist again, and learn a lot about dwarves. Much of this dwarf information is from common folklore, just as many of the dragon details are commonly known and used by many other novelists. For example, the dwarves are miners who live primarily in caves and underground tunnels. In Eldest, we also learn that the land was once populated by giants and that the world was formed during an elaborate creation sequence, which we'll talk about later in this book.
There are dragon beasts, a white Poelike raven (don't worry, I'll tell you more about all of these subjects later), and even another dragon named Glaedr to befriend Saphira. We encounter a Menoa tree in the elf woods, and the tree is actually intelligent and alive in the manner that creatures are intelligent and alive. A baby blessed by Eragon has magical abilities and the mark of the dragon on her forehead. Possibly another Dragon Rider is growing up.
Basically, in Eldest, the story evolves through more adventures in which Eragon becomes more elflike and stronger in magic and his ability to bond with nature. Far more characters are introduced, including dwarves, dragons, dragon beasts, elves, and fairies. Issues about souls and flesh and wraiths and sorcerers are discussed, as well as even deeper matters, such as how the world itself was created. And in the end, we learn that Eragon is the son of Morzan. As a reminder, Morzan fought with the evil Galbatorix against the Dragon Riders. Murtagh was also one of Morzan's sons, but Murtagh denounced his father and fled from Galbatorix's evil ways.
Of course, there's a lot more to the story than the brief tidbits I am supplying here. Again, I'm assuming that you've already read both Eragon and Eldest, and now, you want to delve further into all the magic and fantasy.
This particular book--the one in your hands now--explores the magic, fantasy, and creatures behind Eragon and Eldest. We'll take a fun look at elves, dwarves, giants, and dragons, and we'll try to figure out what magic is and whether it really exists. We'll also explore dragon riders in the past, in folktales or stories by other famous writers. Have there been elves and dwarves that are similar to the ones in Eragon and Eldest? Is mental telepathy possible? Fortune-telling? Are plants sentient, meaning "do they think?" Is it possible to instantly transport fom one place to another, a process commonly known as teleportation? And can you cure illnesses and injuries using Angela's methods of herbalism?
These are only a few of the things we'll talk about in this book. And, all the while, we'll keep in mind what's happening to Eragon, the main character, and his companion, the fire-breathing dragon Saphira. By the way, have you noticed that the word "Eragon" is the same as the word "Dragon" except for the use of an initial E rather than a D? And have you also noticed that Saphira's name includes the word "fire" (phira)?
Here's something new that I learned while writing this book: did you know that many scientists believe that there were once feathered dinosaurs on Earth, and that the ancient people thought these gigantic feathered dinosaurs were dragons? Until I started thinking about Eragon and Eldest, I wasn't aware that dinosaurs somehow evolved in conjunction with birds--don't worry, I tell you all about this stuff in chapter 3, "FIRE! Saphira and the Dragons"--nor did I know much about how folklore beliefs about dragons started long ago.
Hopefully, you'll learn lots of new, interesting things in this book, which you can think of as an exploration of all things Eragon and Eldest. And hopefully, you'll have a great time learning all about famous folktales, dwarves, elves, and magical methods and will enjoy future books in the series and the movie that much more.
Copyright © 2006 by Lois H. Gresh. All rights reserved.