Thursday, August 13, 2009

Eragon: an essay on what it means to be cliche


Although it obviously didn't leave much of an impression, I did watch the movie Eragon shortly after it came out on DVD. What I do remember was that I didn't really like it, though I can't remember why. But I do recall the many reviews that state that the movie is a cliched ripp-off of classics like the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

With that in mind, let's just say that I never felt a burning desire to read the book.

Then, a couple of weeks ago I chanced upon two separate versions of the book in my favourite place to shop for books: the bargain books section of Mcnally Robinson. One edition was a large white paperback with a picture of a dragon's eye for $3.99 and the other was a large, slightly scuffed up movie tie-in paperback for $2.99. For that price I couldn't resist although I still had doubts that the book would be worth it. So I chose the movie tie in edition.

I'm glad I bought it. In my opinion it wasn't overly cliched or poorly written. At 15, Paolini already had a better vocabulary than I have now, yet I never found the usage to be poor. Some critics have invoked the dreaded term purple prose (dreaded only because no one has ever actually heard of it before outside of a college literary lecture) in regard to Paolini's writing. I must admit, I just don't see it. At no point did the language seem overwrought to me, nor was the 'flow' of the narrative interrupted. And this from a reviewer who has, in the past, abandoned the reading of some books for just that reason.

To cite an example from the second book of the cycle, Eldest, Paolini at one point describes drops of water on a leaf as 'cabochons'. Cabochons are rounded, highly polished gemstones (as opposed to facet cut gems). I think the descriptor is both relevant and appropriate within the narrative, but others apparently do not.

And what does it mean to be cliche by the way. Sure we've seen dragons and dragon riders in fantasy before but these are more good old stand-bys of Fantasy than cliche. A Fantasy novel does not require dragons or dragonriders, yet if we were to suddenly say, "Enough, don't write anymore books with dragon's or dragonriders in them!" wouldn't the genre be missing something? And where would the madness end?

"No one can use swords. Take out all the wizards. Horses are for cowboys, not fantasy heroes. . ."

Would it even be Fantasy anymore?

Now that's not to say that there can't be innovation within the genre. Naomi Novik found a new twist on that theme by setting her Temeraire series during the Napoleonic era rather than a fictional psuedo medieval world. But Eragon is no less 'good' because of the slightly more traditional setting. In fact, the world of Eragon, a magical continent called Alaga√ęsia on an unnamed world, has been fully conceptualized and developed, including a very nice map drawn by the author himself. It isn't even strictly eurocentric as the author based the landscape on his native state of Montana. The government is highly centralized and hardly feudal in the traditional sense. (one nitpick here for Mr. Paolini, should he ever read this blog: The leader of an empire is an emperor, not a king!)

Okay, so I'm fairly forgiving when the fun factor outweighs the trite factor. But let's face it, there's nothing new under the sun. Shakespeare was stealing from existing sources when he wrote his plays. Even Star Wars is based on the structure of the "hero's journey", a pseudo outline supposedly distilled from various classic tales. In fact, it's even been claimed that there are really only seven stories, everything else is just details.

I tried reading a snarky review of Eragon that used terms like 'Gary Stu' and 'gormless'. Unfortunately I think the reviewer was more concerned with being snarky than in giving an honest review. In her defense, she was simultaneously reviewing the movie and the book. Yet she seemed to miss the point far too often. For instance, she claimed that Paolini was lax in his research because Eragon's poor, starving family had a multi-room, wood floored house with a stove, yet real medieval peasants would have a small, one room shack with a dirt floor. I might have agreed with her if this had been a story about real medieval peasants. . .

And finally, lets not forget that it has been 10 years since Eragon was published. Paolini started writting the story when he was 15. It has been reported that he didn't intended for the book to be published, writing, instead, for his own personal pleasure and drawing heavily on his favorite stories by other authors. No wonder it ended up the way it did.

Conclusion: Perfect? No. Completely original and innovative? No. Entertaining and compelling? Yes.

Rating ****/5

Relevant links:

www.alagaesia.com
shurtugal.com
wiki: Criticism_of_the_Inheritance_Cycle (shurtugal.com)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eragon