Let's focus on the book first.
So Eragon is the titular character who lives with his uncle and cousin in a remote village. One day while out hunting he stumbles upon an egg which hatches into the dragon Saphira. Eragon is picked up by Brom, a dragon rider of old, who mentors him in the ways of dragon stuff and how he is the key to the downfall of the evil emperor, Galbatorix.
Well, if you're now thinking "well, that just sounds like a derivative of every fantasy story ever with a garnishing of Star Wars to go with it”, then that's one of the main issues I take with Eragon and the subsequent books in the Inheritance series. The entirety of the story is a tired rehash of Star Wars, with a Lord of the Rings-esque setting. And don't think for a second that this is 'inspiration' or 'drawing on influences'. It borders on plagiarism. Listen to this description:
A boy lives with his uncle in the middle of nowhere. His quiet life changes when he happens upon a curious item sent by a captive princess, who knew that the contents within the item was vital to the downfall of the emperor. The boy meets a wise old man, who becomes his mentor in the ways of the old protectors of the realm, a hunted and nearly eradicated group of warriors. The boy's uncle is killed by the enemy in their attempt to locate the curious item. The boy leaves home with the wise old man to learn the old ways and to find his destiny. Along the way, he meets a roguish young man, and together they rescue the princess from the enemy. The wise old man sacrifices himself to ensure their escape.
Now, what did I describe? Star Wars: A New Hope? Or Eragon? Well...both actually. Yes, this accurately describes the opening half of both stories.
To this, you might argue back that that’s an unfair comparison. After all, in a previous Showcase I talked about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and how Star Wars follows in a rich tradition of shared mythology in hero building. Couldn’t Paolini simply be paying homage to George Lucas’ creation in turn?
Well, no. The thing is, there is no attempt here for Paolini to make the story his or put his own stamp on it. In many ways it’s a direct lift, with perhaps just enough changes to avoid being sued. If you think I’m exaggerating, let’s look at the other work it lifts heavily from: Lord of the Rings. The key romance in LOTR? Aragorn and Arwen. The key romance in Paolini’s series? Eragon and Aryn. Isengard turns to Isenstar. Locations Eriador and Valinor turn to dragon names Eridor and Vanilor. That’s not paying homage, that’s stealing. After all, if he is just paying homage to stories he admires, then why is his name on the cover as the author? Why is there no mention of ‘special thanks’ to those who he looked to? Why is he drawing royalties and claiming this work as purely his own?
So we’ve established that Eragon is a borderline-plagiarised piece of work with not a grain of originality in it’s DNA. That is in of itself bad enough.
But when you take into account Paolini himself and how Eragon came to be published, the well is further poisoned. Paolini, a home-schooled boy, was only 15 when Eragon was published. Wow, you might think! What an accomplishment! What a prodigy! If you’re not thinking that then you may have heard it countless times from others who paraded the fact around like it made Eragon any better.
Nothing could be further from the truth. A bit of digging into the facts of Paolini’s success and it quickly unravels. For example, his parents were rich enough to set up their own publishing company and put their son’s book into print, enough so he could go on tour with it, pushing his tome on hapless children at schools until a traditional publisher snapped it up, sensing a marketing gimmick in their 15-year-old prodigy author. Tell any aspiring author this and it will either make them angry or sad. Paolini bypassed the rite of passage of aspiring authors, or rejection letters, painful editing sessions and suffering any doubt in his work. You can see why the young people who genuinely work hard on their craft and get no attention see Paolini as the antithesis of what a deserving author should be.
Aw shucks, but he was a child prodigy right? Well, look: what we know about child prodigies flies in the face of what we know about Paolini. A prodigy, after all, is one who excels in a field of expertise well before their time. And Paolini is anything but a master of the writing craft. Quite aside from the highly derivative nature of the books, the writing itself is riddled with over description, needless attention to details that freezes the narrative, bizarre actions (eg. people stopping midway through a battle to discuss philosophy). In other words, with all due respect to teenagers, it reads like a 15-year-old wrote it.
And I have heard people exalt Paolini’s prodigy status (even though he is now approaching 30 these days) whilst defending his poaching from other works. That’s a direct contradiction: you can’t have a prodigy who just regurgitates other’s successes. Seriously, ask any 15-year-old to write a book with the story of Star Wars but with a high-fantasy Lord of the Rings theme and you’ll get something remarkably similar to Eragon, I promise you. That’s not the doing of a prodigy, but a light-fingered mimic.
The final line of defense is when people concede that yes, maybe it is a derivate and poorly written story, and maybe Paolini did luck out with having rich parents, but hey, he wrote a book at 15, right? That’s something to admire, isn’t it? Well, sorry, but teenagers writing full-length novels is not that rare. I wrote my first book aged fifteen. And it was terrible! But my I guarantee that there is a 15-year-old out there somewhere who is a genuine prodigy in writing, waiting to be discovered. They just don’t have rich parents who can self publish for them.
Paolini’s Eragon is a patchwork fantasy that rips from other sources and had absolutely no life of it’s own, further soured by the hateful backstory of how the book and the author became a success in the first place. But to all the youngsters out there who are working on finding their own voice and honing their craft fair and square, take heart: success does not equal genius. Quite the opposite, in Paolini’s case.