A major factor in the book’s popularity, especially among young people, is the fact that its protagonist is a young boy who has been raised on a farm. Eragon is an easily relatable character for young readers because there is nothing very unusual about him – he could be almost anyone. As such, he falls into the category of the underdog, a character who seems an unlikely hero but who any reader could enjoy identifying with, which makes him the ideal hero. Like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, Eragon comes from a humble background and doesn’t
appear to be especially brave. But like other fantasy heroes (and heroines), circumstances bring out hidden qualities that enable him to overcome his fears and meet challenges that seem beyond his capabilities. And though this approach is common to many fantasy stories, it is difficult not to be caught up in the hero’s trials and triumphs.
Paolini begins with a flashback scene in which the dark wizard, Durza, who is possessed by evil spirits, and his minions battle elves in a forest. Durza captures a female elf, named Arya, who magically causes a stone to be hidden away in a nearby mountain range. The stone, which turns out to be a dragon egg, is discovered by Eragon, a boy who lives on a farm with his uncle and cousin near the village of Carvahall. When one day the stone proves to be a dragon egg, Eragon’s ordinary life takes a totally unexpected turn. Eragon conceals the baby dragon, which he names Saphira, though one day King Galbatorix’s soldiers come looking for the egg. They destroy the farm, but Eragon and Saphira are able to hide from the king’s servants and Eragon becomes a dragon rider. In one of the story’s most romantic features, Eragon proves to be the last of the dragon riders, warriors who were betrayed and killed off by Galbatorix long ago. With the help of his companion and teacher, Brom and his acquaintances, Eragon is trained in the ways of the dragon riders, and takes up the magic sword Zar’roc.
There are a number of parallels with Star Wars, in which Luke’s boyhood home is destroyed and his aunt and uncle killed. With no place to go, he accompanies a mentor figure in Obi Wan Kenobi, embarks on an adventure and eventually fulfills his destiny. It may be the familiarity of this type of story that is so enduring, or Paolini’s take on it that makes this story so popular. Like Luke, Eragon must undergo rigorous training in the ways of a mysterious and
extinct society before he can take on a powerfully evil force. Galbatorix’s troopers, the Ra’zac, hunt him down in search of the egg, and like Obi Wan, Eragon’s teacher and friend, Brom, is killed but not before he tells Eragon that he used to a dragon rider himself. At this point, Eragon’s future is assured – he will avenge his teacher and go on to become a dragon rider.
Eragon’s quest comes into sharper focus at this point, and he and his new companion, Murtagh, embark on a journey to find a rebel force called the Varden, who have pledged to defeat Galbatorix. Here Paolini draws on an old storytelling tradition, that of the hero who sets off on a noble quest, the knight errant. In seeking to fulfill his own destiny, Eragon acts on behalf of others who are unable to free themselves from an oppressive ruler. But first they have to go about the business of uncovering a mystery, gathering information that will lead them to their next objective. Revealing new facts that move the story along are another feature that draws the reader in.
And like many fantasy tales, the hero must endure adversity and danger along the way. On their way to finding the Varden, Eragon and Murtagh are captured by the Ra’zac and thrown into prison, where they discover the elf Arya, the one who hid the dragon egg from Galbatorix and his soldiers in the story’s beginning. Eragon is able to escape with Arya with the help of Murtagh and Saphira. Arya has been poisoned and can only be revived by a magic potion in the possession of the Varden, which gives Eragon yet another reason to find the rebels’ base (another nod to Star Wars). From Arya, Eragon is able to find out that the Varden are located at a hidden city called Tronjheim.
Eragon’s quest to find the Varden is charged with even greater urgency when he finds out from Arya that she will die within four days if she does not receive the potion that will awaken her. Along the way to Tronjheim, Eragon finds that they are being followed by the Kull, who are trying to kill them. Here we have another homage to a fantasy classic in the form of the Kull who are derived from the Urgal, which have parallels in Tolkien’s orcs and trolls. In a scene reminiscent of the Battle of the Pelennor from The Return of the King, the Kull are driven off by the Varden. Though they have reached safety, the group’s troubles are not over, another literary device not unusual in fantasy stories. For example, Murtagh is imprisoned by the Varden for refusing to have his mind read in order to determine if he is a friend or enemy to the Varden. And it is here that Eragon finds out that Durza was not killed in their confrontation when Eragon helped Arya escapee.
Just as Harry Potter learned that the horcruxes that contained Voldemort’s soul had to be destroyed, Eragon finds out from Ajihad, leader of the Varden, that the only way to kill an evil wizard like Durza is to stab him in the heart. Because he is not yet prepared for his final battle, Eragon hides from evil through much of this part of the story, though matters begin to come to a head when the dwarves, led by Hrothgar, join forces with the Varden against the Urgals in a big battle. Ultimately, the story is leading us toward the long-anticipated facedown between Eragon and Durza, in the tradition of Luke and Darth Vader, or Gandalf and Sauron. These climactic battles help resolve the conflict between good and evil and keep the reader glued to the storyline; readers invested in the story are anxious to find out how this denouement will play out.
Galbatorix and Durza launch an all-out attack against the Varden and their allies. At the center of this battle is the showdown between Durza and Eragon. As they battle, Eragon sustains a serious wound, which appears to leave him at a tremendous disadvantage. However, Arya and Saphira manage to help Eragon by drawing Durza’s attention just long enough to give Eragon an opening to exploit. Eragon, acting on the advice of Ajihad, stabs Durza in the heart and destroys him once and for all. With the Urgals in a state of chaos, the Varden are able to defeat them and win the battle. Thus, through sacrifice and great courage, Eragon and the Varden prove victorious in the end. Theirs is a rite of passage in which bravery, loyalty and faith are tested; the hero and his associates have been put through a test the result of which determines their fate and proves them worthy in the end.
Eragon proved to be one of the best-selling children’s novels in recent years, having taken advantage of a well-worn but successful story line, one which young people seem to have a natural affinity for regardless of which form it takes. This is one reason why Eragon has proven to be so popular despite the familiarity of its plot and characters. Ultimately, young readers are not nearly as concerned with a derivative plot as are the critics, whose opinions matter little to an audience just looking to be entertained. The genius of the fantasy genre is that there seem to be countless versions of a time-honored formula. Perhaps this explains the psychological appeal of fairy tales which end similarly but have been ongoing sources of entertainment throughout history. Eragon proves that just because a story may seem familiar, that does not mean that it is not entertaining and enjoyable.
Paolini, Christopher. Eragon. New York: Laurel-Leaf, 2006.