WARNING: SOME MILD PLOT SPOILERS ARE INCLUDED IN THIS POST.
Last night I finished reading “Eldest” by Christopher Paolini, the second book in his “Inheritance” trilogy that follows the book “Eragon “ which was released as a major motion picture last month. These are a few reflections on the book and the book series to date, some of which I consider “gifts” from the author to both me as well as my son.
First of all, I’ll observe that my ability to read two rather lengthy novels in the past two months is a relatively “novel” (pun intended) experience for me enabled by the 40 day evening technology use fast I participated in last November and December with my wife. (I’m hoping to do a joint podcast interview with her later today about the experience.) There is so much digital information now accessible via the Internet that I think a person (like myself) can quite easily spend almost every waking free moment consuming as well as producing digital content. While this can be engaging and often a worthwhile way to spend free time, it also can be overwhelming and “consuming” to a negative degree. So, it has been wonderful to have an external reason / push to turn off my technology in the evenings after the kids are in bed and do non-digital things: like visit with my wife and read novels!
The best thing about the Inheritance book series has to do with my 9 year old son and the “home run book” which the novel Eragon has become for him. (I wrote about this a bit on Christmas Eve.) Dr. Stephen Krashen of USC spoke at the Oklahoma state librarian’s conference (Encylomedia) this past fall. Among the outstanding nuggets of research findings and recommendations for educators he shared was the concept of “the home run book.” Home run books vary by person, because people’s interests and abilities when it comes to reading also vary greatly. A “home run book” is one which gets a person (usually a young person but not always) to read with intrinsic motivation for extended periods of time. It is the book which in many cases, makes a love for reading manifest itself in someone’s life for the first time.
The book Eragon has been the home run book for Alexander. It is so wonderful to catch him reading early in the mornings, with his light on in his room over his bed. He is currently on page 539 of 754, and has frequently mentioned to his mother and I over the past few weeks how many pages he’d read that day. He hasn’t been able to believe it himself! Sometimes I think parents give too much attention to school-related things that do not matter much in the long run. Sometimes an extreme focus on these things can even have negative effects. Grades may be an example. Certainly we want all our children to work hard and do their best in school and other endeavors, but I don’t want to focus so much attention and place so much emphasis on formal school grades that they grow to believe their value as people is derived from these types of external evaluations. Finding and loving your first “home run book” really is a BIG DEAL. Far more important than any spelling test, end of unit exam or yes– even the end of year PASS exams given to Oklahoma K-12 students— the experience of finding and reading a home run book is something I think my son is likely to remember his entire life. So, I say a big THANK YOU to Chirstopher Paolini for writing Eragon and giving this literary gift to my son. It’s a gift I can’t put a price on.
In my pre-Christmas post about the book Eragon I reflected a bit about the differences I saw between the fantasy works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Phillip Pullman, and Christopher Paolini. Shortly after posting those thoughts, Tom Hoffman correctly observed that the distance between the metaphysical and spiritual viewpoints of Pullman and other authors like Tolkien and Lewis is actually enormous. (I really understated this in my Dec 24th post.) The link he provided (which I don’t have now and can’t access) included quotations from Pullman revealing the distain with which he regarded both Tolkien and Lewis’ worldviews and fantasy worlds. I have enjoyed reading all of these books, but I stick by my earlier observations (here, here, and elsewhere) that the Christian theology of both Tolkien and Lewis really makes a difference in providing a metaphysical backdrop for their stories with which I relate and resonate.
In the case of Christopher Paolini, I do acknowledge that his books are remarkable works of complexity, imagination and fun given his relatively young age compared to these other authors. I hadn’t sensed any sort of religious or metaphysical underpinning to his novels and fantasy world at all until I read the chapter “Visions Far and Near” in Eldest, which starts on page 538 of the hardcover edition. In that chapter, Eragon and his elven mentor Oromis have a conversation which I speculate may reveal Paolini’s own views of religion and metaphysics. It certainly seems to unmask the underlying spiritual reality of Paolini’s Alagaesia. The summary view is this: All religions and faiths are fictions and false beliefs. Objective science, which only regards that as real which can be directly experienced and replicated, reveals truth. There is no authority outside of objective science. In response to Eragon’s question and assertion about the existence of God (a “prime mover”) Oromis responds on page 542:
I would not necessarily agree with you. But be as that may, I cannot prove that gods to not exist. Nor can I prove that the world and everything in it was not created by an entity or entities in the distant past. But I can tell you that in the millennia we elves have studied nature, we have never witnessed an instance where the rules that govern the world have been broken. That is, we have never seen a miracle. Many events have defied our ability to explain, but we are convinced that we failed because we are still woefully ignorant about the universe and not because a deity altered the workings of nature.
Eragon responds by contending that “a god wouldn’t have to alter nature to accomplish his will… He could do it within the system that already exists… He could use magic to affect events.” Oromis responds with a statement that effectively means: Because evil exists in the world, a benevolent Creator cannot:
Very true. But ask yourself this, Eragon: If gods exist, have they been good custodians of Alagaesia? Death, sickness, poverty, tyranny, and countless other miseries stalk the land. If this is the handiwork of divine beings, then they are to be rebelled against and overthrown, not given obeisance, obedience, and reverence.
This view actually seems much closer to that of Phillip Pullman in “His Dark Materials Trilogy,” where the main character (Lyra Belacqua) eventually leads a rebellion against the oppressive “church” and religious culture of the novels’ world.
Paolini’s metaphysical backdrop for Inheritance does NOT have the confrontational and angry tone of Pullman, but is also decidedly not Christian or even theistic, as the fantasy worlds of Tolkien and Lewis certainly were/are. I won’t reflect longer on these ideas of spiritual and metaphysical assumptions, but I did find these differences interesting and worth reflecting on as I read “Eldest.”
The last comment I have regarding “Eldest” involves an interesting scene that takes place in the chapter “Witch’s Brew,” which begins on page 612. The leader of the Varden, Nasuada (a very strong female character and leader, btw, which is missing from the works of Tolkien and Lewis) has decided to let the Urgals fight with them against the army of Galbatorix. Using magical abilities he learned from Oromis (a mentor with many parallels to Yoda from Star Wars) Eragon is able to enter the “consciousness” of the Urgal leader and discovers that he is not the pure monster he has grown up to believe. As a race, the Urgals have fought for their survival but have also been used and manipulated by other races. Eragon essentially has a transcendental moment similar to Huck Finn, when he was rafting down the river with the slave Jim.
This is a major point of character development both for Huck and for Eragon, because they are able to reject the racist views they previously had accepted as articles of faith and regard others (humans in the case of Jim, organisms or beings in the case of the Urgal leader Garzhvog) as entities worthy of respect and equal treatment, contrary to the prevailing views of their respective cultures.
I found Eldest to be an engaging and fun read, perhaps not at the same level of complexity and metaphysical development as the works of Tolkien, Lewis or Pullman, but none-the-less worthwhile and worthy of sharing! In addition to reading the books, check out the continually evolving WikiPedia entries for the characters and places in these novels. In writing this post, I noticed there was not a Wikipedia entry for Garzhvog, so I created one.
Have you made a contribution to the WikiPedia yet? If not, why not? Learn how to do it yourself, and then teach your students to edit pages. Who would have imagined a day when anyone can make contributions to the largest encyclopedia in the world at any time, using any Internet-connected computer?! 🙂 This opportunity to collaboratively author the WikiPedia together not only provides a great opportunity to cultivate traditional as well as digital literacies, but also provides a good channel for the diverse PASSIONS of learners.
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