Eragon – Plagiarism Made Popular
All comments prior to 01/02/09 refer to the 2006 version of this post.
Few things in the literary world have the ability to earn ire and continuing disbelief as readily as the success of Christopher Paolini’s plagiarism.
Those who have not visited a bookstore in the past several years might not recognize the name "Eragon," except perhaps as a misspelled version of the Lord of the Rings’ "Aragorn."
Eragon is a young-adult fantasy novel published in 2003, written by fantasy-obsessed teenager who was only 15 when he started what would become an international bestseller. Having had the good fortune of being home-schooled, Christopher Paolini set about writing an epic adventure of a hero and his faithful dragon. Unfortunately, the story is shallow, derivative and very plainly Paolini writing himself into a borrowed world of fantasy for his own enjoyment.
Teen authors aren’t as rare as they might seem. In fact, the only two requirements for writing a book have nothing to do with talent or creativity. All Christopher Paolini needed — all any author needs — is dedication and time. Whether what comes out at the end is a marketable book relies on a number of different factors. Paolini’s home-schooling and wonderfully supportive family aren’t the reason behind his "genius," but they did have a lot to do with his success. From the beginning, Paolini has his parents’ full support, for good or ill.
Most authors get their big break by submitting endless copies of their manuscript to publishers and learning to deal with rejection. Paolini leapt over this rite of passage when his parents started their own publishing company to get their son’s completed manuscript into print, and to give him something to have in his hand while he gave lectures on writing and promoted his novel. Eventually, publishing house Knopf picked up his book and turned Eragon into the well-known name that it is today, rocketing Paolini to stardom with it.
That success might have continued without controversy if the book were anything more than a collection of ideas stolen from far better sources.
Paolini’s ideas bear clear and damning resemblance to a myriad of works: Star Wars (storyline), Lord of the Rings (names and locations), McCaffrey’s Pern series (dragonriders), and the works of David Eddings (entire scenes). More than a few of Paolini’s names are easily confused for Tolkien’s; some come as close as "Isenstar" and "Isengard."
But the line between inspiration and outright theft isn’t always easy to identify. Do we tar and feather every author to mention magic, or simply stick to those whose characters have special powers? Are quests up for lynching? Or heroes?
The argument that Paolini was "inspired" by fantasy authors isn’t necessarily wrong, but extending that reasoning to say that the Inheritance cycle is a work of inspiration is a completely different matter.
Luke lives with his uncle and aunt on a remote planet. His quiet life changes when he happens upon droids sent by the captive Princess Leia, who entrusted one of the droids with information vital to the downfall of the Empire. Luke meets Obi-wan, who becomes his mentor in the ways of the Jedi, a hunted and nearly eradicated group of warriors. Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by the enemy in their attempt to locate the droids. Luke leaves home to follow his path as a Jedi, and to find his destiny. Along the way, he meets Han Solo, a trouble-seeking pilot, and rescues Leia from the enemy. Obi-wan sacrifices himself to ensure their escape.
Eragon lives with his uncle and cousin in a remote village. His quiet life changes when he happens upon a dragon egg sent by the captive elven princess Arya, who knew that the dragon egg was vital to the downfall of the emperor, Galbatorix. Eragon meets Brom, who becomes his mentor in the ways of the dragonrider, a hunted and nearly eradicated group of warriors. Eragon’s uncle is killed by the enemy in their attempt to locate the dragon egg. Eragon leaves home to follow his path as a dragonrider, and to find his destiny. Along the way, he meets Murtagh, the mysterious young man, and rescues Arya from the enemy. Brom sacrifices himself to ensure their escape.
This is not the catchall hero who rescues the princess and saves the land; this is not just another Hero with a Thousand Faces. Eragon is Luke Skywalker, with a dragon instead of a lightsaber. It’s cloning, and lazy cloning at that. (Read this Amazon.com review for a more thorough list of lifted plot points.)
A frequent argument in defense of Eragon is that all fantasy is derivative, and there’s no need to demonize Paolini for taking the only available course.
I will meet you halfway: lazy fantasy is derivative.
Elves, vampires, wizards and witches, and any number of other myths have been played out to exhaustion. The old myths are the stock of fantasy writing; they are a hack author’s easy supply of comfortably broken-in ideas.
Where Paolini deviated from this norm of most lazy fantasy was taking his races not from basic lore, but from a well-known author whose idea has become accepted as fair game. How far did Paolini have to stretch Tolkien’s elves to make them his own?
Tolkien’s elves are beautiful, elegant creatures with pointed ears and an otherworldly air — as are Paolini’s. Tolkien’s elves live in the safety and seclusion of the forest, but become formidable warriors when the need arises — as do Paolini’s. These are not Paolini’s elves; they are Tolkien’s creations transplanted.
Paolini was never forced to use elves. He did not brood for weeks, turning possibilities over in his mind and doing his best to conjure a new race to use in his book. He used elves because he liked them, and because he wanted to.
To say that Paolini had no option but to use established fantasy is worse than ignorance; it actively defies originality.
You will rarely hear that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" from someone who poured years of his or her life into a set of ideas, only to see them stolen. This reasoning is the bystander’s justification. Stealing an idea — no matter how enticing or marvelous it may be — is not flattery, regardless of how the thief improved upon the original idea or how much the audience enjoys the new version.
Ideas are not public domain. It’s an concept that’s difficult to wrap one’s brain around in this age of instant access and copy&paste. Good blog posts are frequently reposted; deviantART artists are copied and uncredited; even Photobucket offers print services on others’ photos, not just your own. Thanks to the Internet, ideas lose their identity the moment they leave their creator’s hands. This part of the reason behind J.K. Rowling’s publisher’s swiftness in quashing fan Vander Ark’s attempt to publish a Harry Potter encyclopedia. The belief that Rowling’s ideas are free for the public to rearrange, redistribute and profit from is not an act of support.
Plagiarism isn’t limited to the academic sphere. Intellectual property theft is a crime, and it isn’t only the critics who think so.
In 2006, 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan released her first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. Much like how Paolini lifted David Edding’s bridge-crossing scene and Lucas’ characters, Viswanathan borrowed heavily from her own favorites, namely Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.
But, where Paolini succeeded in staying out of his sources’ immediate ire by providing them with decades of breathing room, Viswanathan immediately butted heads with McCafferty’s publisher, who rejected her apology for her "internalization" of McCafferty’s passages.
From the New York Times article:
[The plagiarized book’s publisher] called it "nothing less than an act of literary identity theft."
Due to the threat to the plagiarized author’s success, Viswanathan lost her book deal and her future as an author. Fans of Viswanathan’s book were forced to realize — as Eragon fans someday may — that the mere fact that you enjoy a book does not justify everything else.
Is the difference between Paolini and Viswanathan a double-standard? Or simply the difference in genre? Are all fantasy books expected (and applauded) for sounding the same, but chick lit is expected to be new and different?
According to the publishers’ statement, their objection to How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was based on its being "an enormous distraction and disruption” from McCafferty’s new book.
Viswanathan’s intellectual property theft attracted attention because there was a direct threat to the original author’s popularity. This is the explanation for George Lucas’ indifference, and the reason for the silence radiating from the Tolkien estate. There is nothing to be gained from calling Christopher Paolini on his crimes, save recognition. Lucas, especially, would only damage his grip on the teen fanbase that he and Paolini share; he stands to gain very little from claiming what is rightfully his.
This does not mean that there isn’t a crime; it only means that it’s a crime that would not be beneficial for George Lucas, Anne McCaffrey or David Eddings to cause a fuss over. McCaffrey understands this best: Not only has she mentioned Paolini on her website (credit to Princess Stefania’s Eragon post for this information), but she writes it off entirely. She’s happy to provide the reason for us:
So there’s some news, for what it is. I see Eragon is made into a movie and opening soon. Many kind fans have emailed me concerned about the use of “dragonriders”, but there is no need for concern — after all, mine was one of the original quotes on the hardback when it was released!
McCaffrey is mentioned on the back of Eragon — it’s free advertising.
Claims of plagiarism aside, there is plenty of discussion to be had over the quality of Eragon as a novel. Paolini’s prose, which he himself believes strives for “a lyrical beauty somewhere between Tolkien at his best and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf” (source), is inelegant, wordy, and occasionally nonsensical. His attention to detail is near-obsessive, particularly when he would benefit from focusing narrative energy elsewhere.
Three white horses with riders cantered toward the ambush, their heads held high and proud, their coats rippling in the moonlight like liquid silver.
On the first horse was an elf with pointed ears and elegantly slanted eyebrows. His build was slim but strong, like a rapier. A powerful bow was slung on his back. A sword pressed against his side opposite a quiver of arrows fletched with swan feathers.
The last rider had the same fair face and angled features as the other. He carried a long spear in his right hand and a white dagger at his belt. A helm of extraordinary craftsmanship, wrought with amber and gold, rested on his head.
Between these two rode a raven-haired elven lady, who surveyed her surroundings with poise. Framed by long black locks, her deep eyes shone with a driving force. Her clothes were unadorned, yet her beauty was undiminished. At her side was a sword, and on her back a long bow with a quiver.
Even in this short segment, the overabundance of description weighs heavily on the narration. The first four paragraphs of the elves’ appearance in the forest are an inventory of the weapons they carry and a closeup of tilted eyebrows. Paolini’s habit of focusing on irrelevant information is a striking issue throughout his writing. Details that might have been more timely — such as a quick glance to check for pursuers, or a nervous twitching of the reins — would convey mood. Elegant eyebrows serve no purpose aside from distraction.
Throughout Eragon, we see this mistake over and over. The narrative takes a detour to describe details of items whose context has no time for such consideration. Battle scenes, especially, suffer from an overbalance of attention to details. What good is there in describing the workmanship of a sword if it’s whistling toward the hero’s head?
The website Anti-Shur’tugal — a now-defunct gathering of writers and amateur critics — has some of the most detailed complaints against Paolini’s writing. Many of the contributors are the age Paolini was when his final version of Eragon was completed, but boast tenfold the literary awareness. In a series of essays, they demonstrate exactly what makes Paolini’s writing so weak, and why his book has no place on the shelves.
A good deal of recognizing genius in children is propelled by wishful thinking. Child prodigies are the stuff of wonder. But, in an effort to add new child prodigies to the ranks as quickly as possible, well-intentioned fans end up with more false positives than legitimate wunderkinds.
As a highly successful young author, Paolini has had "prodigy" compliments following him for years. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN‘s medical correspondent, did a special on “Genius” and interviewed Paolini as an example of "creative genius." He provided Paolini with space in his CNN.com Health blog to explain his unique creativity and share the experience of being so inspired. What seems to have been forgotten amidst all the hype is the actual definition of a child prodigy.
According to Wikipedia, the standard qualification for being a child prodigy is straightforward:
someone who, by the age of roughly 12, displays expert proficiency or a profound grasp of the fundamentals in a field usually only undertaken by adults
Ignore the claims of "creativity"; even Paolini’s writing is nothing out of the ordinary for any beginning writer. Eragon is a neat, albeit unintentional, warning against poor writing. The overuse of adverbs, frequent and mystifying changes in focus, and favoring of purple prose are hallmarks of a young author eager to write and determined to impress. In Paolini’s case, this means using his book to showcase his thesaurus-aided vocabulary and little else.
Christopher Paolini wrote a book at age 15 that reads very much like a book written by a 15-year-old. Yet he has been featured on panels with Philip Pullman and in countless interviews. Worse than the blind eye turned toward the missteps in prose is the fact that some have forgiven Paolini’s plagiarism and overall lack of skill on the grounds that he was only 15 when he started writing. Eragon would be nothing without the ideas it has stolen and pieced together, and it can’t be explained away by the mere naiveté of the author. Paolini can’t earn fame for creativity and at the same time be forgiven for not having any.
In December of 2006, right around the time my original Eragon post was written, the movie adaptation was released, and the resulting firestorm of mockery and disbelief from movie critics unleashed a whole new set of voices against Eragon. Suddenly, Paolini’s audience wasn’t limited to young teens and the fantasy-obsessed; his story had to struggle for respect from people who know fresh ideas when they see them.
On movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 16% of listed reviews cast Eragon in a favorable light. The overall consensus, posted at the top of the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page, is as clear as anything I could say here.
Written by a teenager (and it shows), Eragon presents nothing new to the "hero’s journey" story archetype. In movie terms, this movie looks and sounds like Lord of the Rings and plays out like a bad Star Wars rip-off. The movie spins the tale of a peasant boy who is suddenly entrusted with a dragon and must, with the help of a mentor, train, grow strong, and defeat an evil emperor. The way the critics picture it, the makers of Eragon should soon be expecting an annoyed phone call from George Lucas.
David Germain with the Associated Press put it best: "Star Wars — with dragons."
Here is where Paolini’s child prodigy status unravels most quickly. When put up against professional storytellers, with no consideration given for age or experience, Paolini gets the sort of dressing-down that would have pushed him toward something better back when he was 15.
What Anti-Shur’tugal, Impish Idea and I have in common is that we love books — but not indiscriminately. Not only is Eragon a bad book, but it relieves readers in general (and children in particular) of the burden of knowing that books should be original. We want attention to go to the authors brimming with talent and fresh ideas, but are so often trampled under the mad stampede heading for anything Paolini commits to paper.
To every person who’s stopped by to tell me that Eragon got them reading, or it is the only thing their child will read: This reflects badly on you more than it reflects well on Paolini.
Continue reading. There is no shortage of good books; you merely have to look for them. Then, if you really want, come back to Eragon and consider it anew.
The view may be different.
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