Eragon, Chapter 47: A Clash of Wills
So yet again our heroes are forced to ride through the night, sleeping in their saddles and exhausting the horses “to the point of stopping.” (What is that supposed to mean, anyway? Are the horses just randomly stopping because they’re too tired to go on? Are they about to fall over?) They’ve gained a lead on the Urgals that are following them, but there’s no guarantee that they can keep up the distance between them. At this point, the horses are becoming a burden. I know Murtagh is attached to his horse, but there comes a time when survival has to override sentiment. They really need to set the horses loose and have Saphira fly them the rest of the way to the Varden.
Saphira flies off to go hunting, and Eragon and Murtagh keep going, stopping at a pond to water the horses. While they’re doing this, slavers come across them. There’s a bit of a standoff, where the two sides stare at each other before the slavers surround them.
Murtagh’s only movement was to shift his sword. “Who are you and what do you want? We are free men traveling through this land. You have no right to stop us.” “Oh, I have every right,” said the man contemptuously. “And as for my name, slaves do not address their masters in that manner, unless they want to be beaten.”
A one-off character that doesn’t give their name? Awesome! Maybe now we won’t have to deal with so many useless named characters with ridiculous-sounding fantasy names anymore!
One of the slavers had pulled the blanket off Arya, revealing her face. He gaped in astonishment, then shouted, “Torkenbrand, this one’s an elf!”
Aww, nuts. (And yes, he’s constantly referred to with this clunky mess of a name. For the three pages that he actually shows up on.)
As the slavers start to get excited at the idea of all the money they’ll get for selling an elf to the Empire, Eragon signals to Saphira to attack. He notes that she should let them escape if they run, and when Saphira shows herself he tells them to run if they want to live. Has he forgotten what happened the last time he let people escape after they found out he was a Rider? Those men are going to run right into the Urgals that are following him, and whether they say it willingly or they have the information tortured out of them, they’ll tell the Urgals exactly where they found you. So any possibility of losing the Urgals or setting them on a different path has now been lost.
When the slavers flee, their leader (I refuse to call him by that ridiculous name unless I’m directly quoting the text, dammit) is knocked down and left laying in the dirt.* Murtagh takes this opportunity to kill him, chopping his head off as Eragon shouts at him not to. Murtagh doesn’t understand why Eragon’s angry about this turn of events.
“Upset!” exploded Eragon. “I’m well past that! Did it even occur to you that we could just leave him here and continue on our way? No! Instead you turn into an executioner and chop off his head. He was defenseless!” Murtagh seemed perplexed by Eragon’s wrath. “Well, we couldn’t keep him around – he was dangerous. The others ran off . . . without a horse he wouldn’t have made it far. I didn’t want the Urgals to find him and learn about Arya. So I thought it would -” “But to kill him?” interrupted Eragon.
I’d like to point out that Eragon didn’t seem to have a problem with the idea of Murtagh killing someone last chapter (“Did you kill someone important [...] it’s not as if I’m going to pass judgement”). This would be an interesting facet of his character, if he had no intellectual qualms about killing but struggled with the actual reality of the act… if he didn’t seem to flip-flop between demanding that no lives are taken and wanting to take violent, bloody revenge when he thinks someone deserves it.
I really want to know what Eragon would have done with this guy. Murtagh’s got a point. If they take him prisoner, he’ll not only slow them down and be yet another mouth to feed (unless Eragon’s totally okay with starving a guy, just not killing him), he’ll present a danger to the rest of the group simply by existing. Forget him getting free and attacking the others – what’s to stop him from actively trying to slow them down or reveal their presence to anyone they might want to avoid? This guy has no reason to cooperate with his captors. Leaving him behind is also out; if they leave him tied up, the Urgals will find him, and that would likely be just as bad as killing him outright. If they leave him unbound, he’ll continue to kidnap people and sell them as slaves.
“I’m only trying to stay alive,” stated Murtagh. “No stranger’s life is more important than my own.”
“But you can’t indulge in wanton violence. Where is your empathy?” growled Eragon, pointing at the head.
I seem to recall a certain young man who was so angry at seeing a slave auction that he wished someone would try to rob him so he could beat the tar out of them. Or does taking your frustrations out on random people not count as wanton violence?
“Empathy? Empathy? What empathy can I afford my enemies? Shall I dither about whether to defend myself because it will cause someone pain? If that had been the case, I would have died years ago! You must be willing to protect yourself and what you cherish, no matter what the cost.”
Eragon slammed Zar’roc back into its sheath, shaking his head savagely. “You can justify any atrocity with that reasoning.”
“Do you think I enjoy this?” Murtagh shouted. “My life has been threatened from the day I was born! [...] You don’t understand – if you lived with this fear, you would have learned the same lesson I did: Do not take chances.” He gestured at Torkenbrand’s body. “He was a risk that I removed. I refuse to repent, and I won’t plague myself over what is done and past.”
Eragon shoved his face into Murtagh’s. “It was still the wrong thing to do.”
The problem here is that Eragon seems to be confusing the Right Thing To Do with the Thing That Must Be Done. Murtagh isn’t arguing that killing the slaver leader was a noble action; he’s arguing that it’s what he had to do to ensure their survival. And again, this could be an interesting character conflict, both between Eragon and Murtagh and between Eragon and his conscience, if it were handled well. (Spoiler: it’s not.)
Curiously, Saphira doesn’t have anything to say about the incident other than asking Eragon if he wants to talk about it when they stop for camp later. The most logical explanation for this is that Paolini either forgot she was there or didn’t think she was important to the scene (aside from showing up to scare off the slavers), but considering the way she sniffs at the slaver leader’s head like she wants to eat it, I’m going to assume that she privately agrees with Murtagh and just doesn’t want to say anything that will upset Eragon.
* The text specifically says he was “struck in the temple with a javelin,” which sounds like a detail that Eragon would have specifically had to pay attention to in order to know. Remember, this is from his POV – everything we see and hear in this book is what he sees and hears. So either Eragon is remarkably observant during chaotic scenes like this one, or Paolini threw in that detail without thinking about how Eragon could know this.