Eragon, Chapter 2: Palancar Valley
Well, this post took a lot longer to get out than I thought it would. Part of the problem is that I’ve been reading ahead (partially to gather my notes, and partially because I get bored at work and it gives me something to do), which apparently makes me feel lazy about writing an actual post about the chapter. The other reason I haven’t posted in about a month is that my body decided my life wasn’t hectic enough and threw in a horrible allergy to something during the process of moving to a new apartment, which of course is taking place right now in the middle of the holiday season. Because I am horrible at planning things. Anyway, enough about my lazy butt – the long and short of it is that I’m decidedly not dead, and I’m making it my New Year’s resolution to post at least once a week. On to the review!
We last left Eragon as he was bedding down for the night, after he pulled a shiny rock from a still-smoking crater. In the morning he goes back to the spot where he found the stone, but there’s nothing new to be seen, so he breaks camp and sets off for home along Exposition Lane. Actually, it’s a meandering game trail, which is a pretty fitting metaphor for the narration at this point.
According to the narrative, Eragon isn’t special so much as he’s incredibly talented:
The Spine was one of the only places that King Galbatorix could not call his own. Stories were still told about how half his army disappeared after marching into its ancient forest. A cloud of misfortune and bad luck seemed to hang over it. Though the trees grew tall and the sky shone brightly, few people could stay in the Spine for long without suffering an accident. Eragon was one of those few – not through any particular gift, it seemed to him, but because of persistent vigilance and sharp reflexes.
You see, Eragon’s not gifted! He’s just capable of surviving in a hostile environment that kills or injures over half the people who enter! Personally, I would call a fifteen-year-old boy with the skills of an experienced woodsman gifted; yes, it’s possible to pick these skills up, much like it’s possible to learn to, say, draw even if you don’t display any particular talent for it, but starting out with an aptitude for any craft or ability is, I believe, a hallmark of being considered gifted.
It takes almost two days for Eragon to get back home to the village of Carvahall. His first stop is the butcher shop, which is the only building where “the chimney belched black smoke”. (The smoke coming from other chimneys is specifically described as white.) I think Paolini is trying for symbolism here, since Sloan is apparently the only person in town who has any sort of problem with Eragon and his family, and therefore must be evil. The problem with using symbolism like this, however, is that it’s not only obvious, but often used as a crutch in writing. It’s a lot easier to fit out an antagonist with symbols and motifs that are shorthand for “bad guy” – spikes, snakes, the color black, fire – than it is to actually show how they’re a bad person. It’s also a lot less interesting and, frankly, insulting to the reader.
Behind the counter stood the butcher Sloan. A small man, he wore a cotton shirt and a long, bloodstained smock. An impressive array of knives swung from his belt. He had a sallow, pockmarked face, and his black eyes were suspicious.
Okay, see, this is a better description! We’ve got some actual facial description, a good idea of the clothes he’s wearing, and his equipment doesn’t get more detail than he does. Well done!
Sloan’s mouth twisted as Eragon entered. “Well, the mighty hunter joins the rest of us mortals. How many did you bag this time?”
“None,” was Eragon’s curt reply. He had never liked Sloan. The butcher always treated him with disdain, as if he were something unclean. A widower, Sloan seemed to care for only one person – his daughter, Katrina, on whom he doted.
I’m not sure how Sloan can afford to be rude and aggressive to all of his neighbors. From what we’ve seen of the setting so far, one can reasonably conclude that Eragon lives in a “medieval” (or as close to medieval as high fantasy usually gets) village. You know, small settlements where the residents all knew each other and were dependent on one another for survival? Being a nasty jackass to people seems like the perfect recipe for getting yourself tossed out on your rear to fend for yourself in the wild, and that’s if you’re lucky. Sloan must have such mad butchering skills that he’s invaluable to the town (in which case I’m forced to assume that he knows the secret to preserving meat long after it usually goes bad, or something equally miraculous), and is refusing to pass his knowledge on for fear that the villagers will run him out of town once they know his secrets. That, or no one else can be bothered to know how to dress a chicken.
Eragon attempts to barter with Sloan, offering the stone he found in the mountains for its worth in meat. Sloan accepts the offer at first (although he grossly undervalues the stone, presumably because he wants to cheat Eragon as much as possible), but when he learns where Eragon got the stone he demands that Eragon leave. That’s when Sloan’s daughter (Katrina) and the town blacksmith (Horst) rush in.
He gave Eragon a murderous gaze, then spat, “This … boy came in here and started badgering me. I asked him to leave, but he won’t budge. I even threatened him and he still ignored me!”
Oh, well, if you threatened him, that’s all right then.
Eragon doesn’t understand what the big deal is – why does it matter where the shiny rock came from, as long as it’s worth a few pounds of meat? But Paolini’s made such a big deal out of the Spine being dangerous and mysterious and full of magic that I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t be wary of anything coming out of those mountains. The explanation we’re given at the end of the chapter is that Sloan’ wife fell to her death from the nearby falls, and that’s why he wants absolutely nothing to do with the Spine. Nobody else has any misgivings about a strange blue stone that comes from a mountain range where people routinely disappear and hear strange noises.
That, my friends, is bullshit.
“Father, Eragon is willing to pay. Give him the meat, and then we can have supper.”
Sloan’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Go back to the house; this is none of your business. . . . I said go!” Katrina’s face hardened, then she marched out of the room with a stiff back.
For someone who supposedly dotes on his daughter, Sloan sure is being a jerk to her. I’m sure glad this is the only time we ever see them interact, so we know he really does love her!
Horst laughed quietly. “Don’t thank me. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. Sloan’s a vicious troublemaker; it does him good to be humbled. Katrina heard what was happening and ran to fetch me. Good thing I came – the two of you were almost at blows. Unfortunately, I doubt he’ll serve you or any of your family the next time you go in there, even if you do have coins.”
Three things: First, if Sloan is such a troublemaker, why does anyone put up with him? He cannot possibly be the only person around who knows his trade; surely someone with more people skills knows how to slaughter animals? Second, how did Katrina hear what was going on? Sloan started yelling at Eragon for about three lines before Horst and Katrina burst in; either Katrina was in the back of the shop eavesdropping and ran out the back, in which case she must be a really fast runner, or Sloan was screaming so loud that people out on the street could hear. If that were the case, then Katrina and Horst must be the only people who care, because no one else is remotely curious about what’s going on. Third, thank you for telling us how close the two of them were to fighting, Horst! I would hate for the narration to have to do its job and actually describe a physical altercation between our hero and the mean, nasty butcher.
Because he paid for the meat Eragon’s bringing home, Horst offers to let the boy work off the debt at his forge. This works for Eragon since his uncle Garrow is one of those proud people who refuses aid of any kind because he doesn’t want to be subject to charity. He asks Horst to pass on some lovey-dovey message to Katrina from his cousin Roran and heads home.
Eaves hung over the whitewashed walls, shadowing the ground below.
I would just like to point out that whitewash wasn’t used until the nineteenth century. I expect most fantasy to be an anachronism stew, but most of them have the decency to stay out of the industrial age unless they’re meant to be steampunk or alternate-universe histories.
The house had been abandoned for half a century when they moved in after Garrow’s wife, Marian, died. It was ten miles from Carvahall, farther than anyone else’s. People considered the distance dangerous because the family could not rely on help from the village in times of trouble, but Eragon’s uncle would not listen.
I am really curious as to why Uncle Garrow insists on refusing help from his neighbors. I would assume he’s just a grumpy old hermit, but he lives with two teenaged boys which pretty much destroys that theory. It’s not entirely clear just when Marian died, but I would presume that if one had two children under their care, they would want to live close enough to civilization (or what passes for civilization in this world) that they would be able to go for help should the need arise. Ten miles from town means a three-hour walk if Eragon or Roran become ill or injured; riding on horseback would cut the journey down considerably, but if something serious happens like an attack or a bad accident, they’re still too far away for help to arrive in time. Add in the fact that they live in a tiny valley nestled directly into the mountains that have repeatedly been stated to be incredibly dangerous, and you have to wonder just what the hell Garrow was thinking.
(The real reason, of course, is that the plot calls for it – Eragon needs to find his uncle dead without having any nosy neighbors discover the dragon he’s been hiding in the woods – but I suspect it’s also because Eragon is based heavily on Luke Skywalker, so of course he has to live with his uncle [no aunt – there will be none of those icky girls if the author can help it] in a secluded area, even if it doesn’t make much sense in the setting.)
For me, this whole scene where the reader is introduced to Eragon’s home and family just highlights how amateur Paolini’s writing is. He can’t seem to decide what information is pertinent for the reader to know; we’re not told why Garrow wants to live so far out in the wilderness, but we’re told the names of the horses that the family owns. (For the record, these names are completely irrelevant; I think the horses are mentioned once or twice in future chapters, always in contexts where “the horse” could easily replace the name, and completely disappear after Chapter Ten or so.) In addition, not only has Paolini seemingly not learned the classic writing rule “show, don’t tell”, he’s redundant to boot. On page fifteen, we are told:
He was glad that there was a way for him to pay Horst. His uncle would never accept charity.
Outright stating character traits in the prose is bad enough, but two pages later, when Eragon starts unloading the meat from his bag and tells his uncle where he got it, Garrow says:
“You let him pay for it? I told you before, I won’t beg for food. If we can’t feed ourselves, we might as well move into town. Before you can turn around twice, they’ll be sending us used clothes and asking if we’ll be able to get through the winter.”
This is actually a perfectly valid example of showing through the text. From these three sentences I can tell that Garrow is a proud man who doesn’t want to be pitied; I could even reasonably assume that he views taking handouts as a weakness, maybe even as a character flaw. I don’t need this information bluntly stated in the narration to understand this facet of his character.
Now, I understand that this is Paolini’s first novel, and that he was fifteen when he wrote it. I’m not bagging on him for that. Writing a novel at any age is an accomplishment, let alone at an age when you’re confused about your place in the world, and are just as likely to be hiding in your room writing bad poetry as you are to be seeking the affections of the gender(s) to which you’re attracted.* Hell, I tried my hand at writing a fantasy novel in high school and never finished it, and my current attempts at writing usually fizzle out before I get more than a couple pages in. And Eragon would never have been picked up by a major publishing company if Paolini hadn’t put all his energy into promoting it. Still, I think this book would have benefited from an impartial beta reader – not just someone to pick out spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, but someone to point out awkward or redundant passages, plot holes, cliches that the author might not have noticed, and other areas of improvement. Of course, there’s no indication that Paolini would take this advice, but in general it’s still important to have another person look over your work. This would preferably be someone not emotionally invested in the writing or biased towards you (like, say, your parents), as they would be able to step back and, to be somewhat cliche, see the forest for the trees.
“I didn’t accept charity,” snapped Eragon. “Horst agreed to let me work off the debt this spring. […]”
“And where will you get the time to work for him? Are you going to ignore all the things that need to be done here?” asked Garrow, forcing his voice down.
He’s got a point – Eragon really didn’t think this through when he agreed to work for Horst in exchange for that food. You’d think the kid would remember, “Oh yeah, I live on a farm where I account for a third of the work force and might have too many responsibilities at home to allow me to work for someone else.”
Garrow doesn’t seem to care that the stone Eragon found came from the Spine. I wonder, if the Spine is so mysterious and terrifying, why is Sloan the only person to have any sort of negative reaction to this stone?
“And to make matters worse, I lost my best arrow.”
… You had a “best arrow”? Is … is that even a thing? You would have had to use it eventually, you know. This isn’t like having a best sword, where you’re expected to use it day after day; arrows are projectiles. It’s kind of expected that you’ll lose most of them. I mean, yeah, they’re re-usable, but just because you hit something with an arrow doesn’t mean you can always use the arrow again. And didn’t you stay in that area until daybreak? If that was really your best arrow, why not try looking for it?
I give up. See you next week, folks.
*Wow, that was awkwardly worded. Anyone have a more eloquent way to be inclusive?
“The sun rose the next morning with a glorious conflagration of pink and yellow.” (pg 9)
“A bit past noon, he heard Igualda Falls blanketing everything with the dull sound of a thousand splashes.” (pg 10)
“Katrina stepped out from behind Horst and tossed back her auburn hair like a spray of molten copper.” (pg 14)
“The meat slowed him down, but he was eager to be home, and renewed vigor filled his steps.” (pg 16)