Eragon, Ch20: Time For Another Trip To Exposition Ranch!

Eragon, Chapter 20: Magic Is the Simplest Thing

When we last left our intrepid hero, he had just performed magic for the first time and was scolded by his mentor for doing so, even though he hadn’t known about this ability until it happened.  Now, as the two move on across the plains, Brom explains more about how magic works.  All Riders can use magic, but it’s an ability they kept secret “because it gave them an advantage over their enemies”, and their connection with dragons seems to be the source of their power.  There’s some minor explanation of the different types of magic users (Shades and sorcerers gain their power from spirits, Riders from dragons, witches and wizards from potions and spells, and magicians don’t have any outside aid at all).

“Which brings me back to my original point: the problem you’ve presented.  Young Riders like yourself were put through a strict regimen designed to strengthen their bodies and increase their mental control.  This regimen continued for many months, occasionally years, until the Riders were deemed responsible enough to handle magic.  Up until then, not one student was told of his potential powers.  If one of them discovered magic by accident, he or she was immediately taken away for private tutoring.  It was rare for anyone to discover magic on his own,” he inclined his head toward Eragon, “though they were never put under the same pressure you were.”

I feel like I need to keep count of all the times Eragon ends up being exceptional in some way.  My notes say this is #4, but I might have missed one somewhere.

Something about this really bothers me.  On the one hand, I understand wanting to keep young, underpowered Riders from doing harm to themselves or others with powers they don’t understand and can’t fully control.  Telling them that they will be able to use magic and then saying “Don’t try to use magic” seems about as effective as telling teenagers what sex is and then telling them not to have it.

On the other hand, Brom’s reaction to Eragon discovering magic on his own makes me wonder if the other Riders who figured it out ahead of schedule were also ripped into by their teachers.  And how did they keep it a secret?  If a Rider-in-training started using magic and was taken away for training, did they ever explain it to the classmates or did they just disappear?  How did the Riders explain any “accidents” that happened in public in front of non-magic-using trainees?

“The students were presented with a series of pointless exercises designed to frustrate them.  For example, they were instructed to move piles of stones using only their feet, fill ever draining tubs full of water, and other impossibilities.  After a time, they would get infuriated enough to use magic.  Most of the time it succeeded.”

That sounds both counter-productive and mean.   Frustrating someone to the point of using magic is probably going to result in a more powerful effect than necessary – and since it’s been established that putting too much power into magic can kill you, that sounds like a really good way to end up with dead students.  Besides, even if they’d been studying the ancient language so that they knew what words to use, how are they supposed to know how to use them?  If I had to move a pile of rocks with only my feet and I got frustrated, I’m not going to shout “Stein!”, I’m going to start cursing and kick the rocks over.

“What this means,” Brom continued, “is that you will be disadvantaged if you ever meet an enemy who has received this training.  There are still some alive who are that old: the king for one, not to mention the elves.  Any one of those could tear you apart with ease.”

Am I missing something?  What part of frustrating children to the point of lashing out is supposed to give them an edge over their opponents?  If anything, I’d think that would make them more volatile and less able to control themselves.  And, uh, it’s just a thought, but I’m pretty sure that the reason Galbatorix or the elves could tear Eragon apart would be because they’ve had years and years to train and hone their techniques.  They’re going to be more powerful because they know what they’re doing.

Brom says he can teach Eragon more magic as they travel, then gives another lesson on how it works.  It’s impossible to outright lie in the ancient language, though Brom notes that the elves, for whom this is their first language, “have perfected the art of saying one thing and meaning another”.  So, basically, the elves will lie by omission and use double entendre to get around the whole “no lying” thing.  Everyone also has two names – one for everyday use, and their “true name”.  If this is starting to sound like the magic system from A Wizard of Earthsea, that’s because it pretty much is.

We also learn that bringing someone back from the dead will automatically kill you, and it’s one of the few things Riders were forbidden to attempt.  I don’t know if this is supposed to come back later; it’s not mentioned in the rest of this book, and I don’t remember it coming up in Eldest, but that still leaves half the series for it to pop back up.  I will be sorely disappointed if no one tries to bring someone back from the dead by the time I finish the series.

Brom shows Eragon some simple magic exercises and teaches him some more words in the ancient language.  We’re told that Eragon is improving, mastering the exercises Brom sets before him and getting better at sparring.  Paolini doesn’t make it clear how much time is passing, so I don’t know how long Eragon’s been working at this and therefore can’t judge whether it’s realistic for him to be this good this fast.  (Oh, who am I kidding, I wouldn’t know how realistic it would be anyway.)  It would be nice if we knew about how long they’ve been on the road, or at least if Paolini wouldn’t gloss over all of it in half a page.

They finally near the next village, which is called Daret.  That night Eragon has a dream about his uncle:

He saw Garrow and Roran at home, sitting in the destroyed kitchen.  They asked him for help rebuilding the farm, but he only shook his head with a pang of longing in his heart.  “I’m tracking your killers,” he whispered to his uncle.

Garrow looked at him askance and demanded, “Do I look dead to you?”

“I can’t help you,” said Eragon softly, feeling tears in his eyes.

There was a sudden roar, and Garrow transformed into the Ra’zac.  “Then die,” they hissed, and leapt at Eragon.

The dream, of course, has no bearing on the plot or on Eragon’s behavior.  I think it’s supposed to be a sign that Eragon still feels guilty about what happened, but it would be more effective if Paolini would show this through Eragon’s actions rather than through dreams that no one cares about.

Times Eragon is noted as being special: 2

“It was rare for anyone to discover magic on his own,” he inclined his head toward Eragon, “though they were never put under the same pressure you were.” (pg 144)

“It may please you to know that no Rider your age ever used magic the way you did yesterday with those two Urgals.” (pg 145)

Total: 5

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2 comments on “Eragon, Ch20: Time For Another Trip To Exposition Ranch!

  1. Brom’s description of the training reminds me of the Belgariad. In that series, the only way to become a wizard was to get extremely angry and yell an order (like “move” at a rock) that the universe would obey*. After that, the wizard could use magic at will, although it was tiring. An important difference between the two systems is that in the Belgariad, there isn’t a separate language of magic. A wizard just tells a rock to move, and it moves. Now that I think about it, in both stories the protagonist makes the magic breakthrough by making an enemy burn.

    *Training prospective wizards could be risky, since one of the rules of magic is that trying to unmake something with magic will rebound on you. That means if your magic breakthrough involves trying to make whatever you’re mad at disappear, you won’t have long to enjoy it.

  2. The pointless exercises bit reminds me of the legends of Shaolin temple training. The difference is the Shaolin exercises had a point (building up balance, awareness, arm strength, etc.). The student might not be told what the exercise is about and get frustrated, but the exercises themselves are sound. Here, as you mentioned, it’s impossible to see how the arrangement wouldn’t make things worse. I wonder if Paolini just used the Shaolin training trope without the slightest understanding of it.

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