Have you ever tried to really inhabit another person’s frame of mind — someone different from you in fundamental ways, who may think or behave completely differently to you?
Trying to get inside another person’s head and understand where they’re coming from — what motivates them to do the things that they do — is a challenge but also an incredible skill to hone, and I think one of the best ways to do this is to read books narrated or focalised by characters to whom you can’t immediately relate. This has been my experience with the Inheritance Cycle, a tetralogy of books written by Christopher Paolini about ten years ago. Full disclosure: I’m only halfway through the second book, so any comment I offer on the series is purely based on what I’ve read so far, but I’m going to chat a little bit about the first book, Eragon, over the next few posts. In this post, I’m going to focus in on the characters we meet in Eragon and what my experience of viewing the world through their eyes taught me.
The titular character of the series is a teenage boy named Eragon, who is swept up in a dangerous and thrilling adventure after he finds a dragon egg in the forest near his rural home. The dragon hatchling, whom he names Saphira, marks him as her Rider, and from there… well, all hell breaks loose. The entire first book is focalised through Eragon, and he was an incredibly tough character for me to gel with initially. Have you read Harry Potter? If you have (which I’m guessing you have, because everybody has), you’ll remember the Order of the Phoenix — Book 5 — and how frustrating it was to inhabit the mind of Harry as a 15-year-old. Infuriating, right? He was whiny, selfish, moody and dramatic for the majority of that book, and that doesn’t really make for pleasant reading. In hindsight, though, speaking as a person who has since been 15 herself, that was… a pretty apt depiction of life as a teenager. OH, THE DRAMA, MAMA!
Life for Eragon, like life for Harry, hasn’t been super great all the time. (I’ll focus in on hardship as a theme in my second post, so stay tuned!) Eragon, too, is an orphan living with his uncle and cousin at the story’s opening, and he has all sorts of feelings about his lack of parents. As the story progresses, we discover that he has all sorts of feelings about everything, actually. He’s often overcome with rage or melancholia about various goings-on, and one of the main points of action early in the story — his pursuit of the evil Ra’zac — is fuelled entirely from a need for revenge. He’s no saint or long-suffering servant; he’s rash and petulant, and often grumpy with his mentor, Brom, or with Saphira, or with his friend Murtagh, or with the world in general. All in all, it’s exhausting to be in his head and constantly go through the angst and worry he experiences, but here’s the thing. My guess is that Eragon is going to do a lot of growing up over the course of the novels, and that this is a major feature of the series as a whole. Nonetheless, once I got used to his character’s focalisation and settled myself a little deeper into his perspective, I found that I actually liked stubborn, irritable, impulsive Eragon!
Reading this book made me fully appreciate and remember how exhausting it is just to be a teenager, let alone a teenager thrust into this crazy, dangerous adventure that you didn’t really ask for. Eragon’s moods and impulses make the story so much more believable — it actually would be incredibly boring to read a book about a saintly kid who takes everything life throws at him without ever complaining or feeling frustrated. Paolini’s framing of Eragon in this way is, I believe, an imperative part of the novel in that it gives credence to the feelings you have as a teen: often confusing, inexplicable waves of emotion. It allows teenage boys the space to acknowledge that they have feelings and they aren’t alone in doing so; it gives the rest of us an opportunity to see the world through a teenage boy’s eyes! One of my all-time favourite authors and thinkers, Marilynne Robinson, wrote that “[c]ommunity consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly”, and I think one of the best ways to build community is to work on building this imaginative love and sympathy for people whose perspectives are completely foreign to us. Once we see the world through their eyes, we may still not agree with them, but we can at least recognise what influences their decisions and reactions, which in turn makes it easier to interact with them.
As a last note, it’s fascinating to see how Eragon’s perspective adapts over the course of the book as he gets closer and closer to Saphira. As Rider and dragon, they share a mental link and can hear each other’s thoughts. Saphira’s personality comes through so strongly in her conversations with Eragon, and I love her – she’s full of sass and spark! I think this relationship they build and the way Eragon starts seeing the world through Saphira’s eyes — something he literally does at one point while flying — is a beautiful image of how our perspective can change when we become close to another person, and how important those relationships are.
I’m excited to keep reading to see how Eragon’s perspective changes and grows throughout the series. Click here to read about hardship as a theme in Eragon and why I thought this was another important aspect of the book.