Magical Mondays: The Dragons of The Inheritance Cycle and Deus ex Machinae

inheritance_cycle_by_manuelo108-d3cuskrThere really are just too many things to talk about in these books, and hey, it’s been over a month since I’ve visited the series, so it’s time to talk about it again.

Throughout literature and mythology, dragons have been interpreted and portrayed many different ways. The word “dragon” can be quite broad in its definition, and depending on where you go in the world, people will always have different images and ideas that they associate with dragons. The dragons that we’re most concerned about today are European Dragons, who are typically portrayed as evil and greedy, with a few exceptions, especially in modern literature. Here in America, European Dragons are what we tend to be most used to. They are big scaly lizards with large wings. They breathe fire, kidnap virgins, steal gold, and live in caves. With the exception of being innately evil and kidnapping virgins, this is the kind of dragon that The Inheritance Cycle uses.

Although I obviously knew about dragons before The Inheritance Cycle, Paolini’s books were my first real foray into their mythology, and so I’m more familiar with his interpretation than I am with others. Additionally, despite my love for dragons, they tend to bore me, because they’re often portrayed exactly the same over and over again. Paolini’s dragons were new and unique to me at the time, so naturally I fell in love with them (though I do hear that they are ripoffs from The Dragonriders of Pern). But because I’m so under-read in this matter, it is hard to compare them to other dragons and actually say what Paolini did that makes his dragons unique and worth your time. Like all things in his books, he occasionally hints at creativity with his dragons, but ultimately their magic tends to only happen for plot purposes.

Paolini’s dragons are typical in a lot of ways. They are large scaly creatures that live for a really long time, never stop growing, can use magic and breathe fire, and like to eat Dwarves. There are two types of dragons, wild dragons and dragons who have Riders. Way back in the day, elves and dragons warred with each other over a misunderstanding and inability to communicate, and both races nearly wiped each other out. That was until a young elf called Eragon, after whom our main protagonist is named, found a dragon egg and became the first Rider. This union was essential to stopping the war, and in order to maintain peace, the Dragon Riders were formed. Wild dragons would give up some of their eggs who would only hatch whenever they came into contact with their Rider. The order that the dragons and Riders eventually formed became the most powerful organization in the world and was charged with keeping peace and watching over the lands.

Eragon book coverThis pact had a wide effect on both races. The elves who made the pact, the ancestors of all living elves today, started growing pointy ears and developed a significantly increased lifespan. Additionally, the dragons that hatched for Riders tended to have softer, less fierce features than the wild dragons. What we also know is that when humans become Riders, over time they will adopt elven features. And when separated from their dragons—like Brom, whose dragon died—their human, mortal features will return.

By the time the books start, at any given moment only three or four dragons are left alive, and rarely anyone has ever seen one. Despite that, certain peoples, like the Dwarves, dislike them. This is due to past injustices, such as dragons liking to eat Dwarves and stealing their gold. This last point is one of the more glaringly obvious problems in the book, despite being so minor. We only ever hear about this for maybe a couple lines, and while the dragons may have eaten Dwarves in the past, none of the dragons we meet are interested in gold. Not only that, but the Dwarves, despite hating the dragons so much, have rooms and caves built specifically for them in their mountain homes. I can only assume that this is for plot convenience, and not because of characterization and reasoning. So as you can probably tell, once again, Paolini’s problem here is telling and not showing, or rather, telling and showing the opposite.

His problem is also deus ex machinae.

Glaedr and SaphiraDragons are inherently magical creatures, and Paolini’s dragons are also capable of magic outside of fire-breathing. Their magic is unpredictable and can be unexpected, which in this case means that it happens whenever the plot needs it to. Whenever Saphira works magic, which she herself cannot control, it is never to her or Eragon’s—the main protagonist, not the elf—detriment. Her magic appears out of nowhere, is beautiful, and solves problems. When Brom dies, she ends up transforming the stone around his grave into diamonds, and she ends up repairing a giant gem stone for the Dwarves, even though she doesn’t know what she’s doing and has no control over herself in this regard. This is bad writing, but I could have let it go had her magic occasionally acted in ways that caused conflict and had far-reaching and not-easily-solved consequences. Unfortunately, this never happens, and the dragons end up having a grab-bag of powers that only come into play right when they’re needed.

This can best be seen when it comes to a dragon’s Eldunarí. Eldunarí means “heart of hearts” and is a crystal-like organ inside dragons that they can eject from their own bodies for no good biological reason, other than magic and plot convenience. Dragons could store their consciousness in Eldunarya, thus ensuring that they could live on even after losing their physical bodies. Glaedr, one of Eragon’s teachers, used his Eldunarí to live even after being slain in battle. Additionally, dragons don’t have to be dead in order to eject their Eldunarya from their bodies, and we also learn that the Eldunarya can act like magical cell-phones. Anyone holding an Eldunarí could not only call upon that dragon’s strength, but could also talk to and communicate with that dragon over long distances.

CuarocEldunaríWe later discover that there are a whole bunch of Eldunarya left over from the destruction of the Order. These Eldunarya are responsible for sending Eragon Saphira’s dragon egg, giving him visions of Arya while she was captured by the Empire, and even healing Eragon from his disabling injury. They’ve also been shown to possess people, such as when they take over Solembum to send Eragon a message, and they otherwise have a whole slew of magical powers that they can readily control for Eragon’s convenience.

Making the dragons deus ex machinae is only one of Paolini’s many dragon problems, and I probably wouldn’t have minded an Eldunarí or two within the narrative as long as they and the live dragons had more limits placed upon their magical abilities. Instead, we ended up with a bunch of magical gems that shaped Eragon’s journey for him and made things easier and less challenging. While I could say that it makes sense for the Eldunarya to do this, as they want Eragon to succeed in his quest, they would have been better off healing Oromis or putting their stock in him, since Oromis is far more skilled and experienced than Eragon. But regardless of their reasons, their convenient powers made for a less thrilling read, and though the Eldunarya were certainly setup much to Paolini’s credit, Eragon already had a dragon. His character shouldn’t have had the extra help in this regard. It just came across as convenient.

Because the dragons are deus ex machinae, it’s hard to view them as characters and not plot points. We don’t find out as much about the dragons or their culture as I would have liked to, and what the story does tell us is interesting. We learn that the wild dragons and the bonded dragons had political feuds with each other—each side looked down on the other as inferior for some reason or another—yet during the Fall, they were able to move past this and the wild dragons came to the aid of the Dragon Riders. The books constantly hint at dragon customs and ways of life that we sadly do not get to see due to their near extinction. Thankfully, through Glaedr, the books do attempt to explore this to an extent. Sometimes that exploration is nothing more than an exposition-bomb, but I’ll take what I can get. However, what few positives we can credit the books with are hidden under a torrent of negatives. And considering that the dragons are such a huge part of the narrative, this becomes one of the series’ more glaring faults.

6 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: The Dragons of The Inheritance Cycle and Deus ex Machinae

  1. I keep feeling like the Eragon series has a lot of potential for studying tropes and how teenagers process them. It’s just all laid out for us to see, without much effort to conceal those tropes or create something new, just direct interaction with the tropes themselves. Surely there’s a marvelous research opportunity here if someone can figure out how to access it.

  2. The entire ‘surprise emergency stash of Eldunarya and dragon eggs’ thing was way too convenient for me. While part of me was happy that Saphira and Thorn didn’t have to be the last of their kind, most of me was like ‘OH MY GOD PAOLINI, YOU CAN’T JUST SPRING THIS OUT OF NOWHERE!’ That was the deus ex machina of all deus ex machinae and took away a lot of potential impact the ending could have had.

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