It’s been four months since the last time I talked about my favorite series and my love-hate relationship with it, so I figured it was time for another post. One thing that always bothered me about The Inheritance Cycle was its use of magic. In the series, magic is an unstable force that can have various unpredictable consequences. While this is not a problematic idea, the story doesn’t use it to its full capacity. The dragons, for instance, being magical creatures, don’t have control over their own abilities. Yet the story doesn’t use that to the characters’ detriment, so much as it turns them into deus ex machinae in order to fix problems.
However, because magic is unpredictable and therefore dangerous, a long time ago a now-supposed extinct people called the Grey Folk somehow managed to bind magic to a language. Essentially, they made it impossible to use magic without knowing the Ancient Language. Unfortunately, just like the dragons, the rules governing magic in The Inheritance Cycle tend to change depending on what the narrative needs them to be.
Within this universe, everything and everyone has a true name in the Ancient Language, and knowing that name gives a person absolute power over the thing in question. The true name for the Ancient Language itself is supposed to be the most powerful word in existence. This word has been lost to history, and learning it is Galbatorix’s ultimate goal, because with it, he can easily end the war with the Varden. Before the discovery of this word, he instead has to control people by learning their individual names in the Ancient Language. When the story first talks about people’s true names, I simply thought that within the Ancient Language, everyone and everything—every individual person, animal, plant, etc.—had a specific word dedicated just to them. However, as it turns out, people don’t so much as have “true names” as they do “long-winded paragraphs that describe who they are”. The character Glaedr’s true name is like a novella.
But the name for the Ancient Language is a single word.
This makes no sense to me whatsoever.
We discover sometime in the second book that it is possible to do magic simply by thinking about the required words, but even then, the person in question still has to know those words. Oddly enough, Galbatorix doesn’t know that that is possible, and instead must say his spells out loud. I say oddly, because he has spent the past hundred years researching the Ancient Language, and becomes the first person in known history to discover its true name. He probably knows more about magic at that point in time than anyone else alive, but after a hundred years of research and communicating with his dragon through a mental connection, it never occurred to him that he could mentally cast spells. I find it hard to believe that he missed something so basic.
Sadly, this is hardly the only problem. The Ancient Language, despite requiring absolute precision of speech for spells to work, makes little to no grammatical sense, unless of course its nouns and verbs are randomly interchangeable. This wouldn’t be a problem, but it actually ends up being a huge plot point in Eldest. At one point, Eragon blesses a newborn baby—attempting to say in the Ancient Language, “May luck and happiness follow you and may you be shielded from misfortune.” Sadly, Eragon messes it up, and instead says, “May luck and happiness follow you and may you be a shield from misfortune.” He does this by accidentally using the word “sköliro”, instead of “skölir”.
While it is nice to see Eragon mess something up and have to deal with those consequences, in this case, those consequences are the result of an error in the writing, because what Eragon said shouldn’t have made any sense, let alone formed a spell. However, the baby in question still undergoes a physical alteration as a result of the spell. She grows up faster, her eye color changes, and most alarmingly, she can feel other people’s pain, and if she doesn’t do anything to stop it—since the magic commands that she be “a shield” from harm—she’s punished with physical agony. During major battles, in order to stop her pain, the Varden healers have to put her into a magically induced coma. Her situation is actually one of the better and more interesting parts of the series. However, the way it happens logically makes no sense, and it’s hard to get around the fact that this development is based on an error that shouldn’t exist, which can easily break a reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Furthermore, even though spells rely upon precise language, certain creatures throughout the series, such as dragons, perform magic without using the Ancient Language, without even thinking in it. The use of the Ancient Language is an established rule for this universe, but that same rule doesn’t seem to apply to Saphira or Eragon. Saphira ends up turning Brom’s gravestone into diamond, even though neither she nor Eragon know the words to do that, and Eragon also has the ability to see the future—even though within the established rules of the universe, seeing the future with magic is impossible, because it requires so much energy that anyone who tries will instantly die from exhaustion.
How and why Eragon can do this is never properly explained. And he’s hardly the only one to ever break this rule. The character Angela also has the ability to see the future, except unlike Eragon, she can control it. As a result, she spends the series reading people their fortunes. How Angela can do this is never explained either. It’s heavily implied within the narrative that she is one of the Grey Folk, which may be why she can bend the rules of magic to her will. Unfortunately, we never find out the truth, and as such, Angela’s abilities seem more for the narrative’s convenience than anything else.
As someone who is really into languages and has invented a few of my own, I was significantly unimpressed with the Ancient Language and its usage. In some ways it doesn’t even feel like a language, since it tends to follow nearly the exact same sentence structure as English, and translating one into the other is more or less a simple matter of interchanging words. As such, it’s hard to view the language as an actual tongue that could exist, since it lacks many unique qualities most languages have. And despite being such a huge part of the story, the narrative also neglects it and its rules in regards to magic too often—such as the case with Eragon seeing the future. It would be like if all the accidental magic Harry Potter did when he was younger—such as Apparating to his school’s rooftop and talking to the boa constrictor—only existed to show how he was different from everyone else and was never explained. If the magic in Harry Potter had not followed its specified rules, it would have made for a much more boring read. Sadly, like so many other things in The Inheritance Cycle, the Ancient Language, magic, and people’s knowledge of it seem to be whatever’s convenient for the plot at the time.