The Inheritance Cycle is one of those series that is just filled to the brim with bad idea after bad idea. While that was rather apparent when reading the first three books, it didn’t occur to me just how much the author had no idea what he was doing until the last book. Like other fantasy narratives, the mechanics in The Inheritance Cycle are based on numerous myths, fairytales, and folklores. But one of the many problems with The Inheritance Cycle, however, is that it has no restraint. It doesn’t know which myths to use and which ones not to. It also doesn’t help that, once again, the story relies on telling and not showing.
We can see this in numerous instances, from the morality between the good and bad guys to how magic works to the roles dragons play in the narrative. The Inheritance Cycle has many common fantasy tropes, but it doesn’t utilize those tropes to the best of its ability, or at all. Instead, they become pointless instances in the story that rise up out of nowhere and have no impact on anything. A perfect example of this is when the series introduced changelings in the fourth book, Inheritance.
In folklore, a changeling is a baby troll, elf, or any other kind of fairy or legendary creature that replaces a stolen human child. Or, alternatively, after stealing a human baby, instead of leaving their own behind, the fairy in question could leave an enchanted piece of wood or other object that would appear to grow sick and die. There are numerous reasons why fairies or other mythological creatures would steal human children and replace them with their own children. Sometimes the changeling in question wasn’t a fairy baby at all, but an elderly fairy, who wanted to live a life of comfort and be coddled by human parents in their later years. Trolls believed that it was respectable for their children to be raised by humans, and so they would switch their own babies with human babies. Sometimes, human babies were replaced because fairies loved human children and wanted one of their own. And other times, the reasons were more sinister. Maybe the fairies wanted the human babies as servants, or maybe they were just being malicious.
The whole changeling myth is something that has a lot of potential. There are many different routes an author can go with it. But alas, there is a time and a place for everything. And after an author has written three brick-sized books with no mention whatsoever of changelings, introducing them in the fourth book in order to talk about racism probably wasn’t the best idea Paolini ever had. As you can imagine, this issue is not handled all that well.
Elain, a human woman from Eragon’s home village, Carvahall, spends a good portion of the series pregnant. Early on in Inheritance, though, she goes into labor, and the birthing process is not particularly easy. It seems like both Elain and the baby will die. Naturally, Eragon’s
stalker– victim love interest Arya goes to help, since her abilities as a spellcastor can ensure a quick, easy, and safe birth. This is where we first hear about distrust between the humans and the elves.
Several [people] blamed Elain’s troubles on the Ra’zac or on events that had occurred during the villagers’ journey to the Varden. And more than one muttered a distrustful remark about Arya being allowed to assist with the birth. “She’s an elf, not a human,” said carpenter Fisk. “She ought to stick with her own kind, she should, and not go meddling where she’s not wanted. Who knows what she really wants, eh?”
—Inheritance, pg. 65
While all of those are legitimate concerns the villagers could have, this is literally the first time we’re hearing about any issues like this between elves and humans. The next page, we learn more.
“Why is it taking so long? Can’t you help her give birth any faster?”
Arya’s expression, which was already strained, became even more severe. “I could. I could have sung the child out of her womb in the first half hour, but Gertrude and the other women will only let me use the simplest of spells.”
“That’s absurd! Why?”
“Because magic frightens them—and I frighten them.”
—Inheritance, pg. 66
Not only is this all new information, it also makes no damn sense. Gertrude and the other people of Carvahall don’t speak the Ancient Language and therefore can’t tell simple spells apart from non-simple spells. And even if they did speak the Ancient Language, I doubt Arya is incapable of silent spellcasting. She could sing the baby out safely by just thinking about it, and no one would be the wiser.
The situation becomes even more dire when the baby is born and we learn she has a cat lip. After a truly awful paragraph where Eragon thinks about how children with cat lips are not often allowed to live because they’re burdensome and totally better off dead, Arya tells Eragon that he has to use magic to fix her.
“You have to heal her, Eragon,” said Arya.
“Me? But I never… Why not you? You know more about healing than I do.”
“If I rework the child’s appearance, people will say I have stolen her and replaced her with a changeling. Well I know the stories your kind tells about my race, Eragon—too well. I will do it if I must, but the child will suffer for it ever after. You are the only one who can save her from such a fate.”
—Inheritance, pg. 69
Well, I don’t know any of the things that humans say about elves stealing children, because this is the first time I’ve even heard about it after three books that are all 500+ pages long. We don’t, until this moment, ever hear about any kind of racial divide between elves and humans based on unfair prejudices and stereotyping. Why do humans believe elves steal babies and replace them with changelings? Was there a time when elves did that which fostered this belief? Why was it never addressed before this point? What does the series even gain by adding this racist divide into the story at this point in time? None of these questions are answered, and as you can probably imagine, this racist divide doesn’t affect anything, since we never hear about it again.
This becomes even worse when you think about all the social implications behind it. This racism storyline, which only lasts for about seventeen pages, is done to show how horrible it is that an oppressed group of people who have been traumatized by magic don’t like elves. I should point out that in comparison to everyone else in Alagaësia, the elves are unbelievably privileged. They don’t have poverty, religious persecution, or a patriarchal society that demands gender roles. Hell, they are so far advanced socially that they don’t even have to worry about things like body-shaming. Talking about racism and making the elves out as victims is a pretty shitty thing to do, especially since this is a plot point that Paolini wasn’t committed to keeping up in his story or expanding on. It’s only added to show us how awesome Eragon is, because he solves the problem for everyone. He spends about six pages singing this baby to health with his awesome magic skills instead of murdering her. Because he’s such a great protagonist.
If Paolini wanted to add changelings to his story, that would have been fine, and to be honest, a racial divide between elves and humans would have added a lot to the series. We could have learned about this during the first book when Eragon lived in Carvahall, which would have informed his reaction and relationship to Arya. And most importantly, after Eragon becomes part elf, it would have given him some more internal conflict to deal with. I doubt The Inheritance Cycle would have done this well, but it could have at least tried. Instead, we are left with another pointless instance in the book that could be replaced with the series losing nothing. Here’s a writing tip: if you’re going to use magic to talk about an issue like racism, unless you’re planning on actually doing something with that storyline, don’t put it in your book.