While the timeless struggle between good and evil has been at the center of Western literature for nearly three thousand years, modern psychology has given us an insight into why some people devolve into heroes and others into villains. One important framework is provided by the mythology of the sociopath. Sociopaths are marked by several important characteristics: impulsivity, irritability and aggression, deceit or manipulation, lack of concern for the safety of others, irresponsibility, or being unconcerned about hurting or stealing. Sociopaths have lost their conscience and soul. They are evil because they can be. Sociopaths don’t come with baggage, don’t need a back-story or some greedy motive. They just are.
In Christopher Paolini’s, Brisingr, we get something rather unexpected: a sociopath in the role of hero. Brisingr’s author never explicitly states that Eragon, the novel’s main protagonist, is an unfeeling void; quite the contrary, actually. The omniscient narrator, the cast of supporting characters, and even his dragon laud Eragon’s actions as careful, considered, and just. A careful reading, though, doesn’t reveal this. Rather, nearly every action shows either rash judgments or cold calculation. This represents somewhat of a departure of Paolini’s earlier work (Eragon and Eldest). Despite the weaknesses of the earlier books, the character of Eragon was at least likable. Of course he was brash and headstrong, but he at least tried to do and say the right things.
In Brisingr, however, we are presented with another person. Eragon has little mercy or understanding for anyone around him (either friend or foe). This trend only gets worse as the novel progresses. Steadily, we proceed from actions which are merely foolish to those which are profoundly disturbing. Consider how Eragon acts in the first few hundred pages of Brisingr. In the opening chapters, Eragon commits genocide. He later circumvents justice in order to condemn and abandon a man in the desert. Last, he kills a child in cold blood while the boy is begging for mercy. In this essay, we will look at these three scenarios in detail and show that Eragon has lost his way, his conscience and his soul.
Brisingr opens where Eldest leaves off. Eragon and Roran are headed to the secret lair of the Ra’zak to rescue Roran’s fiancé, Katrina. She was abducted, when her father (Sloan) betrayed the village of Carvahull to the evil empire. In the manner of all damsel in distress clichés, the villain is vanquished and hero triumphs. In Brsingr, however, there is an added layer of unintended complexity.
You see, the Ra’zac where the creatures responsible for the death of Eragon’s uncle and Roran’s father. And yes, while the Ra’zac are indeed alien and frightening, it is important to remember that they are not human. In contrast to another fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien, who primarily used the orcs and trolls of his universe as muscle for the greater villains, Paolini instead chooses to weave the Urgals and Ra’zac into the larger tapestry of his world. They are a part of nature and add to its natural balance.
|The Ra’zac. Image Source: Inheriwiki.|
When seen in this light, Paolini’s treatment of them is very difficult to understand. At multiple time points, he describes the Ra’zac as being "inherently evil." Yet, no justification is given for this label. The Ra’zac share the aggression of the Urghals and the cunning of men; yet, neither Urghals or men are "inherently evil," why are the Ra’zac considered to be? We do not blame a tiger or bear for mauling a man in the woods, nor do we blame a shark for attacking swimmers or surfers who are playing in the surf. Like so many other things in Paolini’s world, unfortunately, the answer to this question appears to be: they just are.
While similar to Urghals or men, the Ra’zac share most in common with a race that is treated in a substantially different manner: the dragons. Both are large carnivores that feed on a variety or prey. Both have been known to eat and terrorize men, elves and dwarves. Both races compete for the same hunting grounds and food source. Both are intelligent and cunning. And while the dragons are treated as the most beautiful and noble creatures of the land, the Ra’zac (and their closely related kin, the Lethrblaka) are treated as horrors which are have both earned and deserve their destruction.
But Eragon and Paolini go further. In their last confrontation, knowing that it is about to die, the Ra’zac makes a request:
"I am the last of my race, Shadeslayer. We are ancient, and I would not have us forgotten. Would you, in your songs and in your histories, remind your fellow humans of the terror we inspired in your kind? … Remember us as fear!"
For a being of ancient and "intrinsic" evil, this request is profoundly … reasonable. No virgins are going to die or horrors be freed from long imprisonment. Eragon’s refusal to grant it is somewhat baffling. By rashly condemning the Ra’zac to nightmares and legends, Eragon’s action lacks prudence, justice or wisdom. There are far worse things than (accurately) remembering your enemies and their horrors.
In fact, there are very important reasons why the names of Nero, Attila, Stalin and Hitler are remember and reviled. It is far more costly to forget monsters and their horrific crimes than it is to remember and instruct. Forgetting evil and how it happened enables others to pursue the same roads to power. Tolkien understood these principles. He took great pains in his own work to demonstrate the consequences of forgetting. From his notes (later published as the Unfinished Tales), we learn something important. While Sauron, the great satanic villain of the Lord of the Rings, rose to power through treachery and deceit; he was enabled because those he conquered had forgotten who and what he was.
Eragon’s interaction with the Ra’zac makes explicit something that is previously only hinted at. He willfully (even gleefully) exterminates the last members of a sentient race and in a rage attempts to extinguish their memory. These are not the actions of a hero, or even of an anti-hero; but of a villain and unfeeling monster. And like a true sociopath, Eragon treats the members of his own race with even less consideration or feeling.
One of Tolkien’s most interesting and complex characters is that of Goll
um: murderer, thief, liar, and addict. Gollum is shown to be merciless, dangerous and cruel. Further, he is manipulative, destructive and evil. In summary of his creation, Tolkien said, "After ages alone in the dark, Gollum’s heart was black and treachery was in it." Even so, there is a lot going on with Gollum: bouts of confusion and alteration, addiction and maliciousness. Yet, despite his treachery and evil, no one is quite sure what should be done with him. When Bilbo has an opportunity to kill Gollum and provide "justice and resolution," he pauses and instead chooses to leave the vile creature alone. At one point during their conversation on the origin of the Ring, Gandalf and Frodo discuss Bilbo’s actions:
|Deep down by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum – dark as darkness, except for two big pale eyes in his thin face. He had a little boat, and he rowed about quietly on the lake; for lake it was, wide and deep and deadly cold.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
"What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature when he had a chance!" cried Frodo.
"Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand," said Gandalf. "Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."
"I am sorry," said Frodo … "I do not feel any pity for Gollum."
"You have not seen him," Gandalf broke in.
"No, and I don’t want to," said Frodo. "I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."
"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment."
Tolkien uses Gollum to explore notions of justice, mercy and ultimately redemption. In many ways, Tolkien’s implicitly says that it is beyond the right of any to pass "final" judgment for, as Gandalf explains to Frodo, "[E]ven the very wise cannot see all ends." Each of the main characters in the Lord of the Rings face two interlinked tests. The first occurs when the character encounters the evil Master Ring. The second occurs when they encounter Gollum, the creature most possessed and twisted by it. Tolkien uses his character’s responses to these two challenges as a way to highlight their weaknesses and virtues. Indeed, in Tolkien’s world, good isn’t defined by ends, but rather by means.
Consider one of the very best and underestimated of Tolkien’s characters, Frodo. When he and Gollum are thrown together, Frodo attempts to heal and redeem Gollum. Unpredictably and surprisingly, Gollum responds to this. Prior to finally betraying Frodo and Sam, Gollum is as conflicted about his love for his new master as he is about his relationship with the Ring (his Precious). This is admittedly deep water, and it is both ironic and somewhat fitting that Gollum dies as the savior of all free peoples. Tolkien highlights that even if his actions were despicable, unintended good might still come of them.
Either deliberately or by accident, Paolini’s work also contains a Gollum: the old butcher of Carvahull, Sloan. In addition to being the butcher of Eragon’s home village, Sloan was also the father of Roran’s fiancé. And just as Gollum has two identities which can be difficult to reconcile, we see the same in Sloan.
Like Gollum, Sloan is a pathetic creature who has both betrayed others, as well as having been doubly betrayed himself. He has been broken, starved and tortured. His eyes have been pecked out by his captors. He is blind and lost in nearly every sense of the word. Despite his murderous actions, Sloan acted for what might be described as noble reasons: love of his daughter, Katrina. Sloan has also suffered greatly for his choices and at the time of his rescue, he is no longer a threat.
Yet, even in this pathetic and pitiable shape, Eragon feels the need to take "action" against him. He starts by humiliating Sloan and magically forcing him to live. Next, he strips him of those things that he might wish to live for, namely: the opportunity to see his daughter, embrace her and explain his actions. Eragon compels Sloan to travel north toward the elves, a race of alien beings who can neither understand him nor his motives. He will spend the rest of his life among them in silent exile.
Sloan will be tormented by conscience and deprived of any ability to amend to those who were affected. This is not justice, but a cruel mockery and perversion. From his actions, it becomes clear that Eragon understands neither the purposes nor processes of justice. It is important to review what those are since justice has had a particular meaning. It is not driven by personal feeling, animosity or hatred; but rather by laws and statutes. It is dispassionate and attempts to treat all equally, regardless of station, standing or influence. The accused are given a chance to confront their accusers and challenge the evidence against them. Last, justice is executed by those who were harmed or by their proper representatives.
Instead of delivering Sloan to be judged by those he has betrayed, Eragon instead subverts the process. Without seeking input from anyone, Eragon chooses to deceive those most intimately concerned with Sloan’s outcome and crimes: his daughter (Katrina) and her future husband (Roran). It is ironic just as Sloan lied and betrayed those closest to him, Eragon chooses to follow the same path. Eragon does not consider evidence, accusation, or motive. He merely pronounces Sloan as guilty. He then creates a punishment which is deliberately brutal and cruel.
There is still a further dimension in Eragon’s treatment of Sloan which is even more disturbing, though. He chooses to abuse both his magic and power, for, Eragon knows Sloan’s "true name". Within the framework of Alagaesia, this means that he has complete and full power over him. Eragon also seems to feel that his status as a "dragon rider" grants him a special right to trample roughshod over his captive. Consider the scene where Eragon first reveals his identity to the man he has just "rescued":
|The Butcher sat slumped against the left hand wall with his head upon his knees. Both arms were chained to an iron ring. His ragged clothes barely covered his pale, emaciated body. The corners of his bones stood out in sharp relief and underneath his translucent skin. His blue veins were also prominent. Sores had formed on his wrists where the manacles chafed. The ulcers oozed a mixture of clear fluid and blood. What remained of his hair had turned gray … Eragon then realized that the Ra’zac had pecked out Sloan’s eyes.
- Christopher Paolini, Brisingr
A sense of destiny and doom descended upon Eragon. He felt as if he were the instrument of two merciless overlords and he replied in accordance … so each work struck like a hammer blow and carried all the weight of his dignity, station and anger. "I am Eragon and far more. I am Argetlam and Shadeslayer and Firesword. My dragon is Spahira, she who is also known as Djartskular and Flametongue … We have fought Urgals and a Shade and Murtagh, who is Morzan’s son. We serve the Varden and the peoples of Alagaesia and I have brought you here to pass judgment upon you for murdering Byrd and for betraying Carvahall to the Empire."
Thrusting out his mind, he engulfed Sloan’s consciousness in his own and forced the butcher to accept memories that confirmed the truth of his statements. He also wanted Sloan to feel the power that was now his and to realize that he was no longer entirely human. And while Eragon was reluctant to admit it, he enjoyed having control over a man who had often made trouble for him.
This is a performance which is fit for Sauron, or Galbatorix, not the principal hero of the saga. It is disconcerting that Ergaon takes joy in subverting an already broken and helpless man before choosing to rape his mind and steal his will. It gets even worse when his motivations are explained. Whereas the villagers of Carvahull are direct victims of Sloan and his betrayal, Eragon was conspicuously absent when the empire and its soldiers came. Instead, Eragon revels in his actions because Sloan was a bully and "made trouble for him."
The last sentence in that passage is particularly damning when considered in the context of how Eragon chooses to leave Sloan: abandoned in a pathless desert with neither food nor water. Whereas Eragon has the ability and power to survive, by draining the energy from the land with his magic and drawing water from the soil, Sloan does not. It is unknown if this crippled, blinded, half starved old man can successfully cross the expanse – even with the enchantments that Eragon has placed on him.
Unlike Frodo, who accepts responsibility for Gollum without passing judgment; Eragon first chooses to condemn and then abandon. Rather than deliver Sloan to be properly judged by those he has wronged, he chooses to be a cruel vigilante and subvert justice; while lying to those closest to him. In the process, Eragon discovers that he enjoys dominating and controlling a man who made his life "difficult." These actions reveal a completely misguided character that is devoid of a moral compass or center.
If Eragon’s actions with Sloan might be called misguided, there is only a single word to describe a confrontation between Eragon, Arya and a company of Empire soldiers: evil. It is important to consider these events in their proper context. After dealing with Sloan, Eragon has begun his trek back to the Varden. While doing so, he meets Arya as she searches for him. As the two travel together, they are stopped by a band of Empire soldiers and a confrontation ensues. After killing the majority of the group, this is what happened next:
Only three soldiers remained alive. Arya was grappling with two of them some distance away while the third and final soldier fled south along the road. Gathering his strength, Eragon pursued him. As he narrowed the gap between them, the man began to plead for mercy, promising he would tell no one about the massacre and holding out his hands to show they were empty. When Eragon was within a arm’s reach, the man veered to the side and then a few steps later changed direction again, darting back and forth across the countryside like a frightened jack-rabbit. All the while, the man continued to beg, tears streaming down his cheeks; saying that he was too young to die, that he had yet to marry and father a child, that his parents would miss him, and that he had been pressed into the army and this was only his fifth mission and why couldn’t Eragon leave him alone? "What have you against me?" he sobbed. "I only did what I had to do. I’m a good person!"
"Why are you doing this? You’re a monster!" screamed the man. With an expression of pure terror, he made an attempt to dash around Eragon and return to the road. Eragon overtook him in less than ten feet, and as the man was still crying and asking for clemency, Eragon wrapped his left hand around his neck and squeezed. When he relaxed his grip, the soldier fell across his feet, dead.
Paolini seems to directly repudiate the wisdom and morality of Tolkien’s work. Gollum (a vile, vicious and dangerous creature) is left alive because Bilbo could not bring himself to "strike without need." Yet, Eragon chooses to coldly terminate the life of a defenseless soldier for no other reason than convenience. It might even be worse than that, however. From the passage, we learn some important things: the soldier is young; he was pressed into service; he is the child of apparently loving parents; and this is only his fifth mission. This list gives rather strong evidence that the soldier is little more than an innocent boy and may even be younger than Eragon’s stated sixteen years.
Murder is the only word which can accurately describe this action and its gut wrenching justification. In a deliberately cold and calculated manner, Eragon exterminates an utter innocent. The entire scene is given haunted poignancy as the child cries, pleads and begs for his life. (The audiobook recording is particularly haunting.) And as a moral justification for Eragon’s action, Paolini offers the following: "Devoid of emotion, [Eragon] shrugged. ‘He was a threat.’" It is with this line that one of Brisingr’s most dangerous and evil lies is finally given description: great need justifies extraordinary methods.
Consider the scene for a moment. Both Eragon and Arya are powerful magicians. They have just killed ten armed men without difficulty. Yet, a single child is as a sufficient threat that he must be coldly dispatched? Hardly. We already know that in Paolini’s world, magic users can put people to sleep (as Eragon did to Sloan), alter memories (Eragon checked Katrina to ensure that hers had not been tampered with) and bend reality. Eragon murders the soldier because it is the most convenient of the alternatives available.
Good ends do not justify evil means. Tolkien, from his experiences on the trenches of World War I and later during the Nazi bombardment of Britain, understood this instinctively. Brian M. Carney provides a nice summary of Tolkien’s position in an opinion published in the Wall Street Journal:
In Tolkien’s world, the temptation of evil is one that all, or nearly all, of his characters must confront. The argument of Tolkien’s tale—controversial to be sure—is that while intentions matter, the way we act is far more important than why we act. His story, for all its narrative brio, presents a serious rebuttal to the idea that good ends justify using evil means.
… That Tolkien, who wrote "The Lord of the Rings" during World War II and published it shortly after, saw this as a message for his times was made plain in the foreword to the second edition … Tolkien [later said] that by compromising with Stalin in Europe and using the atomic bomb against the Japanese, the Allies had failed to live up to the standards set by his best fictitious characters. In our world, Tolkien concluded, referring to the diminutive, earthy creatures at the center of his tale, "Hobbits … would not have survived even as slaves."
Tolkien may have written in perilous times when the flame of light and wisdom appeared
to sputter and there were armies at the gate. But as the events of September 11 and the 2003 Iraq War show, there are still threats to our culture and democracy. This time, though, they are internal. We are not threatened by exterior conquest, but by the risk of losing our souls as we attempt to provide for our security. In that struggle, Eragon, Eldest and Brisingr will not help. Paolini reduces questions of good and evil to points of convenience. He attempts to show that sometimes genocide is justified; it’s okay to co-opt justice in the name of vigilantism; and that murder can be acceptable if it is convenient enough. In the struggle to keep civilization’s collective soul, why would we emulate a hero who has already lost his?