One of the best parts of having a blog is the ability to speak directly to and interact with readers. This is true even on such a small and under-read blog as Apolitically Incorrect. In the past few weeks, I have received a number of fascinating e-mails from readers who took some issues with an essay that I published, entitled “Eragon Shadeslayer: Sociopath.” In this essay, I looked at how the principal hero of the Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini, had progressed from a hero archetype toward something else: a dangerous sociopath.
As might be expected, this particular topic proved to be somewhat controversial and generated a surprising amount of e-mail. My opinion on one of Eragon’s actions in particular, the murder of a young soldier who was begging for his life, evoked some particularly strong responses. While some of the correspondence was hostile, more often the letters were extremely thoughtful and asked all kinds of excellently difficult questions. While there were various writers, nearly every letter raised at least two common questions which I would like to try and give an answer to. First, why am I so hard on Christopher Paolini’s notions of good and evil? Second, why should we attempt to cling to moral absolutes and high minded ideals in an amoral and relative world?
Both of these questions are highly inter-related, and I will attempt to offer a combined answer. This starts with a an assautl on one of the central themes in Paolini’s work, namely: a man is good because of his formal identity and background. This argument posits that a priest is holy because he is a priest or a dragonrider is good because he rides a dragon. In this same logic, Murtagh is evil because he is the son of Morzan and Galbatorix is malicious because he is an evil king. Things are exactly as they would appear.
Unfortunately, this paradigm begins to break down during Eragon and by Brisingr has fallen apart completely. In an attempt to inject some sophistication and complexity into his characters, Paolini has instead broken them beyond repair. They have stopped being identifiably good or evil. Instead, we as readers are simply told who is good and who is evil; even when their actions would seem to indicate otherwise.
This rubs against some of my most deeply held beliefs. Experience, exposure and education have led me to conclude that a man is not good because of his station, identity or background. (Often enough, he is good in spite of them.) Rather, people are good for who they are: a complex combination of word, action, and what they choose to make with their labors. If station made men holy, as posited by Inheritance, there would have been no sexual crisis in the Catholic Church. Indeed, recent events have made it remarkably clear that many priests are neither holy nor good. How many altar boys were sodomized? How many bishops covered it up? If you wish to hear the haunted voices of those affected by true evil, read the accounts of these groups. Both can offer haunting views about the destruction that evil leaves in its aftermath, or what happens to those who ignore it.
Moral absolutes help hedge conduct and provide clarity for word, action, and consequence. The practical constructs of morality – guidelines, tradition and law – serve like the railing at the edge of precipice. In some circumstances, they keep us off of the ledge of catastrophe; in others, they help keep us away from slippery slopes.
At this point, some sophisticated readers might roll their eyes and scream, “Straw man!” But, I beg to differ; slippery slopes are very real. In many instances, following a course of action to its “logical conclusion” has lead to some of history’s greatest tragedies. Consider how the valid scientific theories of Darwin, provocative ideas of Nietzsche, and wrongheaded stereotypes of Europe mingled and interbred in the late 1930s. The bastard offspring of that unholy union justified the extermination of nearly twelve million human beings, six million of which were Jews.
Thus, as the Holocaust and its lesser known brethren – the Gulags, Cultural Revolution, and Khmer Rouge – show, it’s out on the limits that morality really matters, when human behavior is at its most extreme. It’s easy to be good when the consequences are small. The rich and well-off can give great amounts of money to the poor and suffering without ever noticing the loss. But it is truly impressive when a destitute neighborhood bands together to assure that no-one will starve. Such an action is noble and impressive not because someone required it, but because it is voluntary. Indeed, nearly all great actions of human compassion or accomplishment require that the actors opt in.
For close to 2500 years, Western civilization has acknowledged that to forcibly sacrifice the life of another to an idol (whether that be ancient pagan deity or some modern principle) denigrates both the life taken and the entity receiving the so called “sacrifice.” Consider accounts of the Aztecs who routinely slaughtered tens of thousands of individuals a year. In comparison to other cultures (such as the Inca, or the Celts of Northern Europe), these sacrifices were not voluntary. If anything, they existed to maintain Aztec dominance through fear and intimidation. Imagine the scene: an Aztec priest forcibly hauls a prisoner up the steep stairs of a stone temple and cuts out the still beating heart. He turns and offers the heart to a twisted and deformed stone idol while drums and horns wail in the background. There is a reason that this practice, more than anything else, served as the rallying point that successfully unified the Spanish and the Aztecs’ tributary vassals. It destroys both political and religious legitimacy and substitutes oppression and fear. While the Spaniards may have destroyed an empire, the Aztec’s own actions helped speed it along. A point eventually arives actual misery and pain overcome the fear.
And when Eragon chose to extinguish the life of the young soldier during his return to the Varden, he decided that his safety and convenience was more important than a child’s life. Life is a precious thing. It makes all other virtues possible: bravery, nobility, charity and freedom. While the Varden fight to restore “freedom” to Alagaesia, it cannot come by negligently sacrificing life. The most poignant statement of the great and powerful comes not in their words, but in their treatment of the innocents who are caught in the crossfire. And as you might have surmised, I cannot excuse Eragon’s actions as a “simple fact of war.” The child that he killed isn’t one of the powerful who move nations and decide destinies; rather, he’s one of the innocents in the trenches. Put another way, he’s one of the “Peoples of Alagaesia” whom Eragon has sworn to protect; one of those nameless masses that Eragon should be serving. And what does Eragon do? He coldly decides to destroy the soldier’s life as a “sacrifice” to freedom.
By deciding that he knows best, Eragon moves into the ground of the zealot and deranged. He has decided that only he is capable of deciding what is good, noble, or just. And it just doesn’t help that his notions contradict thousands of years of thought, law and custom. Since at least Medieval times, martial traditions and military law has given some pretty solid guidance about how prisoners should be treated. It can largely be summarized in a single thought: they should be treated well. Conventions such as the white flag of truce pre-date even Medieval times and are respected out of necessity. Other quaint customs ensure that women, children and prisoners will be safe. These guidelines are followed so that those on the battlefield might have some hope that there will be something of life left when when the war, inevitably, ends. The “realist” that claims there are no limits on depravity because “war is hell” will soon meet the officer that may endeavor to teach him otherwise. In ancient times, this was often done by crucifixion: to ensure that the both the criminal and any observers understood got the point: there are limits for a reason. Say what you will, the Romans understood how to make an object lesson.
So yes, while some innocents will die; this is an inevitable tragedy, not a deliberate choice. If a village is slaughtered or prisoners are executed, there had better be an excellent reason. Not simply because morality demands it, but also because there will be a reckoning. Ask the American soldiers who were deployed to the village of My Lai, or the staff sergeants who were just “following orders” at Abu Ghraib. Ideals, laws and traditions exist to separate men from monsters. And while terrible crimes may be committed in war, men recognize that what they do is wrong and understand that it must eventually be turned off. Monsters neither recognize nor care.
This is how we know that Eragon has become a monster. His words, actions, and demeanor have become so erratic, inconsistent and arbitrary that there is not much else to call him. At the time when Ergaon snaps the boy soldier’s neck, the battle is over. Might the boy be compelled to talk and disclose that Eragon killed the patrol? Sure, thus, he is a threat. But additional analysis reveals that any threat he might pose is minor and largely irrelevant. Keep in mind: Galbatorix already knows that Eragon is in the empire, and approximately where he is. Eragon has already been dodging patrols and avoiding Murtagh since leaving Helgrind. Thus, the only intelligence of value the boy might have is Eragon’s precise location. This is a paltry piece of information. Eragon’s position is set to rapidly change, just as soon as Eragon and Arya deal with the child and leave. Any action that Eragon takes is simply going to buy time, not hide his presence completely. As a result, magically incapacitating the soldier or simply knocking him out are both perfectly acceptable alternatives to killing him.
Knowing what is black and what is white helps to navigate the inevitable shades of grey. As any adult knows: no person, situation or circumstance is perfect; but if you do not know the boundaries of lawful and moral conduct it is far too easy to walk off the side of the cliff. This is why thousands of years of martial tradition (in nearly every culture of the world) have stressed discipline, honor, and proper conduct. Unfortunately, like many other problems in Inheritance, Paolini does not understand the themes that he attempts to develop and the result is a macabre imitation. Instead of a difficult scenario where Eragon struggles with difficult but necessary choices, we are treated to a coldly executed murder.
Eragon has become like the priest who just can’t help himself and Paolini the bishop who decides to cover for him. And while some might say, “It is an imperfect situation and Eragon is doing the best he can!” Let me add the following: to harness an evil action for noble purposes requires a vision and moral understanding of what is right. When George Washington committed treason against George III of England and Martin Luther King Jr. broke the laws of Georgia, those actions were means to an end. They had vision and a singular purpose. Eragon’s slaughter of the young boy in Brisingr had neither. At best, it was a killing performed for convenience. Attempting to explain the action away as an “inevitable part of war” merely adds insult to injury. In many ways, Eragon’s action twists noble ideas such as sacrifice, respect for life, and freedom into barely recognizable alternatives; an action that needs to be denounced in the strongest language available, for it is evil.
In conclusion, while Inheritance is clearly a work of fiction, it nonetheless attempts to impart complex life lessons; and in the process breaks down. For this reason, it is sometimes necessary to supplement fiction and the fantastic with what is real. There are few questions more important than, “Why do we cling to moral absolutes and high minded ideals in an amoral and relative work?” Rather than use Inheritance or Brisingr as a guide (which are horrifically flawed), might I instead recommend Martin Luther King’s, “A letter form a Birmingham Jail Cell?” I can think of no better primer.