Tag Archives: historical narratives

The Stories We Tell

In which Uta takes a long and winding road in explaining some of her problems with the Inheritance Cycle.

Recently, I stayed in Istanbul for a week. It was a good time (outside of the creepers–there are creepers in Istanbul. Some of it is the fact the Turkey has a much more open culture. Some of it is dudes being creepers). Museums were visited. Food was eaten. Cats were stared at wistfully as I debated whether or not it was safe to pet them. Friends were made based on a mutual interest in cats outside of a restaurant and anime.

One of the best things I did was take a guided tour. (But watch out–the prices are listed in euro, which means it’s twice as expensive as you think it is. Happy lira.) We went to some museums, a mosque, an old church and on a Bosphorous cruise. One of the things I was most excited about was the city wall part of the tour. I did my undergrad thesis about fortifications. I wanted to learn me about some Greek fortifications. Which were only breached twice in all their history.

Unfortunately, we did not see them up close. We drove along them. And I just need to realize that most people are not interested in the same things as I am to the same level of depth I’m interested in them for. But it was all good. I learned about Sultan Mehmet II’s glorious conquest of Constantinople and…well, mainly Sultan Mehmet II’s glorious conquest of Constantinople. And it was glorious. He was 21 at the time, which makes him one of those overachievers who have beaten me so soundly I can’t even complete. There’s also a museum documenting this conquest. Pay attention enough in touristy Istanbul and you’ll hear the story.

And it is a story. It’s one of the many stories that can be told. There’s another story, the more comprehensive story of the overcoming of the walls of Constantinople, in which they were also breached during the fourth Crusade. And another story of how they were built by the great Greek emperors. And another story, recounting the same events as the story I was told, about the tragic fall of the Byzantine Empire.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the story I was told. It was based on historical fact and was extremely interesting. And, in all seriousness, who could expect to be told that last version? “Hey, guys, isn’t it terrible how the Turks took over Turkey?” That would be an awkward tour.

But I was mildly surprised, if only because I expected a disinterested discussion on walls, rather than what I was given. I’m certain that the tour didn’t specifically set out to create the narrative that they did. It was most likely the product of the person who decides on what to put in the tours throwing together what they thought was important, and on a tour, you can’t really get all of the nuances of 1500 years of history. And, all things considered, that one time Crusaders took the city or all of the times various groups failed to take the city are less relevant than the reason that Istanbul is Turkish today.

The thing is, what I wanted out of the tour is the exact opposite of what I want in (most) books. What that tour was would make a great novel. You have a boy-on-the-cusp-of-manhood finding himself in a position where he both wants to siege Constantinople and has the resources to do it. So he freaking does. And he breaks through that wall and takes that city. And 500 years later, people are still talking about him. Dress that up a bit, maybe add a few dragons, and you’ve got the most exciting fantasy story ever. It’s even already set in the medieval period, so you don’t even have to do anything. Though, it isn’t set in pseudo-Western Europe, so that may be a hindrance. (I kid because I love. And also because I’m a little sick of pseudo-medieval Western Europe. I want the pseudo-Ottoman Empire sometimes.)

This is what I want when I read the Inheritance Cycle. I want the story of Eragon, a poor farmer boy who happens to find a dragon and goes on crazy adventures and fights an evil empire. That’s fun. It’s not ground-breaking or earth-shattering or anything else that destroys the landscape, but it’s fun.

The series Paolini was intent on writing was what I wanted out of the tour. It’s filled with backstory and subplots and philosophical contemplations. All of this is interesting world building (except when it isn’t, see my last ramblings about the esteemed author’s ability to create religions), but it’s not ultimately an entertaining story.

To put it another way, in Istanbul, I was told the story of Mehmet II. In the Inheritance Cycle, I think I’m being told the story of Eragon, but I’m not entirely sure. Most of the story focuses on Eragon and Saphira, but the reader is occasionally taken off to random places with other characters. For example, my least favorite part in Inheritance was having to read about Roran and his siege. Even ignoring the fact that a rebel organization chooses an untrained peasant to lead one of their most important sieges, this section really irked me. I didn’t, and still don’t, understand why the reader had to go with Eragon’s cousin, rather than staying in the head of the main character. Most characters don’t have their own chapter. In the first book, Roran is absent after Eragon leaves Carvahall, so it’s not as if Paolini set them up as co-leads. True, you do end up following around a few other characters for a while, but I can’t really find a good reason for this, outside of the author want to show you something cool that Eragon can’t be around for.

In other words, it’s as if the museum of the siege of Constantinople, rather than showing you the mural of the battle, first diverted you to a room to learn about Mehmet’s cousin the healer* for 100 pages. As a history, it’s interesting to learn about things that non-sultans did. Story-wise, why do I have to care about the guy without a dragon?

This isn’t to say that what Paolini wanted to do was impossible. Other authors have done it. Tolkien basically created a world, with characters that just happened to be running around in it. The thing is, Tolkien wasn’t a teenager. He was an adult with an adult perspective on the world who took years creating Middle Earth. Those same nuances that are hard to capture while driving past a wall or spending 20 minutes at a museum (it was really small, don’t worry) are hard to capture in your youth. Balancing characters is also a difficult task, which I believe needs to be done consistently, rather than switching perspectives merely to write another epic battle.

In the end, I can’t fault Paolini for wanting what he did. We all want our stories to be epic and the greatest thing in all of literature. In the fantasy genre especially, there is a tendency to err on the side of in-depth rather than tour-version. But I think I’ll always ultimately see the Inheritance Cycle as a series a little two ambitious for what it is. It’s that 45 minutes I spent learning about those walls if the tour guide had attempted that full history.

*Did not actually exist.