Revisiting Inheritance

Stories, more often than not, are not about the endings.

This is especially true for epics and fantasies, as the ending can be predicted as soon as the main conflict is constructed. Frodo destroys the One Ring and defeats Sauron. Luke Skywalker rallies the Rebel Alliance and vanquishes the evil Empire. Katniss Everdeen survives the Hunger Games and is the point of the spear that overthrows the Capitol. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, defeated the evil Lord Voldemort at great cost.

None of those endings are surprising, and while the fate of the good guys were dire in many situations, nobody thought those endings wouldn’t eventually come to be.

And that’s because stories, specifically epics and fantasies, are about the journey to the ending. What decisions do the characters make? How does the conflict affect the world or the characters? What are the consequences of the decisions? How do the relationships between characters progress? How do the main characters defeat the bad guy?

Harry Potter making the ultimate sacrifice

Harry Potter making the ultimate sacrifice

All of those questions are more important than what happens at the end. We don’t love specific stories because the good guys defeat the bad guys; we love specific stories because we become attached to the characters and become engrossed in their struggle.

So when I tell you that Eragon and Saphira topple King Galbatorix and bring peace to the land of Alagaesia, you should be as surprised as if I told you that water is wet. When I say that they left Alagaesia at the end of the series, that is not a stunner either. Those are not spoilers, and they are not surprising; they are telegraphed way ahead of time by Paolini’s choices and the genre itself.

In order to evaluate the book or series, therefore, you must look at the how, the why. Eragon’s journey is more important than the ending. To put it into one succinct thought: did the characters earn the ending?

Unfortunately for Inheritance, the answer is no.

Eragon leaves Alagaesia, ostensibly to never return, but there’s no justification that he would never return; it just is. When Frodo leaves Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, he is recognizing that his life can never be as it was, the burden of carrying the Ring too great. His journey justified the ending. Eragon primarily makes the decision to leave Alagaesia because of logistical reasons. His journey did not justify the ending, and so Paolini is left scrambling to legitimize Eragon’s decision.

And Eragon’s triumph over Galbatorix isn’t earned, either. Eragon is simply unable to defeat him at all without the help of Murtagh, who pulls a deus ex machina to give Eragon a chance at defeating Galbatorix. This is extremely important, as it neuters chapters and chapters and chapters of Eragon’s personal growth because it never mattered in the end. Yes, Eragon did eventually overcome Galbatorix in his own way a little later–which was extraordinarily clever on Paolini’s part–though he was only given the chance to do so by others.

But the biggest issue with Inheritance is that it does not earn the payoff with Eragon and Arya. For two books, Eragon pines for Arya with no reciprocity, actively damaging their friendship through pigheaded romanticism. In the third book, they start to finally settle into a friendship, the dynamic ending of the novel forging a deeper bond.

And yet the age-old romance mantra–will they or won’t they–is never a factor. Arya never shows no romantic intentions for Eragon, and Paolini’s greatest sin is that he never puts the characters in a position to make decisions about their relationship. It’s on a Calvinist path, a predetermined set of lines that never intersect. Arya becomes Queen as well as the newest Rider, insulating her from even the possibility of having a deeper relationship with Eragon.

Christopher Paolini author of Eragon

Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I want to make myself clear here: the problem is not any of the choices Paolini decided in the ending of the series. Arya becoming Queen and Rider is just fine, Eragon defeating Galbatorix is necessary, and Eragon leaving Alagaesia is just fine too.

The problem with Inheritance is more subtle. None of the characters make decisions that are reflected in their endings, or given the opportunity to make decisions given their ending. The problem is not that Arya and Eragon never ended up as a couple, but how they never ended up a couple.

Imagine this: Arya and Eragon admitted their feelings with one another before the final battle. They spent some intimate time together in their nervous state of mind. After the battle, everything happens just as it did in the book, including Arya’s return as Queen and Rider. Then, Eragon and Arya gingerly rekindle their relationship for a time, but they both know it can’t last. Just as in the book, Eragon decides to leave Alagaesia, and Arya decides to stay.

That’s a relatively minor change, but do you see how different everything is? Arya decides to accept becoming Queen knowing it would endanger a blossoming relationship with Eragon, and Eragon makes his decision knowing he’s giving up a realistic future with the woman he loves. It deepens both characters immensely, gives weight to their decisions, and makes the ending mean something.

Inheritance is not a bad book. Some people will encounter endings that don’t jive with them and figuratively burn the story to the ground in response, but I think that’s just silly overreaction. The Inheritance Cycle is still worth reading, and it’s still a fantastic achievement by Christopher Paolini.

But whether it was due to the framework of the story being written by a teenager, the unforeseen split of the third book into two books, simple pigheadedness, or something else, Inheritance‘s ending doesn’t connect like it should. It doesn’t ruin the series–but it could be so, so much better.

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Revisiting Eldest

To make a compelling first entry in a series is hard enough. It’s often the second release that makes or breaks a series. The term ‘sophomore slump’ is widespread for a reason: it is extremely difficult to repeat a strong beginning.

This is especially true for novels, even moreso for fantasy or sci-fi novels. A great concept can yield a great first go, but not every good idea is a scalable one, and not every character or set of conflicts can continue to be interesting.

However, author Christopher Paolini did have one thing up his sleeve on “Eldest,” which is why it succeeds in such a tricky spot: experience.

“Eldest” was published in August 2005, three years after author Christopher Paolini self-published “Eragon” and two years after that novel’s international Knopf-published release. Paolini was 15 years old when he began writing “Eragon,” and while his talent was clearly on display there was evidence he was a green writer.

So when Paolini started “Eldest,” he was about 20. Five years is a lot of time when it represents a quarter of your life, you’re not a teenager anymore, and you’ve published a booming success of a first novel.

Paolini rather smartly expands the story’s reach, following three stories: Eragon and Saphira, Roran, and Nasuada. He builds each small arc to a climax before switching to a different story, making the book an easy pageturner.

I’ve probably read “Eldest” four or five times before this time, and I’ve experienced all the major story beats, and I still anticipate and enjoy reading them. To create something that is re-readable is a feat, and the book begins with a bang and ends in a glorious cliffhanger that slaps an exclamation point on the novel, which sees major characters undergo significant strife.

Still, “Eldest” is not perfect. If “Eragon” was Star Wars, “Eldest” is Empire Strikes Back. After helping the rebellion, the main character achieves important status within the rebellion. After an initial conflict, the young adventurer goes to complete his training with a hidden member of his magical order in his secret lair. Meanwhile, his friends endure much hardship in an attempt to flee the empire. Finally, the main character takes his leave of his master before completing the training to help his friends in their struggle against the empire. There, he faces and is defeated by a fearsome foe. The foe attempts to convince the main character to join him on behalf of his master the emperor. The main character escapes, but not before being told a terrible and surprising piece of familial information by his foe. The story ends on a cliffhanger, as though total defeat did not occur all is not well.

Am I describing “Eldest” or Empire there? It could be either!

However derivitve its overarching plot, “Eldest” knows what it is and carries out its purpose magnificently. It is not a transcendentally great novel by any means. But it continues and expands the story, propelling the story along to the halfway point in the Inheritance Cycle. That is no small feat.

Revisiting the Inheritance Cycle

Twelve years ago, as a wee high school freshman, I read the books “Eragon” and “Eldest.” “Eldest” had just been released a few months prior. One of my family members gave me the hardcovers for Christmas, thinking I would like them. I was hooked.

We’re outside the Eragon zeitgesit now, the prime dragons of modern pop culture being Daenerys Targaryen’s trio of terrifying tyrants instead of Eragon’s Saphira, but “Eragon” was the pre-social media young adult novel craze (non-Harry Potter category). “Eragon” sold a million copies within six months of Knopf’s wide-release publishing of the novel, the series going on to sell a few dozen million more worldwide in the following years. The film was a sad flop, but it existed in the first place, and it still made a bunch of money.

In many ways, Eragon was my Harry Potter. I remember checking fan boards and looking up theories and voting in polls on what we thought would happen. Two times I ravenously consumed the newly-released entry in the series. I began the first book while a freshman in high school, and I finished the last book a junior in college. Those intervening years were some of the most impactful of my life, and Inheritance was there with me the whole way.

Somehow, I’ve not re-read Inheritance, the last book in the series. And that means that I have never read them all the way through, from “Eragon” to “Inheritance,” without years or months of distance between them.

This summer will change that. After almost six years since I last touched the series, I’m now in the process of reading them all once more, together for the first time. In those years, I’ve become a significantly better writer and have read many more books. I’m excited to read them in a different light, and to see if what I remember about the books still rings true.

But mostly, I’m interested in spending more time with Eragon, Saphira, and friends. It’s been too long.

 

Sacred Music and Popular Consumption

Popular music changed a lot of things about music; it revolutionized how people consumed it, it changed popular culture forever, and it created an unfortunate environment in which Justin Bieber could become a famous musician.  However, another thing that popular music did was to modify and segment one of the basic sources of musical inspiration: religion.  In today’s popular music climate, religious music is its own genre.  It is set away, compartmentalized, where it operates under a different set of rules than ‘secular’ music. 

It didn’t used to be this way.  In years past, there was indeed a dividing line between sacred and secular music, but the music itself was classified first based on what kind of music it was–choral, orchestral, song, what have you.  A piece was first a choral piece, and then it was a secular piece, or it was a sacred work based off of a Psalm; you can still see this in ensemble work today, as its content merely further defines it within its own genre. 

Charles Stanford was an Irish composer who lived and composed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Stanford composed all manner of things, including symphonies, requiems, art songs, concertos, and operas.  Arguably, he is most known for his choral works, in particular his services, English settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitis.  Clearly sacred works, intended to be used in a church service, they are nonetheless performed as is in a concert setting as well.  Have a listen to this one:

It’s a beautiful piece, and I can say from experience that its musical worth does not change regardless whether it is performed in church or in a concert.  Notice how Stanford masterfully uses the music to reinforce the text:  for instance, he brings the dynamics, tempo, and melodies down for “the lowliness of his handmaiden”, and then ratchets up the volume and intensity on the very next segment on the words “For behold.” 

Stanford’s Magnificats are not terribly complicated, but are difficult in their own way and not really intended for communal worship.  However, even if one brings down the complexity, one can still have a beautiful piece.  Consider this 1912 work by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov.  Its text, translated from Russian, is merely, “Salvation is created, in midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia.”

Notice here that these composers are writing music with deep messages under intensely religious convictions.  And, yet, they are not secluded, counted as something else.  They are works of art first and foremost.  That’s what makes them beautiful.

***

Worship music today is both extremely complicated and unbearably simple.  In the modern music industry, worship music has become a huge payday for many artists.  Stations such as K-Love play nice, friendly pop-rock worship-y songs constantly, and churches pay money to use a song database called CCLI that allows them to use these songs as a congregation.  Money has always been a part of music, but these days it’s different.  The system has evolved to the point where true artistry is pushed to the side.  Consider these statements from the most prominent worship artist in the world, Chris Tomlin:

I strive for trying to write something that people can sing, that people want to sing, and that people need to sing…I’m thinking as that comes out of my heart as a song of response, I’m trying to think, how can I form this so that everybody, people who are tone deaf, who can’t clap on two and four, how can I form this song so they can sing it, so that it is singable?

This should be a bit of a red flag, shouldn’t it?  There are all sorts of problems with this statement.  We should be worried about what this means for our general music education and knowledge.  Realistically, the ability to clap on beat 2 and 4 should be a required skill to be accepted into our society, but whatever.  The most worrying thing to me is the shift from artistry to consumption.  As a musician, I want to see good music (I mean hear good music, but you know what I mean).  As someone whose faith is important to me, I believe that we should represent it the best we can.  Otherwise, you get worship music.  Like this.

***

Of course, not all popular music is bad, and not all worship music is awful.  But what happens when you ditch the ‘worship music’ or ‘Christian’ label and write a song that, lyrically, would technically be described as ‘worship music?’  Well, good things happen.

Because it’s popular music, it is by definition not very complicated.  However, that doesn’t mean it lacks complexity.  The song is in 4/4, but it is masked by a tricky guitar rhythm and a syncopated melody.  It’s sincere, the vocals are emotional, and it avoids all lyrical worship music tropes.  It’s amazing the difference that occurs when the point of view shifts.  Hopefully, we can get back to the point where worship music composers are expressly interested in the artistry of their compositions.  I, for one, would enjoy that very much.

 

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
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Funny Commercials 1: Sprint

Let’s be honest here–we don’t like commercials.

If we liked commercials, the world would be a different place.  Commercials would be a time of enjoyment rather than a time to use the bathroom and get more chips and salsa or to get more cheese from the cheese ball.  Commercials are an interruption; our society has a short attention span and doesn’t like to get distracted from the main event. 

Fortunately for advertisers (or unfortunately for our wallets), commercials work, ads work.  Particularly, good ads do wonders.  As a Best Buy employee, I saw firsthand what ads do.  By far, the biggest items this past holiday season were tablets.  Among those, the most popular were split between the iPads–no surprise there–and the Microsoft Surface line of tablets.  Almost every single person inquiring about the Surface was aware of the brilliant ad campaign which pitted the Surface against the iPad, highlighting the things that the Surface does that the iPad does not.  Some brought it up themselves, and other times I brought it up myself in helping to explain it.  Another example of the fact that we pay attention to commercials and ads is Lamar Billboards.  I’m sure you’ve seen a billboard that has been empty with writing that says, “You read this, didn’t you?”  It’s a good point because it’s true.  

Since we see so many ads, I quite enjoy a good one.  Even more, I admire commercial series that riff on a simple idea in a number of ways.  So, as an ode to these wonderful commercial series and their success, I give you Sprint.

As far as commodities go, cell phones and networks are reasonably interesting; as part of the tech industry, it changes fast, without warning, and drastically in a very short period of time.  Already, then, Sprint has a good product to sell.

However, what I love about these commercials is their comedic genius.  I think true comedy has been replaced by shock value and vulgarity nowadays, which is very sad.  Comedy is funniest when it is unexpected, when it is odd, when it is out of place.  The Sprint commercials go to the very core of comedy in a way that makes them also very memorable.

The premise is, of course, that Sprint is honoring the things that happen on its network.  Even if we go no further, this is a good decision by Sprint and its ad agency, because it can be related to and is organic.  There are many human interactions to chose from, but Sprint chooses the most unimportant, inane, irreverent of them to be upheld.  This is the second component of its success.

The third and most important component of these commercials is the juxtaposition of how the information is presented.  The two actors representing these are well-respected, older actors–but legendary ones.  James Earl Jones and his authoritative, booming bass plays well against Malcom McDowell’s precise, dignified English accent.  In a simple blackdrop, dressed in tuxes, and acting dramatically, these men represent Facebook friend requests, two people attempting to find each other at a store, and a couple of girls speaking in the most ridiculous teenage slang that can be spoken aloud. 

All this combines to make a fundamental disconnect between what is being said, why it is being upheld, and how it is being presented.  It is simple, effective, and memorable.  It illustrates that juxtaposition is one of the most powerful tools that can be used.  Are this commercials great?

Totes McGotes.

Context

Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.  Well, not really, unless you count planet Earth as happening in a vacuum (space), in which case you’re missing the point because everything obviously happens in a vacuum if you zoom out far enough.

No event can be taken as a single entity unchanged by other events.  Anybody who professes to do so is either unaware of this fact or a liar.  Context is extremely important in evaluating anything, be it music, culture, advertisements, sports, media of any kind, and on and on.  Context is, in reality, so very important that historical events and their perceived effect can be changed massively by a small paradigm shift in context. 

Here’s an illustration.  On Saturday, January 4, 2014, the Kansas City Chiefs traveled to Indianapolis to take on the Colts to open the NFL playoffs.  The Colts won, 45-44.  That is the event and, by itself, is very innocuous.  However, what context the game is taken in shifts how the game is perceived, especially as from a Chiefs perspective:

  • From a micro standpoint, the game was a giant disappointment for the Chiefs.  Up 38-10 shortly after halftime, the Chiefs underwent a comprehensive collapse, being outscored 6-35 in the final 27 minutes of the game.  Their offense couldn’t make headway, and their defense did their best impression of Swiss cheese.  A brutal, unforgivable loss that ends their title hopes.
  • Pulling back a little, one realizes what a superior season the Chiefs had.  In 2012, KC went 2-14 and were the worst team in the NFL.  In 2013, the Chiefs improved to 11-5, winning a playoff spot and, almost, a playoff game.  A quick, extreme turnaround that has very few precedents in NFL history.  At this perspective, the 2013 Chiefs were obviously a success.
  • Pulling back furthermore switches the contextual view of this game from positive to almost unbearably depressing.  This is the Chiefs’ 8th straight playoff loss, an NFL record (4 of those 8 losses to the Colts).  Furthermore, the last time the Chiefs won a playoff game was 1993.  An entire generation of Chiefs fans have grown up and never seen them win a playoff game in their lifetime.  The Chiefs blew it, and the streak continues to at least January 2015. 

The amazing thing about events is that time is an ongoing activity, and events that are happening now will have unforeseen contextual consequences in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.  For instance, this Chiefs loss will be felt for years, or at least until the Chiefs finally win a playoff game in 2034. 

Context is very important, but it is also relatively simple and easy to analyze.  It is a way to help us understand events as they happen, both at home, in relationships, and in the workplace.  If we pause to examine what in which context we are viewing an event, it never hurts and, usually, helps.  It’s so easy not to do, instead losing ourselves in the daily grind or in the midst of emotion.  Also, sometimes viewing things in a smaller context is better, while sometimes viewing things in a larger context is better, which can sometimes be confusing.  Regardless, an awareness of context helps in understanding of advertisements, news, and events, and can also help us in our own lives.

Unless you’re a Chiefs fan.  Context won’t insulate you from failure, after all.

A New Year

Today is December 31, 2013.  Among other things, today will be remembered as the last day of the year, the cusp of a brand new one, and the last day for months on which we will write the year correctly on any given document.

New Year’s Eve is a symbolic day.  It is celebrated in multiple cultures as an opportunity to ‘turn over a new leaf,’ get ‘out with the old and in with the new,’ and ‘wipe the slate clean.’ Which slate we are wiping clean or why we are flipping over a fallen piece of greenery is a secondary question; the main question is, of course, ‘how can I better myself?’

At least, I think that this is the main question, but it’s hard to see when squinting through all the booze and ridiculousness that is associated with New Year’s Eve parties.  It seems to me that New Year’s is quintessential procrastinators’ logic: yes, I will do all the things–tomorrow.  You’re the party pooper if you bring up bettering yourself by not actually eating that piece of cake that you don’t need on the Eve of the year while, surprisingly, that same person is a vanguard of all that is good and right in the world on the 1st. 

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day as a unit is a fascinating contradiction.  It has all of the buffoonery of a wild frat party, the sincerity of a child wanting to get better at something or please his parents, and the wild grasping of someone who is desperate for redemption.  New Year’s resolutions are one of the hallmarks of this holiday, and yet they fail so often.

When you take a step back and look at it, the whole event is absurd, really.  One day is the physical rotation of a body of rock (and grass, and concrete, etc) upon its axis.  There are 365 of those rotations in one year, which is the physical orbit of our rock around a giant nuclear reactor at the center of our happily little sector of space.  That is literally it.  There is nothing special at all about January 1, other than we have arbitrarily decided on the fact that the day has meaning.  In fact, every single second marks a one year anniversary from that second one year ago.  MIND BLOWN!

However, some would argue that, yes, it has meaning because we treat it as such.  As an experiment, I have treated my cat like Nicholas Cage for the past three weeks and she has exhibited no signs of bad hair or a lack of acting ability, so that’s not entirely true.  In fact, I think this is the key part about New Year’s that is so often overlooked: bettering yourself is hard, and there is nothing inherently better around the turn of a digit (or four, if you’re 1999-2000!).

The moral of the story?  By all means, make a resolution.  Try to keep it.  But please be aware that, in fact, you can make the same decision on March 15, July 28, or November 10 (or on all three if you wish), and you might actually be more successful because there is no social pressure to make a halfhearted attempt at a resolution. 

Regardless–have a good 2014, readers.  May you be successful in all of your endeavors.  Except the stupid ones.