A boy destined to become a “Dragon Rider,” his loyal companion the blue dragon Saphira, a gift of a red sword with blue sapphires from his mentor Brom, a tyrannical king who has his servants murder Eragon’s family, dwarves, elves, and dark deeds to be avenged: these are just a few of the ingredients that filled the imagination of the 15 year old Christopher Paolini, when he began writing the book that was to generate a sensation.
Born in 1983 in Santa Monica, his family spent a few years in Anchorage, Alaska, before moving to Paradise Valley, outside Livingston. “We lived in a log cabin. I’ll never forget the times when the wind blew so fiercely that we wondered if the roof would blow off. Fortunately it didn’t, but that experience and others, such as getting blown over while hauling wood into the house to keep the wood stove burning, made a deep impression. (The first line of Eragon, the first book of the Trilogy would become “Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.” )
He was home-schooled by parents whom he describes as “intelligent, intense, fun, adding “Home-schooling gave me the freedom to explore subjects that caught my interest, whether it was dinosaurs, Icelandic sagas, or Egyptian pyramids. It allowed me to work at my own pace and graduate early, so I had a couple of years free to write before I had to make a decision about college (he was offered a scholarship by Reed College). And it gave me time to think, to daydream about adventures, to create the world of Alagaësia.” He decided to write a novel, a three year journey that “ate up his life.”
Picture this boy growing up by the Yellowstone River in the valley surrounded by the Gallatin, Beartooth, and Absaroka Mountain Ranges. On this Montana land dinosaurs roamed; it’s not too much of a leap from feathered dinosaurs, such as the Archaeopteryx, to flying dragons. He has a sister named Angela (he names the witch/fortune-teller in Eragon after her) and pets. He loves old folk tales, fantasy and science fiction books.
He says, “I was thrilled by the idea of a young man becoming linked with a dragon. As I wrote Saphira, I made her the best friend anyone could have: loyal, funny, brave, intelligent, and noble. She transcended that, however, and became her own person, fiercely independent and proud....Part of what makes her so appealing is that Eragon cares for her from the moment she hatches...This way, they’re both young and exploring the world for the first time.”
“The Beartooth Mountains have been and still are a source of inspiration. The “ten-mile-high” mountains in Eragon are a tribute to them. Some days when I look at their snow-capped peaks, I can almost see the dragon Saphira soaring over them, her brilliant sapphire-blue scales reflecting the sun and snow.”
Over the course of a year he wrote a first draft of Eragon, drawing the map of Alagaesia and inventing an ancient language. “As I was writing, I needed to make up a word that meant fire; it was supposed to come from an ancient language that is always used with magic. To begin my research, I flipped through a dictionary of word origins and eventually found an Old Norse word, brisingr, that meant fire. I loved it so much, I decided to base the rest of my language on Old Norse. To find more words, I went online and dug up dictionaries and guides to the language. I invented more words based on what I learned, and then formed a system of grammar and a pronunciation guide to fit my world. Developing this has probably been the most difficult part of writing the books. The dwarf and Urgal languages I created for Eragon were worked up completely from scratch.”
Since his parents were in the book business, he asked them for help in editing, although the process “felt like splinters of hot bamboo being driven into my tender eyeballs.” The family decided to self-publish the book under the company name, Paolini International, LLC, when Christopher was 19 years old. Christopher provided the cover art, and his father Kenneth formatted the book in Adobe PageMaker. A copy of this rare edition may be seen in the Montana Room of the Bozeman Public Library.
The Paolini family took the next year promoting the book themselves. They put uncommon energy and originality into their efforts, going to schools, county fairs, libraries, any venue they could during 2002-3. Christopher dressed up in medieval regalia – red shirt, billowy black pants, leather lace-up boots, black beret – and eagerly talked about the story. Local bookstores carried the book. In the summer of 2002 while on a fly fishing trip, the popular author Carl Hiassen from Florida walked into Books and Music Etc in Livingston and bought the book for a stepson who didn’t much care about reading. According to Tim Gable, owner of the store, the boy stayed engrossed all the way back home.
Carl Hiassen, author of the award winning Hoot, (among other books for adults and young adults), took a second look at the book and gave it to his editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers. Knopf bought not only the rights to Eragon but also the next two books that would form the Inheritance trilogy. This event changed Paolini’s life, to put it mildly.
The book was edited more and marketed bigtime to both adults and young adults, as only large publishing companies can. Published in 2003, it became a New York Times Best Seller. National advertising campaigns were planned. In 2004 publicity waves to the tune of $500,000 supported a 10 city tour: ads in USA Today, the New York Times, regional newspapers, Teen People, Rolling Stone, college newspapers; plus direct mail postcards, holiday gift campaign, outdoor posters, deluxe copy floor displays, consumer contests, exclusive foldout map of Alagaesia, guide to the Ancient and Dwarf languages, online advertising, and launch of the Eragon Fan Center.
“During my travels, I met young people eager for a word of encouragement for their own writing projects. Librarians, teachers, and bookstore owners were delighted with the enthusiasm for reading that my book sparked in students. Some readers love the battle scenes and the struggle against an evil foe. Others find themselves drawn into an alternate world where they experience beauty, sorrow, magic, and adventure. Many people express their empathy with Eragon’s difficult situation and find that his courage and perseverance, even when he makes mistakes, helps them find the strength to make better choices in their own lives. And, of course, the relationship between Eragon and the dragon Saphira is a favorite. Who wouldn’t want to have a best friend with whom you could share your innermost thoughts . . . and who could eat your enemies!”
Christopher’s fan base expanded to Europe; on his tours he met many new people, including his favorite authors. He also had a sequel to write, Eldest. In this book the hero Eragon is older and has more mature concerns; the book contains romance and surprising revelations. Paolini’s prose is also smoother and more polished. Time journalist Lev Grossman said, “(This) book significantly expands and enriches Paolini’s fictional palette, adding new points of view...and expanding Eragon’s emotional range as he struggles against his archnemesis.” Published in 2005, in 2006 Eldest won a Quill Award for Books for Young Readers, the only award voted on by consumers.
At Bozeman’s Borders Books his first reading and signing attracted about 200 kids. Manager Tiffany Lach says, his second appearance for Eldest “topped a thousand. “He stayed until midnight – with the radio announcing that we were still open – as he signed books and answered questions. The way he talks about his writing is so inspiring.”
Where there is an epic tale, especially involving dragons, a movie deal may soon follow. And so it was that in December 2006 the film Eragon was released by Twentieth Century Fox, starring Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Sienna Guillory, Djimon Hounsou, as well as a realistic Saphira who grows from birth to maturity. Glen McIntosh, the animation director who led the Eragon special effects team, said, “In the book, and in the movie, there’s this telepathic, symbiotic relationship. You’ll hear her voice, but we had to convey that in her facial movements, in her eyes.” McIntosh, who worked on Jurassic Park III, notes that the animation techniques used were more sophisticated than even last year’s installment of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Now a celebrity at 24 years old, Paolini requires security in large venues and is unreachable directly; yet he remains humble and constantly expresses gratitude (“leaves me shaking my head in mute amazement”) for everything in his life. “I have been blessed with good fortune in many ways, but the success of Eragon and now Eldest is based upon years of hard work and sacrifice, by myself and my family. Very few people understand the amount of effort that went into this project.”
Believability in the myth marches on. Paolini is working to complete Empire, the third book of the Inheritance trilogy, which he had conceived even before setting pen to the first book, Eragon. Critics say that Paolini’s sincerity provides the driving force and appeal of his epic tales. Liz Rosenberg in the New York Times wrote, “The power of Eragon lies in its overall effects – in the sweep of the story and the conviction of the story teller. Here, Paolini is leagues ahead of most writers, and it is exactly here that youth is on his side.”
As he still writes looking out upon the Beartooths and the Yellowstone River, he says, “I find that it helps to have a touchstone within my life, something that I can relate to, in order to lend my writing authenticity. Doing some of the same things as my characters allows me to better understand their world, as well as to think of descriptions that would not otherwise occur to me. To this end I’ve forged my own knives and swords, made chain mail, spun wool, camped in the Beartooth Mountains, made my own bows, built survival shelters, learned to track game, fletched arrows, felled trees, hiked, and camped. In short, the books embody a great deal of my experience of living in Montana.”
As Eragon says, “May your sword stay sharp!” Christopher Paolini’s certainly is.
The official website for Christopher and his adventurous tales is www.alagaesia.com. It contains many entertainments for ardent fans.
~ Valerie Harms is the Editor of Distinctly Montana and the author of nine books and numerous articles. See www.valerieharms.com.