February 18, 2021 | Arts and Culture
the revolutionary power of elves and dragons
I’ll admit it: I love dragons. Like, I really love dragons. I always have. Ever since I can remember, my embarrassingly persistent desire to befriend and ride a dragon has been at the forefront of my birthday wish-making, movie-requesting, and book-purchasing. As a child, the heart-wrenching disappointment of a longing so wholly unfulfilled is likely what left me disillusioned with Santa so young, but that didn’t stop me from asking the void just one more time if I could get that pet dragon for Christmas.
To be fair, it’s not just dragons. Fantasy is my favorite genre. How To Train Your Dragon (yes, I cry every time I watch it), Avatar: The Last Airbender, Harry Potter, and my favorite book of all time, Eragon, the first book of The Inheritance Cycle. Magic, monsters, and wands just do it for me. So much so that, during middle school, as I first began to explore the idea of social circles, the first group I ever associated with was a rag-tag bunch of burgeoning and established fantasy buffs. Hardcore fantasy buffs. Rare-action-figure-touting, Star Wars-collectibles-hoarding, Magic: the Gathering-tournament-winning fantasy buffs. I loved it, but being relegated to watching Magic: the Gathering games instead of learning to play, never feeling comfortable going to Comic-Con, and not being clued-in to Star Wars conversations left me feeling that I was never truly a part of their world. I began to notice more and more the differences between myself and the faces around me. Without fail, I was always the only person of color in the room, the only person who spoke a different language at home, certainly the only person with Indian parents, and sometimes even the only one with black hair. I loved these friends—countless hours spent playing Halo and watching superhero cartoons will do that to you—but even that young I understood the inaccessibility and whiteness of spaces dedicated to fantasy. Now, that exclusivity feels unsurprising—fantasy is inseparable from a long history of racism and a glorification of whiteness.
Despite the promise of invented realities, fantasy remains fascinated with medieval Europe, both in its technologies and perspectives; swords, horses, castles, and battles form the core of the fantasy canon. Fantasy is reactionary in this sense; it romanticizes the rigid hierarchies, homogenous whiteness, and hyper-masculine heroism of medievalism. Too often, “fair” and “white” define goodness, while forces of evil are “dark” and “exotic,” both metaphorically and physically. Fantasy canon often assigns a caste system to species, with white male humans on top and humanoid creatures like dwarves and centaurs willingly subservient—an ethos that easily lends itself to vile displays of racism and misogyny. Fantasy’s limitless potential for imagined worlds is dangerous in the hands of those who want to imagine themselves and people like them on top. For people like me, that creates countless stories that just hurt to read.
By the end of middle school, I gravitated away from those friends and toward kids who looked and felt a little more like me. As each year passed, I read less and less fantasy, and the magic it had once held in my heart steadily slipped away. I say fantasy has always been my favorite genre, but before 2020, the last time I read The Inheritance Cycle was in the seventh grade. Leaving my hometown and coming to Brown, I never imagined that I would once again become mired in a culture of fantasy, but this time, in a vibrant community of almost exclusively people of color.
Whether it was my roommate Obi reading the latest Boruto manga, or our mutual friend VJ coming in to talk about his latest fantasy audiobook, I lived freshman year surrounded by an unabashed appreciation for fantasy. But this time, knowledgeable smiles greeted my eagerness to learn, instead of inaccessible games or expensive action figures. Every day, POC streamed into our room to play Super Smash Bros, watch Rick and Morty, or talk Naruto. Thanks to Obi and VJ, I learned to love fantasy again. I actually only got back into Eragon thanks to VJ; last fall, we decided to listen to the audiobook together during a long road trip to visit our significant others. After 10 hours of driving, filled with whoops during crazy training scenes and quiet awe at vividly written magic, we still hadn’t finished. Safe to say, VJ was hooked and I had found my love of the series again. I decided then and there to reread the cycle at the first chance I got—winter break.
The Inheritance Cycle, made up by Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance, is a young adult high fantasy series written by Christopher Paolini. High fantasy refers to speculative fiction set in entirely fictional worlds, with authors “worldbuilding” to familiarize readers with fictional geographies and ecologies. Eragon’s characteristic world is Alagaësia, a continent complete with its own detailed landscapes, history, and populations (the immortal elves that grow their homes out of giant trees are personal favorites). The story follows Eragon, a parentless farm boy turned last-free-dragon-rider, in his journey to defeat the reigning tyrant and restore the world to its former peace. Along the way, he learns the intricate rules of magic, trains in art and ethics with elves and dwarves, struggles to make change in political systems, grapples with the morality of revolution, finds his place within history, and, best of all, forms an unforgettable partnership with his dragon, Saphira. Get why I love it so much now? But it’s not just the dragon that pulled me to Eragon—as a child of color the narrative offered me something that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
I consider myself lucky that Eragon was my first foray into written high fantasy. Despite critics condemning the similarities to The Lord of the Rings, Paolini rejects traditionally racist and sexist world structures. Eragon’s personal journey through the series involves ingratiating himself with the differing cultures of Alagaësia, shedding his prejudices, and learning to value life and freedom for all species. While Alagaësia is still a Eurocentric, patriarchal, white world, non-white people and women exist in key roles throughout the story. In fact, the leader of the revolution, Eragon’s liege-lady, is a Black woman—a Black woman who is a full character, who leads, and who struggles with and learns to love her identity.
Eragon also offers an unparalleled landscape for escape. With pages and pages spent describing the history, geography, culture, and ecology of the land, Alagaësia isn’t a world you get to peer into, constrained by the limits of a screen, but one that you construct around yourself within your imagination. As a child who felt othered at almost every turn, Alagaësia presented a vivid escape for me to burrow into on rainy Saturdays and provided a playground for my imagination, where the world in the pages felt like mine to explore. I found the most pleasure in imagining the five-mile-high Beor mountains with their dragon-sized cave bears and trees of stone, not scenes of battle or political subterfuge. One key aspect of The Inheritance Cycle’s worldbuilding is Paolini’s treatment of language. Paolini spent years developing convincing and consistent grammatical structures, vocabulary, and pronunciation in the languages of the various populations, with Elvish characterized as the words of magic and eternal truth (Paolini actually made a grammatical mistake in one Elvish line in Eragon, and once he realized it, he found it necessary to fundamentally change the trajectory of the entire series). For a kid that spoke four languages at home, Eragon was the first book I read that found the same importance, beauty, and energy in disparate languages that I did. Eragon, as with many protagonists within fantasy, is marked by his difference; his name, his family, and his appearance isolate him from the rest of Alagaësia. While my differences had acted as forces for exclusion, Eragon’s differences bestow on him the responsibility of greatness. As a child, I had never imagined that my dissimilarity could be a strength—I found the capacity to be bold within those pages. And, thanks to magic, problems feel tangible within Alagaësia; they can be dismantled, fought against, and reworked on the ground by individuals. Even vast sociopolitical issues with historical roots are solved by magic. For the son of two Indian immigrants grappling with my relationship with history, the fantasy of Eragon offered me that rare kind of hope that doesn’t just soothe, but empowers.
Finding my community at Brown, seeing an increasing number of fantasy books by writers of color sitting in bookstores, and getting back into Eragon with VJ, I have had a multi-year long journey getting back into fantasy with non-white friends supporting me the entire way. With their help and companionship, I’ve come to realize that I’m far from alone in my obsession. Sitting in the car, listening to Eragon alongside my best friend and watching the blazing colors of a New England fall roll by, I remember it all clicking, why fantasy pulls people like me in. High fantasy offers what no other genre can for marginalized peoples: the possibility of imagining an entirely new universe—not just an altered world, but one that is fundamentally different, completely irreconcilable with this limited reality of ours. For people like me, for people who feel that the world is not yet structured for them, fantasy provides hope. It’s not the vague hope that things will inevitably get better, but a more actionable kind of aspiration, one that finds power in what we are brave enough to imagine, in what we dare to truly wish for. To me, that feels revolutionary.