The Blurred Lines between Derivation and Inspiration in Fantasy Fiction


The Blurred Lines Between Derivation and Inspiration in Fantasy Fiction

When Eragon — the first book of The Inheritance Cycle was first published 15 years ago, many critics and readers wrote scathing reviews about it. Its author, Christopher Paolini — then just a 19-year-old — was lambasted for having supposedly copied elements and plot ideas from earlier popular works such as The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (Anti-Shur’tugal; Feet). However, the nature of fantasy fiction as a genre makes it clear that there is not much of a distinction between taking inspiration from other creators and deriving ideas from their works. Therefore, Paolini should not be blamed for any similarities that show up between his work and that of any others.

Fantasy fiction is generally set either in a fictional world, or includes concepts and ideas which do not exist in the real world. It sells because it thrives on the popular imagination, and on the fact that every book read on a topic in this sphere adds to one’s collective idea of what that topic entails. Every piece of new information affects how one thinks about that concept and thus, everyone perceives it accordingly. In such cases, true originality of ideas is not merely hard to achieve, but close to impossible. All that seems to be possible is the originality of perspective.

The narrative unfolds as follows - a young farm boy ends up discovering he has incredible powers and meets a mentor who helps him. His family is killed by the evil Empire in which he lives and he goes on the run with his mentor. The old man teaches him how to fight and how to use his new powers. While traveling, they encounter a mysterious rogue. Suddenly, some of the Empire’s most evil minions kill the mentor. The farm boy and rogue rescue a pretty princess, and they all travel to the secret base of the rebels fighting against the Empire. But the secret base has been discovered, and the Empire attacks. Together, the main characters, most prominently the farm boy, stop the attack through their brave actions. Reading this, anyone would have difficulty understanding whether this summary was for Star Wars or for Eragon. This is the main argument that critics of Paolini such as Kevin Newsome and others ( also use - that at first glance, the two seem to have the same plots. But it is important to remember that this is a biased view. It does not take into account several differences between the two plots, such as the long journey that Eragon, his dragon Saphira and his mentor Brom go on before the plot advances. There is no parallel for Saphira or this journey in Star Wars. There is no R2-D2 or C-3PO — the comic relief robots in Star Wars — in Eragon.

In response to such differences being pointed out, critics argued that then Eragon is “essentially ‘Star Wars’ — with dragons” (Germain). What they fail to notice in Paolini’s work are his exquisite descriptions of Alagaesia – the world of The Inheritance Cycle. They can be traced back to Paradise Valley in Montana in the United States of America, and as Kit Spring says in her article Elf and Efficiency’, “The landscape, based on the wild territory of his home state, is described without the adjectival mush that bogs down so much fantasy fiction.” The critics do not notice the symbiotic relationship between the dragons and their Riders and how beautifully it is brought out through Saphira and Eragon as they grow together over the length of the series. Paolini himself says that he imagined Saphira as the “perfect friend” (Spring). His imagining of Saphira is remarkably human-like — as she grows up in close mental contact with a human — and yet a little of the strangeness and the magic of her race is also shown from time to time (Weich). Above all, they conveniently ignore the more serious plot deviations that become apparent as one moves from Eragon to its sequels. To add context, it might be interesting to know that even George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars drew inspiration from several different sources. Some of his most ‘original’ characters, such as Obi-Wan, R2-D2, C-3PO and Princess Leia, were actually inspired by The Hidden Fortress — a film by Akira Kurosawa — as Bryan Young points out in his article: "The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Hidden Fortress.”

Those critics who condemn Paolini for copying from The Lord of the Rings have a different problem with his work. They insist that the very descriptions and elements that make his work an engrossing read are also proof of his having plagiarised from J.R.R. Tolkien ( They argue that the elves of Middle-Earth, the world which Tolkien created, and those of Alagaesia are incredibly similar. The elves in both series are depicted as being graceful, agile and closely connected to nature. They are said to be immortal, adept at magic and talented in the art of war. Furthermore, the ends of the two series seem to be similar, as Eragon leaves Alagaesia on a ship to train the next generation of Dragon Riders while Frodo Baggins — the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings — leaves Middle-Earth forever on a ship. The relationship between Eragon and Arya — an elven princess — in The Inheritance Cycle can be seen as an interpretation of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen, also an elven princess, in The Lord of the Rings.

Looking at fantasy fiction in general, it’s hard not to realise the immense impact that Tolkien has had on the genre as a whole. As James Ellis says in his article ‘How J.R.R. Tolkien Redefined Fantasy Stories’, “…the overwhelming influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the genre remains a fundamental certainty. The British author didn’t invent fantasy, but he defined it in the minds of millions with his seminal works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings”. With their overwhelming popularity, his books set new templates for all fantasy works, and they reinvented the very definitions of terms like elves and magic. Furthermore, being written as what were fundamentally children’s books, their impact was far greater as an entire generation grew up reading them. As a result, their ideas of how to view such imaginary concepts were irrevocably connected to Tolkien’s interpretations.

Looking at any of the newer works of fantasy or Young Adult Fiction, Tolkien’s impact becomes even clearer. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones all use plot lines, ideas and character archetypes that Tolkien popularised in his works (Ellis). Another point to note is that even Tolkien used already existing legends to create his own world. Reading about Norse mythology in tandem with The Lord of the Rings, it is easy to start drawing parallels. Gandalf’s description seems to be a reimagining of a common disguise of Odin or the All-Father. Trolls, dwarves and elves are all mentioned in the old religious myths (Wettstein). However, no one would ever consider that Tolkien copied his characters from different mythologies. That is because he brings his own interpretation to the concepts which are already present in the collective knowledge of human beings.

Thus, the final verdict that one seems to arrive at is that fantasy fiction is truly a genre where making a distinction between derivation and inspiration is difficult. Paolini, due to this very conclusion, does not deserve to be vilified for the fact that his writing has clearly been influenced by other authors. He should be judged not only on the basis of how derivative his ideas may appear, but also on his writing style and the manner in which he brings out the reality in his fantasy. Many reviewers who did look beyond their presumptions of his having copied the plot from other creators, found the books engrossing. Liz Rosenberg says in her article ‘The Egg and Him’, “‘Eragon,' for all its flaws, is an authentic work of great talent. The story is gripping; it may move awkwardly, but it moves with force.” Another example of such a critic is Shelby Scoffield. In her review of Inheritance — the third book of the series — she says “As the final book in the Eragon series, ‘Inheritance’ is a sophisticated novel that explores powerful themes in an entertaining and breathtaking way.” Thus, stopping short of arguing that The Inheritance Cycle is a great series, one can at least contend that it is original, and well-written enough to be enjoyable.

Apart from fantasy fiction, this idea also seems to hold true in various other parts of life, from music to fashion to theatre. Re-imaginings of old ideas are always in demand in any of these, with retro music being remixed every day, clothing styles popular in the mid-1970s coming back into fashion and Shakespeare’s plays from the sixteenth century being recreated. Even the ‘originals’ that we are re-imagining are nothing but interpretations of ideas that already existed. In the end, don’t all ideas stem from a collective of human knowledge which in turn lead to original interpretations by creators? Thus, isn’t the very concept of plagiarism flawed in itself?

Works Cited

Anti-Shur’tugal. LiveJournal, 18 Mar. 2006, Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

Arvellas and 3ringelvenqueen. “Eragon vs Lotr again.” The Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza, 9 Oct. 2017, Accessed 17 Nov. 2017.

Ellis, James. “How J.R.R Tolkien Redefined Fantasy Stories.” Newsweek, 3 Mar. 2017, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

Eragon. Directed by Stefen Fangmeier, Twentieth Century Fox, 2006.

Feet, G.S. “Paolini’s Worthless Inheritance.” Grocerystorefeet, 29 Nov. 2011, Wordpress, Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Germain, David. “‘Eragon’ is a ‘Star Wars’ wannabe.” Review of Eragon, directed by Stefen Fangmeier. Today, The Associated Press, 14 Dec. 2006, Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

iis. “Comparisons between the plot of Eragon and Star Wars.” Everything2, 23 Feb. 2007, Accessed 18 Nov. 2017.

The Hidden Fortress. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Toho, 1958.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Directed by George Lucas, Twentieth Century Fox, 1977.

Newsome, Kevin. “Eragon vs Star Wars.” Wordpress, 27 Oct. 2007, Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

Paolini, Christopher. Eragon. 2nd ed., Random House, 2005.

Rosenberg, Liz. “The Egg and Him.” Review of Eragon, by Christopher Paolini. New York Times, 16 Nov. 2003, Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Scoffield, Shelby. “‘Inheritance’ is sophisticated but overly long.” Review of Inheritance by Christopher Paolini. Deseret News, 26 Nov. 2011, Accessed 25 Nov. 2017.

Spring, Kit. “Elf and Efficiency.” Interview with Christopher Paolini. The Guardian, 25 Jan. 2004, Accessed 21 Nov. 2017.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 3rd ed., 1994. HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.

Weich, Dave. “Phillip Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Christopher Paolini Talk Fantasy Fiction”. Interview with Phillip Pullman, Tamora Pierce and Christopher Paolini., 22 Feb. 2009,,  Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

Wettstein, Martin. “Norse Elements in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.”, Accessed 27 Nov. 2017.

Young, Brian. “The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Hidden Fortress.”, 24 Sep. 2012, Accessed 25 Nov. 2017.