August 2009 Monthly Q&A with Christopher Paolini

(Interview released on August 13th, 2009)

PadfootUnewraithSlayer asked: To what extent can a elf change his body, is there a limit? Can his change himself to look almost exactly like a certain animal and can if so can they change into something as large as maybe something like a dragon?

A: Good question. This was another subject Eragon and Arya discussed in the first draft of Brisingr (when they were sitting around the campfire, on the way back from Helgrind), but which was removed in editing.

The short answer goes something like this: any magician, not just an elf, can, theoretically, reshape his or her body into any conceivable shape, given that the magician has the strength, time, will, and knowledge to do so and that the chosen shape is capable of supporting life.

However, there is one major catch: chemistry. While the elves—who are the most learned race in Alagaësia—most certainly know about cells, and while they may have postulated the existence of molecules and atoms—and perhaps even proved their reality using some spell or another—they have yet to accumulate a sound working knowledge of either of those two basic building blocks of matter. As a result, when an elf, or any other magician, reshapes their body, all they are doing is moving around the stuff out of which they are already made, and not actually transforming their bones, muscles, tendons, organs, etc. into those of another species. They are imitating, not becoming.

For example, chimpanzees are much stronger than humans, both because of how their muscles are attached—which gives them some advantages of leverage—but also because they have a gene active (which we don’t) that allows their muscles to contract harder than ours. This gene means that a chimpanzee’s muscles are chemically different than ours.

So, if you were a magician, and you used magic to make yourself look like a chimp (which would take a huge amount of energy, and while you wouldn’t mind having a tail, I’m not sure why you would want to turn yourself into a chimp, but that aside . . .), you still wouldn’t be as strong as one, because your muscles would still be the muscles of a human.

An elf, or any other spellcaster from Alagaësia would face the same problems. If an elf made him or herself look like a dragon, they probably wouldn’t even be able to support their weight, because the basic stuff a dragon is made out of is different from the basic stuff an elf is made out of. Also, dragons are inherently magical creatures (how else do you think such massive creatures fly on such relatively small wings?) which only makes things even more complicated.

And that doesn’t even begin to address other differences, such as your digestive tract, vision, and, most importantly, those of the brain. You probably wouldn’t want the brain of a chimp, so you’d end up looking like a chimp with a giant, bulging, human head.

Now, if you had a solid understanding of the underlying chemistry of the person or creature you were trying to emulate, and the being was somewhat similar to you (say, an Urgal) then, under those conditions, you could achieve an almost perfect copy. It would take a ridiculous amount of work, though,

And that was my short answer!

P.S. Werecats and their ilk, in case you are wondering, are a unique case. I can talk about them more next month, if anyone is interested, but suffice it to say, their shapeshifting is the result of the same sort of instinctual magic that Saphira uses. Also, they’re cats, and cats can do whatever they want. Which reminds me, another discussion I cut from Brisingr was whether or not animals can use magic (they can, just not very well).

Shadeslayer70 asked: Regarding the Rock of Kuthian, it seems that every time Eragon mentions it to someone they say that the name sounds very familiar. Could this be some of the same sort of magic the dragons used to banish the foresworns dragons names? And will we learn why everyone thinks it is so familiar?

A: Any and all questions concerning the Rock of Kuthian have to wait until after Book IV is released. It’s too spoilerrific for me to talk about it.

Boris asked: We know that Galbatorix’s current dragon is black, but what color was his original dragon, [and what was its gender]? If it was a different color, would the color of Galbatorix’s magic change to match that of his dragon or would it not be affected?

A: Galbatorix’s first dragon, Jarnunvösk, was female, as Brom said in Eragon during his account of Galbatorix’s rise to power. (There are some early printings of Brisingr where Jarnunvösk was referred to as male, but that was a mistake and was corrected in later editions.) Jarnunvösk wasn’t black, I don’t want to say what color he was at the moment.

The color of one’s magic can shift over time, even as one’s true name can change. Normally, the color of a Rider’s magic and that of their dragon is the same, but not always. As for Galbatorix’s, you’ll have to wait until Book IV to find out what his looks like now. In any case, Shruikan wouldn’t affect Galbatorix, since they were never formally and properly joined, as Rider and dragon.

Lots of people (about 25% of the questions we’ve received over the past three interviews) asked: Is there a possibility of you writing a prequel story for Brom?

A: I’ve considered it (and I think it could be an awesome book) but first I have to finish this series, and then I want to write a few stories that aren’t set in Alagaësia, or anywhere else on Eragon’s world, for that matter. After all, I’ve been working on the Inheritance cycle for almost eleven years now—my whole writing career to date—and I’d like to try my hand at some other projects.

Also, I’m wary of writing a prequel when people are already familiar with the story; it can be hard to sustain a reader’s interest if they already know how everything turns out. If the book is good enough, of course, that isn’t a problem, but it does make things more difficult for the author.

Events may prove me wrong, but at the moment, I think I would be more likely to write a sequel to the Inheritance cycle than a prequel. I’ve already thought up a plot for a potential fifth book, and I’ve been laying the groundwork for it in the Inheritance cycle (I plan a long way ahead).

That said, a book about Brom would be a lot of fun to write. . . . Maybe, someday.

Lots of people asked: Why is Morzan’s sword called misery if it was named before he became a member of the Forsworn?

A: This is something I haven’t worked out completely. But there are two possible explanations. Either Morzan named his sword misery because he was trying to sound tough and dangerous and to aggravate his teachers (he was rebellious by nature, after all) or the sword was renamed (perhaps by him, perhaps by the elves) during the Fall of the Riders. Morzan might have even chosen the name Zar’roc during his dark apprenticeship under Galbatorix, when they were hiding in the wilderness.

Skulblakasaphira asked: In Brisingr Oromis taught Eragon how to teleport items to different places. But is it possible to teleport yourself or another human/elf/dwarf/living creature?

A: Possible, but extremely impractical considering the amount of energy required. It’s also incredibly risky if you aren’t absolutely sure that your arrival location is clear. Otherwise, you could end up teleporting yourself into a wall or a tree or, worse, someone else.

Lots of people asked: What determines a dragon’s color? Is it just random, or does it depend on the color of its parents?

A: It depends partially on the color of the parents and partially on the dragon’s own preferences or personality. After all, if a dragon really wanted to be another color, it might just be able to change its hue. As Brom said, strange things are wont to happen around dragons.

Chris Addison asked: Have you ever decided how much the exchange rate of a crown would be compared to a US dollar?

A: No, but given how much gold is worth now, a crown would probably be more valuable in our world than in Alagaësia.

Byrd asked: In Eldest, Arya tells Eragon that she can talk with him from the gates of Vroengard to the other side of Alagaësia. Why can Arya speak from such a long distance and Eragon and Saphira can’t? Especially since he is now as strong as an Elf. And why could she not speak with him when he was in the Empire?

A: Oh boy . . . You sure know how to ask tough questions! Okay, here goes:

  1. 1. In Brisingr, Arya couldn’t talk with Eragon when he was alone in the Empire because:
    1. 1. She didn’t know where he was.
    2. 2. He was shielding his mind from all possible contact, in order to avoid detection by Murtagh or any other of Galbatorix’s magic-wielding minions. (Wonderful word, minions.)
  2. 2. As I looked back on the exchange you mentioned between Arya and Eragon in Eldest, I realized why you got confused. It’s my own fault; I made an assumption that seemed perfectly sensible to me at the time, but which I should have explained a bit more clearly to everyone else. For those who don’t remember, the pertinent section is (from page 148):

    Arya nodded toward where Saphira undulated through the water. “I grew accustomed to Saphira’s presence during the fifteen years I guarded her egg. I was reaching out for anything that felt familiar when I touched your dreams.”

    “Are you really strong enough to contact someone in Teirm from Gil’ead? Especially if you were drugged.”

    A ghost of a smile touched Arya’s lips. “I could stand on the very gates of Vroengard and still speak with you as clearly as I am now.”

    When he asked his question, Eragon was asking about telepathy. That is, could Arya touch someone’s mind in Teirm all the way from Gil’ead? Arya was not answering that question specifically, but rather the more general question, “Could you contact someone in Teirm all the way from Gil’ead?” And she could, only not with telepathy. Using the right spell, Arya could speak to Eragon from across the whole width of Alagaësia, even as Eragon speaks with Queen Islanzadí and others when he scrys them in Brisingr.

    Arya’s actually being rather glib here.

    The thing to remember is that when Eragon saw Arya in his dreams, they weren’t engaged in telepathy; they didn’t exchange any thoughts or feelings, nor could they have even if they wanted to. What happened was that Arya transmitted (to use a modern term) an image of herself and her surroundings into Eragon’s eyes/visual cortex, much the same way that two people who are scrying each other can transmit images of themselves and their surroundings onto a mirror or any other reflective surface in front of the other person. (Again, as in Brisingr.) And why can spellcasters do that but not read minds at great distances? Well that leads to my next point:

  3. 3. Scrying and telepathy are fundamentally different processes. Both move objects from one point to another, but what they move isn’t the same.
    1. 1. Scrying involves reproducing the light at one location at another. The information required to do this is conveyed via electromagnetic radiation (visible or not) from point A to point B. By scrying another place, what a magician is doing is, essentially, funneling a stream of photons encoded with the visual information from his target to his own location, then reproducing that visual information on some sort of reflective surface—or even in his own eyes, if he’s particularly skilled. Since photons weigh next to nothing, moving them across great distances requires only a negligible expenditure of energy, although it does get slightly harder to scry the farther away your target is. None of this happens consciously, of course, but that’s the basic mechanism underlying the spell.
      1. 1. Because scrying relies on electro-magnetic energy, a spellcaster in Alagaësia could scry a dark room and see what it contained, if they knew enough to convert infrared radiation into visible light. By extension, lead, or other similarly dense materials, can block attempts to scry through them, which is why certain caves in Alagaësia are impervious to scrying . . . at least when using normal methods. There are even more advanced techniques, which I won’t go into here.
      2. 2. Conveying speech from one person to another requires, in most cases, both parties to be active participants. Person A can transmit the information concerning her speech to person B (or person B can be the one to record A’s speech and then transfer it to his own location) but, in either case, B has to be the one to reproduce A’s speech, and A has to be the one to reproduce B’s speech. Why? Because reproduction involves creating vibrations in the air, something which is simply too arduous for anyone to do over more than a few miles. This is why, in Eldest, Eragon was able to scry Nasuada from Ellesméra and listen to her speaking with King Orrin, but he couldn’t speak to them in return, since they weren’t set up to reproduce his words with an enchanted mirror or some other device.
    2. 2. Telepathy, on the other hand, involves actually manipulating physical elements (neurons, synapses, various chemicals, etc.) within another person’s brain, which is how one person is able to impress their thoughts and feelings onto the consciousness of another. It doesn’t require a huge amount of energy—less than speaking, most often—but, as with moving anything, it becomes exponentially more difficult as the distance between the two people, or other creatures, increases. Some amount of connection can be maintained over great distances, which is why Eragon and Saphira have a vague sense of each other’s well-being, or lack thereof, when they are far apart, but it’s not enough to allow an exchange of thoughts.
      1. 1. If the person whom you are communicating with isn’t a telepath as well, then you end up doing double duty—whether you are aware of it or not—as you have to both manipulate their mind and your own, so that you can share in their thoughts and feelings. Otherwise, you would push yourself into their consciousness, but you wouldn’t receive anything back. It would be very much a one-sided conversation.
  4. 4. Hope that answers your questions!
  5. 5. And yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about this.
  6. 6. . . . .
  7. 7. Too much time probably . . . but I enjoy it.