Goodreadings: The Fork, the Witch, the Worm and nostalgia

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Everybody has books they’ve read when they were younger, to which they feel a strong connection. Having grown up with certain titles has influenced you in your ‘shaping years’, and somehow feels like it is a small part of your identity.

Some of these books, people are retroactively sort of proud of having experienced in their youth. Like being a Harry Potter fan during the books’ releases, actually camping in front of bookstores and such. Now that’s a story to tell the grandkids. Another (complicated) example of this is The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve heard many a fellow student brag about having read them at a very early age. Because somehow that’s supposed to prove how sophisticated they are.

Check this super old picture of my own hardback LOTR copies I posted in 2014.
Such sophistication.

No-no-no please wait stop don’t go away! It’s very impressive if you’ve read it that early in your life! Please keep reading. I promise I’m going somewhere with this and I’m not just saying this to snub anyone for pretentiousness. You know what, I read the whole LOTR series when I was about 16. Look where that brought me.

Please don’t leave.

Guilty Childhood Pleasures

Where I’m going with this is great; I want to talk about books that are similarly embedded into ones (my) youth, but one (me) is not generally proud of. I’m talking Twilight levels of oh-god-why-and-how-did-I-ever-enjoy-this. Twilight came out when I was in high school; I was its prime demographic. I loved the first book. Mehd the second. Convinced myself the third was better again. Tossed the fourth book aside after I finished it, even though I had pre-ordered it and everything.

What a time to be alive.

Geddit. It’s a Twilight reference. The strawberries represent my regrets.

But I really think that it’s important to embrace and acknowledge the books you read when you were growing up, both the good and the bad ones. Even ‘bad’ books can leave good impressions, good lessons and help you become a better person. Which brings me to today’s topic: Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle.

You know, I could’ve easily started this blog off with a small gag about bad movie adaptations and gotten to the point already, but nooo, I had to draw nostalgia into this.

Oh well. There is no movie in Ba Sing Se Farthen Dûr.

I loved the Eragon books. I can still remember my friend in high school first mentioning them, struggling to pronounce Brisingr and promising dragons and magic and everything. I read them, bought them, read them again, over and over. I was about 15 when I read them (just before I started on LOTR, for those who are interested), and kept them in my heart ever since.

But here’s the sad part. Having ‘grown up’, I’m now realizing these books might not have been masterpieces. When talking with other adults about fantasy books, Eragon doesn’t get the light of day. There’s a lot of clichés puddling around, language is weird, “it’s all ripped off from The Lord of the Rings”: they don’t have such a good reputation at all. This confused me at first. How could a series I had enjoyed so much turn out to be bad without me knowing? Honestly, I haven’t dared to open them in years… Can I still like something, despite knowing it’s not that good, just because of nostalgia? Will I enjoy it the same?

               Little side note. There’s a lot of discussion going around the dilemma of separating art from the artist lately, which mainly centres on the question whether you can still justify liking a thing made by someone who’s done bad things or has bad views. Basically, “Can Thing be Good when Person is Bad?” I’d love to discuss this further one day.
Today is not that day though.

It’s about Generations

Christopher Paolini was 15 years old when he started writing Eragon, and published it when he was 19. His parents were in publishing. That’s what some people use as explanation for his success. Maybe it was. Maybe he was one of those authors to really profit from the Harry Potter hype-train. Maybe he just wrote in a way that appealed to those of the young-adult persuasion, avant la lettre. Though it definitely has its flaws, not only in narrative structure but in characterization of gender and such. You know, it’s the fantasy drill. Sadly.

On the last day of 2018, Paolini published a new book. The first and only one since the closing chapter of the Inheritance cycle was published in 2011. It is called The Fork, The Witch and the Wyrm, and consists of short stories which take place after the events of Inheritance. I bought it ages ago (so… last year), and this week I finally read it. I had been partly dreading it; what if I’d suddenly realize that Paolini’s writing wasn’t that good? Would my memories be tarnished? My sense of identity interrupted?

I’ll get to the point: the book was okay. It was kind of fun, hanging out in the world of Eragon again. The dragons still spoke in a silly way. I faintly remembered most of the names, and the book continued the courtesy of multiple pages of translations and references to names in the back. Then again, it wasn’t great. In some places it was a bit awkward, mainly due to the framing. Known hero Eragon sitting around and listening to people’s stories as you read them just isn’t that thrilling, in my opinion. A significant part of the book wasn’t even written by Christopher, but by his sister Angela. This… surprised me, but oh well. Apparently he based the witch character Angela on her. Make of that what you will.

A thought occurred to me while writing this. What if I’m simply no longer the targeted audience of Paolini’s work? Sad as that might make me (who ever enjoys the realization that they’re getting older), it offers me an explanation that I like much more than ‘turns out it was bad all along’…

Changing Times, changing taste

Life is full of changes. It’s no wonder, then, that my taste in books would change. Nostalgia is a funny thing, which definitely transforms the media you enjoy beyond their actual premise. That’s a good thing, though. Our experience of media is just as important as its actual content; I’d argue it’s even more important. It does, however, make it a bit precarious to go back to the media that you enjoyed at an earlier stage of your life.

Yet it is entirely possible to enjoy media just as much when you’re older. This summer’s resurgence in popularity of Avatar: the Last Airbender is a great example of this.

Some stuff never gets old.

However, going back to media can also consist of the same awkwardness as looking at old high-school pictures. It’s what I experienced when I read the Harry Potter script of The Cursed Child. While being back in the narrative world I had loved was great, I felt a sense of awkwardness, too. Like wearing old, too tight pyjama’s. This, just like The Fork, the Witch and the Wyrm is a bit of media which was produced in the aftermath of the original series’ success. Not only its main audience, but also its creator had aged and changed since the production of the original work. No wonder, then, that it was different. But both works make me wonder: why did they have to exist in the first place?

That doesn’t mean that media published with such a gap is structurally worse. I’ve heard a load of good things about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019), for example. Both it and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) are still on my reading list though, so we’ll get to that when I get to it.

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