The author tells EW about collaborating with his sister, giving a different take on dragons, and returning to the fictional land he created as a teenager.
It’s been years since readers last had a new adventure set in the fantasy land of Alagaësia, and many probably thought it would be their last. With 2011’s Inheritance, author Christopher Paolini closed the book on his four-volume Inheritance Cycle that had begun with the smash hit Eragon (written when he was just 16). But now 2019 has gotten off to an interesting start for fans of Paolini’s work, thanks to the publication of The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm: Tales from Alagaësia.
The short story collection catches readers up with the current doings of Eragon and his magnificent blue dragon Saphira as they work to rebuild the legendary order of Dragon Riders, but those updates work as a frame narrative between three individual stories focusing on different residents of Alagaësia across time and space. As implied by the title, one of these focuses on a tavern brawl involving a magical fork, one tells the history of the witch Angela, and the other focuses on a great dragon, known to the Urgals it terrorized as “the Worm of Kulkaras.”
“I’ve known for a while that I wanted to return to the world of Eragon and tell some more stories. I’ve had a fifth book planned for a long time,” Paolini tells EW. “Those stories are separate from the story I told in the Inheritance Cycle. That is a self-contained epic that reached its proper conclusion, but that doesn’t mean that the world itself doesn’t continue to grow and change. I spent so long working on the Inheritance Cycle, from 1998-2011, and it was such a fundamental part of my life, that I’ve never been able to not think about it ever since. I kept daydreaming like, what are the characters up to? What are they doing? Wouldn’t it be cool if X, Y, or Z? All sorts of other story ideas popped up as a result. Some of those were suitable for book-length projects, but some of them were smaller and self-contained, which is how we ended up with The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm.”
This book was particularly inspired by a Twitter interaction Paolini had with a fan in early 2017. Twitter user @Calcifer_D tweeted at the author asking for an update on Murtagh, the deuteragonist of the Inheritance Cycle who was originally Eragon’s friend before being enslaved by the evil emperor Galbatorix. Rather than suffer the sacrificial fate of someone like Darth Vader, Murtagh managed to survive his master’s defeat. But what’s he up to these days?
“I LOVE random facts, could it be possible for you to give me one about my favorite character which is Murtagh? Please!!!!” @Calcifer_D tweeted at Paolini in January 2017. The author soon replied, “At one point (after Inheritance), Murtagh enchanted a fork to be as deadly as any sword. He called it Mr. Stabby. Thorn was not amused.” This idea stuck in Paolini’s head, and the path to The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm began.
“I don’t know, I think I was up late at night, so I felt like having some fun, and tweeted back something about he had gotten into a fight with a fork he had enchanted, and he had named the fork Mister Stabby, and then his companion the dragon Thorn was less than amused with this development,” Paolini says now. “The idea stuck in my head, and because of that tweet I ended up writing that story. That’s kind of the whole reason this book ended up happening.”
The second story in the collection is not written by Paolini himself, but rather his sister Angela. It focuses on the backstory of the traveling herbalist Angela, who first appeared in Eragon alongside her werecat companion Solembum and has been a consistent (if eclectic) presence in the series ever since. She was, in fact, based on Angela Paolini, and now the real Angela and the fictional Angela have come together on the page.
“It was a lot of fun collaborating with my sister,” Paolini says. “What readers may not realize is that Angela and I have collaborated for a long time. I’ve used her as a sounding board; she’s one of my first readers and often provides editing for my books. We’ve often worked together, but not in open collaboration like this. It was a lot of fun. I think the biggest challenge for her (and would’ve been a challenge for me) was coming into someone else’s world. She did it really well. Her writing style is quite different from my own, but she did a good job of matching it to the world while retaining her unique flavor. sort of provided the larger framework for where The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm was going and how Angela’s story was going to fit in, but the basic story was my sister’s, the execution was hers, and it was just a matter of fitting the pieces together.
Paolini continues, “When I was writing the second draft of Eragon, I was 16 and it amused me to put in a character who was a bit of a parody of my sister. Fortunately for me, she’s always taken it with good humor and the character has become one of the more interesting ones in the series. One of the reasons is because that character is very aware of her own situation, she’s basically meta-aware and know she’s in a story, and knows what kind of story she’s in. That’s a lot of fun. I think the big stories do need that kind of trickster figure, whether it’s Tom Bombadil, or Loki, or Deadpool, or the trickster Coyote. There’s lots of those characters in fiction, and I think they provide an invaluable perspective, especially for epics. When you’re writing a big sprawling story that covers a continent and a half with dozens and dozens of characters, it’s nice to have a character who can stand outside all of it and maybe provide a pithy comment or two.”
The last story in The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm focuses on the Urgals, the horned creatures who served as Galbatorix’s footsoldiers and were thus primary antagonists of the Inheritance Cycle. Unlike the Orcs of Middle-Earth, though, Paolini’s Urgals have a strong and noble culture of their own. This story is told from their point of view — specifically from the perspective of an Urgal named Ilgra, who had to figure out how to protect her village when a massive dragon named Vermund laid siege to it sometime in the distant history of Alagaësia. In doing so, the story gives a different perspective on both Urgals and dragons.
“Even though some of the dragons in the Inheritance Cycle were antagonistic, they were mostly on the friendly side of the spectrum,” Paolini says. “We get to hear them talk, we see them being allies or friendly. The idea of doing a dragon in the old sense, as the force of nature and all-consuming vengeful creature that comes down out of the north, is very archetypal and strangely enough something I had never written before. I really wanted to!”
As for the Urgals, ” Their sense of self, some of their religious beliefs…I’ve always considered that they have a very strong sense of religion, but the way they view themselves, they even call a certain contingent among them the ‘Anointed,’ it ended up making them feel a bit nobler in my mind than perhaps I wrote them in Inheritance. Of course, we always see ourselves differently from other people see us. In so many fantasy novels we have the big scary monsters who show up and kill people and disappear into the wilderness, but the question is: How do they see themselves? Do they have the capacity to change?”
Now that The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm is on shelves, Paolini says he’s eager to return to the world of Alagaësia. Most readers will probably notice that the Tales from Alagaësia collection has a subtitle: “Volume 1: Eragon.” That means there are more such short story collections on the way, as well a fifth full novel. On top of that, Paolini has also been working on a “massive sci-fi novel.” Both that and the planned “Book Five” are still untitled at this point, though Paolini says they’re on the way.
“There’s a good chance that readers are going to get a whole lot more of Paolini in the near future,” the author says. “I enjoyed returning to the world of Alagaësia so much that I’m definitely not going to wait as long as I did to return and write more stories there. Along with my other projects, I’m going to make it a habit every other year to dip back into that world and do something small or large. Since the book has come out, one of the most gratifying and interesting things for me has been seeing the reactions of people who grew up with them. Enough time has passed that there’s been a real wave of nostalgia among the readers who read the book. That’s not something i ever expected to have in my career, but it’s very gratifying and I’m very humbled by it.”
The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm is available now.