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Books: Christopher Paolini: The Real-Life Boy Wizard

5 minute read
Lev Grossman

Once upon a time, There was a little boy named Christopher who lived with his parents and his sister in a beautiful green valley in some very tall mountains. They were poor but very happy. Christopher loved to read fantasy stories about knights and wizards and dragons, and one day he decided to write a fantasy story of his own. People loved Christopher’s story, so much that everyone wanted a copy. Suddenly Christopher’s family wasn’t so poor anymore.

Strange as it sounds, that particular fantasy story happened. Its hero is Christopher Paolini, a real-life home-schooled kid who lives with his family in a remote valley in the Absaroka Mountains of Montana. When he was 15, Paolini wrote a fantasy novel called Eragon, which has sold 2.5 million copies. And it wasn’t a fluke: Paolini, who is now a ripe old 21, has written a sequel to Eragon called Eldest (Knopf; 681 pages), due out this week. The adventure continues.

One expects home-schooled kids to be a little odd, and Paolini is–just a little. He’s handsome and slight of build, with messy dark hair and glasses; people say he looks like Harry Potter. His voice is on the high side, and he tends to overarticulate. It would be only slightly unfair to compare him with the Simpsons character Martin Prince. His hobbies include making his own medieval weaponry. “I’ve been working on a chain-mail hauberk,” he says, walking in the mountains above his parents’ house. (He carries a wooden stick in case he runs into a rattlesnake.) “I need to get back on that.” He weighs in on the virtues of alternating welded and riveted links in chain mail. He’s the kind of Christopher you can’t really imagine ever calling Chris.

Eragon is your basic boy-meets-dragon story. The titular hero is a teenage boy who finds a strange blue stone that turns out to be an egg. The egg hatches into a beautiful, powerful and somewhat sassy blue dragoness named Saphira with whom Eragon forms a telepathic bond. It’s an irresistible premise: she’s exactly the kind of perfect friend a smart, lonely mountain boy would invent for himself, although Paolini doesn’t feel as though he missed out on anything growing up in Montana. “I don’t think I’d have written anything like I did if I didn’t live here, if I’d been engaged in a lot of other, scripted activities–soccer and football and whatever else the case might be,” he says. Take that, all you smug promgoers.

Being a prodigy isn’t always easy. When Paolini’s parents realized they had a teen Tolkien on their hands, they quit their jobs, published Eragon themselves and put Paolini on a grueling tour schedule, from junior high to junior high, library to library. He became the family breadwinner. “As the saying goes, we really bet the farm,” Paolini says. “It was down to the point where if we didn’t sell enough books, we didn’t have food on the table.” Isn’t that a lot of pressure for a teenager? “You have no idea,” Paolini says. “Even though I was home schooled, I have been in more schools now than any person should ever be forced to go into. And I did do most of those events in medieval costume. It will take some extraordinary event to ever get me back in that thing.”

Needless to say, now that Knopf has taken over the franchise, Paolini won’t have to put his wizard robes back on anytime soon. Knopf is printing 1.3 million copies of Eldest, a book that significantly expands and enriches Paolini’s fictional palette, adding new points of view–including that of Eragon’s cousin Roran–and expanding Eragon’s emotional range as he struggles against his archnemesis, the evil wizard-king Galbatorix. It’s one of those tricky middle novels of a planned trilogy, a dark second act à la The Empire Strikes Back, full of reversals and repercussions and unexpected revelations. But by the end, Eragon can say, to everybody’s satisfaction, “I have become what I was meant to be.”

After Eldest, the next stop for Eragon will be Hollywood. A movie, featuring John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons, is in production for a scheduled 2006 release. As for Paolini, he has no plans to go to college at this point or even to start going on dates. He’s going to keep doing what he has been doing for the past six years: writing from breakfast till an hour before dinner, seven days a week, every week of the year except for Christmas, until the adventure is overfor him as much as for Eragon. “If I wrote a book where all this happened to one character,” Paolini says, “no one would believe it.”

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