Saturday, 7 September 2013

Terry Brooks - The Sword of Shannara (1977)

Illustration by Greg Hildebrandt

When I was 12, my dad handed me The Sword of Shannara. He said that Terry Brooks was the man that everyone in the 70s expected to succeed Tolkien. 
Now cometh the question: 'Why are you reviewing The Sword of Shannara? Isn't it a bazillion-and-one times famous?'
Answer: ''Cause it's a book that people dismiss, despite its popularity, as a rip-off of Tolkien.'

... And I'm writing this to argue differently!

It’s hard to go to university and return to fantasy and science fiction books without becoming overly critical, but the fact is that these books were immensely popular amongst both children and adults. Fantasy in particular is about lifting the reader from mundane reality so that they become the eyes and ears of a heroic figure, growing and learning with them. Of course you can critique it on the ‘quality of writing’, however unspecific that is, and compare it to Dostoyevski, but a story is more than its words.

A story evokes something. A story captures the imagination of its reader, and if it does that ... well it’s a good book, isn't it? 

The Sword of Shannara recalls Tolkien’s Middle Earth trilogy in myriad ways without ever becoming offensive or clichéd. I want to say this because every fantasy book ever published has 'THE NEW TOLKIEN AND BY GUM SHE/HE'S BRILLIANT!' written by some reviewer on the back.

The book is set in a world that has passed millennia beyond the final battles of humankind’s scientific arms race. The technological world is gone, ne’er to return. Besides humanity, four other races have appeared: Gnomes, Dwarves, Trolls and Elves. The intervening time has mutated humans into Trolls, Gnomes and Dwarves and although they are gifted with their Tolkienesque traits, they have a human life-span and are not indicated to be all that different beyond body types. Elves are another matter … it is indicated that 'elves have always been here'.

The story opens with Shea, a half-elven orphan living with a tavern-keeper in a small isolated hamlet. Shea is a stereotypical country boy, insular, marginally educated and eager to stay that way. That is until the infamous Allanon, a man of mysterious heritage and vast reserves of knowledge, blows into town with stories of a rising evil in the northern lands. The evil, once a man called Brona, is a faceless power identified only by the image of a Skull. The Skull Lord and his minions lie behind the last two great wars that pitted race against race and destroyed the once great civilisations of Earth. Allanon reveals that it is Shea who holds the greatest chance of destroying Brona and saving the races of humanity, through his blood-link to the greatest of heroes in history–the long dead elven king Jerle Shannara, and through him to the magical sword that could bring about Brona’s defeat.

Torn from their home, Shea, his brother Flick and their flighty friend Menion find themselves joined by four tough and warlike folk, the dwarf Hendel, the great prince Balinor and the two elven brothers, Durin and Dayel. Together they trek north through a hostile world filled with the dangerous mistakes of the ancient technological era. As they travel, they find a land filled with enemies already amassing for war. The book moves slowly at first, as the brothers Shea and Flick attempt to come to grips with a world that they’d never imagined, but one-by-one the characters are tested by the forces against them and their personalities begin to unfold.

As to the links between The Sword of Shannara and LOTR, I would add that the greatest similarity is also its greatest divergence. Tolkien, a religious man converted to Christianity by C. S. Lewis, always wrote with the strength of biblical mythology: the tests of Middle Earth were the tests of God in the final days as the Fellowship fought under the banner of Eru against the demon Sauron. Unlike Tolkien, there is no greater spiritual realm in Brook's world—where Tolkien has Gandalf who always had a touch of the angels about him, Allanon is a very human character: impatient, secretive, and quick to anger. He is driven not by a compulsion to do good, but because he is haunted by guilt and his dead brethren. He is not trusted even by his own party, Shea does not believe his tales until he and his brother are driven from their home by a dark creature bearing the icon of the Skull. Twist and turn, Allanon escapes apprehension by characters and readers alike, he is a figure covered by an impenetrable black cloak who holds knowledge that doomed an entire civilisation inside his head.

Unlike Tolkien, Brook’s classic novel portrays a theme as thick and important as a taproot: both the mistakes and the successes of this world are of human making, and only through our acceptance of these failings can we fight to improve ourselves. 

Other recommended books by this author: The Elfstones of Shannara, Magic Kingdom for Sale [Sold]

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