In Defense of Shannara

A confession: I find The Lord of the Rings slow going. Another confession: I’ve just finished reading The Sword of Shannara all the way through for the third, possibly the fourth, time. The bombshell: I really like The Sword of Shannara. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The standard-issue complaint about The Sword of Shannara is that it’s a blatant Tolkien ripoff. That’s a criticism that will have lost most of its sting in the years since 1977, when the book was first released. However much of a ripoff it may have seemed back then, so many more much more egregious imitations have come out since that it’s gotten a lot harder to hold Brooks uniquely responsible. "Tolkienesque fantasy" is a genre now. That Brooks was its first practitioner can be described as theft and equally well as vision.

If I were an orthodox fantasy fan, I’m supposed to have immediately recognized the superiority of Tolkien’s original, thrown Brooks summarily against the wall and never looked back. And you know, I do recognize it. There’s no disputing that Tolkien took more care with his worldbuilding, was a more knowledgeable writer, and paid more attention to character than Brooks. Tolkien was the trailblazer; Brooks just tempered it into a commercial genre.

But there are also plenty of things Brooks does better such that charges of imitation are overblown. Brooks also added some innovations of his own, and it’s worth chronicaling what they are, why they’re cool. Spoilers ahead.

Allanon. Allanon is a much cooler character than his counterpart Gandalf. He’s dark and arrogant. He seems uncannily thin-skinned for someone supposedly so old and wise. He physically attacks Flick Ohmsford with relatively little provocation on their first encounter, the kind of shocking narrative jolt you never got from Tolkien. He wears a black cloak that draws attention to him even as it obscures (hiding his face). For the first half of the book, you don’t entirely trust him. Unlike the jovial uncle who comes by to smoke pipes, set off fireworks and tell stories, this one’s not fun and games. I, for one, really enjoyed the way that throws the narrative off balance in the begining. Gandalf is a friend; Allanon is an alien. Gandalf is supposed to be Merlin; Allanon actually is.

Shea Ohmsford. It’s sort of telling that the major complaint about Shannara – that the Valemen central characters are essentially just Hobbits by another name – isn’t even true. Shea is the last remaining descendant of Jerle Shannara – half-elven by blood. He’s not a Hobbit analogue, just happens to be raised by such. I think it’s a nice touch. In The Lord of the Rings, the wider world comes crashing in to the comfortable Shire. In The Sword of Shannara, Shady Vale simply has nothing to do with anything. Shea’s uncle barely seems to know there was a war on at the end of the book. One could argue, I suppose, that this point goes to Tolkien on the grounds that it’s in better keeping with the theme of ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary world – and I can see the argument. Shea is born to nobility – even if he’s about as far down the line of succession as it’s possible to be – and that makes him problematic as the everyman hero Brooks frequently claims him to be in interviews. But for my money, the Shire always made an uneasy fit for Middle Earth. It was clearly invented in another context entirely (for The Hobbit, a very different story and therefore an uneasy prequel at best) and just kind of bolted on to The Lord of the Rings uncermoniously. The opening scenes in the Shire feel like so much distraction. It works better for me that Shea has one foot in each world. True, he didn’t know his heritage until Allanon told him, but that just makes the divide that much cleaner. And the clean divide works. It’s reminiscent of something like Nine Princes in Amber, or A Princess of Mars, where the world we start in is technically more real, but somehow less grounded than the adventure world the action takes place in. In Tolkein the contradiction is a little harder to accept. The Shire is part of the world but is pathologically unaware of it – despite the fact that some of the most consequential people in the world are its native sons. The division doesn’t work in The Sword of Shannara, but it SUPER doesn’t work in Lord of the Rings.

The Sword of Shannara. It has to be admitted by even the hardest Tolkien fan that the central artefact of The Sword of Shannara is much cooler than its counterpart in The Lord of the Rings. The Sword of Shannara has the cleansing power of Truth. It makes its bearer face the reality of who he actually is, free from the illusions we all form about ourselves. Shea is able to withstand this confrontation with himself – but interestingly his ancestor Jerle is not. More to the point, neither is the Warlock Lord, about whom what the truth revealed is that he doesn’t actually exist, isn’t natural. That’s a rather clever, not to mention thematically satisfying, theme-driven plot resolution. The Sword of Shannara is no macguffin. The One Ring in Lord of the Rings, by contrast, is just an ordinary bit of evil magic meant to drive the plot. Wear it, it wields power, and because it is cursed, it corrupts the soul. We’ve heard this before: in Wagner, who actually invented it, and whence Tolkien stole it. Not that it has any bearing on literary merit, but there’s a difference in character between the two authors: Brooks admits his debts to Tolkien, but Tolkien flatly dismissed any suggestions he’d … erm borrowed … the idea of the Ring of Power from Wagner. Brooks’ central macguffin is more than a macguffin – it binds theme and plot, contains within it a commentary on the nature of evil. Tolkien’s ring does no such thing – it is merely a device to set events in motion.

It’s not that you can’t read things into Tolkien’s ring – you can, and people did. It’s a metaphor for nuclear power. It’s a metaphor for material attachment. But all of these readings are just readings in the end, things the reader brought to the story. The story works with them, but it was never motivated by any of them. Like the Shire, the One True Ring is a bolt-on. It’s evil personified, but not examined. Brooks at least has something to say about where evil comes from. I can’t say I entirely agree with his take, but at least there’s some there there.

The Postapocalyptic Setting. Probably the coolest, most innovative, thing about The Sword of Shannara, the thing that proves it is no mere copy, is that the setting turns out to be post-apocalyptic. This is our world – the Pacific Northwest, to be exact – roughly 1000 years after a cataclysmic nuclear and chemcial war. The "evil" races are simply mutants. Dwarves and elves are variants of humanity, the results of different strategies for surviving the holocaust. Magic was discovered and refined in the rebuilding, as technological knowhow was lost. It’s a very different feel from Tolkien’s world. Some of the mythology is the same, of course. In both works, there’s a sense of a lost, much richer past, that the world the story plays out in is sparse compared to what came before. But in Tolkein there’s nothing complicated about this. The past is simply better. Older things are cooler. Any wisdom that was lost was in fact wisdom. In Brooks the attitude to the past is much more ambiguous. The technological wonders of the lost world are miraculous indeed, but they’re also known to be the things that broke the world. Nor is it a question of simply learning proper respect for the destructive potential of technology: the same error is repeated with magic by Brona. His power is unnatural, based on illusions rather than reality. This is why he cannot face the Sword of Shannara – because it reveals to him the truth that he is actually dead – had died a long time ago – that his very existence is unnatural. That would be two sides of the same coin, then: there is the kind of "unnatural" that involves using the laws of nature to create things that upset the balance of the ecosystem, and there is the kind of unnatural that involves illusions, creating fantasies about what the natural order of things is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology and progress, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with magic. But there is something wrong with excessive power – or at least with the pursuit of it – that the development of technological and magic knowledge enables. It will be claimed that this is the very point Tolkein is making, but there is an important difference. Tolkein’s tale is more cautionary – there was an idyllic past that we’ve lost by becoming too modern. There doesn’t seem much hope for getting it back, but to the extent there is hope, it involves turning our backs on modernity – at least on industrial modernity. In Brooks the question is a little deeper, because the Thing that Broke the World is something in us, and it happens whether or not the proximate cause is technological.

Panamon Creel and Keltset. I won’t try to understand what’s so interesting about these two characters, it’s just worth pointing out that there’s nothing like them in Lord of the Rings. Yes, I have to include this section because everyone who trashes Shannara always says that every character has a direct analogue in Lord of the Rings, and it’s simply not true.

To be clear, people who complain about The Sword of Shannara aren’t spitting into the wind. There are some serious problems with it. Some things that bothered me personally include:

  1. I have no idea what elves and dwarves are in these books. They exist, but they’re underdescribed, and it’s not at all clear – at least, not in The Sword of Shannara – why certain characters are elves (or dwarves) at all. They don’t seem to add much to the narrative.

  2. Hendel’s non-death was telegraphed for miles away. As a rule of thumb, if characters in a fantasy novel mourn someone without actually seeing the body, that character will return. So, it was a bit insulting to be expected to pretend I didn’t know he wasn’t really dead.

  3. Brooks’ writing is not that great. It’s been pointed out before that it follows too closely the English teacher’s Cardinal Rule of Good Writing that you’re never ever under any circumstances allowed to describe the same thing twice in the same way within x paragraphs. So, we get lots of everyone’s least favorite bullshit tic of endless synonyms for "said" when it would’ve been perfectly OK to just quote the thing the character said and trust the reader to know who was talking. Also, everyone is described by their title all the goram time. Menion is "The Highlander." Flick is "the Valeman." Till you just can’t stand it anymore.

  4. Orl Fane. What a terrible character. It’s bad enough that he’s such an obvious Gollum ripoff, but there’s the additional problem that there shouldn’t be a Gollum for the Sword of Shannara in the first place. The Sword is the Sword of Truth. Which is more or less the opposite of what the Ring is. A Sword of Truth can’t turn you into a warped, obsessive hoarder of it. I can believe it driving someone to suicide, maybe, but not to possessiveness. Just the opposite – the typical response to holding the Sword is revulsion, because most people are not strong enough to face the reality of who they actually are. Even Jerle Shannara, we’re told, couldn’t face wielding the Sword, which is why The Warlock Lord is still (half-)"alive" in the first place. There is simply no way someone like Orl Fane would obsess over keeping the Sword. He would be more likely to throw it out and run off a cliff.

And then there are some things that are maybe-maybe-not dealbreakers, depending on how you choose to read them:

  1. There are some curiously obvious plotholes. For example, for half the book, Shea is in danger for his life, because he is the only person alive who can plausibly kill the Warlock Lord. Then, when the Warlock Lord’s minions finally capture him, they conveniently take him directly to the Warlock Lord rather than outright killing him, as per the original plan. Worse, there’s the question of why Shea is out and about in the world at all. If he’s the only person in the world who can kill the Warlock Lord, shouldn’t he be in a cave somewhere guarded by an entire army rather than running about where he can be captured? I mean, someone else can go fetch the Sword of Shannara, yes?

  2. The Elfstones seem wildly inconsistent deus ex machina thingees. They’re, like, SUPER-powerful, and sometimes they do the one thing and sometimes the other, and they as good as never bring about the bad consequences that using them is supposed to bring. Shea gets constantly warned that he shouldn’t use them unless it’s a dire emergency. I mean, except that one time, when Allanon leaves the party alone without bothering to tell them this. No matter, nothing bad ever actually happens as a result of using them, though sometimes Brooks makes a perfunctory threat of something bad maybe might happening eventually.

I separate (5) and (6) out from the others because these points are actually salvagable. It would have been better if Brooks had done a better job explaining them to the reader, of course, so he’s totally not off the hook here, but there is a silver lining to both of them. As for the Elfstones, well, maybe I’m a sucker, but there’s something kind of cool about them being superpowerful and yet us not really knowing what they do. There’s something definitely cool about the fact that Shea doesn’t really know how to use them. Yes, they seem like a deus ex machina, but the fact that they don’t come with an instruction manual makes them a bit of a Loki element more than a plot convenience if you ask me. Mileage will vary, but I’ll come down on the pro side. My only real problem with them is that they do seem to be a bit consequence-free. It’s fine to bring a superpowerful gun on stage, but if you’re going to describe it as dangerous, it had better actually be dangerous when you fire it, you know? Brooks could’ve done a better job selling us on the idea that using the Elfstones was risky. In particular, since he’s sold on making the book episodic, he could’ve had use of the Elfstones at least set up one of the episodes.

As for (6), Brooks definitely could’ve done a better job selling us on the idea that Shea needed to be out and about with the party rather than confined to a cave somewhere guarded by absolutely every spare soldier ever. It’s at least hinted that the story is more coherent than it seems in the scene where Shea finally does find the Sword … in that it’s not clear anyone but him would’ve recognized it. Go back and read that scene – and the scenes leading up to it – again, and I think you’ll find that Brooks actually knew what he was doing here. Read in a certain way, they’re admirably subtle. When we get a description of Shea’s impressions of all the junk that Orl Fane is lugging around, for example, nothing is described in any detail but the Sword, which is actually quite a skilled show-don’t-tell way of conveying the impression that Shea feels a subconscious connection to it. Something in Shea recognizes it for what it is, even if he’s not initially aware he’s seen it. And it is, after all, Shea and not Panamon who eventually realizes why Orl Fane took only the Sword from his collection of junk when he escapes – presumably because a buried part of Shea’s psyche already knew what the Sword was. It isn’t the craftsmanship of the Sword that Shea is responding to. That’s the kind of thing that Panamon would’ve noticed before him. The Sword clearly has a way of rendering itself inconspicuous, ordinary.

But that still doesn’t get us all the way there, because when the party set out on its quest it was under the impression that Allanon knew where the Sword was. And indeed, they go there, only to find that it’s been stolen. So there’s no getting around the contradiction: if Allanon knew exactly where the Sword was, needing Shea to identify it won’t do as an explanation for why he’s tagging along. Had the Sword not been stolen – and for all they knew it wasn’t – there would’ve been no need for Shea to find it. Since they had departed with the idea that the Sword would still be at Paranor, the wise decision would’ve been to have left Shea behind. So yes, Brooks needed a better setup for this. It’s always been my impression that he tried to offer one, though: namely that the reason Shea is along is because they’re pressed for time. The Warlock Lord is preparing an invasion of the Southland, and they desperately need to kill him before that can get underway. Part of the tension in the novel is that it turns out that this invasion is even further along than they’d suspected, and there isn’t time to prepare. Which is good as far as it goes, but we’re never clear on why the Good Guys are caught with their pants this far down in the first place. Why didn’t Allanon simply start this quest years earlier? Weeks, even? Everyone’s priorities seem to be out of order. Still, if you buy the setup that somehow all of this buildup to invasion has caught Allanon off guard, such that he’s starting preparations much, much later than is prudent, then you at least have an explanation for why Shea is along for the ride: because there is no time to waste in getting Shea to the Warlock Lord to kill him. They can’t afford to go out, retrieve the Sword, and then smuggle Shea across the border to the Skull Kingdom with it, because by then the Southland will already have fallen.

So, I separate out (5) and (6). It’s not that they’re not valid criticisms, because they are. The book could’ve benefitted – like a lot – by better editing here. Someone – and by "someone" I’m of course talking about Lester and Judy-Lynn Del Rey – should’ve ordered Brooks to make the setup a bit more logical. We can read between the lines for a way in which this isn’t actually a plothole, but we shouldn’t have to. This was easily fixed, and so it should’ve been. My point is just that neither is it as bad as people make it out to be. Brooks evidently needed a lot of coaching to get through his first book. This wasn’t a born talent1. There are good ideas in this book. It just maybe needed a bit more coaching than it ended up getting.

Bottom line: The Sword of Shannara is a good book. It’s derivative and disorganized, but not as derivative and disorganized as you’ve been told. There are plenty of original ideas in here, and Brooks does a good job, for the most part, of expressing them. Like it or not, it’s also the book that gave birth to a genre. High Fantasy was coming one way or another. Be glad it came at the hands of a book about a post-apocalyptic future with interesting things to say about the nature of evil and truth, and not directly out of Robert Jordan or Weiss and Hickman.

  1. Fine, snark all you want – maybe it’s not even a "talent" at all. As I said, I’m in the pro-camp on Shannara. No one said you have to be too.

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