Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reading The Sword of Shannara: Chapters 11-15

The Sword of ShannaraJen Miller and Phil Ilten have been reading The Sword of Shannara together and sharing their thoughts by writing back and forth.  If you're just joining us, get your own copy of the book, read the first two installments here and here, and join our conversation!

Dear Phil--

So, the plot thickens....One thing that struck me as I was reading this section was the difference in the “bad guys” between this and LotR. While you have Orcs and Uruk-Hai in Tolkien’s work, the only group of “bad guys” we’ve seen so far is the Gnomes, who are really just misguided--not truly evil. Certainly both texts have a solitary evil figure with a group of hunters, but it seems that Brooks is much more hesitant to label an entire race as evil.

I was also interested in the shifting perspective of the narrator throughout this section. For the most part, Brooks uses a third person omniscient narrator, although the reader doesn’t learn everything right away--she learns at the same rate that Flick and Shea do. In Chapter 11 (p. 186) this changes when Brooks breaks away from narrating the story of the main group and instead, follows Allanon on his scouting mission. I thought this was a really interesting move, because it breaks the association of the reader with Flick and Shea. It has seemed to me that Flick is the one that the reader is meant to associate with--he’s just an ordinary guy, along on a quest, which makes it easy to read ourselves into his role, and we get to hear his thoughts more often than most of the other characters. But by shifting the narration to Allanon’s scouting mission, this connection is broken, since the reader now knows more than the rest of the party does. It works well to build tension, since we recognize that the party has chosen the wrong path, but I wonder if it disrupts the connection that we feel with the characters.

Hendel’s “death” in this section was another thing that I found interesting--since I totally called that he wasn’t dead. I realize that you’ll have to take my word for it, but at the end of Chapter 12 I typed, “Is Hendel really dead?” The lack of a body, plus all of the endless talk about his sacrifice (not to mention the five seasons of Alias that I watched) made it pretty clear that he was coming back. One part of this story really irked me, though--we find out what happened to Hendel at the beginning of Chapter 14, not through a flashback or even through Hendel telling us what happened, but through the narrator, which kills a lot of the drama and excitement of the story. This is one of the things that bothers me about Brooks as a writer--he does a lot of telling, when he could be showing, and as a result, the narrative (and in particular, character development) suffers.

Two questions that I had after reading this section: it came up at least twice that this quest was being done for Shea. At the beginning of Chapter 13 (p. 232), Shea says, “They are all risking their lives for me.” And then after Shea falls into the river, Allanon is thinking about how they have lost “the man for whom the whole journey had been made” (p. 277). To me, this is ridiculous--Shea is making the journey for them, rather than the other way around. It’s not like he asked to go on this quest; instead, he’s the one who’s making the huge sacrifice to help preserve the way of life of everyone else. Is everyone really thinking of Shea as somehow personally motivated to do this, or am I misreading things?

And finally, on p. 253, Allanon thinks, “Necessity was a higher god than truth.” It would be interesting to think about how this statement aligns with other works of fantasy. Is The Sword of Shannara alone in championing necessity over truth? Is, in fact, this what it even does? I’ll be interested to see if this same value system persists until the end of the novel.

Happy reading!


Dear Jen--

I agree that the shifting narrative is slightly disruptive, especially when it came to the case of Hendel as you mentioned. As I wrote earlier, reading this book feels more like reading a D&D history or script, rather than a fantasy novel, and the shifting narrative enhances this feeling. Another example that stood out in my mind was at the Jade Pass while Menion was preparing to kill the gnome chieftain in cold blood. We are told that “he knew instinctively that he could not do it” (p. 198) and that “he was not a killer”. Again, we are directly told these aspects of Menion’s character, rather than being allowed to make our own conclusions from Menion’s actions. To me, writing something like “seeing Menion hesitate as he slowly raised his bow, Balinor fiercely whispered ‘You must do it!’” would have been much more effective.

I think the excessive telling also leads to other more technical problems in Brooks’ writing. Specifically, he provides more details than he should. From the beginning I had the general idea that the journey of Shea was going to take on epic proportions involving great distances and long time spans, similar to the eight month quest of Frodo. I also gathered the general impression that the journey up to Chapter 13 had indeed been very long and arduous. However, on p. 216, Allanon states that the crossing of the Raab plains is “a march of about four hours”. Armed with this knowledge, a quick glance at the map in the front of the book quickly ruined any illusion I had of the massive scope of Shannara and the quest:

Map of Shannara

In the image above I’ve assumed that walking over the plains, the company would be able to average approximately 5 mph. The distance I’ve highlighted in red between the Hall of Kings and Storlock then corresponds to twenty miles. This means, as the crow flies, the distance between Shady Vale and Paranor is only 100 miles and the dimensions of the map above are 133 miles by 133 miles. I was bit shocked by the scale; Shannara from this rough estimate is less than a third the size of Wisconsin. Perhaps my general perception of scale in fantasy novels has just been significantly skewed my entire life.

I realize the digression above is certainly rather nit-picky, but I think that staying consistent is critically important in any book, and consistency is oftentimes not present in Shannara. This ties in with your question about Shea and the quest … is the quest being done for Shea, or is Shea doing the quest for everyone else? The introduction makes it clear that Shea is doing the quest for everyone else, but the narrative gives the exact opposite impression. Another example is the general impression I have been given that Allanon is rather wise. Yet how was it a good idea to rush into Palanor without any type of plan or escape route even marginally considered? Again, this appears to me as an inconstancy between what the narration is telling us, and what is actually occurring in the book.

Despite my complaints above I’m starting to gain a little more interest in the story; hopefully things will start to get exciting soon!