Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reading The Sword of Shannara: Chapters 6-10

The Sword of ShannaraTwo weeks ago, we posted the first installment of Jen Miller and Phil Ilten's conversation about The Sword of Shannara as they read it together.  If you're just joining us, we invite you to find your own copy of the book and read along with us!

Dear Jen--

As I started to write this letter, I realized that last week both our letters were somewhat negative (maybe you disagree with me on this), and so this week I am going to try to conclude with a slightly more positive tone. That being said, there are some issues that I would like to get out of the way. The first issue, of course, is Lord of the Rings related. As I started Chapter 6, and finished up with Chapter 7, my impression of Shannara as a pale imitation of LotR only became worse.

We start in a small isolated village or region, Shady Vale/Shire, with a chosen hero, Shea/Frodo, and his loyal companion, Flick/Sam. Our heroes are forced to flee to Culhaven/Rivendell at the warnings of a mystic leader Allanon/Gandalf and meet with a friend of the leader, Balinor/Aragorn, who must earn their trust. Servants, Skull Bearrers/Nazgul, of the evil lord, Warlock Lord/Sauron, chase the heroes at every step of their journey, forcing them to take a less than preferred route through the Black Oaks/Old Forest. Along the journey one of the party’s members is devoured by a magical tree, Siren/Old Man Willow, in a realm guarded by a caretaker of the land, King of the Silver River/Tom Bombadil. There are even more similarities, but I will move on as I am quite certain that both of us could write pages on this. I would be interested, however, to hear if any specific similarities particularly frustrated you, as some of the above frustrated me.

I still have another negative issue I would like to discuss: Brooks’ writing style. As you mentioned in your first letter, Brooks not only dumps large quantities of history all at once, but his descriptions of persons and places are not very imaginative. As I continue reading, this does not seem to be getting better, and may be getting even worse. A specific example that I remember is at the beginning of Chapter 10 where Shea is described as having a “robot-like acceptance” of being “led to the proverbial slaughter”. Not only is this an anachronism (well maybe), but the description just doesn’t fit, and jolted me out the world I was creating in my mind with a picture of C-3PO strapped to the back of a Wookie.

Oh my, that was all so negative, so time for some things I liked (I hope you read the “oh my” with C-3PO’s voice). Thinking back to your previous letter, you mentioned the idea of political commentary working its way into the book. I think this is still there, and will be playing a more important role in the future. Even more interesting for me is the idea that perhaps the sides in this conflict are not represented by the standard good/evil dichotomy of nearly every fantasy book. The Warlock Lord is clearly evil, but what about the gnomes and trolls? According to the newest history lecture given to us by Allanon, all the races (except maybe the elves?) branched from humanity. The gnomes and trolls, unlike the dark creatures of LotR or Narnia, are not clearly evil, nor do we have any reason to believe that they will remain loyal to the Warlock Lord.

The revised history that Allanon described to Shea and company came as a bit of a surprise; I did not expect Shannara to be a post-apocalyptic world, and I think this significantly changes the tone of the book. I appreciated that more of the rule set behind sorcery was explained, despite being somewhat ambiguous. Without knowing the limitations of the characters’ powers (such as the elfstones) it is difficult to become excited when a narrow escape is achieved or a battle won. This make me wonder what exactly Allanon is holding back at the end of Chapter 9. Perhaps Shea is not actually a descendant of Shannara, and Allanon is merely using him as a symbol of belief to ensure the power of the sword lives on? In any case, it is clear that Brooks is holding something back despite the feeling that he as already told us the entire story.


Dear Phil--

Thinking about your two big complaints for this set of chapters, I, for the most part, agree with you. One thing about Brooks’ writing style that really bothered me this time was the length of his paragraphs. I realize that it seems trivial or silly to mention, but the huge blocks of text on the page make it much more difficult to physically find a place that I could get into the text. That said, one place that I really like the imagery was at the bottom of p. 101: “If the Lowlands of Clete had been a dying land, then this marsh was the death that waited--an infinite, ageless death that gave no sign, no warning, no movement as it crouched, concealed within the very land it had so brutally destroyed.” It’s the repetition, I think, that works well for me.

In terms of the similarities to LotR, again, I agree with you, but it didn’t irk me as much as it did you, and I think that’s because I was interested in a major difference that I noticed--namely, that Shea and company are trying to remove a powerful item of good from Paranor, rather than return/destroy a powerful item of evil. I’m trying to figure out if I think this changes the dynamic of the novel in a significant way--does it somehow make Shea’s quest less noble, since it’s partly for personal gain (that is, to get a really spiffy sword)? Frodo really stands nothing to gain with his quest--there’s only loss or more loss, but he embarks on the quest anyways.

I was also really interested in the world as a post-apocalypic setting. It made me wonder what the relationship between our world and the world of Shannara is--is the world of Shannara just a “Secondary World” as Tolkien would call it, or are we supposed to see it as a possible future of our world? Perhaps making such a distinction is silly, since it can ostensibly be both, but seeing this as a possible outcome in the real world gives the discussions of politics and morality greater weight than if the novel is just a fun escape.

I like your idea about what it is that Allanor is holding back, but I think it’s too tame. My guess is that it’s something like what Dumbledore held back from Harry Potter--namely, that Shea will have to die somehow to make the final blow against the Warlock Lord successful. Phrases like “the little more than would have proved the final terror for them” and “the gnawing realization that it would destroy any chance of success” (165) suggests to me that it’s something more sinister than just creating a figurehead--some key figure in the party is going to have to die. Care to make a friendly wager on this? :) A pint of Irish ale, perhaps?

Looking at my letter, I feel like it’s much more positive this time, so I’ll end with the one thing that really bugged me from these chapters: the elfstones. It really irritated me how they functioned as a deus ex machina, getting Shea, Flick, and Menion out of trouble whenever they needed help, with no consequences and without their power being used up. It frustrates me when magic has no cost--physical, emotional, financial, whatever--and when it works just like pressing a button. The unpredictability and uncertainty of magic is one thing that is pretty much a constant across fantasy literature, and even in this novel, it’s positioned against science as something that cannot be explained by the senses. So to have it function in this way seems not only internally contradictory, but just a cheap trick to make sure Shea and friends survive.