Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reading The Sword of Shannara: Chapters 16-20

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, and read our discussions of chapters 1-5 here, chapters 6-10 here, and chapters 11-15 here.  Then join our conversation and let us know what you think!

Dear Jen--

I’m not entirely certain why, but I enjoyed these chapters more than the previous chapters. Many of the issues that we have been discussing in these letters were still present, but for some reason I felt the story just flowed better. Maybe it’s because I totally called that the Sword of Shannara was in the gnome’s sack of loot, which made me feel good about myself. But I think this was the first set of chapters where I felt the book was significantly different from LotR, and creative in its own right.

Speaking of differences, I want to return to a point you made earlier about how the gnomes are not inherently evil, unlike in LotR. I think this is very important, and will play a very large role later in this book, or perhaps later books. The separation of the races in Shannara while there, is not very pronounced. In previous chapters Brooks has always referred to the company as “men” despite containing elves, dwarfs, and standard homo sapiens. If my memory serves me correctly, he has also on various occasions referred to the gnomes as “men” as well.

In the most recent chapters, this idea of all races being represented as “men” is hammered home with the introduction of Keltset and Panamon. Interestingly, Brooks gives Shea the general opinion of rock trolls as they are represented in LotR and even Harry Potter, “I thought they were all savage creatures, almost like animals” (p. 302). Panamon responds to this comment of Shea ironically, but in doing so, calls Keltset a “man” as well. Certainly up to this point I had assumed that if trolls existed in Shannara, they would certainly be evil.

Where this leads me next is how the troops of good could potentially line up against the troops of evil in the world of Shannara. Now, because no particular race is either evil or good, both sides can recruit from all races. Traditionally, evil creatures are large, strong, and stupid, while the good creatures are much smaller and lighter, but also nimble. A perfect example of this is the final battle in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where minotaurs and giant wolves face wild cats and birds. Now the waters have been muddied, with large strong creatures and small nimble creatures available to both sides.

But the idea that races are not constrained to good or evil is also caught up in the point you made last letter with the quote “Necessity was a higher god than truth.” In Shannara the typical good versus evil is much less dilineated, or at least the definition of good has been drastically changed from previous fantasy novels. While it is clear that the Warlock Lord is evil, everything else is in a much grayer area. Panamon is a thief, but I think it is relatively certain that he will be joining the side of good rather shortly.

One final comment on these chapters. As I was reading them I was struck with how there is a much brighter outlook for the company in Shannara then there ever was for the hobbits in LotR. In LotR the only chance of Middle Earth surviving was the suicide mission of Frodo; everything else was just a sideshow. Here, it would appear that even without the sword of Shannara, it would be possible to unite the races in battle against the Warlock Lord.

Well, that’s it for these chapters. I look forward to hearing what you think!

-- Phil

Dear Phil--

I really like your comments about race in these chapters, because I recently read an article talking about Game of Thrones that made the argument that fantasy writing is inherently racist. Characters are defined by the race they are, rather than who they are as individuals. Elves are good, orcs are bad, and there’s no room for change. I don’t agree with this sentiment 100%, but I do see how it appears in a lot of fantasy works, and I really appreciate that Brooks is working to challenge it. And he’s doing it in a subtle, non-obvious way that is consistent with the plot and characters; I’m not sure I would have noticed it if I weren’t taking so much time to think and write about this novel. Because of this, I’m a lot more impressed by the work overall--it might be similar to LotR in its plot and characters, but in terms of social commentary, it’s doing something new and challenging. (Now, if only there was at least one female character in the book, we’d really have something!)

Speaking of LotR...there were a few similarities in these chapters that I really had to mention, just because they seemed so obvious. The whole Allanon dying and coming back to life in the fiery furnace was amazingly similar to Gandalf’s death and resurrection, although I found it very interesting how Allanon got away. Rather than being saved by magic or brought back by unknown divine beings, as Gandalf was, he was saved by practical knowledge. He knew about a ladder in the furnace room, and this knowledge of a very mundane detail saved his life--nothing magical about it. Orl Fane seems like a very close parallel to Gollum, in the way that he doesn’t belong with anyone anymore, how he is devious but pretends to be subservient, and how the heroes need him to complete their quest. Plus, he’s small and scrawny, just like Gollum.

The one set of characters that I can’t think of the LotR pairing for is Panamon and Keltest--this seems like a creative addition to Tolkien’s fellowship, and I agree with you that they add a nice shade of grey to the morality of the novel. Honestly, the characters they remind me the most of are Han Solo and Chewie, especially since I have no doubt that Panamon is going to come out on the side of good in the end. Given that Star Wars: A New Hope came out the same year that The Sword of Shannara did, this seems to be an interesting coincidence, rather than a point of influence.

One final thing: I wish I could say that, like you, I called that Orl Fane had the sword in his sack, but unfortunately, I didn’t. I figured that the elves who had been killed in battle had come into contact with it somewhere, but I was so hung up on the sword being in the Tre-Stone and Shea being the one who could wield it, that I didn’t think about the possibility that it might appear elsewhere out of the stone. For me, it provided a nice twist at the end of this section.

And with that, I’m going to keep reading to find out what happens!