Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reading The Sword of Shannara: Chapters 26-30

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. Find earlier installments of our discussion here; we'd encourage you to add to our conversation in the comments!

Dear Jen--

Some of my predictions turned out to be correct! I was momentarily worried about my Eventine theory when Flick entered the tent, but it turns out I had nothing to fear. Unfortunately my other two predictions were only partially correct, or perhaps totally incorrect. While Palance has been mortally wounded by Stenmin and would appear to be at death’s door, the cause was not what I expected. I also had thought that Balinor and friends would escape through secret passages, but it looks like Stenmin did instead. However, I did feel rather confident that secret passages of some sort would be involved; what kind of castle doesn’t have secret passages?

A Song of Ice and FireUnfortunately, I’m not certain if predictability is necessarily a good thing. I recently read through Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and was discussing the first few books with Eadaoin [McClean, another Fantasy Matters contributor] (I also agree with your "American Tolkien" article). She commented that oftentimes characters will lay out detailed plans, only to see the book take an entirely different direction. To me, Shannara seems to almost do the opposite. When Shea, Keltset, and Panamon are searching for the gnome, Orl Fane, their plan is outlined, “if they discovered no trail in that direction, they would try going eastward”. Shortly thereafter, they do exactly as they had planned, and find the trail of Orl Fane in the process.

On a larger scale this process was repeated with the prophesies of Bremen, although these were slightly more ambiguous and open to interpretation. Yesterday I read an interesting article on the BBC, which described a study to determine whether spoilers ruined books for readers. Interestingly enough, the study found that readers preferred short stories with a spoiler added rather than the original story without the spoiler. However, in the case of Shannara, I think I would prefer to have some of the predictability removed. Perhaps I’m jumping the gun though; Shannara very well might have some more surprises in store.

Despite my complaints above, I am still interested in the direction the book will take. While I know you were excited in the last chapters about the introduction Shirl as a female character, I don’t expect too much out of her. I had felt that she would have a more important role to play between Menion and Palance, but that part of the story seems to have come to a rather abrupt close. Now that Balinor and friends have regained control of Tyrsis, the question is will they be able to defeat the northern army, or hold out long enough until elvish reinforcements arrive? Now that Eventine has been freed and is with Allanon, it only seems a matter of time until the elves ride to their aid.

The rescue of Eventine bugged me slightly. How could Flick manage to free Eventine from directly under the nose of a Skull Bearer? Even more irksome was the rescue of Eventine and Flick by Allanon. Allanon’s powers seem to have only grown throughout the book, and at this juncture seem to have become almost unbelievable. Not only was he able to locate Flick and Eventine in the middle of nowhere, he managed to easily destroy a rather large group of northmen, all without notice from other scouting parties. I think I would feel more comfortable if Allanon’s power was better defined.

As for our other characters, I’m glad that our mystery with Keltset has finally been resolved and I’m interested to see how this part of the story plays out …

-- Phil

Dear Phil--

Nice work with your predictions!  Your thoughts about predictability in the novel--and even more importantly, telegraphing future plot movement--are really interesting, particularly because so often, this telegraphing is unnecessary and doesn't really serve a purpose.  One passage that struck me in a similar way appears in Chapter 27 as Flick is rescuing Eventine: "At that moment, he was aware of his every feeling, his mind pushed right to the brink of collapse--yet later, he would recall nothing of these feelings.  Mercifully, they would be blocked from his memory, and all that would remain would be one sharp picture etched indelibly in his brain of the sleeping Troll Maturns and the object of his search--Eventine."  The flash-forward here doesn't really seem to serve a purpose except to describe how intense it was, but by moving into the future, it takes the reader out of the intensity of the actual moment.

I also agree with your complaints about the rescue of Eventine, and I would even say that things in general are happening too easily.  After pages and pages of things going wrong--losing the Sword of Shannara, losing Shea, having Palance be a bad-ish guy, etc.--now, suddenly, a switch has flipped and almost everything seems to be going well, seemingly against all odds.  Keltset is a super-troll-hero; Flick rescues Eventine, and then rides without any trouble to meet up with Eventine's army; Menion saves the girl from the creepy prince and frees the true king of Tyrsis.  Even the places where major tension still exists--the siege of Tyrsis and the escape of Stenmin, most notably--seem like they will be fairly easy issues to resolve now that everything else is going so well.  Yes, I realize that this is somewhat to do with how books work, but for me, it's reading like Brooks looked at how long the book was and said, "Oops, gotta wrap this up in the next 100 pages or so!"

That said, I do appreciate how several of the characters have grown over the course of the novel--and how their maturation makes sense.  Although Flick's rescue of Eventine seems too easy, his motivations for doing it make sense and are in fitting with his character arc; similarly, we never would have seen him ride a horse across the country at the beginning of the book, nor have it be treated by the novel as something barely worth mentioning.  Menion, too, has grown from a prank-loving gadabout to someone who is filling the Aragorn role in the novel--the rightful king coming into his own.

One character that (as you also suggest) I am disappointed in is Shirl, though through no fault of her own, I'm sure.  She is now less of a strong character in her own right, and only exists to tell Menion how awesome he is and gaze adoringly into his eyes.  While Menion's long rambling to Shirl is touching in the way it shows his devotion to Shea, her role as passive listener and then validator--"No man can fault you for the courage you have shown these past five days--and I love you, Menion Leah"--undermines the individuality and agency of what could have been a very interesting addition to the novel.

A final thought, and it ties into your comments about Allanon and his power: I can't help but wonder if there is something sinister behind Allanon, his motivations, and his power.  Now, I will be the first to say that this reading is strongly shaped by my recent reading of a major fantasy epic trilogy (I won't name it, because doing that would majorly spoil things for those who haven't read it, but if really want to know, here's the link to it)--I'm pretty sure that such a cynical reading wouldn't have been the response for most of Brooks' readers when The Sword of Shannara first came out.  And even if Allanon turns out to be good, I might even argue that there is something inherently sinister about undefined and seemingly unlimited power in the hands of a human.

Looking forward to seeing how this ends!