Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reading The Sword of Shannara: Chapters 31-35

The Sword of ShannaraThis week marks our last installment in our conversations about Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara.  You can find them all from the beginning here, and we'd encourage you to let us know what you thought of the book in the comments!

Dear Phil--

Congratulations! We did it! And some more of your predictions came true--Stenmin did get out and then back into the castle through a secret passage. Nice work! I kept thinking of our discussion of the predictability of the plot during these chapters as well. There was one moment in particular where Brooks completely tips his hand, deflating what could be a very climactic moment. This happens at the very end when Curzad Ohmsford tells Shea and Flick that someone is looking for them, and Flick says, “What can we do? We don’t even have the Elfstones to protect us anymore.” Instead of letting holding off until the last possible moment to reveal the surprise that Panamon has found the Elfstones and has survived, by having Flick say this, it plants the seed of this possibility in the reader’s mind, making the ending less exciting.

Before I get to the big-picture questions, I also want to point out one moment of prose that I really enjoyed. As much as we’ve complained about Brooks’ writing style over the course of these letters, every once in a while, he comes up with an image or a turn of phrase that is very effective. In this section of our reading, it occurred at the beginning of Chapter 31; Brooks juxtaposes imagery of death and rebirth in unexpected ways, making the reader feel both hope and despair. I think the line that I liked the best was: “In the same hour, the assault on Tyrsis began. It, too, came quietly, born with the dying of the night.” So lovely.

Anyways, onto bigger questions: What did you think of the ending? I’ll admit--there weren’t many surprises for me, and since I felt like I knew what was coming, I would skim large chunks of the novel to get to the action. This happened mostly with the siege of Tyrsis--I kept flipping pages, waiting for the Elves to get there. Even the big message of the book--“the truth will set you free”--was a key theme that we had identified early on as being a question central to the novel as a whole. I wasn’t that surprised by Panamon’s return at the very end; this was another thing that Brooks telegraphs with the line, “it seemed that the scarlet thief was not limping, after all” at the very end of Chapter 34, although I had pegged Panamon’s return for the sequel, rather than the end of the novel itself.

Even Allanon’s death didn’t really get to me--he had been such an enigmatic character throughout the entire novel, and like I mentioned in my last letter, his limitless power is potentially problematic, so his death/disappearance seemed more like what should happen, rather than something sad. It’s almost as if he and Brona were balancing each other out (something that plays out in Shea’s mind during the final struggle between Shea and the Warlock Lord), and “neither can live while the other survives,” or something like that.

I was sad that Keltset died--and it made me think about how he was only one who died of this book’s three majorly heroic figures: Menion, Keltset, and Balinor. It would have been a very different ending if Menion or Balinor had died instead of Keltset, and, in my opinion, it would have been a better book for it. It would have done a lot to shake up the “heroic (white) male always wins” trope that seems to dominate so much of fantasy/sci fi. Given how much The Sword of Shannara has done to shape the genre, I wonder how things would be different today if Balinor had died, and Keltset had survived and taken over the throne of Tyrsis.

One final big-picture question: How did you like this way of reading a book? I really enjoyed reading and discussing the book, but I think the segments that we were reading were too small, and we took too long to write back and forth. I found myself struggling to come up with new things to talk about each time that were different from the previous set of letters, and I often had to go back and review the plot before starting a new section. I know I paid better attention to the book because I had to write so much about it, though, so maybe it was a good way to read after all!

Thanks for doing this with me! I had a lot of fun, and I hope you did too!


Dear Jen--

Recently, I started reading The Magician King, and on my most recent tram ride was caught laughing aloud in public more than once. The third time I caught myself doing this, I realized that never once in Shannara did I laugh aloud. Thinking a little more, I realized that I had never cried either, or gotten goosebumps, or even had the chills. Shannara just really did not elicit any major emotional responses from me, and I think this is a problem. Perhaps one of the reasons is because of the way we read it. I completely agree with you; the writing made me think more, but the portions we read were too short, and we had too little to discuss.

There were times where I did want to continue reading, but I had to stop, and I think this caused problems. I really like to immerse myself in books (as I think most people do), which allows me to empathize more with the characters, and the five chapter limit stopped me from doing this. That being said, it was not just the chapter limit that caused this problem. I remember reading The Dark Tower and putting it down for a week because I could not bear to finish Roland’s story about Susan.  That’s how powerful the story-telling was. I also remember when we were read to as children, and we were always begging and pleading for just one more chapter. But nothing like this happened to me for Shannara. Maybe it would be interesting to try a different format that lets the book flow more naturally. I’m not exactly sure how to do that though …

Landover seriesI’ve actually read quite a few other books by Brooks: The Phantom Menace (novelization), the Word and the Void series, and the Landover series. Of all the Brooks I’ve read, the Landover series is hands down the best. But now after reading Shannara I need to go back and read the Landover series again. I never realized how much an author’s style can change over the years, but I think Brooks is a prime example. It would also be interesting to read through the rest of the Shannara series, although I’m not certain I want to make that kind of time commitment.

Anyhow, time to move back to the ending of the book. My main problem was I just didn’t care. I didn’t mind that Keltset died (although I do agree he was pretty cool), or that Panamon almost died and returned. I wasn’t so bothered that Allanon died, or even Hendel. Honestly, I think perhaps the only character I would have been somewhat upset to see go was Menion, but of course he couldn’t because he had to marry Shirl. I was harboring some glimmer of hope that somehow the ending would give us a nice twist or surprise, but it never came. I was hoping the blurred line of good and evil between the races would somehow come to play a larger role. Maybe Keltset would convince the Army of the North to turn and march on Brona. Or maybe a contingent of gnomes would ally with Allanor. But none of this came to pass. Instead the elves save the day, the Border Legion holds, and our plucky hero defeats the infinitely more powerful Brona.

I think what disappointed me the most was the last three pages. Suddenly Flick and Shea are home, their father doesn’t ask any questions, and everything is back to normal. When I think of fantasy stories, I think of some everyday person being plucked out from their normal life and being thrown into the midst of adventure (Harry Potter, Frodo, the Pevensies). But the really exciting part for me of all these adventures is the return home where we see how the hero(ine) has grown and changed. In Shannara nothing like this happens. Shea and Flick are home, and besides having somewhat diminished appetites and being slightly paler, everything seems to be exactly as it began.

That being said, I’m glad I read the book, and that we were able to discuss it. I think I would have missed quite a few things without you pointing them out to me, and the discussions we had have helped me broaden my outlook on fantasy. Thanks for the journey!

-- Phil

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