Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reading The Sword of Shannara: The Elfstones of Shannara

Mark Schelske is a new contributor to Fantasy Matters--he was inspired to write because of the conversation that Jen Miller and Phil Ilten had about Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara.  Here, he shares his thoughts about the best book in the Shannara series.

When Jen and her brother Phil read and reviewed The Sword of Shannara, I kicked myself because I could not recall the names of characters, places, or even the plot.  Every time they dissected another set of chapters I found myself saying, “how could I forget that?” or "who the heck was that?" Terry Brooks was the big name in fantasy when I grew up in the 1970s, and yet I remember everything about Star Wars (though I have seen it several times) and nothing about Sword (which I've read only once.)  In his Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons From A Writing Life, Brooks wrote that after submitting his first manuscript he received a letter in November of 1974 from Lester del Rey that stated, “Let me say at once that I consider your novel as potentially the best epic fantasy since Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.”  That’s huge praise from one of the great editors of fantasy.  So why can't I remember anything?  How could such a groundbreaking novel just disappear in my mind?  I think the brutal honesty in Phil’s final thoughts gave me my answer: “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.”

I guess I couldn’t agree more.  I forgot this book.  No nostalgia, no lasting impression, no originality.  Like Jen admitted with her first “impression of it as this overdone, tired cliche.”  Maybe it was so forgettable because Sword, to be blunt, is an imitation.  You can’t help but agree with Jen when she starts making comparisons with LOTR such as Shady Vale/Shire, Shea/Frodo, Allanon/Gandolf, Warlock Lord/Sauron, etc.  So why did I read the rest of the Shannara Trilogy and the four novels of the Heritage of Shannara from the 1980s and early 90s?  Why the investment of time if my foremost memory is that of being burned out by the same formula - a mixed human/elf descendant from the house of Shannara who is sent on a quest by the Druid Allanon to overcome evil.  So burned out, in fact, that I never moved on to Brooks next series: the Magic Kingdom of Landover.

My defense is simple.  The Elfstones of Shannara excited me so much I continued to buy and read all the other Shannara books which I have ultimately forgotten.  I believe Elfstones is the best novel by Terry Brooks.  Or at least, the best one I’ve read so far.  I kept thinking he would write a better book, but he never did.  I still have to tackle that Landover series.  And the Knight of the Word trilogy is his best writing yet in my estimation, but Elfstones is my sentimental favorite.  I believe Brooks gave it his most intense writing effort.  His original follow-up to Sword was more or less rejected by his editor.  I think this caused Brooks to break out of the mold and write something uniquely his own.  Brooks himself wrote, “Lester was right, I must abandon this story.  After careful consideration, I could find no way to salvage it...I released my death grip on the material and started over.  The decision led me to write The Elfstones of Shannara, a book that readers repeatedly tell me they consider my best.”  So I am not alone in my opinion.

I can understand Phil’s annoyance when he critiques the magical elfstones in Sword: “It frustrates me when magic has no cost - physical, emotional, financial, whatever - and when it works just like pressing a button.”  Moreover, I am sympathetic to Jen's comment about how the "heroic (white) male always wins" in Sword.  The sequel does go in a different direction.  This time around the elfstones no longer work like pressing a button.  And the magical tree, Ellcrys, held back a horde of demons at a great cost - it was dying - so its seed needs to be replanted.  The magic in this book doesn't seem to come easy.  And an elven lady named Amberle (I remember her because I have a cousin named Amber) is one of the main characters who serves as caretaker of that seed.  And like Darth Vader, I certainly remember the Reaper, the big bad alpha demon.  So unlike Sword, Elfstones fueled my imagination with this semi-original trope of planting a seed in the bloodfire so that the Ellcrys could be reborn.  Jen might see that as throwing the ring into the fire of Mt. Doom, but I wasn’t left with that image.  It matters that after all these years I can actually remember these details.  Maybe if I reread it I’ll hate it (the prose is the same as Sword) but my instincts tell me otherwise.  The prose cannot compete with my favorite authors such as David Eddings, George R.R. Martin, R.A. Salvatore, etc. who I’ve read since then, but a good story is a good story.    

Jen and Phil, I highly urge you to read Elfstones while Swords is still somewhat fresh in your minds.  There’s a reason why Elfstones remained sixteen weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List.  If you follow my advice, that will give me a good reason to dust off my old copy and read along with you (I’ve yet to read a fantasy book twice.)  I am interested to see if this sequel will leave you begging for more, or bored out of your minds given how far fantasy has evolved since then.