Thursday, 20 October 2011

Down Memory Lane: The Sword of Shannara

I don’t recall when I first read the Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks or how many times I have read it now. 

The original cover art in Australia
It can’t have been any later than 1992 because I gave a speech in my final year at primary school (elementary school) about the Shannara books – however many of them existed at that point. I forgot I was supposed to do a speech that week and had to write one in a hurry. I must have been reading the books at the time and it was flavour of the month. 

Like many other books I picked up in my early years, I read these out of order. The Elfstones of Shannara was the first in the series I read and I’m not sure when I went back and read the Sword of Shannara.

This book is very classic fantasy – or you might even say formulaic, but I enjoy it nevertheless. Think Lord of the Rings. Allanon (Gandalf) arrives to rescue Shea Ohmsford (Frodo) who is the only person who can wield (carry) the Sword of Shannara (the One Ring) and is being hunted by Skull Bearers (Ringwraiths). He must take the Sword of Shannara to confront and destroy the Warlock Lord (Sauron). Looks very familiar doesn’t it?

Shea is also joined by a company of heroes to help him along his way, including two elves (OK, we get two of Legolas) and a dwarf (Gimli). We don’t get three hobbit companions, but we do get Flick Ohmsford (Shea’s adopted brother) and Menion Leah (a close family friend of the Ohmsfords and filling in for Aragorn). 

Shea is also superficially very much like Frodo. He comes from Shady Vale (the Shire), an isolated community of hard-working but unworldly people called Valemen (hobbits). He’s never been out into the world and is ill-equipped to defend himself, especially against dark and magical creatures like the Skull Bearers. OK, not the most original name, but this was a first book and dates back to the 70s. Be kind.

Of all the Shannara books, this is not my favourite. It is possibly my least favourite. Looking at it against Lord of the Rings I now wonder if that’s why. I know it has been criticised for its resemblance to Lord of the Rings. But it is still an enjoyable read, although possibly a bit slow in places. More so on re-reads I think, though it’s been a while for me. It is a first book and I don’t think Brooks’s later books are so obviously unoriginal. Brooks freely admits he was heavily influenced by Tolkien when he wrote this book. 

It is worth reading for the scene-setting it does for the later books – understanding the fact that Shea is a half-elf and the last surviving descendent of the Elven royal house of Shannara. Only a descendant of Jerle Shannara can wield the Sword, and this is important in later books as well. Also Shea is given the blue Elfstones, might weapons of magic, which can only be wielded by those of Elven blood. This also becomes an important plot point later in the series. It's also useful to understand some of the history. The Shannara series is set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a chemical or nuclear holocaust. The survivors have warily turned to magic as a source of power in the new world. Science is almost completely shunned, its knowledge lost.

Way cooler cover art! I want this one. Presumably that's Paranor.
Well, I guess now I’ve told you, you don’t need to read it for those reasons, but reading the book is still a fun way to really understand how these things are important, instead of being just backstory to a later book. I should know. I read the books out of order, remember?

The most intriguing character in my opinion is Allanon. He is the last of the Druids, and he sleeps the Druid Sleep at Paranor, the Druid’s Keep, unless things are terribly wrong in the world. Tough gig, huh? You’d hope the pay is good. 

Unfortunately it’s not. Instead he is the object of suspicion, mistrust and downright hatred in many quarters, particularly human lands. Things are a bit better among the Elves and Dwarves. Flick in particular distrusts Allanon’s motives. He has good cause – Allanon is charged to protect the Four Lands as a whole and sacrifices must be made. 

Despite that, I feel more sympathy for Allanon than Flick. The Valeman is a dour stick in the mud and Allanon is a tormented, conflicted figure of myth and legend trying his best to save a bunch of ungrateful louts who do nothing but ostracise him in return. That takes some serious dedication and qualifies you for ‘way cool’ status in my opinion. He’s also about 7 feet tall and nearly always shrouded in black robes. This is a character who is just awesome without being invincible. 

Allanon is also the only character with a significant repeat appearance in the first three books, as Terry Brooks move onto successive generations of Ohmsfords with each book. If you haven’t read them, don’t panic! I’ve read some books where sequels were significant disappointments because of this, but if there is a master of getting it right, it is Terry Brooks. He masterfully engages the reader in the new Omhsford without making us feel we have lost our connection with the previous ones. 

This isn’t the most original book, and it’s not Terry Brooks’s best book either. When is a first book ever an author’s best effort? I should like to think we all improve with time and I will write about some of his other books in the future. But it is an enjoyable read and if you’re looking for something your kids can read (like my Dad was) this book qualifies. No sex, no drugs, no graphic violence. I’m assuming if you’re reading this blog you don’t have an issue with magical and supernatural themes! 

Oh, one other downside. It has no dragons. Can you believe that? Got Trolls though.



Goran said...

I remember reading these books as a kid too. Though I'm pretty sure it was well before 1992 (I finished high school in 1988). I might have been 1984 when I read them. The Shanara stories (sword, elfstones and wishsong) were among the first such books I read and I remember re-reading them soon after.

I also loved the cover by the Hildebrandt brothers on Sword of Shanara.

Thanks for taking me on this trip down memory lane.

Andy Christofferson said...

I loved this book when I was a kid! I read it before I read "Lord of the Rings" so I missed the obvious comparisons, but I reread it recently and even now I feel like Brooks' characters are more than just carbon copies of their inspirational antecedents.

I second Goran's comment; this is a wonderful trip down memory lane.

William Kenney said...

I really love the Shannara books. In high school, I read the Hobbit and then the Lord of the Rings and craved more in that style. When I found Sword of Shannara (granted, a LOTR clone), I could continue reading in that same atmosphere, if you will. As the series progressed, Terry Brooks really came into his own voice, I think.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I agree, there was a definite evolution in later books. I am particularly enjoying the Word and the Void tie in.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I read it before Lord of the Rings, too. In fact I hadn't even really noticed the obvious comparisons until I sat down to write this post.

I believe LOTR was the inspiration for The Sword of Shannara, but it's not 'just' a carbon copy. It has it's own individualitioes and the characters are definitely distinct from their inspirations. Allanon, as an obvious example, is the 'wizard' figure and equivalent to Gandalf, but personality-wise, they are nothing alike.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

It was my pleasure, since I got to take that trip too!

Goran said...

I recall one scene in the Sword of Shanara where the party stumble across an overgrown ruin with metal beams and I remember thinking "wow this world must be centuries after some previous world like ours." I only read the word and the void series in the past few years and now I see that he is tying his Shanara stories in with those and I am blown away by the foreshadowing - twenty years in the making. That is the very definition of Epic :-)

Anthony said...

I read 'The Sword of Shannara' in the summer of my 6th
grade/7th grade year.  I chose it from
among several others at the bookstore because I was impressed that a book
written  in 1977 was still on the shelves
(lol, probably a sophisticated thought for a grade schooler).  Anyway, that book and some others helped
cement my (up to now) lifelong interest in the fantasy genre.  With that said, I agree with you that 'The Sword
of Shannara' is a flawed work.  One of
its chief weaknesses is in its character development.  Most of the characters in the novel are not
developed fully and almost all of them, apart from Allanon, act like spoiled
children.  Brooks' second novel, 'The
Elfstones of Shannara' is a much better book--in fact, one of the better fantasy
novels that I have read to date.  Unfortunately, none of his other books have risen to the level of 'Elfstones.'

Ciara Ballintyne said...

It helped cement my love of fantasy as well. I read it purely because it was in my Dad's bookcase, although I read the Elfstones first. The Elfstones is probably my all-time favourite Shannara book, although I am enjoying the latest books which deal with the apolocalypse out of which the Four Lands were birthed.

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