In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have
Lamppost dodger: Pat Black
I’ll start with a confession: I read the Shannara books before I read Tolkien.
I knew all about Lord of the Rings. I'd seen the truncated Ralph Bakshi cartoon version and my older brother was somewhat obsessed with the book… Ah, but did you actually read that handsome red hardback edition, fella? I have my doubts.
But I didn't reach Middle Earth’s shores until 1995. One year earlier, I took a chance on The Sword of Shannara.
Swords, sorcery and heroic fantasy seemed to be everywhere in the early-mid 1980s, when I was a youngster. John Milius’ fantastic Conan The Barbarian adaptation in 1982 led a slew of big budget fantasy films, ranging from blood and boobs schlock such as The Sword and the Sorcerer, to Marc Singer prancing around in a loincloth with a pair of ferrets on his shoulders in Beastmaster, to supercharged fairy tales such as Krull and Neverending Story.
In the UK, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebooks brought worlds of heroes, monsters and wizards closer to you – as in, second-person perspective “you”.
I found these a little bit of a ballache, though I was maybe a couple of years too young for them.
Roll one die; if you get a 6, you start to give a f*ck;
Roll a 1 to start making up your own rules;
If you get a 2, sack this nonsense off.
In America, the board-bound phenomenon of Dungeons and Dragons took off, delaying sexual experience for many players for years. And let’s not forget He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, mincing their way across children’s hour TV screens in that signature Filmation style.
It’s difficult to know where this 1980s movement started, unless we want to point fingers at Tolkien 30 years earlier. Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, which first appeared in 1977, is as good a starting point as any.
I bought a copy when I was 17, heading off on an exciting quest of my own at the end of my first year at university, to visit a friend in the magical realm of Doncaster.
I was gradually climbing out of the horror fiction hole I’d fallen into in the previous couple of years and branching out into other kinds of yarn. Having spent my first, chaotic academic year grappling with texts read out of obligation rather than desire, it was nice to cool my head in a bucket of sticky, fizzy pop.
The Del Rey doorstopper followed Shea Ohmsford’s quest to bring peace and justice to a place of mystical and heroic fantasy - the Four Lands.
Had I read Tolkien first, I might have noticed a few odd things about The Sword of Shannara. There’s a dark lord, the Warlock King. He has strange, demonic hooded servants, called Skull Bearers. The hero, Shea Ohmsford - who lives in a peaceful, somewhat lazy bucolic land called Shady Vale - is a descendant of an Elven King, and part of the House of Shannara.
Shea is entrusted with a quest by a wizard named Allanon (surely to god, that’s intentional?): to find a magical object which can destroy the Warlock King – the Sword of Shannara.
Along the way, Shea and his cousin Flick are aided by a pair of Elves who are excellent at archery, a tough, taciturn dwarf, and a swordsman who is the heir to the throne of his people. Meanwhile, in the land of Callahorn, there’s a mad king on the throne, with a dark plot to have him replaced, and -
Are you kidding me??!
The Sword of Shannara’s painfully obvious debt to Tolkien sailed over my head at the time, I’m pleased to say. I remember it as a very enjoyable novel – quests, adventure, friendship, battles, goodies, baddies, monsters, good clean fun. But there are an awful lot of similarities to novels of a Hobbitish persuasion.
To give Terry Brooks his due, Tolkien wasn’t doing anything new, either - at least, on a conceptual level. I knew of the world of Middle Earth, but I assumed that stories of warriors, wizards, dwarves, trolls, elves, dragons and evil kings were common usage for authors, as old as storytelling itself. And I was right; Tolkien didn’t invent these elements.
He took his inspiration from a variety of Celtic and Norse legends – as well as Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, much though he denied it (the same way he denied that The Lord of Rings was an allegorical retelling of World War Two and the defeat of the Nazis… yeah, pull the other one). We should never underestimate Robert E Howard’s input, either – brawnier in tone and narrower in scope, but his heroes, villains and monsters were forebears of Tolkien’s. Another tip of the hat must also go to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ripping yarns.
So, while some riffs and rhythms in Terry Brooks’ story might seem familiar, the same was true of Tolkien’s work. It’s not fair to beat up Brooks while ignoring Tolkien as he swans through the schoolyard.
Brooks had an interesting concept for his Four Lands. The world of the Shannara books is a post-apocalyptic reclamation by nature of our own Earth, thousands of years after nuclear war has wiped away modern civilisation. Ruins and part-mechanised monsters the gang encounter in freakish wastelands point towards this, as well as some of the ancient legends bandied about by the druids.
Allanon the druid is clearly cut from the same grey cloth as Gandalf, but he’s a much sterner character, baleful and surly with his heroes as he guides them through their troubles. I liked him, but he’s also an ars*hole. It reminded me of when we finally saw the Jedi Council in The Phantom Menace. Rather than the Zen-like magicians who know the secret of existence and consciousness we were expecting, they came across as priggish, irritable civil servants. Allanon would have fit right in. (Indeed, now that I think on it, there’s a link: Terry Brooks wrote The Phantom Menace novelisation back in 1999.)
So, the characters and the story don’t fit into an exact template. That being said… when Shea is separated from his mates to complete his journey to the Skull Kingdom alone, after he seems to fall to his doom down a mountain… and then the gang encounter a dreaded monster, Valg the serpent, which crawls away after a grand battle and may or may not be dying… Yeah, you can see where a lot of Brooks’ critics are coming from.
The Sword of Shannara is a cracking romp, and sports some amazing battle scenes and good old fashioned sword n’ sorcery. I’m very curious to return to it, to see what it’s like with adult eyes. Having fun and being thrilled never gets old.
Its sequel, The Elfstones of Shannara (1982), is arguably a better book. It sees Wil Ohmsford, Shea’s grandson, taking possession of the magical stones in the title. An enchanted tree called the Ellcrys, which keeps some horrible demons in a nightmare un-world at bay by maintaining a barrier called the Forbidding, is growing sick. Wil and his companion Amberle Ellesedil are charged with a quest to find a new Ellcrys before the barrier completely fails and the world is overrun by trans-dimensional nasties.
Meanwhile, three absolute bastards are loose in the Four Lands: the Dagda Mor, an evil wizard; the terrifying and seemingly invincible Reaper, which kills everyone in its path; and a crafty Shapeshifter with designs on assassinating the king of the elves. This trio are at the vanguard of a host of demons who pour through the rift in the Forbidding, swelling the numbers of a mighty army.
I remember much more about Elfstones than I do about the original Sword of Shannara. Small wonder that the producers of a forthcoming TV series have focused on this book to start with; it is strong work, flying on its own merit without any help from more illustrious fantasy predecessors.
The Reaper sections really stick in the mind; the principal characters only just escape its clutches several times, before Wil finally confronts it. Minor characters we’d gotten to like are snuffed out in its chill clutches, and Brooks suffuses the novel with a terrible dread at the demon’s approach.
In the Dagda Mor, we have the anti-Allanon. You know they’re going to have a wizard-off, and you won’t be disappointed when they throw down with their staffs in the final battle. Add to that a shocking conclusion, and we’ve got a terrific follow-up, one of the rare few that outstrip their better-known predecessor.
The Wishsong of Shannara (1985) concludes the original trilogy. It sees Jair and Brin Ohmsford – the children of the Elfstones’ Wil – seeking to destroy an evil book, the Ildatch. Brin sings the wishsong in the title, a powerful magic apparently triggered by vocal cords. Allanon the wizard takes his 12 steps back into the land of the living after his long sleep in order to help out. Along the way they must fight the Mord Wraiths, descendants of the Skull Kingdom’s original Skull Bearers, and a terrible demon called the Jachyra. They’re aided by the usual retinue of interesting supporting characters, in particular Garat Jax, the weapons master, and an immense jungle cat. It’s not as good as the preceding book, but it brings the arc to a satisfying close, with plenty of fights, sieges, court intrigue and peril.
There’s plenty more in the Shannara series – fans have had loads to read since Brooks first began to write The Sword as an undergrad in the 1960s. I did make it through the next four books in the cycle, collectively known as The Heritage of Shannara, but aside from Walker Boh losing his arm and the Elfstones coming into play again, I’m afraid a lot of the events overlapped, or are lost to my memory. I do know I was never bored, though.
The Shannara books deserve to be rediscovered. Hopefully the new TV series will bring the novels to a new generation.
Now… I’ve got this great idea for a fantasy series, based on a dream I had.
The story involves some little guys going on a quest. They rub their powerful stones to make them glow, and when they enter the ring of power - it’s magic.
Any agents interested? Contact me at the usual address.
:: Next time: We recall a writer who managed some magical feats of his own - making lawyers interesting, and briefly stirring curiosity about a career in the law. Yes, it’s John “The Gris” Grisham!