Fantasy is big money now. Everyone is looking to the hefty fantasy tomes of the past for inspiration for the next Game of Thrones, with mixed success. The appearance of Terry Brooks’s world of Shannara on the small screen thanks to MTV is just one example of this.
When I first heard that the show was being made, I decided it was time to finally reread The Sword of Shannara, the 1977 book that introduced me to Brooks’s expansive world, and which I first read in my grade school’s library. Real life intervened, however; a season of the show has come and gone, and I only just sat down with my battered old copy of the book last week. Unfortunately, my reread left me mostly confused and concerned for the tastes of my elementary school self, as The Sword of Shannara is an odd mix of utter tedium and story beats lifted directly from its more celebrated contemporary, The Lord of the Rings.
Spoilers for the novel below.
The plot of The Sword of Shannara is pretty straightforward. The main character, Shea, is informed by a mysterious and powerful Druid named Allanon that he is the last remaining heir of the Elven king Jerle Shannara. This diluted lineage means he’s the only remaining person who can wield Jerle’s powerful magic sword, which is the only weapon with the power to defeat the evil Druid Brona. With a band of warriors from different races (and his stalwart, down-homey adoptive brother Flick) Shea sets out to find the Sword and stop Brona before it’s too late. As the band is separated by trial after trial, it’s up to a desperate Shea to infiltrate the very heart of Brona’s fortress to defeat him.
From that description, maybe you can see the first hints of why it’s so LotR-like. A company including two noble Men, Elven princes, a dwarf, a Druid, and two young country folk who care deeply for each other and whose names start with F and S, head out through varied terrain, battling the troops of the evil Brona as well as other monsters. They pass through abandoned underground kingdoms inhabited by dangerous and mysterious beasts. Shea and Flick get attacked by a giant spider creature and are poisoned, and are then taken to a Last Homely House-esque retreat to heal. Allanon faces down an evil creature in a fiery battle and is presumed lost (until he reappears just a few pages later). There’s a city built into a mountain which is civilization’s first and last line of defense against the Dark Lord—and a grim but honorable older brother is the heir to its rule. There’s an untrustworthy adviser who has changed a once-noble man into his puppet. Eventually, I had to start keeping my computer open alongside me as I read so I could note down every time I was astounded by the similarities.
As a kid, I suspect the book’s similarity to Lord of the Rings was what drew me in. My battered old library copy even had a full-color illustration of the company that sets out with Shea to find the Sword, and I distinctly remember showing the illustration to my mother and listing off the parallels.
However, while it has similar beats to the storyline, they lack the heft of the corresponding plot twists in LotR. There are no serious consequences to the story. Nearly the whole company is presumed dead at one point or another and then reappears unhurt. People receive grievous wounds but someone always turns up with the ability to heal them. When someone finally died for real, the story had cried wolf so many times I didn’t care. And speaking of not caring, I can tell you vague facts about each of the characters, but I didn’t actually feel anything for them, because they all had very bland, one-note personalities. Allanon is a perfect example of this: he’s mysterious and knowledgeable and a bit of an asshole, but unlike Gandalf, whom this could also describe, he doesn’t have redeeming character traits. There is one named woman in the entire book, Shirl, a random princess who is alternatively referred to as a girl or as vulnerable and timid, but who is always reliably beautiful and titian-haired and reliably present to comfort the random member of the party chosen to be her paramour.
Further unlike Lord of the Rings, the land of Shannara isn’t a fantasy planet in its own right; rather, it’s a super-post-apocalyptic Earth. When the weapons of man led to the destruction of the planet and most of civilization was destroyed, the single human species somehow managed to evolve into fantasy races: Men, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, etc., with all the typical characteristics thereof. The few remaining arbiters of scientific knowledge (somehow) also discovered how to tap into mystical powers and became the Druids. Since the first cataclysm, three Ages of civilization have risen and fallen between interracial conflicts and Druidic interference. The operative word here is somehow. After 700+ pages, I am still not entirely certain how these handwavey things came to pass.
That doesn’t mean that the author didn’t try to explain it. In fact, the book suffers egregiously from overnarration. It’s as though someone issued Terry Brooks a challenge to see how expansively he could shit on the writing adage “show, don’t tell”. There are literal pages of dialogue that aren’t actually dialogue—they’re paragraphs upon paragraphs summarizing what the characters are saying to each other as part of the narration. Battles are discussed in terms of the efficacy of strategies and the locations of battalions as opposed to actually describing what it’s like to be in the fight. Characters deliver oddly modern-sounding political diatribes on the topics of systems of rule—for example, it’s made clear multiple times that the mountaintop city is an “enlightened” monarchy with an active and engaged parliament, just in case we, the readers, were worried that the side of the Light was engaging in less than fully representative government.
In the end, I’m marginally glad I reread this, if only because finding out that it’s actually kind of horrible will keep me from spending any money investigating the rest of the series. Plus I can now remove the Shannara TV show from my to-watch list with an unregretful “good riddance”. So I guess there’s a silver lining even to the biggest literary headaches—that leaves me more time to rewatch Steven Universe instead.