I tried reading The Sword of Shannara a few years back. It seemed likely that I would enjoy it, since I’d heard it was somewhat similar to The Lord of the Rings (which I’m unsurprisingly a fan of). I don’t remember exactly how far I got, but it certainly wasn’t half way. I simply couldn’t believe just how similar the storyline was to Tolkien’s epic, to the point where it drove me to distraction. It’s incredibly rare that I don’t finish something that I’ve started, and it has kind of annoyed me ever since that I didn’t soldier on to at least the end of the first book in the series. RetroSmack didn’t just give me an opportunity to tick a box though, its criteria demanded that I revisit The Sword of Shannara. This is the book after all that, along with Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, made fantasy a mass-market genre for the first time since the big J.R.R. put down his pipe. As unlikely a hero as I am, I vowed not to be defeated this time around. With a short sword at my side and a bag of blue gemstones in my pocket, I opened Terry Brooks’ debut novel with grim determination.
Terry Brooks: You’d be smiling too if you’d sold over 21 million books!
Image Credit: Famous Authors (original source unknown)
Researching the development of The Sword of Shannara has revealed a lot really. Brooks had been a wannabe writer since high school, but it wasn’t until he was given a copy of The Lord of the Rings that he realised the genre that most suited his style. So it was that the 23 year old law student set about writing his own epic fantasy story in 1967. It took him seven years to complete, and underwent several rewrites on the way. Once done, he first took the manuscript to publisher DAW Books, only for it to be rejected. They did however recommend that Brooks try his luck with Ballantine Books, and in November 1974, it was accepted as the launch book of Ballantine’s new Del Rey subsidiary. Their reason for accepting it? “It was the first long epic fantasy adventure which had any chance of meeting the demands of Tolkien readers for similar pleasures.” That was a big call of course, but when The Sword of Shannara finally hit the shelves in 1977, it immediately sold by the bucket load. It sold 125,000 copies in the first week, and became the first fantasy fiction novel to appear on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list. With that sort of success, it can’t just be an outright clone, can it? Let’s find out…
The original cover had an illustration by the Brothers Hildebrandt, known for their Tolkien calendars. I actually had a first print of this for a while, but it wasn’t in the best condition.
Image Credit: The Bronze Age of Blogs
A couple of thousand years after nuclear holocaust wipes out the majority of the planet, the race of man has re-established itself as four distinct peoples. Man, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls. The latter three mutations are apparently not the Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls that we know from stories and fairytales though. They’re just named that way because of their similarity in appearance to the fictional variety. Strangely, given the attempt of the author to give the other groups of people some connection to reality, there are also Elves on the planet too. They really are Elves though. They’ve just been hiding. Advanced technology has been all but lost since “the Great War”, but has been replaced by the discovery of magic. Around a thousand years before the beginning of the story (so a thousand years after the nuclear holocaust), the Elf Galaphile gathered together all those with knowledge of the old world and formed the First Druid Council. They attempted to bring peace to the world, but their plans were ruined when a rogue Druid named Brona took a bunch of like-minded Druids (and a magical tome called the Ildatch) and went off to cause trouble. He eventually convinced the pure race of Men to attack the other races, beginning the First War of the Races. Brona, and the race of Men, were defeated, but he returned centuries later as the Warlock Lord. With his evil Skull Bearers as his servants, the Warlock Lord destroyed the Druid Order, but not before one of its members, Bremen, forged the Sword of Shannara. The blade was given to the Elven King, Jerle Shannara, who used it to defeat the Warlock Lord while his servants were overpowered by the Elves and Dwarves.
Even Russ Charpentier’s map of the Four Lands shows Brooks’ extreme creativity. Northland, Eastland, Southland and Westland.
Image Credit: Terry Brooks official website
While the above backstory does include Elves, Dwarves and Trolls, it has enough originality in there to promise something at least a little fresh. It’s when the story proper begins that this promise quickly erodes. Around five hundred years after the backstory events, a mysterious druid named Allanon (aka Gandalf) arrives in Shady Vale (aka Hobbiton) in search of the last descendent of Jerle Shannara. The Warlock Lord (aka Sauron) has risen once again at Skull Kingdom (aka Mordor), and only the blood of Shannara can wield the Sword (aka The One Ring) to defeat him. Shea Ohmsford (aka Frodo) contains that blood, and after he initially doubts the words of the druid, he is quickly convinced to leave Shady Vale in search of the Sword when Skull Bearers (aka Nazgul) arrive in the village attempting to find and kill him. Shea’s adopted brother Flick (aka Samwise Gamgee) flees with him, taking refuge in a city named Leah (aka Bree), where Prince Menion (aka Aragorn) joins the duo on their journey to Culhaven (aka Rivendell) where Allanon awaits. On arrival, the fellowship is joined by the prince of Callahorn, Balinor Buckhannah (aka Boromir), the dwarf Hendel (aka Gimli) and two elves named Durin and Dayel (aka Legolas). The whole lot of them set out to retrieve the Sword of Shannara from the clutches of the Warlock Lord and save the world (aka Middle-Earth).
The book’s beautiful centrefold was also painted by the Hildebrandt Brothers.
Image Credit: Casper of Puppets
Obviously I’m not the first reader to pick up on the resemblance between Brooks’ début and Tolkien. Since finishing the book I’ve discovered endless reviews out there deriding it for the same reasons I have. Even back in the day reviewers were harsh, with editor Lin Carter calling it “the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read”. Anyway, I’ll cease with the Lord of the Rings plagiarism comments now, as I think I’ve well and truly made my point. Things admittedly become a tad less predictable when the group become separated partway through their quest, and when it turns out the Sword isn’t where they thought it would be, but I can’t say I ever really enjoyed the novel. Even ignoring the lack of originality, Brooks’ tendency to drag out moments with obvious and repetitive character introspection had me rolling my eyes all too often. This was the first time since I started RetroSmack where I had to force myself to read on, blocking out the temptation to do something else. The fact that Brooks has written close to thirty more books with Shannara in the title really doesn’t bode well for future years. I can only hope the author eventually found a voice of his own, or that my criteria is designed well enough to avoid them altogether.
Tell me they get better! Please?
Image Credit: SV Books
The Sword of Shannara (1977) RetroCard has now been added to the RetroCard Shop. It’s a common card, so therefore costs 10 smacks and has a limited release of 120.