For a massively successful bestselling novelist, Terry Brooks has attracted more than his fair share of critics. He, along with his namesake Terry Goodkind, seems to be one of those fantasy authors who some readers love to hate. His books have been called derivative, badly written and uninspired – and those are just some of the kinder comments! Having said this, Brooks certainly has a legion of fans and his Shannara novels are one of the most famous and widely read of all fantasy series. But what is it that so polarises opinion about Terry Brooks? Why is it that he is so derided by critics and readers on one hand while being one of the biggest names in fantasy on the other? The statistics speak for themselves in some respects: He has written 23 New York Times bestsellers during his writing career and has over 21 million copies of his books in print. He is one of the biggest-selling living fantasy writers but has never won any awards or inspired anything like the fanatical following that writers like J R R Tolkien, Frank Herbert and Robert Jordan have enjoyed. Let’s have a look at his career.
Brooks had been a writer since high school, writing mainly in the genres of science fiction, western, fiction, and non-fiction. One day, in his early college life, he was given a copy of The Lord of the Rings, which inspired him to write in one genre. With this inspiration, he then made his debut in 1977 with his first novel The Sword of Shannara. In reality, however, Brooks’ novel was not so much inspired by Tolkien as copied, almost point for point. A group is assembled to retrieve a talisman from the power of a Dark Lord. It is ‘retrieve’, not ‘destroy’, which is one point of dissimilarity, but the group assembled matches Tolkien’s Fellowship very nearly person for person. There is a Druid, or wizard, Allanon (= Gandalf); a dwarf, Hendel (= Gimli); two youths, central characters, who take the place of the four hobbits; two elves, one more than Tolkien’s Legolas, but then one of them is called Durin, a Tolkien name; and two men, Menion and Balinor, corresponding closely (Balinor too has a younger brother) to Aragorn and Boromir. Gollum is reincarnated in the person of Orl Fane, a gnome who gets possession for a time of the Sword of Shannara and dies trying to regain it. The Ringwraiths re-appear, ‘deathlike cry’ and all, as flying Skull Bearers, while the phial of Galadriel is replaced as a weapon against them by the Elfstones. As if that were not enough, the plot-outline is followed very nearly point for point as well. There are analogues to Sauron, Denethor, Wormtongue, the barrow wight (or ‘Mist Wraith’), the Watcher by Moria-gate, Willow-man, the Uruk-hai and the Riders of Rohan. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but surely this is taking things a little too far!
But the strange thing about The Sword of Shannara is that, for all its deficiencies, immediately after it was released it sold without ceasing. More than that, it is often seen as the book that really opened the floodgates: following its publication hundreds of Tolkien-influenced epic fantasies came out, although ‘influenced’ may be something of an understatement – there are scenes and characters in many of these books that seem to have been lifted wholesale from The Lord of the Rings. This is perhaps the biggest personal gripe I have about Brooks’ novel: The Sword of Shannara seemed to demonstrate to publishers that many readers had developed the taste for epic fantasy so strongly that if they could not get the real thing they would take any substitute, no matter how diluted. People realised that they could write fantasy novels without paying attention to style, that they didn’t have to spend decades building a world, but could make one out of cheap cardboard, or, even simpler, could borrow it from a better writer. Some of these books – far worse than anything Brooks ever wrote – were so bad that they wouldn’t even make decent landfill but these too were bought and devoured eagerly. I personally came to The Sword of Shannara because I was starved for fantasy and there are only so many times you can re-read Tolkien and the other classics (this was a time before the explosion in fantasy publishing).
I once felt very bitter towards Brooks’ debut novel. I bought The Sword of Shannara and settled down to be enchanted only to find myself reading a pale imitation of The Lord of the Rings. I thought (and still think to some extent) that it is at least partly to blame for all the cheap tripe that came later. Now, though, I have a slightly different view, a view that I incline to in my less cynical moments. Perhaps Brooks was simply inspired by Tolkien to re-tell his story and, in doing so, he was more like a bard of old, singing a story he had heard to a transfixed audience around a fire. Myths were once told and re-told, changed and re-changed in this way all the time. That Brooks turned out to be such a poor bard (at least with his first novel) compared to the master does not change the nature of the tale. Let me also say, categorically, that I think that Brooks is an extremely talented author in his own right. It is simply the case that, like many writers, he took a while to find his authorial voice. This is particularly evident in the novels of Brooks that are set partly in the real world and feature ordinary human characters, for example his Landover and Word and Void series. Not only are these books powerful and well-written, they are distinctive and match Brooks’ pared down, direct writing style perfectly. They also, dare I say it, possess their own kind of magic and are as absorbing and enchanting in their own way as anything that Tolkien wrote. In particular, the idea that the real world as portrayed in the Word and Void series ultimately becomes the fantasy world of the Shannara series is intriguing and highly original. Also, lest we forget, if not for the massive commercial success of The Sword of Shannara, publishers would almost certainly not have had the confidence, not long afterwards, to publish Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, The Fionavar Tapestry and, eventually, The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. For this, if nothing else, Terry Brooks surely deserves his place in the fantasy hall of fame.