A Defence of Shannara

14 Jan

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.

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22 Responses to “A Defence of Shannara”

  1. Samir January 14, 2012 at 8:14 am #

    I remember about 10 years ago, when I still read much fantasy, looking for a new series to start on and coming across Terry Books’ Sword of Shannara on Amazon. There were indeed two sets of reviews at the time, 5 stars for or 1 star against. I looked for my favorite 3 or 4 stars but those were limited at the time. So I settled to read those opposing reviews and came to the conclusion that the series would not be worth my time, there were other better books in fantasy to read.
    That’s when I started reading Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth. At the time, I think the first three books were published in the series and they were all the rave. I have to agree that the first two were excellent stories with well developed characters and plot. But by the time I finished the third, I realized how inferior it was to the first two and, more importantly, the same formula was being used over again… boring! Although I gave it the benefit of the doubt and started reading the fourth… and quit half way through.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that while imitation is a form of tribute to the person being imitated, you are right that there is a thing as taking it too far. In Goodkind’s case, he was initiating himself, which is even worse. And I’m glad that I didn’t read The Sword of Shannar because, frankly, there really are many good books out there, whether fantasy or some other genre one likes, to read and enjoy.

  2. LediaR January 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    You had me at “Hello!” I have adored Terry Brooks books since the 70s when his first book The Sword of Shannara came out. I even met him and his wife at the Maui Writer’s Conference in 1997. They came across as very caring and down to earth people. Of all the celebs at the conference, they were the only ones that could be found eating with the rest of us in the sandwich shop in the hotel. (Food in Hawaii is outrageously expensive and the conference was in a four star hotel.) I have an autographed copy of First King of Shannara, because that was the novel Mr. Brooks was promoting at the conference.

    My favorite series of his is The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara. Now that series was pure genius! As a writer of fantasy action adventure, I have studied Mr. Books use of multiple character POV to see how he makes it work. Most of the popular fantasy such as Harry Potter and now the Hunger Games is told in single POV.

    • ashsilverlock January 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks, I was also lucky enough to meet Terry Brooks on one occasion and I was struck by both his intelligence and his generosity with his time. One of life’s nice guys!

  3. LediaR January 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    Just one more thing, I actually loved the Sword of Shannara because it reminded me of Tolkien. I adore Tolkien and wanted more,more, more and that is what the Sword of Shannara gave me. (There are only four really great Tolkien books, after all and as stated, there are just so many times you can read a book.) I loved the Sword of Shannara for the very reasons many hate it, I guess.

    But you are right, Ashsilverlock, his Void series and his Landover series are Terry Brooks’ originals.

    • Tharcion January 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

      It’s interesting. I hated (with a profound vengeance) Sword of Shannara. Not because it reminded me of Tolkien, but because it screamed “rip off.” Now, keep in mind I’m not really a big fan of JRRT himself, but I didn’t feel like continuing to read a book which appeared to plagiarise him. I mean Sword felt like someone had condensced the original LotR manuscript and then filed the serial numbers off.

      So I never touched another Terry Brooks book after stopping about the time Gandalf was dragged into the pit by the Balrog. That was really the last straw. If I’d published that, I’d have been sued and I don’t understand how he got away with it.

  4. Ross M Kitson January 14, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    This was a great post and rang quite true for me. I first got into reading fantasy in the early eighties, mainly though an interest in RPG and the animated Lord of the Rings, by Ralph Bakshi. I read LOTR but being fairly young found it slow. Hence I searched avidly for other stuff- Donaldson was too mature at the time for me- I read Howard and Lieber, loved the immediacy, but was too brief. Then I found Terry Brooks. I only read the first two (sword and elfstones)- enjoyed them but was astonished at the strong resemblance to LOTR (although a little pacier). Despite the gripes they were books I enjoyed at the time and were very popular with my friends in UK who also played RPG. So I think I have a slightly rose coloured view of them, and I also suppose their popularity (along with say the Belgeriad) proves an enduring taste for straight epic fantasy, where good and evil are pretty well defined.
    (ironically just after those I got into Dragonlance- perfect for DnD freaks as they were written from modules!!!)
    Cheers
    Ross

  5. Diane Tibert January 15, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    I discovered Terry Brooks in a different manner than most. In my teens (in the 1980s), I had not heard of Lord of the Rings or Tolkien, so had no previous experience in his world. I read Sword of Shannara without any bias and loved the writing style. I instantly fell in love with it and bought the other two books. It is still my favourite fantasy series.

    About 13 years ago, I bought the Lord of the Rings and tried to read it.I got about half way through before I was so bogged down by … well, let’s say the writing style didn’t appeal to me. Until I became a regular Internet reader, I hadn’t realised the big following Tolkien had. I much preferred Mercedes Lakey “Winds of Change” over The Lord of the Rings. It’s not so much the story but the writing style.

    However, I didn’t enjoy everything Brooks wrote. I did like, “Magic Kingdom for Sale – Sold” but a few years ago I began reading “Isle Witch” and if I hadn’t been in a waiting room most of that week preparing for surgery, I’d have put it down after a few chapters. Not only did I find it boring, but with so many POVs, I had no connection to any characters. The book kept my mind occupied for the time, but once the ‘wait’ was over, I put it down when I was about 3/4 of the way through.

    What was shocking to me was when I read “Sometimes the Magic Works”, the book he wrote about writing. In it, he reveals (and he is brave to do this) that after Shannara, he had no ideas for the next book. Like he was tapped out after that one book. I don’t know about other writers, but I have a dozen outlines waiting to be explored. It’s like the juices don’t stop flowing. One book or research inspires others. I had to wonder what kind of creative well did he have if he was dried up after one book – which from what I’ve read here was simply a copy of another.

    But the point has been made. Brooks is a writer some love to hate. I still love his first three books. That won’t change. And as has been mentioned, without his success, many others may not have found it. Perhaps Brooks wrote for the less literary people, telling Tolkien’s story in words and in a style that could be consumed by the average person.

    Thanks for the insight. This is a great post.

    • ashsilverlock January 15, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

      Thanks for this, will definitely try to seek out ‘Sometimes the Magic Works’ – sounds fascinating

  6. Astrographer January 16, 2012 at 7:59 am #

    I love Tolkein, even though I’m mostly a science-fiction guy(If it ain’t in Space!, why bother 🙂 ), and I really wanted to get my eight-year-old son reading Tolkein after we were done with Harry Potter. We sat down with The Hobbit and I was looking for an enchanting few months reading all the way through that and The Lord of The Rings. I was defeated by his shorter attention span. I forgot that I really hadn’t read The Hobbit myself until I was in sixth grade. But after he waded through Rowling I figured he was ready, he just couldn’t handle Tolkein’s long descriptions of dinner parties and singing of folk songs. He wanted action. I thought Potter got a little draggy in places, but apparently Tolkein’s florid and self-consciously fluent style is a bit much for him at this point.

    You’re description makes me think Sword of Shannara might be a good introduction for the boy. Kind of a pared down, simplified and less poet-like version of The Lord of The Rings. Lite Beer Tolkein!

    • ashsilverlock January 16, 2012 at 8:12 am #

      Quite right, often the biggest fans of The Sword of Shannara didn’t read Tolkien first and their experience of the book was all the better for it!

    • jensketch January 6, 2016 at 2:48 am #

      You know, the really amusing thing? The “long description of a dinner party” lasts 1.5 pages. Go back and look. That’s all it is, *including* the song. You know why you *think* it’s long? Because the language is excellent. Every word chosen carefully and none wasted. You just aren’t cut out for such prose, is my guess.

      The entire Lord of the Rings saga is shorter than most current novels. Such a pity such excellent and *economic* prose is lost on people.

      • Astrographer January 11, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

        I agree with most of what you are saying. I do think it was a little impolite to tell me why *I think* it’s long. Similarly with the suggestion that I am, “not cut out,” for such excellent language. I was mostly saying why I *thought* a very intelligent and literate 8-year-old boy might find a book, I liked very well, unappealing.

        I definitely agree that current novels are verbose as hell. I will admit to not being cut out for GRRM’s long-winded meathook awfulness. Even if the writing is terribly good(not *economic* :\), the characters are, in some sense, appealing, and the worldbuilding and plots are… interesting, I really don’t want to dedicate that much of my life to a world even more crapsack than the one we’re all living in.

        I will try my son on The Hobbit again and I’m sure he’ll love it. Then we’ll go on to LOTR and then the Silmarilion. I’ll do the same with my daughter, when she’s about this age. It’ll be fun!

        I just kind of wish you could have said what you said without casting aspersions on my character. Now if you simply riffing on the fact that I’d idiotically confused ‘you’re’ with ‘your’, you’re completely right, and my face is red with deepest shame. I don’t usually make *that* mistake. I feel like I started an ivory column pontification without my pants on… Ugh.

  7. heatherlgraham January 18, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    I loved his books in high school, and even feigned sick so that I could finish them. They got me into fantasy. Ironically, I very begrudgingly read the first Wheel of Time only beause my dad said if I loved Brooks I would REALLY love Jordan. 🙂 He was right! Unfortunately, when I tried to re-read them as an adult, well, they just are not on par with some of the greats in fantasy. After reading Martin and Jordan, Brooks just comes off like you said, as a poor cardboard copy. Great post!

    • ashsilverlock February 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

      Thanks, will definitely do a WoT post at some point…

  8. Jim C. January 29, 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    The Sword of Shannara does indeed serve as a good introduction to fantasy for the young reader. And there is a place for competent imitation: people do want stories that are comfortable and familiar. There’s a reason why, when Dan Brown released The Da Vinci Code, a hundred imitators were published in the following years, and eagerly consumed.

    Brooks’s work gets more original as it goes on. An adult reader would be well-advised not to judge his work by Sword of Shannara, but rather to continue reading and see if it begins to appeal. His Word and Void series, which he recently connected to his Shannara universe, are also engaging and original novels that, in my opinion, were early precursors of the urban fantasy craze.

    One thing you have to applaud is Brooks’s work ethic: he’s as prolific a writer as there is to be found. There’s something to be said for a competent, reliable fantasy author who puts out at least a book a year. Something to read while you’re waiting for the tortured but excellent prose of some of our more modern, cutting edge authors.

    • ashsilverlock January 29, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

      Well said. The problem is that these days most aspiring fantasy authors don’t get the chance to have a ‘Sword of Shannara’ published before getting to improve their craft and produce better work (this may well be why Terry Brooks bugs so many people).

  9. atleastimhousebroken February 3, 2012 at 11:28 am #

    I’m a big music fan and I enjoy listening to covers of my favorite songs very much. There’s something interesting hearing another artist put another spin on something I enjoyed. With ‘Sword of Shannara’ it works like that. It’s a great cover of ‘Lord of the Rings’, and a very good one at that. Even the derivative Allanon recruits an Ohmsford to go on an epic quest to find some artifact to defeat an ancient evil eating copious amounts of berries and cheese along the way of the rest of the ‘Shannara’ trilogy I found entertaining. Sometimes one just wants to read something simple yet entertaining here and there.
    Great Post!!

  10. jmcneice February 12, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    A great article ashilverlock. I read the Shannara books when I was very young, concurrently with Dragonlance and the first Forgotten Relams books, and yes you are correct ‘simple yet entertaining’ and in my opinion a great little world to delve into.

  11. chris February 18, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

    Great article. I was young when I read Shannara before I even heard of LOtR so I enjoyed the series. Then I tried to read LOR and it was long, hard to get into and boring. So many years later I’ve never read LOR nor do I care to. The movie was enough.

    A lot of peoples minds are clouded with LOR when they try to read Shannara. I started reading it again, and after reading about connections people were making with LOR I found it hard at first to rid my mind of those connections they actually almost ruin the read. This is the sole reason people don’t like Shannara, and their reviews become comlpetely biased and at that point really not a review at all.

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