Monday, July 11, 2011
I eventually borrowed a copy from the library and read the whole book, which didn't do much to change my initial impression. Back then, though, being "just like The Lord of the Rings but with different names" wasn't actually a criticism. Indeed, it was probably a point in the book's favor -- which probably explains why it was so wildly successful. Indeed, The Sword of Shannara appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, a remarkable feat back in the 1970s, when paperback fantasy novels weren't the publishing force they've become in the years since, due in no small part to the success of Terry Brooks.
The Sword of Shannara begins by introducing the reader to the half-elven child Shea, who's been raised by the Ohmsford family alongside a foster brother named Flick. Shea's idyllic existence is interrupted by the arrival of Allanon, a druid, who informs him of his heritage, specifically that he is a descendant of the elven king, Jerle Shannara, and thus the rightful wielder of the eponymous Sword of Shannara. Shea must use this magical weapon to fight the Warlock Lord, who threatens the Four Lands with evil. Pursued by Skull Bearers -- former druids turned creatures of darkness -- Shea and Flick flee their home, starting an epic quest that inevitably leads them to the confrontation Allanon described. Along the way, they acquire a number of companions, many of which have obvious analogs among the characters of The Lord of the Rings.
Looking back on The Sword of Shannara, I don't think anyone can deny that it received its greatest inspiration from Tolkien's masterpiece. There are many points of correspondence between The Lord of the Rings and Brooks's debut novel. At the same time, there are also plenty of points of divergence, points that, in my opinion, make The Sword of Shannara "the first D&D novel." By this I mean that, while the origin of this story lies with Tolkien, Brooks took the raw ideas he swiped and went off with them in directions that Tolkien never would have -- but a gamer might. Thus, Allanon is no angelic servitor in mortal guise but rather a druid (and one with a melodramatic backstory at that). Shea, a supposed Frodo analog, is in fact a person of great importance, descended from the wielders of a magical artifact, rather than being a common hobbit. Brooks's Four Lands resound with embellishments like this, the kinds of things that naturally occur when gamers sit around and kibitz about their favorite books and movies and ask each other, "Wouldn't it have been cooler if ..."
That may seem like a criticism, but I don't mean it to be. Certainly I don't count myself a fan of The Sword of Shannara or its sequels and spin-off series. I wasn't particularly impressed with it the first time I read it and time has done little to improve my opinion of it. However, my dislike has little to do with its derivativeness from Tolkien and more to do with my disinterest in the story it tells. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: as a culture, we're often more obsessed with novelty than I think we ought to be. I don't see any shame in recasting an existing story, adding one's own ideas and removing others. The mere fact that Brooks borrowed so much from Tolkien says little about the quality of The Sword of Shannara. From my perspective, I don't begrudge him one whit. There's a certain honesty to good pastiche, an implicit acknowledgment of the debt owed to one's inspiration combined with an admission that what one is producing isn't the original. That's a kind of honesty I could stand to see more of.