Monday, July 11, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sword of Shannara

Though published in 1977, I know I didn't encounter Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara until some years later, when it appeared in the house of a friend of mine. His mother was a member of the Book of the Month Club or something similar and this novel was a selection one month. Consequently, it was lying around the house when we got together to game and I often found myself idly reading it while my friends sat around waiting for the rest of our group to arrive to play. My first thought, back then, was "This is just like The Lord of the Rings but with different names."

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.

52 comments:

  1. I have only read Sword and Elf Stones, but I enjoyed them quite a bit back in high school. At least both books are self contained stories and don't feel the need to drone on for thousands of pages like Wheel of Time (couldn't bring myself to even finish the first book of that derivative crap) or every other series since the '90s.

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  2. The thing which always stood out for me with the Shannara stories was the fact that the setting was very clearly meant to be Earth centuries after a nuclear war of some kind left our civilisation (or one very much like it) in ruins.

    In fact, that's the only memorable thing about the book for me - I clearly remember the party camping near the ruins of a modern-day city but can't recall anything else that happens in it. It's an interesting background detail which at the time I thought Brooks should have explored more thoroughly. IIRC, he eventually did, but with the effect of retroactively changing it to some sort of magical cataclysm as opposed to a nuclear war, which I thought was the wrong direction to go in - I was hoping he'd go in a science fantasy direction, rather than emphasising the fantasy and downplaying the postnuclear bit.

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  3. I'm quite a fan of the whole Shannara saga, and have read all the books; one of the things I like best about them is that the world is set in the future of our own world, after a cataclysm that destroys civilisation. The current books are bridging the gap between that world and our own. These are the books I grew up on, and I think I read the first before I ever got around to LotR (which I found too drawn out at the time for my taste).

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  4. I read the original triology in the mid 80s. I enjoyed the first novel, but found my enjoyment lessening as I went along. I tried his follow up, the Scions of Shannara, but don't think I finished it.

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  5. I didn't enjoy this. The fact that so much of it was derivative was a turn-off for me.

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  6. I read the first three books in high school, but I don't remember anything about them. The article's synopsis of the first book was more than I remembered.

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  7. Al-Anon? Seriously? It's bad enough that the title of the series sounds like "Sha-Na-Na". Obviously written in the 70s. Is there a leather-clad horseman named "Lord Fonzarelus"?

    I'd love to see a post tracing the convention of "fantasy" names. You could go back at least to Victorian "foreign" nonsense-names, like the ones that populate The Mikado, trace this tradition through REH and other pulp writers' mix of authentic Celtic names with more exotic gibberish (fake Arabic and Chinese, intentionally "alien" Yog-sothothery, etc), climax with Tolkein's painstaking European-historically-grounded invented languages, and then observe how this mix plays out in the second half of the 20th century. I've never been able to pin down exactly how this tradition of vowel-heavy flowery gibberish came to signify "fantasy", but I wish it would go away. Even the White Wolf RPG approach (i.e., recycle actual words in use today by giving them invented fantasy meanings), while ludicrous and sometimes offensive, was a welcome shift from all the Sha-na-na-ing that preceded it.

    I'd also be interested in looking at the counter-examples: from what I recall, Le Guinn's Earthsea is better than most on this score.

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  8. The post-apocalyptic nature of the setting is something I still do like about The Sword of Shannara. I didn't mention it in the post, partly because some people might not have known about it :) (though it's not really a central plot point)

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  9. I, too, read this and others in the series in the 80s and I, too, don't remember much about them. I only remember one battle scene, primarily because one of my gaming buddies was so inspired by it that he incorporated something like it into our game. I think Shanarra's lack of staying power in our collective memory says much about its quality...

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  10. I picked up the book when it first came out. It was the closest thing to D&D at the time. I wasn't that impressed with the book and even rereading it recently I was left with the same impressions. But the cover said D&D and I for my 7th grade book report project I created a board game of the story (based on SPI's War of the Ring). It sounds waaay cooler than it actually was though.

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  11. From Wikipedia:

    Together with Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, The Sword of Shannara ushered in "the era of the big commercial fantasy" and helped to make epic fantasy the leading subgenre of fantasy.

    Later in their life, The Sword of Shannara and its subsequent sequels were one of the inspirations for the later versions of Dungeons and Dragons

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  12. I read it age 9--the oversized edition with the Brothers Hildebrandt illos. I read LotR a couple of years later and was stunned at Brooks's audacity. Even an 11 year old child could tell the difference between pastiche and something that was a blatant and colossal heist of Tolkien's original. I admire Brooks's balls and that of his publisher in perpetrating the maneuver. But on literary grounds, I think not. Honesty--bollocks. Unless stealing boldly and unapologetically counts for honesty.

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  13. I remember reading the first few books because my mom actually had them lying around. She was really into Brooks's work for awhile, right around the same time she was really into the Dragonriders of Pern and Katherine Kurtz's The Adept...

    Anyway, I read the Shannara books but despite enjoying some parts I never became truly enthusiastic about them. It wasn't the Tolkien angle, because I read Shannara first, but Brooks's writing just wasn't very exciting to me.

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  14. My first exposure to Shannara was actually via my local newspaper. Back in the late 70s they carried a syndicated comic strip that adapted novels (Shannara was one, Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic was another I remember). Of course, back then, the local paper also ran a daily Star Wars comic and a daily Conan strip. Things really were different back then.

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  15. I've tried reading two or three of Mr. Brooks' novels and just really, really dislike his prose. Even as a teenager, I dropped SoS for something more to my taste and have never read the novel.

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  16. Allanon is no angelic servitor in mortal guise but rather a druid

    Although he too dies fighting a subterranean foe only to later return, as I recall.

    I didn't read this until only a couple of years ago, as I didn't want to delve into another long fantasy series after already being burned by a few. The only reason I eventually read this one was because it was mentioned in a Tolkien biography as a blatant ripoff, and I wanted to see if the author was over-emphasising the similarities.

    I borrowed my father-in-law's old edition, the one pictured at the top of the post, I believe.

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  17. Interesting bit of publishing trivia: Shannara was Ballantine’s (under Lester Del Rey’s editorship) re-entry into the fantasy genre after closing down their noble but financially doomed “Adult Fantasy” line that Lin Carter edited. It turns out that people who came to Fantasy via Lord of the Rings weren’t actually that interested in the genre’s antecedents. They just wanted more of Lord of the Rings. Brook’s manuscript showed up at just the right time, and with some smart marketing (art from the brothers Hildebrandt and Book Club sales gave Shannara a big boost) they had a hit. I re-read Shannara not too long ago and it is what it is: Tolkien lite, but with a propulsive narrative that keeps the pages turning. Shannara may seem pedestrian now, (after decades of extruded fantasy product blunting our senses) but at the time it was pretty exciting stuff.

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  18. I agree with James, the post-apocalyptic bits are perhaps the best part of the novel.

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  19. For those griping about literary theft, please read Vladimir Propp's "Morphology of the Folktale". It will be a guaranteed eye-opener in the realm of literary creation.

    He basically dissects thousands of Russian folk tales and shows how the entire genre is basically a mad-lib with thirty blanks and fairly limited options of what can go in each one.

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  20. I remember enjoying it OK back in the 80s. But like others, I don't really remember much specific about it. I also read Lord Foul's Bane and don't remember anything much about that other than it had baddies called Ur-viles...

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  21. As a teenager I read (and re-read) The Lord of the Rings and was totally blown away; I thought, "nothing can ever match this."

    A couple of years later I read The Sword of Shannara. I found it a decent story, and I assumed Brooks was heavily inspired by LOTR - though I didn’t read it as a straight rip-off of Tolkien. My two strongest reactions, however, were 1) thank God there’s more fantasy to read now that I’ve worn out my copies of LOTR and Narnia; and 2) hey, if this guy can write and sell a fantasy novel so can I.

    I must admit that in the 35-odd years that followed I haven’t actually written a novel, but The Sword of Shannara said to me that it was a task possible for mere mortals as opposed to one reserved for literary demi-gods. I imagine Brook’s success inspired a generation of others to try their hand at writing fantasy, and for that I am sincerely grateful.

    By the way, if we’re discussing an author “re-writing” LOTR then I don’t imagine there’s a better example than Dennis L. McKiernan’s Iron Tower trilogy. McKiernan’s trilogy isn’t inspired or informed by LOTR, it is LOTR; the same story retold by a different author. McKiernan isn’t the literary genius that Tolkien was, but I have to admit I’ve always found his Iron Tower trilogy to be a thoroughly enjoyable tale.

    McKiernan’s next two novels, the The Silver Call duology presented an interesting take on the Dwarves reclaiming Moria (ahem, I mean Kraggen-Cor) a generation after the Great War. Actually, if I remember correctly, McKiernan wrote The Silver Call duology first, as a true sequel to LOTR, and it was only when the Tolkien estate declined to give its publication official sanction that Doubleday asked him to recast the books in his own fantasy world, and write a LOTR-type prequel for them. McKiernan’s later Mithgar novels are much more his own work rather than Tolkien-pastiches.

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  22. I read that very edition of the Sword of Shannara, along with the Elfstones and the Wishsong. Sword and Wishsong were the best and I actually enjoyed them quite a bit. I found them more accessible and more enjoyable than Tolkein's overwrought travelogues. Brooks's later works, however, were not up to even that standard, and I quickly tired of his work, save the first couple books in his other series, starting with Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold.

    I enjoyed the Thomas Covenant novels quite a bit as well, though I remember little enough I should probably go back and reread them. These days I can't read much fantasy. It just doesn't sit with me the way it did when I was younger. I'm either reading science fiction or pulp these days.

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  23. For me it was the Hildebrandt cover that made it appealing. Their art just had that certain epic "wondrous" quality to it.

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  24. It's not a good book, no doubt. But, as James has often pointed out, in the late 1970s, there was really almost nothing else for the nascent fantasy fan . . . especially if you were growing up in the boonies and had to drive nineteen miles over the mountain to get to a Waldenbooks. (The nearest SF/fantasy/gaming specialty shop, The Fat Cat, was two and a half hours away in Binghamton.)

    So after you got done with Tolkien's Middle-earth stuff, the Ace Conans, the early Perns, the Barsoom books, the Gor novels, and the Chronicles of Prydain, you weren't left with many choices. Lord Foul's Bane was there, but my ten year old self bounced off a book with a rapist for a protagonist. Shannara and other early knock-offs like Ushurak were kid-friendly and available.

    Having said all that, Menion Leah still kicks ass, and Hendel the Dwarf mixed with Hugh Oxhine the Ranger from Ushurak to give me my first AD&D character.

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  25. I really like his Word & void series and the Landover books, but after having read 9 or 10 Shannara books over my lifetime I can safely say I don't enjoy them. I agree with everyone about the post-apocalyptic setting though, that blew my mind when I was younger.

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  26. I read Elfstones around the same time as Farmer's World Of Tiers. WoT stayed with me. I can't say the same for Elfstones.

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  27. I started into this when I was 12... right after finishing LOTR. It was the first book I ever hated to the point of chucking it across the room. It was also the last bit of modern 'Tolkienesque' fiction I ever read... unless you count the first Thomas Covenant book... which I also didn't care for.

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  28. @JBM: Hah, I came here just to mention McKiernan. While Silver Call is essentially just published fan fiction, it's remarkable to think of Iron Tower's twisted legacy. Having to re-write the original because you had already written the sequel? What a road.

    I will say that the Iron Tower trilogy, with its militaristic take on Hobbits coming-of-age, glowing magical weapons and clearly defined enemy monsters fit in very nicely with D&D, and my discovering Moldvay Basic. It's a very D&D take on LotR, but its piece-for-piece recreations of LotR (for some reason, the pointless recreation of the battering ram always stuck out for me) just make it hard to take seriously even from the most generous angles.

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  29. It was fine then and it's fine now, particularly if you accept it as more of an homage to LotR than a sneaky rip-off. I mean, even 10-year old me recognized the parallels. I don't think Brooks thought he was fooling anyone.

    Truth be told, I preferred the Wishsong of Shannara because Garret Jax was like a ninja and we LOVED, LOVED, LOVED ninjas.

    It's a cheeseburger, not a filet mignon - and that's fine. Sometimes you want a cheeseburger.

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  30. "I don't think Brooks thought he was fooling anyone."

    Then you haven't read his impassioned self defense of an afterword that is in one of the later reprints. He is very sensitive about the dismissal of SoS as derivative hackwork at best, and plagiarism lite at worst.

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  31. Sword of Shannara was the worst published fantasy book I had ever read, right up until I came across Stephen Lawhead's earliest-published fantasy novels. (His later ones are often quite good, but the ha-ha-ha hee-hee-hee villain one was not ready for prime time and horribly edited. His first publisher did him a disservice there.)

    So yeah, I bite my tongue a lot around Brooks' fans. I don't want to insult their taste, especially since it was usually one of the first adult books they read, but... it's a stinkeroo.

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  32. imago1: Wow, hadn't read that. Assuming what you say is true, it alters my opinion a bit. Nevertheless, I guess he had the last laugh, eh? He's rich and we're just working stiffs. /shakes fist angrily

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  33. Yeah, until I rewrite At the Mountains of Madness as On the Peaks of Insanity and sell it for a jillion bucks. ;)

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  34. I liked his Landover books (at least the first few before they got a bit grimdark) but was never a big fan of shanara. Even the apocalyptic element didn't feel well included to me. Mind you, I can't say I thought they were horrible, but then I didn't grow up in the era of virtually no fantasy they first came out in.

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  35. I admit to a soft spot for SoS. Yeah, even my junior-or-pre-teen self realized it was lifted whole-cloth from LoTR but it was the kind of thing I would have written myself if I'd have been able. Come to think of it I remember handing in an English assignment around that time that featured a boy in a post-apocalyptic world facing off against a giant mutated cyborg insect (a scene lifted, from memory, straight from SoS).
    So I look on it with some affection, although I couldn't muster any interest past the first trilogy. For some reason I've always been far less forgiving with Donaldson, I'm not sure why.

    Maybe it was the Hildebrandt artwork? Or maybe it was that I came to Donaldson a few short years later when I (thought I) knew so much more about the world ;)

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  36. I loved the Sword of Shannara. I was about 13-14 when I first read it and it left a lasting image.
    In fact im playing a dwarf in a game currently and called him Hendel! haha.
    Only really read the first trillogy. I kind of lost interest in whichever one it was that involved though I did love the troll and weapons master characters(whose names I cant remember)

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  37. Talking about "the honesty of a good pastiche" in relation to Terry Brooks -- that's a new one. Brooks was an attorney, and was keenly aware that, due to a loophole caused by the pirated Ace Books edition of The Lord of the Rings, the original version of Tolkien's book was in public domain in the US. He (and his editor, Lester del Rey) knew exactly what they could rip off and get away with.

    Lin Carter, among many others, denounced Sword as ""the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read."

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  38. Yeah, I don't know. I've always liked the whole series, and frankly, if you dismiss Brooks as a Tolkien plagiarist wholesale, you haven't got a leg to stand on. Even the first book, as some have pointed out, contain pretty idiosyncratic elements like the Flynn-esque Panamon Creel, or the previously mentioned ruins of a high-rise city, inhabited by a hideous fleshy cyborg monster from before the nukepocalypse. I may have just read LotR poorly, I guess... ;-)

    After that, the books pretty rapidly start gaining a character of their own — the high-fantasy may seem stereotypical now, but there genuinely wasn't a lot of it available back then, and I think it was in many ways more innovative than it gets credit for. Notice the third book's protagonists, who have been mutated by their father's over-use of magic in the second book into possessing a pretty weird song-based magic — one sibling can sing illusions, but the other's song makes real things. In the subsequent, much newer series of... series, time and society advance in a reasonably plausible way; wars scar the landscape, and inventions change the technological situation, which is something I don't think I've ever seen in any other fictional universe of any sort.

    I think it's far more popular to bash Brooks than he really deserves, especially compared with real, earnest hack writers like McKiernan or, God forbid, Eddings, who wrote the same story four times over something like sixteen volumes. Brooks' stories have far more than that to recommend them, and to be honest, my own main peeve with them is his insistence on continually focusing on the same family, which works pretty harshly on the »fantastic verisimilitude« he expends a great deal of work on building up.

    Oh, and by the way: if memory serves, he wrote Sword while still in high school. I don't know about you guys, but for my part, I did not do my least derivative work back then. ;-)

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  39. Read it when it came out; it was so obviously a rip-off of LotR that I felt pretty insulted by the author's obvious contempt for my ability to see through his clumsy re-spray. I don't really see how it can be described as "honest" in any way.

    I didn't give Brooks a second chance.

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  40. @imago1:

    Yeah - except maybe make the scientists a ninja and a wise-cracking dwarf?

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  41. I read the first three Shannara books as a high school student, a year or two after reading LOTR. This was probably about the time the Berlin wall came a' tumblin' down.

    It's odd, but like LOTR, I read the Shannara books out of order: 2nd, 1st, 3rd - just read what I could get my hands on.

    I recall enjoying them at the time, partly because it was like a second dose of LOTR. I tried to reread them about a decade later but couldn't do it.

    Here's the thing with fantasy novels Shannara onward - how many times can you save the world from horrible evil with this magic item or that certain special someone before it becomes positively mind numbing?

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  42. I liked it well enough as a kid, but it didn't wow me. To this day the ending is high on my list of "most anti-climactic final confrontations ever".

    I also liked the post-apocalyptic angle. I remember liking the thief character a lot. I also remember that this combined with Dragonlance seemed to usher in the trope of killing off the dwarf.

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  43. No love for this terrible book from me; many of my friends, on the other hand and much to my chagrin, loved them all, even considering the series superior to the works of Tolkien.

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  44. Lin Carter, among many others, denounced Sword as ""the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read."

    Lin Carter hadn't seen nothing yet. Still I think card had it closer to the truth calling it "artistically displeasing" and overly derivative. The book is nowhere near as wholesale a lift as Carter treated it, though that's not speaking to it's quality.

    Frank Herbert's comments on it in the same article you list say it best, I think. It clearly owes a lot, but it's not theft.

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  45. Man I was really hoping you would rip into this stinkwad of a book.

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  46. Sometimes you want a cheeseburger.

    Yep. That's why, much as I personally have little interest in the book, I can't really get too worked up about it.

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  47. Brooks was an attorney, and was keenly aware that, due to a loophole caused by the pirated Ace Books edition of The Lord of the Rings, the original version of Tolkien's book was in public domain in the US. He (and his editor, Lester del Rey) knew exactly what they could rip off and get away with.

    That's interesting. Can you point me toward something online or elsewhere that might help me get up to speed on this, as it's the first time I've heard this angle?

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  48. Man I was really hoping you would rip into this stinkwad of a book.

    Maybe I'm mellowing in my old age, but I just can't get worked up about the Shannara books. They're so mediocre in my opinion that I find it hard to be offended by them.

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  49. Reading this back in the day as a kid the thing the struck me most, aside from it being a Tolkein rip-off, was how small the setting felt, especially for the page count. It felt about the size of any average US state or smaller, while Middle-Earth felt much larger, and thus more interesting, in comparison.

    I think the Hildebrant brothers' artwork and the Tolkein but- ad copy sold me on this (that and others my age reading it). At the time they'd done art for the Tolkein calendars so I already liked their art. The post-apoc stuff in SoS was interesting but barely there. I couldn't get into the setting after trying it again recently, though the airships were a nice touch (like the Mystara airship journals). I did like the bridge trilogy between his urban fantasy and the chronologically first Shannara books, The Genesis of Shannara.
    http://www.terrybrooks.net/novels/reading-orders/

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  50. You'd think that if you were going to use the story of Lord of the Rings, you'd be sure to set it in space or the Old West or something.

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  51. Never thought they were great books, but they did inspire my players in thinking about their characters more than Tolkein ever did. I'm not always sure it was in a good way, but they clearly modeled them on Brooks' creations.

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  52. For the record, Imago1 is full of crap. Brooks fully acknowledges his debt to Tolkien and the genesis of Sword is well-documented in his writing memoir.

    If you don't like Shannara or Brooks's work, so be it, but please don't lie about the man's intentions.

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