40 Years of Shannara: The Rightful King of Epic Fantasy

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Source: First Edition Fantasy

I’m moving right along through Heinlein’s Double Star, but during the break between Hugo essays, it’s time for this blog to take its maiden voyage into one of my personal great literary loves: high fantasy. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, and the launching of a fantasy series that remains ongoing after four decades.

If you’ve never heard of the Shannara series, I can’t say I’m surprised, particularly if you’re on the younger side of the fantasy reader spectrum. Brooks and his work haven’t gotten a whole lot of love during the Internet Age. I’d like to believe that there’s a large constituency of fantasy nerds who read that first book, didn’t like it, and never read any more, but the truth is probably that there’s a large constituency of fantasy nerds who never read the first book, but heard it was a Tolkien rip-off that had never been turned into a popular movie or TV show and dismissed the entire series out of hand. As a result, mention that you’re a Shannara fan in most online fantasy circles and you will invariably be shouted down by people with suggestions for the good fantasy series you should read instead.

To indulge in the sort of profanity I usually try to avoid on this blog: Fuck those people. Over the course of this week, Universes of the Mind will be celebrating Shannara’s 40th birthday as only a lifelong fan could, and it’s only appropriate to start with an explanation of why it’s the most important fantasy series you’ve never read.

No offense to the man who brought us bow-wielding elves, dwarves scowling through their braided beards and all-knowing, all-powerful wizards, but J.R.R. Tolkien gets way too much credit for expanding on concepts that already existed and writing a novel so massive and unwieldy they had to split it three ways. Granted, he was an incredible influence on the development of fantasy and is well-deserving of his lofty spot in the pantheon of the genre, but Tolkien is hailed far too often as the great messiah who created everything and whose work has yet to be surpassed. The truth is, it didn’t take all that long for Tolkien’s successors, admittedly inspired by his books, to surpass him in writing and world-building alike, and it took even less time for people to start denouncing them as rip-offs.

Tolkien’s books didn’t achieve popularity until the 1960s, and even then, the market was for Tolkien, not for the genre. For someone so frequently referred to as the father of fantasy, he couldn’t make fantasy generally popular. He was a tremendous influence, but he’s not the one who got publishers interested enough in the fantasy genre to make it a legitimate aspect of mainstream fiction.

Terry Brooks was the one who did that.

Brooks began writing his first novel, The Sword of Shannara, in 1967. Ten years later, it was published and became the first fantasy novel to ever crack (and then top) the New York Times Bestseller List. The comparisons between Brooks’ novel and The Lord of the Rings are obvious and irrefutable: regular guy from small village runs into imposing wizard, gets swept up in quest for magic MacGuffin to destroy the Ultimate Evil with help from his amazing elf, dwarf and barbarian friends. Brooks has admitted to being inspired by Tolkien (presumably because no one would be stupid enough to claim otherwise) and his book has been widely panned as little more than bad Tolkien fan fiction pretty much since its initial publication.

Honestly, the resemblance between The Sword of Shannara and The Lord of Rings is often overstated…but only slightly. That first book really is very similar to Tolkien’s epic series, only without the interminable descriptions of every cloud in the sky and hill on the horizon, the carefully crafted but ultimately meaningless fictional linguistics, and the endless parade of Glorfindels and Toms Bombadil that add nothing to the narrative and never come up again (unless you want to pony up for the collection of Tolkien’s world notes slapped together by his son, who put a pricetag on it and called it The Simarillion). Nonetheless, the similarities are inescapable, and The Sword of Shannara is not a great book by any means.

And yet, despite its flaws and its extreme reliance on Tolkien, The Sword of Shannara broke the barrier for fantasy to enter the mainstream (along with other books by other authors of the same period, most notably Stephen Donaldson). Turns out that in 1977, “like Lord of the Rings but less boring” was a pretty immediate recipe for success. Its sales alone were enough for any publishing executive to lift his head from his cocaine-covered desk long enough to wonder if this fantasy thing might be worth a shot. If Tolkien is the old guy who built the factory with his own two hands (and these tools invented by other people a long time ago) Brooks is the son who turned the factory into a thriving business by taking dad’s accomplishments and improving on them. Tolkien might be the father of modern fantasy, but the modern fantasy industry was heralded by Brooks.

People were always going to rip off Tolkien. In the 60s and 70s, people were waiting in line to rip off Tolkien. In fact, in 1969, then-editor of Ballantine Books Lin Carter created the Ballantine Adult Fantasy imprint, a series of fantasy books whose job was essentially to see who could make the most money ripping off Tolkien. The hobbit-craze produced a slew of authors hoping to make their name in the burgeoning fantasy genre, and while many of them were good, none of them achieved Brooks’ level of commercial success. What’s notable, however, is not how he first achieved acclaim in fantasy (which was, to be clear, by ripping off Tolkien) but rather what he did afterwards.

Namely, the rest of the Shannara series. And the rest of the Shannara series is massive. Brooks followed up The Sword of Shannara with its sequel, The Elfstones of Shannara, in 1982. The protagonists of Elfstones, however, are not the protagonists of Sword; they are the descendants. A whole generation in time is skipped between books, as Elfstones follows Wil Ohmsford, the grandson of Sword’s primary hero, Shea Ohmsford. In 1985, Brooks completed his first trilogy with The Wishsong of Shannara, which features Wil’s daughter, Brin, as its heroine. It was the first indication that Brooks was really interested in telling a story that spanned multiple generations of the same family, a premise he would take to unprecedented degrees.

Elfstones and Wishsong also represented Brooks’ early departure from his initial reliance on Tolkien. It was as if Brooks finished his version of The Lord of the Rings with Sword, and then decided to write about what happened next. There can be few, if any, fair comparisons drawn between LOTR and everything in Shannara beyond the first book. From then on, it’s all original Brooks, and it’s telling that the moment he stopped taking directly from Tolkien, his work became infinitely better. Elfstones alone is enough to turn the rip-off narrative on its head. The elves in the book are real people, not caricatures; the mysterious wizard-figure, while still very much concerned with wizarding mysteriously, is darker and more ambiguous; the book’s demonic villains are rich and fleshed out, terrifying in their simultaneous resemblance to, and hatred of, humanity. Most importantly, Elfstones is not a story about a world and its peoples, viewed through the eyes of characters dragged along to appreciate the view. It is fundamentally a story about the relationship between two people, with the quest and the battles and the setting working in the service of the characters, not the other way around. Wishsong, meanwhile, takes the concept of corruption by magic further and deeper than Tolkien ever did, and again, the story is about the person being corrupted, not the magic corrupting her. And both books find innovative and original ways to think about and toy with the basic idea of magic as a whole.

They do something else Tolkien never did, too: include women in the story. Don’t let Liv Tyler fool you; Tolkien penned a tale in which women were marginally involved, if they were involved at all. Ask someone to start naming LOTR characters as they think of them; more than likely, you’ll hear Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, Aragorn, Legolas, Boromir, Gandalf and probably a lot more before they ever arrive at Arwen and Eowen. Brooks, unfortunately, copied this tendency in Sword (the only female character of any importance is the unfortunately-named Shirl Ravenlock, and like Arwen, she functions as nothing more than a perfunctory love interest, with no depth or characterization at all). In Elfstones, however, he came up with Amberle Elessedil, an incredible character who is the heart of the story and whose arc is both believable and heartbreaking. In Wishsong, Brin is in every way the main character. Her younger brother is also a central protagonist, but the story is about Brin. Brooks went on to create some of the most memorable heroines in the history of fantasy…for those who know they exist.

As the Shannara series unfolded, Brooks’ tendency toward generation-hopping went extreme and the sheer size of the story went nuclear. Just think about this: The Sword of Shannara, the first book in the series, came out in 1977. The new one is scheduled to come out in June of this year. That’s right, the man is still writing these, and has been almost non-stop since the 80s. And the in-world chronology spans literally thousands of years.

In 1990, Brooks began a four-part series called The Heritage of Shannara. All four books involved the same characters over a single period of time, but it took place 300 years after the events of the original trilogy, which had now become near-forgotten legend. In the process of creating this future Shannara, Brooks gave his entire world an update, playing with the ways in which civilizations change and develop over the years. In 1996 he released a prequel to the original trilogy, The First King of Shannara (which takes place 500 years earlier) and in 2000 he started with The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy, which involves the descendants of the heroes of Heritage. And then in 2003 it was The High Druid of Shannara trilogy, which chronicled the remaining life of one of Voyage’s characters. And then in 2006, he went back to the past, constructing a prequel trilogy to the prequel to the original trilogy, the Genesis of Shannara, followed in 2010 by a duology, Legends of Shannara, that takes place 500 years after Genesis but 1000 years before First King. In 2012 he began The Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy, which occurs 100 years after High Druid, and from 2014 to 2016 he published The Defenders of Shannara trilogy, which naturally takes place 100 years after Dark Legacy.

Brooks has announced that his new book, the one coming out in June, will be the first of a four-part series called The Fall of Shannara, and that it will finally end the most unabashedly epic saga in fantasy. Assuming one book per year (and unlike certain extremely popular, extremely bearded fantasy authors, Brooks has published a book every year since 1990) that would mean the story that began in 1977 will wrap up in 2020, having covered approximately 3000 years in 32 novels, six short stories, and one graphic novel. Fans of Terry Brooks don’t have a Shannara shelf on their bookcase. They have a Shannara bookcase.

That’s not even mentioning the old-ass video game and the brand new TV adaptation, but we’ll get there. Come back tomorrow for a look at the full scope and scale of the Shannara series. I haven’t even gotten to the weirdest parts yet.

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