There was a time (a very short time) when it looked like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series was finished way back in the 90s. In 1997, after the release of the stand-alone prequel The First King of Shannara, Brooks departed the world he’d spent 20 years building for a different trilogy, which came to be known as The Word and the Void. It was his first true work of so-called urban fantasy, a story that certainly involved magical creatures and events, but was set in the modern United States as opposed to a fictional world like Shannara. It was also written on the smallest scale Brooks had ever used, forsaking the “traverse the lands and fight the all-threatening evil” motif of high fantasy in favor of one person’s relationship with a hidden magical universe and the people who, like her, are aware of its existence. The heroine is Nest Freemark, an incomparable female protagonist, and even Brooks’ trademark time-hopping is confined to a few years instead of decades or centuries, as Nest ages from book to book, going from 14 to 19 to 29. It is a phenomenal trilogy that, more than anything else, demonstrated Brooks’ ability to write outside the confines of Shannara or epic fantasy in general. With the original Shannara trilogy and follow-up Heritage series having been seemingly capped off by the prequel, The Word and the Void seemed to indicate that Brooks was finally moving on.
Only he wasn’t.
Brooks returned to Shannara in 2000 and wrote six more books in the series, The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy and its immediate sequel, The High Druid of Shannara trilogy. These books largely consisted of what had by now become typical Shannara fare, but there was one thing of particular note in the Voyage series – the presence of a long-lost supercomputer hidden on an island across the sea. Even for long-time readers with an understanding of where the Four Lands came from, the introduction of data storage mechanisms, artificial intelligence, and destructive laser beams into a story about elves and magic was unbelievably jarring.
As laid out in the very first novel, part of Shannara’s history was that the world we’ve been introduced to developed after a modern civilization much like our own descended into nuclear apocalypse, an event referred to as “The Great Wars.” Humanity spent generations hiding underground, and when it finally emerged, some populations had evolved in various ways to the extent that they could be considered completely different races such as trolls and dwarves (the elves were and had always been a separate species). Thus, Shannara was classic high fantasy that took place in the future, which explains the frequent references to the magic of “the Old World,” aka science, as well as the presence of ancient computers. But the full extent of Brooks’ multi-generational narrative didn’t become clear until 2006, when he announced a new trilogy: The Genesis of Shannara.
There were hints for careful readers to indicate that The Word and the Void might have links to Shannara – the demons fought by Nest Freemark, for example, are oddly similar to the Shadowen, the primary villains of Heritage. But with Genesis, it became official: Nest’s modern day urban fantasy version of America was the same world that would eventually become the Four Lands, and The Word and the Void was, in fact, the prequel to end all prequels. Genesis was the bridge. It told the story of the last days of America (and presumably the Earth at large, though the action is confined to Brooks’ home country) and how a group of humans and elves, using magic seen in both The Word and the Void and the larger Shannara series, manage to shield a small part of the population from nuclear destruction. When the Genesis trilogy was concluded, Brooks wrote a duology called Legends of Shannara, which is about the descendants of the Genesis survivors being forced out into the new world beyond their magical walls.
There are two major takeaways from the sheer scale of the Shannara series. The first is simply the breathtaking realization that Brooks has been telling this story, essentially without stopping, since 1977. Reading Shannara in chronological order – that is, beginning with The Word and the Void and moving forward in time from there – is an incredible experience, as you watch the entire world die, be born again, and evolve over the course of thousands of years. I can’t think of any saga ever written that chronicles such a lengthy timeline with such detail
The second takeaway involves the primary reason that, until very recently, Shannara had never been adapted to either the small or silver screens. Plans for a Shannara movie have been in the works for years, if not decades, but nothing ever came of them. Brooks was reluctant to give up the rights to his work unless he was shown something promising, and for a long time, the big hang-up for the studio writers in Hollywood was the nuclear war issue. Nobody in Hollywood was able to get past the fact that the history of Shannara hinted at being post-apocalyptic, and every script that was drafted contained some kind of play on “the nuclear lesson.” This was well before Shannara was linked up with The Word and the Void, mind you; from Brooks’ point of view, the Great Wars might have been interesting backstory, but were in no way a part of any central plot. He wasn’t interested in a Shannara movie warning against the dangers of nuclear power. His story was about an evil warlock and a dark army and a magic sword, not radiation poisoning. Hollywood wasn’t so much missing the forest for the trees as missing the trees for the seeds they grew from, and Brooks never allowed the rights to leave his possession.
Part of the problem, of course, was that everybody wanted to make a movie out of The Sword of Shannara just because it was the first one. As previously mentioned, The Sword of Shannara is (a) not very good, particularly when compared to what comes later, and (b) essentially tangential to the rest of the series. The nice thing about adapting Shannara is that you don’t really have to start with the first one. Each individual Shannara series – and in the case of the original trilogy, each individual book – uses different characters in a different setting. Yes, it’s fun for long-time readers to recognize places, or artifacts, or surnames from previous books, but it’s not necessary. You can tell pretty much any of these stories on their own. Which is why it’s somewhat criminal that it took until 2014 for somebody to have the bright idea of skipping Sword and making an adaptation of The Elfstones of Shannara, which is an incomparably better novel.
And so it was that Terry Brooks finally found a creative team he liked and started working with them on a show called The Shannara Chronicles, which aired on MTV in 2016. Finally, a series that started in 1977 and included more than 20 New York Times Bestsellers was getting an adaptation, and all signs pointed to it actually being good.
Next week: Why The Shannara Chronicles isn’t good.