How Terry Brooks Saved Epic Fantasy
Terry Brooks gets a bad rap.
The Sword of Shannara, the debut novel from American novelist Terry Brooks, was released in 1977 into an SF literary ecosystem that looks very different than it does today: there was no Harry Potter, no Game of Thrones, and Peter Jackson was only just discovering Tolkien’s work as a pubescent teen. Readers were still riding Science Fiction’s new wave, and Fantasy looked like little more than a fading fad in the barren landscape left behind by Frodo’s departure to the Undying Lands.
Frodo may have lived, but fantasy was effectively dead.
That is, until Lester del Rey, famed science fiction author and editor, plucked a young upstart writer out of law school and published his debut novel. The writer’s name was Terry Brooks, his novel was called The Sword of Shannara, and — alongside Stephen R. Donaldson’s subversive Thomas Covenant series — it saved epic fantasy. It was also, by all intents and purposes of its editor, a shameless ripoff of Lord of the Rings.
I mean, it had it all:
- A quiet youth plucked out of his idyllic home by a tall, mysterious and grumpy magic-user;
- A magical macguffin;
- Elves, Dwarves, and trolls, oh my!
- A city under siege;
- Power-hungry, fallen angel-type who wants to take over the world and cover it in sadness and despair for some reason;
- and on, and on.
It’s impossible to ignore the similarities between the two novels. Brooks has stated on multiple occasions that del Rey’s entire motivation was to create a more marketable version of Tolkien’s story, and to reinvigorate reader interest in secondary world fantasy. What The Sword of Shannara is lambasted for today—being a Lord of the Rings ripoff and a paint-by-numbers epic fantasy—was on its publication a foreshadowing of what was coming to for the genre.
One need only look at the original cover and interior art of the Brothers Hildebrandt to see del Rey’s intention: as Brooks reveals, the Hildebrandts were hired by Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey to “mimic the Lord of the Rings calendar illustrations they had previously done.”
So, even in its earliest days, marketing of The Sword of Shannara was aimed directly at readers yearning to discover more of the vast worlds that Tolkien teased. The Brothers Hildebrant produced iconic work for Lord of the Rings, and the style was instantly recognizable and comforting for Tolkien’s millions of fans. What better way to encourage those hungry readers to pick up a debut novel from a young writer in a genre whose death knell was only a decade old echo?
I first discovered Brooks as a boy in the mid-’90s, just finishing up elementary school. It was my first real foray into fantasy after Tolkien. Disinterested in fantasy before I’d found Middle-Earth, my childhood was filled with all things science fiction: Tom Swift, Michael Crichton, Star Trek and Star Wars were my jam. But, when that fantasy mojo clicked, it clicked hard and I was left scrambling through my mom’s library—Hambly and Brooks, Donaldson, Kurtz, and McCaffery—for something that would fill the Hobbit-shaped hole that I’d never known existed inside of me. The Sword of Shannara was an easy fit. I didn’t want something new. With all the fervor and passion in my adolescent body, I wanted to start over and experience from scratch that same wonder I’d felt while reading Tolkien. I wanted hidden magic, elves, dwarfs, and a whole new fantasy world to explore. I was the absolute perfect audience for Brooks and del Rey: young, impressionable, and about to start a lifelong love affair with fantasy.
Reading The Sword of Shannara with a 21st century perspective can be any combination of frustrating, confusing, exciting, boring, and amusing.
Thirty five years after its publication, it’s difficult to read The Sword of Shannara for the first time and not feel like it’s one derivative cliche after another. An entire popular genre is built on the foundations laid by Tolkien (and his stories are build on the groundwork laid by ancient mythmakers ) and the bricks subsequently laid by Brooks, Donaldson, and del Rey. Reading The Sword of Shannara with a 21st century perspective can be any combination of frustrating, confusing, exciting, boring, and amusing. Like any foundational work that has been built upon for almost four decades, one should consider the context of when Brooks’ wrote the novel and consider a fantasy genre with little secondary world works besides Tolkien. It may look stodgy now, but at the time it was evolutionary and it opened the doors that Kurtz, McCaffrey, and Zelazny had been banging on for years. Following closely behind them were Katharine Kerr, David Eddings, Barbara Hambly, and Raymond Feist. After that, a floodgate opened.
Lord of the Rings is the most obvious analogue for Brooks’ novel, but in the annotated version of The Sword of Shannara, Brooks revealed several other famous authors who influenced him during its writing:
I drew on inspiration from the European adventure storytellers Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alexander Dumas, but it was only after reading The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien that I realized the fantasy genre held the grand tapestry I needed to tell the tale of The Sword of Shannara.
Where Brooks ultimately won me over as a young reader was his ability to take the elements that Tolkien introduced to modern literature and craft them into something accessible and fun: a rolicking adventure that suffered from none of Tolkien’s eccentricities. I loved Tolkien, but found his prose dry and his characters difficult to connect with emotionally. By melding the adventurous tone of Dumas and Doyle with Tolkien’s scope and approach to worldbuilding, Brooks introduced readers to a fantasy that was not only expansive and unusual, but stood on its own as a terrific piece of popcorn fiction. By eschewing depth for accessibility, Brooks blew the top off of the fantasy market. The Sword of Shannara was at once a novel that Lord of the Rings fans could dig their claws into and the perfect place for new readers to be introduced to fantasy. Where Stephen Donaldson — the Garfunkel to Brooks’ Simon — was marketed directly towards adult readers who were looking for something grim, introspective, and subversive, Brooks was waiting with open arms for readers of all ages and experience.
Brooks is oft-criticized (unfairly, in my opinion) for being juvenile and left in the dust created by the grittier fantasy that’s en vogue with many readers these days. What might have been, however, if Brooks’ original vision for The Sword of Shannara had been published? “Brooks [revealed] that the original draft for Sword was more tragic, with most of the main characters dying by the end,” Perschon notes in his review of the title. “Del Rey coached Brooks at this point, advising that readers ‘would not put up with having that many characters killed off.’” Oh, how things have changed.
While Brooks’ novels might not be tonally comparable to some of today’s popular movement towards grittier fantasy, the Shannara series has long been unsafe for its characters—good and bad—and almost all of the novels (with the exception, perhaps, of the latest published volume, The High Druid’s Blade) feature a body count that would make George R.R. Martin proud. This is not a fellowship of the nigh-invincible. There is a sacrifice and failure, death and nobility in all of Brooks’ stories. Your favourite character is never safe. Perhaps most notable is that Brooks doesn’t save dramatic deaths for the end of his books, and it’s not uncommon for integral characters to kick the bucket at the worst possible time, sending a seemingly safe plot off into the wilderness.
The Sword of Shannara was tamed by del Rey in this regard. However, looking back, I wonder how I would have reacted as a young reader if so many of my favourite characters — who’d I spent 700+ pages falling in love with — died? Would I understand the tragic undertones to Brooks’ story? I was gutted and proud when a certain troll made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure Shea Ohmsford could finish his journey, but I’m not sure if I could have handled a similar fate for Menion Leah or Shirl Ravenlock.
In so many ways, the Shannara series has always been ahead of its time, even as it’s been caught in a cycle of repetitive plot devices:
- Unlike almost every other secondary world I can think of, the Four Lands are constantly evolving: technologically, culturally, and socially.
- It’s full of strong women who get shit done. They’re good, they’re evil, they’re somewhere in between. They’re complicated and competent.
- Over its chronological course (from Running with the Demon to the High Druid’s Blade), the Shannara series is at various times an urban fantasy , a post-apocalyptic narrative, and an epic fantasy. Brooks is never content to stay confined to a single genre.
- It deals heavily with physical, emotional, and mental disability.
Another interesting diversion from Tolkien’s work, utilized by Brooks and Donaldson in contrasting ways, is the way our world leaks into the fantasy world. Donaldson did so by casting a human from modern earth, Thomas Covenant, into his fantasy world, and Brooks, with something much bigger in mind, created his fantasy playground from the far-future remains of Earth after it’s been destroyed by nuclear fallout. The ghosts of this world we all live in now haunt Brooks’ world and are deeply entrenched in the series’ ongoing exploration of science versus magic.
The aftermath of a nuclear war that has wiped out most of humanity on Earth, and left in its wake the beginnings of a world full of myths and magic.
It begins with barely heard whispers. In The Sword of Shannara, there’s a scene that, if you squint just right, seems to take place among the steel girders of a long fallen building; in The Heritage of Shannara, Walker Boh and his companions explore a stone city that seems eerily like Seattle, WA; Antrax features a full-blown computer AI with laser weaponry, discovered far from the borders of the Four Lands; and then, travelling into the past, The Genesis of Shannara trilogy shows the aftermath of a nuclear war that has wiped out most of humanity on Earth, and left in its wake the beginnings of a world full of myths and magic.
One of the series’ most defining elements is that each chunk of the Shannara story — defined by both single novels and multi-volume series—is set in a new generation. The Four Lands change, technology advances, and old characters are replaced by their descendants (each of the Shannara novels/trilogies/series features protagonists that can be traced back to the original heroes from The Sword of Shannara.) This generational aspect of the Shannara series is at once an interesting feature and a most damning bug.
It’s like being dropped into your favourite pub around a table of your oldest friends.
As a longtime Shannara fan, it’s incredibly comforting to begin a new journey in the Four Lands. They might have new names, but each time around being introduced to the new series/trilogy’s heroes is like being dropped into your favourite pub around a table of your oldest friends: there’s instant chemistry and conversation rolls along as though it never stopped in the first place.
However, in many ways Brooks’ recent works have suffered equally because of this: the conversation is comfortable, but it’s also a little boring; the pub’s looking a little long in the tooth; the beer’s just not the same as it used to be. You keep checking the clock, trying to decide how early is too early to leave. The stories have become predictable, assembled from familiar tropes configured in slightly different patterns—like an author playing with the same LEGO set for 30 years.
When he should be creating cleverly crafted, nuanced characters, Brooks instead reaches into a grab bag of archetypes and sorts it out from there. With few exceptions (most notably the middle volumes of The Heritage of Shannara series), each Shannara novel places an Ohmsford at its centre. S/he’s:
- Embued with some hidden magic;
- Hidden away from the larger world;
- Unaware of her inner strength;
- Pitched against uncertainty; and
- Resistant to being pushed into a larger world conflict.
(Not all of these elements are present in each protagonist, but they’re all used with varying regularity, which is where the grab bag analogy comes in.)
Unfortunately, Brooks doesn’t go so far as to use this repetitive characterization in a subversive or thematically interesting way. Grianne — the conflicted anti-hero of several later Shannara novels — is the closest, but Brooks misses (or intentionally avoids) the opportunity to pit reader prejudices and preconceptions against them by turning expectations upside down. His latest novel, The High Druid’s Blade, is the first time a Shannara novel has featured a protagonist not descended from (or a descendant of) Jerle Shannara, which seems like the perfect opportunity to try something new, but the result is just as stale as most of the most recent Ohmsfords.
“At the heart of every book I have written is the notion that absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Brooks revealed.
This issue also applies to Brooks’ plotting, which often results in rehashing one of the solutions from an earlier Shannara novel: bringing the Sword of Shannara to bear against an evil force; harnessing the power of the elfstones; or acquiring a long lost magical artifact. “At the heart of every book I have written is the notion that absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Brooks says in the annotated edition of The Sword of Shannara. This sheds some light on the ongoing repetitive nature of the Shannara series.
“Sadly,” he continues, a little on the nose, “this is as true now as it was in 1977.”
While the nature of absolute power is broad and a core part of the human identity, one has to wonder about an author who spends thirty years exploring a singular theme (not at the expense of other themes, but nestled at the core of all his stories). How much can one author say on the subject? How can Brooks continue to challenge himself by asking the same question(s) over and over again?
More pertinent, perhaps, is to question why, despite Brooks’ flogging of this dead horse, I keep coming back, year-after-year, to read the latest Shannara novel.
Like any long affair, lingering nostalgia is hard to let go.
Considering the above—The Sword of Shannara’s blatant copying of Tolkien, the latter novels’ paint-by-numbers approach—it’s no surprise that I consider Brooks’ work from the mid-eighties to the early-aughts to be his finest:
- The Heritage of Shannara (1990–93), a four volume series, is particularly notable for its darker tone and the structure of its narrative, which dedicates the middle two volumes to two parties off on their own simultaneous journeys.
- The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara (2000–2002) introduces a huge leap in technology to the series, and begins the series’ long-running exploration of the societal effects of magic clashing with technology. It also hints more obviously at the fantasy world’s connection to our own.
- And, most notably, The Elfstones of Shannara (1982).
If you were to start reading Terry Brooks today, there’s no better place to begin than with The Elfstones of Shannara.
The Elfstones of Shannara—widely regarded as Brooks’ best Shannara novel—is remarkable for being so unlike its predecessor. It scales back the narrative scope of The Sword of Shannara and separates itself wholly from Brooks’ initial desire to emulate Tolkien. This is what makes MTV’s decision to adapt it for television, instead of The Sword of Shannara, so clever. It’s more concise, features a much more creative and unique storyline, and highlights Brooks’ storytelling at its finest.
Sure, The Elfstones of Shannara also establishes many of the tropes and cliches that Brooks overuses in his later volumes, and it doesn’t stand out as terribly unique against more modern fantasy, but at the time, in a world that was just rediscovering secondary world fantasy thanks to Brooks and Donaldson, The Elfstones of Shannara stood above and beyond Brooks’ debut and remains to this day a class of ‘80s epic fantasy. If you were to start reading Terry Brooks today, there’s no better place to begin than with The Elfstones of Shannara.
It was some shock to me that Brooks’ most recent trilogy, The Dark Legacy of Shannara (and particularly the second volume, Bloodfire Quest) was the first direct sequel to The Elfstones of Shannara since its publication in the early ‘80s. Looking at Brooks’ bibliography, you see many Shannara novels in the intervening years, but The Dark Legacy of Shannara picks up many of the thematic elements from The Elfstones of Shannara and twists them around to see how they change after hundreds of years of technological and cultural evolution in the Four Lands. Instead of feeling tired, however, The Dark Legacy of Shannara feels referential and introspective in all the best ways.
This is how multi-generational epics should be. They should build on themselves and evolve. Past lessons should dictate future actions. Decisions ripple through generations. Time never stops moving forward.
“Welcome to the Four Lands. Let me show you around.”
It’s impossible to pinpoint and explain what makes Terry Brooks’ Shannara novels so dear to me for one reason: the magic does not exist in Brooks’ books. It’s not something that I can draw a map to. It’s not an element that I can help a new reader capture. It lives inside me, instead. It’s part of my memories and my nostalgia, it’s part of the wonder that nuzzled into my heart when I was first discovering fantasy. It’s not objective in the least.
Fantasy and its ideologies mean a lot to me. Its boundless potential reminds me daily that we can ask for more, expect better, think bigger.
In his academic way, J.R.R. Tolkien introduced me to fantasy. But it was Terry Brooks who helped me fall in love with it. Like cracking open a history book, Lord of the Rings was laid out before me in its languid, mythical way. When I picked up The Sword of Shannara, it was like Brooks reached out his hand to me and said, “Welcome to the Four Lands. Let me show you around.”
And for that, I’ll always be grateful.