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The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was first published, it took the speculative fiction community by storm. People loved it, and they wanted more. But in the 1960's there wasn't anything Just Like That. There were the heroic fantasies like Robert E. Howard's stories of Conan the Barbarian. There were the weird stories of H P Lovecraft and his imitators. There were the various fantasies disguised as science fiction by the simple expedient of setting them on a distant planet and referring to psionics or aliens, such as André Norton's Witch World stories and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover. But there were no other sustained imaginings of a self-consistent Secondary World through the eyes of its inhabitants.

It's said that nature abhors a vacuum, and it's certainly true in the publishing world. When a breakthrough work reveals an untapped market, it's only a matter of time before imitators move in to cash in on the demand. Thus when Lester Del Rey found the manuscript of The Sword of Shannara on his desk, he was certain he had gold in his hands.

It's an obvious exercise to go through The Sword of Shannara and note the parallels to The Lord of the Rings. We've got Flick and Shea Ohmsford in their peaceful Shady Vale, whose quiet life is disrupted by the sudden appearance of the mysterious Druid Allanon to tell them that evil is afoot, that the dread Warlock who had thought to be vanquished has risen once more in his Skull Kingdom. Thus these two young men from a sheltered land must venture forth in the company of representatives of all the major good-guy races on an impossible quest that may defeat this evil once and for all.

However, there are major differences. While Tolkien's Middle Earth was said by him to be the story of a forgotten ancient period of Europe's history, Brooks' Allanon gives our heroes a history of terrible wars that destroyed the old civilization based on science and reshaped the world such that magic became the paramount force by which the wise accomplished things. At the time the novel was written, in the later part of the Cold War when total nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union and the consequent destruction of civilization were a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, it seemed a very possible future to imagine. And in its own way it was oddly hopeful to imagine that two thousand years after a total nuclear war magic would replace science, given that many writers of the time were foreseeing the total extinction of humanity.

Furthermore, the various fantasy races of Brooks' imagined world (with the exception of the elves, who were always a race apart) ere presented as the product of evolution, branching away from the original human stock. Those of us who read a lot of post-apocalyptic science fiction set after a nuclear war were familiar enough with the idea of radiation-induced mutation would understand Allanon's description in that light.

But most importantly, the central quest of The Lord of the Rings was to destroy the artifact of power, not to retrieve and use it as Shea Ohmsford must do with the titular Sword. As a result Brooks' work returns to the typical quest narrative of traditional epic. To be true, the Sword was forged for good purposes, to break tyranny and liberate its victims rather than enslave as the One Ring was, and using the Sword successfully requires being able to squarely face and accept all one's failings. But it still lacks the theme of the rejection of power over others which is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, and which makes that novel such a landmark work in spite of its flaws.

The overall effect of The Sword of Shannara in comparison to The Lord of the Rings is of a photocopy of a photograph or painting beside the original. The richness of color and detail is lost, leaving a coarser-grained, cruder image. There is none of the richness of language, the deft skill in the formation of names, that was the product of Tolkien's academic background in philology. Instead, the word choices, the phrasing and particularly the names feel clunky and awkward. A few even bring to mind prosaic associations that take us from the sublime to the absurd, yanking us back to the present and damaging our suspension of disbelief.

Yet for readers desperate to get another fix of the experience they'd enjoyed while reading Tolkien, an inferior imitation was better than nothing. So The Sword of Shannara sold well enough to found a long and remunerative career, enough that Mr. Brooks was able to leave his legal career behind and make Shannara one of the longest-running fantasy series in history.

Review posted December 14, 2012.

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