The Annotated Sword Of Shannara (Shannara book 1) by Terry Brooks (book review).

April 26, 2018 | By | Reply More

It was with a great deal of trepidation that I approached Terry Brooks’ ‘The Sword Of Shannara’. It was once described by the critic David Pringle as the novel that showed that ‘fantasy really did have the potential to become a mass market genre’. Published in 1977, ‘The Sword Of Shannara’ appeared alongside other fantasy heavyweights of the time: the first ‘Thomas Covenant’ novel by Stephen Donaldson, Christopher Tolkien’s edit of his father’s ‘The Silmarillion’ and, of course, George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’. ‘The Hero’s Journey’ was well underway along many fronts. The edition of ‘The Sword Of Shannara’ I read was the thirty-fifth anniversary annotated edition.

If ‘The Sword Of Shannara’ had been the first fantasy novel I’d ever encountered, I would have no doubt loved it. The story does zip along. It doesn’t hang around and makes the threat to our heroes very clear and lays out the quest for the sword in an exciting and accessible way. The characters are likeable and the relationship between elf, man, gnome and druid is well-drawn. So, why aren’t I going into more detail about it? Well, there’s an Oliphant in the room. A pipe-smoking, academic Oliphant, quietly supping a pint of bitter in the Eagle & Child, Oxford.

It is so hard, so very hard not to assess ‘The Sword Of Shannara’ for what it plainly is. Quite simply the biggest rip-off of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ since George Lucas’ version mentioned above. Here’s the plot (stop me if you’ve heard this one) a half-elven lad discovers from a visiting druid (wizard) that he is THE CHOSEN ONE and is required to recover a mysterious sword in order to defeat a Dark Lord. After fleeing their home, when the Skull Bearers come, the lad and his half-brother end up in a place called Culhaven where they team-up with a prince, some elves, a dwarf to locate the missing sword, a sort of Fellowship, if you like. Along the way, there’s a human king who’s been poisoned into insanity by how own trusted adviser, some large-scale battles and THE CHOSEN ONE faces off to the Dark Lord.

In a way ‘The Sword Of Shannara’ is endearingly derivative. Its plot so neatly mirrors ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, you can’t help but admire that Brooks was desperate to encapsulate the feeling he got from Tolkien’s work, he ended up creating a complete reflection of that book. It is impressive that it was Brooks’ first novel and, thanks to this being the annotated version of the book, we can get some insights into his thinking.

Some of the notes draw in the experience of writing the book such as communicating with his editor, Lester Del Rey, and how that was a prolonged experience of making notes and amends, mailing them to Del Rey and then him writing back, because he didn’t like the ideas of authors complaining about edits over the telephone. Other notes exist to point out continuity inconsistencies or how characters to develop. At one point, Brooks attempts to draw a comparison between the moral choices that happen in the book and the twenty-first century world of today.

There is perhaps a more telling quote, this time from Brooks’ editor Lester Del Rey, who published ‘The Sword Of Shannara’ as the first novel under his new ‘Del Rey’ imprint, that would go on to publish many fantasy and SF authors, as well as the ‘Star Wars’ novels. Del Rey said that the book was the first that ‘had any chance of meeting the demands of Tolkien readers for similar pleasures’. Or, to put it another way, the love of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ was so passionate, that many readers would willingly enjoy more of the same and this is definitely more of the same.

Michael Moorcock once said that “’The Lord of the Rings’ was Epic Pooh” ie a simple-minded quest story, with black and white morals and little, if any, character development. If that’s the case, then ‘The Sword Of Shannara’ is ‘The Tigger Movie’. A copycat Disney version, which taken on its own terms is pleasurable enough, but lacking in the substance that made the original such a hit. Fans will enjoy the notes in this edition, but for the novice reader there’s little to be gleaned outside of the core text.

John Rivers

April 2018

(pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2012. 523 page hardback. Price: $35.00 (US), $41.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-53513-9)

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