In my long and somewhat undistinguished life so far, only three times I have been called “a f#cking moron” because of my tastes (or lack thereof) in matters of music and literature. And before you ask, yes, I have a very long memory for certain things.
- The first time was when I candidly admitted that I’d rather listen to J.S. Bach than to W.A. Mozart.
- The second time was when I expressed my preference for Jefferson Airplane over Pink Floyd.
- The third time was when I said I had actually liked The Sword of Shannara.
And this being Karavansara, you will guess what I am going to talk about next.
What I think should be clear from the start is, I read Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara about one year before I first read The Lord of the Rings. I was all of fourteen by my reckoning, and the massive, brick-like volume (the Futura edition, not the Ballantine) was one of the first books I read in English. I had been through Clifford D. Simak, Tanith Lee, DeCamp & Pratt, Howard… now I felt sure enough of my English chops to tackle something really HUGE.
And I actually liked it.
It was full of characters and adventure, that is exactly what you are looking for when you are 14 or 15, and the one thing I liked the most about the whole thing was the way in which the novel kept hinting a the fact that this was not a fantasy world, but our own world, after a nuclear apocalypse. This being the early ’80s, that was a very powerful idea.
I add an unimportant tidbit of information – back when I was a kid, the Shannara books, in hardback and with those incredible covers, were Christmas books par excellence – and indeed I tend to associate the memory of those novels with the sounds and smells of the festive season, and have this memory of bookstore windows in which The Elfstones of Shannara made a beautiful display of itself.
But that was later.
First there was me, on a long winter, reading the black brick that was Sword.
Then, about one year later, I did read The Lord of the Rings, in the Italian translation, and I liked it – despite a certain sense of deja-vu.
Damn, I was actually half-expecting Tolkien to pull a “this is the aftermath of a war” trick on me.
And then I went and re-read Tolkien’s book in English, and that settled it for me. I read it a third time a few years later, just to see how it would feel.
And right now, were I to chose, I’d probably re-read The Sword of Shannara and its two direct sequels – Elfstones and Wishsong.
And this not – I claim – because I am a f#cking moron as some refined conoisseurs would have, but simply because it’s been almost forty years, and while I do remember quite well Tolkien’s book – and thus I feel no need to go back at it – Brooks’ tome, through which I waded when my English was still green, is a blur.
And it would be interesting to see whether it holds up or it does not.
I am no longer a teenager, so I guess I might find the whole thing a let down, but it might be a great opportunity to study Brooks’ writing, and see if he has any nifty trick to share.
As for the actual merits of the book itself, I sit in a very uncomfortable position – because Fritz Leiber was pretty harsh in branding The Sword of Shannara as a travesty, while Gene Wolfe found a number of merits in it. And Leiber and Wolfe are two of my favorite writers, two authors whose work I have tried to study to learn the craft. And I think I agree with both of them.
There is no doubt that Brooks wrote – or probably re-wrote, from what I heard, on Lester Del Rey’s suggestion – to follow the pattern set by Tolkien, and give Tolkien’s orphans a hefty serving of more of the same.
And the central characters are borderline insufferable.
And yet at the same time, when Brooks finds his voice again, about halfway in, and finally turns his back on Tolkien long enough to channel Dumas and Anthony Hope, the book’s an entertaining romp.
For this reason – because Brooks had to wash Tolkien out of his system – the second and third book are probably superior to the first, and well worth a read. There, I said it. So sue me. I also liked the old covers a lot.
The completion of the original Shannara trilogy marks in my books the moment in which fantasy stops being rough and wild, and becomes encoded. The interregnum – that crazy time between the publishing of Lord of the Rings and the publishing of Wishsong, when strange ideas could be still put to paper and not rejected by strict editors, is over.
And here I might as well drop my usual joke, and say that for all its defects and sins, The Sword of Shannara is mercifully free of Elven poetry and of assorted Tom Bombadils – but I have pulled the chain of Tolkien fans enough for one post.
Then, of course, the series grew overlong – and while I respect an author’s need to revisit his world, but there does exist a condition described as “flogging a dead horse”.
But who am I to judge – by the time I was halfway through the second Shannara series (Heirs and all that), the books had lost their appeal to me. But somebody else’s mileage might vary – and if you like the later books, more power to you.
Because in the end I think the point is not striving to prove to our peers that we are not f#cking morons, but rather trying not to be d!cks.