Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reading The Sword of Shannara: Chapters 1-5

Jen Miller and her brother, Philip Ilten, grew up with their parents reading lots of science fiction and fantasy to them as bedtime stories.  With this feature, they resume this family tradition of reading fantasy together with Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara.  They invite you to get a copy of your own and read along, too!
Dear Phil--The Sword of Shannara

Hooray!  We’re reading The Sword of Shannara together!  I’m going to be honest--I’m more excited about the idea of reading a book with you than the actual book that we’re reading.  I’ve been putting off starting the novel because I’ve gotten this impression of it as this overdone, tired cliche.  I realize that this isn’t fair, especially since I’m thinking of the novel through the lens of everything that has been written since then instead of thinking of it as the groundbreaking work that it was (helped to make fantasy commercially successful, first paperback fantasy on the NYT bestseller list, etc.).  Things are what they are, however, and it seems that it’s a) good to be upfront about my prejudices and b) interesting to see if you’re coming from a place that is at all the same.  So, what about you?  What are your thoughts going into this book?

Perhaps another challenge that I’m facing is that I just finished re-reading The Hobbit for this class that I’m teaching, and I really appreciated the way in which Tolkien breaks up the long descriptive passages in The Hobbit with narrative asides.  In the midst of sentence after sentence about a hobbit hole, Tolkien will then insert a first-person narrator to break the rhythm of the description and establish a familiar, intimate tone.  So far, Brooks doesn’t do that.  He has the long descriptive passages, but with nothing to break them up.  Again, this comparison isn’t tremendously fair, since I’m comparing him to Tolkien, for heaven’s sake, but then again, since the novel is obviously influenced by Tolkien’s work, such comparisons are inevitable.  And some of the descriptions just seem so obvious and unnecessary, like this passage on page 12: “The buildings were constructed of wood, with stone foundations and stone frontings on a few.”  Well, yes.  Not tremendously vivid or specific--in fact, doesn’t that description match the house that we grew up in in small-town Wisconsin?  I also wasn’t particularly impressed by the history dump in Chapter 2--I find that I appreciate history coming in smaller chunks or seeing it happen, rather than several pages of names, wars, and shifting alliances that are all really hard to put into context.

Speaking of The Hobbit, I like the connection Brooks draws between Shea and Frodo through the use of the word "half":  Shea is a “half son”--similar to the “halfling” title for the hobbits.  And both are described as being overlooked by the great evil power because of their “half” status.  For Frodo, the “half” designation has to do with size; for Shea, it has to do with ancestry and lineage.

I’m also not sure of what to make of Allanor’s characterization--it seems really inconsistent.  First, he gets angry for Shea and Flick for even daring to question him, then he relaxes and says that they don’t need to do anything yet, and then the next day, he leaves a note saying they might have to leave very soon.  I realize that he’s filling the “Gandalf” role in this text, and as such, is bound to be a bit unpredictable, but his alternating between urgency and casualness is confusing.

Finally, I’m interested in the way that actual political commentary seems to be sneaking into the narrative.  Shea is very adamant about his endorsement of a decentralized government, and already in these first five chapters, there has been a much more direct discussion of political systems than I ever noticed in LOTR.  It makes me wonder how much Shea’s views are a reflection of what Brooks himself thinks, and if this interest in politics is a reflection of when the book was written (Brooks started writing in 1967) and a reaction against the unpopular policies of the central US government (namely, the Vietnam War).

Looking forward to seeing what you think!


Dear Jen--

This actually is the first time I’ve ever really read a book in tandem with someone, so I’m very excited. My apologies for the late start; The Sword of Shannara is more popular than I expected. During my four months in Sweden Shannara was only available for a week, and here in southern Dublin 4 of the 5 copies are currently checked out. This certainly is a testament to Shannara’s fame, and perhaps the quality of the book, but I guess we will find out shortly!

I feel that, like you, I also should provide full disclosure of my prejudices, which in some ways are similar to yours. Specifically, I will inevitably compare Shannara with Lord of the Rings. However, I do not think of Shannara-like books to be a tired cliche. I love being transported into these fantastical settings, and so even if the writing is not exemplary I oftentimes still enjoy the book. For example, I love the Eragon series even though I know you have misgivings about the originality and style of the writing. One final prejudice that I must admit is that I already have read Brooks’ Landover and Knight of the Word series of which I found the former brilliant and the latter rather mediocre. Consequently, I think I may subconsciously hold Shannara to the standard of Landover, despite Landover being written by Brooks as a more mature author.

The first point you brought up in your letter, that the descriptions are not vivid and even rather mundane, really resonated with me. I find it quite interesting that you suggested many of the descriptions as matching non-descript small town Wisconsin. When I was reading Knight of the Word I had the exact same feeling to the point where I actually became homesick! I was interested about this at the time and so looked up Brooks’ birthplace; it turns out he was born and raised in a small Midwest town and so it makes sense that much of his imagery reflects small town Wisconsin.

Another point of interest to me was what you called “the history dump” in Chapter 2. While reading the passage I was acutely aware of a D&D campaign I ran awhile back. I wrote down approximately a one-page history brief of the world where the campaign was taking place, and the end result was five paragraphs that read very similarly to Chapter 2. The problem with this, as you pointed out, is that the reader is now confronted with a series of characters, events, and dates that have no significance and consequently are not remembered. In the end, my D&D players only were able to remember the history of the world when they began to connect the historical events to their own characters’ lives. The situation here is similar, and I have a feeling that I will be flipping back to Chapter 2 periodically; I know I have done this once already. Tolkien had a way of connecting his history in a much more fluid manor.  An example that stands out in my mind is the story of Tuniviel which Strider sang to comfort the hobbits on the road to Weathertop. In all honesty, the first time I read LotR I skipped many of the songs and poems, but they lend an important depth to the book.

But enough about writing style and on to the actual story! The first question that pops into my head is why do both Shea and Flick trust Allanor enough to flee their lifelong home and loving father without even so much as a goodbye? Allanor has done nothing to gain their trust, and in fact has done quite the opposite. He accosted Flick like a highway bandit, bullied him, and forced him to provide food and lodging (did Allanor even pay?). True, he does help conceal Flick from the flying “shadow” but fails to provide any type of meaningful explanation as to what it is or why it is there. More importantly, Allanor openly admits he is being followed by forces of evil, and could very well have led minions of the Warlock Lord to both Shea and Flick. Before leaving, Allanor presses what appears to be a rather opinionated history on Shea, and chastises Shea when he brings forward legitimate points of disagreement. Allanor demonstrates no magic and no special powers beside being exceptionally large with a very short temper and having an uncanny knack for guessing what people are thinking. I do not trust Allanor, nor do  I think Shea and Flick should. As for Menion, well I’m interested to see where this leads us …