The Sword of Shannara
Terry Brooks’ debut novel has become infamous over the years for its extremely apparent parallels to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the infamy is in this respect well-deserved. To summarize the plot would be superfluous for those who have read Tolkien’s work; at times, the parallels are almost laughable in their detail. Most of Tolkien’s characters and many of the events of his book have their counterpart in this book. One or two hundred pages toward the middle seemed less derivative, but at the end the book returns faithfully to its obvious source material.
The novel isn’t all bad, however. Brooks can string together a fine sentence, and his characterization is on the whole quite good — probably the most notable positive thing about the book, in my mind. In fact, most of the artistic problems in this book — its derivative nature, its erratic and distracting way of changing point-of-view characters, and its clunky explanation of magic — are characteristic of the writing of an inexperienced author (based on what I glean from the introduction, Brooks wrote the book in his early to mid-twenties). I imagine that Brooks’ later novels are more polished (and original).
The explanation of the workings of magic in this book falls far short of satisfactory, both morally and artistically. Long ago, we learn, evil Druids (who were then simply wise scientists and historians) discovered the dark power of sorcery. Then, it seems, the good Druids decided they should fight fire with fire, as it were, and mastered the mystic powers for themselves. In the explanation, Brooks gives no distinction between these powers. The book seems to state at first that magic is an evil power (talking about evil spirits and black sorcery and such), but when the good guys take it up, and this is seen as okay, I get confused. This is good just because they’re good guys and therefore don’t do bad stuff? Not clear enough for me. I don’t get the impression that this is purposefully amoral, just muddled. The worst part, though, is the artistic blunder that Brooks makes in describing how this magic works; apparently it only works if you really, really believe in it. The Druid Allanon explains, “The Sword of Shannara cannot be an effective weapon unless the one holding it believes in his power to use it…Bremen gave the sword…directly to a king…as a result, through human misunderstanding and historical misconception, the universal belief grew that the Sword was the weapon of the Elven King alone and that only those descended of his blood could take up the Sword against the Warlock Lord. So now, unless it is held by a son of the House of Shannara, that person can never fully believe in his right to use it…so it will not operate.” Whatever. A serious cop-out and totally unbelievable.
All this mess over the explanation of magic isn’t really that prominent in the book, since magic doesn’t play a central role for most of the novel — except that the characters are all trying to get said Sword to destroy the Warlock Lord. I do wish Mr. Brooks hadn’t even bothered to try to explain the way the magic works. But I think that both the confusion over the morality of magic use and the silliness about believing in it are simply more marks of inexperience. It’s a lot easier to say things like that than to come up with a comprehensible, effective explanation for such phenomena.
All that said, for those who enjoy a fantasy yarn in the traditional style, this book is fun. Its themes — courage, self-sacrifice, perseverance in a difficult cause, and the power of truth — while also very traditional, are still worthwhile. It has no objectionable material. It’s fairly well-written. The book was good enough to encourage me to come back for more; I’m looking forward to reading more of Mr. Brooks’ work and seeing his style progress.