In 1976, I first entered the world of the Lord of the Rings, and my hunger for epic fantasy was suddenly insatiable. In 1977, I saw this huge book with a group of people – human, elven, and dwarf, I thought – around a sword in a stone. A book titled The Sword of Shannara. I immediately grabbed it up – the first of many purchases Mr. Terry Brooks would convince me to make – and took it home.
There were obvious similarities to The Lord of the Rings – many of them quite deliberate. But there was a great deal that was not Tolkien's work redone, and there was a power to the writing that kept me reading.
As the accusation of "Lord of the Rings ripoff!" is a constant one with respect to this book, I will take a moment to point out that in my view, it shares the very broad strokes – a "dark lord" in a distant land, a hastily assembled band of heroes, etc. – but in details of world, plot, and character it is very different, and sometimes the opposite. A full analysis would be… quite long, but I'll touch on some of the key points:
Allanon: Often pointed to as a parallel to Gandalf, Allanon is as near to Gandalf's opposite as it's possible to be and still have them both on the side of the angels. Gandalf appeared to be an old, though spry, human being, and made it a habit to show little of his actual capabilities unless he had to. He would also provide information freely if he felt it would do any good; he would also seek always to convince people to act through his words and deeds, rarely if ever trying to force people to do what he felt they should. At the same time, despite appearances he was not in fact human at all, but something that was either a demigod or a lesser Angel, depending on your interpretation of the mythology.
By contrast, Allanon is a towering, enigmatic, and terrifying figure, physically the strongest humanoid being we encounter in the first book with the possible exception of the Troll, Keltset; among other startling feats of strength, he takes on a Skull Bearer (an undead creature something like a Ringwraith) in direct, hand-to-hand combat. He is not at all above using his immense size and physical power to intimidate people into doing what he feels they must. He is also quite willing and able to use his Druidic magic in combat against any foe. He withholds information and will tell half-truths and evasions, mainly because he fears that telling the whole truth in certain situations could lead to disaster. He is very old, but appears younger, but is despite this very much human. Paradoxically, Gandalf is not human in his essence, but acts human, while Allanon is human but separates himself from humanity.
The Sword of Shannara: Both books of course have at the center of the action a single artifact; the One Ring and the Sword of Shannara. Like the wise-man-wizard characters, however, these two objects are near-opposites, mirror images. The One Ring is irredeemably evil, invested with a substantial portion of the demigod-level being Sauron's power. It can be used by anyone who takes it up, but will change them over time to become a copy of Sauron. It has a useful power inherently – invisibility – but can provide vastly greater power as a user becomes used to it, dependent on the user's own inherent power; it magnifies your own abilities, but in a corrupted fashion. Its true owner is the great Enemy, Sauron himself, and the goal of the entire Fellowship of the Ring is to find a way to destroy the One Ring, and through that, destroy Sauron as well – hopefully without Sauron ever being aware of their intent.
The Sword of Shannara, on the other hand, is a weapon forged specifically to counter the power of the Warlock Lord, the great adversary in the Sword of Shannara. It has only a single power, other than being a quite decent sword in and of itself. More, even that power can only be triggered and wielded by a very limited number of people – those who are direct descendants of the original wielder, Jerle Shannara. The Sword's power is extremely simple: it reveals Truth. But the Truth that it reveals is the truth of each individual, most especially whatever they have hidden from themselves, their self-delusions, lies, fond misconceptions – and the wielder of the Sword must survive that power himself before he or she can ever actually wield the Sword. Finally, of course, the entire goal of the heroes in The Sword of Shannara is to recover the Sword and then use it to confront the Warlock Lord.
The World of Shannara. Tolkien constructed Middle-Earth's history around a (quite deliberate) Christian-derived mythology, flavored with other classical works. The farther back in time one went, the more mighty and wonderfully magical the works became; the farther in the future, the more both magic and the works of men diminished. The story of Lord of the Rings takes place (supposedly) in the deep past of our own world, in a forgotten age where magic truly existed, but has now faded away.
The Four Lands of the Sword of Shannara and subsequent books, however, is not in the deep past; it is in the far future, postapocalyptica with a mystical twist. Remnants of the ancient world – of our future, or a future world that we could imagine at the time that Terry wrote Shannara – still exist; Shea's almost killed by one, a monstrous cyborg creature. This is a world that magic has returned to, a world with a dark history, where mankind has a dark, reviled history and the other species (except for the Elves) of humanoids are, in fact, all human descendants. The world grows more distinct and different with each new book, as well. But even in the first book, the Four Lands were not Middle-Earth.
There are many more differences – the characters themselves have only minimal correspondence with the originals, and some have virtually none; Menion Leah, for instance, has really no good equivalent in LotR; Panamon Creel and Keltset, who are extremely important characters in the latter portion of the novel, have no parallel in LotR, either – although they have a surprisingly close parallel in that other 1977 hit, Star Wars: Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Terry Brooks' writing has continually improved since he first published Sword, but even in that first book it flowed well, and had power – especially in the descriptions of monstrous things, of power and good and evil in combat. The Sword itself was a brilliant creation – the denoument in which Shea realizes the true power of the Sword, and then nearly despairs at the thought, unable to understand how such a simple power could destroy something like the Warlock Lord, is one of my favorite scenes.
In Elfstones of Shannara, Terry Brooks truly showed what he could do with evil and monstrous beings. The Reaper and the Dagda Mor, especially, fairly leapt off the page and scared the crap out of me. Terry has a positive gift for describing evil – and good, as well – and I've tried to learn something from him in those areas.
In Wishsong of Shannara, Terry created one of the greatest secondary characters ever: Garet Jax, the Weapons Master. As a primary character he would have been too much – too competent, too cold, too fearless. But as a secondary, with just enough background and interaction, he was a wonderful symbol, and Terry was able to put him up against adversaries that were, quite simply, out of the league of everyone else. In the end, the Weapons Master must battle a monstrous demon called a Jachyra, something so terrible that one of them very nearly killed Allanon, a creature that literally thrives on pain, getting stronger as you hurt it… and wins. This mighty battle is set up, and we never actually see it, and while a part of me was disappointed, I came to realize that for that character it was the right choice; no description of the battle could ever have reached the heights of the reader's imagination.
I haven't read all of the more recent Shannara books (my reading dropped off precipitously after I stopped working in a bookstore, and even more once I became an author…), but I may have to start again, because Terry has chosen to connect his other excellent series, the Word and Void, to the future that produced the world of Shannara. I had always wondered about that – the description of certain demons in the Word and Void universe strongly echoed the demons seen in the Shannara-verse – but apparently it was one of those things in which the author recognizes the connection only long afterwards.
I am proud to own many of this series, and I've already put the annotated 35th anniversary edition on my wish list. I'm also very proud to call Terry a friend; I was almost terrified to meet him when he came to Albacon back in (I think) 2003, and found that he was one of the most cheerful, pleasant people I had ever met – a wonderful counter-example for those who think that success will breed contempt.
Every few years I venture back into the world of Shannara, and every time I find that it is still well worth visiting; a world of heroes, villains, and ordinary people just trying to survive, and always a little twist or turn that wasn't what you would have expected… sometimes one that makes you cry, or one that makes you cheer.