Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Sword Of Shannara

If you're going to rip off Tolkein, you might as well do it in style.
The Sword Of Shannara came out in 1977, and was an absolute xerox of Lord Of The Rings, with characters, situations and plotlines following the template almost exactly.
But that's ok. Back in 1977, we didn't have the glut of fantasy books we have now, and I kind of admire Terry Brooks' chutzpah, to basically do an early version of fan fiction and get away with it.
He even got The Brothers Hildebrandt, fresh from doing a couple of LOTR calenders, to contribute paintings and artwork.
Luckily, I'm not a Tolkein disciple, so I wasn't as offended as some. Actually, even if I was I wouldn't care particularly.
I don't know if anybody remembers an '80's Hair Metal band called Kingdom Come, but their first album was a carbon copy of Led Zeppelin, so close that some DJ's thought what they were listening to was actually a lost Zep album.
Kingdom Come didn't annoy me, so why should The Sword Of Shannara? In fact, I read it with a sort of wild glee at the barefaced cheek of it.

The difference here is that this particular epic doesn't take place in some far off fantasy land, but rather the Earth thousands of years after a nuclear holocaust. Humanity has split into different tribes of mutated peoples that, through ancestral memory, have taken to calling themselves Dwarfs, Elves, Trolls and the like. Following several centuries of race warfare, each tribe has adopted an isolationist stance, with little mixing between the races, and there's much discussion about the politics of this new world, as well as fun scenes of the few individuals still knowledgeable in the ways of ancient technology.
This is all great stuff, if more than a little reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi's Wizards, and I wish Brooks had taken the leap to go down this kind of route a little more.

Anyway, it starts with angry historian / philosopher / druid ( but not wizard ) Allanon paying a visit to two human brothers Shea & Flick, at their bucolic home in the Vale.
It seems that Brona The Warlock Lord, a long dead sorceror also known as The Spirit King, is up to his old tricks again, and Shea, a half-human / half elf, is the best chance to stop him, being the last of the bloodline of Shannara, the ancient hero who was the owner of the legendary sword of the title, and who warded the bad guy off last time.
Shea and Flick flee their village in search of The Sword, hotly pursued by The Skull Bearer, an amorphous creature that's actually quite scary in the right light, and head for their old friend Menion Leah's, a hunter and tracker who will lead them to the safety of the Dwarf town of Culhaven.
At this point, you're really just ticking off scenes from LOTR, but the book picks up massively when Menion appears. He's the wastrel prince of the Leah, steadily drinking away the family fortune and happily making peasant girls pregnant, and is easily the most likeable character so far.

After a few, quite exciting adventures along the way, Shea, Flick & Menion make it to Culhaven, and join up with human warrior Balinor, irascible dwarf Hendel, two elves named Durin & Dayel, and the still angry and really quite unlikeable Allanon. Honestly, this guy is such an arse you wonder why anyone would follow him on a trip to the shops, let alone a world-spanning quest.
But follow him they all do, setting off to the kingdom of Paranor, where the Warlock Lord holds the city under siege, and The Sword in his evil grasp ( which he of course, can't actually hold, him being evil and everything ).
There follow some more nods to Old Earth, including a battle with a cyborg spider and a fraught journey through the Egyptian themed Hall Of Kings, this book's version of The Mines Of Moria, as well as a hasty escape from a tribe of roving Gnomes, something you wouldn't wish on anybody, before The Seekers Of The Sword finally reach Paranor.

It's a trap, of course, and The Warlock Lord spirits The Sword away, leaving them all with lots and lots more walking to do in a whole other direction.
Like it's inspiration, The Sword Of Shannara is full of people walking. Walking, walking, walking. Sometimes they get up to interesting stuff, sometimes not, but you can't help agreeing with Randall in Clerks 2 about the overriding theme of both epics.

Damn straight. There are plenty of horses in this world, by the way, so quite why everybody feels the need to walk everydamnwhere is beyond me. Little urgency in this quest, guys?
Anyway, in the midst of this, Shea gets separated from everybody else and falls in with a mysterious Rock Troll named Keltset and a happy-go-lucky thief called Panamon Creel, who I can't help visualizing as Mandy Patinkin from The Princess Bride. ( 'My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.' )
But when is The Sword Of Shannara's version of Gollum going to turn up, you may ask?
Ah, here he is, he's a cowardly gnome called Orl Fane who scavenges battlefields for goodies, and before Shea, Panamon and Keltset can utter the words you're Andy Serkis aren't you? he's made off with the sword.

Meanwhile, The Spirit King's armies are ready to invade, so with a couple of hundred pages still left to fill, our heroes decide to stretch the story out by splitting up: Menion goes to warn the kingdom of Kern, and ends up falling in love with a princess called Shirl, leading one to suspect that Kern may well have been part of Essex before The Final War.

Balinor goes home to Callahorn to round up the Border Legion, his elite band of warriors, only to find his Maximus-The-Mad-like brother Palance and slimy advisor Stenmin have taken over the kingdom and disbanded the Legion, and who then put the Aragorn-like Balinor and his elf buddies in a dungeon.
Hendel the dwarf tries to rescue them and gets caught as well, meaning Menion subsequently has to rescue all of them. Plus Stenmin, his manipulation of Palance discovered, stabs the mad king through the heart, and goes off to let the Troll army in through a back door to the city everyone was unnacountably unaware of. Some days nothing goes right.

Allanon and Flick, meanwhile, try to infiltrate the gnome army to look for Shea, and end up rescuing Eventine, the King of the Elves, whose own army might just come in a bit handy.
For their part Shea, Panamon and Keltset ( who, natch, has a soon to be revealed secret back story as all taciturn characters tend to do ) have tracked Orl Fane to The Warlock Lord's own Skull Kingdom, where Shea is finally about to lay his hands on the Sword.

Meanwhile, everybody else is back at Callahorn, being besieged by The Spirit King's army of Trolls, in the book's big battle sequence. As I find nothing more tedious in prose than big battle sequences, I always skip this section and see who's still alive by the next chapter.
Well, pretty much everybody so lucky I didn't waste the time. By this point all seems lost, until Eventine's army of Elves come racing to the rescue, but to save us all from another tedious battle scene they're not actually needed, as Brooks pulls an ending out of the bag that could absolutely only happen in the '70's.

The Sword, it turns out, isn't a physical weapon at all, but actually a kind of disassembler of the emotional walls people build up around themselves. No really. In a trippy sequence of cosmic awareness...ness, Shea's personality and inner self is laid bare and he realizes The Sword will do the same thing for The Warlock Lord.
Sure enough, The Spirit King sees himself as the long dead thing he actually is, with no more right to live on God's clean Earth than a slug, and promptly crumbles away like The Wicked Witch Of The West. His evil minions, as evil minions are wont to do, vanish in puffs of black smoke as well, meaning the day is saved for humanity with only a few pages to go.
This is an archetypal touchy-feely,' me generation' ending that anchors the book firmly in the Bronze Age, and makes sense of all the interminable previous scenes where just about every character endlessly ruminates on their value to the quest and lack of self-worth.
Whisper it, but The Sword Of Shannara is actually a self-help book. Who woulda' thunk?

There was, by the way, an aborted attempt to do the novel as a newspaper strip, adapted by no less an artist than Gray Morrow. If you do enough searching around the net, you can see bits and bobs of it, but here's a couple of pages to close with:

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