The Big Bang of the fantasy
Part 2: Lord of the Rinky-dink
As I have said before, I have a high opinion of Tom Shippey as a literary critic, but that does not exempt him from criticism in turn. At one point in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, he makes what may be the single most fatuous remark I have ever had the misfortune to read. He is discussing The Sword of Shannara, and after giving a long list of the obvious borrowings or plagiarisms of Tolkien in that work, he adds:
The similarity is so close that in a way it is hard to tell how good or bad the result is.
And yet in the very same paragraph he recovers his usual perspicacity, and puts his finger on the secret of Terry Brooks’s commercial success:
What The Sword of Shannara seems to show is that many readers had developed the taste (the addiction) for heroic fantasy so strongly that if they could not get the real thing they would take any substitute, no matter how diluted.
Of all the works I listed in the first part of this extended essai, The Sword of Sha-Na-Na (to give it its frequent fannish sobriquet) is the only one I had managed to avoid reading until very recently. I steered grimly clear of it, having a pretty clear idea what I would be letting myself in for if I read it, and in any case I could not afford to spend money on a cheap imitation of a book already occupying a place of honour in my library. But a friend gave me a dogeared copy of Sword (as I shall call it for short) for nothing, knowing that I wanted to write something about the fantasy boom of 1977, and a week or two ago I finally plodded through all 726 mind-numbing and turgid pages.
It is not, as it happens, the worst book I have ever read, or even the worst genre novel. That distinction belongs either to one of John Norman’s Gor books (I have read only one, and I think it was the first one, but the title has mercifully faded from my memory) or a trivial bit of naughty-naughty in science-fiction drag by one Jarrod Comstock. I have, as it happens, a book worse than either of these: Saga of Old City, by Gary Gygax. This is in fact the most cringingly awful waste of wood pulp I have ever seen offered under the rubric of fiction, but I cannot truthfully claim to have read it. It begins:
The big, blackish rat sat upon the feast as a king upon his throne. Gord eyed the scene hungrily, his mouth watering at the sight of the trencher. Some incredibly wasteful person had discarded a slab of bread, soaked in rich meat juices and imbedded with succulent bits of things. It lay atop the garbage heap in the alleyway, and the rat sat peremptorily upon it. Gord stood nearby in jittery indecision — encouraged by hunger, restrained by fear. Then he decided to act. With a rapid motion he scooped up a pebble and flung it at the rodent. It struck the rat on its flank, but the creature didn’t run off as Gord had hoped. Instead, the rat bared its teeth viciously, voiced a horrid chittering noise, and advanced menacingly in Gord’s direction. With a frightened shriek, Gord leapt back, turned, and fled. Such a threat easily overcame the gnawing feeling in his stomach.
‘Shiteater!’ Gord screamed over his shoulder as he fled the huge rodent.
At this point I flung the book across the room. I don’t know how I acquired it; I think it was abandoned by its former owner; and the back cover is battered and torn in a way that suggests it had been thrown against walls before. I am tempted to compare it to the infamous Eye of Argon, but I find that the case will not lie. Gygax’s monstrosity has been at least superficially edited, robbing it of the obvious errors and typographic howlers that furnish Argon with at least half its charm. There are no lithe, opaque noses or scarlet emeralds in Gygax, though in fairness there is a city called Stoink. Jim Theis had to publish his story in an apazine; Gygax, as the owner of TSR, could force his employees to publish Saga of Old City and even had the clout to get it commercially distributed. I think it safe to say that neither work would ever have been accepted by an editor who was free to reject it.
The Sword of Shannara is not as bad as that. This is what is known as damning with faint praise.
But that does not mean, Mr. Shippey to the contrary, that there is any difficulty in identifying it as a bad book. It is of course a close copy of The Lord of the Rings, in the sense that a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa is a close copy of Leonardo’s masterpiece. Each artless blob of colour recognizably stands for an element superbly executed in the original. But it is also haunted by the ghost of quite a different sort of book, and it took me some time to work out just what it was. Leaving aside the stolen plot, what Sword really reminds me of is Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, as seen through the jaundiced eye of Mark Twain.
In fact, this is not at all an unlikely combination. Tolkien read Cooper as a child, and was deeply impressed by him; he contracted a sort of hankering for what Englishmen then called ‘Red Indians’, and all his life retained an unfulfilled desire to shoot well with a bow. Cooper’s influence shows here and there in The Lord of the Rings, particularly in the early chapters of Book III. Aragorn, with his improbable endurance and his utterly impossible ability to track two Hobbits across the trampled mud of a battlefield, bears the mark of Natty Bumppo. And the Rohirrim, though they take their language from the Anglo-Saxons, their culture from Beowulf, and their history from the earlier ages of the Goths, resemble American Indians at one or two key points. The way the Riders form a galloping circle about Aragorn and his friends, slowly contracting, and then come to a halt with their spears pointing inwards, will be familiar to any fan of vintage Westerns. If Brooks had picked up on that element in Tolkien’s work and enlarged upon it, repatriating it, as it were, to make a distinctively American answer to The Lord of the Rings, he would have done a service worthy of honour. But the resemblance between Brooks and Cooper is not of that kind.
Where Brooks actually resembles Cooper is in the ineptness of his prose and the shoddiness of his structure. Nearly every character in Sword is patterned after one of Tolkien’s heroes (or villains), so that one can instantly recognize them at first sight; so that I found myself saying aloud, ‘Hullo, Gandalf!’ or ‘Where have you been, Gimli?’ or ‘You’re a pretty poor stand-in for Sam, aren’t you?’ But each of the copies is much less interesting than the original; less vividly drawn, less dramatically plausible, less motivated, and a great deal less intelligent. Time and again Brooks’s characters do extraordinary things, things that would probably never occur to the sort of persons he represents them to be, for no better reason than to fit the predetermined plot. If I had never read Tolkien, I suspect I would have been utterly baffled by the motives that could make them behave so strangely.
Mark Twain mercilessly attacked the Leatherstocking novels in his essay, ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences’, and Cooper’s reputation has never fully recovered. Says Twain: ‘There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction. . . . In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them.’ (It is a pity that Twain never tells us the rule that Cooper did not violate.) These eighteen are good rules, sensible rules, and as modern epic fantasy is quite clearly a descendant of what Twain’s generation called ‘romantic’ (i.e. adventure) fiction, eminently applicable to books like The Sword of Shannara. It may therefore be convenient to classify Brooks’s principal failings under these headings.
Before I continue, I ought to say that I have not read any recent books by Terry Brooks, such as his Magic Kingdom series, or his novelization of The Phantom Menace. It may be that he has improved as an author and as a prose stylist; I do not know. And certainly I have never heard any ill of him as a human being; he is widely reputed to be one of the true and admirable gentlemen of his profession. But I have never heard any knowledgeable person claim that any of his work was not derivative. The Magic Kingdom books, for instance, were based on an idea given him by Lester del Rey, and with film tie-ins the question of originality does not even arise. This remains a mark against his purely literary character, whatever other faults he may have outgrown or redeemed.
But let us return to our muttons. Here are some of Twain’s rules, with specimens of Brooks’s violations.
These eighteen require:
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
Sword gives a credible appearance of accomplishing something, but if you stop to consider the results, that something becomes vanishingly small. The Warlock Lord (=Sauron, though the name is obviously derived from Witch-king and a cheap thesaurus) is defeated, the war is won, the threat from the Northland (=Mordor) is overcome; that is to say, everything is restored to the status quo ante, except for the heaps of corpses and a torched city or so. Indeed, when the Ohmsford brothers (=Frodo and Merry/Pippin) return home to Shady Vale (=Hobbiton), their father Curzad, who perhaps stands in for Gaffer Gamgee, is entirely unaware of where they have been and what they have done, and does not even seem to know that there has been a war — though as an innkeeper, he of all people ought to have had his fill of travellers’ tales. When the Hobbits return home, they are so changed that the Shire itself hardly seems big enough for them, and Frodo is so damaged in body and spirit that he can never be healed in Middle-earth. When the Ohmsfords return home, they put all their adventures out of their heads and get to work on the really important task of fixing the veranda roof.
2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
The middle chapters (let us say, at least twenty out of thirty-five) of Sword are largely taken up with continuo and hurdy-gurdy work, which delivers a predictable would-be thrill in every chapter but seldom does anything to advance the plot. The episode of the Black Oaks (=Old Forest) contributes nothing to the story, and the Mist Marsh (=Midgewater, perhaps) less than that. The enormous set-piece in the Wolfsktaag (=Misty) Mountains, with battles against at least two lots of incredibly stupid and barbarous Gnomes (=Orcs), accomplishes nothing but to kill off Hendel (=Gimli), who in any case turns up alive again scant pages later. Hendel’s rescue of Balinor (=Boromir leavened with Aragorn) from the dungeons of Tyrsis (=Minas Tirith) accomplishes nothing at all, since they are immediately captured again. The botched raid on Paranor (which, unusually for this book, does not quite = anything) is wasted effort, since the purpose of it was to recover the Sword, which has already been removed by other hands. And so it goes. The book could have been half as long without omitting any incident actually germane to the outcome. Tolkien also does a certain amount of this, especially in the early chapters of Fellowship, which is why both Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson wisely chose to omit those adventures from their films. The difference is that Tolkien, once he came solidly to grips with his story, had no further need of this kind of by-play, while Brooks never really came to grips with anything and kept up the by-play until the end.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
This rule is often violated in modern generic fantasy, where bringing a character back from the dead is so frequent a miracle that one almost feels cheated if it is left out. Tolkien manages it passably well with Gandalf, who is an immortal spirit sent into Middle-earth by the angelic powers of Valinor, and having been sent once, can plausibly be sent again. Hendel’s apparent death is a straightforward cheat, and an obvious one, since his companions make a great show of mourning him without ever seeing the body. Moreover, some of the other characters, such as Shirl Ravenlock (=Arwen), are such stick-figures that they can scarcely be called alive at the best of times.
4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
The personages of Sword have only one excuse among them, which is that there were analogous characters in The Lord of the Rings. Brooks economizes a good deal, for he has only two Valemen in place of the four principal Hobbits, and the entire business about the Riders of Rohan and the treachery of Saruman is left out entirely (though Gríma Wormtongue has a too-close analogue in the character of Stenmin). Since he left so many things out, I am tempted to wonder why he bothered to leave anything in; but that would only bring us back to Rules 1 and 2.
5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
The dialogue in Sword lurches from the merely trite and dull to the downright ludicrous. When he wrote this book, Brooks had simply no idea how to construct plausible conversations. The trouble is that he always tells instead of showing, except on the rare occasions when he is describing scenery or physical action; and even then he is the kind of writer who tells you baldly what you are supposed to feel, instead of making you feel it. In general he alternates between expository lumps as such, and expository lumps feebly disguised as dialogue. No human being, except perhaps a professor of political science, would ever say things like this in a conversation:
‘You make it sound like a terrible thing to want to be left alone. I know enough history — no, I know enough life — to realize that Man’s only hope for survival is to remain apart from the races, to rebuild everything he has lost over the last two thousand years. Then perhaps he will be smart enough not to lose it a second time. He almost destroyed himself entirely in the Great Wars by his persistent intervention in the affairs of others and his ill-conceived rejection of an isolation policy.’
This, if you please, is recited en bloc by Shea Ohmsford, an innkeeper’s son of no particular learning. Allanon (=Gandalf) immediately answers him with an even windier disquisition on History, two solid pages in length, and every bit as stilted and artificial in language.
6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
It is not easy for Brooks to violate this rule, for his descriptions of characters are so perfunctory that it would be difficult not to justify them. For instance, Durin and Dayel (=Legolas, or perhaps Samneric from Lord of the Flies) are said to be Elves, but Brooks does not even bother to tell us what his Elves look like, or what makes them any different from ordinary humans. They are two young men with prissy manners, blond hair, plucked eyebrows, and a handy way with bows and arrows; that is all. Many another character is described only with the scant courtesy of a Homeric epithet; thus we have ‘the durable Hendel’ (and several other durable characters), ‘the little Valeman’ (either Shea or Flick), ‘the unpredictable Menion’, and so ad nauseam.
But these obstacles are not enough to defeat the unique talent of Terry Brooks. Slight as his characterizations are, he manages to make his characters contradict them routinely. The most glaring example I can think of is Menion Leah (=Aragorn minus the bits usurped by Balinor). We are told that he is an incomparable woodsman, tracker, and whatnot, but almost the first thing he does is to get hopelessly lost in a forest scant miles from his own home:
‘I suppose that your plan is the best one,’ interjected Shea hastily. ‘But I would prefer it if we could cut as far east as possible while traveling through the forest to avoid as much of the Mist Marsh as possible.’
‘Agreed!’ exclaimed Menion. ‘But it may prove to be a bit difficult when we haven’t seen the sun in three days and can’t really be sure which way is east.’
You see, Menion, the incomparable woodsman, doesn’t know which side of a tree trunk the moss grows on. Every Boy Scout knows that much. Perhaps the durable little Valemen should have dropped Menion and looked for a Boy Scout instead.
By the way, Brooks has a thoroughly irritating addiction to sobriquets. He seems to have taken far too much to heart his English teachers’ advice never to use a word twice in a paragraph. He is continually referring to Allanon as ‘the Druid’ or ‘the mystic’ (or ‘the Druid mystic’). Panamon Creel is ‘the scarlet thief’, Keltset is ‘the giant Troll’, and so on. Shea and Flick are both ‘the Valeman’, sometimes even in scenes where both are present. If these devices fail to provide enough pinchbeck variety, Brooks falls back on the last resort of the pronominally challenged: ‘the other’. He will call someone ‘the other’ in a scene involving three or four people, which is confusing as well as annoying. Someone should have told him (and I hope someone has since then) that ‘said Bob’ is utterly inoffensive and can be repeated as often as needed, provided, of course, that there is a character in the story called Bob.
7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel at the end of it.
This rule is too much for Brooks. On the best day of his life (at least up to 1977) he could never make anyone talk like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering. In his hands the highfalutin turns to bureaucratese, and the colloquial to cliché. The distance between these two poles is not great, and we are spared the unintentional humour of the grand anticlimax. Still, he does his best with his limited powers:
‘Who was that creature?’ Flick asked quickly, afraid that it might reappear at any moment.
Allanon seemed to reflect on his question, staring into space as his dark face twisted in anguish and then relaxed softly.
‘A lost soul, a being forgotten by this world and its people,’ he declared sadly. ‘He has doomed himself to an existence of half-life that may not end for all eternity.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Shea said.
‘It’s not important right now.’
The Canadian comedy duo, McLean and McLean, chiefly remembered for their foul mouths and scatological humour, based one of their better jokes on exactly this incongruity. In ‘Jesus Was Just a Guy’ they cite a chapter and verse (from the Gospel according to McLean and McLean) in which
Jesus is ignored by Peter. . . . And Jesus said unto them, I am the Way and the Life; without me there is no salvation. And Peter said, What was that, man? I wasn’t listening. And Jesus said unto Peter, Skip it. It’s not important.
This seems as good a place as any to mention that Brooks is a past master of really glaring said-bookisms. This occurs on the same page as ‘It’s not important right now’:
‘What do you mean?’ Shea demanded hesitantly.
This sentence must be a bad translation from French, for it is not English. In English, a demand is a crisp and forceful thing, a blunt give-it-here with no hesitancy about it. But this is not the worst our man’s genius can do. At one point he actually uses alibied as a dialogue tag. At least, for a rare change, he lets it stand without an adverbial crutch.
8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader.
The whole business at the city of Kern is a tissue of crass stupidities. The city is built upon an island in a river, and an immense enemy army is camped on one bank. We are told that the city cannot be taken by storm because the river is in full spate and cannot be forded. But the very next day it is forded, and the city falls. Evidently rivers in this world can go from bank-full to drought-empty in twenty-four hours; or perhaps there is a hydroelectric dam upstream, and someone has conveniently shut the sluices.
But somehow by that time the population has been evacuated, partly by boat, but most of them by rafts built in one day; and the enemy are completely taken by surprise, because they completely fail to notice that these rafts are being built. Now, the population of Kern is given as forty thousand — a specific detail almost mournful in its solitude, surrounded as it is by the grey desert of the author’s usual vagueness. Somehow the people of Kern manage to find enough timber inside the city to build rafts for forty thousands. Somehow they are all put to work on these rafts in the strictest secrecy, so that the enemy will not hear of it; Brooks insists upon that point. How forty thousand people can do anything in secret is beyond imagining; but then, it is only from the enemy that the secret has to be kept, and they are a Brooks enemy, and just as stupid as the city-dwellers. Somehow they never think to look across the river and see this frenetic burst of activity, or if they do, they never figure out that these rafts are being built for the purpose of escape. Somehow their spies in the city never notice any of the goings-on. And somehow the whole forty thousand crowd into the river at once, without jamming together like a log drive, and they all get away without a scratch, though the invaders are so close on their heels that the city is in flames before they are out of sight of the walls.
By the way, this literally incredible scheme is the brainchild of the same Menion who could not tell the points of the compass in a forest.
A still more blatant stupidity is the inclusion of Shea Ohmsford in the company sent to retrieve the Sword in the first place. We are told that the Sword has the power to destroy the Warlock Lord, and that only Shea can use it. Every other person who could possibly wield it has been systematically hunted down and killed, and the Skull Bearers (=Nazgûl) have already tried to kill Shea once. A sane person would lock Shea up in the remotest and most impenetrable fortress in the country, with an army ringed round to protect him, rather than let him go anywhere near the forces of the Warlock Lord. Instead he is sent along as one of the eight companions on the quest to recover the Sword from Paranor. Shea has no magic to speak of, no skill with weapons, no ability as an outdoorsman, nothing that would make him even remotely useful to such an expedition. Anybody can handle the Sword; anybody could go and fetch it and bring it back to him; but no, he must go along himself, exposing the quest to certain ruin and the whole world to defeat and devastation if he is captured. Captured he is, of course, and only the incredible foolishness of the Warlock Lord’s minions saves the day; for they do not kill him at once, as they killed every other possible Sword-bearer, but take him back as a captive to the Warlock Lord himself. And of course the Sword is ready to hand when he gets there, and he gets hold of it almost immediately, with results that even a Warlock Lord could foresee. The villains in James Bond movies are cleverer than this, for they at least get to enjoy a good gloat before their inevitable demise.
9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
Apart from the dubious and never explained powers of Allanon, who is called a Druid in blatant defiance of the obvious fact that he is not a Celt and cares nothing for oak-trees, most of the miracle-working is done by two devices, the Sword of Shannara and the Elfstones. The Elfstones are in Shea’s hands almost from the beginning of the story, but he very seldom remembers to use them, and they never seem to do the same thing twice. Their magic appears to be completely arbitrary. As for the Sword, we are told that it can destroy the Warlock Lord, but that for some reason only Shea can use it. In the end the Sword does its job, in effect, by persuading the Warlock Lord that he doesn’t exist, whereupon he vanishes in a puff of specious logic.
Then Allanon arrives at the scene of the crime, and blithely announces that after all anyone could have used the Sword for that purpose, but that Shea, as its hereditary owner, was the only one who would not doubt his own power — doubt being apparently fatal to the whole enterprise. But Allanon from the beginning has stubbornly refused to tell Shea how to use the Sword, or indeed anything at all about how it works or where the Warlock Lord might be vulnerable. If Allanon were a sane and rational human being, he would have furnished every member of the company with an instruction manual, and so carefully coached them that none of them would have any reason to doubt his ability to use the Sword if the occasion should arise. But there are no rational human beings in Brooks’s world, and precious few who could be called sane without stretching the truth far enough to circle the equator and tie.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the bad ones, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
In fact it is difficult to care for any of Brooks’s characters, good or bad. Their resemblance to human beings is so slight, their motives are so specious, and Brooks is so bad at describing any kind of emotion or sympathetic quality, that I was as indifferent to their fate when I finished the book as when I began. I could not even wish they would all get drowned together, for statues cannot drown.
The only time Brooks makes any serious attempt to show depth of emotion is in a scene between Menion and Shirl Ravenlock. Shirl has red hair, of course, which is why she is called Ravenlock: Shannaran logic at work again. She is in fact the only female character in the entire book, and does not appear until the end of Chapter XXIII. I had been wondering whether Brooks would equal Tolkien’s feat in The Hobbit and manage to finish the whole saga without ever introducing a woman at all. After I got to know Shirl a little, I rather wished that he had. Shirl is a patent quest-object, a matrimonial prize for the hero to win — though in fact Menion, who wins her, is probably the least heroic of the major characters. Like most of the personages in the book, she can yammer endlessly about theoretical points of political science; but she never actually does anything, except to fall in love with Menion instead of Palance Buckhannah. Palance is utterly mad, for he has been brainwashed by the evil Stenmin. A man could easily go mad just from having to put up with a name like Palance Buckhannah, but of course it helps to have a Wormtongue or Rasputin to make sure the job is done properly. The love scene between Shirl and Menion is written with amazing ineptness. It has the virtue of brevity, and the really merciful virtue of being the only love scene in the book; that is the most I can say for it. This is how Brooks describes part of the conversation that leads up to their declaration of undying love:
At times he rambled in vain attempts to explore in depth the rationale behind feelings they had shared and philosophies they could not.
They in this case does not even refer to Menion and Shirl, but to Menion and Shea Ohmsford. That’s right: Shirl falls in love with Menion while listening to him maunder about his philosophical differences with a man she has never met. If I did not know that Brooks was in his early thirties when he wrote this, I would wonder whether he had ever known an actual woman.
11. The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
Of course we can almost always tell what the characters in Sword will do in a given emergency, but we can hardly blame Brooks for that. Both the characters and the emergencies have been stolen from Tolkien, and the whole plot has been carefully programmed in advance. None of the actions arise out of the characters’ motives or personalities, for they have none. The only one with a slightly interesting psychological make-up is Panamon Creel, who is probably Han Solo’s bungling kid brother. He is an outlaw, a thief, and a pathological liar, and so of course he sticks with Shea through thick and thin, as faithfully as Sam Gamgee sticks with Frodo.
The rest of Mark Twain’s rules concern details of prose style. There is no profit in going into details of prose style with Brooks, for his prose is a disaster in bulk. The examples I have given are representative enough. So are the names. An author’s voice is nowhere more evident than in the names he chooses to give his characters. The names in The Sword of Shannara are uniformly slipshod and do not even remotely hang together. Menion’s surname is Leah, which is not only a girl’s name in our world, but one that carries a wheelbarrow full of Old Testament baggage with it. Shea is Irish, and I suppose Shannara is meant to be Irish, and since both of those are said to be Elvish names, that begins to make a sort of sense; but then Durin and Dayel and Eventine are Elvish as well. (So is Elessedil, an obvious plagiarism of Elessar and Elendil.) Flick is just silly, and Balinor is a painfully obvious alteration of Boromir. Then, too, I kept wondering if Shea Ohmsford’s middle name was Stadium. The name Ohmsford makes me think of resistors every time I read it. Shady Vale sounds like one of those ghastly places where people park their inconvenient elderly relatives while waiting for them to die. Wolfsktaag is simply unpronounceable, though to do its inventor justice, it is at least written without apostrophes. But the crowning ingloriousness is Allanon, which in its way is an even worse name than Gygax’s Stoink. It simply insists on being pronounced identically with Al-Anon. If the authors of Bored of the Rings read Brooks, they must have heartily wished they had thought of that.
I think I have made it sufficiently clear that I did not enjoy reading The Sword of Shannara. We all know Samuel Johnson’s verdict on an unhappy tyro’s manuscript: ‘Your work is both good and original. Unfortunately the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.’ Terry Brooks improved upon this standard, for the part of Sword that is not original is not good either. Therefore it was a relief to me sometimes when he strayed from the template and offered, however timidly and temporarily, an original scene or so. The ruined metal city in the Wolfsktaag Mountains, obviously meant to suggest that this is a tale of our own far future, was an evocative touch, and while that is very far from being an original idea, at least it was cribbed from a different source. Panamon Creel sometimes managed to be lively, if never lifelike, and Keltset the rock troll, though not much of a character, at least has no counterpart in Tolkien. These things do not lend grace to Brooks’s writing, but they will have to do until graces come along.
In short, this is a train-wreck of a book. In plot, it is derivative to the point of plagiarism; in prose, stilted; in description, vague and impoverished; in characterization, weak and slipshod; in dialogue, laughable; in theme, trite and self-contradictory. The central ‘problem’ of The Lord of the Rings is inverted in this shoddy imitation, making sheer nonsense of the stolen plot. (It was necessary to send the Ringbearer into peril, because the place where the Ring could be destroyed was perilous. But it was plain folly to send the Sword-bearer into peril when he had not yet got the Sword.)
Why, then, was it so successful? Some people simply do not notice the badness of the prose, and some of those who do are not bothered by it. This, I think, is most common among young readers, who have not had time to develop their taste in reading. And it was to the young that the Shannara books chiefly appealed. Lester del Rey’s editorial policy was monastically pure, not because he himself was a prude, but because he saw fantasy as essentially juvenile reading-matter, and did not want to run afoul of the Miss Grundys who still ran the children’s sections of libraries. Later on those standards were relaxed; after del Rey’s death, they were abandoned entirely, as the horror genre imploded and scores of horror writers retooled to churn out gory and salacious fantasy instead.
So del Rey bought the book and skilfully marketed it to the demographic group least likely to turn up its nose at the quality of the writing, and also least likely to be aware of the great original of which it was so inferior a copy. I have only known one person who actually liked The Sword of Shannara, and she had never read The Lord of the Rings. Of course, a lot of Tolkien fans also bought the book at first, for in April of 1977 it was literally the only piece of Tolkienesque fantasy in print. (Tolkien himself, for obvious reasons, does not qualify as Tolkienesque.) Most of these, I think, were disappointed; some learned to lower their standards, some held out for better fare, and some, I fear, gave up on genre fantasy at its birth and took to reading other things. But the book has always maintained a certain popularity among Dungeons & Dragons players, readers of immature taste, and other marginal audiences. And I understand that Terry Brooks has since improved as a writer, and furthermore he is no longer one of the top sellers in the field, so that the degree of success he enjoys today is nothing much to wonder at.
Tolkien’s immense popularity was bound to draw imitators, and of course someone had to be first. Some authors of children’s books, like Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander, had been influenced by Tolkien before, but Brooks was the first full-dress imitator on the market. If The Sword of Shannara were submitted as a first novel today, I doubt it would get past any publisher’s slush-reader. But in 1977 there was a huge virgin market for epic fantasy, and Terry Brooks showed how easy it was to exploit it. Since then the virgin has become a jaded old debauchee. One could wish that someone else had beaten Brooks to the punch, and established a higher standard for her taste; but the very badness of his early work, and its huge sales in spite of that, proved beyond doubt that the fantasy element alone, divorced from literary quality, was enough to sell books. On this discovery was founded a whole category of fiction publishing.
In his fragmentary autobiography, Rudyard Kipling wrote:
And if it be in your power, bear serenely with imitators. My Jungle Books begat Zoos of them. But the genius of all the genii was one who wrote a series called Tarzan of the Apes. I read it, but regret I never saw it on the films, where it rages most successfully. He had ‘jazzed’ the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and ‘get away with,’ which is a legitimate ambition.
Legitimate it may be, but one cannot admire its parentage. I do not know whether Terry Brooks set out to write the worst book he could get away with; on the contrary, I suspect he did the best he could at the time. Hundreds have done better since then, but none of them had his lucky timing. If The Sword of Shannara had been published even two or three years later, I believe it would now be out of print and utterly forgotten.
But in a way it deserves to be remembered. As it stands, the book is almost a definitive course in how not to write epic fantasy. A budding writer of epic fantasies could do much worse than to read The Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara, one immediately after the other, and see how the quality of execution makes all the difference between a great book and a worthless one. I could almost wish that a synoptic edition could be printed, putting the two stories in parallel columns, so that every scene and incident in the one should be aligned with its counterpart in the other. From such an edition one could learn an enormous amount about the techniques appropriate to this kind of fiction: what works and what does not, and the kind and measure of the difference between the two. If ever I read The Sword of Shannara again, it will be for just that purpose.
Continue to Part 3 . . .
22 January 2007