Friday, June 18, 2010

The Sword of Shannara

The list continues!

Back in 1977 a new publishing group called Ballantine, owned by Lester Del Rey, brought out an epic fantasy called The Sword of Shannara. At the time the genre we now call epic or heroic fantasy consisted largely of JRR Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings and...nothing else really.

The Sword of Shannara sold quite well and author Terry Brooks was widely hailed as the successor to Professor Tolkien.

Today if you admit to having read The Sword of Shannara and even worse actually enjoying it then you're met with a curled lip and a scornful 'That Lord of the Rings rip off!'

It is true that some of the major events and characters in The Sword of Shannara are Tolkienesque, but I found most of the similarities were superficial (Tolkien used wizards, dwarves and elves, so did Brooks) and the story is still entertaining. If you want to look hard enough, yes you'll become convinced that Terry Brooks rewrote The Lord of the Rings and retitled it The Sword of Shannara, although I don't know how you'd find the character of Panamon Creel in The Lord of the Rings as he was based on The Prisoner of Zenda's Rupert of Hentzau.

If you want an old fashioned quest adventure story then Shannara fits the bill. The plot is fairly basic, along the lines of a young idealistic protagonist (Shea Ohmsford) in a sleepy backwater (Shady Vale) is told by a mysterious stranger (Allanon) that he holds great power, and is the only person who can stop an evil overlord (Brona) from taking over the world by wielding a magical artifact (The Sword of Shannara). To save the world and protect his friends and family the young protagonist sets off on a journey to retrieve the magical artifact and is joined by a band of diverse allies (Flick Ohmsford, Menion Leah, Hendel, Balinor, Durin and Dayel). Together they will overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, not all of them will survive, and either singly or in groups, they will learn things about themselves that they were previously unaware of. Some of them will find love, and ultimately their effort will save the word and defeat the evil overlord.

I last read The Sword of Shannara over 20 years ago, when I was still a teenager. It didn't hold up that badly. As long as you approach it in the right frame of mind it's an entertaining piece of fun. Brooks' prose is a bit overdone and I'm surprised that his publisher, editor and mentor Lester Del Rey let through a few minor continuity errors, but it's far from the only first novel to make that mistake. I'd recommend the book to readers in their early teens or someone who's new to epic fantasy and wants to find out what the genre is about.

The Sword of Shannara is no great work of literature, but it did show publishers that there was a market for epic fantasy out there and for that lovers of the sub genre owe it a debt of gratitude, no matter how derivative of JRR Tolkien they think it is.

I would advise reading The Lord of the Rings after reading Shannara and if you enjoy Brooks, he wrote a number of sequels and prequels to his first tale of the post apocalyptic world of Shannara. Along the same lines are Tad Williams trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and David and Leigh Eddings 5 volume epic The Belgariad.


  1. I have seen many say that Brooks copied off Tolkien, but having read both personally I do not find that much similar other than elves and dwarves etc. Sure, they both have good fighting evil, but most stories have that. I'm a huge Terry Brooks fan and have read every bit of his Shannara related books (all 21 that are currently out)and I'm a huge Tolkien fan (haven't read all of his works yet but am working on it, read six so far). I always tend to recommend Brooks to anyone personally, but that's just because I love his work.

  2. Thanks for the comment.
    I sort of gave up on Brooks after the 3rd Shannara book, but I do agree about the Tolkien similarities. Shannara is a good old fashioned quest adventure tale. I found the other epic fantasy that came out around the same time; Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, was, to me, far more derivative of Tolkien than anything Terry Brooks wrote.