Ode to Shannara
I know it’s en vogue to bash on Brooks’ books, but the word of Shannara will always hold a special place in my flinty heart. Sure, it’s derivative of Tolkien, but no more so than a weekly D&D session, and no one gets all up in Gygax’s business for daring to include elves, dwarves and orcs. Still, a lot of fantasy purists aim a lot of ire Shannara’s direction I don’t think it deserves.
In a lot of ways Shannara may sum up Gen X’s take on fantasy the same way that LOTR did for Boomers. At least it does for me. I can remember where I was when I first encountered Shannara: In the back of our 1977 Ford LTD on a family vacation when my mother pulled out a book on tape of The Sword of Shannara. She hoped it would keep me occupied for the trip, and it did that and more. As everyone who reads this blog knows, I was raised on Star Wars, but this was my first foray into straight fantasy, and I was enthralled. There were other races, sword battles, monsters and magic, a quest and demon lord that needed defeating. One of my favorite characters actually died, there was a noble troll, and the term Skullbearer was just about the coolest thing I had ever heard.
Yes, I estimate I was around eight at the time, but all these things are still objectively cool. As “objective” and “cool” as the fantasy genre can ever get that is.
Who would dare to argue that this isn't the epitome of 70s cool?
And maybe I never cottoned to LOTR because I read Shannara first (or perhaps it was the damn Hobbits, which are, to this day, still the worst aspect to LOTR). To me Tolkien’s prose has always been too archaic, and I greatly prefer Brooks’ more modern style. His characters also had more depth with actual shades of grey rather than Tolkien’s two-dimensional archetypes that would become so popular they evolved into the tropes all subsequent fantasy authors have been either been influenced by or reacting to for decades.
Anyways, Shannara stayed with me throughout my childhood. My mother would read The Elfstones of Shannara to my younger sister and me, and I remember the Reaper being the next most terrifying villain to haunt my imagination for a few more years. Two of my pet birds were named Brin and Rone, from The Wishsong of Shannara, though I will have to admit it’s probably my least favorite from the original trilogy.
The Heritage of Shannara series turned significantly darker, which suited me fine during my teenage years, and I truly believe this was Brooks at his strongest. But that probably has to do with this series being serialized, while the first trilogy was episodic.
The First King of Shannara turned out to be the last of the still ongoing series I read, which seems symbolic upon reflection. Brooks was giving a book signing I attended, which turned into a surprise 18th birthday party when my friends showed up with cake to go with his autograph. And Brooks proved the gentleman as he put up with our childish shenanigans, even signing some party hats. It was also there that I learned I had been pronouncing Shannara wrong for over a decade.
Having watched Elfstones adapted to a whole new YA generation on MTV was certainly an interesting experience, and Brooks has recently announced he’s closing out the Shannara series with one more set of four books. This will bring his total number of books in this universe to a whopping 35, which sort of dwarfs Jordan’s voluminous Wheel of Time.
All in all, Shannara really represents my fantasy adolescence, as does Dragonlance, in that it helped me cut my teeth on the genre. Having reread the first seven books over the years since, they still stand up surprisingly well, and remain the equivalent of genre comfort food in that they will always remind me of growing up. And for that I thank Brooks for giving me the option to always go home again by cracking open one of his books.