May 6, 2013
Books of May: The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks (1977)
People generally cite J.R.R. Tolkien as the father of modern fantasy, thanks to his epic three-volume novel The Lord of the Rings. I've always figured this to be rather inaccurate. Tolkien always struck me as an author on the bridge between two styles. While he certainly prefigures many of the tropes we consider to be modern fantasy he also harks back to lots of pre-medieval and Scandinavian epics. There's a very old-fashioned sensibility to The Lord of the Rings. It feels old, as if Tolkien not so much wrote it as discovered it in a vault.
I contend that if you want to find the real father of modern fantasy (certainly late 20th century fantasy) look no further than American author Terry Brooks and his debut novel The Sword of Shannara. It is a very derivative work. Some may accuse it of being somewhat plagiaristic. What it does do, however, is take Tolkien's slow, ponderous and highly literary three-book epic, streamline it, and strip it down to its most engaging and populist elements.
Whereas The Lord of the Rings saw Frodo Baggins leave the village of Hobbiton at the behest of the wizard Gandalf and embark on an epic adventure to the dark land of Mordor, The Sword of Shannara saw farmboy Shea Ohmsford leave the village of Shady Vale at the behest of the druid Allanon and embark on an epic adventure to the dark land of the Skull Kingdom. Frodo fought to destroy the spectral Sauron, whereas Shea fought to destroy the spectral Warlock Lord.
The similarities between the two texts extend far, far beyond what I've noted above, almost to hilarious proportions. The one big difference between the two is readability. I am in awe of J.R.R. Tolkien, and his remarkable literary gift, but I would never suggest that The Lord of the Rings was an exceptionally readable text. It's quite impenetrable in places and, any time somebody starts singing, relatively intolerable. The Sword of Shannara, on the other hand, is a fast-paced bit of commercial fiction, incredibly easy to read and therefore of much more appeal to a lowest-common-denominator. Certainly at the age of ten I know which book I preferred: I adored Shannara so much it pretty much became my favourite novel for a while.
The original edition had beautiful Hildebrandt illustrations, and it's a shame that while late 20th century fiction picked up a lot of the pastiche and common archetypes (farmboy destined for greatness, the obligatory old wizard, the kickass warrior support, and so on) very few of them picked up on awesome fantasy illustrations too.
The Sword of Shannara was a New York Times bestseller, and Brooks has written almost 30 other novels since, most of which are either sequels or prequels to his original work. As his career progressed I think he improved an awful lot: certainly books like The Wishsong of Shannara and Magic Kingdom for Sale/Sold were much more original and imaginative. It was his first book, however, that proved there was an enormous market for fantasy novels and - whether the book was good or bad (I have to be honest and say, as a thirtysomething man with much more reading experience than when I was ten, it's pretty awful) - it represents a milestone in the genre. We should thank him more often. (And certainly it wouldn't be out of place for the World Fantasy Convention to maybe acknowledge his achievements and make him a guest. Neither he nor his contemporary Stephen Donaldson, whose Chronicles of Thomas Covenant started the same year, have ever been honoured in this fashion.)