Fantasy often presents ideas that are well beyond the scope of our present-day reality, dealing with supernatural powers, magical abilities, and terrifying monsters. Whether from the ancient stories of Greek mythology or more present day [contemporary?] tales such as Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, these traits are what distinguish fantasy from all other literary genres. As works such as Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara show, however, that line between what we can be believed and what cannot is, quite often, much thinner than we realize.
Briefly summarized, The Sword of Shannara is a story of two naðve, young brothers living in a small village in the southernmost region of the world. The story's main character, Shea, meets a huge, foreboding man by the name of Allanon within his family tavern and is hastily warned that his life and those of every mortal on earth are in danger of being destroyed by an invincible force of evil. Without any explanation whatsoever, the mysterious figure disappears into the night, and soon Shea and his brother, Flick, are left to ponder the consequences of AllanonÍs words.
They become apparent, however, later that night when the two young men are attacked by a viscous, black monster bearing skull-like marking all across its body. Shea and Flick are forced to flee northward as Allanon had suggested, running for their lives but not even knowing why. Armed with only their fatherÍs hunting knife, the two brothers set out on a journey that will take them to forgotten kingdoms, ancient tombs, and into the heart of a war between good and evil. Thus begins Brooks' tale of how these two sheltered and ignorant men learn that Shea is the key to saving the entire world from the Warlock Lord; he is the only man on the planet capable of wielding the ancient magical weapon of Elven Kings„the Sword of Shannara„due to a bloodline that has been concealed from him for the entirety of his life. Through unfortunate separations, individual courage, and a massive, bloody war, Shea, his brother, and the friends they meet along their travels all bond together to fight against a magical power they can barely comprehend. [This paragraph is a nice rhetorical transition.]
By reading only this synopsis, one might think Brooks' tale fits the outline of a typical fantasy story to the letter. It involves all of the aforementioned elements in one way or another, and most of what occurs is unbelievable and without explanation. However, as one delves deeper into the story, many elements of science fiction become evident, much more so than what would be expected from a "typical" fantasy tale. These traits add to the bookÍs overall effect and make it fast, exciting reading.
As mentioned earlier, one of the unusual features of The Sword of Shannara is that it takes place on the planet earth„nearly every other major work of modern fantasy is set upon a far distant world with multiple races and different cultures. Though Brooks brings in most of the "common" fantasy races: dwarfs, elves, trolls, and gnomes; [improper use of semi-colon here] he offers an explanation as to their existence instead of simply having the reader accept them as being part of a fantastic diegetic universe. In Shannara, somewhere in the distant past the race of man (modern humans) destroyed each other in a vast apocalyptic conflict, and thus the only remaining populations were very spread out across the globe and unable to contact one another. Because of this and the nuclear fallout proceeding [diction] the war, humankind began to evolve and mutate in different ways. Some became very thin, lithe, and dexterous (elves), others became very short and strong (dwarves) or just plain huge and strong (trolls), some changed skin color and became extremely short (gnomes), and others remained mostly the same (man).
Much later in the story, Brooks also provides an explanation of the magical powers the bookÍs major villain possesses. Since science as we know it today was responsible for the destruction of the former world, the only remaining members of the scientific community decided not to teach their offspring the ways of the "old sciences," and therefore almost all of the knowledge gained by man over the centuries was not passed on. These scientists did not simply forget what they knew, though, as instead they began to focus their abilities on exploring the human mind and its realms of unknown power. Through these "new" sciences, some members from the race of man discovered the power of sorcery, and they soon became very powerful creatures capable of extraordinary, seemingly impossible feats. Other scientific developments were kept to a minimum, and thus the world incorporates only medieval, pre-scientific technology.
Believable or not, Brooks offers explanations of his fantasy world which one would be hard pressed to find in other fantasy works. During the course of the novel, the main characters also encounter multiple relics from the worlds [apostrophe] past, one being a viscous cybernetic spider created by man before the apocalypse. There [They?] are forced to destroy it, but the mesh between technology levels is intriguing„a small party of men armed with swords versus a cyborg with amazing strength, agility, and deadly mechanical claws. It is because of incidences like this that BrooksÍ explanations work; his diegetic universe, in some ways, could very well be considered science fiction as opposed to fantasy.
The elements of science fiction become more prevalent when one reads some of BrooksÍ other novels, such as his newest publication, Running with the Demon. In this novel, a present-day society is faced by [idiom] a magical evil force, and the only one able to stop it is a seemingly plain and simply [simple?] man who is, in actuality, a Knight of the Word. Every night, his dreams consist of visions from the future where the earth is consumed in a fiery, apocalyptic conflict, and it is his job to prevent it, which, according to Shannara, he does not. Since the Word is also the common god-like figure in the Shannara series, it is easy to visualize how Brooks has tied the two together. While Star Wars is a fantastic but advanced culture living in the past, BrooksÍ book is a fantastic, primitive culture living in the future. It is an intriguing means of storytelling. [Why? Ideally, this 'why' would be fully elaborated. What's missing in this paper is the analysis side of this assignment.]
As a whole, Shannara is one of the best works of fantasy or science fiction that I have read in a long time. Brooks' use of imagery is incredible, and he skillfully paints each creature, visage, or landscape in the reader's mind before moving forward with the story's plot line. The main characters are well developed and the reader cannot help but sympathize with them in their darkest moments; Brooks does well to make each of his characters real and alive, so much so that a break in chapters between one story line to another is often agonizing. He incorporates all of the best elements of fantasy: good versus evil, amazing supernatural powers, and, most importantly (at least to me), swordplay.
The only weakness I found in the story was very small and easily bypassed. As this was the first book Terry Brooks published, it is not quite as fluently [diction: fluidly?] written as his later works in terms of his sentence structure. Though the book still reads easily and the description is still very realistic, many of his sentences are almost painfully long. At times this is worse than others, but never does it become annoying enough to distract the reader from the story to any substantial degree. In fact, if one had never read another novel by Terry Brooks, it might be easy to miss altogether, as the differences only appear in his later works. Since Shannara, Brooks has published over thirteen consecutive best selling novels, and has recently been chosen to write the novel form of the upcoming motion picture Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
I would highly recommend Shannara to anyone that enjoys fantasy worlds or medieval warfare. Though the argument could be made that this story is actually science fiction, most readers, myself included, will still consider it fantasy because it involves magical powers that, explained or not, go well beyond the limits of our quotidian reality.
[Final comments: Craig, this review is beautifully written and you do a very good job of conveying the essence of the book. The one thing that is missing is a little analysis: what's interesting about amalgamating the disparate genres of fantasy and science fiction? What are the ideological, interpretive or narratological ramifications of this move? Despite this shortfall, I very much enjoyed reading this review and I'm sure the class will as well.}
[E-mail comment from Raymond Jenkinson, received on March 12, 2004: These may seem rather trivial, but I am well known for being compulsive over things like this, but Craig's summary of the actual book is off by a miniscule amount. "They become apparent, however, later that night when the two young men are attacked by a viscous, black monster bearing skull-like marking all across its body. Shea and Flick are forced to flee northward as Allanon had suggested, running for their lives but not even knowing why. Armed with only their father’s hunting knife, the two brothers set out on a journey that will take them to forgotten kingdoms, ancient tombs, and into the heart of a war between good and evil." "Because of this and the nuclear fallout proceeding [diction] the war, humankind began to evolve and mutate in different ways. Some became very thin, lithe, and dexterous (elves), others became very short and strong (dwarves) or just plain huge and strong (trolls), some changed skin color and became extremely short (gnomes), and others remained mostly the same (man)." The Skull Bearer (aka the viscous, black monster) does not bear skull-like markings all over it's body, they wear a single medallion that has the insigne [sic] of a skull on it. And also, all Valemen, and for that matter Valewomen, carry a hunting knife. It is not passed down or anything. Also, the nuclear fallout did not create evolution among the humans, after the war, humankind is driven into different habitats, and forced to survive there, therefore, forcing them to adapt. As I stated before these are trivial things, but they still are not correct.]
BACK TO COURSE SYLLABUS