Terry Brooks,
The Sword of Shannara
(Del Rey, 1977)

1977 was a good year for fantasy. It brought us Star Wars (the movie may be science fiction, but the plot is pure fantasy) and Terry Brooks's first book The Sword of Shannara, which has become a modern fantasy classic.

Half-elven Shea Ohmsford lives in the isolated, peaceful town of Shady Vale, knowing little about the outside world and caring less. Into his peaceful life comes the legendary druid and wanderer Allanon, with an unbelievable tale. Allanon tells Shea that Shea is the last descendant of the great elven king Jerle Shannara, and that even though his blood is not pure, only he can wield the legendary Sword of Shannara. He must leave Shady Vale at once and go on a quest to reclaim the fabled Sword and prevent the rise of the Dark Lord. Even now, the minions of the Dark Lord are searching for Shea, Allanon warns, and if he does not leave Shady Vale, he will soon die.

Predictably, Shea laughs off Allanon's tale and goes about his business, until the night that he awakens in alarm to find that the Dark Lord's Skull Bearer is right outside his home. Shea flees in terror with only his brother Flick as a companion. Their flight leads them to Leah and Shea's friend Menion, the prince of that small kingdom, who agrees to guide them to the city of Culhaven where they hope to meet again with Allanon.

After a long and dangerous journey, the three travelers reach Culhaven only to find that they must set out again, for a longer and even more dangerous journey. In Culhaven, they are joined by other travelers: Balinor, the prince of the border kingdom of Callahorn; Durin and Dayel, the cousins of the elven king Eventine; Hendel, the taciturn dwarf; and finally Allanon. And so they set out on their quest, to find the fabled Sword and use it to defeat the Dark Lord.

It has been said that The Sword of Shannara is just a cheap rip-off of Grandpa Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. However, one might just as well say that The Lord of the Rings is just a cheap rip-off of the northern mythologies from which Tolkien garnered the seeds of his great saga. Both are tales that take great mythological themes and transplant them into a fantasy setting. Shea Ohmsford, like Frodo Baggins -- or Luke Skywalker -- is an incarnation of the Hero With a Thousand Faces, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Campbell. During the course of his journey, which he begins as a parochial boy (no matter his age), he goes through fear, danger and sorrow to become savior of the world. Shea does face down the Dark Lord, not because he is brave, but simply because he must. There is no one else who can. The great warrior Balinor, stalwart Hendel, the mystic Allanon -- all have their place on the journey and in the story, but in the end, it is Shea who must face the Dark Lord and win or lose according to his own virtue.

The Sword of Shannara is easily available, especially as it has just been reprinted with a new cover. Which is really fortunate for me, because my puppy (who has excellent taste in literature, having also eaten a copy of The Two Towers) ate my 12-year-old copy when I was about 130 pages from the end of the book, necessitating a trip to Buffalo to get a new copy.

My only real criticism of the novel has to do not with the plot, but with Brooks's writing style. Like Charles Dickens before him, Brooks is a man of many words. Many, many words. Where four or five would do, he uses twenty. This makes for very rich and vivid description, but it also makes for remarkably slow reading. At over 700 pages, this is not a fast-paced novel. But don't let the length put you off. It is well worth reading, even if you have to read it in sections and go off and read something lighter for a couple of days before coming back to it.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]

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