Everyone is talking about Shannara this week, so I will too

With the 35th anniversary annotated Sword of Shannara coming out next week, there is a lot of buzz about the book that may have ruined fantasy. Brooks did not set out to ruin fantasy in much the same way that the Gracchi did not set out to cause the fall of the Roman Republic, but the aftermath is undeniable. Following Shannara’s commercial success, the demand for Tolkienian high fantasy was met with a new wave of Brick Fantasy. While most spec-fic had enjoyed popularity in shorter novella formats, publishers saw that the market for multi-inch thick sprawling fantasy trilogies was ripe. Though D&D was not birthed by this maelstrom, it certainly fed into it; by the 80s, spec-fic shelves were filled with trilogies, quadrologies and even sextets of books featuring some combination of guy-with-sword, dwarf, elf, and mythic creature (usually, but not always, a dragon) in some wooded/mountainous/pastoral tableau; by the 90s, everybody was reading Wheel of Time, Dragonlance, Shannara, or Drizzt, and though I saw his name in my friend’s AD&D Deities & Demigods, I never heard anyone actually talk about Fritz Leiber until my late 20s and Vance was just the name that people blamed D&D’s magic system on.

I can’t remember how old I was exactly, but I was fairly young when I was first exposed to Lord of the Rings. It was somewhere between kindergarten and second grade, but on a really long road-trip, after an “Are we there yet?” I was kept entertained by my parents for the duration of the car ride with a rather impressive retelling from memory of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Not long after that, the Hobbit was read to me as a bedtime story, and my father was both proud and disappointed when mid-way through Fellowship I announced that I had started reading it all on my own and was almost finished.

Fast-forward a few years (maybe 5th grade?), having finished LotR, the Silmarillion, the Prydain Chronicles, the Singreale Chronicles, and at least the first Dragonlance trilogy or so, I got the Shannara Trilogy from a relative for Christmas. Interestingly enough, I found Sword of Shannara to be a remarkable plod but felt slighted that the story wrapped up in a single (albeit 3-inch thick) volume; I mean, I was promised a trilogy! But the remarkable dullness of the characters, obvious knock-offery of the Nazguls Skullbearers looking for the ring sword, painful attention to tactical minutia, and awful twist ending weighed upon my little kid heart like an anvil! What do you mean that the next book in the series is about the first characters’ grandkids? Those first characters weren’t great, but I was already familiar with them, who are these new guys? But they were fantasy books and christmas presents, so I continued trudging on. I made it 3/4s of the way into Elfstones, but when it became obvious that the second book’s twist was that the whiny cleric girl was gonna turn into a tree, 11 year old me was all “FTS!” and went back to Dragonlance, because at the time it seemed so much better in comparison.

Happy 35th Anniversary, Shannara! Ya lousy bum…


8 responses to “Everyone is talking about Shannara this week, so I will too

  1. “Brooks did not set out to ruin fantasy in much the same way that the Gracchi did not set out to cause the fall of the Roman Republic, but the aftermath is undeniable.” Great line.
    When my D&D friends were reading Brooks, I was reading Piers Anthony. At least he was *consciously* mocking the genre. Man we had terrible taste. When Dragonlance came out, I wanted to enjoy it but gave up in first part of the first book, just way to much Tolkien reskinning even for me as a kid.

    • Heh, thanks. When I was a little kid, I felt that Dragonlance was different enough that it didn’t bother me; the quest format was different and you got a bit more perspective from the villains. Shannara was just too blatant in its copying. Another thing I’ll give Dragonlance: Raistlin may have been a poor man’s Elric in many ways, but his relationship with his brother was far more interesting than any of Elric’s team-ups. I’ll say that despite all of its flaws, including being a D&D branded fiction product, the second Dragonlance trilogy was some pretty great fantasy that actually felt like more of a synthesis of the weird pulpy stuff and 70s new wave sff than the original trilogy.

  2. Pingback: Blog Watch: Academic Wankery, Rehashed Success, Women’s Renaissances, and Sprawling Fantasy | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  3. Good comment — especially loved the line about the Gracchi! 😉 I read Shannara for the first time during Basic Training in 1978, and let me tell you — we needed ANYTHING for a distraction then, so at that point I was less critical than many others were at the time. Since then, I re-read it for the first time just last year, and boy-howdy, it really IS nothing but a rehash of JRRT, only far less competently done. I also waded through the next two volumes, and they are kind of like reading Clive Cussler novels; after the first two or three, what’s the point? They’re all the same.

    It’s a pity, really. We’ve seemingly lost any ability to inspire authors to do truly original work, exploring the endless possibilities (and impossibilities) that made “old school” fantasy so diverse and wonderful. It’s like they all have a checklist now that they must follow (that’s not entirely fair to the few authors who really do strive for originality, but they’re few enough that it stands as a legitimate generalization), or it’s “not fantasy.” I miss Fritz and Jack and Roger and Ursula and all the old gang….

    • Thanks! It could be post-modern cynicism; there’s a feeling that everything has already been done before and what can be said already has been. As science has advanced, mysteries have retreated and the future feels more ‘fixed’; certain possibilities are forever erased from our imaginative horizon by their sheer impossibility. Just that looming spectre makes it difficult to do ‘original work’.

      • Sadly, that’s probably a large part of it. Too, it seems that spending time “imagining” simply isn’t as popular (or, perhaps, as necessary) as it was when I was younger (my, don’t I sound curmudgeonly now?).

        When I was a teenager, we made a lot of our own entertainment out of sheer necessity, but now I have the internet and can spend days engrossed in games or stories or controversies there instead of locked in my own head or playing out the imaginings of my friends at the table top. The massive increase in instantly available information means that there is less time to imagine a different outcome, or even attempt to create one.

        Technology is a wonderful thing, but sometimes it does seem like we’ve lost something important along the way….

  4. Strangely enough, I’ve still never read any Shannara books, although I’ve been thinking about it with the TV series coming out. The Tolkien rip-off aspect would probably ruin it for me. I love Tolkien for a lot of the stuff–the language, the emotional depth–that Brooks discards, and as much as I love The Wheel of Time I was really thrown off by how closely The Eye of the World hews to the Lord of the Rings.

    I very recently reread the original Dragonlance series. It’s only very lightly derivative of Tolkien, and to the extent it feels hackneyed, it’s probably because still later books ripped IT off. But the writing is at times atrocious and the whole thing feels a bit too much like somebody just writing down their game night.

    • “the whole thing feels a bit too much like somebody just writing down their game night.”

      From what I’ve read, this was actual an issue that plagued the first book; Dragons of Autumn Twilight was based on the writers & development team’s playthrough of the first Dragonlance module. After the first book, they let Weis and Hickman write the books and then write the modules based on whatever they’d written.

      I’m kind of curious to see the Shannara series just to see how awkward and bad it is. Dragonlance is downright tolerable good fantasy compared to Brooks’ writing. I recall his attention to tactical minutia being on par with what I hear is GRRM’s attention to cheese; endless paragraphs of some incredibly minor undeveloped character leading his cavalry unit up and down the battle field, charging, regrouping, breaking, rallying, refusing this or that flank, rallying the standard, etc. to the point where I wonder if he used turn-by-turn notes from some miniatures game he was playing to write the battle scenes.

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