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…