The Annotated Sword of Shannara: Tolkien Lite, and That’s Alright!

In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the entry for “Terry Brooks” provides three pieces of information which should be included in any discussion of The Sword of Shannara. First, that Sword was “deliberately modelled” on parts of The Lord of the Rings; Second, that Terry Brooks was Lester del Rey’s “marketable successor” to Tolkien; and third, that Brooks “translated the complex Christian Fantasy of LOTR and the secondary world in which it takes place, into a series of morally transparent genre fantasy adventures set in an apparent fantasyland.”

I introduce The Annotated Sword of Shannara with these points, since Terry Brooks’ annotations echo them repeatedly. When I read the Annotated Sword, I expected a confession of Brooks’ plot-cribbing of Tolkien. I got nothing of the kind. In an early scene involving a tentacled water-monster, Brooks does not reference Tolkien’s Watcher in the Water, but rather the giant squid attack from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ( I assume Brooks means the film, since he mentions “tentacles shooting out of the darkness and snatching people away,” a description more evocative of Disney than Verne). I was somewhat dubious when I read this, thinking, “You’re seriously going to tell me that the Watcher in the Water had nothing to do with the inspiration for this scene?”

But then I considered how screamingly obvious the similarities between the Sword of Shannara and LOTR are. Recognizing correspondences between those works isn’t a revelation worthy of annotation, but needlessly well-trod ground. We shouldn’t assume Brooks believed he was sneaking these affinities past his readers in 1977, or 35 years later in 2012. He admits his debt in the first annotation: “…it was only after reading The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien that I realized the fantasy genre held the grand tapestry I needed to tell the tale of The Sword of Shannara.” Given the success of Peter Jackson’s cinematic versions of LOTR, it’s safe to assume Brooks’ readers will take this admission and find the comparisons themselves. Accordingly, Brooks’ annotations reveal his other influences such as William Faulkner or Alexander Dumas, authors his readers are less likely to be familiar with. For Brooks to place an annotation beside Allanon saying “the inspiration for this strange wizard druid who sends these reluctant hobbits Valemen on a quest was Tolkien’s Gandalf” would be asinine. Though I still want to know why he thought it was a good idea to give his druid the same-sounding name as a well-known alcoholics’ recovery program….

The Annotated Sword of Shannara is Tolkien Lite, and That's Alright

We should also consider these annotations as reflections of Brooks’ relationship with Lester del Rey, the publisher who sought a marketable successor to Tolkien. One need only look at the original cover and interior art of the Brothers Hildebrandt to see del Rey’s intention: as Brooks reveals, the Hildebrandts were hired by Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey to “mimic the Lord of the Rings calendar illustrations they had previously done.” (As an aside, the Annotated Sword includes replicas of the original sketches for that artwork, along with the original Hildebrandt central color plate on the back of the dust jacket). Many of Brooks’ annotations are reflections on how the veteran Del Rey shaped a young and inexperienced writer, driving Brooks to create what was easily one of the most accessible fantasies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In a footnote late in the book, Brooks discusses how fan-favourite Menion Leah is not a killer, revealing that the original draft for Sword was more tragic, with most of the main characters dying by the end. Del Rey coached Brooks at this point, advising that readers “would not put up with having that many characters killed off.” As an adult and University English instructor, I take umbrage with this statement. But the ten-year-old Mike who read Sword for the first time would not have. He would have agreed with Del Rey, commending Brooks for realizing that Sword should be a “story that could be read by all ages.” It was epic fantasy marketed as an adult paperback but ultimately targeted at the YA crowd, in a publishing world where the YA market was yet to emerge.

Am I saying Sword is LOTR-lite? Probably, but that’s not a bad thing. While I desperately want to read my son The Hobbit, he’s still at a Captain Underpants stage of life. And while I was precocious enough to read LOTR in grade four, it was largely with the help of the BBC’s radio dramatization, along with Bakshi and Rankin-Bass’ cartoon adaptations. By contrast, I understood Sword right away. While I would return to Lord of the Rings as an adult, Sword was the epic fantasy I read most in my teens, simply because it was easier. Brooks was not an Oxford scholar steeped in Beowulf and the Eddas. He was a law student looking to become a best-selling writer. Consequently, Shannara isn’t the full-blown secondary world that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth was. It is a fantasyland, which the Encyclopedia of Fantasy differentiates from complex secondary world as “backdrop, not actor.” It’s a reductionary estimation, and in Brooks’ case, not entirely accurate. The role of Shannara as simple backdrop would change: as Brooks wrote more Shannara books, his fantasyland gained in complexity–his annotations are often references to how he expanded on moments in Sword for later installments: sequels, prequels, and the somewhat apocryphal Word and Void series. Those annotations got me pondering the Shannara books I haven’t read yet, or in the case of Angelfire East, wondering about the connections to Shannara I missed.

In addition to the print version, I listened to the audio version of the Annotated Sword, since I cannot read text on my commute. I was transported back to my teens, when I read Sword over the Christmas holidays, seated on a heating register to drive the cold winter away (instead of standing at a bus stop, listening to Scott Brick’s fantastic narration and freezing my ass off). The audio version has the added bonus of Brooks reading his own annotations, which makes for a funny moment. Brooks relates that readers always want to know how the “proper way to pronounce Shannara”; accordingly, he ends up reading the words, “How do I pronounce Shannara?” even as he is pronouncing those words. This instance is indicative of many of Brooks’ annotations, which would be a disappointment to the 41 year-old scholar—he wants his readers to “meet him halfway,” and so he doesn’t always reveal his antecedents and inspirations, or the etymology or pronunciation of Shannara. The Annotated Sword is a far cry from Unfinished Tales and Christopher Tolkien’s cottage industry of releasing his father’s notes to Tolkien scholarship. And that is as it should be. For it’s unlikely that the Annotated Sword of Shannara is going to end up generating many doctoral dissertations. But if I could travel back in time and leave one in my teen-self’s stocking, it would have got me interested in Faulkner, Dumas, and Robert Lewis Stevenson twenty years sooner. I would have known more about the travails of becoming an author, and perhaps been more persistent in following that dream up. And who knows? Given how often I read it in those days, it may well have become the subject of a high school English paper, thereby laying the seeds for a doctoral dissertation as seemingly ridiculous as one on steampunk, investigating the influence of Faulkner on The Sword of Shannara, one of the great American epic fantasies for readers young, and young-at-heart.


Mike Perschon is a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and on the English faculty at Grant MacEwan University.

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