Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s instalment in our reread of Terry Brooks’ classic epic fantasy, The Elfstones of Shannara. If you’re unfamiliar with Elfstones, Brooks, or this reread, be sure to check out the introductory post, in which we all become acquainted.
Last week, Amberle and Wil discovered that Grimpen Ward is just as dangerous as they were led to believe.
This week, the Elven army limps into Arborlon, the King awakens, and Amberle and Wil meet an old foe, and learn about the location of Safehold.
In full retreat, the Elven army falls back to Arborlon. Ander meets with the Elven High Council to prepare for the defense of the Elven capitol, and accepts their allegiance in the absence of his father. Several representatives from other parts of the Four Lands have arrived in Arborlon to aid the Elves against the Demons, including some Dwarf sappers (with promises of a coming army of several thousand armed soldiers) and a group of Sky Elves and their Rocs. Suddenly, Gael, the King’s aide, appears with exciting news: the King is awake!
Eventine Elessedil wakes from his coma, loses a staring contest with his dog Manx, and then learns of the death of his son Arion.
They stared at each other wordlessly, father and son, as if some frightening secret had been shared that should never have been told. Then Ander reached down and clasped his father to him. For long moments, they held each other in silence.
- Ehlron Tay
- Emer Chio
- Stee Jans
One of my major criticisms of Brooks, which extends to almost all of his books, is the narrative method that he chooses to use for many dramatic or emotionally prominent moments in his stories. For example, one of the most interesting and exciting parts of this chapter is the bravery and skill of Stee Jans and the Legion Free Corps. Consider the passage below:
The chase wore on. Elven Hunters and Free Corps soldier fought side by side in a desperate attempt to slow the Demon advance, watching their numbers dwindle steadily as their pursuers sweapt after them. Without Stee Jans to lead them, they would have been annihilated. Even with him, hundreds fell wounded and dead along the way, lost in the terrible struggle to prevent the long retreat from turning into a complete rout. Through it all, the Legion Commander’s tactics remained the same. The strength of the Demons made it imperative that the Elven army not be forced to stand again this side of Arborlon. So the rear guard continued to strike quickly and slip away, always to swing back for yet another strike and then another—and each time a few more riders were lost.
As the Elven army struggles to stay afloat, praying to reach Arborlon before they drown beneath the Demon army, Jans and his soldiers are the life preserver keeping them afloat.
Throughout this entire chapter, the reader is slammed by the claustrophobic feeling of depression and anxiety that is blanketing the Elves. Jans and the Free Corps, just a drop in an ocean of Demons and Elves, is a symbol of liberation and freedom, a bright burning torch of determination pushing back the shadows cast by the Demon army. It’s a terrific moment for those men and women fighting in the Free Corps, and a pure example of humanity’s perseverance and passion shining through the worst of war. That handful of soldiers keeps the Elven army afloat not just through their military might, but through the might of their belief in survival.
And yet… Brooks tells us all of this, rather than putting us alongside Jans and the Legion Free Corps in the battle. I want to see Jans’ anger, his fiery will to live. I want to feel the tension in his shoulders, to revel in his joy as his blade carves through Demon bodies, to feel the spittle flying from his mouth as he yells commands. Ander and Jans are polar opposites, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to showcase that—for the Borderman to pick the Elf up on his shoulders, to carry him up Mt. Doom, so to speak. Instead, Brooks places us readers in a helicoptor high above the battlefield, and like a news crew, we watch the outcome play out below, ignoring the moment-to-moment tragedy facing those soldiers.
By using a pulled-back, emotionally numbed omniscient narrator, Brooks sucks away a lot of the emotional impact that we see elsewhere in the novel (Wil’s confrontation with the Reaper, etc.) I’ve participated in several writing workshops with Brooks over the years, and he’s constantly advocating the “Show Don’t Tell” mantra of storytelling. It’s a rule that can (and should) be broken when necessary, but Brooks, despite his insistence, demonstrates us the peril of ignoring the old adage.
Switching gears a bit, Eventine waking is interesting for two reasons: a) Ander, who, alongside Stee Jans, has done an incredible job of keeping the Elven army alive, and earned the trust of its leaders along the way, loses his power (and, as we already know, does not have his father’s trust), and b) it highlights how much more difficult things are politically because Eventine lived through the first confrontation with the Demons, rather than being killed outright by the blow to the head.
Leadership of the Elves is not something Ander wanted, nor something he was prepared for, but, as with any true leader, he accepts and takes pride in his responsibilities.
Ander wanted no one to intercede for him in this, nor did he wish to take anything for granted. The support of the High Council, and of the outlanders who had come to give them aid, should be won over by what they might see in him—not by dear or any claim of right that did not ground itself squarely on whatever strength of character he had shown in his command of the Elven army since the moment that his father had fallen.
We’ve already discussed some of the emotional impact that Eventine’s coma caused for Ander, but here we see some of the political implications as well. Ander arrives in Arborlon as the defacto leader of the Elves, commanding their army, and being the point around which they can rally emotionally, but as soon as the High Council begins, he must take a backseat to Emer Chios, who is legal acting leader in the absence of a (still-living) absent King. Brooks sidesteps the issue a bit, by having Chios back Ander almost immediately, but that was no sure thing, and political division among the Elves at this point would be disastrous.
Now that Eventine is awake, control of the Elves will fall back to him, and, as we readers know, his ability to leader the Elves is already compromised, as his insecurity about old age begins to manifest itself as anxiety. The death of Arion, his treasured son and heir, is an emotional weight that no father should have to bear.
All of a sudden, the Elves’ new leaderships core—Ander Elessedil and Stee Jans—will have to cede command to Eventine and new Commander of the Elven army, Ehlron Tay. Scary stuff.
Wil wakes with a groggy head in Eretria’s wagon. The Rover teases him, then retrieves Amberle at his demand. Eretria tells them that she’s soothed Cephelo’s anger after the events in the Tirfing, even convinced the big Rover that Wil’s efforts saved the Rover Family from sure destruction. However, despite her assurances, Wil and Amberle are uncertain about their place in the Rover camp.
They’re locked in the wagon overnight, and Wil meets with Cephelo the following morning. Cephelo confirms Eretria’s words that no hard feelings remain. Wil tells a lie about their reason for being in the Wilderun (that they’re searching to find a cure for the King’s granddaughter). Cephelo demands the Elfstones in payment for taking Wil to a man who might know Safehold’s location. Wil, of course, refuses. Cephelo then asks for half of the monetary reward being offered for the life of the Royal granddaughter. Wil counters with a third of the reward, and Cephelo eagerly agrees, raising Wil’s hackles. Alongside the Rovers, Wil and Amberle leave Grimpen Ward.
Wil shook his head. “I will wash myself. Can you lend me some clothes?”
She nodded, but made no move to go. The Valeman flushed.
“I would like to do this by myself, if you don’t mind.”
The dazzling smile broke across her face. “Oh, but I do mind.”
He shook his head. “You really are incorrigible.”
“You are for me, Wil Ohmsford. I told you that before.”
I like Wil’s little white lie to Cephelo—it contains just enough truth (he’s working for the Elven royal family, it involves the King’s granddaughter, etc.) and is just selfish enough that someone like Cephelo, who’s going to be skeptical no matter what you tell him, will at least bite onto it and chew for a while. Wil often over-complicates things, usually thanks to his naive enthusiasm, but I think he’s doing the right thing here. Ostensibly, Cephelo should be an ally (the Demons invading won’t be good for the Rovers, either), but it’s hard to see how he can be trusted. I wonder what this adventure would look like if Wil was able to team up with Cephelo, like Shea teamed up with Panamon Creel in The Sword of Shannara?
I expressed some concern on last week’s edition of the reread about the suspension of disbelief required to acknowledge the plausibility of Grimpen Ward. Here Cephelo gives us a brief hint that it functions as a shady trading post for (and this is just reading-between-the-lines speculation on my part) illicit materials and goods. I mean, who can’t see a bit of human trafficking or drug cartels fitting in swimmingly among the cut throats and thieves of Grimpen Ward? Also, Cephelo, man. That guy’ll look you in the eye and smile even as he’s slitting your throat. Don’t like him one bit.
And, don’t we think he’s setting his price for aid a little high? I know Wil’s in a tough spot, and he’s not exactly on good terms with the denizens of Grimpen Ward, but the Elfstones are worth a kingdom, and Cephelo demands them, or something of equal value, in return for guiding Wil and Amberle to someone who might know something about Safehold? Like, sure, don’t undersell your services, but it seems to me like a five percent cut of Wil’s reward would be too much to pay for Cephelo’s help, let alone thirty percent, or a super rare magical talisman.
Amberle, Wil, and the Rovers descend upon Hebel, a reclusive old man who lives in the Wilderun. Cephelo and Hebel clearly have a past relationship, covered only by the thinnest skin of mutual respect. After some tense small talk, Cephelo and Hebel barter on the price for information about Safehold’s whereabouts. Hebel has heard of Safehold, and knows where it can be found: underneath Spire’s Reach, deep within the Hollows, realm of the witches Morag and Mallenroh. Hebel tells a story of once meeting Mallenroh, sending a shiver down everyone’s spine. To warm the evening, Cephelo invites the old man to share in their drinks and food for the evening.
While visiting the well, Wil is approached by Eretria, who calls him on his lies, revealing that she knows that Amberle is not his sister, and calling the story about trying to find a healing herb is straight phooey. Wil acceeds, and reveals their true mission. Eretria also tells Wil that Cephelo has plans to sell her once the reach the southern cities, and begs to go with them to Spire’s Reach. Once again, Wil denies her request—and earns himself a cold rebuke.
“Rewards are given and taken away by the whims of fortune, old man. Where one is lost, another is gained.”
There’s a lot going on here, and I think it’s a great example of why Brooks at his best is one of the greatest epic fantasists of the ’80s. This chapter gives us a lot of really great world building, tension aplenty (despite no violence or action), neat little insights into several characters, and a big step towards the opening of the third act.
It’s sort of wonderful how Brooks is able to so easily paint a picture of the Wilderun as a home, even after he’s spent pages and pages convincing us readers how dangerous and inhospitable it is. Through Hebel’s eyes, we see something new:
The old man hummed softly to himself as he sat in the cane-backed rocker and stared out into the darkening forest. Far to the west beyond the wall of trees that locked tightly about the clearing in which he saw, beyond the valley of the Wilderun and the mountains that ringed it, the sun slipped beneath the earth’s horizon and the day’s light faded in to dusk. It was the old man’s favourite time of day, the midday heat cooling into evening shadow, the sunset coloring the far skyline crimson and purple, then deepening into blue night. … It was as if, for those few moments, the Wilderun were like any other country, and a man might look upon it as an old and intimate friend.
After we meet Hebel, we get our first glimpse at Morag and Mallenroh, two of the most mysterious villains Brooks has ever created, and I feel like there’s a whole series of novels just waiting to be written about their history and war.
“Morag and Mallenroh—the last of their kind. Once, Elfling, there were many such as they—now there are but two. Some say they were the handmaidens of the Warlock Lord. Some say they were here long before even he. Power to match that of the Druids, some say.” He spread his hands. “The truth is hidden with them.”
From my recollections of The Sword of Shannara and The First King of Shannara, the two novels that directly tell of the Warlock Lord, I don’t remember any mention of an affiliation between Brona and the witches. (Though, please correct me if I’m wrong.) This suggests that Hebel’s second guess, that the witches—whether Morag and Mallenroh, or others of their kind—precede the Druids, which places them deep within the history of the Four Lands, likely born during the time when magic was finding its place in the new world. How did witchcraft evolve in the Four Lands? How many witches were there? Were they killed, Highlander-style, by Morag and Mallenroh? So many questions, so few answers.
I love the way Brooks seeds his stories with moments like this, asking the reader to fill in the blanks.
As a writer, you don’t leave a gun laying around if you don’t plan to use later in your story, and it’s pretty obvious that Morag and Mallenroh are locked and loaded. It makes sense to me that they’d establish their realm around Spire’s Reach, where Safehold and the ancient magic of the Bloodfire reside. I’ve always felt like magic in Brooks’ novel is grounded in the world around it, and there’s no doubt in my mind that residual magic from the Bloodfire compels and strengthens the witches. I like the idea that even they might not recognize why they’re drawn to Spire’s Reach and the Hollows.
In addition to the tension created by the possibility of the witches, there’s also a lot of good verbal sword-fighting in this chapter between Hebel and Cephelo, and, lo-and-behold, the Rover actually loses. It’s easy to dismiss Hebel as a lowly recluse, but he’s obviously sharp, and dangerous in his own way. He’s not exactly easy to like, but it’s fun to see the way Hebel gets under Cephelo’s skin so easily. This exchange is particularly delightful:
“Don’t like Elves. They think they’re too good for this country, for people like me.” He lifted one eyebrow. “Don’t like Rovers either, as you well know. Like them even less than Elves.”
Eretria smirked. “There seems to be a lot you don’t like.”
“Shut your mouth!” Cephelo snapped, his face darkening. Eretria went still and Hebel saw the anger in her eyes.
He chuckled softly. “I don’t blame you, girl.” He looked at Cephelo. “What will you give me if I help the Elflings, Rover? An even trade now, if you want what I know.”
Cephelo glowered. “Do not try my patience too severely, Hebel.”
He waits until Cephelo is vulnerable, then beats the Rover at his own game.
Hebel’s comments about the Elves thinking they’re too good for “this land,” suggests to me that the Wilderun is full of ex-pat Men, Gnomes, Dwarfs, and the like, which goes against my previous assumption that the Westland was overwhelmingly an Elvish land. Is there evidence in any of the other Shannara books for large populations of non-Dwarfs in the Eastland, Gnomes, Trolls, or Elves in the Southland, etcetera? For a land as small as the Four Lands, there’s certainly not a lot of inter-racial mingling, which makes it a unique aspect of Grimpen Ward and the Wilderun.
Next Time on the Reread
Wil and Amberle part ways with the Rovers, the Elfstones go missing, and the Demon army attacks Arborlon.
Hugo Award winner Aidan Moher is the founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He regularly contributes to Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and several other websites. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.