Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to the final installment 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, the the Dagda Mor was defeated in an epic final confrontation between the Elves and Demons, and the Ellcrys was reborn at great cost!
This week, the Elves begin to rebuild, Eventine passes away and Ander becomes King, Allanon disappears into the darkness, Wil mourns the loss of a friend, and Eretria finally gets what she’s been after.
In the wake of the Ellcrys’ rebirth, the Elves find a shocked Wil Ohmsford and carry him to rest at the Elessedil manor, where he sleeps and dreams of an impenetrable darkness where he searches for Amberle. He wakes to find Allanon watching over him, but instead of relief, he is filled with anger and confronts the Druid about his knowledge of the cost to rebirth the Ellcrys. Allanon tells the Valeman that there was no possible way to tell them ahead of time of Amberle’s sacrifice, but it’s a bitter pill for Wil to swallow. Allanon continues, describing to Wil the history of the Ellcrys, and how it came to be that Amberle was selected to replace her. Allanon reveals himself to Wil, and the Valeman is shocked to see that Druid has aged dramatically as the result of his use of magic. The Druid leaves Wil’s bedchamber.
Allanon finds Ander dozing beside King Eventine’s bed. The old king sleeps, but fitfully. The end is near. As the Druid whispers away, Ander wakes and thinks back on all the losses suffered in the war against the Demons. Eventine wakes, and Ander tells him of the Elven victory, but also tells a white lie when the King inquires about Amberle. With that, a smile on his face, Eventine Elessedil passes away. Allanon emerges from the shadows to speak with Ander, imploring him to take lessons from his father’s great leadership. The Druid slips away into the night, not to be seen in the Four Lands for another generation.
Wil wakes to find Perk waiting over him. They speak of the events in the Gardens of Life, and memories of Amberle—then the Wing Rider bids farewell to the Valeman.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” The words were a whisper. “You could have told me.”
There was a movement within the shadows of the cowl. “It would not have helped you to know, Valeman.”
“It would not have helped you—isn’t that what you mean? You used me! You let me think that if I could protect Amberle from the Demons, if she could be brought safely back to Arborlon, then everything would be all right. You knew that was what I believed and you knew it wasn’t so!”
The Druid was silent. Wil shook his head in disbelief. “Could you have at least told her?”
“No, Valeman. She would not have believed me. She would not have let herself. It would have been too much to ask of her.”
Woo boy. So many epic fantasies feature a glorious aftermath of victory parades, endless drinks, dancing, and merriment. Here, however, Brooks takes what is perhaps Tolkien’s greatest lesson: life goes on, and there is bitterness even in the greatest victories. Wil confronts Allanon, throwing the Druid’s schemes in his face, saying, “You let me think that if I could protect Amberle from the Demons, if she could be brought safely back to Arborlon, then everything would be all right.” And this is where negotiating and trusting Allanon becomes dangerous. To his word, the land has been saved, the population of the Westlands, and likely the whole of the Four Lands, has an opportunity to rebuild itself. The War is ended. As far as Allanon is concerned, the price paid—Amberle’s Elven body—was minuscule recompense for the greater good. In Allanon’s view, everything is “all right.”
Even basking in victory, however, Wil grieves for a lost companion, one whom he feels was duped into making a great sacrifice. He is angry at Allanon and the Ellcrys for the tragic and callous way they treated Amberle. As we discussed last week, Amberle believes she made the choice to be reborn as the Ellcrys of her own free will, but it’s also clear that she’s under extreme duress and emotional distress when called upon to make that hugely life-altering decision. I’m not convinced that by the time she emerged from the Bloodfire that she had any control over becoming the tree—so, did she know, as she stepped into the Bloodfire, that it was the last free choice she would ever make?
“The final decision was hers, Valeman—not mine. I was never there to make that decision, only to see to it that she was given the opportunity to make it herself. I did that and nothing more.”
“Nothing more? You made certain that she made the decision that way you wanted it made. I wouldn’t call that nothing.”
Did Amberle ultimately have a choice in the matter? Probably not. But being wounded and drugged, and Amberle in the trance-state brought on by the Bloodfire, Wil was robbed of any opportunity to say goodbye, to feel like he had one last chance with a soul with who he went to hell and back.
Of course, we readers also have the privilege to see bitterness and regret in Allanon, something that Wil is not privy to. This helps us understand that the Druid’s stoic and methodical approach to protecting the Four Lands does more than simply age him. Despite all his efforts, ages come and go, and so do friends and allies.
The old King slept, his breathing ragged and slow, his skin the color of new parchment. The end of his life was near. It was the passing of an age, the Druid thought. They would all be gone now, all those who had stood against the Warlock Lord, all those who had aided in the quest for the elusive Sword of Shannara—all but the Ohmsfords, Shea and Flick.
A grim, ironic smile passed slowly across his lips. And himself, of course. He was still there. He was always there.
Elfstones is astounding in many ways, but this ending, full of bittersweet relief and heartbreaking tragedy, is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. The Elven victory came at an enormous cost, and equally Wil paid a huge personal cost in helping banish the Demons. By preying on Wil’s emotional sensitivity, Allanon ensured a guardian for Amberle who would fight to the bitter end, who would devote the whole of himself to the cause—but, this double-edged blade keeps twisting in Wil’s heart long after ‘victory’ was achieved.
There’s a nice moment between Allanon and Ander, just after Eventine’s passing, in which we see the Druid passing the torch to the new Elven King. Ander has gone through the ringer in this novel, but he’s grown tremendously, and Allanon’s machinations—whether you believe they were a lucky guess, good preparation, or true prescience—have established a strong leader for the Elves, who are in disarray and will need all the help they can get as they rebuild. As Allanon prepares to leave the Four Lands, he must find confident and true leaders to watch over things in his absence. I think it’s fair to say Ander has become just that.
The Demons have been defeated, chased back behind the Forbidding by a new Ellcrys, and the Elven allies are beginning preparations to return home. The Wing Riders are first to leave, followed by the Rock Trolls, and the Dwarves, who offer their aid in repairing the Elfitch, which collapsed in the war, followed, finally, by Stee Jans and the remaining members of the Legion Free Corps. Ander tries to convince Jans to stay on as leader of the Elven military, but the Borderman declines and rides off into the sunset.
On a sunny morning, Wil Ohmsford approaches the Gardens of Life, working up the courage to meet with the new Ellcrys for the first time since his traumatic last moments with Amberle. Visiting the tree, which is surrounded by Elven families paying tribute to its rebirth, Wil finds a measure of closure, and the wounds opened by Amberle’s transformation begin to heal. As he leaves the Gardens of Life, he finds Eretria waiting for him. Together they consider the future. Wil tells the Rover that he plans to head first to Shady Vale, his home, then onto Storlock, to continue his training as a Healer. She asks him of the Elfstones, and he tells her that he will keep them, but never again summon their magic—for he understands that it has changed him in a way he cannot identify. Wil invites Eretria to come with him to Shady Vale, and she agrees.
Ander watches the two young heroes walking back from the Gardens of Life. He recognizes the bond that has formed between them, and smiles at the thought of them travelling together in the future.
The Ellcrys rose up against the clear blue of the noonday sky, tall silver trunk and scarlet leaves rippling in the golden sunlight, a thing of such exquisite beauty that in the instant he saw her tears came to his eyes.
“Amberle…” he whispered.
- the Ellcrys
- Stee Jans
I love, love, love the exchange between Jans and Ander. Let’s just bask in this beautiful moment:
“You are well again, Commander?” [Ander] greeted him, smiling.
“Well enough, my Lord,” Stee Jans smiled back. “I came to thank you and to say goodbye. The Legion rides again for Callahorn.”
Ander shook his head slowly. “It is not for you to thank me. It is for me—and for the Elven people—to thank you. No one gave more to us and to this land than the men of the Free Corps. And you, Stee Jans—what would we have done without you?”
The Borderman was quiet for a moment before speaking. “My lord, I think we found in the people and the land a cause worth fighting for. All that we gave, we gave freely. And you did not lose this fight—that is what matters.”
“Ask me, Stee Jans—as me and the command is yours. I would be honored to have you. And the Elven people would be honored. You are one of us. Will you consider it?”
The Borderman smiled, turned, and swung back into the saddle. “I am already considering it, King Ander Elessedil.” He saluted smartly. “Until we meet again, my Lord—strength to you and your Elves.”
This is like… Finn and Poe level bromance. I can just see the moment following this when Ander tries to return Jans’ jacket and the Borderman slowly bites his lip and tells the Elven King to keep it. So, I guess I totally ship Ander Elessedil and Stee Jans. Who knew?
What makes this parting so interesting is that Jans is offered a sort of freedom from his past, not as recompense for his sins, which is what the Legion offers, but a chance to reset, to be a person of authority in one of the Four Lands’ greatest governments. That Jans turns it down says a lot about him and what he desires. It’s also interesting that Jans thanks Ander (which obviously startles the Elven King)—whatever happened in Jans’ past, he obviously sees the victory over the Demons, the relentless valour that he and his soldiers put into the war, as an opportunity to excise their own demons. It kills me to know that Stee Jans has been removed from MTV’s adaptation of Elfstones. He’s the heart and soul of the novel, and, aside from Amberle and Allanon, the person most responsible for the Elves’ victory.
But, we all know what happens next, right? *coughHeBecomesGaretJaxcough* So, maybe there’s hope to see him in season two. ;)
More seriously, Ander’s request that Jans take command of the Elven military, likely the first time a non-Elf has ever been offered the position, is a tremendous show of solidarity, and a nice send off for the novels’ thematic explorations of acceptance and loyalty.
After the events of the Ellcrys’ rebirth, it’s clear that Wil is searching for closure. He never had an opportunity to say goodbye to Amberle, who shared so much of his hardship. Even now, with the Elves saved, Wil feels like he has failed—for his duty was to protect Amberle, and, as he knows her, she is gone. Visiting the Ellcrys is a huge part of Wil’s healing process, and I think Brooks handles this scene admirably. These sorts of journeys scar you in small, almost imperceptible ways.
He had thought it through quite carefully. He must see her one time more. One final time. There could be no peace within him until it was done.
Almost before he realized it, he was through the gates, following the curve of the pathway that would take him to the tree.
He felt oddly relieved as he went, as if in making the decision to go to her he was doing something not only necessary, but right. A bit of the determination that had seen him through so much these past few weeks returned to him now—determination that had been drained from him when he had lost the Elven girl, so complete was his belief that he had failed her.
It seems that Wil is as terrified of what he might find in the new Ellcrys—some remnant or ghost of his friend—as Amberle was of the old Ellcrys. However, the above passage also illustrates why I believe the bonds between Amberle and Wil were platonic and not romantic: Wil’s scars are the result of guilt and failure, not lost love. This is doubly reaffirmed when he leaves the Westland with Eretria, who has always had her eye on him in a way that Amberle never did. We know from reading The Wishsong of Shannara that they eventually marry and have children, and I refuse to believe that Wil’s adoration and love for his wife was ever trapped behind a lost desire for Amberle.
Many people gave much of themselves to defeat the Demons, and this ending illustrates how each of those sacrifices changes their lives. Ander found the courage to lead his people; Stee Jans found redemption; Amberle found peace (perhaps…) in her choice to safeguard her people; Eretria found freedom; Allanon found rest; and Wil Ohmsford, the catalyst, found heartbreak and a rekindled desire to help the people of the land.
Let me leave you with one final tribute to Amberle, the hero of this story, and her great sacrifice:
“Will she keep the Demons from us, Mommy?” the little girl was asking.
“Far, far away from us.” Her mother smiled.
“And protect us always?”
“Yes—and protect us always.”
The little girl’s eyes flitted from her mother’s face to the tree. “She is so pretty.” Her small voice was filled with wonderment.
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.