Fri
Dec 21 2012 11:15am

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

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.

12 comments
Dr. Cox
1. Dr. Cox
Interesting post! I read The Sword of Shannara in my teens, after I read The Lord of the Rings, and only reread it once, if that, while I've got tattered copies of LOTR. I absorbed Dumas in my teens, but didn't connect it to Shannara. And Faulkner . . .when I got to his works in grad school, I was just trying to get through :) (without, however, the "banging my head against the wall when is this going to end?" feeling when reading Henry James' novels, lol, tho'--with a "y'all are better readers than I am!" to Henry James fans--I found out recently that beginning to read James' "The Jolly Corner" gets rid of a spam caller in less than fifteen seconds . . . yep it's a good idea to keep my The Norton Anthology of American Literature by the phone :)).
David Thomson
2. ZetaStriker
This book is solely responsible for getting me into fantasy, so even though Brooks' writing doesn't always hold up quite as well to me at me current age, I can't blame him for his simplicity. The story of how I began reading it, and the voracious reading career that followed, is the real story though.

I, as I think most children did, had a habit of having my mother read to me as I went to bed each night. I loved books, but was frustrated becasue I felt I was falling behind in terms of reading skill in my first grade classes. My mom filled that void as I struggled with my letter, reading random books I'd pick off drugstore shelves because they had cool covers. When Talismans of Shannara was released in stores this routine repeated itself, although it didn't take long for my mother and I to realize we were reading out of order. A glance at Brooks' bilbliography in the opening pages and another trip to the bookstore, and Sword of Shannara was finally in my hands.

It was the perfect meeting of circumstance and interest, and right from the beginning with Shea and Flick's flight from the Vale I was hooked. I'd never read anything like this before, and in fact wouldn't learn more about Lord of the Rings until I was nearly in high school, but the dark tone and high stakes seemed different from other children's fiction in other mediums. Simple as it was, it didn't seem to talk down to me, and I was always begging my mother to go just one more chapter regardless how late our reading went.

Then one day an interesting thing happened. It all made sense. Reading, that is. I remember it feeling like something had clicked into the "on" position in my brain. I went from giving up in frustration while reading a Bearnstein Bears picture book to having read literally everything available both at home and at school within a couple of days. And once I had, when my mother stopped on the cliffhanger of Flick being separated from the group during their attempt to reclaim the eponymous sword, when my mom went to bed I turned on a light and went back to reading. The next night she came in and I had to tell her, no, we were on this page, and the night after I dismissed her entirely and finished the book.

I never really stopped reading, and going from picture books to novels rapidly expanding my reading speed and comprehension, not to mention my vocabulary. I went into 2nd grade reading at a high school level, and continued blasting through Brooks' novels at a rapid pace. Looking back now, I really appreciate how he structured his series. While you're right that Lester Del Ray got Brooks to spare the rod on his character is Sword, after their initial success Brooks had no such constraints and went absolutely nuts. The stories continued to gain in complexity, eventually even developing into the closest Brooks has come to epic fantasy with the Heritage of Shannara series.

I have many fond memories of reading and re-reading these books in my youth. These days, the only ones I think I'd go back to are the Heritage of Shannara and Word and the Void series, and his newer works no longer interest me, but Brooks still remains at the forefront of my mind when I think of fantasy because of my early experiences. He may have aped Tolkien in his fledgling outing, but he's long since grown beyond that and is in large part one of the authors that helped popularize modern fantasy. Her career and legacy ae noteworthy for that alone, and after all, without him I wouldn't even be here.
Dr. Cox
3. Nicholas Winter
You call call The Lord of The Rings a Christian fantasy but I know that many Christians do not consider it to to Christian 'tall. Indeed I just had this conversation with a woman buying books at a book stall for her three young nieces who have parents who do not allow them to read Tolkien, never mind anything like A Discovery of Witches!
Christopher Turkel
4. Applekey
I read this right after reading LoTR and found the similarities comforting. I was only 15 at the time and new into epic fantasy. I really enjoyed The Sword of Shannara and I think The Elfstones of Shannara is the best book in the whole saga.
Dr. Cox
5. ThomRyng
I read Sword as an adolescent, a year or two after I had read Rings. I was easily halfway through the book before it began to dawn on me that it wasn't some sort of Tolkien parody. Allanon, indeed! I kept waiting for Teenanon to appear.
Dr. Cox
6. Tehanu
I thought the first Shannara book was such an obvious ripoff of Tolkien, it made me angry ... but Brooks gradually became a much better writer, and I now think "ripoff" was a little unfair. "Influenced by," or even "derivative, but honorably so," is better. On the other hand, the other Terry (Badkind) still can't write his way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.
Dr. Cox
7. blknight18
The Hobbit was the first fantasy book I read, and this was the second, and it was definitely a big part in bringing me to fantasy literature. Unlike most people, I read this book before reading LOTR, so in my initial read I wasn't caught up in the constant reminder that it is derivative, I just read and enjoyed it. And I had enough 'reference' from the Hobbit to easily picture the world and the characters.
Dr. Cox
8. Bolg
The Sword of Shannara was one of the two post-Tolkien books I read. The other was Lord Foul's Bane, which entranced me with the Giants and the Waynhim ... Then I got and read one of the books of Tolkien Fandom that mentioned in two of the articles reprinted therein, later writers in the same vein. Neither article was exactly complementary on The Sword of Shannara, so I sold my copy of it.

I re-read it just a few years ago, and was struck by the thought that the entire set of activities, wars, etc, could've been fitted within the space between Lake Taupo and the Bombay hills south of Auckland, in the North Island of New Zealand - or between Christchurch and Blenheim in the South Island. That is the one lasting impression - that nothing in as much of the Shannara series that I have read, occurs in any larger space than that.

I consider he finally found his voice in the Magic Kingdom - Sold series, where he could use his somewhat indiosyncratic lawyerly voice without sounding stupid.
Lee VanDyke
9. Cloric
Just a small clerical note:

Al-Anon is a system of support groups for family and friends of alcoholics, primarly spouses and parents or adult children (although that last has gained their own group in the past 20 years, ACOA or Adult Children of Alcoholics). The primary recovery group is referred to simply as AA or by its full moniker Alcoholics Anonymous.

@5: THAT group is called Al-A-Teen

That being said, I always wondered why he named him that, as well!
Melissa Shumake
10. cherie_2137
thanks, @9, for clarifiying. it's just what i was going to do. =)

i haven't read any shannara books in a very long time, and this makes me feel like i should re-read.
Dr. Cox
11. HelenS
Even Allanon is better than Fthoom.

I had a professor in grad school who happened also to be named Terry Brooks. He made a point of saying that he had not written "The Sword of Sha-Na-Na, or whatever it's called."
Dr. Cox
12. mooeth
The Sword of Shannara was one of the first books that I ever purchased new and probably the longest book that I had read up to that point. By then I'd certainly read the Hobbit, though probably not Lord of the Rings. In either case, it definitely fueled my interest in the genre going forward.

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