Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to the first 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.
Today, as we embark on this journey through the Elvish lands—from Arborlon to the Bloodfire—we will meet Lauren, a young elf who makes a devastating discovery; the Dagda Mor and his two cronies, the Reaper and the Changeling, who want nothing more than to fill the Four Lands with bloodthirsty demons, and eke out some delicious revenge on the elves who banished them; and three members of the Elven royal family, princes Ander and Arion Elessedil and their father, Eventine. Who won’t we meet? Any of the principal protagonists. We’ll get to Wil, Amberle, and Alannon over the coming weeks.
One of the most remarkable things about Elfstones, especially when compared to its predecessor, The Sword of Shannara, is how it eschews so much of the traditional epic fantasy introductory narrative, which makes this part of the reread particularly fun.
But, enough! Onwards to join Lauren and the other Chosen in the Gardens of Life.
Lauren, a young and trod-upon member of the Chosen, discovers that the Ellcrys, a sentient magic tree that keeps the Elven population safe from demon invasion, is dying. At first his companions don’t believe him, but the evidence is irrefutable, especially after the tree speaks, showing them a vision of the future to come if she dies. Panic ensues.
The legend was not a legend. The legend was life. Evil did indeed lie beyond a Forbidding that the Ellcrys maintained. Only she kept the Elven people safe.
And now she was dying.
- the Ellcrys
Ahh! Here we meet our her—er, some random elf who hangs around for a couple of chapters. On first introduction, it’s easy to see how reader might mistake Lauren for the story’s protagonist: He’s central to the discovery of the Ellcrys’ doom; he’s naive, kind, and obviously an outcast among the Chosen. Sounds familiar, right? He’s basically every other epic fantasy hero from the ’80s. As we’ll see, however, Brooks spends a lot of time tearing down the strict Tolkien-esque structural traditions he followed so closely in Sword. It’s one of the reasons I love Elfstones so much, and often recommend it to readers as a good starting point for the series.
My favourite part of the chapter, besides the overwhelming sense of doom, is the way one of the nameless Chosen accurately and shrewdly identifies Amberle’s importance to the upcoming events. However, she’s mistakenly identified as a cause, rather than a symptom. Lauren, thank goodness for him, has more sense (and is less prone to snap prejudicial opinions):
“This is all Amberle’s fault. I said before that something bad would come from having a girl picked as a chosen,” said one of [the Chosen].
“There were other girls among the chosen, and nothing happened because of it,” Lauren protested. He had always liked Amberle. She had been easy to talk to, even if she was King Eventine Elessedil’s granddaughter.
“Not for five hundred years, Lauren,” the other said.
Brooks does a good job of laying the groundwork for Amberle’s upcoming role by establishing early on that she’s different than the rest of the Chosen. “[The Ellcrys] had never spoken to any of them after that,” Lauren observes at one point. “Never—except to Amberle, of course, and Amberle was no longer one of them.”
One of the things that Elfstones does best (which I’d also argue is one of Lord of the Rings‘ greatest strengths) is that it establishes an idyllic setting that we as readers desperately want to protect, and a threat that will inevitably destroy its beauty and peace. There’s no fat, no needless exposition—just clean, clear conflict. We know what’s coming, and its not good.
I’ve always wondered about the first Ellcrys. Who was she, and how did her transformation occur? Terry Brooks has plans to write several more Shannara novels about the period of time between the end of our world and the beginning of Sword, and—not that I necessarily think Brooks needs to retread the story of the Elves, the demons, the Forbidding, and the Ellcrys again—but I wouldn’t be disappointed to see him explore the story of the first Ellcrys. It’s sure to be a heart-breaker. Do you have any theories about who she might have been?
Fresh from a centuries-long imprisonment behind the Forbidding, the Dagda Mor arrives with
Bebop and Rocksteady the Changeling and the Reaper, ready to rock and roll. Being pensive and prone to narrative exposition, the Dagda Mor thinks long and hard about the Ellcrys sealing Demonkind behind the Forbidding, and exactly what the Elves need to do to ensure it happens again. Using his Staff of Power™, the Dagda Mor summons an enormous bat to carrying them to Arborlon with plans to off the Chosen and put an end to any chance of saving the Ellcrys.
The Demon hated. He hated with an intensity that bordered on madness. Hundreds of years of imprisonment within the black hold that lay beyond the Forbidding had given his hatred more than sufficient time to fester and grow. Now it consumed him. It was everything to him. It gave him his power, and he would use that power to crush the creatures who had caused him so much misery. The Elves!
- the Dagda Mor
- the Reaper
- the Changeling
- a big bat
Here we’re introduced to the novel’s three main antagonists, and provided with a bit more information about the threat (and teased with a possible solution) to the Ellcrys’ safety. I like the way Brooks continually holds back from introducing the novel’s core cast—Amberle, Wil, and Allanon—instead taking his time to build a sense of dread and inevitability about the demons’ coming. Before we ever meet our protagonists, we become dearly acquainted with the ferocity and cunning of their opponents.
It’s interesting that the Dagda Mor has no motivations other than revenge and anger. He hates the Elves, and Brooks makes no attempt to instill any moral ambiguity in his ambitions. It’s exactly what ’80s epic fantasy is now criticized for, but, in a day and age where every epic fantasy is filled to the brim with rich, grey, complicated characters, it’s kind of fun to have a guy I can hate without reservation, especially as we’re given an opportunity to see parts of the narrative through his eyes. I can’t think of many Tolkien-esque fantasy novels/series that feature their otherworldly/demonic antagonists as point-of-view characters. Brooks does this in most (all?) of the Shannara novels, but it really comes to a head about a decade after Elfstones with the release of Ilse Witch, which does an admirable job of blurring the protagonist/antagonist line.
Every novel needs a good antagonist, and here Brooks makes a sly decision to split his among three bodies. While the Dagda Mor is the ostensible leader, the Changeling and the Reaper each play their own important role in the novel, allowing Brooks to construct multiple plots that tie together nicely and create multiple fronts for the demons’ assault. Tolkien’s Nazgul (and, by extension, Brooks’ Skull Bearers from Sword) were terrifying, but they were tools manipulated by Sauron, his hands and eyes. The Changeling and the Reaper, however, are their own entities with their own set of deadly skills, and deepen in a variety of ways the dread the pervades the novel.
This first introduction to the Dagda Mor’s companions is concise and chilling.
The Changeling is chaos incarnate:
Even the Dagda Mor was not certain of the Changeling’s true appearance; the creature was so prone to adapt to other life forms that he spent virtually all of his time being something or someone other than what he really was.
And the Reaper is cold-blooded precision:
The Reaper was a killer. Killing was the sole function of its existence. … [The Dagda Mor] was wary because the Reaper served him not out of whim and not out of fear or respect as did all the others. The Reaper feared nothing. It was a monster who cared nothing for life, even its own.
Overloading the Dagda Mor with the responsibilities and powers of the Changeling and the Reaper would’ve created a super-villain of comical proportions—a caricature of the big baddie. Splitting this role into three parts provides readers with three pressure points—one powerful (the Dagda Mor), one mysterious (the Changeling), and one suffocating (the Reaper). There’s never a moment in the novel, no matter where it’s focused geographically, that isn’t shrouded by the danger presented by one of these three demons.
One of Brooks’ most effective tools, as I mentioned above, is his ability to create a fantasy world that you care about, and that’s partly due to his ability to draw a landscape with an exquisite brush:
They stood in the shadow of the Breakline, the dawn which had already shattered the peace of the Chosen little more than a faint light in the eastern sky beyond the monstrous wall of mountains. The great, towering peaks knifed into the sky, casting pillars of darkness far out into the desolation of the Hoare Flats. The Flats themselves stretched westward from the line of mountains into emptiness—a hard, barren wasteland in which life spans were measured in minutes and hours. Nothing moved on its surface. No sound broke the stillness of the morning air.
Beautiful, even in its desolation. I feel like Brooks loses some of his wanderlust in later Shannara novels, focusing on plot to the exclusion of all else, making the Four Lands feel less vibrant and exciting. It’s fun to see him still exploring as he writes his way through this early novel.
I also want to note that Brooks relays an important piece of plot-related information through the Dagda Mor’s (typically villainous) internal monologue: the key to reviving the Ellcrys and staving off the demon invasion. So many fantasy novels keep this carrot dangling in front of the reader, but Brooks liberally hands it to the reader, and chooses to create narrative tension in other more effective ways throughout the novel. We’ll get to those later, though.
(Nitpick: If lifespans on the Hoare Flats are measured in minutes and hours, how long are gestational periods?)
(Another nitpick: The Dagda Mor wields the “Staff of Power”? Come on. I feel like Brooks had an eight-year-old make up a placeholder name for the Dagda Mor’s weapon and then forgot to replace it in the final manuscript. I can just see the Dagda Mor, withering away into old age, creakily standing up from his walking chair, calling out to his grandaughter, “Dear, can you get my Stick of Walking? I’d like to take a stroll before tea.” Pah.)
Brooks describes the Forbidding as a “formless, insistent limbo of endless dark and slow, wretched stagnation,” which, as anyone who’s read the High Druid of Shannara series knows, is very different than his later interpretation, which more-or-less mirrors a post-apocalyptic version of the Four Lands. You can see here how much the concept of the Forbidding changed in the 20+ years between the writing of Elfstones and those later novels. I’ll be honest, however, and admit that I preferred to think of the Forbidding as some sort of incomprehensible realm of chaos, roiling with demonic energy. But then, that wouldn’t be the first time I was disappointed with the way Brooks retconned changes into his series.
Ander Elessedil, “second son of Eventine Elessidil, King of the Elves,” preparing for an early morning horseback ride in the lands around Arborlon, is interrupted first by his dashing brother, crown prince Arion, then by Lauren, frantic with knowledge of the Ellcrys’ illness. With Lauren in tow, Ander convinces the king’s “personal aide,” Gael of the Most Punchable Face, to wake the king. Gael is dismissed, Manx is petted, and Lauren delivers the news, to much dismay.
Eventine speaks of the Bloodfire, which Lauren reveals is located in a mysterious place called Safehold. Quickly shedding his shock, Eventine sends Ander and Lauren to question the other Chosen, and begins his study of the old histories in hopes of discovering more about the Bloodfire and Safehold.
“Have I lived too long? [Eventine] muttered. “If the Ellcrys dies, how can I protect my people from what will happen to them? I am their King; the responsibility for their protection is mine. I have always accepted that. Yet for the first time in my life, I wish it were otherwise…”
- Ander Elessedil
- Arion Elessedil
- Eventine Elessedil
- Manx the wolfhound
One of the major leaps that Elfstones makes over its predecessor is in the way that Brooks attempts to add depth and more intricate motivations for all of his characters. From this first introduction, both Ander and Eventine struggle with getting older—Ander in the possibilities that have passed him by as he grew up in the shadow of his older brother, and Eventine in his body’s failing ability to lead his people against the demon invasion. Though not terribly deep by more holistic standards, both of these character arcs are more interesting than anything found in Sword (other than, perhaps, Shea’s journey to acceptance). It shows remarkable growth in Brooks, and, when you add many of the other secondary characters to the mix, makes Elfstones a much more interesting book to revisit. Each time I reread Elfstones, I find myself focusing on a different character, placing myself in their shoes and considering how I might react in their place. I can see that this time around, Ander’s story might be the most compelling frame for the narrative.
One of the most telling examples of how my relationship with Elfstones has changed over the years can be observed through my attachment to the princes. Ander, on his introduction, is approachable and somewhat morose:
As second son of Eventine Elessedil, King of the Elves, [Ander] could have had his rooms in the royal quarters; but years before, he had moved himself and his books to his present residence and thereby gained a privacy that he would have lacked within the palace. … At forty, he was no longer a young man. His lean Elven face was lined at the corners of the narrow eyes and the furrow of his sharply angled brow; but his step was quick and easy, and his face was almost boyish when he smiled—though that was seldom these days.
…compared to his brother, Arion, who is bold, attractive, and charismatic:
Arion was tall and fair, and his resemblance to their father at the same age was striking. That, together with the fact that he was a superb athlete and an accomplished weapons master, hunter and horseman made it inevitable that he should be Eventine’s pride and joy.
The narrative asks us to believe that Anders’ self-imposed exile from the royal palace is about peace and privacy, but it’s easy to imagine that it might also be an effort to actively avoid a relationship with his father that cannot match that of the King and his first son. Arion’s shadow falls darkly across every aspect of Ander’s life. You can tell immediately that Ander will be challenged to come out of his shell, and step out of his elder brother’s shadow; Arion, who’s had it easy all his life—due to favouritism from his father, natural athleticism, and good looks—will be challenged to rein in his confidence, and not to stumble when things become difficult.
As I grew older, I began to respect and love Ander for his weaknesses, but when I first read Elfstones as an adolescent, I loved Arion. I wasn’t athletic as a kid (though I did play soccer, basketball, skateboarded, and was a decent short track runner), but was rather quite bookish. I had a lot of friends, who are still good friends today, but spent a lot of time at home reading, or immersed in RPGs like Chrono Trigger or Baldur’s Gate. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a chance to be more social or play more sports—in fact, I had every opportunity—rather, my exile was voluntary, much like Ander’s. In fact, looking back, I see a lot of Ander in myself. However, I first read Elfstones, to Brooks’ intent and credit, Arion was everything I thought a strong Elven prince should be. I idolized him in the same way I idolized Jose Canseco. Like Canseco, though, the tallest and mightiest of us have a long way to fall, and the crater they leave behind is usually massive:
Once, Arion and [Ander] had been close. That was when Aine was alive—Aine, the youngest of the Elessedil sons. But Aine had been killed in a hunting accident eleven years ago, and after that the bond of kinship had no longer been enough. Amberle, Aine’s young daughter, had turned to Ander for support, not to Arion, and the older brother’s jealousy had soon manifested itself in open contempt. Then when Amberle had forsaken her position as one of the Chosen, Arion had blamed his brother’s influence, and his contempt had degenerated into thinly masked hostility. Now Ander suspected their father’s mind was being poisoned against him. But there was nothing he could do about it.
When I first started writing my notes, I mentioned of how difficult I found it to believe that Eventine—the brilliant, experienced, and compassionate king—would be so flawed as to openly favour Arion over Ander. It seemed to go against everything we learned about him in Sword. However, on further thought, it seems perfectly, honestly clear how this could happen. Arion’s charisma is blinding, and, after their falling out upon Aine’s death, Ander’s decision to no longer be involved in the day-to-day runnings of the royal family eradicated any chance of reconciling with his father and older brother. There’s a lot of stubbornness and hurt feelings involved, and everyone involved made mistakes in the wake of Aine’s death, but Brooks does a good job of writing an intricate and saddening account of a family torn apart by death.
Plotwise, not a whole lot moves forward here. The Elves become aware of the threat to the Ellcrys, and begin to formulate a plan to save her, but otherwise it’s about establishing the demons (lowercase d, not uppercase) that haunt Ander and his father, as well as introduce a few other characters (who shall remain nameless) who play a surprising role later in the novel.
And, can I just say how refreshing it is that the Elven royals believe Lauren and treat him with respect when he comes with news of the Ellcrys’ sickness? Too many epic fantasy novels rely on people in power acting stubbornly, refusing to accept the truth—as it seems Eventine is on the verge of doing at one point in the chapter (For an instant, the King did not respond, but sat rigidly in place, his eyes fixed on the speaker.)—and making things worse by standing pat while their enemies grow stronger. It’s one of the reasons that Elfstones, unlike many of Brooks’ other novels, never wastes a word: There’s no time, as the stakes just get higher and higher with each page turned.
Next Time on the Reread
The end(?) of the Chosen. Oh, wait, Amberle. A Druid awakens.
Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning editor of A Dribble of Ink, a blog about science fiction and fantasy, and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He lives on an island in British Columbia with his wife and daughter.