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, we were introduced to the Elven lands, ruled over by the Elessedil family—King Eventine and his sons, Ander and Arion—and the Ellcrys, a sentient tree responsible for maintaining the Forbidding, a magical barrier that keeps the Four Lands safe from Demon invasion. Unfortunately, the Ellcrys is dying, and it’s up to Ander and the Chosen to find a way to save her before it’s too late.
This week? The Chosen meet a grisly end, a Druid returns, and the secrets at Paranor are threatened by the Dagda Mor’s schemes.
The search for Safehold continues. Further questioning of the Ellcrys has met only silence from the sentient tree, and Eventine’s desperate search of the Elvish histories has coughed up nothing more than a single relevant passage. Lauren approaches Ander suggesting that Amberle might be the key to contacting the Ellcrys, but Ander dismisses the idea as being more difficult than hunting for a needle in a haystack. Discouraged, Ander retires for the night. He wakes refreshed, but finds the Gardens of Life curiously empty. Beset by fear, Ander races to the Chosen’s lodging and finds their corpses “ripped apart as if by maddened animals.”
“It’s about Amberle. My Lord, after her choosing, she spoke with the Ellcrys many times—long conversations.” The words came slowly. “It was different with her than with the rest of us. I don’t know whether she ever realized that. We never really talked about it…”
- the Ellcrys
- the Changeling
Of the many emotions explored throughout Elfstones, the most overriding are resignation and fear. This chapter is rife with these raw emotions, making for a daunting read. Ander’s futile attempts to communicate with the Ellcrys come across as desperate, Eventine’s words and actions are weary, troubled.
Eventine had always been so sure of himself, had always been so supremely confident that a solution could found to any problem. But now, in the two visits Ander had made to report his lack of progress, the old King had seemed lost somewhere within himself.
As Ander takes so much of his energy from those around him, the king’s sinking depression is an anchor weighing him down. His father—King and personal guardian—is failing, and Ander must find it in himself to provide strength to his people, to be a shield against the Demon threat. Both Ander and his father spend time sleeping in this chapter, which, it appears, is Brooks’ way of pointing a finger at the blanket of depression settling over the Elvish royal family, summed up in one thought:
Sometimes hopelessness and despair were even more fatiguing than physical labour.
There is so much heartbreak in this novel—from Lauren’s declaration that he feels personally responsible for delivering the Elves to safety, only to be brutally killed later in the chapter, to Eventine’s fall from grace, to poor Went. Brooks drags you through the mud early and often.
Now, let’s talk about the source of their despair: Safehold and the Bloodfire.
“Then shall the One Seed be delivered unto the Bearer that is Chosen. And the Seed shall be borne by the Bearer to the Chambers of the Bloodfire, there to be immersed within the Fire that it might be returned to the earth. Thereupon shall the Tree be Reborn and the Great Forbidding endure forever. Thus spake the High Wizard to his Elves, even as he did perish, tat Knowledge be not lost unto his people.”
First. Good lord. That Ye Ol’ English™. Thank goodness Brooks dropped that from later Shannara novels. Also, is that the only time a High Wizard is mentioned? I don’t remember anyone in the series referring to themselves as a Wizard (though admittedly it’s been a while since I’ve read some of the novels.)
I’m going to ask you for a moment to play along with my assumptions that the dying Ellcrys is one of many in the long history of the Elvish people. (Not only do I believe evidence for this theory exists both in the Dark Legacy of Shannara and Genesis of Shannara trilogies, but Shawn Speakman, Brooks’ longtime friend, webmaster, and continuity editor, confirmed as much when I asked him following the discussion in last week’s reread post.) With that in mind, I’ve always found it difficult to believe that the secret of Safehold’s location has been wholly lost. Not just lost, but completely and irretrievably erased from the Elves’ recorded history. Ander explains that the omission is not unusual for his people:
His ancestors had seldom placed the secrets of their magics in writing. Such things were handed down by word of mouth so that they could not be stolen by their enemies. And some sorceries were said to be so powerful that their use was limited to but a single time and place. It might have been so with the sorcery that had created the Ellcrys.
I appreciate Brooks’ effort to justify this poor record keeping by the Elves, and it’s clarified in later novels that Safehold was lost due to shifting geography as the Four Lands underwent tremendous changes between necessary trips to the Bloodfire, but it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that a long-standing, literate society that obviously has meticulous archivists simply forgot to pass along the location of a magic so vitally important to the safety of the Four Lands. Not to mention they’ve managed to organize and maintain a group of Elves whose sole purpose is to care for the Ellcrys for hundreds of years, yet there was no protocol established for ensuring that they understood the steps necessary when the Ellcrys inevitably had to be reborn? (Keeping in mind that the Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy retroactively establishes the fact that the Ellcrys has a finite lifespan.)
I know Brooks is making it all up as he goes along, and that a lot of retconning happened when he decided to link the Word & Void trilogy to the Shannara series, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing he’d developed this part of the story a bit further. An Elvish monarch who had tried to erase the Demons from history and burned all books containing reference to Safehold. An adventurer who pilfered the only known map leading to the Bloodfire. The Dagda Mor torching the Elvish archives along with murdering the Chosen. I dunno.
*gets a beer*
Okay. I feel better now.
The final scene in this chapter is brilliant. Ander’s discovery of the Chosen corpses is chilling and marks the moment I first realized that Brooks wasn’t messing around. He’s written other dark works, especially the Word & Void books, but this is one of the darkest moments in Shannara history. If you weren’t certain before, it becomes all to clear upon seeing that room scattered with corpses that the Dagda Mor’s armies are coming to the Four Lands. So many fantasy novels establish plots involving world-ending threats, but few manage to really drive it home as well as Elfstones. With every chapter, the Demons seem to gain strength, and the Elves fall further into disarray.
And, man, if that scene of Went-the-Changeling doesn’t send a shiver up your spine…
Leaving the home of the Chosen, dead at the hands of the Changeling, Ander is confronted by the Druid Allanon, who demands to be taken to see the King. To preserve secrecy, Ander and Allanon sneak into the King’s study through a back window (because what monarch needs secure living quarters during such harrowing times?), startling Eventine, who studies the ancient Elvish history books.
Though early pleasantries are exchanged between the old friends and allies, tensions quickly grow between the King and the Druid. Eventine, despairing at the death of the Chosen, sees no escape from the Demon threat. Allanon believes he can find Safehold’s location, and offers another solution that stabs at the King’s heart: the location of his grand-daughter, Amberle, last of the Chosen.
Eventine cedes diplomatic immunity to Allanon, accepting his offer of help at the cost of giving the Druid free reign to act outside the will of the royal family. Allanon departs for Paranor, the ancient seat of the Druid Order.
The Dagda Mor, sensing the Druid’s awakening, plots a trap for Allanon.
“Now as to the Chosen, Eventine, you are mistaken entirely. They are not all dead.”
For an instant, the room went deathly still. Amberle! Ander thought in astonishment. He means Amberle!
“All six were killed…!” Eventine began, then stopped abruptly.
“There were seven Chosen,” the Druid said quietly.
“I do not know where she is.” The King’s voice turned suddenly bitter. “I doubt that anyone does.”
The Druid carefully poured a measure of the herb tea and handed it to the King.
- the Dagda Mor
- Manx the wolfhound
Allanon! Of all of Brooks’ creations—from the Elfstones to Pe Ell, Airships to Grianne—I think this tall, dark, handsome, and brooding man is one of the best—perfectly showcasing his love of recognizable fantasy tropes with a Four Lands twist.
Wanderer, historian philosopher and mystic, guardian of the races, the last of the ancient Druids, the wise men of the new world—Allanon was said to have been all of these.
Allanon was obviously a Gandalf clone in The Sword of Shannara, and continues to play the role in Elfstones, but there are two things that set him apart from fantasy’s most famous wizard.
First, he’s approachable and vulnerable in a way that most Big Goods rarely are, especially later on in the novel when we see parts of the story through his eyes. Brooks does a tremendous job of portraying him as a lone wolf with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Second, he’s chaotic good, rather than neutral or lawful good, as the mentor-type character usually is. His intentions are focused on bettering the greater good, and he’s willing to compromise anything and anyone to meet his ends, even at the cost of his moral standing. This often means manipulating his allies and withholding vital information, showcased most obviously when Allanon asks Eventine for permission to act independently (also illustrating how desperate Eventine has become to find an ally in his fight against the demons):
“What aid I can offer, I offer freely. But there is one condition. I must be free to act in this matter as I see fit. Even though you disapprove, Eventine Elessedil. Even then.”
The King hesitated, his blue eyes studying the dark face of the other man, searching for answers that clearly were not to be found there. At last, he nodded.
But, more on that next chapter.
If there’s one thing I miss in later Shannara novels, it’s that first moment when Allanon arrives in each novel. It’s always ominous, charged with tension and mystery. You can’t help but be intrigued and terrified by the surly Druid. I mean, just consider this visual:
“Peace, Ander Elessedil.” The voice was soft but commanding. “I am no enemy of yours.”
The shadowy form was that of a man, Ander saw now, a tall man, standing well over seven feet. Black robes were wrapped tightly about his spare, lean fame, and the hood of his traveling cloak was pulled close about his head so that nothing of his face could be seen save for the narrow eyes that shone like a cat’s.
[His face] was craggy and lined, shadowed by a short, black beard and framed by a wide, unsmiling mouth and by hair cut shoulder-length. The cat’s eyes piercing and dark, stared out from beneath heavy brows knit fiercly above a long, flat nose. Those eyes stared into Ander’s, and the Elven Prince found that he could not look away.
From the moment Ander meets him, Allanon is portrayed with benevolence and power. He’s commanding, but makes you feel comfortable and safe from your enemies—even as he’s using his subtle Druid magic to coerce you into doing his bidding.
One of the most interesting bits in the chapter occurs when Eventine tells Allanon, in a typical epic fantasy monologue, the history of the Ellcrys and what must occur to ensure her rebirth. Eventine says:
“In order to save her, one of the Chosen in service to her now must carry her seed to the Bloodfire, immerse it in the flames and then return it to the earth so that rebirth might be possible.”
“I am familiar with the history,” the Druid interjected.
The King flushed.
I’m not sure if it’s intentional (and when Elfstones was first published it might not even have been relevant), but this is a lovely and amusing little jab at the exposition-heavy tendencies of epic fantasy. Additionally, it also serves as an effective way of portraying the tense relationship between these two powerful allies.
It’s becoming clear by this point that one of the Dagda Mor’s most potent weapons is his ability to sow discord and mistrust in his opponents. He preys on an Elvish royal family that is divided, emotionally raw, and the Demon feeds off of the natural animosity that exists between them as the result of Aine’s death and Amberle’s self-imposed exile.
With Ander’s assistance, Allanon acquires Artaq, a fiery horse with a reputation for challenging his riders. The Druid and the stallion become quick friends. Allanon leaves for Paranor.
Paranor has changed since Allanon’s last visit—no longer surrounded by poisonous thorn bushes or guarded by packs of wolves, peace lays across the surrounding land. Allanon gains easy access to to the citadel, and quick ascends to the study, a hidden room filled with the Druid Histories—comprehensive encyclopaedias about the Four Lands, its people, and its magic. Within hours, Allanon learns the location of Safehold, but many more of his fears are confirmed, including something so big that he vows to keep it secret from all those involved in the quest for the Bloodfire.
Before he can leave Paranor, Allanon is attacked by the Dagda Mor and a small army of furies. Thanks to his magic and a bit of luck, the Druid escapes Paranor by the skin of his teeth.
Here the histories of the old world, written and spoken, were set down in the Druid records, to be preserved for all the generations of man yet to come. Here the mysteries of the old sciences were explored, the fragments patched together, the secrets of a few restored to knowledge. For hundreds of years, the Druids lived and worked for Paranor, the wise men of the new world seeking to rebuild what had been lost.
But their efforts failed.
- the Dagda Mor
Outside of Bag End or Hogwarts, I can’t think of a location from a fantasy novel that I’d love to explore more than Paranor and all of its secrets. Labyrinthine and ancient, it’s a place of many secrets, and witness to so many important historical events in the Four Lands. Allanon’s first look at Paranor in decades is breathtaking:
The aged castle sat atop a great mass of rock, rising above the forest trees as if it had been thrust from out of the bowels of the earth by some giant’s hand. It was a breathtaking vision from a child’s fairy tale, a dazzling maze of towers and walls, spires and parapets, their weathered white stones etched starkly against the deep blue of the night sky.
The Druid castle is many things throughout the breadth of the Shannara series, but this ghostly ruin is one of my favourite iterations.
The castle of the Druids had become a tomb. It had the smell and taste of death in it. Once it had been a place of learning, of vision. But no more. There was no longer a place for the living within these walls.
The idea that this place of learning, once vibrant and filled with the best minds in the Four Lands, is now empty, haunted by a sentient magic, is utterly fascinating. I like that at once it’s a place that inspires fear, but also a haven of information. Spending time in this version of Paranor also makes it that much more fascinating to see it in its livelier variations later in the series.
Considering all of my complains about the Elves’ poor record-keeping, I’m happy to see that the Druids are more responsible in keeping the Four Lands’ most vital landmarks in order. Brooks also provides us with a plausible explanation for the Ellcrys’ inability to parlay Safehold’s location to the Elves:
[Allanon] had constructed this vault to protect these histories so that they might be preserved for the generations of men and women who would one day live upon this earth and would have need of the knowledge the books contained.
At the end of the first hour, he discovered the location of Safehold. … He had told the Elven King that he had gone first to the Gardens of Life and that the Ellcrys had spoken with him. But he had not told the King all the she had revealed. In part, he had not done so because much of what she had shown had been confusing and unclear, her memories of a time and a life long gone altered beyond anyone’s recognition.
Whether this is the first Ellcrys, or only the most recent in a long line, we now know that she was born into a world that was much different than the one we see today. She does not know the location of Safehold because the world has been altered geographically around her. This doesn’t entirely allay my concerns about the Elves having failed to record anything about Safehold, but it does provide enough of a band-aid that I’m able to continue on (accepting that there are some small holes in Brooks’ massive timeline.) The Druid Histories being much more comprehensive than the Elves’ archives also makes sense, given their prerogative of maintaining knowledge of the Four Lands great mysteries and magics.
The first confrontation between Allanon and the Dagda Mor is intense, setting the stage for a fabulous rivalry throughout the rest of the novel. One of my favourite moments in the chapter is Allanon’s trickery during his fight with the furies:
Then, without warning, Allanon simply disappeared. … The torch still hung suspended in the haze of darkness, a beacon of fire that held [the furies] spellbound. Then it dropped to the floor of the hall in a shower of sparks. The flame disintegrated and the corridor was plunged into blackness.
Allanon so often chooses to meet force with force, so to seem him apply his Druid magic in such a clever, comical way is both amusing and creatively showcases the depths of his abilities. We also learn that he’s not afraid to turn tail and run when he knows he’s overpowered.
On a reread, the most difficult part of this chapter, by far, is dealing with Allanon’s heartbreaking decision to withhold the truth of the Ellcrys’ rebirth from those involved in the quest. In a moment of surprising self-awareness, Allanon reveals his misgivings about the way he hid the truth about the Sword of Shannara from the heroes of Sword.
Alone with the ghosts of his ancestors, the last of his kind, he questioned this decision. He had chosen to conceal the truth from Shea Ohmsford. … In the end, he had come to believe that he had been wrong to do so. Was he wrong now, as well? This time, should he not be candid from the beginning?
I said to a friend once that if the protagonists of epic fantasy novels actually talked to each other, instead of hanging onto their secrets, we wouldn’t have a genre. Brooks’ Druids are prime suspect number one for this crime. So many of his plots revolve around the Druids possessively guarding their secrets, unwilling to trust their companions until the final hour (which usually involves some sort of sacrifice.)
Allanon ponders the dilemma. “It was not for him to tamper with the natural order of things,” he decides. I vehemently disagree with Allanon here. He does nothing but tamper, although with the good intentions for the greater good. As thoughts like this illustrate, the Druid chooses to let the most emotionally wrought circumstances of his quests play out via the “natural order of things” because he does not want to get emotionally involved—it would humanize the tools he uses too much, and make the coming sacrifices too personal. So, instead, he plays with people’s lives like a puppeteer plays with marionettes, through smoke, mirrors, and strings.
Elfstones is packed with emotion, and I think it would be a weaker novel if we knew of Amberle’s sacrifice ahead of time, but it’s also fun to consider how things might have occurred if Amberle and Wil had had full knowledge of the situation. Brooks explored this to great effect decades later in Bloodfire Quest.
Also of note, Bremen, who helped to forge the Sword of Shannara, is noted as Allanon’s father, which, as we find out in later volumes, isn’t biologically true. I like that when Brooks writes about the time of Bremen and Jerle Shannara in First King of Shannara, he takes the spirit of this revelation and fleshes it out in a way that remains true, yet also runs deeper and more complicated. One can understand how Allanon would consider Bremen to be his father, considering circumstances of their relationship, and Brooks handles their first meeting with a lot of care and thoughtfulness. It’s really quite beautiful to think about.
Next Time on the Reread
A familiar face, a rude interruption in Storlock, and a history lesson.
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.