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, doom fell over the Westland when Ander discovered that the Reaper had very messily disemboweled the Chosen, putting to rest any hopes of the Ellcrys being reborn. Or did it?
This week? We meet an old Ohmsford and a young one, Allanon gives several history lessons, and a fellowship of two leaves Storlock.
Young Wil Ohmsford is living a quiet life among the Gnomes of Storlock, legendary Healers whom Wil one day hopes to join. Due to a family illness, Wil’s grandfather Shea, famous for his adventures in The Sword of Shannara, canceled his planned visit, sending Flick, everybody’s favourite curmudgeonly uncle, in his place. The day after a nasty fever sweeps through Storlock’s children, a crisis requiring Wil’s deft healing hand, an injured Allanon appears at the threshold of the village, seeking Flick and Wil. The Druid is rushed off to a healing center.
The Rider’s voice was a deep, low whisper. Wil saw his uncle start.
The big man slipped from the back of his horse, but one arm remained hooked about the animal’s neck, as if he could not stand alone. Wil came forward a pace and stopped. Something was clearly wrong.
The first time I met Terry Brooks, I was 18. It was at the Surrey International Writers Conference, which he often attends as a professional writer to give workshops and mentor aspiring writers. There were a lot of great authors and agents there that year, but Brooks was the reason I made the trip to Surrey and stayed in a nearby motel with my mom.
On (I believe) the second morning of the conference, I noticed Terry and his wife, Judine, enjoying breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I’d said ‘hello’ to him the day before, but I wanted to introduce my mom to one of my literary heroes. Looking back, it was terribly rude of me to interrupt his breakfast, but Terry didn’t bat an eye. He was very gracious in his introduction, and then, to my utter surprise, invited my mom and me to join them!
This show of compassion for a young writer has stayed with me over the past 15 years, being something to aspire towards as much as anything Brooks has written. If I was an ardent fan before, the experience of sitting down with the Brooks’ and being invited into casual conversation about fantasy, my own writing, and my dreams, turned me into a life-long supporter of Brooks and all he does. He’s a wonderful person, and that makes reading his fiction, even when I think it’s flawed, all that much more compelling and emotional for me.
Which brings us to young Wil Ohmsford, who, I believe, is fuelled by one major emotion: compassion. His decision to leave Shady Vale, the only home his family has known for generations, to train with the Healers in Storlock is brave and heartwarming. He sees an opportunity to help the people he loves, but at great sacrifice to himself. I love him as a model of hard work and dedication to a dream. I believe it’s this drive and compassion, as much as the Elfstones that causes Allanon to choose him as Amberle’s guide.
Brooks’ Landover series, beginning with Magic Kingdom for Sale — SOLD!, stars a young lawyer, Ben Holiday, who purchases a magic kingdom via a newspaper ad. It’s an amusing series, perhaps better showcasing Brooks’ creativity than some of the Shannara books. I’ve always considered Ben Holiday to be a personification of Brooks’ ambition, a metaphor for his own journey from legal attorney to bestselling fantasy author. Wil, on the other hand, is a symbol of Brooks’ kindness, a culmination of his generosity and drive to help others succeed. For this reason alone, Wil is my favorite of the Ohmsford protagonists in the Shannara series.
This chapter is short and basically only acts as an introduction to Wil and Flick, but does so effectively. The imagery of the passing storm, metaphorically opening the way for the storm of Demons to come, is effective at painting a image of the idyllic life Wil leads among the Gnomes, making it all the more more impactful when Allanon tears him away from it.
The next day, the Druid, appearing fully healed, summons Flick and Wil for a history lesson. He tells a long tale about the Elves—their life before the Great War, the creation of the Ellcrys—and reveals what it means for the Forbidding to be deteriorating. He then tells Wil that he would like the young Valeman, and the Elfstones given to him by his grandfather, to accompany Amberle on her quest for the Bloodfire. After much argument from Flick, Wil agrees to leave Storklock with Allanon in search of the last Chosen.
“What do you think he wants, Uncle Flick?” Wil asked after a moment, pulling his own cloak closer about him to ward off the evening chill.
“Hard to say,” Flick grunted. “I’ll tell you one thing. Every time he appears, it means trouble.”
To begin with, I applaud Brooks’ decision to have Flick visit Storlock instead of Shea. Not only is his personality more suited to defying Allanon, but it leaves an air of mystery around Shea in his post-Sword life. This affords Shea the peace he deserves after Sword, and also allows the reader to use their imagination in considering how the events might have changed him.
Though I’m going to try to avoid constantly drawing comparisons to Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, I do feel this quote from Return of the King is apt:
“There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”
Shea, it seems, has found the rest that eluded Frodo in Middle-Earth.
As for Flick’s warning about Allanon, he’s generally right. The Druid only appears at somebody’s doorstep when he has a use for them, along with a distinctly fatalistic attitude towards the expendability of his allies. Wil, so naive, thinks:
Much as he mistrusted the purpose behind the meeting, he was determined to go anyway. He was not one to back away from trouble—and besides, he could be wrong in his suspicions. Perhaps the Druid merely wanted to thank him for his help.
To which I respond: LOL.
Though, Wil puts up a good fight:
“I need your help, Wil Ohmsford,” [the Druid] stated quietly. Both Valemen stared at him. “I need you to come with me to the Westland.”
“I knew it,” muttered Flick, shaking his head.”
Allanon smiled ruefully. “It is comforting to know, Flick, that some things in life never change. You are certainly proof of that. Would it matter at all if I were to tell you that Wil’s help is needed not for me, but for the Elven people and in particular, a young Elven girl?”
“No, it would not,” the Valeman replied without a moment’s hesitation. “He’s not going and that’s the end of it.”
“Wait a minute, Uncle Flick,” Wil interjected quickly. “It may well be that I’m not going, but I would like to be the one who makes that decision.”
Flick’s pragmatism is to be lauded, but you can almost hear Wil’s hormones raging when Allanon mentions a damsel in distress. Not the most progressive plot maneuvering in the book, but, well, base desires are easy to manipulate. No surprise, Wil bends to Allanon’s request:
There was a long silence, and then the Druid turned again to Wil Ohmsford, waiting. The Valeman looked at his uncle. They stared at each other wordlessly for a moment. Flick’s gray eyes uncertain, Wil’s now steady. Flick saw that the decision had been made. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded.
“You must do what you feel is right,” he mumbled, reluctance sounding in his every word.
Will turned to Allanon. “I will come with you.”
I think there’s evidence elsewhere that Allanon can use his magic to manipulate other people into doing his bidding, particularly when he coerces Ander into taking him to see the King of the Elves, but I think it says a lot about the Druid that he approaches this meeting honestly, and allows Wil to make a decision under neither duress or magical-manipulation of his emotions. (Though, by the end of this part of the reread, I may change my mind about this…. Spoilers.)
I’m a huge sucker for Elves. Always have been, and it’s likely one of the major reasons why Elfstones is my favourite Shannara book. This chapter might be one long infodump, which is generally a frowned-upon method for parlaying information to readers, but every time I read it, I can’t help but be swept away by the long, tragic history of the Elves. One of the things that stands out most to me is the revelation that the “Elves will have no defense against [the Demons]. Their own magic is lost.” Traditionally, Elves in secondary world fantasies are guardians of magic, the last bastion of a dying art, but, here, they’ve long forgone their magical roots, and that’s always made them feel more approachable to me.
We have spoken only in the abstract of the creatures that fought this war of good and evil that culminated in the creation of the Ellcrys. We must give them identity. All were creatures that became part of the old legends of faerie when men emerged from the darkness of barbarism and began to populate and build upon the world. They were creates of magic, as I have said, both great and small. There were diverse species—some all good, some all bad, some whose individual peoples divided and went in opposite ways. They had names that you will recognize—Faeries, Sprites, Goblins, Wraiths, and the like. The new races, though human in ancestry, were named from four of the more numerous and best recorded creates of supposed legend—Dwarves, Gnomes, Trolls, and Elves. Except, of course, that the Elves are different. They are different because they are not simply a legend reborn—they are the legend survived. The Elven people are the descendants of the faerie creatures that existed in the old world.
“Elves were a fairy tale people. If there really were Elves in the old world, where were they?”
“Right where they had always been—Man just couldn’t see them.”
One of the biggest surprises from the trailer for the MTV adaptation of Elfstones was the overt imagery of pre-Great War life remaining in the Four Lands. From rusted out, land-locked oil tankers, to broken down freeways, revolvers, and even an appearance by what appears to be Seattle’s Space Needle, it looks like the artists in charge of visualizing Brooks’ world aren’t shy about showcasing the post-apocalyptic nature of the Four Lands. It’s what separates Shannara from so many other secondary world fantasies, and stands in lovely juxtaposition to the series’ more traditional fantasy elements. In these early Shannara volumes, we get only hints that the pre-Great War world was our own, but the television show is running this concept up a flagpole. As the Shannara series trudges on, and especially during the Genesis of Shannara trilogy and the Legends of Shannara duology, we see Brooks introduce a lot of these elements to the Four Lands, so it makes sense that the show will cut to the chase. Frankly, I think this is one of the showrunners’ best ideas, and gives me hope that the Shannara Chronicles will be able to separate itself from other fantasy-based shows like Game of Thrones.
For those looking for a fantasy series with a similar premise, though a vastly more grim tone (seriously, those with squeamish sensibilities need not apply), I recommend Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire trilogy, which begins with Prince of Thorns. Or, alternatively, Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy, beginning with Cold Magic, which isn’t set in the future, but rather a magic-filled, steampunk version of Europe, that speculates, perhaps, what our world would have looked like if Faerie creatures had mingled with humans.
Wil and Allanon depart Storlock in a hurry, heading for Havenstead, where Amberle now lives. Allanon continues his history lesson, detailing the story of the Elves’ lost magic, the true power of the Elfstones, and Wil’s chances of surviving his quest.
“Be careful, Wil. Remember what I said about all of us having our limitations.”
Other than some mild plot development in Allanon and Wil leaving Storlock, this chapter is essentially a continuation of the one before, and there’s not a whole lot I feel like I need to add here. There’s just a lot of exposition wrapped around a cute campfire scene. The history of the Elves remains interesting, especially the bit about how they used the apocalypse as an opportunity to right a wrong when they originally could not “forsee the influence that humans would eventually have upon the… earth,” but, by this point I’m getting eager to see things start rolling along again.
Remember how impressed I was that Allanon allowed Wil to choose to join the adventure on his own free will? I… may have been wrong about that.
Even now, [Wil] was not sure exactly why he had decided to go with the Druid. And that disturbed him.
He felt a lingering sense of confusion. Everything seemed to jumble together in his mind—all the disparate, incomplete reasoning, all the emotions that intertwined and colored. They would not sort themselves out for him; they would not arrange themselves in a neat, orderly fashion. They merely shuffled about like stray sheep and he chased after them hopelessly.
Wil would have liked to believe that the decision to go with the Druid had been his own. Yet the more he considered the matter, the more certain he became that the decision had not really been his at all.
Yeah. I was definitely wrong.
At first, it’s easy to dismiss Wil’s rash decision to go with the Druid to be the mistake of a young man in an emotionally overwhelming situation, and that’s likely part of what went on, but it also seems clear, when you look more closely, that the “lingering sense of confusion,” he refers to is the lasting effect of the Druid’s magic. And then Wil basically comes to the same realization himself. Allanon has a way of taking people in, even the reader, and making them believe one thing while performing something else entirely. It’s like sleight of hand magic.
I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for Flick to see his grand-nephew taken away by the Druid. Knowing the full extent of the Druid’s magics, you have to think that Wil’s departure feels little short of a kidnapping to Flick, who’s powerless to stop it.
Wil left Storlock believing that the Elfstones would protect him, that no matter what else happened, he’d be able to rely on their magic as a weapon against the demons. Allanon’s first surprise for him, of many, is that the Elfstones are merely a tool, and that Wil himself—his heart, mind, and soul—are all that stand between him and a bloody end at the hands of the demon.
“What had he gotten himself into?” Wil ponders at one point. “Perhaps Flick had been right after all.”
Yeah. No kidding. Remember, kids, when a Wizard shows up on your doorstep, pack an extra protein bar and prepare for the worst.
Considering Elfstones was written in the early ’80s, there’s an impressive amount of environmental activism in the legend about human expansion and the weakening of the Elves that still remains relevant today.
Humans continued to populate the earth with increasing rapidity, growing, expanding, now building cities and fortresses, now sailing the seas in search of new lands, now pushing back the wilderness about them. They began, for the first time, seriously to affect the character of the land, changing whole regions for habitation and consumption needs. The Elves were forced to move deeper and deeper into the forestlands that were their homes, as the human population cut away the trees and brush. All of the faerie creatures found their homelands being encroached upon by the expansion until finally, for some, there were no homes at all.
It’s not overt, but it’s interesting to see Brooks attributing no small amount of blame for magic dying and the world changing to human expansion. Now, thirty years later, climate change is a hot topic issue as we begin to recognize how much damage we’ve done to our planet through negligence and lack of foresight. Are we in the first throes of Brooks’ Great War?
Next Time on the Reread
We arrive in Havenstead and, finally, meet our heroine—just in time for a death-defying getaway.
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.