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, were introduced to a couple of Ohmsfords, Allanon gave several history lessons, and a fellowship left Storlock for Havenstead.
This week? We meet the last Chosen, and shake a pack of Demon-wolves.
Wil and Allanon arrive in Havenstead, home to Amberle since her exile from the Elven Westlands. They find her living a peaceful life as a teacher. Allanon tells her of the threat to the Ellcrys, and her role in saving the Elves from Demon invasion, but has a tough time convincing her to renege on her vow never to return to the Westland. Night falls, so Amberle invites Wil and Allanon to stay the night with her and the children at the cottage.
The door opened and an Elven girl stepped through. She was small, even for an Elf, her body slender and brown with sun. Chestnut hair fell all the way to her waist, shadowing a child’s face at once both innocent and knowing. Her eyes flashed briefly to Wil—eyes that were green and deep with life—then settled once more on the Druid.
There’s so much that I like about Amberle that I can’t fit it all into one chapter analysis. However, there’s going to be a lot of time to dig into her character throughout the rest of this reread, so right now I want to focus on two things: (a) Her decision to leave Arborlon and the Elves; and (b) her stubborn refusal to join Allanon.
To understand Amberle’s self-imposed exile, you must first understand the life she has created for herself in Havenstead. She tells Wil and Allanon:
“I am a teacher of children. Some of them you saw this night. They come in groups of half a dozen or eight and they stay with me one season. They are given into my care by their parents. They are entrusted to me. While they are with me, I give to them my knowledge of living things. I teach them to love and to respect the world into which they were born—the land and sea and sky and all that lives upon and within it. I teach them to understand that world. I teach them to to give life back in exchange for the life they were given; I teach them to grow and nurture life. We begin simply, as with this garden. We finish with the complexity that surrounds human life. There is love in what I do. I am a single person with a simple gift—a gift I can share with others.”
From this we know that Amberle is compassionate and eager to share her love of the earth with children—growing, inquisitive minds. We know that, despite only recently having set up her school, Amberle is respected by the people of Havenstead, who trust her with their children’s education. She says there is “love” is what she does, but there is also a keen sense of duty to the land, to the people of Havenstead, and the children who will continue to ensure prosperity, peace, and health for the community. So, she is not afraid of duty.
And yet, she fled her duty among the Elves, forsaking her people and putting the world at risk. Why? Fear.
Amberle admits to Allanon that she fled Arborlon not because of her duty to the Ellcrys, but because of her fear of the sentient tree. At first, this seems odd. She has a natural affinity to the good magic of the earth, and, from listening to the other Chosen, a strong emotional connection to the Ellcrys. (The answer to this contradiction becomes more clear later in the novel, but I’ll quickly discuss it below in the spoilers section.)
“Fear is a part of life,” Allanon says to Amberle,” but it should be faced openly, never hidden.” Allanon outwardly appears as a stoic, powerful sentry against evil, but, like Amberle, he is haunted by fear of what might pass should he fail. Through his companions—though he uses them indiscriminately—he’s able to wear those fears openly, and face them knowing he has friends and allies on his side. Being a Druid is a lonesome job.
Your home is wherever you make it. Your people are whomever you wish them to be. But your responsibilities are sometimes given you without choice, without consent. It is so in this, Elven girl. You are the last of the Chosen; you are the last real hope of the Elves.
This also illustrates a very emotive parallel between Allanon, who was enlisted by Bremen as a young boy after his family was killed, and Amberle, who was chosen out of all the women in the Westland to bear the Ellcrys’ seed. Neither asked for the responsibility to be placed on their shoulders, and both are met with distrust and ridicule for the sacrifices they make—but they are duty bound to protect the people of the Four Lands.
One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter, especially in light of last week’s conversation about Allanon magically coercing Wil into coming along, is that the Druid does not appear to consider using the same approach with the Elven girl. She’s transparently uninterested in joining the Druid or returning to the Westland. “I was never a Chosen—never!” she proclaims, distancing herself further from her connection with the Ellcrys.
I believe that Allanon’s refusal to use his magic to manipulate Amberle into joining the quest for the Bloodfire is due to a revolt by his conscience after the Druid Histories revealed what would become of her should she fertilize the Ellcrys seed in the Bloodfire and return to Arborlon for the rebirth. The Druid is manipulative and cold hearted, but, where the memory of the mistake he made with Shea Ohmsford did not affect his decisions with Wil, I believe that Amberle plays Shea’s part in Elfstones, and Allanon is not willing to magically manipulate another innocent person into making such a heartbreaking sacrifice.
Amberle’s fear of the Ellcrys becomes clear later on when we begin to learn about the images that the tree sent to her, time and again, of the fate that would befall the Four Lands in the coming days. Instead of being Amberle’s friend, the Ellcrys instead acts like the creepy dude on acid at a house party—hounding Amberle with prophetic, incomprehensible doomsaying despite her wishes to be left alone. It’s no wonder Amberle panicked and fled the Westland—it’s a natural response when a relationship becomes abusive. Losing her family and Elven homeland was the sacrifice she had to make to get away from the Ellcrys. One wonders how much she knew about the issue, and her coming sacrifice, before Allanon ever arrived on her doorstep—perhaps not consciously, but sub-consciously.
On another note, there’s a small, offhand scene early in the chapter that ends up having large consequences during the height of the Demon invasion.
[Allanon] had given warning of the danger to the Elves and requested that the Dwarves send aid as quickly as possible. One among the Sappers had recognized the Druid and had promised that help would be sent. Still, marshaling any sizeable force would take time…
Without the aid of these Dwarven Sappers, and their quick response to Allanon’s plea, it’s unlikely that, later in the novel, the Elven forces would have been able to hold out against the Demon invasion long enough for Amberle to return to Arborlon with the fertilized Ellcrys seed. Had the Sappers been dallied in delivering the message, or the Dwarven leaders been skeptical of the Druid’s warning, the Demons might very well have destroyed the Elves for once and all, regardless of Wil and Amberle’s ultimate success in finding the Bloodfire.
Allanon, Wil, and Amberle are woken in the dead of night by a Demon attack. Fleeing Amberle’s cottage, the three head east towards the Silver River—Amberle and Wil riding Artaq, Allanon riding Spitter. The Demon-wolves and Furies prove too much for Allanon, overtaking him and killing Spitter—but Artaq proves his worth by staying a foot ahead of the Demons…until they reach the Silver River. Backed against the natural barrier, Wil believes the hopes of the Elven nation will die with him and Amberle, but they are enveloped by a pure white light, stealing them away from certain doom.
Wil bent lower, pulling Amberle down with him against Artaq’s back, loosening slightly his grip on the reins. To their right, more Demon-wolves bolted from the trees, their howls filling the night air. Streaks of blue fire cut through them, and the howls turned to shrieks of pain. Artaq ran on.
Then a single huge Demon-wolf appeared at the forest’s edge ahead of them, running parallel to the woodland stream that fed the irrigation ditches. It lunged forward to intercept them, moving with astonishing speed, bounding through the long grass its movements fluid and soundless. Wil felt something cold and hard tighten in his chest.
And here we go! Until this point, Elfstones has been filled with a lot of slow dread and tension, but not a lot of action. Outside of Allanon’s escape at Paranor, most of it’s happened off-screen, increasing dramatic tension, and nurturing a sense of inevitability within readers. All of that tension explodes in this chapter, and, finally, we get to see our heroes in action, and, damn if my palms weren’t sweating by the end, evening knowing what was coming.
Allanon may not have forced the issue with Amberle, but the Demons’ attack on the cottage did all the work for him. Amberle’s obvious reluctance to journey to Arborlon could have been a huge thorn in the Druid’s side, especially if he was unwilling to coerce her into changing her mind, and could created a potentially disastrous delay in the search of the Bloodfire. By sending the Demon-wolves (Like, really? Demon-wolves is about as interesting a name as Staff of Power™.) and Furies, the Dagda Mor accelerated Allanon’s plans to bring the Chosen to Arborlon. Sure, he separated Wil and Amberle from the Druid, but with a fire named Artaq under their ass.
I like that Wil and Amberle are separated from Allanon early on, proving that this isn’t going to be a free ride on the Druid’s coat tails. As Allanon promised Wil earlier, he cannot protect them on their journey to the Bloodfire, and this is the first proof of that. Sure, Wil and Amberle are saved first by Artaq’s instincts, and then by the [redacted], but this is, I believe, the first time that it really occurs to Wil that he and the Elven girl are on their own in this adventure.
Brooks has always done a good job with his action scenes. They’re lucid and heart-pounding. Though you know that Wil and Amberle are going to get through it somehow, this chase still manages to make you worry. Allanon being overtaken by the Demons is a huge surprise, too—creating the first opportunity for Wil to measure his priorities and step into his role as leader and protector.
[Wil] knew what he should do. Yet he knew that the Druid was still back there, probably in trouble. How could he simply leave him and go on?
A mile further on, Spitter drew abreast, his heaving body streaked with sweat and dirt, his nostrils flaring. Already, he was growing tired. Wil glanced nervously at Allanon, but the Druid did not look over; his dark gaze was fixed on the land ahead as he urged his horse on with small movements of his hands.
Spitter topped the rise, stumbled wearily and went down. Allanon tumbled to the ground in a tangle of robes, rolled over several times, and sprang back to his feet. Demon-wolves came at him from all sides, but the blue fire spread from his fingers in a broad, cutting-sweep that scattered them like leaves in a strong wind. […] Wil glanced back once and saw Allanon still standing atop the rise, Demon-wolves and cat things alike closing about him from every direction. Too many!
The wolves came after, soundless, fluid, black terror. Wil was sure that this time they would not escape. Allanon was no longer there to help the; they were alone.
Wil’s courage is undeniable, but, as we know from his decision to leave Shady Vale and join the Healers in Storlock, he is also pragmatic, and understands when personal sacrifices must be made for the sake of the greater good. So often, the Little Hero, Big War character is naive enough to believe that turning back to save Allanon would be the right thing to do, throwing the quest into further jeopardy. I like that in the past two chapters, Brooks has seized of two chances to show to the reader that Amberle and Wil are not stupid, and neither are pushovers. They stand true in the face of adversity, and make tough decisions when necessary. It’s pretty clear why Allanon believes that they are the right people to undertake the quest for the Bloodfire.
Next Time on the Reread
We meet the King of the Silver River, Wil and Amberle get to know each other, Cephelo appears with his Rovers, and Wil falls head over heels for a girl.
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.