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 finally introduced to our heroine, Amberle Elessedil, and a pack of Demon-wolves drove a wedge between Allanon and his young wards.
This week, the King of the Silver River pulls Amberle and Wil from the fire, they have a heart-to-heart, Artaq disappears, and a love triangle finds its third point.
The King of the Silver River, an immortal creature of faerie, saves Amberle and Wil from certain death at the hands of the Demons. His lonely history and unbending benevolence is revealed.
Before time became time recorded, he was there. Before men and women, before nations and governments, before all the history of humankind, he was there. Even before the world of faerie split in war between good and evil, fixing unalterably the character of life thereafter, he was there. He was there in that time when the world was a sacred Eden and all living things existed together peace and harmony. He was young then, a faerie creature himself while the faerie creatures of the earth were just being born.
- The King of the Silver River
Immediately, I’m drawn to a small tidbit of information in this chapter’s opening, which details the King of the Silver River’s origins during the first days of faerie, and, likely, magic on Earth. It’s this passage in particular that caught my eye:
He lived in gardens that had been given over into his keeping, entrusted with the responsibility of seeing that they and all the livings things that dwelt within were cared for and preserved, sheltered and renewed.
Very clearly, it states that the King of the Silver River was given guardianship of the Gardens—which bear many resemblances to biblical Eden, mentioned several times throughout the chapter. Forgetting this, I’d always thought of the King and the Gardens as being one and the same, an inseparable manifestation of the “highest and best magic—the magic of life.” That the Gardens existed before the King, were in fact given to him by some more ancient creature has me pondering two questions:
- Who handed responsibility of the Gardens to the King of the Silver River?
- Are there other magical beings like the King throughout the Four Lands, guarding oases of good (or, perhaps, evil) magic? (He’s described as “the last remnant” of his people, but perhaps he’s wrong.)
Related to this, it’s also revealed that the King existed in our modern world, before the Great War, hiding behind the anonymity of legend. “His existence [was] little more than a myth that became part of the folklore of nations building around him, a fantasy told with wry smiles and smug indulgence.”
*Mild Spoilers for the Genesis of Shannara trilogy*
I believe it’s revealed in the Genesis of Shannara series that the Silver River was once the Columbia River, flowing through Washington State and Oregon—meaning the King’s Garden (assuming it’s physically connected to the river in some way, and not a meta-physical place outside of our understanding of space-time) is located in the North American Pacific Northwest. Not being familiar with the regional First Nations folklore (despite living in the area myself), I’m curious if any rereaders can connect the King of the Silver River or his Gardens to any mythical figures or locations in the stories and histories of the people living in the land around the Columbia River? What about myths and legends from outside of the Pacific Northwest?
The King of the Silver River’s history is so tragically lonely. I couldn’t read this chapter without feeling the shattering loneliness the King faces, his regret at hiding while the world crumbled, and his ultimate compassion in seizing the opportunity to make the new world a better place with the emergence of the races after the Great War.
Had he known that he would live to see it all changed beyond any possible recognition, he would not have wished to survive. He would have wished to die and become one again with the earth that had bred him.
It would have been an irreparable loss, for he was to become the last remnant of that fabled time that was the world in its inception, the last remnant of peace and harmony, of beauty and light that was the Eden of life. It had been decreed in the twilight of the beginning, changing forever the course of his existence, changing forever the purpose of his life. He was to become for a world fallen from grace a small reminder of what had been lost. He was to become as well the promise that all that had once been might one day come again.
He dreams of a world that might return to the peaceful, prosperous days before the coming of man’s destructive science. Brooks has promised that his next trilogy, published over the next few years, will conclude the series-long war between the old magics and science, once and for all answering the question of whether that dream is forever lost behind man’s ambition.
The King of the Silver River whispers, “Child, that you were mine,” while taking Amberle’s hand in his own. I wonder if that very moment is the genesis of Quickening, the daughter of the King of the Silver River who appears in the Heritage of Shannara series. There are many similarities between Amberle and Quickening, not the least of which being the sacrifice required of them to allow their innate magic and compassion to heal a broken land. This tender moment between the King and the Elf seems like it could have spurred the faerie’s ambition to create a child for himself.
Just a thought.
Wil and Amberle wake to find themselves safely delivered by the King of the Silver River to the north shore of the Rainbow Lake, miles from where they faced certain death at the hands of the Demons. They ponder their good fortune, fondly (and curiously) remember their visit to the King’s Gardens, then decide that the only reasonable course of action is to keep on towards Arborlon, where, hopefully, they can rendezvous with Allanon.
They travel without trouble for a handful of days before reaching the mighty Mermidon river, which flows into the Elven Westlands. After setting camp for the night, they encounter a group of Rovers on the other side of the river, one of who waves genially.
As night falls, Wil and Amberle discuss their responsibilities as stewards of health and land respectively.
“We’re a pair of fools, aren’t we? You with your Elfstones that may or may not be what you think and me about to do the one thing I swore I’d never do.”
After the frenetic escape from the Demons two chapters ago, and the surreal visit to the King’s Gardens last chapter, the meandering pace here is relaxing. It also does a great job at establishing Wil and Amberle’s short term motivations, as well as setting up an important sub-plot that begins next chapter. While it’s mostly a travelogue, the moving pieces that we do see are interesting and important, plus Amberle’s all sorts of awesome. In other words, if you’re going to slow down the plot of your book, and have to move characters between point A and B, take cues from what Brooks does here.
Wil positions himself as the alpha dog of their two-person expedition, jumping into a leadership role and deciding everything without consulting Amberle—only to have her call him on his bullshit and start dissecting the situation with much more clarity.
“What’s the matter?” [Wil] asked, dropping down next to her.
“You are, for one thing.”
“What do you mean, I am?”
“You seem to have fixed in your mind everything that happens from here on. Don’t you think you ought to hear my thoughts on the matter?
“Wil stared at her, somewhat taken aback. “Well, sure, I…”
Wil decides early on that he’s the de facto leader of the group. Maybe it’s because of societal expectations (thought the Four Lands has always appeared to be a world in which all of the races respect leadership from men and women alike), maybe because of a false impression from Allanon, maybe because of a sense of bravado and self-expectation—or some combination of all these things. In reality, Amberle has the ambition, experience, and drive required to join him in making decisions, and she’s right to question his leadership, and doubly so after the events of the next chapter.
Even Wil’s revelation about the Elfstones fails to impress her:
He pulled out the worn leather pouch, loosened the drawstrings and dropped the stones in his hand. Perfectly formed, their color a deep, brilliant blue, they flashed sharply in the morning sunlight.
Amberle bent close, regarding them solemnly. Then she looked back at Wil again.
“How do you know these are Elfstones.”
“I have my grandfather’s word on it. And Allanon’s.”
She did not look impressed. “Do you know how to use them?”
He shook his head. “I’ve never tried.”
“Then you don’t really know whether they’re any good to you or not, do you?” She laughed softly. “You won’t know until you need them. That’s not very comforting, is it?”
“No, not very,” he agreed.
“Yet here you are anyway.”
He shrugged. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”
I love that Amberle challenges Wil’s disposition for believing everything he’s told (remembering that he was emotionally manipulated by Allanon while in Storlock). You have to be shrewd and inquisitive to survive in this game, and Amberle has these traits, along with her smarts, in spades. Wil, on the other hand, looks duped and naive. Brooks loves to fill his adventuring parties with people of various skills, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and this is no exception. Finding a balance between Wil’s youthful naivety and compassion, and Amberle’s biting, critical strength is going to be key in their survival.
One of the things I like most about Amberle isn’t actually her most likeable trait: she’s derisive and kind of rude to Wil. “I don’t even know what you’re doing here,” she tells him at one point, referencing his unexplained presence, but also inferring that he’s young and inexperienced. It’s often expected of women that they’ll be deferential and polite to men, and Amberle is a refreshing independent example of why we need diverse women in our fiction. I can’t wait to see if Poppy Drayton has the chops to give this scene all the life it deserves on the MTV television adaptation.
Whereas Wil goes with Allanon to retrieve someone that he believes will be a passenger, I think Allanon knew exactly what he was getting into. Amberle doesn’t need Wil so much as she needs the magic that Wil commands. Amberle’s driven and strong in her convictions, which makes her meeting with [REDACTED] in the next chapter even more compelling.
Amberle rides no coat tails. I think Flick would like her a lot.
Another of my favourite scenes occurs after Amberle and Wil depart for Arborlon. It’s a simple transitional travelogue scene describing the beauty of the Four Lands:
They spent the remainder of the day and all of the next travelling north and west through the grasslands of Callahorn. The weather was warm and dry, pleasant, and the time passed quickly. Dark thunderclouds appeared to the north around noon of the first day, hanging ominously over the craggy expanse of the Dragon’s Teeth, but by sunset they had blown east into the Rabb and were gone.
Just a pretty scene, once again imbuing the reader with a sense of love for the Four Lands. I care for few other fantasy worlds as much as I do Brooks’.
Oh, and Wil making a fishing rod out of “a willow branch, a length of twine, and a hook from his clothing,” and then catching two fish within half an hour is the least believable thing in a book about Elves racing to revive a magical tree before a bunch of Demons break out of a magical prison after centuries of imprisonment.
Amberle’s wrong about one thing. After Wil explains his back story, and the acquisition of the Elfstones, Amberle says, “In a sense, we’re both involved in this because of who our grandfathers are.” Maybe for Wil, who was gifted the Elfstones by his grandfather, but Amberle, in perhaps a bit of delusion or short-sightedness, fails to recognize (or admit) that she’s tied into this adventure exactly because of the compassion and empathy for the land that she describes in this chapter. The Ellcrys did not pick her to bear the seed because of who her grandfather is, she picked Amberle because she is of a rare breed that will put the good of the land before her own personal well being. (Though, becoming the Ellcrys is hardly an ill fate compared to what else might kill you in the Four Lands and the Forbidding.) How many would willingly make the decision that Amberle makes?
The next morning, Amberle and Wil find that Artaq has been stolen by the Rovers. They catch up with the caravan as night falls. Wil tells the Rover leader, Cephelo, that his horse is missing, and plays coy in hoping that the Rovers might have seen him. Cephelo invites them to stay the night. Cephelo’s daughter, Eretria, hastens Amberle away to a bath, and Cephelo does the same with Wil (who makes sure to hide the Elfstones). After bathing, Wil agrees to lend his skills as a Healer in payment for the night’s room and board. Once Wil has tended to the wounded and ailed, Cephelo shows him to the horses, Artaq among them. The Rover and the Valeman barter for the horse, but nothing is settled. Returning to the revels, Wil imbibes in Rover liquor, dances with striking Eretria, and promptly passes out. Meanwhile, Amberle sits by watching him act a fool.
There was a whisper of silk, and Wil found himself face to face with the most stunning girl he had ever seen. She was small and delicate, in the manner of Amberle, but without the childlike innocence that marked the Elven girl. Thick, black hair tumbled in ringlets to her shoulders, framing eyes that were dark and secretive. Her face was beautiful, her features perfectly formed and immediately unforgettable. She was wearing high leather boots, dressed in pants and tunic of scarlet silk that failed to hide anything of the woman beneath. Bands of silver flashed on her wrists and neck.
Wil looked at her in astonishment and could not look away.
Welcome to the land of the Rovers—where rampant misogyny, thievery, and music run wild. One of my major misgivings with Brooks’ handling of the Rovers in this early part of Elfstones is that they’re exactly what Wil and Amberle claim of them in Chapter 13:
“Rovers,” [Wil] announced thoughtfully.
[Amberle] nodded. “I’ve seen them before. The Elves don’t have much use for them.”
“No one has.” He went back to cleaning the fish. “They’ll steal anything that isn’t nailed down—or if it is, find a way to talk you out of it. They have their own rules and they don’t pay any attention to anyone else’s.”
I believe a writer can use stereotyping when creating a world or characters, but it’s not a trick for the lazy; rather, it’s a tool for the clever. Set a reader’s, then make them feel like a fool for ever believing their first impressions. Brooks does none of that here. The Rovers, or at least Cephelo’s Family, are thieving, aggressive, and distrusting, offering no honest “warmth” towards Wil and Amberle. It’s like a bad caricature of the harmful stereotypes faced by the Romani people. Brooks does eventually improve this situation in later Shannara novels, but from my recollection, it’s not something that’s addressed in Elfstones.
Wil’s blanant, unexplained (to her) sexism towards Amberle is just the icing on the cake. Wil internally laments not being able to “take the time to explain all that had happened” to Amberle, but neglects to mention why he didn’t think to say anything during their full day of travel. Neither Wil nor Amberle are experienced travellers—they would have taken a break (or several) to rest, yet Wil said nothing.
Wil claims it is all a game, but he proves an adept player by leaving Amberle entirely in the dark. By not telling telling Amberle, he’s making an egregious statement about his opinion of Amberle’s place in their company. Amberle has good reason to question his decisions, and continues to prove that for all of his enthusiasm and good will, she is the true brains of their operation.
“You mean you’re going after them?”
“Of course I’m going after them!” [Wil] was getting angry all over again. “We’re both going after them.”
“Just you and me, Valeman?” [Amberle] shook her head. “On foot?”
“We can catch them by nightfall. Those wagons are slow.”
“I don’t like the sound of this at all,” she said. “Even if we do find them and they do have Artaq, what are we supposed to do about it?”
“We’ll worry about that when we catch up to them,” he replied evenly.
The Elven girl did not back away. “I think that we should worry about it right now. That’s an entire camp of armed men you’re talking about chasing after. I don’t like what’s happened any better than you do, but that’s hardly sufficient excuse for failing to exercise sound judgement.”
In addition to his bull-headed chauvinism (some of which is an attempt to fit within the matriarchal Rover community, and some because, well, he tends towards mansplaining and dismissive tunnel vision), Wil’s male gaze is also strong in this chapter. He eyes up Eretria with an adolescent hunger, achieving two things: a) contrasting the Rover girl against Amberle’s “innocence” (though, from what we’ve seen of Amberle, I feel like she’s anything but naive and innocent, especially compared to Wil), and b) throwing Wil’s already suspect ability to make rational decisions off kilter.
Just after Eretria is introduced, Cephelo tells her to escort Amberle to the bath. She grins, nods at Wil, and says, “It would be much more interesting to bathe him.” From this moment, any power Wil might have had to negotiate is lost. I’m not sure whether Cephelo set this up, or if it’s just Eretria’s nature to manipulate and toy with those around her, but it’s an interesting tactic used against Wil—doubly so because he’s removed from Amberle, who’s less easily swayed by the Rovers.
Though it’s a vast improvement of the almost entirely male cast from The Sword of Shannara, much of the Elven storyline in Elfstones is male-driven: Eventine, Allanon, and Ander leading the defense against the Demon invasion, Wil escorting Amberle,
Garet Ja, er… Stee Jans leading the Elvish armies, etc. Eretria and Amberle, however, do a wonderful job of showing us that conflict in Fantasy does not need to involve physical threat or comabt. They are very different women, but they each challenge Wi’s perception of the world and understanding of courage in varying ways. Elfstones would not be the classic book it is without the juxtaposition of these two women.
Next Time on the Reread
We depart for Arborlon with the Rovers, Eretria makes a pass, Wil tests the Elfstones, and a dark friend returns.
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.