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, 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.
This week, a Chosen faces her destiny, the Ellcrys speaks, and the quest for the Bloodfire begins in earnest.
After meeting with the Elven High Council, who recognized Amberle as their last great hope, Allanon whisks the young Elf and Wil off to visit the Ellcrys in secret. Amberle approaches the tree alone; meanwhile, Wil and Allanon discuss her fear of the tree, and Allanon’s suspicion of a spy in the Elven capitol. Amberle speaks with the Ellcrys, who confirms what Allanon has always believed: that she is the last of the Chosen—bearer of the Ellcrys seed.
Moments later, a ragged branch dipped downward and wrapped gently about her shoulders.
The Elven girl began to cry.
- The Ellcrys
Man. What emotion in this chapter. Allanon’s decision to force the issue, to take Wil and Amberle to see the Ellcrys immediately, without rest after their harrowing escape from the Tirfing, takes what promised to be a heartbreaking encounter between Amberle and the Ellcrys, and ratchets things up to 11. You can feel Amberle’s pain and fear—and Allanon’s grim satisfaction mingles delightfully with the empathy he shows towards Amberle’s situation. Brooks often shows a delicate hand in the way he handles the emotional journeys of his characters—in fact, most of his early novels are about emotional growth and perseverance above all else—but few scenes in the entirety of Shannara can match this one.
I think one of the most effective decisions from Brooks is the way he leaves almost the entirety of the conversation between Amberle and the Ellcrys to occur off-screen. This is a private moment between them, and, as he’s done a few times previously, Brooks removes the reader from the situation, allowing them to fill in the gaps with their imagination. Sure, it might feel like a cop-out for Brooks, as he doesn’t have to write the no doubt difficult dialogue that occurs between Amberle and the Ellcrys (and, let’s be honest, dialogue isn’t exactly Brooks’ strongest element as an author); but the moment Amberle reappears, and accepts a hug from Allanon, all of that pent-up emotion hits like a tidal wave anyway:
Amberle appeared suddenly from beneath the shadow of the tree. She stood for a moment silhouetted against the night sky, hesitated, then started toward them. She walked slowly, carefully, as if uncertain of her movements, hands held clasped together against her breast. Her cowl was lowered, her long, chestnut hair fanning out behind her in the breeze. As she neared them, they could see plainly her stricken face. It was pale and drawn and streaked with tears, and fear reflected brightly in her eyes.
The Druid saw that she was on the verge of collapsing. He reached for her at once, took her in his arms and held her close against him. She allowed herself to be held this time, crying soundlessly. For a long time he held her, all the while saying nothing.
“You were right,” she whispered.
That embrace between Amberle and Allanon marks a tremendous milestone for the novel, one in which the Elf is no longer just passive and angry, but an active, engaged, and accepting opponent of the Demons. I believe Amberle always knew what the Ellcrys would say; the inevitability of the tree’s decision is forecasted through so much of the early part of the novel, and Amberle’s accession to the Druid’s demands that she meet with the Ellcrys after the High Council suggests that she recognized that she could shirk her responsibility no longer. Even the most courageous people shed tears, and Amberle accepting Allanon’s emotional and physical support, where she’d rejected it before, shows her growth of character since leaving Havenstead.
There’s also a nice conversation between Wil and Allanon, the first they’ve had in a long time that hasn’t been under the constraints of time or deadly threat, and you get to see some camaraderie forming between them. It also acts as a nice moment for Wil to realize that the Allanon’s secretive ways aren’t always meant to be hurtful, but are a way for the Druid to protect his wards.
Also, can we take a moment to admire Darrell K. Sweet’s gorgeous line drawing of Amberle? Sweet might get some heat for the art he produced in the twilight of his long career, but the stuff he produced in the ’80s is classic.
Wil, Allanon, and Amberle leave the Gardens of Life—now bearing the Ellcrys seed—and join Eventine Elessedil in his manor. Together, the four of them, with Manx watching, discuss plans for the Bloodfire quest to begin at dawn, days earlier than the High Council was told it would happen. Wil and Amberle have a coniption, being exhausted and yet to sleep since their escape from the Tirfing, but eventually understand the need for haste. Allanon reveals that Safehold and the Bloodfire will be found in the Wilderun, a wild, swampy morass in the south of the Elven lands, home to thieves, cut-throats, and worse.
Even Wil Ohmsford, a Southlander and a Valeman who until now had never set foot in the Westland, had heard of the Wilderun. Buried within the forests that lay south of the Elven homeland, it was a treacherous and forbidding stretch of wilderness virtually encircled by mountains and swamp. Fewer than half a dozen hamlets could be found there, and those were people by thieves, cutthroats, and outlaws of every conceivable sort. Even they seldom strayed far from their villages or the few well-worn trails that crisscrossed the region, for in the timber beyond, the rumors said, were creatures no man would care to encounter.
Allanon is absolutely relentless in his insistence that Wil and Amberle continue their trek to the Bloodfire almost immediately. A year ago, I became a parent, and, for the first time in my life, understood pure, unfiltered exhaustion. It’s easy to underestimate sleep deprivation and the way that anxiety affects the brain when a person’s body is truly running on empty. By this point, Amberle and Wil have been awake for two days, and their despair is suffocating:
The Druid leaned back in his chair. “You will leave at dawn.”
Wil stared at him in disbelief. “At dawn? Tomorrow?”
Amberle sprang to her feet. “That is impossible, Druid! We are exhausted! We have not slept in almost two days—we have to have more than a few hours rest before setting out again!”
Allanon held up his hands. “Peace, Elven girl. I understand that as well as you. But consider. The Demons know that you have come here for the purpose of carrying the seed of the Ellcrys to the Bloodfire. They know that you will attempt to leave the city, and they will be watching closely. But they will not be watching as closely now as they will be in a day or two. Do you know why? Because they will expect you to rest first.”
Allanon drives a brutal pace, but he’s right. There is no opportunity for rest.
Add to that Allanon’s portent of the Reaper’s hunt, and you can only imagine the mental strain under which the Elf and the Valeman find themselves. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how they manage to approach this situation with any sort of clarity or energy. But, I suppose, just like parenting with a newborn, you do what you have to do, press onwards, and rest later.
Manx has to be one of the most devious plot devices Brooks has ever employed in his novels. As a King, Eventine is put on a pedestal, even by the reader, as being something more than the rest of the Elves, removed emotionally and socially from them—untouchable. However, Manx, his trustworthy wolfhound, is always at his side, humanizing Eventine in a subtle and clever way. Eventine the King is strong, but Eventine the person draws strength from a friend who provides unabashed and unfailing support.
That Manx is the spy Allanon speaks of to Wil is so nefarious, and makes rereading this book all that much more rewarding. I can’t remember if I sussed it out before Brooks’ revelation the first time I read Elfstones, but each time I reread it, I’m totally creeped out by every scene with Manx.
Finally, I can’t be the only one who got a chill at the following passage:
“I want to see my mother before I leave.”
The Druid shook his head. “That is not a good idea, Amberle.”
Her jaw tightened. “You seem to think that you have the final say in whatever I wish to do, Druid. You don’t. I want to see my mother.”
“The Demons know who you are. If they know also of your mother, they will expect you to go to her. They will be waiting for just that. It is dangerous.”
“Do not be so foolish as to suggest that I should see her when I return.”
These are not the words of a person who believes she will survive her journey. What a tremendous moment of strength and clarity for Amberle. I’m proud of her for sticking up to Allanon.
With planning completed, Allanon takes Wil and Amberle to an anonymous cottage to get some rest before they leave at dawn. Amberle falls asleep immediately, but Wil approaches the Druid to ask him about the barrier he felt when trying to summon the magic of the Elfstones. Allanon tells Wil that his Elven blood—much weaker than his grandfather’s, who had an Elven mother—is overpowered by his Man Blood™. Wil is afraid that he will not be able to summon the Elf magic when he needs it most, but Allanon is certain that his strength of heart, body, and mind will ensure that the magic protects him and Amberle on their quest.
Meanwhile, the Changeling, a spy within the Eventine’s home, watches the King as he finally retires for bed. The Dagda Mor, sensing opportunity, summons the Reaper and launches an assault against the Elves, hoping to catch Amberle unaware.
“I suggested to you once before that you should start believing in yourself. I will suggest it one time more. We are not always properly equipped to face the difficulties life places in our path.”
- the Changeling
- the Dagda Mor
Piggy-backing on my analysis of the past chapter, it’s no surprise to see Amberle nearly pass out from exhaustion as soon as they arrive at the cottage. Wil is under a lot of stress, but he’s sort of a peripheral piece in all of this, never quite under the gun emotionally in the same way as Amberle. Nobody really talks to him, or expects anything of him. Sleep can be a sweet escape from stress, and Amberle has a tough road ahead of her—not only physically, as she attempts to reach the Bloodfire in the depths of the Wilderun, but mentally, as she continues to struggle with her identity as the last of the Chosen, and the sacrifices required of her.
Terry Brooks has always operated on the idea that magic must come with a cost. While traditionally the cost of magic might be something like wear-and-tear on the body (like Allanon’s Druid magic, which ages him), mental corruption (like the taint on Saidin in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which causes male magic users to lose their mind), or scarce resources (such as Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, which requires casters to consume metals, some of which are extremely rare), here the cost to Wil in using the magic is two-fold: the anxiety of not knowing whether the magic will work (which itself is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy), and a change within Wil that will affect his descendants for generations to come.
I won’t touch too much on the second, as it doesn’t really rear its head until The Wishsong of Shannara, but the first cost, anxiety and self-doubt, is fascinating. One of the major themes running through Elfstones is doubt—it’s the Demon’s greatest weapon against the Elves, and they use it effectively to pit the “good” guys against one another. Whether it’s Arion’s distrust of his niece, the Changeling’s presence as a spy, the necessity of Allanon staying with the Elves, leaving Wil and Amberle to fend for themselves against the greatest odds, the secrecy around the Ellcrys’ death, or the discord created by the death of so many Elves at the Reapers’ hands, the Westland is a place where distrust runs wild. Ostensibly, the Demons are the bad guys, and there’s no reason for the Elves, Wil, and Allanon not to wholly trust one another, but, given the incredible stress of the impending Demon invasion, they find it difficult to work together. I mean, even the High Council a couple of chapters ago contained only a fraction of the Elves’ political leaders, illustrating how little Eventine trusts even his closest allies.
In a moment of honesty and truth, Allanon tells Wil of the requirements for using the Elfstones:
“Understand, when you attempt to use the Elfstones, only that small part of you that is Elf can link you to their power. The balance of your heart and mind and body resists the intrusion of the magic. It forms a block against it. The three strengths are weakened, for the strength of each is diminished to that which is solely due to your Elf blood. That may be what you have experienced in your use of the Stones—a rejection by that considerable part of you that is Man of the Elven magic.”
Would the Druid have been smart to keep this in the dark? He hides many secrets, feeding the distrust among the Elven allies, but here he perhaps plants a seed of self-doubt in Wil that becomes rooted deeply within the Valeman as he struggles to master the Elfstones. Time and again, we hear that the Elfstones’ magic is drawn from the bearer’s heart, mind, and body. Wil’s always show heart, and he’s a hale young man, but self-doubt infects his mind, and knowing this causes a tremendous stress on his ability to protect Amberle, a terrific cost for controlling the magic.
At every turn, the Dagda Mor looks to take advantage of this discord, and adding to this the fact that Wil does not trust himself to use the Elfstones, creates an enormous advantage for the Demons. Wil has already proven that his Elf blood is strong enough to summon the Elfstones’ power, but still he questions his right to bear them, and that self-doubt is just as damning as Wil’s thin Elf blood. How many lives will it cost along the way to Bloodfire?
(Good thing Amberle and Wil are being accompanied by Crispin, Captain of the Home Guard, and his six
redshirts Elven hunters—someone’s got to get in the way of the Reaper while Wil figures out how to use the Elfstones, right?)
One might question Allanon’s decision to send Wil along, instead of having the Valeman give the Elfstones back to the Elven people, to be borne by a pure-blooded Elf such as Arion or Crispin. But the Druid, of common birth himself, believes in the heart and power of simple people. When Wil reveals his doubt, Allanon says:
“Any use of the Stones depends greatly on the character of the holder. I believed you strong enough to overcome any resistance within yourself. I still believe that. Telling you then of the problem would have caused you considerable doubt—doubt that might have resulted in your death in the Tirfing.”
Allanon believes that Wil is ready to hear the truth about his control of the Elfstones, but I’m not sure that the Druid is right. Allanon trusted to Wil’s ignorance to guide him through his first use of the Elfstones, but is now trusting the Valeman’s strength of character to get him through the second test. I’ll leave you with this, which is advice I think we can all learn from:
“Believe in yourself. You have already used the Elfstones once; you have experienced and overcome the resistance within you and summoned the magic. You can do so again. You will do so. You are the son of the house of Shannara; yours is a legacy of strength and courage stronger than the doubt and fear that makes you question your Elven blood.”
As promised, Allanon brings Amberle to see her mother, but for five minutes only. After the short visit, Amberle and Wil board a barge with Crispin and his Elven Hunters, headed out of Arborlon for the Elven outpost of Drey Wood. A slow rain follows them on their journey down the Rill Song, but Wil and Amberle are able to finally find the first tendrils of their friendship.
They arrive at Drey Wood, but something is wrong. A scouting party, including Wil, drives deeper into the forest, only to find the entire Elven company stationed at Drey Wood has been murdered—ripped apart like dolls. They flee back to the barge, but not before two of their number are killed by the Reaper.
Wil was still looking for the Elf when he took a step forward and tripped, sprawling face down across the broken, lifeless body of an Elven Hunter. He sprang back to his feet in horror, eyes sweeping the gloom about him. To his left lay two more bodies, limbs twisted, bones shattered and crushed.
- Amberle’s mother
- the Reaper
Every time I read Elfstones, this chapter is where my inevitable crush on Crispin develops. He seems interesting at the High Council, comforting and capable during the visit to Amberle’s mother. But man, when he leaps off the barge to save Dilph, throws the Elf over his shoulder, and regains the barge, all while organizing their retreat from an obvious attack by the Demons, my heart stars a’flutterin’ and my loins start a’burnin’.
Aside from Crispin, it’s obvious that the rest of the Elven Hunters are redshirts, but I think Brooks does a good job of making them stand out individually. By naming them, and attributing them small personalities, I find myself immediately connecting with them on their journey from Arborlon to Drey Wood, to the point that, while I may not be emotionally distraught, I’m a little saddened to see Kian and Ped offed so early. We hardly even knew ’em. Dilph is likeable, but my favourite of the Elven Hunters has always been quiet, stoic Katsin.
There’s a nice moment between Wil and Amberle in this chapter, formulated by their close surroundings, and, really, by the fact that they finally have a moment to breathe. Huddled in their small, makeshift cabin, they become, I think, friends for the first time.
The talks began out of mutual need, Wil thought, but cautiously and awkwardly, for they still regarded each other with a strong sense of uncertainty. … [Amberle’s] attitude seemed to undergo a surprising transformation. Before, she had been reluctant to discuss much of anything with Wil. No she was eager to converse with him, drawing out by her questions stories of his early years in Shady Vale.
Shut within their dark concealment, buffeted by the winds and water, lacking sleep and appetite, they might easily have given way to apprehension and doubt. But the talks gave them comfort, born of feelings shared, of companionship, and of understanding. It gave them a sense of security in each other’s presence, muting at least in part the unpleasant sensation that the whole of their world was passing away and that, with that passing, their lives would be forever changed. It gave them hope.
For the first time since that night in Storlock when he had agreed to travel to the Westland with Allanon, [Wil] found himself caring, deeply and compellingly, about what was to become of Amberle Elessedil.
Though Wil might not see it, there’s no mystery to why Amberle suddenly opens up: she is no longer weighted down by the question of the Ellcrys’ demands, and she has a purpose now. In that purpose, there is freedom, and a weight lifted from her shoulders. I love the way Amberle and Wil interact in this chapter. No doubt, the lack of Demons, Allanon (who obviously puts both Wil and Amberle on edge), and the Elven royal family, allows the two to finally connect emotionally, without interference.
I often refer to Wil, Amberle, and Eretria as being a bit of a love triangle, but, really, I think Brooks should be applauded for the way he crafts the relationship between Wil and Amberle without resorting to the tried-and-true(-and-tired) romantic subplot. This is an honest friendship forming between them, without romantic tension. It’s quite lovely.
One thing this chapter does really well—outside of the attack by the Reaper, which is vivid and sudden, like a heart-pounding car chase out of nowhere—is build a sense of atmosphere that is at once oppressive and dreary, but also somehow sleepy, almost comforting after the last dozen chapters. I love rainy chapters. There are so many beautiful passages describing the Westland, that we’d be here all day if I wrote them all out here, so I’ll limit myself to just a few.
Wil and Amberle, aboard the barge headed to Drey Wood:
The rain continued to fall in a steady drizzle, and the land and the sky remained gray and shadowed. Occasional glances through the flaps of the canvas covering showed to them the land through which they traveled, a mix of forestland and rolling hills for the most part, although, at one point during their journey, a series of high bluffs and ragged cliff sides hemmed in the Rill Song for several hours as she churned her way sluggishly southward. Through it all, mist and rain masked everything in shimmering gray half-light and gave the impression of some vaguely remembered dream. The river, swollen with the rains, roiling with limbs and debris, rocked and buffeted the barge.
The party reaching Drey Wood:
Drey Wood was a stretch of dense forest covering a series of low rises which ran eastward from the left back of the Rill Song to a line of high, craggy bluffs. Elms, black oaks, and shag-bark hickories towered over a choked tangle of scrub and deadwood, and the forest smelled of rot. A dozen yards inland from the riverbank, there was nothing but blackness, deep and impenetrable. Rain falling into the trees in a steady patter was the only sound that broke the stillness.
Fleeing the Reaper:
Dusk began to slip rapidly over Drey Wood, turning gray afternoon into night. The drizzle which had fallen at a steady rate for most of the day changed abruptly to a heavy downpour, the wind gusting sharply as a new mass of black stormclouds rolled across the sky. Thunder rumbled in the distance, deep and ominous.
Each passage reveals a different side to the Elven lands, a different emotion to the falling rain, and the slow, inevitable pace of river travel. There are few settings in fantasy that stick with me as much as Brooks’ Westlands, and this is just one small example of why that is.
Next Time on the Reread
A broken company flees Drey Wood, Wil must summon the magic of the Elfstones, and Eventine plans to defend the Elves against the Demon invasion.
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.