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, a Chosen faced her destiny, and the quest for the Bloodfire began in earnest, and a trap was sprung at Drey Wood.
This week, the company dwindles, the Reaper haunts the Pykon, Amberle and Wil meet a Wind Rider, and the Ellcrys gifts a staff.
Wil and the Elves leave Drey Wood defeated and fewer in number. They depart at the Matted Brakes, a vast, scrub-filled and swampy lowlands. Travel through the Brakes is slow and demoralizing. One night in camp, Wil and Amberle discuss the possibility that the Reaper was waiting to ambush them at Drey Wood—the implications of which are troubling. Attempting to cross through a particularly large swamp via a land bridge, rather than detouring hours out of their way by skirting around, the party awakens a menacing beast, which manages to kill two of the Elves.
The Reaper had known that they were coming to the Elven outpost. It had to have known, because it had lain in wait for them, Crispin was right about that. But there was only one way it could have known—it must have been told by the spy concealed within the Elven Camp, the spy whom Allanon had worked so carefully to deceive. And if the Demons knew of their plan to travel south to the Elven outpost at Drey Wood, then how much more about this journey did they know? It was altogether possible, the Valeman realized, that they knew everything.
Wil and (most of) the Elves might have escaped the Reaper at Drey Wood, but Brooks is anything but kind to his protagonists, which this chapter showcases. Bereft of support from the Elves stationed at Drey Wood, they’re cast into the Matted Brakes earlier than expected—and for the first time, we as readers begin to understand that the Demons aren’t the only adversary in Amberle’s search for the Bloodfire: the very land that they’re trying to save from Demon invasion is every bit as dangerous as the Dagda Mor’s minions.
In the wake of Drey Wood, fear of the Demons, and particularly the Reaper, is higher than ever, and, as readers, we’re still trying to catch our breath after the party’s narrow escape—however, Brooks doesn’t let anybody off easily, and throws Wil, Amberle, Crispin and the Elves from the frying pan into the fire, never taking his foot off the pedal, but also refusing the easy way out by relying solely on the Reaper for dramatic tension.
The Matted Brakes themselves are oppressive and demoralizing, reminiscent of the Hobbits’ journey through the Midgewater Marshes in Fellowship of the Ring—for, though Elfstones is not a carbon copy of Lord of the Rings, as its predecessor The Sword of Shannara mostly was, Tolkien’s fingerprints can still be found—which makes it difficult for Wil and Amberle to emotionally come to grips with the deaths of Rin and Kian, and the understanding that the Reaper’s ambush meant the Demons most likely know of their ultimate destination in the Wilderun.
For the next two days, the little company trudged through the gloom of the Matted Brakes. It rained most of the time, a steady drizzle interspersed with heavy showers that drenched further an already sodden earth and left the travelers cold and miserable. Mist hung overhead and swirled thick across ridge tops and still, marshy lakes. The sun remained screened by banks of stormclouds, and only a faint lightening of the sky for several hours near midday gave any indication of its passing. At night, there was only the impenetrable dark.
Travel was slow and arduous. In single file, they worked their way across the tangle of the Brakes, through bramble thickets that sword blades could barely hack apart, past bogs that bubbled wetly and sucked from sight everything that came within their grasp, and around lakes of green slime and evil smells. Deadwood littered the ground, mingling with pools of surface water and twisting roots. The vegetation had a gray cast to it that muted its green and left the whole of the land looking sick and wintry. What lived within the Brakes stayed hidden, though faint sounds skittered and lurched in the stillness, and shadows slipped like wraiths through the rain and the gloom.
Then, the beast they stumble across while trying to cross the swamp, is just chaotic happenstance and poor luck. As far as I’ve always been able to tell, this is not a Demon, but rather a creature of the wilds, hiding, waiting for prey. Just like that, the natural dangers of the Westland almost ended any hope of defeating the Demons—and wouldn’t that have been an ending?
The creature had sense them. Its bulk heaved up suddenly out of the lake, showering them with stagnant water. It huffed loudly as yellow eyes snapped open from beneath the covering of lily pads and vines. Writhing feelers flared from its mud-covered body, and a broad, flat snout swung toward them, jaws gaping wide in hunger.
A more uncomfortable thought, and a genius bit of storytelling by Brooks, is that though the Elfstones might be able to guide the party through this hostile environment (lighting a beacon for the Demons), they could do nothing to defend against the deadly non-magical threats along the way.
Wil, Amberle, Crispin, and the remaining Elven Hunters reach the end of the Matted Brakes, but face a new challenge: the great Pykon. Crispin knows of an old Elvish fortress, uninhabited for hundreds of years, that will provide a way through the Pykon, and on to the Rock Spur, the impenetrable mountain chain that encloses the Wilderun.
Unbeknownst to the party, the Reaper is waiting for them. Naively, the Elven Hunters leave Wil and Amberle in a safehole, and begin a search of the ruined fortress. Wil and Amberle sleep uneasily, until Wil is woken from a terrible dream, the Elfstones raging with blue light in his pocket. Trusting his instincts, he finds Katsin and Dilph nearby—dead. The Reaper stalks the halls. Wil and Amberle flee, following Crispin’s footsteps through the fortress. Together, they stay ahead of the Reaper, but confrontation is inevitable. They make their stand on a small catwalk, blowing in a strong wind. Crispin holds off the Reaper until Wil can try the Elfstones, but the Valeman cannot summon the Stones’ magic. Crispin is thrown from the catwalk by the Reaper, but before the Demon can get to Wil and Amberle, the catwalk collapses, sending the Demon into the abyss below.
The Reaper appeared, stepping forward into the light—huge, cloaked, faceless. Crispin brought up the ash bow and sent his arrows winging at the thing so quickly that Wil could barely follow the archer’s movements. All were brushed aside effortlessly. Wil felt his stomach tighten. Desperately he hammered at the pin before him, sending it several inches further through the eyelet. But there it froze.
Then abruptly he remembered the Elfstones. The Elfstones!
- The Reaper
Holy crap. Holy crap.
Welcome, readers, to one of the most iconic chapters in the entirety of the Shannara series. Hell, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the most iconic scenes from all of ’80s Epic Fantasy, alongside the meeting between Jenny and Morkeleb in Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, Paul’s sacrifice in The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Seoman’s meeting with Jiriki in The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams.
For the first time since Allanon came knocking in Storlock, Wil faces his Demons entirely by himself. Sure, he’s saved by Crispin’s bravery and ingenuity, and the luck of the wind blowing the final pin free, but here Wil is challenged by his greatest foe…and loses. This is a brilliant bit of writing. Brooks made things look easy early on when Wil defeated the Demon in the Tirfing, but here, as he’s been hinting at for pages, the author pulls the rug out from under the Valeman, and compromises the one effective weapon the party has to defend themselves against the Reaper—a millennia-old killing machine.
Always there was the feeling that at any moment the Reaper would appear from out of the gloom behind them, and their last chance for escape would be gone.
I believe this is the first time that we’ve seen the Reaper through the eyes of one of the protagonists. (he Reaper is described once or twice by the Dagda Mor). Here we get the first glimpse of a threat that has haunted the Elves since nearly the first page of the novel. Crispin puts up a good fight—shockingly good, frankly—but the Reaper’s prowess is obvious, and only a small bit of luck saves Wil and Amberle. No longer is the Reaper a formless, ethereal villain—it’s now a nightmare come to life.
[Wil] held the Stones in his hand, gripped so tightly that they cut him. The Reaper was moving toward them, still crouched low upon the catwalk, huge and shadowy. It was not twenty feet away. The Valeman brought up the fist that held the Stones and, with every bit of willpower he could muster, he called up the fire that would destroy this monster.
The Elfstones flared sharply, the blue fire spreading. But then something seemed to lock within Win. In the next instant, the power died.
Terror gripped the Valeman. Desperately, he tried again. Nothing happened.
The best athletes, those that become superstars in their fields, play without thinking, without second guessing their instincts. They act. Here, unlike in the Tirfing, Wil thinks too much, allowing his doubt to cloud his instinctual ability. When Wil faced down the Demon in the Tirfing, a terrifying foe, certainly, but nothing compared to the Reaper, he did so from a place of ignorance, believing in a full control over the Elfstones that did not actually exist due to his human blood. Here, however, he must face his own personal demons alongside the Reaper, and, as Amberle supposes in the following chapter, his lack of certainty nearly means the end for the Bloodfire expedition.
This epic confrontation occurs in one of the moodiest and beautifully drawn set pieces in the novel. The unnamed Elven fortress was once a powerful place of refuge. Now, as Wil poetically describes, it is “a haven for the ghosts of dead men, a haven in which the living were intruders.” The Reaper is scary, but, dammit, I probably would have quit by the time they reached the bridge:
They found themselves staring out across a deep gorge where the mountain split apart from crest to base. Bridging the two halves was a slender catwalk that led from the small rocky niche in which they stood to a single tower set into the far cliff. Wind howled across the drop of the chasm, shrieking in fury as it buffeted the narrow iron span. Only a thin sliver of moonlight penetrated the deep crevice, its white band falling across a small section of the catwalk near its end.
The Westland is a dangerous place, and no one knows that better than Elven Hunters. Poor Dilph and Katsin. You had a good run.
No matter how many times I reread Elfstones, I’m always surprised that Crispin dies so early on. My memories of journey alongside him the first time I read the novel are so rich and vivid that I always expect him to last much longer, well into the latter-half of the novel. So whenever the Elven party sets foot in the fortress, I sigh at the memory of what’s to come. My crush on Crispin reaches unhealthy proportions as he faces down the Reaper (and holds his own!) on the bridge, but it’s like Brooks reaches into my chest and crushes my ability to love—leaving it as crumpled and dead as Crispin’s body, on the rocks below the Pykon.
Let me leave you with this moment of badassery and utter bravery:
On the catwalk, Crispin closed with the Reaper. Feinting and lunging, the Captain of the Home Guard sought to catch the Demon off balance, hoping that it might slip and tumble from the walk. But the Reaper stayed low upon the slender bridge, warding off the Elf’s thrusts with one massive arm, waiting patiently for its chance. Crispin was a skilled swordsman, yet he could not penetrate the creature’s defenses. The Reaper edged forward.
[The] bridge buckled slightly and Crispin was thrown off balance. As he stumbled back, the Reaper lunged. Claws fastened about the Elf’s tunic. As Wil and Amberle watched in horror, the Reaper lifted Crispin clear of the catwalk. The Elf captain’s sword flashed downward toward the Demon’s throat, the blade splintering as it truck. The Reaper shrugged off the blow as if it were nothing. Holding Crispin above it shrouded head, it threw the Elf from the catwalk into the void beyond. Crispin fell soundlessly and was gone.
*upends a 40 oz in tribute to Crispin the Captain*
(In my head-canon, Crispin is secretly an Airbender. With his bending ability, he softens his landing, then disappearing quietly into the Westland to start an orphanage and a brewery. Because he’s that awesome.)
Wil and Amberle leave the Elven fortress, the last remaining members of the doomed party that departed Arborlon in search of the Bloodfire. They find a fisherman’s boat, and use it to travel eastward along the Mermidon toward the Rock Spur. Bereft of supplies, they disembark the boat in the shadow of the mountains, and search for dinner and drink. The next day, they travel onward by foot. By sunset, they reach the foot of the Rock Spur—unsure of how to proceed, they set camp and fall asleep.
Wil and Amberle are woken the next morning by Perk, a young man who is eager to help them on their “adventure.” Perk is a Wind Rider (in training) and offers to fly Amberle and Wil to the edge of the Wilderun on Genewen, his enormous Roc—a trained bird with a wing span of nearly 30 feet. Wil and Amberle reluctantly agree, and the three take to the sky aboard the Roc.
True to his word, Perk delivers Wil and Amberle to the edge of the Wilderun, and points them in the direction of Grimpen Ward, the main settlement in the region. Before departing, Perk decides he will watch for Wil and Amberle’s return, offering a potential escape route should they find the Bloodfire.
“I can help you,” the boy declared firmly. “But you cannot go through the mountains. That would take days.”
“Well, if we don’t go through the mountains, then how do we get there?” Wil demanded. “Is there another way?”
Perk grinned. “Sure. We can fly.”
I like Perk a lot, and it’s hard not to be impressed by Genewen, but the presence of the Wing Rider poses one question that I’ve always wished Brooks would address: there are Sky Elves and Land Elves, but are there other types of Elves as well? The Westland is bordered on one side by the Blue Divide (i.e. the Pacific Ocean), so it stands to reason that there would be Sea Elves. The great, dry environments in the north of the Westlands seems perfect for a desert-based Elven society. And so on. We see a lot of the Elves of Arborlon, who are very traditional, and I would love to see more of a diverse Westland. As we see in later Shannara volumes, the Wing Riders are an interesting society—it’s a shame Brooks never takes this concept further, diversifying his Elven people, moving them away from tired tropes.
I’ve always wondered if Perk and Genewen are a tongue-in-cheek nod from Brooks to Tolkien’s eagles, and the long-running debate about why Gandalf’s fellowship couldn’t have just flown into Mordor. You couldn’t set foot within 100 miles of Mordor without knowing exactly where Mount Doom was located, making it an easy target for the eagles, but Safehold and the Bloodfire are more obscure—so, Perk can only land them in the general vicinity. It solves the conundrum Tolkien faced.
Suddenly a great, golden-hued form soared out of the Rock Spur, shimmering brightly in the warm morning sunlight as it dipped downward through the mountains and came toward them. Wil and Amberle started wildly. It was the biggest bird they had ever seen in their lives, a huge creature with a wing span of fully thirty feet, a sleek, crested head the color of fire tinged with flecks of black a great hooked beak, and powerful talons that extended forward as it approached. … It dropped to the meadow not a dozen feet in front of them, wings folding close against its golden, feathered body, crested head arching upward as it came to roost. It’s piercing cry split the morning stillness.
The presence of the Roc, which provides a convenient solution for passing through an impenetrable mountain range, is actually the precursor to one of the weaknesses of Brooks’ later novels: airships. When they’re first introduced in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara series, airships are a lot of fun—it’s an interesting advancement in technology, air travel is integral to the plot of the trilogy, and new locations open up for Brooks. However, as of the most current Shannara novels, The High Druid’s Blade and The Darkling Child, airships have become a convenient and lazy plot tool used by Brooks to move his heroes throughout the Four Lands with little conflict. Instead of a interconnected, breathing world, the Four Lands has been reduced to a series of random set pieces, with little relation to one another—characters skip across entire countries between chapters, drastically reducing the scope of Brooks’ world. This is a similar argument to that put against flying mounts in World of Warcraft, a popular MMORPG.
In a 2012 article on Engadget, Matthew Rossi described the issue with flying mounts in the game:
Being able to just fly over everything robs you of any tangible connection to the world you’re supposed to be inhabiting. If immersion is a design goal, then soaring over the clouds definitely can be seen as ruining that immersion. You’re hardly part of the world of rampaging elementals and burning forests if you soar serenely over the chaos rather than wading through it, after all. The only time you on your flapping conveyance really interacts with the madness is when you deign to descend to it. It never reaches out to you, because it can’t.
This same logic applies to airship travel in the Four Lands: it’s homogenized and reduces the land to small, specific points on a map. There’s no adventure in it.
Two days after Wil and Amberle departed Arborlon, King Eventine surveys the defense of his kingdom. Knowing that they cannot rely solely on Amberle’s quest for the Bloodfire, the Elves are gearing up for war against the Demons, hoping beyond hope that some of their allies—the men of Callhorn and the Federation, the Trolls of the Kershalt, the Dwarves of Culhaven—will come to their aid. As Eventine considers his allies, Ander arrives and the King recognizes how invaluable his son has been during these darkest of days. Following on the Elven Prince’s footsteps is Allanon, who bears a silver staff given to him by the Ellcrys. He tells Eventine and Ander that the staff is the Ellcrys’ last gift—a weapon against the Demons.
“I went to her alone, seeking to find a weapon with which we might stand against our enemy. She gave me audience, speaking with the images that are her words, asking why I had come. I told her that the Elves had no magic save my own with which to counter the power of the Demons; I told her that I feared that this alone might not be enough, that I might fail. I told her that I sought something of what she is with which to do battle against the Demons, for she is an anathema to them.”
Most of this chapter is devoted to the equivalent of a Social Studies 101 breakdown of the Four Lands, and Elven political relations. I love seeing the first stirrings of the Federation, who will be both friend and foe to peace and freedom for the coming generations of people in the Four Lands. What’s most interesting, however, is the way Brooks subverts the expected relationships between the Elves and the Trolls and Dwarves.
As we’ve seen a thousand times, the Trolls were big baddies in The Sword of Shannara, and stood in opposition of Allanon, Shea, and the good folk of the Four Lands. But, one of the best things about the Four Lands, and the entire Shannara series, is that the people and the societies change as the years roll by—no longer are the Elves and the Trolls mortal enemies, they’re in the first courtship of an uneasy friendship. It’s a nice change, doubled by the fact that the Dwarves and Elves are staunch allies, bonded by a mutual love for the land. The Four Lands is a fairly predictable and trope-y fantasy world, but Brooks does make these nice subversions from time-to-time.
Allanon clearly plays the role of a mentor in Elfstones, guiding Wil, Amberle, and the Elves against the Demons, but here he has a small line of dialogue, as he’s describing his encounter with the Ellcrys, begging her for help, which illustrates why I think he’s one of the most interesting executions of a familiar (and often tired) trope: he’s fallible.
“I told her that I feared that [my magic] might not be enough,” he tells Eventing and Ander, “that I might fail.”
Mentors—like Gandalf and Obi-Wan—are often driven by their own insecurities and failures, but very rarely do they wear them openly, admitting to their frailty, that they might not succeed in their goal. Allanon consistently shows empathy and vulnerability, which earns him respect from his allies and the readers—earning his sometimes emotionally ruthless behaviour. He may use everybody around him, but he understands what it is like to fear failure.
The wood of the staff was warm, as if the blood of life flowed within.
“It lives!” the Druid breathed reverently. “Apart and separate from her, yet still filled with her life! It is the weapon that I sought. It is the talisman that will protect the Elves against the black sorcery of the Demon hordes. As long as they bear the staff, the power that lives within the Ellcrys shall watch over them and work to keep them safe.”
Magic is a limited resource for the Elves, and I like the way that Brooks introduces a new bit of power for them, separate from Allanon. It’s just enough to give the reader some hope, but not anywhere close to defusing the Demon threat. And, what would a Brooks novel be without a magic staff? From John Ross’s staff of the Word to the Darkwand in the High Druid of Shannara series, it seems like many of the most powerful magical relics in the Four Lands are staffs. It’s been fun to speculate about whether all of these staffs are connected in some way to the Word or the Void. Whether they are or not, they’ve certainly become iconic in the series. What do you think? Are the Ellcrys staff and the Dagda Mor’s Staff of Power™ related to John Ross’s staff from The Word and the Void trilogy?
Next Time on the Reread
The Free Corps arrive, the Elves march forth from Arborlon, and Allanon confides in Ander.
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.