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 Free Corps arrived, the Elves marched from Arborlon, we learned of Stee Jans’ heroic past, and the Forbidding threatened full collapse.
This week, the Forbidding collapses, the Crown Prince falls, Stee Jans saves the day, and a new threat shows its face.
Dawn breaks over the Hoare Flats, where the Elven army, along with the Legion Free Corps, waits for the Forbidding to crumble once and for all. With great fanfare, it happens. Demons spill forth from Jarka Ruus—an enormous army hellbent on the destruction of the Elves. Almost immediately, battle begins. Even with the help of the Free Corps, the Elves cannot match the ferocity of the Demons. Eventine falls, and, at Ander’s sudden command, the Elves begin a retreat. A dragon emerges from the Forbidding, and only with some daring-do from Stee Jans and Allanon’s magic is it defeated—leaving half of the valley in ruins, and blocking pursuit from the remaining Demons. The Elves live to see another day, but Halys Cut is lost.
“It is finished—the Forbidding is broken.”
- Stee Jans
So, then, here it is, the moment we’ve all been waiting for—with mixed dread and eager anticipation: the collapse of the Forbidding.
I think it’s safe to say that we, as readers of epic fantasy, particularly that of the early- to mid-’80s, look forward, in some sick way, to the moment in a novel when things finally hit rock bottom. We like heroes, we like feats of strength so impossible that we can’t help but be inspired. To get there, though, we need to see life at its lowest, to see our protagonists at their worst, when it looks like things couldn’t possibly resolve themselves in any sort of happy way.
This, right here, the Forbidding collapsing, is not that moment in Elfstones.
Rock bottom, as they call it, occurs right at the end of Chapter 32, when the Elves realize that the force they’re facing here is only a distraction from the much, much larger force entering the Westland from a separate portal. What’s so important, though, and a credit to Brooks’ ability to build tension, is that we readers believe this is as bad as it’s going to get. The picture he paints here is grim and hopeless—even with the ingenuity of Stee Jans, the Elves lose their leader, Eventine, and there’s no way of knowing what’s happening with Arion and Kael Pindannon.
Eventine went down, felled by a club thrown from the mass of attackers. The blow caught the King on the temple, and he toppled instantly to the earth, the Ellcrys staff falling from his hand. A roar rose out of the throats of the Demons, and they pressed forward with renewed fury.
I adore the reckless, random way that Eventine is brought down by the Demon army. It’s not a big signature baddie targeting the king. It’s not a spell that decimates his protectors. It’s just a random club, thrown with intent to injure something, anything. There’s no glory, no victory. Just death and defeat on both sides of the battle. Unfortunately for the Demons, Eventine has a pretty awesome son to fill his boots, one who isn’t haunted by weariness or ego.
(This all being said, WTF is Eventine doing on the front lines?)
We all knew that Eventine was going to fall, that Ander was being groomed by Allanon to take leadership of the Elven armies (diversifying his assets, so to speak), and he responds admirably in the wake of his father’s collapse. In some ways, it might have been easier for Ander if his father had been killed outright in the attack by the Demons (especially once we learn of Arion’s death in the next chapter), leaving Ander as the sole leader for the Elves—instead, there’s always a sense of discomfort from Ander, as though he continues to second guess himself, worried that when his father wakes, he might be met with disapproval.
“His father was still alive, but fallen,” Ander thinks to himself, “lost to the Elves, lost to Ander—the King, the only one who could save them from what was happening.”
As Allanon has obviously seen, Ander is more than suited to lead the Elves, to inspire them to fight until Amberle can reach the Bloodfire. Finding that confidence within himself is Ander’s biggest challenge.
The Elves cried out in horror. It was a Dragon, its serpentine body spine-covered and slick with its own secretions. Six ponderous, gnarled legs, clawed and tufted with dark hair, supported its sagging bulk. Its head arched searchingly into the air, horned and crusted, a distorted lump out of which burned a single, lidless green eye.
I like the way Brooks establishes the Demons as a roiling wave of destruction, overwhelming you with its ferocity and vastness, but also singles out individual threats from among the Demons, like the Dragon. The Shannara books are chock full of Elves, Dwarfs, Gnomes, and other recognizable humanoid races, but his monsters—from the jachyra to the mwellrets—often have their own twist, and feel like organic creations that exist only in the Four Lands. So, that established, it’s interesting to see Brooks throw a dragon into the mix, and a pretty stock dragon at that. Still, Allanon’s battle with the beast is impressive, and manages to establish both that the Demon threat is larger than we ever anticipated, and Allanon is one impressive fighter. The Druid has many tricks up his sleeve, and here he shows that ingenuity is just as deadly as his Druid fire.
The Elves retreat from Halys Cut, nursing wounds and broken spirits. Ander learns of his brother’s death from a young Elven messenger named Flyn, who also requests reinforcements be sent to Kael Pindanon at Worl Run. Despite the Commander’s certainty that they could retake Worl Run from the Demons, Ander orders him to retreat.
The Elves regroup, recognizing that the Demons goaded them into defending Halys Cut and Worl Run. Pindanon argues for command of the army—suggesting that the Elves need someone with military experience at their helm, that the armies are the only thing standing between the Elves and total annihilation. Ander refuses his request. Stee Jans speaks up about the defense of the Elves, suggesting a daring game of cat-and-mouse that will give up ground, but might prove effective at thinning the overwhelming Demon force. Even Pindanon agrees that it sounds like a good plan. They war party begins preparation for launching an assault against the Demons.
What had he ever been to his father and his brother but a pair of hands to act in their behalf?
- Kael Pindanon
- Stee Jans
Arion, man, you were kind of a dick, and didn’t really prove anything other than how hard you hold a grudge, but, for some damn reason, I’m saddened by your death. Like so many other things in this book, I’m sort of surprised that Arion’s death happens so early on—Brooks never really gives him a chance for redemption in the readers’ eyes. I’d have loved to see him show some heroism before the end, perhaps saving his brother, or at least garnering sympathy in some way, but instead he’s killed off-screen without doing much of anything besides being an emotional sticking point for Ander. Still it’s interesting to watch Ander deal with the reality of never being able to reconcile with Arion, something that becomes a central facet in his journey through the rest of the book.
Uncertainty and conflict among the Elves has always been one of the Demon’s greatest weapons, and that’s no more obvious than in the confrontation between Ander and Kael Pindanon. The biggest trouble is that they’re both mostly right—Pindanon has the experience necessary to lead the armies, and, at this stage, he’s right to believe that beating the Demons on the battlefield is the only way to save the Elves. Ander, on the opposite side, recognizes that they might need a more creative leader to spearhead the assault against their foes.
“If the Westland is to be saved, it must be saved through the courage of her men-at-arms,” Pindanon argues, “through the skill and experience of her soldiers.” Of course, he’s right. The Elves cannot defeat the Demons, and so their chances appear hopeless, but, as we readers can intuit, the key to the puzzle is Amberle, and she needs time that only the Elven military forces can buy. It’s not about beating the Demons, it’s about not losing too quickly.
What’s fun is that Brooks has already established, thanks to the myth of Stee Jans’ miraculous last stand as a youngster, that the leader of the Legion Free Corps is adept at holding off the inevitable as long as necessary for help to arrive. In fact, I’ve never thought about it before, but Jans’ standoff against the Gnomes is, essentially, the plot of Elfstones condensed into a tight, perfect little package.
And, so, it makes perfect sense when Ander recognizes that he’s not the only one who’s been taken under the big Druid’s wing.
Later that night, when all was in readiness for the morrow’s battle and he was alone, Ander Elessedil paused to reflect on how fortunate it was that Stee Jans had been present at this meeting with Pindanon. It was only then that it occurred to him that it might not have been good fortune at all, but a foresight peculiar to the enigmatic dark wanderer they knew as Allanon.
Allanon’s fingers are in every pie, and it’s fun to see Ander recognize the way the Druid is manipulating the events around everyone, undermining the traditional Elven leadership structure by introducing Jans, and installing him at Ander’s left hand. Among the Druid’s many small, almost invisible, moves, this might be one of the most important for ensuring a future for the Elves.
Arion Elessedil is buried at dawn—not an hour later, the Demons attack with renewed vigor. Instead of staying on the defensive, the Elves engage in Stee Jans’ game of cat-and-mouse, goading the Demons into splitting their forces. This aggressive strategy works, and the Demon forces are decimated by the Elves’ attack.
As the Demons withdraw, Ander wonders why they spend their lives so cheaply. He finds Allanon where the Druid hides on the slopes of the Kensrowe, looking gaunt and tired. He explains to Ander that Druid magic comes at a cost: the life of the user. During battle, there is little time to recover what is spent to cast the magic, and it is clear that Allanon is wearing down under the pressure of being the only magic user among the Elves.
In the deep of night, the Demons’ intense fatalism and fervor drives a counter attack. Ander leads the defense of the Elves, Ellcrys staff in hand, but it’s not enough to save Kael Pindanon. The Elves rally under Ander and Stee Jans, however, and beat back the Demon forces.
Ander pledges a debt to Stee Jans, who saved the Elves thanks to the heroism and bravery of the Legion Free Corps. He then names Jans as commander of the Elven forces, citing no Elf better suited to the job. Jans accepts. Allanon, in full on creeper mode, appears from the shadows to break the bad news: the Demons they just defeated was lesser force, a distraction from the full army marching uncontested down the eastern wall of the Kensrowe.
Time and again, they broke through, battling their way past Elven archers and Druid fire, past lancers and pikemen, only to find themselves face to face with the gray riders of the Legion Free Corps. Teased and harassed, they gave chase.
- Kael Pindanon
- Stee Jans
“There is a lot of war in fantasy,” Django Wexler says in So You Want to Have a War. “Starting with Tolkien, it’s become practically obligatory that the epic fantasy saga, somewhere around the middle of book three, feature an Epic Confrontation Between Good and Evil with a Cast of Thousands. Various allies, painfully recruited over the course of the hero’s journey, turn up to lend a hand at the Final Battle.”
With authors like Wexler, author of The Shadow Campaigns, writing modern epic world fantasy with a dedication to nuanced and comprehensive military campaigns, Brooks’ take on war feels a little quaint. I don’t know much about military tactics and strategy, but Stee Jans’ plan doesn’t exactly strike me as a terribly complex or ingenious approach to the situation. However, the Demons’ inability to react to the Legion Free Corps technique doesn’t help to characterize them as a force driven by bloodlust, rather than good sense.
One of Wexler’s rules for writing a good war campaign is to “consider the level of organization of the relevant societies.” I think this chapter is a great example of Brooks executing brilliantly on this. What do we learn here?
- The Elves are generally rigid and straightforward in their military organization. It might work against traditional enemies, but they’ve never fought against the Demons, and Pindanon’s leadership is undermined because of this.
- The Legion Free Corps, freed from a traditional military structure, is creative and biting, not afraid to put their neck out and attempt creative warfare.
- The Demons have two faces. The first is that of a ravenous, mindless horde, casting itself against the Elves with no regard for their own safety. The second, revealed at the end of the chapter, is one of trickery and shrewdness, using their enemy’s ignorance as a weapon.
Wexler also warns that “having a giant war should never be the default, the way a story goes because so many stories that have gone before have done it.” So, is Brooks’ war essential? Absolutely. There’s a level of conflict on display that helps the reader understand the threat not only to the Elven homeland, but the Four Lands period. It’s also a nice counterbalance to the smaller, more intimate journey that Wil and Amberle undertake, allowing Brooks to vary the pace, tone, and scale of his story in a way that never allows the reader to catch their breath, but also feels varied and constantly shifting.
Brooks’ military writing doesn’t hold up to a lot of the modern fantasy that readers are devouring these days, but, in a way, I feel more comfortable with the simple, straight forward tactics, and emphasis on the personal accounts of the main characters in each battle. Brooks isn’t afraid to kill off characters, so each confrontation with the Demons feels like a very real, very visceral threat to the safety of everybody I’ve grown to love and admire in the book.
Next Time on the Reread
Amberle and Wil enter the Wilderun, and Grimpen Ward proves even more dangerous than they expected.
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.