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 Forbidding collapsed, the Crown Prince fell, Stee Jans saved the day, and the true Demon army revealed itself.
This week, Amberle and Wil discover that Grimpen Ward is just as dangerous as they were led to believe.
Amberle and Wil arrive in Grimpen Ward, a hive of scoundrels on the edge of the Wilderun. With no supplies or money, they wander about trying not to get shanked, before entering the Candle Light Inn. Hoping for a bed and a warm meal, Wil notices the Inn’s proprietor limping. He orders food and drink, then offers her healing in exchange for lodging. The innkeeper agrees, and they move to a back room where Wil sticks needles in her knee, and she’s miraculously cured. Overjoyed, she rushes out into the common room, offering everyone a free drink in celebration, and news of her healing travels quickly. Wil tells Amberle that the cure will only last for the night, and the Elf scolds him for being a liar. They head off to bed, hoping to be gone from Grimpen Ward before the Innkeeper figures out she’s been deceived.
It was nearing sunset when they passed at last from the gloom of the wilderness forest into the town of Grimpen Ward. A less inviting community would have been hard to imagine. Set down within a hollow, Grimpen Ward was a ramshackle cluster of wooden plank buildings so closely jammed together as to be nearly indistinguishable one from the other. They were a seedy lot, these shops and stalls, inns and taverns. The garish paint that colored them was chipped and faded. Many stood shuttered, bars drawn, locks fastened. Poorly lettered signs hung from swaying doors, a patchwork maze of promises and prices beneath proprietors’ names.
“Take the worst or grimmest and darkest side of society,” says TV Tropes, “give them a place where all their sins are given free roam to be expressed, and collect it into a system that can just barely sustain itself and you get the Wretched Hive.” Full of cutthroats and thieves, an antagonist in-and-of-itself, this describes Grimpen Ward to a T.
My biggest bone to pick with Grimpen Ward isn’t with the villainy—which is somewhat mitigated by the, um… jovial? innkeeper that Wil heals, proving that not everybody in the town is out to rip you off or cut your throat—but the town’s economy and sustainability. Name me a city, a town, a village, a smear on an old map, and I’ll give you a reason why it exists. Maybe it’s on a trade route. Maybe it’s a hub for a farming community. Maybe it has access to rare, desirable, or useful goods. Maybe it’s a stopping point for travellers, a sightseeing spot. For any number of reasons, it exists to serve the needs of somebody. Or did, at one point in time, and is now only an atrophying memory of former glory. The problem with Grimpen Ward is that it doesn’t appear to be any of these things.
The Wilderun is “bleak and forbidding,” which doesn’t preclude the idea of a human population, but the introduction to this chapter paints a picture of an environment that is incapable of maintaining life.
Deadwood and scrub littered the valley floor, decaying slowly in the dark ground, giving it an unpleasantly soft, spongy feel. Damp with must and rot, the Wilderun had the look of something misshapen and grotesque. It was as if nature had stunted the land and the life that grew within it, then bent it down within itself, so that it might ever be made to breathe, eat, and drink the stench that rose out of its slow death.
There were no birds within this forest; Wil had noticed that at once. Birds would not live within such blackness, Wil had thought to himself—not while they might fly in sunlight. There were none of the usual small forest animals, nor even such common insects as brightly colored butterflies. What lived here were things best left to blackness, night, and shadows.
Human settlements can be self-sustaining, if the land supplies enough, or they can thrive in hostile environments through adept infrastructure and trade routes. Grimpen Ward id a wretched hive in the middle of nowhere with neither of these support systems. Even the outposts in Mordor existed to supply and tend to Sauron’s army. Grimpen Ward doesn’t even seem to offer anonymity or safety to those wishing to flee a life gone wrong (and, I mean, there’s the Legion Free Corps for those folks.) Brooks describes the village as being full of taverns, shops, and inns, which would suggest a healthy volume of travellers, but nothing about the Wilderun backs up the idea that people would be travelling through the region on any business. A long faded coat of once-bright paint suggests that Grimpen Ward was once hopeful place, but there’s no sign of that now. All I would have needed from Brooks was a single line describing Grimpen Ward as a gateway to the southern communities, or that it was the only place that a rare fungi desired by Gnome Healers could be acquired, etc., and I would have been satisfied. Alas, modern secondary-world fantasy has trained me to expect hyper-pedantic worldbuilding rooted in believable and well-developed socioeconomic patterns.
This all being said, there used to be a time when I could read a fantasy novel and just accept a place like Grimpen Ward for what it is: an unrealistic, grim settlement that creates a situation that Amberle and Wil are unable to deal with on their own, and requires streetwise Eretria to rescue them.
As TV Tropes predicts, Grimpen Ward allows Wil to show another side to his character:
This lawless setting is often wonderful for allowing all varieties of creativity, ideas and/or tropes to flow in, be played and interact in interesting ways, and many plot conveniences that the protagonists need to get away with doing active work rather than just handing problems over to the police or running into Fridge Logic when they don’t get arrested for taking the law into their own hands, while there are several takes on all sorts of unlawful or devious acts.
One of the most interesting things about Wil, putting him above most of his Ohmsford brethren, is that he’s a Healer. It’s not only a unique set of skills, proving useful several times throughout the novel, but also has an enormous impact on his character. We’ve seen before that Wil is not above subterfuge and white lies, but the trick he pulls on the innkeeper is at once resourceful, somewhat unnecessary (he couldn’t have seen the attention it might draw?), and feels, just a little bit, like he’s showing off for Amberle (who’s once again a lot more realistic about how they should approach the situation.) I like that we see a side of Wil that is willing to use his skills as a Healer as a tool, almost a weapon, rather than an entirely altruistic pursuit of bettering the lives of those around him. Brooks takes a bit of a cop-out when the innkeeper tells Wil that a night of relief alone would be worth the cost of lodging and food, erasing any ongoing moral dilemma in the Valeman, but it’s still an interesting application of Wil’s talents, and a fun look at the engine that runs underneath his hood.
On another note, does anyone else feel like Brooks’ note that the Wilderun wasn’t home to “brightly colored butterflies” is homage to Bilbo’s ascent about the foliage in Mirkwood?
Amberle and Wil are woken by the sound of several blubbering idiots trying to break into their room, hoping to steal the Healer’s gold (not knowing that they’re broke.) They escape through a window, but somehow the mob suddenly multiplies and chases them through the streets of Grimpen Ward. In true Saturday Morning Cartoon fashion, Wil steps on a series of rakes, knocking him senseless. Just as he’s about to lose consciousness, a whisper of coloured silk rescues him and Amberle from the mob. When Wil wakes, Eretria looms over him, a smirk on her face.
Then a face bent close, dark and sensuous, framed in ringlets of thick black hair. The smile that greeted him was dazzling.
“I told you we would meet again, Wil Ohmsford.”
It was Eretria
Man, how many times are Amberle and Wil going to wake from a dead sleep to find danger at their toes? This time around, the threat isn’t quite so horrifying as the Demon-wolves at Havenstead, or the enormous Demon in the Tirfing, but a bunch of drunk idiots with gold on their mind is nothing to laugh at. Brooks does a good job here of creating a parallel between the mob in Grimpen Ward and the Demons armies assaulting the Elven armies. They’re slavering and relentless both, and it highlights the thematic links that Brooks is exploring throughout the novel, wherein the Demons from the Forbidding represent the worst of human traits: greed and vengeance.
Otherwise… I don’t have much to say about this chapter? Goodbye Grimpen Ward. We hardly knew ye. It’s not until Ilse Witch that you actually become somewhat interesting.
Oh, and, yay Eretria! I’ve always felt that the story becomes infinitely more interesting when Eretria and Amberle are in the same room together, and, man, do things get spicy from here out. And, I guess her showing up (at a surprisingly convenient time) proves that, for some godforsaken reason, some people do travel to Grimpen Ward, maybe allaying my previous concerns about the town’s ability to sustain itself?
In any case, I feel like this could have been smooshed into the last chapter without any real loss.
Next Time on the Reread
The Elves retreat to Arborlon, Wil and Amberle are reacquainted with the Rovers, and we meet old man Hebel.
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.