Welcome, readers of Shady Vale, to this week’s installment 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, Cephelo stole the Elfstones, Wil got them back, the siege of Arborlon began, and we had our first glimpse of Mallenroh.
This week, the King is attacked, Ander comes into his own, Mallenroh desires the Elfstones, and our trio of heroes are reunited.
The second day of the Siege of Arborlon belongs to the Elves. Invigorated by the arrival of his many allies and the waking of his father, Ander steps into Eventine’s boots and becomes a great rallying point for the Elves. United, the races of the Four Lands make a historic stand against the Demons. However, all good things must come to an end. Even rallied around Ander, the Elven forces are too small to stand against the vast might of the Demons. One group slips between the cavalry lines, and makes a dash for the Gardens of Life, hoping to finish off the Ellcrys, and is barely defeated by the Black Watch. Eventine’s horse falls beneath him, but Stee Jans rescues the King before he can be killed—almost at the same time, Ander is saved from certain death by Allanon. With no recourse, and five levels of the Elfitch lost, Browork and his Dwarf Sappers collapse the rigged ramphead beneath the sixth level, killing many Demons and stopping the attack in its tracks.
Wounded but alive, Eventine is carried to his manor house to rest. He cannot sleep. Visions of the Demon army sweeping the land wrack him with guilt and abject failure. He ponders his granddaughter’s fate, eventually deciding that it’s better if he does not know. He falls asleep. Suddenly, he wakes, the echo of a cry ringing through his sleep-groggy state. The door of his bed chamber opens, and there is Manx with a bloody snout and Demon claws instead of paws. The Changeling reveals himself, and attacks the King. Eventine manages to hold off the Demon attack until help arrives—the Changeling is killed. Before he collapses, Eventine remembers all of the secret meetings with Allanon, compromised by Manx’s attendance.
In the history of the Four Lands the races had never before been united in a common cause, to form a common defense, and to serve a common good. Troll and Dwarf, Elf and Man—the humans of the new world stood together against an evil from ancient times. For that single, wondrous day, Ander Elessedil became the spark that gave them all life.
- Stee Jans
As a big Ander fan, I was pumping my fist as the clouds parted, and things finally, finally, started going right for him. There’s so much made of his father’s achievements, and Ander has worked so tirelessly to fill a role he never anticipated, making it all the sweeter when his moment of triumph comes. I’ve said several times during this reread that the Demons’ most dangerous form of attack isn’t physical, but mental. The sheer hopelessness of seeing the Demon army swarming the countryside is enough to pour doubt into even the most ardent, stoic leader—and once that anxiety gets its hooks into you, it’s effect can be cumulative and overwhelming.
With the help of his new allies, and the waking of his King, however, Ander uses the shared strength of the Four Lands to rise above that hopelessness, and realize a strength that he likely never would have discovered within himself if not for the Demon’s breaking free of the Forbidding. It’s interesting how the Elves’ darkest hour becomes something of a personal opportunity for the Elven Prince.
This passage was pretty much perfect:
It was Ander Elessedil who made the difference. It was as if on that day he became at last the King his father had been, the King who had led the Elves against the armies of the Warlock Lord those fifty years past. Gone was the weariness and disillusion. Gone was the doubt that had haunted him since Halys Cut. He believed again in himself and in the determination of those who fought with him. It was an historic moment, and the Elven Prince became its focal point.
And then, of course, Brooks has to go and write this: “It was Ander Elessedil’s finest hour.” If that’s not a portent for coming doom, I don’t know what is.
Eventine Elessedil has been on death’s doorstep so many times in this novel that I’ve lost count. He’s fallen in battle twice, and the Changeling’s attack is something he had no right to survive—but it’s that drive to persevere, to rise above your enemies, to chase death back to its dark realm, that lies at the heart of his legend. Eventine never bows. Even passing leadership of the Elves to his son was a form of defiance, a recognition that his own personal weakness does not have to compromise the Elves’ chance of survival.
What I do find kind of sad, however, are his thoughts of Amberle. There is so much love for the girl, and he put such faith in the idea that she might be able to save the Elves, but now you realize that he’s lost that hope.
Allanon had said that Amberle was alive, by now deep within the lower Westland; but Eventine did not believe the Druid really knew. The thought depressed him. If she were dead, he did not want to know, he decided suddenly. It would be better that way, not knowing. Yet that was a lie. He needed to know, desperately. Bitterness welled up within him. Everything was slipping away from him—his family, his people, his country, everything he loved, everything that had given meaning to his life.
Even here, when hope is most necessary, Eventine admits to not believing Allanon’s words about Amberle, highlighting just how fragile the psyche of the Elves and their king truly is. We see not a King, but a grandfather worrying for his granddaughter, with all his dreams of her saving the Elves set aside for his fear of losing yet another family member. Though Ander still lives, it’s worth remembering that he and his father were never close. In many ways, Amberle is the last remaining member of Eventine’s family that he was truly to whom the King is emotionally connected. It’s tragic.
In broader terms, this chapter is also one of the best siege chapters in the novel. There’s a terrific tug-of-war between the two sides—culminating first in the Trolls being shoved “aside as if they were made of paper” by the Demon Ogres, which is a tremendously compelling image, and then by the Dwarf Sappers blowing their trap. You can feel the desperation and fury of both sides, as they battle up and down the Elfitch. Even though you know the bad guys are going to lose, that the Elves will eventually persevere, it’s hard to understand how that might happen. It all seems so hopeless.
How does Brooks do that? I think it’s his clever approach to story building. The Elven army cannot beat the Demon army. Full stop. Every Arborlon chapter is just a further step towards their entire annihilation. There’s no shining light, no last stand that has a chance of saving the day. The Elves, right up to the end, are not fighting to defeat the Demons, but to stave off destruction for just one minute more. It’s horrifying.
Mallenroh reveals herself to Amberle, Eretria, Wil, and Hebel, a picture of authority and magic. Hebel, realizing his dream of once again meeting the witch, reminds her of their first encounter, which she brushes off as a “whim.” Her obsession begins with Eretria’s beauty, then shifts to Wil’s Elfstones, which she greatly desires. As a display of power, she turns Hebel and Drifter into a wooden carving, threatening to do the same to Amberle if Wil does not give her the Stones. She is furious that the party has led the Reaper into the Hollows, and, with one final warning for Wil to consider her proposal, she leaves. Wil and Eretria fall suddenly asleep, and are carried away by stick men.
Like Mistress Death, she came for the humans, taller even than Allanon, gray hair long and woven thick with nightshade, black robes trailing from her slender form, a whisper of silk in the deep silence of the tower. She was beautiful, her face delicate and finely wrought, her skin so pale that she seemed almost ethereal. There was an ageless look to her, a timelessness, as if she were a thing that had always been would forever be.
Here’s the thing I love most about Mallenroh: outside of the core characters in Elfstones—Ander, Amberle, Allanon, Eretria, etc—most of Brooks’ other characters are sort of cardboard cutouts that act as plot devices. The rest, even Stee Jans, who I love dearly, and poor, departed Crispin, who I’ve created a proxy personality and backstory for in my mind, are light on the ground when it comes to feeling like flesh-and-blood characters with full-fledged motivations and personalities. They’re plot pieces to be moved about a game board. Mallenroh, however, despite her minor role in the novel, steps onto the scene with all the gravitas and presence of Allanon, and immediately makes an impact on the reader.
Picture yourself in Hebel’s shoes, once more in the presence of a legend for whom you’ve longed for nearly your entire life to see again:
Hebel removed the sack he carried, lifted its flap and fumbled through its contents, searching. A moment later he withdrew a polished wooden figure, a statue carved from a piece of oak. It was Mallenroh, captured so perfectly that it seemed as if she had stepped from the carving into life. She took the wooden figure from the old man and examined it, her slender fingers running slowly over its polished surface.
“A pretty thing,” she said finally.
“It is you,” Hebel told her quickly.
She looked back at him, and Wil did not like what he saw. The smile she gave the old man was faint and cold.
“I know you,” she said, then paused as her eyes studied anew his leathered face. “Long ago it was, upon the rim of the Hollows, when you were still young. A night I gave you…”
“I remembered,” Hebel whispered, pointing quickly to the wooden figure. “I remembered… what you were like.”
At Hebel’s feet, Drifter crouched against the stone floor of the tower and whined. But the old man never heard him. He had lost himself in the Witch’s eyes. She shook her gray head slowly.
“It was a whim, foolish one,” she whispered.
Feel your nostalgia and love crushed between her iron fist. It’s emotionally tense and complicated, with so many small things happening between the words. There’s vulnerability, and biting power. It shows us Mallenroh’s obsession with physical beauty and “pretty things.” It tells us that Mallenroh is lonely, once seeking companionship from Hebel, but also the contempt she holds for those feelings. Her cruelty, perhaps borne of such loneliness, rears its head again when she turns Hebel to wood, forever to live in her collection of figurines—there’s a curious nostalgia to it.
Mallenroh is obviously well-educated about the Elfstones, including the two main restrictions designed to keep them out of the wrong hands: 1) they can only be used by those of Elven blood (which Mallenroh appears to have a workaround for, due to her and her sister apparently superseding Elves—so, like, how old is she?), and 2) they must be gifted to their new owner, not stolen. While I always appreciate a villain who doesn’t immediately resort to violent evisceration—especially in this novel, where it’s the tactic du jour—I can’t help but feel like there’s one vital flaw to Mallenroh’s plan, because she obviously didn’t read the fine print.
Way back in Chapter 8, Allanon tells Wil and Flick that the Elfstones “can only be used by one to whom they are freely given.” The keyword here being, obviously, “freely.” Mallenroh’s playing a good game, but, she’s clearly putting him under tremendous duress, and there’s no lawyer in the Four Lands who could convince a jury that any action on Wil’s part would be considered “freely” done. You can force someone to give away the Elfstones under any conditions, and I think, even if Wil tried to give her the Elfstones to save Amberele, they’d be as useless for Mallenroh as they were for Cephelo.
Wil is woken in a jail cell by Amberle. While Eretria sleeps nearby, Amberle tells Wil of the events that led to her capture, and her pursuit by the Reaper. Wil in turn tells her of Cephelo’s death, and the now twice-stolen Elfstones. The Witch’s assistant, a former Elf named Wisp, appears with food. Wil convinces Wisp to stick around for a chat, hoping to gain information about Mallenroh and the whereabouts of the Elfstones. Wisp reveals that the Witches’ power does not extend beyond the Hollows, which plants the seed of a plan in Wil’s mind. Wisp proves to be a vital piece of the puzzle when he reveals intimate knowledge of Safehold.
Eretria wakes and joins the conversation, using Wisp’s infatuation with her to draw more information from the former Elf. Wisp tells her that Mallenroh has left the tower to hunt the Reaper, and that she keeps the Elfstones hidden safely away in a box. Eretria asks if Wisp will show her the Stones, but he offers instead to show her Mallenroh’s wooden figures. Finally, Wil asks if Mallenroh will let them leave the Hollows, and Wisp shakes his head, confirming that she will never let the party leave. Wisp disappears back into the tower.
Eretria pulls out a lockpick and sets to freeing them. She suggests forgetting the Elfstones, and just running as fast and far from the Hollows as possible, prompting Wil and Amberle to tell her the full story of their quest and the collapse of the Forbidding. Wil is still considering a good-faith bargain with the Witch, but Amberle argues that he cannot trust her, that they must escape on their own. Wil and Amberle discuss the events that have occurred on their journey, and Wil reassures the Elf about the courage and determination she’s shown every step of the way. For the first time to anyone, Amberle tells Wil about her relationship with the Ellcrys, and reveals the reason why she abandoned her people and responsibilities. Eretria finally springs the door to their jail cell, and they go off in search of Wisp.
“She frightens me, Wil—she is beautiful, but so cold.”
“She is a monster.”
I’d say that Wisp’s mention that Mallenroh’s power being confined to the Hollows pretty much confirms my suspicions that the power for the Witches’ magic is leeched from the Bloodfire (whether they realize it or not.) I wonder if the Witches are powerless outside of the Hollows, or just drastically reduced in power. Seems hard to grow to such heights, to gain such intimate knowledge of other magics, such as the Elfstones, if they never leave their home.
It’s also fairly clear that Amberle is (once again) better at evaluating the situation than Wil. Mallenroh has done nothing to prove that she’s trustworthy, and any plan that involves giving her the Elfstones is sure to lead to a messy end for Wil and co., if not the entirety of the Four Lands.
Wisp is such a cutey. He’s obviously suffering from a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome, and his obsession with Eretria suggests that somewhere deep down inside his crooked body he remembers what it’s like to love and lust—there’s a desire there to leave Mallenroh’s service and return to the Elven people. Brooks is always showing us both sides of the coin, balancing Mallenroh’s badass evilry with Wisp’s naive, adorable crush on Eretria. It’s a great touch that adds a lot of charm to this section of the novel. It still feels like the danger-o-meter is topping out, but there’s also opportunity to recognize that even deep in the Hollows there are people worth saving.
One of my favourite moments in the chapter occurs just after Wil tells Eretria about their mission:
He finished, and Eretria stared at him wordlessly. She turned to Amberle.
“Is all this true, Elven girl? I trust you better, I think.”
Amberle nodded. “It is all true.”
It’s such a small, seemingly throwaway scene, but it makes me smile, and tells us so much about the bonds forming between Amberle, Wil, and Eretria, all of whom have at various times been at odds with one another.
Wil and Amberle’s discussion is a beautiful little moment of vulnerability. It’s interesting to finally hear the full story of why Amberle abandoned her duty as a Chosen, and it’s hard not to blame the Ellcrys for her behaviour. While it initially comes across as abusive and creepy, resembling a manipulative relationship, it takes on another level of complexity when one remembers that the Ellcrys herself was barely a child when she became the tree, putting a childish, rather than predatory, spin on her behaviour. We understand why Amberle ran—she was obviously not comfortable with the intimacy extended so quickly by the Ellcrys, making her shame even more heartbreaking for she has done nothing to be ashamed of. She had no way to know that the Ellcrys’ advances were unusual, due to the poor record-keeping of the Chosen, and no precedent for its behaviour in over 500 years.
The reason that I left Arborlon and did not continue as a Chosen in service of the Ellcrys was that I became so frightened of her that I could no longer bear even to be around her. That sounds foolish, I know, but hear my out, please. I have never told this to anyone.
It is not foolish, Amberle. In fact, too few people have the courage and strength to willingly leave such a relationship.
I left, Wil, barely a month after my choosing. I told my mother and my grandfather that I was leaving, that I could no longer continue to serve. I didn’t not tell them why. I could not bring myself to do that. Failing as a Chosen was bad enough. But to fail because she had made demands on me that anyone else would have been pleased to meet—no. I could not admit to myself what had happened between the Ellcrys and me, but I could not admit it to anyone else.
Wil and Amberle have spent so much of the novel at each other’s throats that it’s wonderful to see them now as friends and confidantes. Despite their kiss a few chapters ago, I’ve never really considered the evolution of their relationship to be based on romance. It’s rare, especially in ’80s epic fantasy, to see a friendship between and a man and a woman grow so slowly through a novel. Brooks’ tremendous patience and delicacy with them is finally starting to pay off.
Next Time on the Reread
Wil battles Mallenroh for the Elfstones, Wisp leads the way to Safehold, and the Reaper attacks.
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.