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, the Eventine was attacked by a close friend, Ander stepped into the spotlight, Mallenroh stole the Elfstones, and Amberle was reunited with Wil and Eretria.
This week, the Witch sisters set the world aflame, Hebel lives, Amberle wakens the Bloodfire, and Wil faces the Reaper!
Amberle and co. find Wisp after breaking out of their cell. A bell tolls, announcing the arrival of Mallenroh’s sister, Morag. After a few increasingly desperate threats from Wil and Eretria (Amberle keeps her dignity intact), Wisp agrees to show them to the Elfstones. Along the way, however, they stumble across a hair-pulling contest between the Witches. Morag knows that Mallenroh has the Elfstones, both fearing what might come and wanting the Stones for herself. Their altercation turns physical and they start tossing fireballs, which, of course, sets the tower on fire. The magic fire turns to real fire and, all of a sudden, consumes the Witch sisters (what a shame for two immortals). Wil, Amberle, Eretria, and Wisp make a dash across the burning to the staircase leading to Mallenroh’s treasure room, where they find the Elfstones and Hebel stuffed in a wardrobe (fresh back from Narnia). They flee through the burning tower, but the Reaper, no longer held at bay by Mallenroh’s presence, is watching the front door. Wisp leads them through a backdoor and they escape, unscathed, into the Hollows.
Abruptly the tower bell sounded—once, twice, three times, then a fourth. Wisp let out a frightened moan and thrashed violently against Wil’s grip. The Valeman shook him angrily.
“What’s happening, Wisp? What is it?”
Wisp slumped down helplessly. “Morag comes,” he whimpered.
- The Reaper
We are as rock to stone.
So, I’ve got a crazy theory. (‘Cause, if you haven’t noticed, that’s what I do.) I think Morag and Mallenroh used to be one person and some event in the past caused their personality to be split into two twin bodies. In fact, I think there’s a lot of evidence for this in the text of this chapter. Let’s get to it.
First of all, there’s the twin aspect. They are physically identical to one another to the point that Wil cannot tell them apart but for Morag going after her sister for her possession of the Elfstones. Yeah, identical twins exist, so this isn’t conclusive evidence by any means, but it’s a start. (Plus, how often do two twins who passionately hate each other and have very little contact with one another dress and cut their hair identically?) There’s the matter of their evenly-matched magic, which seems like something that would happen if a powerful wizard or witch here split into two, and Morag’s ability to intuit Mallenroh’s possession of the Elfstones, which suggests that a part of their minds can still communicate subconsciously across vast distance. The most interesting evidence, however, comes from their brief dispute about a young man whom they accidentally destroyed:
“Remember the human you tried to take from me, the beautiful one that was mine, the one you wanted so badly? Remember, Sister? Why even that pretty one was lost to you, wasn’t he? So careless were you that you let him be destroyed.”
Morag stiffened. “It was you who destroyed him, Sister.”
“I?” Mallenroh laughed. “One touch from you and he withered with horror.”
At first I thought the Witches were tossing blame like a hot potato, but I think what we’re actually seeing is a shared memory from their life before the split, something so ingrained in their psyche, the heart of bitter remorse, that they are unable to reconcile that responsibility does not lie with either of them individually. The whole confrontation rings with cognitive dissonance, and it seems like there’s more to the Witches’ bitterness and unbridled rivalry than a sob story about lost love. The Witches are quick to call each other names, and some of their words sound eerily like someone who is mad at themselves—petty judgements and mud-slinging.
So, what caused this split? Due to their proximity to the Bloodfire, I believe that their personality was split at the exact moment that the Forbidding was formed. As the magic in the Four Lands was torn in two, so were Morag/Mallenroh—a once great magic-user torn asunder, its mind and powers split between two identical bodies. What’s the connection between the Witches and the Bloodfire? I’ve got a theory about that, too.
(Admittedly, I don’t have any evidence to back this up.)
What if they weren’t just split by the creation of the Forbidding—what if Mallenroh and Morag were once the Wizard that created the Forbidding? The Forbidding requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice to maintain, and so it makes sense that a similar level of sacrifice were required to create it in the first place. The Forbidding and the Four Lands are in balance, mirror images of one another, just like the Witches. Mallenroh is quick to brag about the tremendous magic controlled by her and Morag, and I’ve already postulated that the Bloodfire powers, or at least acts as a catalyst for, their magic. Perhaps the sacrifice required of the Wizard was to give half of herself to the Four Lands and half to the Forbidding, a bifurcation of self and land, in perfect balance.
Why don’t they remember creating the Forbidding? You got me. They seem like they’re mad, an understandable side effect of splitting existence and personality in two, which might explain it. They have also exhibited difficulty in remembering details from their past, as shown in their argument about the “human,” which also suggests that memories of their life before the Forbidding might be foggy, or gone entirely. Mallenroh also mentions their “other sisters,” and has previously referred to a coven of Witches, or which they are the last. Perhaps those other Witches, those sisters, were also involved in the creation of the Forbidding, and the Witch who would become Morag and Mallenroh was the ultimate sacrifice, doomed to forever fight an equally balanced war.
It’s obviously not an airtight theory. Hell, it’s not even watertight, but it’s fun, and I think, at the very least, there’s enough provided by Brooks to consider it.
After escaping from Mallenroh’s burning tower, Eretria convinces Wisp to lead their party to Safehold, which lays beneath Spire’s Reach. Along the way, Wil watches for signs of the Reaper, but the big Demon is nowhere to be found. Wisp shows them to Spire’s Reach, then, with more prompting from Eretria, and despite his obvious fear of Wil, leads them inside in search of the “door made of glass that will not break.” Sensing a game, Wisp darts inside and leads them through the ruins of Safehold to a waterfall, behind which lies the room containing the Bloodfire. When they enter, however, there is nothing, and Wil’s doubt boils over. Amberle, on the other hand, hears the Bloodfire calling, and in a display of Herculean and uncharacteristic strength (or some sort of magic), moves aside a boulder stoppering the Bloodfire. Wisp flees in fear.
White fire exploded from the earth. Upward toward the roof of the cavern it lifted, the flame glistening like liquid ice. It burned white and brilliant as it rose, yet gave off no heat. Then slowly it began to turn the color of blood.
The Bloodfire! After all that, we finally made it. But… there’s still a ton of book left! That can’t be good, can it?
One of the things I like most about the discovery of the Bloodfire is that it’s visually rewarding—the picture of Amberle pushing aside the boulder, consumed by the Bloodfire, which changes from liquid ice to blood, is powerful, and works so effectively because Brooks doesn’t draw it out. After the labyrinthine search, it’s refreshing how fast the actual interaction with the Bloodfire is. Brooks hates to waste the reader’s time, and understands how much emotional and visual impact can be condensed into a relatively small scene.
I love the way that Safehold is an amalgam of both natural rock and an old manmade fortress. This is a wonderfully illustrative way of showing to the reader how the land has changed in the millennia since the Bloodfire was founded—a human creation once again consumed by the earth around it. Was Safehold built by the Elves? Or is it a relic of the Old World, built by our modern engineers?
Amberle pushing the boulder aside is… sorta cheesy? I can see where Brooks was coming from, manifesting the Ellcrys’ magic and Amberle’s connection to the Bloodfire as some sort of superhuman strength, but ultimately I think the scene would have played a bit better if Amberle had summoned the Bloodfire with the Ellcrys seed, or if they’d come into the chamber and it was already roaring. It’s cute that, as usual, Wil has an over-the-top emotional reaction, meanwhile Amberle’s doing her thing, analyzing the situation, and searching for the Bloodfire. (Though, to be fair, she does seem to have some Ellcrys-birthed prescience that allows her to find it.)
One of the things that surprised me on this reread is that Wil never calls upon the seeking power of the Elfstones. As we know, the Elfstones were not designed as a weapon, though that’s how Wil treats them throughout Elfstones, but as a tool for seeking that which is out of sight or lost. One of the central conflicts in the novel is that Safehold and the Bloodfire are lost from memory—no one, even Allanon or the Ellcrys, quite knows where to find it. Wil holds in his hands the solution to that problem, but never actually uses it. The main reason for this is that using the magic of the Elfstones in any capacity will reveal Wil’s position to the Demons, calling the Reaper, and perhaps others, down on their party, spelling a quick end to any hope for the Four Lands. Wil could have used them when they were still in Arborlon, and his location was not yet so secretive, but his mental block, another one of the main conflicts in the novel, stood in his way. I like that despite having a magical key to solving the mystery of Safehold’s whereabouts, Wil still has to rely on the people he meets to lead him to his final destination. Wisp and Hebel are both broken in their own ways, but without their heroism, or at least their compliance, the Four Lands would have been doomed.
However, there’s a lot of dramatic tension in Wil having to use the Elfstones, and knowing that doing so will call the Reaper down on them. I would have liked to have seen Wil be forced to make a decision about having to use the Elfstones, all the while knowing that doing so would create a ticking time bomb of their situation. Wil doesn’t have to make a lot of hard decisions in this novel, not like Amberle, but choosing to use the Elfstones to seek out Safehold would have been one of the toughest.
As Eretria, Wil, and Hebel watch in confusion as Amberle is consumed by the flames of the Bloodfire, Wisp’s death-cry is heard from beyond the waterfall. The Reaper! Holding Wisp’s corpse, the Reaper enters the chamber of the Bloodfire, finally caught up to its prey. Wil holds aloft the Elfstones, but nothing happens—the magic is lost to him. As Eretria feints and distracts the Demon, Wil falls into himself, exploring the Elfstones and his relationship to the magic. Eventually he realizes that the force blocking his use of the Stones isn’t his Man blood, but his fear of the magic. He forces his way through the block and summons the Elfstones’ blue flame, sending it crashing into the Reaper. But even that’s not enough to stop the bloodthirsty Demon. Drifter leaps at the Demon, buying Wil the time he needs to recover and call upon the Elfstones’ magic again. The Reaper disappears, and Wil realizes at the last moment that it crawls along the ceiling of the chamber—it drops in front of Wil, and reveals its faceless self, a promise of death for the Valeman. Wil calls forth the Elfstone magic one last time, imploring it to seek the Reapers face, to destroy it completely, and finally the Demon is consumed utterly by the Elven magic and dies.
It was the Reaper.
Its shadow moved in the chamber entry, as soundless as the passing of the moon. The Reaper walked like a man, though it was much larger than any ordinary man, a massive, dark
- The Reaper
One question has always lingered for me, whenever I read this novel: Why doesn’t Wil give the Elfstones to Amberle? He’s obviously concerned about his right to bear them as a weapon against the Reaper, but Amberle’s a full-blooded Elf, and would have no issue using the Stones. Here we get our answer: Wil’s inability to wield the magic is an internal conflict borne of fear, rather than any biological restriction brought about by his mixed heritage. And now, here in this chapter, we begin to understand why Allanon chose Wil, despite his naivety and questionable ability to make rational decisions. It all starts with this passage:
He thought of his grandfather. When Shea Ohmsford had used the Sword of Shannara, there had been danger that the Valeman had sense yet not understood. He had told Wil that. But there had been need for the magic of the Sword, and the choice his grandfather had made had been a necessary one. So it was now with Wil. There was a need greater than his own. There was a trust that had been given him, and there were lives that only he could preserve.
Wil is a Healer in his heart. His fear of the Elfstones was borne of self-preservation and misunderstanding, but ultimately he was able to conquer that fear, to break through the block he had created for himself, by, like an aide working, or a medical professional in an active war zone, putting aside his personal safety to preserve and protect a greater cause. I don’t admire Wil throughout most of Elfstones, but here, with the help of Allanon and Amberle, I believe he becomes admirable and brave—like Ander becoming the leader of the Elves, living up to his grandfather’s greatness, here Wil becomes the heir to his grandfather, and everything that made him a hero.
Wil could never defeat the Reaper in combat, so this is a battle of the Demon’s physical strength against the Half-Elf’s emotional strength. Wil’s ability to finally overcome not only his own mental and emotional block on the Elfstones’ magic, but the Reaper itself, who does not fall so easily to the magic as most Demons, is the support he gets from his friends—Eretria and Drifter are companions in the physical world, and he is aided spiritually by Allanon and Amberle. Wil holds the Stones, but it is truly a group effort.
But, to give credit where it’s due, let’s revel in Wil’s most triumphant moment:
Like a cat, the Demon landed before them, massive and soundless. Eretria screamed and stumbled back in horror. Slowly, slowly, the black hole of the cowl widened, freezing Wil Ohmsford with its empty stare. The Valeman could not move. The blackness held him, faceless and deep.
Then the Reaper lunged, and for just an instant Wil felt himself swallowed by the thing. He would have died then but for the power of the Elfstones. Seeking stones, Allanon had called them, and the warning cried out in his mind—seek the Reaper’s face! Quicker than thought, the magic acted, blinding him to the terrible monster, to his fear and pain, and to everything but a primitive instinct for survival. He head himself scream, and the blue fire exploded from him. It tore through the Reaper’s faceless cowl, gripped the Demon like a vice about its invisible head and held it fast. Twisting desperately, the monster sought to break free. Wil Ohmsford’s hands locked before him, and the Elven magic swept from his shattered body into the Reaper, lifting it, thrusting it back against the cavern wall. There the Reaper hung, impaled upon the blue fire, writing in fury as it burned. An instant later the fire swept downward through the Demon’s robes and exploded in a flare of blinding light.
Damn. A fittingly epic end for one of Fantasy’s most terrifying villains.
Next Time on the Reread
Amberle makes a great sacrifice, and Perk’s impertinence saves the day.
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.