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 Witch sisters met their fiery end, Amberle woke the Bloodfire, and Wil defeated the Reaper with the help of his friends!
This week, Amberle wakens the Ellcrys seed, and Perk comes to the rescue!
Awash in the flames of the Bloodfire, Amberle confronts her fears, casts aside her personal concerns, and embraces her role in saving the Elven people. The Ellcrys seed is woken by the Bloodfire.
The Bloodfire enfolded Amberle Elessedil with the gentle touch of a mother’s hands. All about her the flames rose, a crimson wall that shut away the whole of the world beyond, yet did no harm to the wondering girl. How strange, she thought, that the Fire did not burn. Yet when she had pushed away the rock and the Fire had burst forth about her, somehow she had known that it would be so. The Fire had consumed her, but there had been no pain; there had been no heat or smoke or even smell. There had been only the color, deep hazy scarlet, and a sense of being wrapped in something familiar and comforting.
There’s a saying: If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This in mind, I thought Amberle’s first description of entering the Bloodfire (“there had been no pain … no heat or smoke or even smell”) amusing because, despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary, she hung on to the visualization of the Bloodfire as an actual fire. Human cognition loves to understand things, and Amberle’s mind, assailed by a tremendous force that it can’t understand, likens the Bloodfire to its closest relative, despite it sharing almost nothing with traditional fire.
The Bloodfire scours Amberle clean. In a personal journey very similar to Wil’s in the previous chapter—which itself was reminiscent of Shea’s truth-seeking when he wielded the Sword of Shannara against the Warlock Lord—Amberle must confront herself and the pain that she’s endured since becoming the first female chosen in hundreds of years. It’s painful to see, even here at the very end, how the scarring caused by the emotional attacks of the Ellcrys on an unsuspecting child, still hurt her so much, compromising her ability to openly welcome her fate. Amberle shows remarkable resilience and bravery as she chooses, despite so many reasons to do otherwise, to bathe the Ellcrys seed in the Bloodfire. Heroes do not make easy decisions, and what Amberle does here is heroic.
Amberle emerges from the Bloodfire after having bathed the Ellcrys seed in its flames. In an effort to soothe the wounds he took in his fight against the Reaper, Wil chews a medicinal root, but its side-effects, including confusion and weariness, begin to take effect almost all immediately. Using the power of the Elfstones, Wil reveals the labyrinthine path out of Safehold. All hope seems lost, however, as they emerge into the overworld and the sun has already set on the last day that Perk promised to fly over the Hollows. Wil gives Eretria the Roc whistle. She blows it, but it produces no sound. Against all odds, however, Perk and Genewen appear in the sky. The Wind Rider tells Wil that he saw the smoke from the Witches tower and knew that they still lived, so he kept his vigil even after the promised hour had passed. Wil and Amberle say goodbye to Eretria and Hebel, then climb atop Genewen. Next stop: Arborlon.
It was Amberle! She emerged from the gloom like a lost child, her voice a thin, desperate whisper. Ignoring the pain that racked his body, the Valeman started toward her, Eretria a step behind. They reached her as she stumbled from the shelf, caught her in their arms, and held her.
“Wil,” she murmured softly, sobbing.
Her head lifted and the long chestnut hair fell back from her face. Her eyes burned crimson with the Bloodfire.
I could cry every time I read this chapter. Ostensibly, it should be full of euphoric victory—the Reaper has been defeated; the Ellcrys seed has been fertilized; Wil has mastered the magic of the Elfstones. All is good, yet everything seems so, so wrong.
“Oh, Wil, I was wrong, I was wrong. It was never her. It was me. It was always me. … I didn’t understand. She knew… all along. She knew, and she tried… and she tried to tell me, to let me see… but I didn’t understand, I was frightened…”
“I was wrong about her, Wil—about the Ellcrys. She was not trying to use me; there were no games being played. The fear… that was unintentional, caused by my failure to understand what it was that she was doing. Wil, she was trying to make me see, to let me know why it was that I was there, why it was that I was so special. You see, she knew that I was to be the one. She knew. Her time was gone, and she saw…”
She stopped then, biting her lip against the emotions welling up within her. Tears began rolling down her cheeks.
It saddens me to see Amberle take blame for everything that’s gone wrong. She reveals to Wil her realization that becoming frightened of the Ellcrys and fleeing was her mistake, rather than a failing of the Ellcrys to communicate, or of an Elven community that could not properly prepare a girl for her role as the Westland’s savior. What the tree, and the entirety of the Elven nation asks of her is tremendously sad, and her resilience throughout the whole novel should not be met with resignation, with her accepting blame for her mistreatment, but with celebration of her accomplishments. It undermines her character, and minimizes the emotional abuse she survived from both the Ellcrys and her family. Nothing that happened was Amberle’s fault.
Wil recognizes the sacrifices that she’s made, along with her strength and courage:
How much had this cost her, [Wil] wondered bitterly? What had happened to her within the Fire…? But no, there was no time for this. They must hurry. They must climb from these catacombs back to the slopes of Spire’s Reach and then return to Arborlon. There Amberle could be made well again. There she would be alright.
Wil obviously bears a great love for her, but, as I’ve mentioned previously in this reread, I think it’s a love borne of respect and admiration, rather than romance. There are no thoughts here of wanting to kiss her or hold her, no thoughts of a romantic reward if she survives, no thoughts of how his own future might be different if she should live or die. In many ways, it reminds me of Sam’s desperate love for Frodo. Wil’s concern for her is genuine—pure love for a companion who’s gone through Hell and back, and deserves nothing more than a happy ending. And yet…
There’s so much foreshadowing in this chapter that it only gets better each time you read the book. Amberle’s Bloodfire-soaked eyes are the first giveaway that not all is right. If she must only bathe the Ellcrys seed in the Bloodfire, why has the magic infected her body? Of course rereaders, and astute first-time readers will recognize now that she is the seed that will birth the new Ellcrys, and the object she carried from Arborlon was just a catalyst for her transformation. Amberle has assumed a terrific magic, and, as any Brooks fan knows, magic comes at a cost as hefty as its power.
We also, of course, see this applied to Wil, whose body is changed after breaking through and harnessing the full power of the Elfstones:
The Elven magic stirred in his blood, and, as it did so, he felt himself changing in that same unexplainable way. He was no longer the same, he knew. He would never be the same. The magic burned him through and left an invisible, permanent scar upon hi body and his consciousness. Helpless to prevent it, he let it happen, wondering as he did what effect it would have on his life.
We know that the most resounding effects of the Elfstone magic do not directly affect Wil, but his children, Brin and Jair, who star in Brooks’ follow-up to this novel, The Wishsong of Shannara. The Elven magic changes the Ohmsford line, imbuing in their blood the mysterious, wistful, and ever-changing power of the Wishsong. It’s well-documented how Brooks took tremendous inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien, but perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Lord of the Rings that Brooks explores in The Elfstones of Shannara is the examination of how the often-times traumatic events required to save the world changes the heroes who survive. Frodo is forever scarred by his journey to Mount Doom, and Wil, though he does not manifest the Wishsong, is changed in similar ways.
Next Time on the Reread
Allanon ponders his failures and his future, and the Demon army launches its final assault against the Elves of Arborlon.
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.