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, Amberle woke the Bloodfire, and Perk came to the rescue as night fell over the Wilderun.
This week, the Elves prepare for their final showdown with the Demon army, the Dagda Mor is defeated, and the Ellcrys is reborn!
Allanon visits with the Ellcrys, a sentinel to ease her final moments. The Druid reveals that the Bloodfire has been found, but after that moment of victory, the Ellcrys dies and the Forbidding collapses entirely. Allanon lays the Ellcrys staff at the base of the dead tree, then leaves the Gardens of Life to visit Eventine, who himself lies on his deathbed. There he finds Ander, who ponders his father’s great legacy and finds strength in the inspiration he takes from his father’s resilience and leadership. He vows that whatever happens, he will rule the Elves as his father would. After leaving the Elessedil manor, Ander runs into Stee Jans. They speak of the King’s strength, and the coming battle against the Demons. After that, Allanon approaches Ander to tell him of Amberle and Wil’s successful quest for the Bloodfire.
Do not despair, he soothed. This very afternoon, while the battle to save Arborlon was at its most furious, while the Elves fought so gallantly to stem the Demon advance, something unexpected happened, something that should give us hope. Far, far to the south in the dark of the wilderness forests there the Chosen has gone, her protector brought to life the magic of the Elfstones. The moment that he did so, I knew. I reached out to him then and I touched his thoughts with my own—quickly, for but a moment’s time, because the Dagda Mor could sense what I did. Still, the moment was enough. Gentle Lady, the Bloodfire has been found! The rebirth can still come to pass!
- the Ellcrys
- Stee Jans
There’s a lot of heartbreak in this chapter, but also a lot of courage and heroism. Allanon’s vigil over the Ellcrys during her last moments is sad for many reasons, most of which have to do with the overwhelming sense of failure that pervades both the centuries-old Druid and sentient tree. They’ve each been tasked with keeping the Four Lands safe, however, despite all the time and powers gifted to them, its destruction seems inevitable.
The Ellcrys tried desperately to bring Amberle into the fold when she realized that her death was at hand, but her eagerness, which came across as possessiveness, ended up being a weakness, rather than a strengthening bond. The time the Elves lost to Amberle’s exile was more than enough to make the difference between easy survival and almost utter destruction. A trip to the Bloodfire with Allanon’s help and no Demon army would have been fairly straight forward, and the methods for revitalizing the Ellcrys could have been properly recorded for the next time the tree passes (which, of course, we see in The Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy). It’s pure tragedy that the Ellcrys passes away without being witness to Amberle’s transformation. At least she knows, in her final moments, that Amberle succeeded in finding the Bloodfire and that hope still lives.
(Anyone else think that the absolute first thing the Elves should do after defeating the Demons is to clear out the Wilderun and establish a sanctuary dedicated to preserving and protecting the Bloodfire?)
Allanon’s failures are less about personal shortcomings, and more about the impossibility he faced as the only magic user standing against the vast horde of Demons. He’s obviously powerful, and, as we find out in the next chapter, without his Druid magic the Elves would have stood no chance, but one man can only do so much, and he eventually pays an enormous toll for his use of magic against the Demons. Allanon is often misunderstood by those around him, who demonize him for manipulating events, for pushing those around him to their limits, for sacrificing his allies as though they are pawns, but you see here that each and every one of those sacrifices wounds him deeply. He gives of himself in a way that is unique among Gandalf-inspired mentors in epic fantasy.
Where the Ellcrys and Allanon struggle to reconcile their failures, Ander’s journey here is one of self-reflection and courage. His father is a legend for his role in the defeat of the Warlock Lord, which is chronicled in The Sword of Shannara, and it’s clear that Ander has always struggled to live in the shadow of his father’s greatness, especially when his brother Arion appeared to be everything that made his father great. Here, however, we join Ander as he discovers himself, and recognizes the power that resides within him, and embraces his role as both hero and true leader of the Elves.
Just after daybreak, the Demons launch their final assault against Arborlon, and things look grim for the Elves. Though their allies fight valiantly at their side, the Elves are too worn down, and too small a force to hold against the swelling ranks of the Demon army. All looks lost. But Allanon, sensing defeat, and knowing that they must only buy time, and keep the Gardens of Life from being overrun, rises to the sky on the great bird Dancer, and issues a challenge to the Dagda Mor. The Demon leader joins Allanon in airborne battle astride an enormous bat. Allanon eventually emerges victorious, defeating the Dagda Mor and shattered his Staff of Power. However, the Demon army is whipped up into a frenzy and the death of their leader does little to dampen their morale. Only due a valiant last stand by Stee Jans and the Legion Free Corps are the Elves able to hold the Gardens of Life until Dayn spots Genewen flying high above the city.
Allanon’s hands closed over his own like iron locks, fastening them tightly to the failing Staff. The Dagda Mor shuddered wildly and sagged, his cry dying into a whisper, and the terrible eyes went blank.
The Druid fire swept through him unhindered then, cloaking him in a shroud of blue light until his body exploded into ash and was gone.
- the Dagda Mor
- Ehlron Tay
- Stee Jans
Brooks has written several terrific sieges throughout the Shannara series, but, as with most things in Elfstones, this is one of his absolute best. One of the aspects that makes it most interesting is that, from what we can tell, only Allanon and Ander know that Amberle was successful at igniting the Bloodfire, so, while those two fight on with some small, almost insignificant glimmer of hope, the rest of the heroics we see in this chapter—from Stee Jans, Amantar, Browork, Kobold, and the nameless Elven soldiers—is based purely on pride, ferociousness, and the desire to fight to the bitter end to see another day. Even when things seem least hopeful, passion and perseverance still shines bright.
Can I just take a moment to say that one of the things that impresses me the most about The Shannara Chronicles, MTV’s adaptation of this novel, is that it casts several female characters into military roles, including the captain of the Black Watch. Amberle is a terrific hero, but the events surrounding the battle of Arborlon are dominated by men, and I can’t help but feel like that’s one of the major areas in which the novel fails to hold up in 2015.
The airborne confrontation between Allanon and the Dagda Mor is epic, and unlike anything else we’ve seen in the novel up to this point. The two magic users battling high above the armies, where every Demon and Elf can see each blow, and it’s like a microcosm of the battle below. Allanon’s eventual victory is a huge morale booster for the Elves.In a lot of ways, the battle between Allanon and the Dagda Mor feels like the progeny of the airship battles that become common place later in the Shannara series, with Brooks taking a lot of the tactics and strategy he experiments with here and expanding upon them in interesting ways.
I love, however, that the Dagda Mor’s defeat fails to take the legs out of the Demon invasion. They’re so frenzied at this point, relying more on chaos and overwhelming numbers than military organization, that the death of their leader is almost shrugged off, rather than a stunning defeat. Can you imagine how destabilized the Elven army would have been if Allanon had fallen?
Something that’s always struck me as odd about the Dagda Mor is that he’s not present for most of the novel. He hides away in a hole where even Allanon cannot find him, and lets the other Demons do his dirty work. He’s obviously powerful, especially when armed with the Staff of Power, and one wonders if his presence on the battlefield, raining fire on the Elven troops in the same way that Allanon showers destructions over the Demons, wouldn’t have been enough to turn the tide against the Elves. Really, the Demons were mere hours away from winning, even after the Dagda Mor was killed, and his presence on the battlefield might have sped things up just enough. It’s always useful when your powerful enemy is a coward, however, and the Dagda Mor’s absence just makes Allanon’s efforts all the more appreciable.
Amberle and the others arrive in Arborlon in the nick of time. Before Wil understands what is happening, Amberle approaches the husk of the dead Ellcrys. Wil, Eretria, Perk, and Genewen keep Amberle safe from the Demons trying to bring her down before as the Bloodfire magic begins to envelope her. Amberle’s body loses its shape, replaced by a silver tree—a new Ellcrys.
The Elven girl’s body began to lose its shape, the human form melting, clothing shredding and falling from her; her legs fused and tendrils from her feet slipped downward into the earth; slowly, her upraised arms lengthened and split.
“Oh, Wil!” Eretria whispered as she sank down beside him.
Amberle was gone. In her place stood the Ellcrys, perfectly formed, silver bark and crimson leaves gleaming in the sunlight, born anew into the world of the Elves.
*pours one out for Amberle*
Brooks is really clever in the way he shows us this scene through Wil’s eyes, rather than Amberle’s. We stood alongside Amberle when she made her decision and accepted her fate at the Bloodfire—there was a peace that came alongside her understanding of the sacrifice required to save her people, especially when coupled with the knowledge that all Elves are raised with an belief that they must give of themselves to ensure the health and safety of the earth. With Wil, however, he’s surprised by Amberle’s sudden transformation, and you can feel the seething the betrayal that courses through him—at Amberle for not telling him, not needing his help, and at Allanon, for letting it happen. Their reactions to the situation are like two sides of the same coin. They worked so hard together to reach the Bloodfire, and their relationship grew strong through shared struggles, and it feels to me like Wil expected more to come of that, for Amberle to be a Sam Gamgee, to share the rest of their days together. What Wil doesn’t realize, though, is that he is Sam Gamgee, and it’s Amberle who’s made the ultimate sacrifice, and her transformation into the Ellcrys is a reward for service to her people. It’s her way of sailing off into the West towards the Undying Lands. She is the hero of this story, and will live on, literally, as a legend among her people. It’s so bittersweet and perfect, and nothing Brooks has written since has topped it for pure emotion.
Next Time on the Reread
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.