Thursday, October 1, 2015

Why The Sword of Shannara You Ask

Some folks might have noticed the gold hued Hildebrandt Bros. cover of the original The Sword of Shannara over there on the top left corner. Yeah, I've reread it for my next Black Gate review. And I don't hate it. There, I've said. You can burn my membership card in the guild of swords & sorcery aficionados, but I sort of like the poor thing.

For those uninitiated in the history of The Sword of Shannara, legendary Ballantine editors Lester and Judy Del Rey were looking for something to echo the success of The Lord of the Rings (and kick off their new Del Rey imprint). They discovered young Terry Brooks, and worked with him to turn his manuscript into a novel that would do just that.

And it did. According to Wikipedia, it sold 125,000 copies its first month in print. The Sword of Shannara was one of the first fantasy books to climb the New York Times Bestseller list and awakened the publishing industry to the potential of fantasy fiction. It also set the stage for scads of other Tolkien pastiches to appear. Like GRRM paving the way for a host of other grimdark authors, Terry Brooks and Sword showed there was profit to be made in a certain direction.

While we've all had it up to here with secret heirs, bands of diverse heroes bound together on a quest, and evil dark lords and their monstrous hordes and henchdemons, there was a time when we didn't. An innocent time when not everyone and his brother and sister were writing that exact same story, again, and again, and again. When the only big fantasy novels you had read were LotR because that's all there was.

I can't stress how important and mind-blowing it was when The Sword of Shannara first appeared. My fantasy reading friends (all guys I must admit) and I went nuts. The original hardcover was over seven hundred pages long and I know two guys who read it straight through in a day. It took me at least three or four. It was the longest book I had ever read at that point in my life.

Even though we were young, I was only eleven, we all saw the blatant Tolkien rip-offs homages. The whole basic plot: determined band sets off to the big villain's kingdom for some magical folderol that will defeat him. We didn't care. Sure the Siege of Tyrsis equals the Siege of Minas Tirith, Stenmin equals Womrtongue, and a host of other people, places and things in Sword mimic or echo things in LotR. And we still didn't care.

Tolkien's heroes
Brooks' heroes

We were so hungry for new fantasy that satisfied the same things LotR had done for us; good triumphing over evil, adventure and excitement, and cool characters. There was other fantasy out there, Moorcock, Philip Jose Farmer, Ursula K. LeGuin, among others, but they were not offering the same things as Tolkien (and I'm sure all of them would be proud to admit that). Brooks and the Del Reys knew exactly what hordes of young fantasy fans were hungering for and they gave it to us. They took Tolkien, made it simpler and easier to read, and WHAM!, took us for a roller coaster ride.

I came up with the idea of revisiting The Sword of Shannara last year. It's been a decade or so since I last read it and it seemed like something ripe for examination. To gain a little added insight into the book's history, I sprang for the 35th Anniversary Annotated Edition. Brooks towers over the history of fantasy because of the vast numbers of books he's sold and the fact he served as a gateway for so many readers into fantasy. I'm curious how much he matters anymore. I hope to generate a little discussion about this come Tuesday.

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