The Creativity of Compelling Imitation: Reflections on The Sword of Shannara

With the third installment of Terry Brooks’s concluding Shannara sub-series having seen publication more than a month ago and the fourth and final to come out next year, his devoted fans are treated to a narrative reflection on the grand tapestry of an imagined, fantastic future in which our imaginations have dwelt since the publication of The Sword of Shannara in 1977. Four decades later, Brooks has written 23 books and a graphic novel in the Shannara world, plus the masterful Word and Void trilogy and its linking material, 5 pre-Shannara novels. One more Shannara novel will conclude the timeline (and Brooks has already written it), so there are 33 books which all inhabit the same mythic world of adventures born from the pen of one writer of true stories about Elves. There are, besides, short stories and a novella as well. This is a staggering legacy, and one I have appreciated since an early age. Indeed, I committed to reading every Brooks book that saw publication long ago, and intend to continue doing so. But as we reach the end of the Shannara saga, I have decided that I would do with Shannara what I did with Lord of the Rings: I want to reread each book and blog about the value of its narrative for developing the craft of imagination.

And there is nowhere else better to start but the beginning, The Sword of Shannara. I want to begin here for many reasons, but the most pressing one is to correct what I think is a critical injustice that was done to Brooks concerning his literary achievement. Because Brooks was influenced by Tolkien, Sword was maligned. (Never mind that every fantasy writer was influenced by Tolkien and, I would argue, every writer, whether fantasy or not, ought to be – because every writer ought to be influenced by the classics.) In fact, Sword has been so maligned by critics for similarity to the plot of The Lord of the Rings that it was skipped over by the writers of The Shannara Chronicles. I don’t blame them for the decision, but The Sword of Shannara should not be skipped over, especially not because it imitates Tolkien. In fact, I shall argue that its imitation of Tolkien is precisely a reason why it should be read. But it is more than an imitation, and I will show that the differences between LotR & Sword are not incidental but profound, differences that actually stem from Brooks’s careful reading of Tolkien and pursuit of his own artistic intentions. And, finally, I will say a word about Brooks’s artistic intentions as he put them himself. These three streams will come together, I hope, to create a worthy homage to the legacy of Sword, which gave rise to the captivating world of the Four Lands and the drama of the Shannara narratives which have made it come alive. And more particularly, I hope to show that an authentic Tolkienesque philosophy of the value of fantasy literature can be deeply integrated with a love for The Sword of Shannara and its impressive legacy.

  1. Imitation: The Essence of Imagination

When John Batchelor wrote in his opinion piece “Tolkien Again” that Brooks “unabashedly copies” Tolkien in The Sword of Shannara, he was not paying a compliment. Much severer statements have been made, both by Batchelor and by others, and the subtitle of Batchelor’s article alludes to a common primary gripe that these imitators “infest a morbid but moneyed land.” Greedy swindlers they are, with their grasping hands, writing stories about elves and dragons just for the money. Indeed, commercialization always bothers the aesthetic community, and justifiably so, because commercialization can, and often does, lead to bastardization.

To be fair, Batchelor himself dismissed that it was the financial gain of the writers that generated his ire at their Tolkienesque imitation. And in truth, plenty of excellent writers go undeservedly ignored – even famous ones are under read. How many fantasy readers know their Homer, Virgil, and Dante, let alone their William Morris, George MacDonald, and Lord Dunsany? But here’s another question: okay, let’s say you wanted to write a novel just to make money. How many times, with that devious plot in mind, can you get yourself on the New York Times Bestseller list? How many times, out of sheer greed, could you get yourself to write a book a year? Can you really muster the intestinal fortitude to invest in writing a 500-page manuscript, with no certainty of whether it will be well received whatsoever, merely out of avarice? Even if the motivation of money is enough to sustain the effort, it cannot be enough to explain the effect. That is to say, being motivated by money doesn’t guarantee you’ll make any. So there must be something going on in Brooks that gets him the readers, and even if his novels aren’t your cup of tea, aren’t you interested in why? Writing it off as merely a desire for more stuff like Tolkien doesn’t really explain it – because why do we want more stuff like what we already have? Why does imitation capture the imagination so powerfully? And what makes Brooks’s efforts at imitations so incredibly wonderful? (A look at the epigraphs of the Landover series will let you know that Brooks has a delightfully wide palatte for lovely, creative imitations of a wide variety of fantasy writers. And of course the Landover Series is incredibly original even in the midst of its most clear parallels with precursors.)

Tolkien, as it turns out, had something to say about this. When writing advice to his son Christopher about how to approach difficulties in his life, Tolkien said, “I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for  start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief” (66). Imitation in writing here provides both a start in one’s own writing projects as well as a means to escape difficult situations. Furthermore, he writes on the conception of Middle Earth in another place, “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama” (145). Wielding, in other words, imitation. In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien muses over the difficulty of unravelling “the intricately knotted and ramified history of the branches on the Tree of Tales” (19), comparing this legacy to a vast “Cauldron, where so many potent things lie simmering agelong on the fire, among them Love-at-first-sight” (30). The Cauldron is the vast storage of beautiful material for imitation into which dip “the Cooks,” who “do not dip in the ladle quite blindly. Their selection is important” (31). This notion of earlier stories as recipe books makes imitation not adjunct to but essential to the process of imaginative creativity. Indeed, Brooks got his own engine of narrative going through imitation, but he pulled from many and disparate places within that Cauldron that include but also extend to many places other than Tolkien. That Tolkien’s Elves and other fantasy elements became a powerfully attractive ingredient list in the Cauldron is to the credit of that original Cook as well as to those Cooks with sufficient taste to realize that imitation of him can be rather pleasing.

CS Lewis, famously a close friend and of Tolkien who was deeply inspired in his own aesthetic theory and practice by the philologist, points out that our attitudes have greatly shifted on imitation in The Discarded Image. He writes,

“For the aim is not self­expression or ‘creation’; it is to hand on the ‘his to rial’ matter worthily;  not worthily of your own genius or of the poetic art but of the matter itsel£ I  doubt if they would have understood  our demand for originality or valued those works in their own age which were original any the more on that account. If you had asked La3amon or Chaucer ‘Why do you not make up a brand-new  story of your own?’ I think they might have replied (in effect) ‘Surely we are not yet reduced to that?’ Spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve?  The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty.” (211)

The iteration of imitation is how narrative brings out truth: it is a refining process that requires it. That imitation was the expected mode of extracting wisdom through narrative can be seen in any rudimentary list of the Great Books: Virgil imitated Homer, Dante imitated Virgil, the Arthurian romances imitated each other like a brood of irrepressible rabbits, and Robin Hood was born in quite the same way. In such acts of imitation, the imagination unabashedly copies precisely because it delights in the beautiful core elements of stories it sees and imitates not to flatter but to make clear that the beauty of the Idea of Story reaches beyond even the particularly beautiful story being read. Tolkien’s own world was born of that Arthurian romance wherein imitation was the lifeblood, and The Hobbit is nothing other than an imitation (and a wonderful one) of The Princess and the Goblin. Brooks’s imitation of Tolkien is reflective, meditative: it helps us to see the archetypes beyond the characters themselves. Imitation is not simply a high form of flattery: it is a form of interpretation, meditation, assimilation – imitation is how we extract meaning, and how we share it. Originality comes out of careful reflection upon the subject matter in the received story, and discovering notes and qualities of the story’s flavor that can be brought out and emphasized to refresh our palates concerning what caught our attention in the first place.

  1. Creative Retexturing is Not Trivial

I do not mean to say, of course, that all that falls to the writing aspirant is to follow step by step a writerly predecessor and to avoid meanginful originality. Freshly crafted storytelling is always the admirable goal of serious writers. I simply mean to say that, as T.S. Eliot put it, often when we think of a writer being original, he is in fact simply authentically and skillfully participating in a tradition by retexturing what he has found to be stirring in his admired predecessors. What Terry Brooks did in The Sword of Shannara was not simply to retell Lord of the Rings, as has been sometimes asserted, but retextured it in profound ways. And when critics ignore these things, they skip over the essence of what makes any particular book itself to point out oftentimes the most banal of similarities.

Tom Shippey, in Tolkien: The Author of the Century, points out these similarities. He asserts that Brooks follows Tolkien “point for point,” even in characters: Allanon is a Gandalf, Shea and Flick are Frodo and Sam, and so on. Most of the parallels are there, I admit it, though some of them strike me as fairly thin (Menion and Aragorn hardly seem to be the same sort of figure – their role is loosely similar but only in that they are both reluctant royalty who assist vulnerable protagonists). But my goal is of course not to argue that Brooks did not imitate Tolkien’s character creation here: only that such imitation is not inherently bad nor nearly so slavish as Shippey contends. In order to make the parallels work, in many cases Shippey has to entirely ignore the characters’ personalities (Allanon is hardly like Gandalf in his self-representation), life circumstances (Frodo and Bilbo, in addition to being Hobbits rather than humans, are well to do, while Shea and Flick are blue collar working men), and motivations (Menion is bored and Aragorn wants to restore his honor). What he identifies are narratological functions the characters perform, though it is hard to write any quest story where one doesn’t unintentionally bump up against the archetypes Tolkien drew from. Tolkien himself, in fact, criticized this way of thinking in On Fairy-Stories, when he dismisses critics who like to say that “any two stories that are built round the same folklore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are ‘the same stories’.” Now of course, unlike the stories Tolkien goes on to mention, we do know that there is a causal relationship between his writing of Lord of the Rings and Brooks’s writing of The Sword of Shannara. But the same move is applied: formal function obviates any individualizing aspects in Shippey’s reading of Sword, and Tolkien directly disagrees with this method of scholarship: “Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count” (19). Whether Tolkien would have approved of the coloring, atmosphere, and unclassifiable individual details of Sword I cannot say (Tolkien was rather severe about contemporary writing, including Lewis’s), but if one genuinely adopts this point as a way to approach imitations of Tolkien such as Sword, then Shippey’s cataloging of archetypal characters and plot trajectories really isn’t satisfactory for answering the question of whether The Sword of Shannara is good.

And in making that appraisal, the differences between the two are essential. It matters that Allanon is human and not a Maiar in disguise, and his personality is vastly different than Gandalf’s—and that the order of the Druids inhabits the Four Lands in a starkly different way from how the Istari do. The Druids are a political entity by design from the beginning, whereas the wizards become more political in proportion to how corrupt they are (Saruman being case in point). This is a radically different approach to the question of powerful magic users, and the atmosphere it generates is profoundly affective. It is also hardly trivial that Tolkien chose the past for the focus of his high fantasy and Terry Brooks chose the future – the rhetorical differences of those decisions are so obvious, yet complicated and fascinating, that one has to be rather dull to miss them. I could list more: for example, Frodo knew Gandalf, while Shea didn’t know Allanon, and the psychological drama between them is riveting in an entirely different way.

While critics of Brooks’s unabashed copying of The Lord of the Rings gloss over these rather important innovations, they miss subtler imitations that are really quite brilliant. My favorite example of this occurs in the second chapter of The Sword of Shannara where Allanon unfolds the history of the Four Lands to Shea to slowly walk him up to discover the maddening edge of his impending destiny. Probably those decrying Brooks for his overt imitation didn’t notice this more subtle imitation of a display of emotional manipulation in The Hobbit: instead of introducing the Dwarves a few at a time to slowly intrigue Bilbo about the nature of his upcoming adventure, Allanon sneaks Shea up to a leap of imagination by casting his mind a thousand years into the past and carefully laying the intellectual trap that will prevent him from being able to reject the Druid’s revelations outright. That isn’t flat imitation: it’s a creative transformation of a Tolkienesque trope into something completely original.

  1. The Atmospheric Innovation of The Sword of Shannara

In his foreward to The Sword of Shannara in the 25th anniversary omnibus of the original trilogoy, Brooks writes, “I was about fourteen when I discovered Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Alexander Dumas, and all the other eighteenth and nineteenth-century European adventure-story writers. I was immediately hooked. What marvelous adventures!” I was rather pleasantly surprised to read this, because I loved those same stories at the same age, and had been distressed for some time when I read this in C.S. Lewis’s essay On Stories: “But the fact is that what is said to be the most ‘exciting’ novel in the world, The Three Musketeers, makes no appeal to me at all. The total lack of atmosphere repels me.” I felt as if I had somehow wronged the legacy of my admired Lewis, liking stories that left him cold. Now, I overall deeply appreciate Lewis’s point in On Stories, which is to make much the same point as what Tolkien said above: that it is the unfinalizable element of atmosphere which makes any given story interesting. But I realized then that perhaps this was the core issue which critics, who happen to prefer Tolkien, have against Brooks – Lewis, after all, developed On Stories to explicate that very theme of atmosphere he loved in Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories. Literary critics love atmosphere – and of course they should. And as a literary critic, as well as a reader, so do I. But of course, Lewis, Tolkien, Tom Shippey, and both those who love or don’t love Brooks’s writing love excitement – so do I. But when atmosphere becomes steeply privileged over excitement as an aesthetic criteria, naturally those narratives which put them on more equal footing might suffer in appraisal. But is this fair?

Brooks writes in that Foreword, “I had read The Lord of the Rings two years earlier. What if Tolkien’s magic and fairy creatures were made a part of the worlds of Walter Scott and Dumas?” (5). What if, in other words, the atmosphere of high fantasy was injected into the excitement of eighteenth-century romance? Here perhaps is what the dissatisfied critics have really missed, because the high fantasy and the adventure romance are difficult to tell apart, yet their distinguishing feature, perhaps, is this question of atmosphere versus excitement. It is telling that, almost begrudgingly, Batchelor writes in his 1977 review of Sword, “there’s something unavoidably exciting about bold volunteers setting their faces to the ominous wind from the north.” Indisputably, Tolkien is the absolute master of atmosphere, and many fantasy writers fail to create it because they are too busy trying to generate excitement. C.S. Lewis, I read somewhere, had to critique Tolkien for this love of atmosphere actually getting out of hand, saying something like, “It seems like you’re just content to let these Hobbits be Hobbits forever.” He needed a friendly push out of the door to turn atmosphere into excitement – which he does incredibly well, when he gets around to it.

But Brooks manages to turn excitement into atmosphere: he turns the ache to know what happens next into more than an exciting plot: it becomes part of what makes the magic of his tales so convincing. Perhaps this is why some people who love Tolkien are less impressed by Brooks (mistakenly, I think): his approach is more plot driven. But it’s also why I have stayed up until the birds started chirping the day I bought a new Brooks book, committed to finishing it before I could persuade myself to fall asleep.

Sword is probably more like a book the half-Elvish Valeman Shea would read and The Lord of the Rings more like that a Tookish Hobbit might read. It’s something of a fine-grained distinction: obviously passages in Tolkien are breakneck in their plot drive, and Terry’s incredible gift at description certainly paints a convincing atmosphere. But it matters that at its core, the success of Frodo was measured by his willingness to throw away the one ring, while the success of Shea was measured by his ability to take up a sword: both are fairy tale dilemmas in fantasy stories, but one is about struggling with escape from an oppressive atmosphere and the other is about accepting the energy of the plot as a force wielded by a character. You could say that Shea is a Frodo-like Aragorn, but really Shea is just a different kind of hero. He’s an adventure hero, while Frodo is a Faerie hero. Shea has to learn to believe in magic, Frodo has to learn to cast it away. Frodo had to bear the ring of lies, while Shea had to bear the sword of truth, and to fail to appreciate the profundity of that difference is not only to fail to appreciate what value Shea’s story has for us but Frodo’s as well. Brooks, in his later works, developed different models than the one he found in Tolkien, but his imitative ingenuity began with a keen awareness of how to make himself a worthy son of the father of modern fantasy. For its own value, for its impact on the entire Shannara series, and for the delight it brings to those who love variations on a compelling theme, The Sword of Shannara deserves its place in the history of fantasy literature.

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