Terry Brooks is sometimes criticized for a lack of originality in The Sword of Shannara. Detractors claim it’s nothing more than a poor clone of The Lord of the Rings. But is this fair, and what is originality in fiction?
Certainly, there are obvious parallels between the books in terms of character, setting and structure. Here are just a few:
- The Shire / Shady Vale
- Frodo and Sam / Shea and Flick
- The Wizard Gandalf / the Druid Allanon
- Elves / Elves
- Dwarves / Dwarfs
- Frodo begins his journey without Gandalf / Shea begins his journey without Allanon
- Gollum / Orl Fane
- Orcs / Gnomes
- The Black Riders / The Skull Bearers
- The Dark Lord / The Warlock Lord
- Underground tunnels (Moria) / underground tunnels (Hall of Kings)
- The siege of Gondor / The siege of Tyrsis
There are more, but what do shared plot points and archetypes really tell us about The Sword of Shannara?
To appreciate a story, it must be experienced as a story, not broken down into a list.
Stories often appear similar on the surface. Just like a glass of Coke looks like a glass of Pepsi. But if you actually taste them (rather than merely note that they’re fizzy, dark and wet) you find that they’re not the same. Books are no different. Reading them, as opposed to summarizing them, is an emotional and psychological experience – one that’s created by the mind of the author and that sparks to life in the mind of the reader.
Terry Brooks is far a different person from Tolkien, and the emotional and psychological effect he invokes is different. This is because stories are more than character, plot and setting: they have a voice, the author’s voice, and this resonates (or fails to resonate) with the emotions of the reader.
So, what is originality in literature? Stories have been told since hunters and gatherers first sat down around a campfire – probably even before they discovered fire. Storytelling is based on real life, the emotional things that drive us such as fear, courage, hate, love, greed, generosity, resentment and forgiveness. Those emotions haven’t changed in the six thousand years of recorded history. And because there are only so many emotions, there are only so many stories. You can’t tell a story about a rock – inanimate objects don’t have emotions. But you can tell one about a man who first discovers the secret of smelting iron ore and who forges weapons to protect his homeland from invaders.
Let’s examine one parallel between the The Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara, and see how it effects us emotionally.
Both stories have a wise mentor: Gandalf /Allanon. In both, their absence at crucial points allows the hero to grow. Otherwise, The Lord of the Rings would be a story about Gandalf rather than Frodo, and The Sword of Shannara would be about Allanon. In both books the mentors are hooded, wise, mysterious, secretive, sometimes grumpy, and more powerful than they at first seem. But these are all superficial characteristics. What are they like as people? What’s at their emotional core?
Gandalf has an overriding mission. He’s an emissary sent to help the inhabitants of Middle-earth resist evil. He has enormous power, but won’t use it to influence those he helps. He’s swift to anger, but shows kindness to the small and great alike. He’s a kind person with a massive task, and his heart has deep stores of compassion, mercy and pity.
So much for Gandalf, but what about Allanon? Who is he really? He could be all the things that Gandalf is. He probably is all those things, but fate and circumstance drive him down a darker course. He keeps a deadly secret from Shea. He does this because he must, because it’s ultimately what’s best for the Four Lands and Shea himself. But he’ll never be thanked for it. His burden is to serve, to do what’s right, and to be mistrusted for his personal sacrifice.
At heart, these two mentors transcend their superficial characteristics. Or rather, both authors transcend the common archetype that they use. As readers, we like and admire Gandalf; we marvel at his store of wisdom, understanding of human nature and his capacity to help those for whom he feels pity. Our reaction to Allanon is different. It’s for him that we feel pity.
Despite superficial similarities, Gandalf and Allanon are worlds apart, and their emotional effect on us is just as distinct. They speak to us in a different way. Originality is to take something and to infuse it with your own voice. For there is nothing new in storytelling, not since before that first camp fire.
I could say something similar about all of the parallels. Instead, I’ll finish on this point. The voice of both authors is entirely different. The Lord of the Rings is heavily laden with a sense of loss, of the passing of much that is good, even in victory. The Sword of Shannara is filled with fear that humankind might repeat their past mistakes, but also a quiet hope that they’ll rise above their baser emotions, and that the future is full of promise.
As I said, Tolkien and Brooks are as far apart from each other as possible. So too are their stories.