The news that MTV was adapting Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones of Shannara into a television series was par for the course for one of the most successful fantasy series in history, currently comprised of close to 30 novels.
The original trilogy (The Sword of Shannara, The Elfstones of Shannara, and The Wishsong of Shannara) are considered one of the first examples of the “second wave” of high fantasy literature that succeeded Tolkien, and the brisk sales of the first book are often credited with establishing fantasy as a marketable publishing category. Put simply, the genre landscape would look very different without Terry Brooks.
With the TV series premiering in January, it seems like a great time to remind both those who have read the books and those who will that their success is no accident: Shannara is one of the most detailed and surprising fantasy universes ever created. Here are five aspects of the Four Lands that will blow your mind—and get you reading (or rereading) the series.
Note: significant spoilers follow.
It’s actually science fiction
Well…not really, but unlike most fantasies, which are set in a completely separate universe or in some distant past, the original Shannara trilogy is set in our far future, after a nuclear apocalypse. The magic-wielding Druids began as an organization seeking to unearth the ancient lost knowledge of science; instead discovered the even older lost knowledge of magic. Amid elves and spells and demons, the characters often encounter creatures that are clearly ancient robots or cyborgs.
The hidden prequels
Brooks slowly and subtly spins out the true nature of his universe in the original trilogy, but goes even deeper in the Word & Void series, the story of two Knights of the Word battling demons invading modern-day Earth, published nearly 20 years later. It wasn’t until a decade after that, when Brooks published Armageddon’s Children, that it became clear the Word & Void stories are hidden prequels, telling a story so distant in Shannara’s past, the connective tissue to the original trilogy is almost invisible.
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Failure & truth
Knowledge is a constant theme in the Shannara universe. In the original trilogy, the main character and the reader are led to believe the legendary Sword of Shannara’s tremendous magical power is what enabled the ancient Elf King Jerle Shannara to defeat the Warlock Lord—and that his heir Shea must do the same.
In one of the best twists in all of fantasy (we said there were spoilers!), everything goes sideways as Shea discovers the sword’s only power is to force you to see the truth about yourself, and that Jerle Shannara actually failed to defeat the Warlock Lord because he couldn’t accept the truth—and he uses the sword to force the Warlock Lord to see his own truth—that he is not truly immortal, and only continued to exist because he’d believed so strongly otherwise. Minds: blown.
All shall pass
One of the most startling aspects of Brooks’ storytelling is the fact that any character—any character—can die. In most high fantasy stories (heck, in most stories in general) the most powerful good guys can be counted on to survive. Gandalf only seems to die in The Lord of the Rings, returning as an even more powerful entity.
But in The Wishsong of Shannara, Allanon, the wise guide and powerful Druid, is killed—and remains dead to this day (though to be fair, his shade does return several times to impart wisdom and set events in motion). This aspect of Brooks’ universe is a feature, not a bug; when death is shown to be a minor inconvenience, the stakes are essentially reduced to zero and the tension goes out of a story. Not in the Shannara-verse.
In a lot of fantasy settings, magic is presented as having a predictable and almost scientific structure—if you know the precise wording of a spell, or have read the instruction manual for an artifact, you can wield that magic consistently and safely, with the clear implication that evil and “dark” magic stems from the ambitions and personality of the wielder, not from magic itself.
In the Shannara universe, magic is unpredictable, corrupting, and often very dangerous. Even the most powerful practitioners are very careful about using it, and Brooks’ attitude towards magical powers gets very dark as the series progresses.
What’s your favorite aspect of the Shannara universe?