Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CVI

The Last Hieroglyph by Clark Ashton Smith

I've been wanting to read a little of Clark Ashton Smith's ever since I discovered Lovecraft and Howard.  With the "The Last Hieroglyph," I finally have my chance.

To begin, Smith has a more polished writing style than either Lovecraft or Howard.  If I had to pick a word to describe it, I think I would choose "smooth."  He shares Lovecraft's love for "big words," but deploys them with greater subtly than his Poe-inspired colleague.  This gives Smith's language a feel of authority and a sort of Dunsanian mesmerism that isn't present in Howard or in much of Lovecraft ("The Quest of Unknown Kadath" being a notable exception).  This style works well with Smith's chosen subject matter: the mystic journey of an astrologer and his two followers.

"The Last Hieroglyph" tells the story of the itinerant astrologer Nushain and his two companions, a dog and a slave, who travel on a mystic quest to the home of the god Vergama.  On this quest, they are guided by three mystic creatures, a mummy, a merman, and a salamander.  Each messengers' coming is foretold by the sudden appearance of a new hieroglyph on Nushain's nativity chart.  The chart is drawn up at the beginning of the story in response to a strange appearance of three new stars in Nushain's birth constellation.  Following the mystic guides, Nushain and his followers pass through the realms of death, ocean, and fire to meet the great god Vergama in his throne room.  Upon completing the quest, Nushain is told that Vergama is the ultimate god who creates all things out of his book and then recalls them again to resume their place upon the page when their time comes.  Nushain tries to flee, but he and his companions are drawn back into the book and become mere hieroglyphs themselves.

Unlike Howard's story, there is a grim moral to "The Last Hieroglyph," and it seems to be that cosmic meaning is hidden from us and it is better for a man to not try and unravel it.  This moral is given force by the Lovecraftian note of cosmic horror on which the story ends.  The idea of human life being reducible to a cypher or a sign has all sorts of tantalizing postmodern suggestions but until I've read more of Smith's work and gotten a better feel for his mental world I'll refrain from hopping off down that rabbit trail.

The Sorcerer Pharesm by Jack Vance

This is the first story in the collection with more of a comic turn, though Dunsany has provided us with a bit of gallows humor.  Vance's hero, the inept thief Cugel, is of that stripe of lovable jerks that so often appear in comedy films such as Seutalus in "A Funny Thing Happened to me on my Way to the Forum" or the protagonists of "The Producers."  The pompous absurdity loquacity of much of the dialog further alerts us that we should not take anything in the tale seriously.

"The Sorcerer Pharesm" is an episode within the greater story of Cugel's quest to free himself of the tyrannous monitor Firx placed in him by the wizard Iucounu.  In typical comic fashion, Cugel is thinking of abandoning the quest because he is hungry.  Firx attempts to spur him on until Cugel informs him that he will starve himself to death unless he can get some real food and thus thwart Iucounu's mission.  Firx, not being to bright, agrees and Cugel stops by a curious group of workman to beg for food.  Seeing Cugel, the chief workman attempts to enlist him in the project which has been continuing for some three hundred years under the guidance of the wizard Pharesm.  While Cugel is pondering whether such a move will bring him food and sex, the wizard appears and promptly rejects Cugel for the work.  Disappointed, Cugel wanders off and finds a strange creature in the midst of the construction and eats it.  Foolishly, he mentions this fact to the wizard on his way out sending the enchanter into a rage.  Pharsem then informs Cugel that the creature he ate is nothing less than the TOTALITY, and that Pharesm has spent hundreds of years trying to catch it.  As punishment for his crime, the wizard sends Cugel a million years back into the past to where the TOTALITY has fled in order to bring it back.  Cugel, forced to make the journey discovers a strange land of orange people who worship a race of lying insects that kills them off.  Cugel attempts to be a suave intercultural adventurer, but his sexual appetites cause him to run afoul of several local taboos and he is punished by being handed over to the winged insects who Cugel promptly thrashes.  During the course of his thrashing, he discovers the TOTALITY, but the insects snatch it away from him in the midst of transporting back to the future.  Upon his return, Pharesm makes one last attempt to recover TOTALITY before dismissing Cugel in severe frustration and returning to his manse.

Cugel's story is rather amusing, especially in its witty repartee.  There's nothing at all serious to be gotten out of it aside from a few laughs, but that seems to be the point.  The only criticism I can venture is that this episode seems too much like Cugel's original encounter with Iucounu giving the impression that Vance has run out of ideas and begun to repeat himself.

Next Up: King Yvorian's Wager by Darrell Sweitzer and Kings in Darkness by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn

Friday, July 29, 2011

More Mammoth Book of fantasy: The Platypus Reads Part CXV

Continuing with "The Mammoth Book of Fantasy," we come to the titans Howard and Dunsany.

The Valley of the Worm by Robert E. Howard

I've generally liked what Conan stories I've read, but that's the only thing I've read by this foundational author of the sword and sorcery genre.  I was worried that moving beyond the confines of Conan would be a disappointing experience.  That worry proved to be unfounded as "The Valley of the Worm" is every bit as much fun as the Conan stories I've read.

Briefly, "The Valley of the Worm" is the story of a modern man recalling his past life as a prehistoric warrior whose tribe stumbles upon a horror from a yet more ancient era.  This tale of Niord and the Worm is supposed to be the origin (via racial memory?) of all the later accounts of heroes and dragons.

Right off the bat, we can see the influence of H.P. Lovecraft on the tale with its psuedo-academic racism, suggestions of elder gods, and the physical appearance of the Worm.  This Lovecraftian element is worked together seamlessly with Howard's own ideal of the noble savage existing outside the corrupting confines of civilization.  I find this fusion of Lovecraftian mythos and Howardian psuedo-history to be particularly enjoyable when I encounter it and I suspect the taste is fairly wide-spread as the success of Hellboy and its spin-offs seems to testify.  That aside, the only technical failing the story can be upbraided with is the brief introduction of Satha the snake who is too much like the Worm and thus makes that portion of the narrative confusing and repetitive.  There is no strong suggestion of a moral, unless it be Howard's firm siding with his barbarians over civilization, and so the story is easy to enjoy as simply a thrilling tale (which is doubtless the way Howard meant it).

The Horde of the Gibbelins by Lord Dunsany

I always love the tone or voice of Lord Dunsany's stories.  There's something spell-binding about it in the tradition of all the best fairy-tales.  My first encounter with him was in "The Queen of Elfland's Daughter."  As with that story, "The Horde of the Gibbelins" strikes me as being "almost genius" with just the hint of something unbalanced to throw it off.  I think, in the end, Dunsany may be so fond of telling a tale that he gets a bit slip-shod about details like endings.  That may be a premature judgement as this short story is only the second piece I've read.  Unlike "The Valley of the Worm," there is a wry (in the best Irish tradition) moral to this tale that can only fully be appreciated by reading it "tabula rasa," so I won't pester you with a summary or any hint of a spoiler.  Just read it and see what you think.

Next Up: The Last Hieroglyph by Clark Ashton Smith, and The Sorcerer Pharesm by Jack Vance 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Something Besides Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CXIV

So, what else have I been reading?  Well I did finally finish "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" and "Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer," and I'm more than half way through "The Guns of August."  Traveling to Ohio and California for three weeks has slowed the literary machine down a bit, but there's also a collection of short stories called "The Mammoth Book of Fantasy" to add to the list.  Basically, it's a survey of the development of Fantasy literature in the 20th century.  Practically, it's given me a chance to explore various important fantasy authors without having to hunt down out-of-print books and expensive collected editions.  In other words, it saves time, and if I don't like an author I can move on without having blown a wad of cash.

That said, I thought I'd offer some thoughts on the various short stories in the collection.  I'll post the title of each one in bold, so that if you haven't read it and want to remain spoiler free you can just skip a bit.  I don't know if I'll be able to review all the short stories in the collection, but I'll give it my best shot.

The Wall Around the World by Theodore R. Cogswell

This story is a sort of Harry Potter before Harry Potter with its misunderstood orphan, magical prep-school, and broom-stick riding.  With these superficial similarities, however, the likeness ends.  Mr. Cogswell sets out to tell a very different kind of story in his world of wizardry than Rowling with her Hogwarts.  Rowling's world is a metaphor for our own while Cogswell's is a plan for the scientific society of the future.  In Rowling's world, manipulating people for the purpose of achieving power is evil, while in Cogswell's world it is the essence of human advancement.

Briefly, "The Wall Around the World" tells the story of the orphan boy Porgie who lives with his stern but well-meaning Uncle and Aunt and malicious cousin.  Unlike Harry, Porgie already lives in the land of magic and spends all his time dreaming how to get out.  Porgie is obsessed with the thousand-foot wall that encircles his world and that no one has ever seen the top.  Filled with a longing to know, Progie begins using forbidden science in conjunction with magic and is punished for his attempts by his aunt and uncle and the scoolmaster, Mr. Wickens.  In the end, Porgie is able to construct a glider and get to the top of the wall where he finds Mr. Wickens disguised as a gate-keeping boogie man.  Wickens informs Porgie that he is pleased with the boy's success and that the outer world is run on scientific principles.  The world inside the wall is an experiment where people are raised knowing only magic in the hope that they will perfect it and so provide humanity with complete mastery over the universe.  The people who inhabit the walled community are of course ignorant of this.  Porgie, as a sort of kwisatz-haderach, is then admitted into the bright and glowing world of science which he will presumably enrich with his magical abilities. 

The fact that Cogswell does not even try to problematize his world of human lab rats is particularly disturbing. It's as if Voldemort where to meet up with Harry and slap him on the back then offer to team up with him since he's such a clever boy with Rowling's hearty approval.  I hope there is a layer of narrative irony that I'm missing here.  It is possible to read "Brave New World," for instance, and miss the fact that Huxley is revolted by the society and characters he narrates.  If not, then the moral one really walks away with seems to be "isn't it fun to be special and to be able to treat average people like ants?"  That seems to be the exact opposite of what we learn from Rowling's Harry Potter.

Darkrose and Diamond by Ursula K. LeGuin

Let me begin by saying that I love Ms. Leguin's work.  You should now know where the review is going from here...

The tone, world, and plot of "Darkrose and Diamond" is all flawlessly Earthsea and as such makes for an enjoyable read.  It was in the moral of the story that I found something lacking.  To be blunt, it was trite.  I could have learned the same thing from a Disney movie: women are good, men are offish and confused but usually mean well when they're not stuck in a chauvinist rut, and it's always best to follow your heart.  Thank you baby boomers.  We've got that message down.  Still, if you like Earthsea, this one's worth it for the fun of returning to LeGuin's richly imagined world.

Coming up next: "The Valley of the Worm" by Robert E. Howard and "The Horde of the Gibbelins" by Lord Dunsany

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Final Thoughts on "The Wishsong of Shannara:" The Platypus Reads Part CXIII

What can I say now that I've wrapped up the initial Shannara series after a fifteen year hiatus?

I think Tom Shipey is right, these books only exist because they scratch the Tolkien itch.  They are to Tolkien what Geogette Heyer is to Jane Austen except at a more doggerel level.  I mean no disrespect to Mr. Brooks.  He's a prolific author and clearly worked relentlessly over the course of a decade to produce these novels.  Even as pulp, however, they do not reach the level of Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice-Burroughs, or even Robert Heinlein.    I'm sure, given the learning-curve in these books and the author's dedication, that Brooks' later work gets better and I'm looking forward to reading it.  We'll see where he stands in the end.  In the meantime, however, for someone interested in the development of fantasy literature, Terry Brooks cannot be ignored.  Whatever the shortcomings of the Shannara Series, they proved to the publishing world that "The Lord of the Rings" was not a mere freak.  There was a decided hunger for fantasy among the general public, and that hunger was ravenous.  So ravenous was it, that almost anything put on offer would be devoured with an instant call for more.  For better or for worse, the all-consuming "Maelmord" that is the fantasy section of any Barnes and Noble can be directly attributed to Terry Brooks.

That aside, some final thoughts on "The Wishsong of Shannara" itself:

1. This is really Jair's story.  The initial project to have two heroes in this tale never fully materializes.  Brin and the characters that people her portion of the plot always seem subservient to her brother's narrative and it often feels as if Brooks invents filler episodes, such as the Grimpond, merely to flesh her story out.

2. Brin's journey into the Maelmord and encounter with the Ildatch are disturbingly homoerotic.  I'm really not sure if that is what Brooks intended, but that's decidedly how it comes off.  Make of that what you will.

3. I'm not sure if Brooks originally intended to continue the series.  Looking back at the past two books, all the set up for The Heritage of Shannara Series is there, but perhaps Brooks simply pulled out material that had little significance originally and capitalized on it in the creation of the new series.  I guess I'll have to do some digging.

4. The last chapter of the book has a sort of "childish" feel to it that confirms that "The Wishsong of Shannara" is properly classed as young adult or teen fiction.

5. Brooks, like many American fantasy authors, seems to have caught the sound of Tolkien's world without its substance.  Bear with me, but I think Americans are better at writing science fiction than Tolkienesque high fantasy.  There are some notable exceptions, especially Ursula K. Le Guin's "A Wizard of Earthsea."  it makes sense when you think about it.  Lewis and Tolkien still inhabited a country where some stretches were still catching up with the industrial revolution, and the university where they taught represented a living continuity with the Middle Ages, as did the churches in which they worshiped, and the pub and inn culture where they sought refreshment.  There were even castles aplenty for the viewing.  The war that both men fought in, and which the warfare of "The Lord of the Rings" faithfully reproduces in many ways, still had a very medieval cast to it.  It was fought by nobles who took their peasantry to war with them in the service of king, kaiser, and czar.  The first clash between the British and the Germans was fought between cavalry with swords and lances.  Even in the midst of barbed wire and high explosive, the spirit of chivalry still broke out at every turn.  The British fantasy authors of the 20th century, Lewis, Eddison, Tolkien, etc. enjoyed a distinct advantage in producing a creditable medieval fantasy world that their American counterparts lacked.  Conversely, the space race provided the impetus for the golden age of American science fiction.  All that to say that The Prancing Pony is an Inn while the Ohmsfords own somebody who's read Tolkien's idea of an Inn.

Anyhow, those are my closing thoughts.  I've been reading other stuff this summer, so maybe I'll come back and post a bit about that as well in the coming weeks.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More Thoughts on the Wishsong:The Platypus Reads Part CXII

I'm on page 336, and I have to confess that I am having some trouble staying motivated.  The tone of the work is consistent and enchanting, but the plot incidents and characters leave something to be desired.


This book is more interesting when Brooks is writing about Jair.  "The Wishsong of Shannara" feels like a book and a half.  There's this main story with Jair that Brooks is interested in and then this under-developed story with his sister that Brooks is obligated to include.  The narrative always seems to flail a bit when we turn back to Brin.   Allanon helps a bit, but Rone and Brin drag and even the Druid can't make up for their lack of depth.  If Brin was a deeper character, then the whole thing could be saved, but she's always a little shallow and paste-board and it's hard to care about her or her journey.  Following this trend, many of the characters that Brin and Rone encounter on their journey feel thin or implausible while those that Jair encounters are a bit more robust.

Slanter the gnome is entirely too petulant to ever have been the big, tough, tracker he's supposed to be.  It's not that he isn't believable as a personality, it's just that his personality doesn't fit his backstory.

The Grimpond is too much like a recycle of the Hadeshorn and Bremen to be used in the same novel.  It feels like Brooks needs filler for the Brin plotline and is flailing.

Jair's supporting cast, especially Garret Jax, are well drawn and work.  He even is able to make the character of Helt non-redundant by deftly inserting the "gentle giant" trope in a place where we weren't looking for it.

Terry Brooks has some sort of obsession with trappers and pioneers in these last two books that's at odds with the medieval fantasy world that he's created.  It is a fantasy world, and a post-apocalyptic one at that, so he is free to people it as he chooses but in the end the world still needs to feel coherent.  Every time a trapper or "old guy living out in the wilderness" appears I feel like we've strayed into another novel.  Cogline's home sounds like someone's retreat house in the Pacific Northwest, not the sort of place where a mad-man and his adopted daughter eke out a bare-bones existence in the middle of some of the most hostile territory since the last novel.

That's sort of a laundry list, but I wanted to get the small thoughts out while they were still fresh.  I have some big thoughts cooking, but they may have to wait until I finish the novel.  Best wishes all until next time!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Further Notes on the Wishsong: The Platypus Reads Part CXI

If Terry Brooks uses the word "shrugged" one more time I will scream.  Moody teenagers shrug, not the heroes of epic fantasy.  I can't believe his editor didn't take a read pen to every single appearance of that word in the text.  Other than that, at a little more than a quarter through the book the writing style of "The Wishsong of Shannara" continues to be a definate improvement over "The Elfstones of Shannara."  I would also add that the plot is more complex than that of the Elfstones while also being easier to follow and generally more artistically interlaced.  There's a definite learning curve in Brooks' work and I'd be interested to know where it caps out over the course of his thirty + year career.  He also seems to be much more certain of his audience (young teenage boys) and writes consistently with them in mind (Note that the story cannot primarily be about Brin but about Jair's quest to save Brin).

In other news, he has dispensed with the human meatshields of the Elfstones.  Doing so, however, means a return to the stock-in-trade company-on-a-quest motif and begins to drag the book back toward "The Sword of Shannara" and second-rate Tolkien pastiche.  It also runs the risk of Brooks repeating himself.  The skull bearers are replaced by Mord Wraiths, the besieged Wesland replaced by the besieged Eastland, Elstones and Sword of Shannara replaced by the Wishsong, and the Reaper replaced by the Jakra.  It's a good thing that he decided to end the first series at this point as it really does run the risk of becoming a mere "Hardy Boys meets Tolkien."   

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

First Notes on "The Wishsong of Shannara": The Platypus reads Part CX

Immediately after finishing "The Elfstones of Shannara," I have moved on to its sequel "The Wishsong of Shannara."  We've had guests over the last few days so I've only reached page 41.  We'll be busy during most of July, so it would be difficult to live blog through the book as I did with "The Elfstones of Shannara."  That said, let me offer my initial thoughts and I'll post more when there's time and opportunity.

"The Wishsong of Shannara" opens in Autumn, and it is an autumnal work.  Something is fading and passing from the Four Lands.  This something is Allanon.  The demands of keeping the Four Lands safe have aged him, and the Druid is but a shadow of his former self.  He even complains that no one recognizes him when he first appears to the Omsfords.  We also know that he has begun to experience failure and a loss of his powers as the Mael Mord has thwarted his attempt to destroy the Ildatch.  All this is to say that Allanon, the only constant character through the first three novels and their prequel, is dying.  This stands out all the more when we look at our youthful cast who seem aged 14,17, and 18, respectively (this should also give us a clue as to who Brooks' perceived audience is).  

Nature always reflects plot in the world of Shannara; a lesson learned from Tolkien.  Our plot is also autumnal.  No grand clash with evil is promised, no chance for heroic sacrifice, just a quick "get in, get out;"
a twilight struggle for a twilight age in which the last of the Druids is dying.

All of this, of course, impacts mood.  The overall mood of the novel thus far is quiet and sad, even though the pacing is quintessential Brooks.  The youthful heroes are teenage friends in exactly the way I remember teenage friendship, but they do not lighten the sense of failure, desperation, and passing.

Some final thoughts and that will be that.  This book has a clear, compelling tone that is lacking in "The Elfstones of Shannara."  Brooks starts the novel on top of his game.  As the art cranks up a notch, however, it also exposes some of the weakness of Brook's underlying machinery.  We can already see clearly within the first forty pages that the Shannara novels all follow the same formula: Allanon appears to teenage Ohmsfords telling them of an impending crisis which only they can overt by magical means and wins them over after a brief initial resistance then taking them on a quest which opens up more of geography on the map of the Four Lands (North, West, East, respectively) resulting in a victory but also exposing Allanon's deceptive and manipulative tactics.  We also begin to see that the Ohmsford heroes will always be teenagers (both Bilbo and Frodo, by contrast, are in their fifties when they set out, though Sam, Pippin, and Merry are all younger) as the novels are primarily serial novels for teenagers (age 12-16 at a guess).  This sense of formula and repetition necessitates the death of the series and its relaunch if the quality is going to continue to climb.  Brooks seems to have sensed this too, and "The Wishsong of Shannara" is the last book in the original trilogy.  A discussion of whether Brooks makes any improvements will have to wait for a read through the Heritage of Shannara series.    

Friday, July 01, 2011

What Else Has the Platypus Been Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CIX

So not everything this summer has been my usual return to pulp.  We've been part of a reading group and that has given me the opportunity to expand my reading beyond its normal confines.  I love the old classics and, conversely, I have great difficulty with many of the "new classics."  However, their newness and my lack of interest don't make them any less important.  Indeed, as I now teach moderns, knowing them a bit better has become a necessity.  Even if it wasn't, I still believe in reading broadly.  So here's what I've been torturing myself with: "Hannah Coulter" by Wendel Berry, "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson, and "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh.  N.B.- I have ranked them in the order of preference from least to greatest.

Now there is something odd I've discovered: I prefer the dead Brit to the living Americans.  That could be because I have studied at Oxford (the setting of the first part of "Brideshead Revisited") and have only grown up next to farms.  It could also be that I'm not a woman and I'm not a pastor or the son of a pastor but I do know a few things about college friendships (even if Waugh is writing about homoerotic ones and I've only experienced heterosexual ones) and maturing to the age of thirty.  I also found "Hannah Coulter" ponderously slow and rather preachy, "Gilead" less slow (but still ponderous) and less preachy, and "Brideshead Revisited" neither slow, nor ponderous, nor (oddly as it's a Catholic apologetic) preachy.  I found all of them technically excellent and all of them to have great depths to their themes and messages.  All three were definitely books worth reading, but I'm still just a little stuck on my order of preference.

Now this brings me to a question I find interesting.  How much does our liking for a work depend on our ability to identify with its world and protagonist(s)?  Before you jump in, think about all the fantasy and science fiction you like.  Have you ever been to the Moon, been promoted to general, been chased by a cyclops, lived for a thousand years, or made first contact with an alien species?  So the connection must be at some sort of deeper level.  Could it be gender?  Have you ever really enjoyed a book with a protagonist of the opposite sex?  Then what is it?  A similar life journey or a similar view of the world?  But I like "Dune" and I'm neither a materialist nor a world-traveling journalist.  Nietzsche preaches a worldview that I find noxious and yet I love reading him.  So my big question remains: why do we like the books we like?

Wrapping Up the Elfstones: The Platypus Reads Part CVIII

This whole string of posts has been one set of spoilers.  Sorry about forgetting to post the obligatory warning.  So, now that we're getting down to the finale:

*Spoiler Alert!*

So, I was right about Cephelo.  Brooks has given us reason to like this guy and reason to despise him.  He's that likable rogue that could go either way.  Unlike Panamon Creel in "The Sword of Shannara," Cephelo fails the test and suffers for it, but we don't quite feel that it's his just deserts.  That's a bit of nuance and I give Brooks full points for his Rover thread.  It's probably the strongest thread in the book.  The Elessedil family thread never completely gels, though Ander and Evantine do achieve that status of fully-developed characters by the end.

That said, once the narrative reaches Hollows and the siege of Arborlon, it kicks into high gear and never lets up until the end.  This is solid page-turner territory in the tradition of Hope, Haggard, and Burroughs.  The rest of the book often seems to flail, but in the last third Brooks finds his rhythm the work comes together.

My test of when Brooks has been firing on all cylinders so far has been the aura of enchantment and suspense.  If that's the test, then the episode with the Witch sisters passes with flying colors.  The whole piece feels like a fairy tale spiced with just the right amount of Victorian adventure novel.  Indeed, the witch sisters and Safehold both reminded me a good deal of "She."  It's good to see that Brooks has some other influences aside from Tolkien.  Indeed, I think that here we finally see him begin to individuate a bit from the master.  No longer is the story just vulgarized "Lord of the Rings," but something genuinely Terry Brooks.  Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come in "The Wishsong of Shannara."  Speaking of the wishsong, we can again see Brooks setting up for it in his insistence that the Elfstones are physically changing Wil the more he uses them.

The chamber of the Bloodfire is the real climax of the novel even though there's some fun fireworks with the fight between Allanon and the Dagda Mor.  Here we get to find out what the quest means.  Brooks handles this well by using the Bloodfire and the elfstones as an excuse to slow down time and allow his characters to introspect.  What they find seems to be a conflict of meanings.  On the one hand, both characters come to realize their own sufficiency and, in very American fashion, come to believe in themselves.  We all know what Chesterton would say to that.  The other thing they discover, however, is their ability to sacrifice.  Both Wil and Amberle have to give up something precious to them in order to answer a higher calling.  Wil, full of iron determination, has to admit that he's been wrong about the elfstones, that there are some things in life that can't be forced by sheer stubbornness.  In a similar vein, Amberle has to confront her desire to be her own woman at all costs.  Both of these characters are stubborn and rather self-centered in their stubbornness.  In contrast to the first meaning, believing in oneself, they also have to discover a second meaning to the work: the need to lose oneself.  I don't know if these two meanings can really be synthesized.  One belongs to the world of the therapeutic worldview and another belongs to the tragic.  It's as if at the critical moment, Brooks the author is being pulled two ways; one way by his shallow late-modern worldview and another by the deeper and more mythic demands of the story he's telling.  In the end, I think the shallower meaning is simply bowled over by the more powerful theme of self-sacrifice.  At any rate, that's the theme, along with some vague eco-worship, that Brooks will play up in the denouement.

What can be said after that?  The battle for Arborlon provides lots of action and a grand fight scene between Allanon and the Dagda Mor.  The pace is break-neck right up to the renewal of the Ellcrys.  The denouement is of appropriate length and allows us to see the real trauma Wil has suffered.  I think most importantly, though, the denouement allows us a larger window into Allanon's enigmatic character.  We see at the end that he too knows about sacrifice and actually does have compassion and empathy.  This deepens the character from the "brooding bully for good" that we get in "The Sword of Shannara."  As I said at the start so I hold at the end: Allanon is the central figure of the book and of the series.  Like a dark and forbidding Peter Pan, he entices the Ohmsford youths down the generations into worlds of adventure.  Unlike Barry's creation, however, this strange god can grow old.

To finish up then.  Would I have read this book to the end if I simply picked it up at the library?  No.  Has it lived up to my vague childhood memories?  No.  Is it still a fun read?  Yes.

George Lucas says that great works are never finished, they are just abandoned in various stages of completion.  I'd say the same is true for "The Elfstones of Shannara."  It has the feel of a novel purposely abandoned at one particular stage of completion.  That's a hard thing to say as I looked up the author's bio and saw how much work went into producing the current volume.  Terry Brooks has guts and drive.  Still, it feels like an unfinished product.  However, the book did show that his success with "The Sword of Shannara" was not a mere fluke and bought him a chance to try again.  Oh for the days when publishers were willing to wait a decade for writers like Brooks to mature!  However, a maturing author still needs a public that will buy their books while they're still ripening.  Here is were Brooks' real genius comes in.  He seems to have seen that there was a real taste for Tolkien after Tolkien, but nobody but Tolkien can be Tolkien.  It took the life's work of a genius to produce "The Lord of the Rings" and other authors, even geniuses, are not that patient and single-minded.  Brooks found that the public was willing to accept an inferior product so long as it gave them the same fix.  He purposefully removed the most time-consuming parts of Tolkien (the poetry, history, songs, and culture) and played up the element of Edwardian pulp that gives the novel its drive.  Thus, Brooks was the first American author to really charge head-long through the door that Tolkien opened when virtually created the epic fantasy novel.  That is Brooks' lasting legacy, and ultimately what has made me commit to this literary journey of blogging his second novel.