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.


Jessica Snell said...

Your #5 makes me wonder what the current rash of (good) dystopian fiction says about post-modern American society.

James said...

I think (and this is just my humble opinion) that it means that many Americans, consciously or subconsciously, believe that Progressivism has failed, and are particularly aware of the modern god-state's feet of clay even though we're not exactly living in "Brave New World" yet. This has a disenchanting effect on the modern American imagination that makes everything seem worse than it is (cynicism) with the resultant perversion that we will it to be so lest we be duped by a false hope (nihilism) and ends with a full-fledged withdrawal from the community of the god-state and an ambivalence toward any non-voluntary community (apathy); the perfect breeding ground for dystopian literature. So our mental world is dystopian even if our immediate surroundings are not.