Friday, July 01, 2011

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.

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