Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Terry Brooks' Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLX

My efforts to live blog my way through Terry Brooks' Heritage Series continues with The Druid of Shannara.  This is the book in the series that I remember least from my childhood readings: a few characters and a couple of plot points at most.  I'll be interested to see if I can determine why that's the case on this read through.  Before we begin, however, I thought it would be best to restate my reasons for writing this series of posts.  I haven't read anything by Terry Brooks since Jr. High with the exception of The Sword of Shannara (which I worked my way through on a plane trip back from Oxford).  Over the years, I kept meeting people who had read the books and liked them, but I was increasingly unable to remember anything.  I've also always been interested in writing and Terry Brooks is one of the real success stories of the Fantasy Genre over the last thirty years (I believe every book he has published has been a New York Times Bestseller).  So, last summer I decided it was time to re-read the seven core books with an eye on two things: situating Brooks in terms of the development of the Fantasy genre, and taking his writings as a case study in how an author develops his craft to appeal to a mass audience.  I also decided to review the Shannara books using a sort of "live blog" format where I would write down my thoughts (as much as possible) after each spate of reading.  The purpose of this was twofold: to offer room for a more careful dissection of the work than that offered by the typical blog post, and to try and capture as closely as possible the effect of each passage on the reader while working through the book (as opposed to looking back on it after finishing and being able to see the story as a whole).  I decided to do this as a series of blog posts in order to keep myself accountable for actually finishing the project and also on the chance that other Shannara readers might be interested (if not with every post, then at least with summary ones).  That said, let's get on with a look at the first two chapters of The Druid of Shannara.

*Spoilers and Such*

The Druid of Shannara opens with the King of the Silver River, a sort of Tom Bombadil analog that has taken on a life of its own as the series progressed.  We might take this a central metaphor for the whole series: something that began as a mere pastiche of Tolkien and has over time evolved into its own separate universe.  I wonder if the mention of "The Word" caught my eye when I was in Jr. High.  I was studying the Gospel of John for Quiz Team at the time.  If it did, I don't remember it.  of course, Terry Brooks' word is a rather different thing than the Son of Man or even Marcus Aurelius' Logos.  Still, the Christian resonances in this passage are unmistakable: a servant of The Word in imitation of its creator draws up earth into itself and begets a child that will go into the world and redeem it (of course this is only a creature doing this so there is no question of eternal procession, distinct persons, substances, etc.).  The markedly mythic language that Brooks employs to describe the whole scene is a welcome change adding the richness of an implied mythology to the imagined world of the Four Lands.  There are some similarities here to what Ursula K. LeGuin was doing at the same time in her Earthsea novels with the "daughter of god" character, Tehanu and I wonder if there is any connection or correlation.  Looking back at the function that Quickening will serve, I see shades of God Emperor of Dune, and of course the name implies a connection with the Highlander Series.  Who knows what was in the water or in the leaf-mold of the mind when this opening was devised.  In this opening chapter I also encountered my first reminder of how little I remember about this book: I couldn't remember a thing about the story's villain, Uhl Belk.

Once the story moves on to Walker Boh, my memory revives a little (but not much).  I do enjoy that Walker is a little more cerebral than the other heroes.  It's interesting to have a main character in these novels who's closer to thirty than to fifteen.  Maybe that's a clue as to why I this book evidently didn't make much impression on me all those years ago.  Whatever may be the case, Walker definitely has a more philosophical (I use the term loosely) and emotional journey than the other characters thus far.  The reappearance of Cogline in this section is also welcome.  We sense that Walker's success on the quest will be proportional to his relationship with the old man.  This is a nice little added complexity: Walker isn't just going on a quest to save the Four Lands, he's also going on a quest to find peace with himself and his adopted father.  Again, I find that Brooks' skill as a writer has grown leaps and bounds since the writing of The Wishsong of Shannra even if this is all still very much in the realm of light fiction.

Well, times wasting and that's all I've really got for today.  As always, we'll see how it goes.  Best wishes all!      


Graf Spee said...

It's been interesting to follow your journey here. I've never really gotten into Brooks. I tried his Word and Void series back in HS, but couldn't get into them. Now, he's retconning (for certain values of retcon) them into the prequel to the prequel of Shannara. I may have to go back and try them again.

James said...

I've heard a lot of good things about the Word and the Void series, but I've never read them. Interesting to hear about all that retconning. I think the most fascinating thing about Terry Brooks' work is watching him "accidentally" create a whole world that he never intended to create. To improve and continue his craft, he's been forced to adopt the very facets of Tolkien's work that he discarded as unnecessary in 1977. It reminds me of what Dorothy L. Sayers said about a man learning wisdom by serving the work.

Herch said...

I think it's interesting that you say Druid is the one you remember the least. It's the one I remember most from when I read it in high school, and it might be my favorite.

I also remember having lost almost all interest in Par and Coll's story by the time I got to Talismans, after having just read the very compelling Walker and Wren stories.

James said...

Ok. See, I remember "The Elf Queen of Shannara" the best out of the series with bits of Scions and Talismans (I actually read "The Talismans of Shannara" first by mistake). Would you be willing to weigh in on why the Druid was your favorite? I'm curious.

Herch said...

I was fascinated by the post-apocalyptic city and the smaller cast of characters makes it more focused, but mostly I think I liked it so much because it made me feel smart noticing all the Christological parallels. (Something I was in no way expecting from a mainstream fantasy novel.)

James said...

You know, I'd forgotten all about the ruined city? I'll have to keep on the look-out for the things you mentioned and see if it all makes a greater impression on me this time around.