Friday, July 20, 2012

Final Thoughts on The Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXIV

Today's post will sum up my read-through of Terry Brooks' The Druid of Shannara.  As this is the "final thoughts" post, I will try to focus on the merit of the work as a whole rather than simply evaluate the last portion of the story.

*Massive Spoiler Effect*

At the time of its writing, I believe The Druid of Shannara was the most complex and polished book in the series.  It is the first novel in which we get a sense that the Four Lands has its own cosmology and created order.  It is also the first novel to feature a cast of older and more mature characters.  Finally, The Druid of Shannara makes the leap from pacing driven novel to one driven by tone.

Terry Brooks never set out to create a "thick" world full of Tolkienesque depth and detail.  Nevertheless, since 1977 his sheer output has forced him to create one.  The novels of the Heritage Series come with almost two-thousand pages of pre-made history by way of the original Shannara Trilogy.  Brooks builds off this foundation in The Druid of Shannara by beginning to hint at a fuller cosmology wherein angelic, or demi-urge-like creatures carry out the original creation mandate of the Word (at this point an unspecified Absolute).  While Brooks does not work out the implications of this cosmology within the novel beyond a pop-New-Age level it does invest the rather simple quest narrative with a sense of grander stakes mythological pathos than we've come to expect from a Shannara book.

The older and more seasoned cast of The Druid of Shannara allows the work to explore deeper territory than in the teenager-dominated novels of the past.  The one teenager in the work, Morgan Leah, is forced to grow up in order to keep pace with his fellow cast members.  Morgan's journey is significant in that it's the first time in a Shannara novel that we've been allowed to watch a character mature.  Prior Ohmsfords and Leahs have been relatively static as characters until they appear as adults in the next novel.  Walker grows too, of course, as this is his novel, and much of what we experience is his process of becoming Allanon.  The maturity of the characters allows this transformation to occur in a more subtle and subjective manner than would have been possible in prior novels.  As if to underscore the theme of growth, the characters that refuse to grow, Pe Ell and Carisman, end up dead. 

The real development in the writing of the book that allows for the others is the switch from using pacing to drive the work to tone.  By allowing the strange and reflective tone amplified by the moods of the various scenes and locations to hold the audience's interest, Brooks opens up more space in the narrative for things other than action.  Think how little action actually take place in The Druid of Shannara as opposed to prior works.  There's not much plot here, a fact that left me with virtually no memories from my prior reading in Jr. High.  Most of the novel is taken up with the subjective experiences of the various characters as the consider actions that are occurring or have occurred.

There are some problems with The Druid of Shannara, but they are far fewer than in previous works.  Quickening's symbolic value as a Christ-figure ebbs and flows throughout the work.  Often, she seems little more than a walking McGuffin; a benevolent, talking Ring of Power.  The cosmic angle, while present, is also underdeveloped and drains the ending of the "punch" it might have had otherwise.  We are left wondering what Quickening has actually accomplished and whether the themes and tropes conjured up by the author are incongruous with it.  There's a bit of a mythological retrogression here: Christ turned back into a mere corn-king.  Since Quickening is an uncertain and rather flat character, her relationship with Morgan Leah is clunky and unproductive.  More might have been accomplished if that relationship remained one-sided.  The story also suffers from divorcing so much of the quest from Walker's call to bring back Paranor and revive the druids.  When he finally returns with the Black Elfstone and uses it, we feel as if we've strayed into another novel.  The original work ended some twenty pages prior.

The Druid of Shannara represents another leap forward in Terry Brooks' development as a writer.  The added cosmology, older characters, and reliance on tone all contribute to create a more mature and considered work than prior books set in the Shannara universe.  The book does suffer from several defects, but none of them are fatal and they are significantly less so than in past novels.  With this example of authorial growth in mind, I look forward to moving on to the next book in the series, The Elf Queen of Shannara.           

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