Elves of Earth
Review of The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
High fantasy fans may never stop arguing over whether or not Brooks's Shannara series is a shameless, opportunistic ripoff of Tolkien. Regardless, it is clear that the second Shannara novel is far better than Brook's first effort. The Elfstones of Shannara takes ownership of conventions of high fantasy in a way that The Sword of Shannara did not. Despite having long-winded with infodumps and shallow worldbuilding, Elfstones is worth reading and contemplating where its predecessor is not. Fortunately, the self-contained structure of the original Shannara trilogy makes it easy to skip The Sword of Shannara.
The wonder and the ancient beauty of the self-renewing natural world is the most important fantastic element. Other high fantasy conventions revolve around the element of natural wonder; for instance, the element of ancient glory that has since been lost is tied to a pre-historic state of complete innocence when the unmarred natural world was inhabited by fey beings. The original wholesomeness of the Earth is central to the theme. The dialog and narrative conflict in the usage of the term "old world," sometimes referring to the original ecosystem, and sometimes referring to the defiled, polluted, presumably technological world that had been destroyed in the devastating war that marked the dawn of recorded Shannaran history. Out of the ruins of this war, the elves – whose ancestry was with the ancient fey – re-emerged to tend the reborn world, living by their ethos of giving back to the land. At the time where the story takes off, the elves still tend the last living remnant of the fey world, the magical Ellcrys tree that had held back a faceless evil force bent on destroying all life.
At one point, the state of primal glory is described as "the Eden of life" (p. 116). This demonstrates the stylistic problems. Except for rare occasions when internalization from just one character fits the immediate narrative needs, the prose is written in omniscient point of view. The choice of omniscient POV may not in itself be a problem, but the narration relies too much on telling. Infodumps are probably less of a problem in Elfstones than in Sword, but there are still passages where the backstory may have been better revealed more gradually, or at least delivered with less baggage. This may be especially evident in the characters' epiphany moments. The phrase "Eden of life" is confusing, because it is unclear in what capacity the omniscient narrator is speaking to the reader. Does it mean the actual Eden, implying that Brooks's world is directly related to our own? That could be, seeing that Brooks's history appears to be set after the downfall of our present civilization. However, there is no indication that any character would have known specifically of "Eden"; with the exception of a very general historical arc and perhaps some few relics of knowledge preserved by an order of scholar-mages called Druids, all stories and beliefs seem to have perished in the Great Wars. Furthermore, the way "Eden" is used off-handedly as an adjective suggests that the word was merely meant as a casual reference to readers, which means that it is a case of the immersion-breaking narrative sin of telling.
Another weakness of the loose omniscient narrative is that it sometimes glosses over important details that would have been interesting additions to the worldbuilding. In general, locations and topography tend to be well enough described, although the descriptions are rarely vivid. However, there are almost no specific details about the cultures and peoples who inhabit the Four Lands. Even when relevant details arise in the story, the narrative glosses over them with generalities.
This sentence from the narration of a battle scene demonstrates Brook's distant, lofty mode of storytelling:
Like men gone berserk, they battered their way ahead, horsemen and foot soldiers, with lance and pike and sword, shouting as one the battle cries of their homelands. (p. 334)
The sentence feels fluid, expressing a sense of dire heroism. However, the moment would have been so much more vivid if the reader already knew the words of those "battle cries." Battle cries are mentioned several times, but we are left to imagine what phrases the warriors would use to shout down death. Although Brooks's non-descriptive style sometimes succeeds in giving a broad view of the story, there is no excuse for not showing such an emotional and deeply rooted worldbuilding element. Battle cries are inherently significant to the cultures of the soldiers who use them, and it is expressly noted that the Elven Army and the Legion Free Corp use different battle cries. The omission of the battle cries seriously annoyed and distracted me. Although too many details can be distracting, incomplete details can be just as harmful.
It is impossible to know whether Brooks imagined enough details to make the cultures that inhabit his world living and real. Whether intentionally or not, the writing style seems to diminish the importance of worldbuilding. Perhaps it is more than writing style. The theme presents the ancient Earth as a transcendent being, far greater than the transitory realms of men and elves. The broad strokes with which the omniscient narrative paints the world may suggest that the everyday details of the cultures are relatively unimportant, in comparison with the sacred Earth.
The contradiction is that the deeds and sufferings of these marginalized, nondescript peoples are presented as noble and important. The two main characters, Wil Ohmsford and Amberle Elessedil, both struggle to accept and fulfill duty. Their trials are well presented, with enough detail to evoke empathy. Wil, the grandson of Shea Ohmsford from The Sword of Shannara, is hindered in his earnest struggle to keep his charge by his self-doubt and self-deception. As in the previous book, Brooks portrays a psychological internal conflict parallel to an external conflict. The internal and external conflicts reinforce each other as Will flees from his demons and eventually faces them. Although Wil is the protagonist, Amberle is the clearest hero figure. The daughter of the elven king, Amberle is the one with the intuition to see that the world is not as it should be. Despite being uncomfortable and angsty, she is too weak and afraid to confront her true calling. Both Wil and Amberle are disillusioned at the beginning, running from duty in order to do things that they think are more worthwhile.
Amberle is an elven princess, and Wil has distant elvish heritage from Shea’s bloodline. (Shea is a half-elf.) As the spiritual children of the beloved Earth, the race of the elves takes the stage. As in many fantasy novels and mythologies, elves probably represent an idealized vision of humanity. However, there is a unique twist to the portrayal of the elves, based on Brooks's unique use of the standard fantasy races. All of the races are ultimately human. The elves are only a partial exception. The devastation of the Great Wars – presumably nuclear fallout – physically changed the small remnant of humanity. There is a race of Man that may be relatively unchanged from the original human physiology, at least in terms of appearance. Ultimately, the races of Men, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Trolls are all genetic descendents of what we know as humanity, and the term “human” is used to describe them all.
The elves also seem to be human, and I believe the word “human” is even used for them as well (as an adjective, not as a noun). However, the elves have a different origin. Their ancestors were among the ancient faerie creatures. Brooks’s elves are very mortal, having changed with the Earth and given up their ancient magic, until almost nothing fantastic about them remains. They apparently still have records and traditions from old, but it is unclear whether they even remember the old faery world at all. The order of the Druids, represented in Elfstones by the mentor-figure Allanon, has more information about elven history than the elves themselves. There seems to be a theme about change being a good thing that society should embrace. Apparently, the disaster of the Great Wars is the fault of the ancient elves for not teaching the humans how to respect the Earth, and so the modern elves repented and reached out to the new races in order to teach them how to be good environmentalists. How this resulted in the loss of the elves’ ancient magic is vague and unspecified.
The elves have not forgotten their reverence for the Earth. Their code of giving back to the Earth may be the closest the novel comes to meaningful worldbuilding. The Elven philosophy is almost a religion; they feel called to spread their beliefs about caring for the natural world to all other peoples. The Elves are strangers and pilgrims in the Earth that they love, displaced from their heritage. Their continued existence points to something beyond the mortal humanity that they have taken on themselves. As such, the themes of Elfstones are built on the relationship between elves and humans (all the other races besides the Elves). Brooks’s elves couldn’t be more different than Tolkien’s, which is definitely a strong point for Shannara novels. However, both Tolkien and Brooks use the concept of elves in a similar way. Elves are the older siblings of humanity, our spiritual teachers.
The complexity that is lacking in worldbuilding is partially made up for in theme, although the lofty prose can sometimes make the themes come across as heavy-handed. The greatest strength of Elfstones is its insight into the nature of duty and personal sacrifice. This theme is woven into the themes of change and of giving back to the Earth. Wil Ohmsford must confront his fear of being irrevocably changed by forces that he doesn’t understand, while Amberle Elessedil must actualize her love for the Earth in a dramatic and deeply sacrificial way. The doubts and fears that haunt Wil and Amberle are easy to relate to, and their mutual dependence on one another for strength is realistic and encouraging. They must carry out their duty at all cost to themselves, because the natural Earth is worth saving.