Tolkien’s Heirs (I): Terry Brooks

It’s become something of a cliche in reviews of fantasy novels, especially those in the epic tradition, to compare a new series or author to Tolkien.  Of course, this isn’t a surprise, given how monumentally successful and influential The Hobbit and The Lord of  the Rings have been on the popular cultural consciousness since the middle of the last century.  Some fantasy authors, however, actually deserve the title of Tolkien’s heirs, starting with the focus of this blog post, the author Terry Brooks.

When it comes to fantasy authors working in the tradition of Tolkien, one name springs immediately to mind:  Terry Brooks.  In a career spanning four decades, Brooks has produced numerous bestselling novels and series, though his most famous and popular series has always been Shannara. Spanning several generations of the same family in a post-apocalyptic Earth, Shannara has long enchanted readers with its mix of adventure narratives, moral quests, and heavy ethical and environmental questions.  If Tolkien is widely considered the grandfather of modern epic fantasy, then Brooks, in my opinion, should be considered its father.  Or at least it’s favourite uncle.

Now, Brooks has taken considerable flack from many for being nothing more than second-rate, diluted Tolkien (even such a noted Tolkien luminary as Tom Shippey has said as much), but that’s a rather unfair criticism.  Though, admittedly, The Sword of Shannara did have a lot of plot similarities to The Lord of the Rings, the same can be said of practically any other author working in the epic fantasy tradition (David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Terry Goodkind come to mind), and even Tolkien himself borrowed heavily from existing traditions and narratives in the construction of his great works.  Indeed, the subsequent volumes in the Shannara series have edged further and further away from the Tolkien paradigm, though Brooks, like his literary forbear, frequently considers environmental issues in many of his works.

Like all good fantasy authors, however, Brooks is not not afraid to plumb the darkest depths of the genre. Indeed, some of his finest work has gone to some very dark places.  The Genesis of Shannara trilogy, for example, takes place before the main Shannara saga, when our own world has brought itself to the brink of utter collapse.  This is a world that is both uncannily familiar and also terrifyingly alien, populated by the decimated and embattled populations of humans, their mutant counterparts, and the fiendish demons that seek to bring the entire world into utter devastation.  There are many points in this particular trilogy–as well as the Word and Void trilogy that preceded it–that are downright disturbing, and there are also scenes that are strangely and eerily touching.

These same themes, of struggle and adversity, of various powerful factions constantly straining against one another for ultimate domination, recur throughout Brooks’s oeuvre.   The world that his characters cherish is constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed by those who seek their own advantage rather than the good of others, from the Warlock Lord (the primary antagonist of The Sword of Shannara), through the numerous subsequent adversaries that have populated each iteration of the series.  Through it all, however, it is the smallfolk upon whom hangs the fate of the world, not those who would seek to dominate it for their own gain.  Each generation of the Ohmsford family has struggled against seemingly impossible odds, bound up in the threads of fate that continue to wind ever tighter around each successive generation, the weight of the past shackling them even as it opens up possibilities for further voyages of exploration and self-discovery.

What always stirs me when reading Brooks is how well he manages to evoke a strong sense of temporality, of previous moments in time always intruding in on the present.  Part of this stems from the fact that this is a series that has been going since the 1970s, so readers, and the characters, have a sense that this is a world with a rich and deep history, characterized by constantly shifting alliances.  Even now, many generations after the Great Wars ended the world that we currently know, the world still struggles to right itself, the contest between magic and science, between the bureaucratic/autocratic Federation and the independent Freeborn and their allies, constantly bringing it close to collapse.

It is, ultimately, this sense of precariousness, of a world constantly on the brink of cataclysmic change, that keeps me as a reader coming back to Brooks.  One can sense a grand design at work, fleshed out over all of this years, and I continue to eagerly await each book, waiting to see how not only how its own individual narrative will unfold, but also how it will fit into the overall pattern he has already established.  With his sense of scope and the grandness of his overall vision, Terry Brooks truly deserves to be known as one of Tolkien’s heirs.

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