I just finished the Sword of Shannara (SoS) by Terry Brooks. Like many books I read, I wait until I’ve finished to check out what others think. And wow are there people who do not like this book. Practically all of the unhappy reviewers claim (or rant) that it is a rip off of Lord of the Rings (LoTR).
I’m not in that camp. I enjoyed both SoS and LoTR. It has been more than 15 years since I’ve read LoTR so I’m sure to remember some of the tory incorrectly. If you are curious I read Scions of Shannara first which is a 4 book cycle that is 2 books after SoS. I also read most (if not all) of Brooks’ Landover series. Not long after I read LoTR and 15+ years later I’ve read SoS.
Undeniably there are a lot of similarities between the two. A tall magical man charges a younger character to journey to a council in a faraway land where a quest is commissioned with representatives of different races. There is also a reluctance to travel through a mountain but inevitably both parties do it. And there is the defense of a walled city from an invading army.
There are many other elements that appear to be similar become entirely different on closer examination. Many readers (including some professional critics) skip that closer examination and jump right to claims of copying or plagiarism. Some of the more polite attacks have claimed that SoS is “overly derivative”.
So here are the differences I notice which distinguish SoS as a separate story from LoTR.
First, the setting. Middle Earth is a secret history of our own Earth. It is a story during the age of the Elves which predates the age of Men. SoS takes place in a post apocalyptic earth. In addition to the location is the time elapsed in the story. If I remember correctly the events of Fellowship of the Ring take place over a year. SoS takes place over several weeks.
Next, each story has a unique premise. LoTR is to deliver a magical artifact into enemy territory in order to destroy it and therefore destroy the enemy. The premise for SoS is to retrieve a magical artifact and then confront the enemy with it.
I found the premise of LoTR to be weak. Why do they need to travel all the way into enemy territory to destroy it? How does the destruction of the artifact cause the demise of the enemy? I know there are answers to this but it asks a lot of first time readers to buy into it.
A weak premise doesn’t make an inferior story. It means that first time readers will struggle to stay interested. Looking back on it, nothing in Fellowship of the Ring hooked me into the series. It was all external factors. Mostly, my friends telling me that it was worth it. (It totally was.)
On the flipside, I had no problem becoming interested in SoS.
The main parallel that readers and critics seem to draw between the two are the characters. Again, this is something that makes sense on the surface, but to me ultimately fails on closer examination. And I’m not talking a detailed analysis. Here are how the characters are generally equated by critics…
Shea = Frodo. They are similar in the sense that they both fit the archetype of a reluctant hero and that they are forced into their initial journey by being chased by bad guys. But that is the extent of it. Shea is half elf who was raised by humans away from elves. His entire elvish family has been wiped out, a fact that is unknown to him. Shea’s bloodline is what ties him to the sword. The hope of the story lies in the fact that Shea will be able to use the sword in a direct confrontation with Brona. Frodo on the other hand is a full blooded hobbit who inherits a magical ring from Bilbo and carries it with him wherever he goes. Anyone could carry the ring on the quest. However, it is more advantageous for a hobbit, because the ring has a different effect on hobbits than it does other living things. I think the Frodo is selected in order to contain the effects of the ring to as few people as possible.
Flick = Samwise. These two are both devoted to the hero of their stories. Both are practical. But Flick is Shea’s equal, and as I remember it Samwise more or less follows Frodo’s lead. Samwise is silly and silliness isn’t part of Flick’s character. Samwise is always by Frodo’s side in his quest. Flick is not always with Shea. The two characters aren’t even opposites. They’re just different.
Allanon = Gandalf. Both are tall magical men that assemble and lead the quest. Gandalf is a friend to hobbits and puts on firework displays for them. Allanon is unrecognizable to the people of Shady Vale. He is known to them only as a myth. Allanon is already on his mission at the start of SoS, while Gandalf starts his mission after LoTR begins. Allanon is the last of his kind. Gandalf is one of many in an order. There is a scene that is reminiscent of the Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog. But Allanon’s reappearance is more immediate and more easily explained. In many ways these two characters are opposites.
Balinor = Boromir and Faramir. As I recall Boromir and Farimir have very different temperaments. Boromir serves as an antagonist within the fellowship. He holds the belief that they can wield the ring in their own right. Balinor is none of these things. I don’t remember much about Faramir, but I do remember that he wasn’t part of the quest.
The critics arguments really begin to deteriorate when they can’t decide which character has been repurposed from one story into the other. As we see with the next comparison because it once again involves Balinor.
Balinor = Aragorn. Aragorn is a king in exile. Balinor is a prince who lives in his kingdom and is loved by his subjects. Aragorn has no family. Balinor’s father is King and his Brother is next in line to the thrown after himself.
The matching of characters continues to fall apart when other critics insist that:
Menion Leah = Aragorn. really? No. I call BS. Prince Menion Leah is a long time friend to Shea and reluctant acquaintance of Flick. Aragorn was the heir of a major kingdom in exile and a complete stranger to the hobbits. Menion was a prince of a small kingdom that is tucked away from the border kingdoms. Aragorn was an ally of Gandalf. Shea brought Menion into the entanglement against the advice of both Allanon and Flick. Menion is an experienced *hunter*. He is not a formidable warrior like Aragorn.
And just to round out the indecisiveness about which LoTR characters appear to be represented in we have
Menion Leah = Merry and Peppin. From what I can tell critics have made the connection because Menion is from out of town.
There’s one more worth mentioning.
Orl Fane = Gollum. Both characters become obsessed with the relic in the story. In SoS, the narration on more than one instance refers to the artifact as being precious to him, which draws the undeniable comparison to Gollum. But the Orl’s attraction to the sword is so different from Gollum’s obsession. For Gollum it is a multi-century addiction of the ring’s magical power. He is tormented when he is apart from it. Simply put: the ring has control over him. Orl’s obsession is originally based on greed, possibly restoration of honor, but towards the end Orl’s obsession is one of desperation because it is the only earthly thing he recognizes as his mental faculties have eroded so severely. And this is without the effect of the sword’s magical powers. When those are tapped Orl’s relationship with sword changes significantly.
In the end there are other key characters and events in LoTR that don’t have a counterpart in SoS. And Vice Versa. The authors have two very different writing styles, which could be a separate post altogether. There are just too many distinctions to lend any credit to the “rip off” label that is so casually tossed around.
Put another way, If SoS was a true rip-off, reading it would spoil LoTR. Which it clearly does not. At a bare minimum a rip-off would provide insight into what happens in LoTR and SoS provides none.
Upon reflection, my primary irritation with all the complaining that SoS copies LoTR is that the ones criticizing are overlooking or forgetting key elements of LoTR (which they all clearly love).
In the end lets not be fooled into thinking one must join team SoS or team LoTR. You can love both equally or in different amounts or in different ways. You can dislike entire portions of either book and still enjoy both stories.
You can also dislike SoS and like LoTR. You can claim it is a rip-off. But for reasons I’ve already stated I just don’t understand the claim.