Monday, July 11, 2016

Well-trod Paths: Thoughts on rereading Shannara

I decided to re-read Terry Brooks' Shannara series recently and have been picking my way through Sword of Shannara. I read the original trilogy somewhere in my tweens back during the last millennium, and my memories of the books have stuck around to influence my current game worlds.

I have always been especially taken by the post-post-apocalyptic setting of Shannara in which a medieval high fantasy world arises long after the collapse of a technologically advanced civilization. Shannara was a direct inspiration for the Gnossian ruins found in my homebrew D&D world. 

During my original read I recall the ancient technology aspects of Brook's world sneaking up on me as the books progressed. I was especially curious to know whether these elements were actually there from the beginning, or if they emerged as sort of an evolving backstory for the world. So far, the latter seems to be the case. I am well into Sword of Shannara, and while there is definitely talk of an ancient civilization destroyed by war, there has been little to suggest it was anything other than a high fantasy empire.

I was talking with one of my fellow fantasy nerds about re-reading the series the other day, and we agreed that as an adult with many of these stories under the belt, the plot of Sword of Shannara is incredibly on the nose. Mysterious magic user shows up out of nowhere to declare that a young, male nobody is actually "the chosen one" who alone can defeat the ubiquitous "dark lord". This is like the Ur fantasy trope, and Shannara does not try to hide or delay it in the slightest. Harry Potter, Red Wall, the Belgariad, The Wheel of Time and Fellowship of the Ring all at least make an attempt to establish the "normal" in the world to varying degrees before the ubiquitous stranger shows up to declare, "Yer a Wizard!" or whatever the chosen one's job title should be.

Shannara... no time for such establishing nonsense. The hero, Shea doesn't even have time to walk the last mile or two to his house before being accosted by the revelatory stranger AND overflown by the dark agents of the enemy. Of course, as a kid, I was oblivious to the wear on this particular expository thread. As an adult, it's causing eye strain from all of the rolling.

My dawning awareness of Shannara's particularly egregious hero arc did however, give me a wonderful character idea for a D&D campaign. I should note that this character would likely only work well as a PC rather than an NPC... and definitely only for someone comfortable being evil.

I think it would be hilariously wicked to play a wizard or other magic user who goes around convincing unsuspecting orphans and farm kids that they have been chosen by destiny to complete some epic quest. The wizard could bring them along as lackeys to do all the dirty work on an adventure until they inevitably meet their demise because they are not... in actuality... chosen. If timed right, this could leave the wizard fully spelled up to mop up where their patsy left off. As a PC, the wizard would of course need the cooperation of his/her adventuring party or... fellowship *wink, wink* in order to avoid blowing their cover. I suppose such a character might also work as an NPC, but probably couldn't directly target the heroes. I could definitely see a scenerio of adventurers being called upon to investigate mysterious disappearances of local children, all of whom seem to take leave of their senses and wander into the waiting jaws of some dragon or giant.

Anyway, I am continuing to pick my way through Sword of Shannara and really hope that the lack of nuance ends up being a first book thing and that the writing improves in later installations. I really love the concept behind the world, and really don't want to have it come crashing down like an ogre's club on a not-actually-chosen hero.

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