Not a date the world recognizes. It's not 5/8/45 or 11/22/63 or 7/20/69 or 9/11/01. But, January 17, 1994, just outside Los Angeles, California, an earthquake struck. Fifty-seven people lost their lives and nearly nine thousand were injured. Twenty billion in property damage, it remains one of the most devastating natural disasters in history.
It was a seminal moment in my life for wholly different reasons.
An earthquake woke up the twelve year old boy, jiggling like a chubby preteen is want to do when the ground moves. He jumped out of bed and ran to the relative safety of the backyard (it should be noted he did so in opposition to all recommend safety teachings pounded into his skull for the past eight years). Like anyone living near the San Andreas Fault, the boy figured school would be cancelled as they waited out the assured aftershock. He also suspected his mother was unlikely to let him back in the house. This being the fourth earthquake in the previous two years, it should come as no surprise he knew these things intuitively.
Several hours outside the home in the California desert can be pretty rough. Not from exposure mind you, a landscaped yard is as comfortable there as it is anywhere (it just costs more), but extreme boredom was his primary foe. Temperature and high winds discourage outdoor activities. Thus, most of the boy's hobbies were indoor focused, unrelated of course to his penchant for solitude and social awkwardness. Thankfully, he'd fallen asleep the night before clutching a book of prodigious size, a diversion to carry him through the long morning. Some might credit his quick thinking in grabbing the book. Truth be told it was easier to run out with it, than cast it aside to risk further damage of the home's interior.
He was safe. And while his family would find some broken memories inside the home later that day, for the moment he was at peace. On the lawn, he read well into the late morning. Through a serious aftershock and a smaller shiver, he sat, lost in a world far from there. The book told of a diminutive half-elf named Shea Ohmsford and his adoptive brother, Flick, spirited away by the druid Allanon to save the world from the evil Warlock Lord.
The impact this story would have on the boy's mind was as significant as the moving earth was to California's landscape.
Everyone grows up. The man I became saw The Sword of Shannara's flaws all too well. Inherently derivative of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, an understatement akin to the Black Knight's flesh wounds, Lin Carter called it, "the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read". I know he's right, but I adore it still.
Shannara was the first new book from a fledgling Ballantine imprint in 1977. Spun off from a few years previous, Del Rey Books was the brain child of Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey who called Terry Brooks' debut novel, "the first long epic fantasy adventure which had any chance of meeting the demands of Tolkien readers for similar pleasures."
Similar pleasures. A pregnant choice of works if I've ever heard one. There are the obvious analogues in Shannara to the Toklein classic: Brona as Sauron, Allanon as Gandalf, Shea and Flick as the the Hobbits, Menion and Balinor as Aragorn and Boromir, Hendel and Durin/Dayel as Gimli and Legolas, Orl Fane as Gollum. The list goes on. Many of the plot elements are likewise reflected. For years I've heard arguments naming Brooks a hack – a bad young adult writer masquerading in adult fiction. His plots are always the same, they said, his character always going through the same trials, to come out the other end better and stronger. He stole it all from the Progenitor and doesn't apologize for it.
I've heard it and don't dismiss it, but I can't help the way I felt that January day. I hadn't read Tolkein and wouldn't for a dozen more years. I lost myself in the story, imaging myself as Shea, Menion, and Balinor – even Panamon Creel and Keltset – for weeks after. Why, despite being able to take an elevated view, do I insist on its greatness? Is it merely nostalgia? It has to be something more.
Looking for a way to reconcile the man to the boy, I came across a Frank Herbert remark, "Brooks demonstrates that it doesn't matter where you get the idea; what matters is that you tell a rousing story." If nothing else, Brooks is a great storyteller. Shannara moves with such pace, urged onward by violence and unlikely heroism. It's not unique that regard, being rather descriptive of the epic fantasy genre at large. A genre, I might point out, that appeals to youth by nature. To quote Brooks himself, "my protagonists are cut from the same bolt of cloth as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. It was Tolkien's genius to reinvent the traditional epic fantasy by making the central character neither God nor hero, but a simple man in search of a way to do the right thing."
Tolkien, Brooks, and even Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Robin Hobb, create tales in which anyone can change their stars (thanks, A Knight's Tale). In so doing, epic fantasy addresses a power vacuum that's inimical to youth. Whether it's a put upon scullery maid or a hobbit from the Shire, it encourages the notion that even the most insignificant person possesses control. If that's not a theme that resonates with youth, I don't know what does.
Maybe that's why I love it so much.
The boy knew that missed the point – he's never really left you see. He's always there, lurking behind the man's eyes. At twelve, he was just struggling to fit in, to find a place for himself. Power was the least of his concern, he just wanted out. The notion that someday, out of the blue, a big fucking druid was going to show up at the door and carry him away was transportive. That quality above all else ensorceled him. When would someone come to carry him away from girls he would never understand, from algebra which he never figured out, and from his parents who never stopped asking questions?
Because it sucked to be twelve. Maybe people can't understand that The Sword of Shannara made it suck less. With the world shaking apart, Terry Brooks took him away.
Apparently, I was an introspective twelve year old. Maybe I should listen to him more often. Regardless, as a man or as a boy, the themes the novel elicits are simple, as common in the epic fantasy sandbox as dragons and elves. If it isn't a Druid doing the whisking away, it's a Warder and an Aes Sedai or a disguised wizard named Mister Wolf. Yet, flying in the face of its banality, I'm writing about its importance.
I wonder if formative literature is such not because of its quality, or even its content, but the time in which it's read. When, as important as what – like falling in love. I don't believe there's one person for everyone. Rather there are opportunities that come along between two people who find a moment of mutual receptiveness in allowing something amazing to happen.
The Sword of Shannara came to me when I ready to listen. I read it as an insecure child, years before I would begin to understand my place in it all. Locked out of my home by Mother Nature, with nowhere else to turn and no distractions, Terry Brooks gave me magic and I fell in love.
Who can fault a man in love?
Justin Landon is the sinister power behind Staffer's Book Review, where he thoughtfully prods fantasy literature new and old (with the occasional help of his fictional assistant, Cheryl). You can ask him about his earthquake stories at @jdiddyesquire.