Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shannara and the Long Shadow of Tolkien

While Tolkien was fundamental to the development of the D&D rules, Lord of the Rings was just one of many influences on roleplaying games as a whole. Swords & Sorcery, other fantasy subgenres and even science-fiction were all thrown into the mix of those early games.

Why?

Just because it was cool in the eyes of the players and referees.

As for Tolkien the author and the Lord of the Rings rose in popularity through the late 60s and the 70s. However he didn't spawn much in the way of imitators. Far more popular among authors were the 1001 variants of swords & sorcery with a sprinkling of original works like Elric, Earthsea, the early Deryni novels and many of the novels of Appendix N of Gygax's DMG.

Then came Terry Brooks and the Sword of Shannara around 1977.

It didn't have much of literary impact. Many ripped it apart for being a pastiche of Tolkien. Even among gamers I never heard of anyone saying stuff from Shannara was really cool.

However Brooks did manage to break into the New York Times bestseller list. Something that no fantasy author including Tolkien managed to do.

My opinion of the book was that it was a fun and easy book to read. But not memorable in any particular way. I never followed up on the sequels after taking a stab at the Elfstones of Shannara, once was fine.

Since it was a big epic fantasy in the mode of Tolkien that cracked the NY Times list every fantasy imprint started putting out epic fantasies. Another early success was the Thomas Covenant series.

Despite the emphasis on the big epic the resulting market expansion brought in a lot of different styles of fantasy. Two of my group's favorites were the Guardian of the Flames series and Thieves World. My personal capstone of the era was Elisabeth's Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion series released in the late 80s.

After Shannara, Tolkien's style dominated the mass market for fantasy which had a lasting impact on RPGs. The most visible result was the release of Dragonlance.

7 comments:

Koren n'Rhys said...

Interesting post. I read the earlier Shannara books BiTD, adn being a teenager with low standards, enjoyed them at the time. Covenant as well, and I recall statting out things from both for our games at the time. I read everything you mention here!

A big thumbs up to the Deed of Paksennarion - that is a paladin to me.

limpey said...

My father, as a teacher, read The Hobbit to me as a kid and later I plowed through LOTR without really understanding most of it. When later someone passed me 'The Sword of Shanarra,' I remember being pretty underwhelmed by it.
The Lloyd Alexander Prydain books were under the christmas tree one year, and, although I initially thought they were 'too young' for me, once I started reading I loved them. LeGuin's Earthsea series were also great --- 'The Tombs of Atuan' was my favorite.
But I also lived near a store that sold used paperbacks and picked up disintigrating copies of DeCamp's 'Incomplete Enchanter,' Conan's novels, Moorcock's Elric and Alternate History sagas and Leiber's Lankmar books for a song there --- my allowance money went much further when I bought used, I discovered. They also had the Barsoom books, 'The Fallible Fiend,' the Reluctant King, the Krishna series, etc.

Tyler said...

One Tolkien pastiche that stands out in my mind is Dennis McKiernan's Mithgar books, since they grew from a desire by McKiernan to write a sequel to Lord of the Rings.

E.G.Palmer said...

I re-read the Sword of Shannara last year, after letting it sit for twenty years. I just had vague memories of it. I thought,"Man, this is just awful!", when I gave it another reading.

I gave it to my niece. At least it's not Twilight, or Harry Potter.

stirgessuck said...

The impact of Dragonlance is fairly stunning. There's at least 190 novels in the series, with sales in excess of 22 million copies.

It's one of the reasons I consider WotC to be primarily in the fantasy novel business, with a small sideline of producing game books. (Among the others: Salvatore.)

The Badger King said...

I remember reading The Sword of Shannara when I was in grade 7. I have since gone on to read every book in the Shanarra series, except for this last series, that apparently connects Shanarra to our own "modern" world. Really.... I started losing interest in the last couple of series. Sword and Elfstones were okay. Wishsong, for me, was probably the best of any of the books, excepting possibly THE ELF QUEEN OF SHANNARRA. I read the last couple series, but they didn't really do much for me.

Wickedmurph said...

I was going to say that Elfstones and Wishsong of Shannara (2 and 3 of the first trilogy, respectively) were far and away better than the Sword of Shannara. All the later stuff from Brooks has also been underwhelming, but Elfstones is good, and Wishsong is a very good book.

I couldn't stand the Thomas Covenant books, though - any hero that I want to punch the crap out of for being a whiny bitch is not for me.

But I was a voracious reader in this period - Conan, Lloyd Alexander, Paksenarion, Dragonlance, Thieves World, I read it all. And none of it was as good as Tolkien.

In a way, though, Tolkien's influence on fantasy is waning. Some of the really amazing fantasy series in the last decade have been much more Vietnam-inspired dark fantasy stuff, like the Black Company by Glen Cook, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson.

I'm still a fan of big, sweeping fantasy novels, but the formulaic find the maguffin, defeat the dark lord plotline seems, fortunately, to be waning a bit.

And don't get me started on McKieran. I'm not sure how the Tolkien estate let that plagaristic hack get published, but his stuff just plain god-awful, for the most part.