Epic fantasy has been big in the last couple of years, with the massive success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, as well as that of HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels. Now, a new fantasy series has been brought over to television: The Shannara Chronicles, based on the fantasy series by Terry Brooks.
Terence Brooks was born on January 8th, 1944, in Sterling, Illinois, where he spent much of his childhood. From an early age, he was a scienc- fiction fan, telling fellow fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss “You name it, I read it. Even Clara Barton. Even Nancy Drew. Dog and horse stories. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. I read everything in science-fiction in my middle grade years, back when you could do that because there wasn’t that much.”
He wrote throughout high school, and eventually attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where he majored in English. He graduated in 1966. It was while studying at college that he encountered J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Reading the books galvanized him to write fantasy. In 1967, while attending Washington and Lee University in Virginia, he began writing a novel. During this time, he earned his J.D. and became a practicing lawyer.
Tolkien’s epic was a major influence for the young author: When “I read The Lord of the Rings, and I thought, ‘Here’s the format for an adventure story.’ But unlike Tolkien, who was a scholar, I didn’t want all that excess baggage in the form of appendices and so on and so forth. I just wanted a straight forward Count of Monte Cristo kind of story. So, I jettisoned all of the extras and just wrote it in that form.”
Brooks spent the next seven years writing his book, which he eventually titled The Sword of Shannara. The story took place in a post-human future; a massive war all but exterminated life on the planet. Humanity split into a variety of races which populated the new world: regular humans, dwarves, gnomes, trolls, and elves. An ancient evil, the Warlock Lord was returning, and a young half-elf named Shea Ohmsford would be the only one who could wield the mythical Sword of Shannara to protect the world.
When the time came to publish the book, he submitted the novel to Donald A. Wollheim of DAW books. Wollheim passed on the title, but he encouraged Brooks to send the manuscript to Lester Del Rey at Ballantine Books, who snapped up the title. Ballantine Books had become the official publisher of Tolkien’s novels in the United States, and they were keen to replicate the success. Brooks’ novel, they felt, had a good chance of following the success of the fantasy epic.
In 1977, the book arrived in stores both as a paperback and as a hardcover. To help promote the novel, the publisher brought on Greg and Tim Hildebrandt to provide illustrations. The brothers had worked on several Lord of the Rings projects, and they helped to bring a similar “fantasy” vibe to Brooks’ novel. It seemed to work. The public enjoyed it as well.
Upon its publication in April 1977, the novel sold over 125,000 novels in that first month and immediately appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.
A number of reviews linked Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara together: fantasy critic Lin Carter condemned the book, stating in The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: Volume 4 that “Terry Brooks wasn't trying to imitate Tolkien's prose, just steal his story line and complete cast of characters, and [Brooks] did it with such clumsiness and so heavy-handedly, that he virtually rubbed your nose in it.” Others disagreed, pointing to Brooks’ other stated influences, and noted that all authors followed others.
Alongside The Sword of Shannara came a new rush of fantasy novels, including works from Stephen R. Donaldson (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever) and Christopher Tolkien’s edition of his father’s Silmarillion. Collectively, they were part of a burgeoning movement of epic fantasy within the publishing industry. While Tolkien’s works had essentially established an entirely new publishing field, it was books such as those by Brooks and Donaldson that helped establish that it wasn’t only Tolkien’s world that sold well. By the 1980s, fantasy began to overtake science fiction in popularity, providing readers with long-running, consistent adventures in deeply immersive worlds.
Brooks immediately began working on follow-up adventures, turning his first book into a trilogy. The Elfstones of Shannara followed in 1982, while The Wishsong of Shannara came out in 1985. Up to this point, Brooks had continued to practice law, but in 1986, he left his job as a lawyer to become a full-time author. Now devoted to his world, Brooks expanded his series with dozens of new installments to date. In 1990, he began a new, four-book series called the Heritage of Shannara, which includes The Scions of Shannara, The Druid of Shannara (1991), The Elf Queen of Shannara (1992) and The Talismans of Shannara (1993). Eight additional series have been published since then.
In the 2000s, epic fantasy made the jump from thick paperback to blockbuster movie. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was a runaway success, which prompted other imitators and adaptations. The popularity extended to television audiences after HBO adapted George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series into Game of Thrones. In January 2016, Brooks’ novels followed this ongoing trend, with MTV releasing the first episode of The Shannara Chronicles. The show adapts the events of the first trilogy. We’ll wait and see where the show might go next.