The Sword and The Ring:
Similarities and Dissimilarities
by Sarah Ashwood
With the recent blockbuster success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy at the box office, the name Tolkien seems to be on everyone's lips. Fewer are the folks, but no less dedicated the fans, who know of another fantasy great: Terry Brooks. Ask around in any movie-watching circle, and chances are they've seen/heard of The Lord of the Rings. Ask around in any fantasy-reading circle, and it's just as likely the name Terry Brooks will be recognized.
It's believed that Brooks paved the way for modern writers of fantasy by following in the footsteps of the great J.R.R. Tolkien, but also by expanding on his world, re-creating it, and fashioning it in Brooks's own style (Graham, 178). Well, Brooks may have certainly paved the way for those who followed him, but just how original was he? Was Brooks a genius, whose writing set a standard to which future fantasy authors should aspire? Or did he borrow heavily from the standard—aka, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy—and just happen to be there in the right place at the right time, not so long after Tolkien's death, when the world was looking for the next Tolkien?
The following is a brief comparison of Terry Brooks's debut novel, The Sword of Shannara, as opposed to J.R.R. Tolkien's famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Both similarities and dissimilarities will be noted, so readers may decide for themselves answers to the questions asked above. In the end, it's really all just a matter of opinion. There are some who will be devoted Brooks fan until the day they die, and others who will write him off as an earlier version of Christopher Paolini, whose debut novel Eragon has been criticized as another cheap Tolkien rip-off. However, Paolini fans still linger, as do Brooks. As do Tolkiens. And one supposes in a world large enough to contain six billion people, there's enough room for all of them to coexist peacefully. That being said, let us begin our comparison with
Quite obviously, there are huge similarities in the races inhabiting The Sword of Shannara and The Lord of the Rings. In both worlds, Elves, Dwarves, and Men all play principal roles. Brooks goes on to add a new twist, however: Gnomes. In Brooks's world, Gnomes make up the largest portion of the bad guys, though it can be justifiably argued that they're only taking the place of Tolkien's Orcs. Absent in "The Sword" are the Witch King's undead forces; replacing them are the Skull Bearers. Both authors employ Trolls: Tolkien, Cave Trolls. Brooks, Rock Trolls.
"The Ring" trilogy begins in the pleasant region of the Shire, inhabited by Hobbits, akin to the agreeable Shady Vale, inhabited by Valemen like Shea and his brother Flick. In "The Ring" trouble comes to the Shire with the advent of Gandalf and the Ring of power. Together, these two are enough to send innocent Hobbit hero, Frodo, off on an epic quest to destroy the Ring and, with it, evil. In "The Sword," trouble penetrates Shady Vale with the arrival of huge, dark, mysterious Allanon. He too bears information concerning an important artifact—the Sword of Shannara—the only weapon by which the dread Warlock Lord can be conquered. Alas for gentle, half-Elven Shea, it can only be wielded by him, a descendant of the famed Elf King Shannara. Which sets innocent hero Shea off on an epic quest to first find the Sword, then use it to destroy the Warlock Lord and, with it, evil.
Other similarities in setting appear the further one goes along. Instead of recuperating from the first portion of their journey in restful, Elven Rivendell—as do Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, Shea and Flick find themselves temporarily residing in the Dwarf stronghold of Culhaven. Though populated by different races, the connection is there. Further, surely the trek of companions Shea, Kelset, and Panamon across the wasteland leading to the Skull Kingdom brings to mind Sam and Frodo's own quest through the Land of Mordor in search of Mount Doom.
Furthermore, we have the great city of Tyrsis, a sort of combination of Helm's Deep in Tolkien's "The Two Towers" and the city stronghold of Minas Tirith in "The Return of the King." Like Minas Tirith, an epic battle will be fought inside Tyrsis that will partially determine the future of the world. This happens off-stage, as it were, while the real battle to decide the fate of the world is being waged by gentle Shea against the evil Warlock Lord. (Rather like the great battle of Minas Tirith being waged while Frodo and Sam continue on in their struggle towards Mount Doom, and the saving destruction of the ring.)
Like both Minas Tirith and Helm's Deep, enemy forces will violate the great outer wall of Tyrsis. Forces will pour inside the gates, breaching the inner wall. In the end, a final defense is mounted—led by Aragorn in "The Ring," and Balinor in "The Sword." In the case of all three notable battles, assisting forces will arrive in time to save the day. At Helm's Deep, this would be Gandalf and Eomer, leading the Riders of Rohan. In the case of Minas Tirith, it would be King Theoden and the forces of Rohan. In Tyrsis, it is the Elven King, Eventine, and his mighty Elf host.
As is the case in Minas Tirith, Tyrsis is being ruled by a regent, standing in place of its rightful king—Balinor—who has been away for some time. (Minas Tirith awaits the return of Aragorn, its rightful king, and is meanwhile ruled by a Steward, Lord Denethor.) As is the case in Rohan, the one who is supposed to rule does so in name only. The power behind the throne is another, a traitor, who uses his position as councilor to advance the power of the book's evil antagonist. Which brings us to a final comparison, that of…
Parallels among "The Sword" and "The Ring" characters abound. First off is Shea. Like Frodo, Tolkien's unassuming hero, Shea is happy where he is. He's not the type to seek out danger, but danger comes to him. The world has to be saved—and only he can save it. The differences? Frodo is a Hobbit, and Shea half-Elven. Frodo must destroy a Ring in order to defeat evil; Shea must wield a Sword.
Flick: traces of Sam, Frodo's staunch Hobbit companion, can be readily seen in Flick. It is "little Flick," with his "broad face" and unswerving devotion to his adoptive brother, who refuses to give up on Shea or the quest. He's willing to risk life and limb in order to see his brother safely through. The differences? Flick is a man, whereas Sam was a Hobbit. Flick doesn't accompany Shea all the way, as Sam does Frodo. Nor does Shea go off and leave Flick at the end of "The Sword," as Frodo does Sam in "The Ring"…a happy difference, in the opinion of many.
Allanon: a Gandalf figure if ever there was one. Allanon is larger than life in both stature and presence; Gandalf in mystery, age, and wisdom. Both characters are the guiding lights to whom others turn for information and help. Both disappear only to reappear later. Both are powerful in their own style of magic. Both are wholeheartedly committed to their cause, even at the expense of others. Both know secrets they won't reveal. But both are going to be there at the end to pick up the pieces of the hero after his task is completed. The differences? Allanon is nearly seven feet tall and a Druid. Gandalf is a wizard.
Balinor: a disinherited king, turned out of his rightful home. A border fighter, a great warrior, a leader of men. Mysterious, stalwart, trustworthy. Can anyone say Strider/Aragorn? Aragorn has a lady love, Arwen, awaiting him; Balinor apparently wins his throne, freedom, and little else. At least, he's rewarded with no lady fair that we're told of.
Hendel and Gimli: both are Dwarves, both are fighting men, both are staunch, both are loyal, both are skilled fighters. Hendel uses a mace, and Gimli an axe. Hendel dies before peace is restored; Gimli lives to see happier times.
Eventine, Durin, and Dayel: all are Elves. As the Elven king, Eventine probably most closely identifies with Elven lord Elrond, though the similarities seem to end there. Durin and Dayel, like Legolas, are a tight part of the fellowship that surrounds Shea, as Legolas is to the fellowship surrounding Frodo. Neither is particularly Legolas-like in activity, mannerisms, or character, however. That role is reserved for another: Menion Leah.
Menion Leah seems a curious mixture. He's part Legolas (a good tracker, and an excellent shot with a bow); part Aragorn (if one compares Shirl Ravenlock, the story's only central female character to Arwen, Aragorn's Elf princess); and part Merry and Pippin. Like these two Hobbits, he's the second to join up with the fellowship; Merry and Pippin come after Sam who's accompanying Frodo, and Menion Leah comes after Flick, who's accompanying Shea. Like Pippin, Menion's boyish foolhardiness sometimes gets him into danger. But, like Merry, he is brave and true. He will see this quest through, or die in the effort.
As has already been implied, like Theodin and Wormtongue are Palance Buckhannah and Stenmin. Theodin and Palance both rule their respective cities as titular heads, but it's obvious to everyone that their advisors—Wormtongue and Stenmin—are the true powers behind the throne. In the end, both Wormtongue and Stenmin meet unhappy, if well-deserved, fates. Unlike King Theodin, who lives to fight another day after casting off Wormtongue's spell, Palance Buckhannah dies soon after Stenmin's evil influence is removed.
Something of Faramir, younger brother of the slain Boromir and captain of Minas Tirith's host, can be seen in Panamon Creel and his companion Kelset. Like Faramir with Frodo and Sam, they are initially untrusting of the young Shea and unwilling to help him out. Also like Faramir, their minds are changed after an attack by the dark forces, and all pledge their respective aid to the central member of the quest. Unlike Faramir, Kelset dies to save Shea and Panamon. Like Faramir, Panamon lives—albeit, also like Farmir, he's believed dead for a time. Like Faramir, Panamon makes a rather miraculous recovery, much to the joy of his friends.
The Warlock Lord and Sauron: both are the evil antagonist. Both are shadowy, dark, and powerful. Both command hoards of evil forces determined to wipe all traces of humanity—and righteousness—off the face of the earth. Both demand unwavering devotion. Neither is truly alive, but more spirit than flesh. Both are destroyed by an item, a token as it were: a Sword, a Ring. Both are further destroyed by the most improbable of foes: a half-Elven youth, a Hobbit. Both dissolve into nothingness, and their vast armies along with them. One manifests itself like a great Eye, one an "impenetrable, dark, formless robe" (Brooks, 696).
Finally, the Ring and the Sword. The Ring in Tolkien's trilogy is, in and of itself, evil, for it's been imbued with the evil of Sauron, its maker. The Sword is not. Instead, the Sword holds its own power which, like the Ring, can destroy. The Ring destroys by corrupting those who use it; the Sword by making its bearer face the awful truth about their personal failures, weaknesses, and sins. The ring is eventually cast into the fires of Mount Doom, whence it was forged, and thus destroyed—taking its maker along with it. The Sword survives, though it kills the one it was meant to kill.
So, cheap rip-off or brilliant re-creating? Terry Brooks, author of The Sword of Shannara, has obviously heard all the old arguments, and has this to say on the subject:
"My books are compared most often to Tolkien's, sometimes favorably, sometimes not, less so now than once, but frequently nevertheless. This is understandable. . . . I have written nineteen books in three series along with two movie adaptations since I began my career with Sword, and the comparisons continue. I suspect they always will. It goes with the territory. What strikes me as odd is that very few of those who choose to draw comparisons between Tolkien and myself mention the one that I think is the clearest. . . . The one piece of clothing I borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkien, the one I wear to this day and refuse to take off, is the one that defines my protagonists. Whether it is Shea and Flick Ohmsford from Shady Vale in The Sword of Shannara or Ben Holiday in Magic Kingdom for Sale or Nest Freemark in Running with the Demon, 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. It was the most compelling component of his writing, and I think it remains so. I was impressed enough by how it had changed the face of epic fantasy that I never gave a second thought as to not using it as the cornerstone of my own writing.
. . . In any case, it is in the nature of writing that writers follow in the footsteps of those who wrote before.
. . . I wonder what younger writers think when they are compared to me. How do they feel about being told that their books are similar to those of Terry Brooks? I guess I hope that they feel much the same way I do when mine are compared to Tolkien's—that it's not a bad standard to try to live up to. I hope they remember that we share a common destination as fellow travelers on the writing trail—to write the best book we can, because no matter who we are compared to, at the end of the day how we feel about ourselves is what matters most." (Brooks, 189-191)
Copycat or creative genius? Apparently, it's a question every reader will have to answer for themselves. In the meantime, neither Tolkien nor Brooks are on their way out. Both are here to stay. Which is just how it should be.
Brooks, Terry. Sometimes the Magic Works. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
Brooks, Terry. The Sword of Shannara. New York: Del Ray Books, 1978.
Graham, Michael. Tolkien and Makers of Modern Epic Fantasy. 2003.
See a review of Terry Brooks latest book The Gypsy Morph here.
Sarah Ashwood is
twenty-three year old, full-time college student, currently working
towards a B.A. in English with an emphasis on creative writing.
Scholastically, I am a member of the International Honor Society, Phi
Theta Kappa, and recently joined my second International Honour Society,
The Golden Key.
for my literary efforts, a chapbook of my poetry, entitled A Minstrel’s
Musings, will be published by Cyberwizard Productions in 2009. My
poetry was first published in the October 2007 edition of Art and Prose.
Later that same year, I won first place in a local literary contest for
an essay on the importance of reading. Since that time, my work—both
poetry and prose, fantasy and non-fantasy—has appeared in such
publications as Aoife’s Kiss, Flashing Swords Press, Mindflights,
Outdoors Spectacular, The Lorelei Signal, and Abandoned Towers. Lastly, I
am co-editor of the fantasy ezine, Moon Drenched Fables.
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