I’m not sure what it is about the onset of autumn that makes me want to read fantasy, especially the variety in which the characters are off on some quest or other. I suspect it’s because it was the beginning of the school year when I was first introduced to The Hobbit, and back then we started school later in the year than they do now. So, when the fire was first lit, the desire to travel to other worlds was first instilled in me, it was late summer/early fall, and I’ve come to associate that with fantasy.
Whatever the reason, when the air takes that turn, when the first autumn rains start falling and the nights get brisker, when the first leaves begin to turn (they’re already turning on the sumac here in Arkansas, bright red beacons amidst all the deep green), when that dusty, musty scent permeates everything, I want to curl up and follow someone on a Grand Quest.
That probably at least partly explains why I decided to pick up The Hobbit and read it again after all these years. And I may well read LOTR as well, though I’ve read it more recently (back when the movies were coming out).
I was thinking about all this today—September 24, just a couple days after Hobbit Day, Bilbo and Frodo’s shared birthday—and it made me wonder how I satisfied this longing when I was young. Fantasy was hard to come by here in Arkansas back then, at least in the rural part I lived in. I can remember discovering The Sword of Shannara around the time it came out via the Science Fiction
Book Club (SFBC) and just devouring it. Going along on the adventure with Shea and Flick Ohmsford, leaving Shady Vale in a quest to acquire the Sword of Shannara and defeat the Warlock Lord, discovering dwarves and elves in a setting entirely different from Middle-earth—and yet so hauntingly familiar at the same time—was pure joy for me.
I didn’t care that it followed the LOTR formula so closely. So what? It was a new world, with new characters—not only Shea and Flick, but the wizard Allanon, a dark, possibly dangerous man who made Gandalf somewhat meek in comparison. Then there was Menion Leah, a friend of Shea’s, who always reminded me somewhat of Han Solo. Later, we meet Panamon Creel, highwayman, and his partner-in-crime, the Rock Troll Keltset. We also meet Balinor, son of the King of Callahorn, who works with Allanon much the way Aragorn worked with Gandalf.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. If you’ve never read The Sword of Shannara and love good epic fantasy in the old-school tradition, pick it up. Author Terry Brooks wove an entire history in which you eventually learn—as I suspected when I first read Sword—that the Four Lands are actually part of post-apocalyptic Earth. I haven’t read any of the other Shannara books—and he has plenty by now—but I’d like to catch up, because he goes back and fills in the history with different Shannara story arcs as well as his series Word and Void.
At any rate, just as Frodo and Sam separate from the Fellowship and go to Mordor alone in LOTR, Shea splits from the party and ends up journeying with Panamon Creel to the Northland and the home of the Warlock Lord, where he ultimately defeats the arch-enemy. Here’s where the differences are, because Frodo never had to meet Sauron face to face, while Shea has to use the Sword of Shannara for its purpose: to wield it in battle against the Warlock Lord.
Another difference is that there aren’t any characters like Panamon Creel and Keltset in LOTR. I’m not sure Tolkien would have included a highwayman in his cast. Not noble enough.
But the overall picture is the same, and maybe that’s why I was never able to read the second book he came out with, The Elfstones of Shannara. I wanted another Epic Quest, and Elfstones didn’t seem to be shaping up that way. Now, if you go back and look at the chronological order they should be read in (as opposed to the publication order), Elfstones is part of another series entirely, even though it concerns descendants of Shea Ohmsford.
At any rate, The Sword of Shannara definitely helped me get through the paucity of good epic fantasy, though I read it in summertime. I can distinctly remember sitting in the shade of late afternoon in the yard, reading my huge hardback SFBC edition with cover and interior illustrations by The Brothers Hildebrant (I could probably come close to an entire post about their work, I loved it so much). I read much slower in those days, and so could spend a month or more getting through one of these big books, enjoying every minute of it.
Still, I think The Hobbit probably helped the most. As I mentioned in my last post, I read it so much I got burned out on it, and that by the time I was in my middle teens. So I must have read it almost every year until I couldn’t take it anymore.
So now here we are again. The first day of autumn was this past weekend. The crickets are chirping, leaves are turning on the sumac to tease us about the coming season. The air is changing, the nights are cooler, the days pleasant.
And I have this desire to visit faraway lands, to see distant vistas under a bright sun or silvery moon, to hear tales told by the campfire of olden times. I want to watch while characters creep down underground passages or tread as quietly as possible down forest trails. Elves. Hobbits. Orcs. Wizards. And who knows what else I might encounter around the next bend in the trail or curve of the tunnel? What might be lurking in the ruins of that old castle?
And am I really hearing the faint slap of bare feet behind us? Did I really see eyes glowing far back on the trail, or am I imagining things?
Let’s turn the page and find out.