The publication of Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara in 1977 was a watershed moment in fantasy literature. The success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings left fans clamoring for more epic, secondary world fantasy with maps, and with The Sword of Shannara Brooks delivered. Its publication began a trend of Tolkien-inspired fantasy that deeply marked (marred, others might say) the genre thereafter.
But the ensuing years haven’t been kind to Brooks. Lin Carter, editor of the acclaimed Ballantine Adult fantasy series, said of The Sword of Shannara ,” [it’s]the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read”. Despite the commercial success of Shannara and its sequels, its now widely considered to be the poster child for Biggest Tolkien Ripoff.
But, prevailing claims to the contrary, The Sword of Shannara is not even close to that moniker. The championship belt for most slavish LOTR imitation (that I have read, at least) hangs proudly about the waist of Dennis McKiernan’s The Iron Tower Trilogy. In comparison to The Dark Tide, Shadows of Doom, and The Darkest Day, Shannara is a veritable bastion of originality sprung whole and entire from the forehead of Zeus. The Iron Tower Trilogy is, in fact, The Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off. Crudely. Anyone who possesses even a passing familiarity with Tolkien’s masterwork should stand aghast at the “similarities.”
For example, in The Dark Tide, an army of orc-like creatures attack a fortress ringed with multiple walls. Their standard is a burning ring, scarlet on black. The fortresses’ human defenders are aided by wee folk (warrows) and an elf. The goblin-creatures send out the mouth of Sauron—pardon me, a, gloating, evil-voiced emissary of the dark lord Modru—to entreat with the defenders. Later, huge ogre-like monsters bring a massive iron-headed ram named Grond—excuse me, Whelm—to bear on the gates. Later they use catapults to rain the heads of dead men down on the defenders in an attempt to break their spirit.
No, this isn’t the Siege of Minas Tirith, but the battle of Challerain Keep. I think. I can’t seem to tell them apart.
That’s merely a taste of the curious coincidences you’ll find in The Iron Tower Trilogy. Perhaps most egregious of all is a journey through the ancient underground dwarven fortress Kraggen-Cor which is the Fellowship’s passage through the Mines of Moria in everything but name. It’s complete with a hidden entranceway that reveals itself with silver tracery at a dwarf’s touch, and is guarded by a tentacled monster from the Dark Mere. I’m not making this up.
Despite its less than stellar literary reputation The Iron Tower Trilogy has its share of fans. Once, I was one of them. I read it and The Sword of Shannara as a kid and enjoyed them immensely. In fact, I recently re-read The Dark Tide on a whim and liked it, finding it to be a mildly entertaining popcorn read. As long as we recognize these works as derivative they’re harmless enough, right?
Perhaps. And perhaps not.
I’ve often wondered why fantasy has such a low reputation among the mainstream media. Part of me can’t help but feel that The Iron Tower Trilogy and The Sword of Shannara might be (at least partly) to blame. One problem is that they borrow surface elements wholesale from Tolkien and repeat them ad nauseum until Elves and Hobbits (or Warrows, or whatever you want to call the little people they inevitably employ) become clichéd and galling. The deeper problem is that they’re imitations of style, not substance, and don’t engage in any of Tolkien’s underlying ideas. The result is a pretty vapid product. They strip LOTR of its literary qualities and reduce it to “mixed band of unlikely heroes on a quest to save the world” without any anchors to the human condition, mythology, or applicability to real world events.
So I guess you could say I have a fierce love-hate relationship with these books.
There’s a curious story behind The Iron Tower Trilogy that I’ll try to summarize here. Reportedly, McKiernan wrote his Silver Call Duology (Trek to Kraggen-Cor and The Brega Path) before The Iron Tower and shopped them to the Tolkien estate as a LOTR sequel. When the Tolkien estate (wisely) passed, McKiernan wrote The Iron Tower Trilogy to provide the necessary backstory to the Silver Call. I was unable to find any corroboration of this story, other than an unattributed statement on Wikipedia. It’s not mentioned anywhere on McKiernan’s official website .
Personally I find this explanation rather laughable, even if true. After all, why wouldn’t McKiernan have alluded to any of this in his forward to the 1985 edition of The Dark Tide or its two followup volumes? It took him 15 years to admit that a few elements were “written in tribute” to Tolkien in the forward of a 2000 omnibus edition:
Oh, don’t take me wrong: I love the wee folk of other authors’ tales, especially the hobbits of J.R.R.Tolkien’s magnificent saga, The Lord of the Rings; and let me acknowledge here and now that a couple of things within The Iron Tower (and The Silver Call) are written in homage, in tribute, to Tolkien . . . in particular, the title(s) of the opening chapter(s), as well as parts of the journey(s) through the Dwarvenholt of Kraggen-cor, of Drimmendeeve, of the Black Hole.
Frankly, I’m not buying it. The Iron Tower Trilogy is no good natured homage, but an utterly slavish, shameless imitation.
…all that said, I still (kind of) like The Iron Tower Trilogy. Along with hordes of other fantasy fans I devoured these books as a boy of 12 or so, hungry for more stuff like The Lord of the Rings. And that’s just what I got from The Iron Tower Trilogy. Even if today it now reads like a soap-opera version of LOTR with little of the poetry, and none of the depth or mythic grandeur. But with a bit more swordplay.
A quarter century later I can return to books like The Dark Tide and enjoy them, cringing all the way.