Return Home

A (very) guilty pleasure: Dennis McKiernan’s The Iron Tower Trilogy

Thursday, July 7th, 2011 | Posted by Brian Murphy

the-dark-tideThe 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.

sword_of_shannaraI’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.

trek-to-kraggen-corThere’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.

the-darkest-day…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.

13 Comments »

  1. They certainly have some nice covers, at least. Very interesting.

    Couldn’t get through Shannara either time I tried, once as a kid and once an adult. It was only the second time around that I realized it was a xerox of Tolkien, though. I’ve never even heard of the Iron Tower books.

    Comment by Bill Ward - July 7, 2011 11:07 pm

  2. I recently sold them, but I’m 98% sure that “how they were written” story was in the forward of my copies of either the duology or the trilogy (along with the whole getting run over by a car incident that provided the writing time), which I acquired in the late ’80s or early ’90s. And I thought the explanation matched the stories perfectly.

    I’ve only read a few other McKiernan books (all set in Mithgar), but they all had strong emotional resonance for me. And not many epic fantasy authors are willing to not only have a quest fail, but turn out to be unnecessary (not that the heroes could have taken that chance). Delicious.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - July 8, 2011 12:11 am

  3. I’m not one to go book-bashing, but I do remember hating this when I tried to read it as a kid. I must have gotten to Shannara earlier, because I did read the whole first Shannara book and part of it’s sequel before it I got bored. Part of the Shannara appeal–and the reason it’s lasted so long–is because a large number of readers want the epic fantasy but don’t want the challenge of Tolkien’s complex language use. I’ve heard people complain that Tolkien is “boring” or “too hard to read,” while gobbling up one Tolkien clone after another.

    To each is own, but the Iron Tower was something that never grabbed me, despite how much I liked the cover art.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - July 8, 2011 12:16 am

  4. I’ve always loved these books. Certainly Tolkien can be enjoyed on many levels, but one of them is simply as enjoyable high fantasy adventure. And these books deliver that in spades

    If you’re looking for Tolkienesque fantasy these deliver in spades. And they’re light year ahead of your average D&D novel.

    Comment by ministan - July 8, 2011 12:50 am

  5. Nicely done article.
    Good point about it being possible that the lack of respect for the fantasy genre could be because of so many Tolkien rib-offs.

    Maybe that’s why that opinion is starting to change (it seems that way to me anyway) because we’re finally starting to see some quality original fantasy.

    Comment by kid_greg - July 8, 2011 8:29 am

  6. Ok, I guess you can hate on The Iron Tower Trilogy all you want, and when I tried to read it ten years after my initial read I had to stop because there was far too much weeping in it for my taste [seriously, count how many times the main Warrow character cries in the first book]. Still, I’ll say this for that trilogy, it managed to do stuff that I wanted to happen in LOTR but didn’t.

    Have you ever read a Marvel Comics ‘What if?’ The titles are like, ‘What if Mary Jane Watson got bit by the radioactive spider rather than Peter Parker’. Yeah, well The Iron Tower Trilogy kind of does this for LOTR. It’s like ‘What if Minas Tirith had some ‘stones’ other than Theodin’s Charge’ or in fact ‘What if Gondor LOST the Battle of Minas Tirith?’. And if you didn’t like Frodo/Golum dropping the ring in lava, how about ‘What if Frodo had to face Sauron with Sting in a two men enter, one man leaves scenario?’ That, my friends, is the Iron Tower Trilogy.

    I’m also a pretty big fan of dwarves, and I have to say that Moria always makes me very sad. In the Silver Call Duology the dwarves actually go back to ‘Moria’ and kick the crap out of some orcs and trolls. Silver Call is awesome, and the story I would have loved to see Tolkien write with Gimli going back and claiming what was his after LOTR finished up.

    Shannara… three attempts, three epic fails to finish any one of the first three books.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - July 8, 2011 12:43 pm

  7. They certainly have some nice covers, at least. Very interesting.

    Agree, they are great covers. A friend got me into these books when we were kids, and he got into them from the cool, Tolkien-esque covers.

    I recently sold them, but I’m 98% sure that “how they were written” story was in the forward of my copies of either the duology or the trilogy.

    Hi Jeff, I have the triology and duology sitting in front of me now. There is a foreward by McKiernan in which he explains his injury and how it allowed him to find time to write the books, but there is no mention of him setting out to write a LOTR sequel in any of them. You can read the forwards to the 2000 edition of the Iron Tower triology on McKiernan’s website, and there’s no mention there, either.

    Part of the Shannara appeal–and the reason it’s lasted so long–is because a large number of readers want the epic fantasy but don’t want the challenge of Tolkien’s complex language use. I’ve heard people complain that Tolkien is “boring” or “too hard to read,” while gobbling up one Tolkien clone after another.

    I couldn’t agree more, John. LOTR is harder to read than the Iron Tower but is infinitely more rewarding (and of course, it’s also original). And yes, Tolkien “borrowed” from mythology and legend, but he created something entirely new from these elements, not a slavish imitation.

    Good point about it being possible that the lack of respect for the fantasy genre could be because of so many Tolkien rib-offs. Maybe that’s why that opinion is starting to change (it seems that way to me anyway) because we’re finally starting to see some quality original fantasy.

    I agree kid_greg. If you’ve ever read (or more accurately, listened to) Michael Drout’s Rings, Swords, and Monsters, which is an academic overview of the origins of fantasy literature, he talks about the anxiety of influence of fantasy writers post-Tolkien: You had to either copy Tolkien, or deliberately break away from him, but you could not ignore him.

    I think enough time has passed that we’re starting to see fantasy writers emerge that don’t have that same anxiety of influence.

    Ok, I guess you can hate on The Iron Tower Trilogy all you want, and when I tried to read it ten years after my initial read I had to stop because there was far too much weeping in it for my taste [seriously, count how many times the main Warrow character cries in the first book]. Still, I’ll say this for that trilogy, it managed to do stuff that I wanted to happen in LOTR but didn’t.

    Hi Scott, I hope I’m not coming across as too much of a hater, here. I just re-read The Dark Tide (last week, in fact) and as I said in the post I rather liked it. It’s not badly written and if nothing else it’s entertaining and fast paced and a breeze to read. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a shameless ripoff.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - July 8, 2011 3:11 pm

  8. I have never really understood all the Terry Brooks hate to be honest. I read the initial Shannara series in reverse order — Wishsong first and Sword last — and deeply enjoyed the series. In fact, it was the differences from Tolkien that appealed to me.

    I loved the idea of a Fantasy world that was a post-apocalyptic version of our own world — and I’ve felt that way since I was 16 when I first read the books. I don’t want to itemize the ways that it is different from Tolkien, except to say that “Sword of Truth” is more a direct rip off of “Sword of Shannara” than “Shannara” is of LotR. The power of the Dark Lord in Tolkien is quite real, where in Shannara it is all illusion.

    As for the Dark Tower kudos. I too find it a guilty pleasure to read these. As a gamer, I am a big fan of Midkemia press. Much of their stuff is hard to find — Cities and other early D&D supplements — but is well worth discovering.

    Comment by ChristianLindke - July 9, 2011 2:33 am

  9. Missing a sentence in that last post. Wanted to say, like Dark Tower and also like another Tolkien “inspired” author Raymond Feist who had pretty much lifted stuff straight from Tolkien, but as a gamer…

    Comment by ChristianLindke - July 9, 2011 3:36 am

  10. Brian, hmm. If not in those, then in one of his other books. I’ve never seen his joking comment about humilty never being one of his strong points in anyone else’s explanation of how the stories were written.

    Christian, I didn’t notice a strong connection between Feist and Tolkien (although I’ve only read a half-dozen Midkemia novels). Could you sketch it for me?

    McKiernan is also a roleplayer, although his preference is, or at least was–brace yourselves–Rolemaster.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - July 9, 2011 10:17 am

  11. I remember listening to a podcast a while back (to varying degrees of “while”) where during the interview Mckiernan tells the story of his creation of the Duology & Trilogy. He described it much like the wiki entry.

    Ive never read the Mithgar books, but I did read the Shanarra books…well the first three, ages ago(back in the 80s). While I enjoyed them well enough, I thought they were a bit repetitious.

    TW

    PS- I liked Rolemaster…even though it was a well over on the mechanical end of the scale.

    Comment by TW - July 9, 2011 5:55 pm

  12. The geek clique I ran with in high school referred to the Terry Brooks series as Cash Cow of Sha Na Na. That’s still the first thing I think of every time I see one of his covers.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - July 11, 2011 11:47 pm

  13. […] That pattern continued into the 1980s with the publication of works like Dennis McKiernan’s Iron Tower trilogy, the series showing the clearest Tolkien “influence” of them all and one that literally […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Of Red Moon and Black Mountain and the Anxiety of Tolkien’s Influence - May 24, 2012 9:33 pm


Comments RSS  |  TrackBack URI

 

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Black Gate Home
This site © 2018 by New Epoch Press. All rights reserved.