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The Shannara Chronicles cover

Though it's relatively easy to guess from the very outset, it took me about three episodes to definitively confirm that Wil Ohmsford is kind of an oblivious tool. Ohmsford is the Chosen One, last scion of the bloodline of the Kings of Shannara, and a rube from the small town of Shady Vale. A self-described healer, he fails in the show's opening episodes to keep the writers from securing his mother in the fridge, and so claims he is off to go to some big city university. He's interrupted by Allanon, the moodiest Gandalf, who bullies him into some sort of quest. In the books, Allanon is basically the precursor to Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix. In the show, Manu Bennett hits that and embellishes it with some The Rock-level facial expressions that make him delightfully bizarre.

The moment that the show clicked was as the quest’s party was being assembled. Wil speaks to Amberle (Poppy Drayton), the Elven Princess on a quest to save the Ellcrys, a tree that keeps the Demon Army banished to a different world, which is dying. She is basically a Paladin; she also pulls out her sword more than anyone else in the show, including the entire entourage of warriors the episodes bring and all the villains combined. The party are speaking of Eretria (Ivana Baquero, most notably Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth [2006]), a Rover in the fiction, which is to say a member of a group of displaced humans who do things like rob people and keep slaves. She is basically a Rogue. Wil exclaims in the most petulant way imaginable that Eritrea "cannot be trusted." He exclaims this because she has twice attempted to steal his elfstones (the magical blue circles that the Shannara clan wields to cause spectacular damage against powerful enemies); both times have involved seduction. Wil, played by Austin Butler—who is nothing if not the purest instantiation of the Disney Channel heartthrob, and who has been (fictionally) crushed on by no less than Miley Cyrus and Jamie Lynn Spears—has the sort of tousled hair and pouty lips and gee-whiz demeanor that make the subtext stick out like a sore thumb. Eretria cannot be trusted because not only will Ohmsford fall for her advances every single time, but she won't then even have the decency to be absolutely smitten with his charms. What makes it work is that Wil is not saying this in some confident, bro-like way, but as a character who seems genuinely a bit clueless.

The clueless protagonist has relatively little space to move on the screen; they are almost exclusively found in quite limited roles within the purview of horror films—where their cluelessness is used to engender some mixture of sympathy and spite—and in comedy, where their cluelessness is exploited to produce beats around which jokes can be timed. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, is full of this trope. In science fiction, it is the plucky hero who has to be infodumped upon constantly; in fantasy, it is, well, just name a protagonist who has walked through a portal. Just about any one will do. This disparity is one possible answer to why, despite Game of Thrones's massive and ongoing popularity, The Shannara Chronicles is one of very few—if any—High Fantasy television shows. The closest exceptions are either Supernatural and True Blood and Charmed, which rely heavily on horror, or Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules, which mostly use the setting as a backdrop for action and period, or Haibane Renmei and Adventure Time and Over the Garden Wall, which come close but rely to varying degrees on psychological or comedic aspects.

But then, calling the Shannara series High Fantasy is itself kind of fraught. A diversion into the novels themselves will help clarify.

The popular understanding of Terry Brooks's long-running series is probably best encapsulated in Lin Carter's words, originally published in his survey of Fantasy in The Year's Best Fantasy: 4 (1978): "the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read." This quotations is listed under the "Influences on the fantasy genre" section of the Wikipedia page for The Lord of the Rings. Joanna Russ famously dubbed the first novel in the series, The Sword of Sha Na Na, in her essay "SF and Technology as Mystification," writing that it "is not that [Star Wars] is as bad as [The Sword of Shannara], but that both are bad in exactly the same way," which she explains is the way in which they are both primarily produced for their addictive qualities. Books like The Sword of Shannara (1977), according to Russ, "satisfy a need partially, and at the same time they exacerbate it . . . [producing] not just enjoyment or desire but intense craving . . ., not just intense craving but sudden intense craving which must be satisfied at once." Shannara is, in other words, an also-ran and a pernicious, if not downright terrible, example of the genre. That both Russ and Carter gloss over some of the stranger aspects of what would become the (up to this point) twenty-eight-novel series is not exactly a knock of their criticisms. The aspects that have since made Shannara very clearly different from The Lord of the Rings were there from the beginning, but they were hardly emphatic.

Take, for a relatively light example, Antrax (2001), the second novel in a trilogy set over four hundred years after the original Shannara trilogy. The original The Sword of Shannara reads very much like a High Fantasy novel in the vein of Tolkien, but there is reason to believe that it is closer to the Dying Earth subgenre. The genre takes its name from Jack Vance's The Dying Earth collections, and includes works like Doris Piserchia's Starchild (1977) and Brian Aldiss' Hothouse (1962). A rough overview would be to say that these books often involve taking the SFnal approach of extrapolation and ending up in a world that, having been through significant disasters like global war and climate change, ends up fantastical. John Brunner's To Catch a Falling Star (1968), for instance, is basically a post-post-apocalyptic Gulliver's Travels, featuring a village of trees genetically modified to act as Smart Homes and races of pirates and philosophers that are basically Goblins and Elves (though even more overtly racialized). It takes only twenty-five pages into The Sword of Shannara for the infodump that suggests this genre alignment: Allanon tells Shea Ohmsford, Wil's eventual father, that "the Great Wars brought an end to an age where Man alone was the dominant race," and that the fallout included the development of "another race—a race of men who had fled beneath the earth to survive the effects of the Great Wars . . . [Man] called them Dwarfs, after a fictional race of the old days." The novel is also full of industrial debris, including one of the most memorable monsters in the story.

Antrax takes this idea and runs it to a conclusion. The incursion on the Four Lands in that book is predicated around an ancient AI (which, if memory serves, is set up like some sort of supercomputer/mainframe, which seems goofy) that was given instructions to preserve all of (pre-Great Wars) mankind's knowledge by any means necessary. The adventurers then discover that the magical knowledge they seek is just pre-War science that's been forgotten. Abiding by Mendlesohn's classifications, this doesn't change the fact that the Shannara series remains firmly in the "Portal-Quest Fantasy" quadrant, rhetorically. What it does negotiate is the precise terms on which Brooks's secondary world status exists. The Four Lands are just as full of magic and magical creatures and racialized politics as Middle Earth and Narnia, and are just as tiny (the first rule of fantasy being that nothing is ever farther than a week on horseback, anywhere). But they are not separated from us (fictionally) by a portal or an elaborate clockwork of mythology and mapmaking; only time.

The ultimate example of this in Brooks's novels is his Word & Void trilogy. Marketed at the time as Brooks's non-Shannara urban fantasy series, the novels focused on a couple of young adults in 1990s Illinois being given magic powers to fight off demons. Seven years after the final book in the series was released, Brooks began a new trilogy which covered the Great Wars; Armageddon's Children (2006) made explicit the connection between the Word & Void trilogy and the Shannara novels. Much like how the Insane Clown Posse's unveiling that their violent, sexualized, cartoonish rapping was always in service of leading their followers to the Christian God, Brooks's eventual enveloping of the Word & Void novels into the greater Shannara-verse was met with a mixture of consternation and annoyance—and acknowledgement that, in a boring way, it all kind of did make sense.

All of which is to say that, from the standpoint of today, when The Shannara Chronicles is being made into a television show by MTV, the Shannara novels are rhetorically High or Portal-Quest Fantasy, but are thematically/narratively something more like Dying Earth post-Urban Fantasy (with Elves). None of which obviates the issue of the clueless protagonist on television, but it does provide it with some texture. And, to be clear: it is texture that exists in the fabric of the show itself; a scholarly history of the series is not assumed or desired of the viewer.

That texture is, to return to the show proper, exemplified in Wil Ohmsford's exclamation to Amberle about Eritrea. The casting is crucial; delivered by someone other than an actor who both looks and has the pedigree of the millennial t(w)een heartthrob, who has done time on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, the resonances with the post-urban fantasy aspects of the Shannara series would be much more faint. And the way that the show is set and shot up to that point make it very clear that The Shannara Chronicles is not shying away from the knowledge that the source material is very definitively set long after the end of the world; nearly every outdoor sequence, whether over a field or through a forest, has some more or less obtrusive object rusting somewhere in the frame.

The show's aesthetic is crucial, as well. If Peter Jackson set the current standard for fantasy on the screen with his Lord of the Rings film trilogy, then perhaps the most distinctive aspect was his use of lingering, broadly-framed, panoramic shots that transfigured Tolkien's long descriptions to the screen. The Shannara Chronicles adheres to a much different aesthetic, although attempts at recreating Jackson's are made. The show is very much in the style of the current crop of MTV television, like Scream and Teen Wolf, tightly framed, with a tendency to interweave discrete narratives and to use color in a way that borders on abstraction. The oranges and blues dominate, but in Scream this includes blacks, and in The Shannara Chronicles greens. Think Undressed in 16:9.

This ends up working; unlike Tolkien, reading through a Brooks novel leaves you wondering how it spent seven hundred pages to reach its conclusion. There is no ludicrous overemphasis on landscape or myth, but there is also little to no emphasis on characters, or plot, or, it seems, anything. One could call it balance, or a complete lack of regard for economy of language; a page turner or a poorly written novel. Wherever one falls, the way the cinematography provides the characters with a relative lack of breathing room, coupled with the glossy sheen that still pervades HD, seem appropriate.

For all the talk of the series as a whole and The Sword of Shannara in particular, the first season of The Shannara Chronicles is an adaptation of Brooks's second book, The Elfstones of Shannara (1982). A generation removed from the wielding of the titular sword, Elfstones and the show follow the aforementioned triad on a quest to restore the Ellcrys before the Dagda Mor, some sort of Demon King, can unleash his army of demons and destroy the Four Lands. A ritual is remembered that involves bathing the tree's seed in some far-off, important fire before being brought back, and the three heroes set off to perform it. Over the course of ten episodes they deal with demons, Rovers, trolls, a love triangle (connected at all points, in a way that seems mildly shitty), a group of fascistic separatist humans who call their settlement Utopia, a perfectly preserved pre-apocalyptic High School all prommed out, and a number of other delightful mishaps. All of which, in keeping with the use of the clueless protagonist, is dealt with in roughly the same tone as described.

To return to Mendlesohn's toolkit taxonomy, the one thing that differentiates the show from the broad category of Portal-Quest Fantasy is that Ohmsford never really gets it. According to Mendlesohn, the Portal-Quest Fantasy tends to ultimately arrive at a "point of negotiation with the world via the personal manipulation of the fantastic realm" (Rhetorics of Fantasy, 2013, p. 2). That is, the combination of reader and protagonist begin with little to no knowledge, and end with enough to actively shape the world according to its own rules. In Brooks's novel, this seems to me at least mostly true; in the show, however, despite coming out victorious (albeit with caveats), Wil Ohmsford has learned something, but certainly not enough to say that he is no longer clueless, much less that he has the world in the palm of his hand (or ever did).

This, too, can be seen as a consequence of form; a television season must end with a promise, in one way or another. Even with the recent expansion of anthology series like American Horror Story and True Detective, and the model shifting from cable providers to over-the-top services like Netflix that deliver the entirety of a show at once, the obfuscated advertisement-and-subsidization economy of television demands that serialized television perform in certain ways. Even with at least twenty-seven more novels to adapt, in other words, The Shannara Chronicles ends on a cliff-hanger that the middle book in the trilogy does not possess. Something about how quickly the show moves seems to make this less offensive, though.

Even at an hour an episode (including commercials), and covering the whole of an over-five-hundred-page book, the fact that The Shannara Chronicles only runs ten episodes gives the whole thing a feeling of breeziness. The MTV style and the goofy protagonist and tone help with that, but part of it has to do with the fact that it runs on a week-by-week schedule rather than the Netflix-style dump. There's something fragile about the compulsion to "binge watch" a show, especially now that the already uncomfortable phrase is official marketing speak, at least as far as Hulu is concerned. Especially given how prevalent is the argument—anecdotally, at least—that television is preferable to film because it is easier to fit into your day. (Given that whole seasons are released as a whole, and we are culturally pressured to watch them as quickly as possible, this seems to me, at least, absolutely bizarre. Netflix never got out of movies; they just started prioritizing ones that last from five to twelve hours instead of two.)

Without that pressure of distribution—or, to be fair, that cultural pressure; The Shannara Chronicles didn't exactly upend prestige television—the show is relatively easy to take at its own pace. That its pace is basically the television version of Brooks's own (relatively complex, but still ultimately) High Fantasy romp doesn't hurt, either. None of this, however, changes the fact that, if you decided to watch, you'd be committing to somewhere between seven and eight hours of viewing; but it does help to at least diminish the feeling of being owed some sort of definitive closure.

The flip side of this is easy to read as well. Wil Ohmsford's cluelessness can easily grate; the tonal breeziness can be read as lack of care or an inability to get invested. Demonic villains that act as inversions of the slasher movie monster—always sprinting, never catching—can be seen as an insult to the audience's intelligence, and the show's white feminism and token racialized casting has to be. Excepting those last two, the moments that do work, even when they are as contrived as "a shapeshifter has entered the castle, who is it posing as in this episode" can be a lot of fun. Not because the viewer has to do all the work, but because working a little toward that enjoyment is generally rewarded in ways that go beyond snipping plot coupons. Just as an eye toward the relatively absent characterization turns Ohmsford's exclamation into a genuinely funny, revealing moment, so does holding open the possibility of pleasant surprise—which may well involve making fun of the show with a friend—make moments like the discovery of some blue twenty-sided dice that look suspiciously like the elfstones delightful. And it also helps with the task of keeping the elements of the show’s style in mind, like how the glossiness of HD in Fantasyland can lead to the sort of reframing of the questions one might ask about how, for instance, fantasy really works.

Benjamin Gabriel lives on Island Demeter, where he writes across media. Find him on Twitter: @Benladen.

Bee lives on Island Demeter, where they write, organize an annual videogame pop up and compilation, and cook. Support them on Patreon for access to a monthly cooking blog that tries to seriously tackle reproductive labor with recipes.
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28 Nov 2022

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Translated by: Emily Jin
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