1977: it's your Destiny
I was born in 1977 and Elvis died but, for billions of people, these were not the reasons it will be forever memorable: Star Wars was released. This film was not an immediate blockbuster: only a few dozen theatres showed it for its opening weekend, during which it was out-earned by Smokey and the Bandit. Fearing a flop, George Lucas had booked a vacation in Hawaii and Harrison Ford reflected upon it being "ridiculous", not least because of "this giant guy walking around in a dog suit." Within a few months, however, it had grossed more than Jaws and went on to surpass every other film ever made, with the exception of Gone with the wind, which has a 38 year head start in earnings.
1977 also heralded the publication of Terry Brooks' epic fantasy novel The Sword of Shannara, which sold more than 125,000 copies in its first month and went on to become an international multi million best-selling series (and which premiered on MTV in 2016). Brooks began writing Shannara in 1967, reportedly as a means of "staying sane" whilst studying law, and was contracted by Del Rey Books, an imprint of Ballantine Books in 1974. The book was not without its vocal critics, however, who decried its close similarities to The Lord of The Rings, both in terms of plot and characters: a year after its release, the American fantasy editor Lin Carter denounced The Sword of Shannara as "the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read". Brooks himself never denied his debt to Tolkien and cited it - along with the worlds depicted by Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - as his inspiration.
So was it just a coincidence that a book and a film - one a work of science fiction, the other fantasy - scored such stellar successes in 1977? Both were pitched at the YA market. Was there at the time a particularly escapist zeitgeist, perhaps fired by this sector, which provided such an extraordinary connectivity? There have been cogent attempts to explain the appetite for 'feel good' fiction as a psychological antidote to the Vietnam War (which ended in 1975) and The Cold War (which was ongoing), and thematic references in both works to the growth of dark empires will inevitably invite such explanations, as The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings did in the context of Word Wars 1 and 2 respectively.
Wars specifically and political events in general well might provide culturally attractive reference points for entertainment but I really don't think this is what actively drives people to part with their cash now or in 1977. The whole purpose of fantasy is to be transported in time and place, and to emote with protagonists that are both similar and different. The theme of Destiny was central to the blockbusters of 1977, as of course it is to many other works. There is clearly something very compelling about the concept of wrestling with control of our fate and, in so doing, discovering something of the inner hero (as well, perhaps, as learning more about our fears and limitations.)
It's quite sobering to think that I first picked up The Sword of Shannara 25 years ago at an outlet of WH Smith in Manchester Airport as a teenager en route to Corfu with my family. Much as I love my folks and my sisters, I probably fancied a bit of escapism on the balcony of that small apartment as a gangly teen. On a nostalgic whim a few weeks back, I bought the first trilogy of Shannara to see in the long summer holidays, hoping to be put under the same spell as I was a quarter of a century earlier as well as, perhaps, to learn something by comparison to my younger self.
The verdict? Terry Brooks can tell a very compelling story, without a doubt. Who cares if the plot follows the narrative arc of The Lord of The Rings? To an extent, all fiction is derivative and there are enough differences to keep the reader emotionally invested in the plot and its protagonists without constantly wondering if s/he is in fact in Middle Earth. I was glad I revisited the book and, on many occasions, I experienced real excitement when I turned the page to encounter long-forgotten - and brilliantly drawn - characters, such as the flashy thief Panamon Creel and his rock troll companion Keltset. The middle-aged pedant in me couldn't help but notice this time around the excessive number of adverbs, the sage advice of my agent Ian Drury ringing in my ears, "If the verb's vivid enough, why do you need one?" The repeated epithets can become a bit niggling too (e.g. 'the stocky valeman') but without being off-putting. If I get round to reading the sequels, it'll be interesting to see how his writing style evolves.
Teen me on that balcony - awestruck - would unhesitatingly have given Shannara a 10/10. When I got back home, I encouraged my best mate at school to read it and he was hooked instantly, and went on to read more books by Brooks than I ever did. Now... I think I'd give it a firm 8/10, though I'd quite freely admit that the missing '2' is more a criticism of my crabbier self than any deficiency with the book!