Image credit: Cropped version of a screenshot taken at MTV.com by Inge Loots
Sometimes the most unexpected things turn up in the ‘Recommended for You’ list on Netflix. My newest find is The Shannara Chronicles. Terry Brooks’ novels were among the first fantasy novels I read after discovering The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in school.
Terry Brooks’ Shannara Trilogy
My mind wandered back to the day when I discovered a treasure trove: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had a page that listed ‘also in this series’. Listed in alphabetic order were Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind, Frank Herbert, Robert Jordan and so on. From that moment on, I spent all my pocket money on fantasy novels.
The first book I read was The Sword of Shannara. It is very reminiscent of The Lord of The Rings with its epic scale, but I found the story line a lot weaker. Later on I discovered that this was one of the major criticisms on the series. Oddly enough, the TV series does not start with the Sword, instead the plot starts at the time of the Elfstones of Shannara which is the second book in the series.
Gimli in Elf Form
The cast consists of mostly young actors I’ve not heard of before. At one point, however, I found King Eventine Ellessedil looked very familiar. I recognized him by his voice. It was John Rhys-Davies, who also plays Gimli in The Lord of the Rings. But that isn’t the only connection with the books and the movies: the series was shot in New Zealand around Auckland. The indoor scenes were shot at Auckland Film Studios for MTV. That’s also where the series originally aired.
The season’s plot in short
The story starts with one of the main protagonists training for a run and from that point forward we meet the main characters and discover the setting. You kind of expect that this is the Shannara from the title, but no. Instead, season 1 tells the story of a magical tree, the Ellcrys. This is a sentient tree with a silver bark and crimson leaves. There is some sort of cult surrounding the tree.
When we cut to another land we meet Wil Ohmsford, a half-elf. His uncle describes his deceased brother as a drunk who lost his mind. Wil’s human mother is dying. His attempts to heal her fail and he blames himself for her death. Will always wears modern-looking beanies. Everybody who isn’t an elf seems to hate the Elvin races because of something that happened in the past.
A Land of Confusion
It’s isn’t immediately clear whether the story happens in our world or in a fictional world. When Wil is talking to his uncle Flick, they talk about the heirloom Wil possesses, a set of elf stones. Everything in the set looks medieval, but then a car door pops out.
The artifacts don’t make sense in a ‘fairy tale story’. They are modern, 20th century objects. Everything else has a distinct medieval vibe: healers, magic, horses as mode of transportation. The use of bow and arrows, the costumes. What are they doing there? Those who read the books know this is because the story is set in a post-apocalyptic version of our world, but nobody really explains this: you have to piece it together yourself.
A Collection of Tropes and Cliches
At one point early in season 1, the story’s pace speeds up because the magical tree is dying. There’s a discussion between the King, who seems to be part of the cult surrounding the tree, his sons and the Elvin Council. Everybody except for the King seems to be sceptical about magic and the necessity to protect the tree at all costs. The rest of the season tells the story of the tree with all the tropes and cliches you would expect: tension between faith and reason, boy meets girl, another girl gets jealous, someone who sabotages the quest out of greed and so on.
It makes the story somewhat predictable and formulaic, but since you root for certain characters, you keep watching. After all, knowing what will happen isn’t the same as knowing how things will happen. Despite knowing where the story will bring us, I still want to watch season 2 when it comes out, because it’s a satisfying story.
Faith vs. Reason
There are several themes that get spun out over the course of the series. The first theme is faith vs. reason. Since the tree’s life span is much longer than the life span of men and elves, the story surrounding the tree is treated as myth instead of history. Several characters state that they refuse to accept the myth as a true story until they see the truth with their own eyes. This attitude causes a lot of suffering because it delays actions until the very last moment.
Free will versus acting like a pawn is another major theme. Several characters got told what to do, because it is their destiny. They never get asked if they want to do it. This reflects one approach of free will: there is no such thing as a free will as everyone is predestined to be whatever they are before birth. The only choice you have is either accepting your destiny or refusing it. Refusal gets punished by drowning in a ‘sea of darkness’.
The importance of free will gets demonstrated when one character decides to accept the quest and another one refuses and turns away to darkness. One chooses to accept fate out of love for their friends, but another refuses out of fear for what they are. Both choices are free choices and aftermath of these choices is what will hopefully make the rest of the series interesting.
Identity and purpose
Finding your own identity and embracing who you are is also a major theme. All the protagonists are orphans. A lot of the characters are not accepted by the society they live in for who or what they are. Some literally get banished for being different, others have to hide their identity. For example, Will always has to cover his elf ears in order to avoid being discriminated against.
Magic comes with a price
The last theme is ‘magic comes with a price’. Wil’s father paid dearly for his use of magic, other users of magic have burns and other marks that show that using magic isn’t without danger. Despite this, characters that can use magic don’t seem to hold back on it. What is the price they are going to pay? Do we see a foreshadowing of things to come and prices paid in the last episode of season 1?
Entertaining for what it is
When watching, you need to keep in mind this was produced for MTV with a target audience of teenagers and young adults. This accounts for some lack of depth, I think.
If you don’t mind cliches and tropes, I think you will enjoy the series for what it is. It is not the most compelling series out there, for the reasons stated above, but an entertaining distraction from daily life. Don’t expect anything like Stranger Things, Lost or Battlestar Galactica. Giving it a 3.5 out of 5 stars rating.