I first read The Sword of Shannara when I was just 12 years old, at a point in my life where I was at a crossroads. The Sword of Shannara left me with a deep and unalloyed interest in Science Fiction and High Fantasy (or as others call it, Epic Fantasy). I have read many books since and before; all of them have impacted me to one extent or another, but if I had to pick a book that changed my life it was this book.
I have always been both a voracious and a prodigious reader. My parents encouraged this: I remember reading James and the Gaint Peach on my own by age 6, the next year I read Charlotte's Web on my own and very nearly broke the 200-page mark. I was also encouraged by my teachers: I can remember how we had a reading contest in 3rd grade, it wasn't even close. By the time I had reached 12 I was a little bored, having read most of the school's library and many children's series (The Hardy Brothers, which started my love of a good mystery, The Boxcar Children, and Animorphs spring to mind), and so I was looking for something new, something to challenge my ability to read. That is when I saw The Sword of Shanara in a book catalogue and, well, some children ask for bikes or GI Joes; me, I asked for books and I wanted that book.
The Sword of Shannara was the first real novel I ever read. It was also the first time I had ever been introduced to High Fantasy and to some fairly adult themes, like sacrifice, or the idea that being right doesn't always matter or even help, or that adults can do some very dumb things. My memory has clouded a bit but I believe this is also the first time I ever really encountered true death.
The Sword of Shannara takes place in an world where mankind two millennia ago blasted itself and the world so much that both underwent dramatic changes. Part of those changes was that the races of Gnomes, Dwarves and Trolls came into being as a result of those wars (in the mythos, The Great Wars); further, the world itself has been utterly reshaped along with flora and fauna. Technology is now a "lost science" and magic is once again the dominant force. There is also the Faerie, of which only the Elves are left. The entire story takes place on a continent named "The Four Lands"--thus named because in the North are the lands of trolls, to the East the lands of the Dwarves, to west the lands of the Elves and in the South Humans. One of the great things Brooks does is in his creation of the Four Lands, as you can see below
Now the one area I have not mentioned is the center of the Four Lands and in the center of the Four Lands is Paranor, home to the Druids. A millenium ago an elf named Galaphile gathered together any and all who had knowledge of the old world and created the Druids. Originally the Druids were supposed to be the gatherers and protectors of knowledge, as well as teachers. However, this was not entirely how it worked out as a Druid named Brona rebelled from this and fled with his followers, taking a very powerful and ancient tome.
From there over the course of centuries Brona would twice incite a War of the Races, first using men to try and take over the Four Lands, which resulted in his defeat and the dividing of the Four Lands, and then a second War of the Races in which the Druids themselves were seemingly wiped out, though not before Brona is vanquished by a talisman created by several Druids.
It is into this that we the reader are thrust when centuries after the Second War of the Races Brona (who was not utterly defeated in the Second War) returns to try once more to take over the Four Lands. Now, that said I am not going to summarize the book mostly because at over 700 pages such an exercise would quickly become unwieldy, and because such summaries can already be found. Instead I want to talk about the themes that resonate to me and about how this book changed my life.
One such theme is that of the ordinary, even powerless hero. In The Sword of Shannara that is the brothers Shea and Flick (the main protagonists of the story), Menion Leah (a prince and a friend whom the brothers seek help from), and even Pananom Creel (a rather enigmatic man who just might know more about the brothers then he lets on). None of these people have magic and none of them really seems to have a chance, and yet all of them oppose Brona and his followers against seemingly unwinnable odds. This to me was profound and had a deep impact on me; it showed me that sometimes it's not about the odds or even winning. It's about fighting till you can no longer do so.
Another theme that resonated with me is secrets and the nature of secrets. The last surviving druid, Allannon, keeps such secrets, many of which are revealed in the course of the book and while yes, that is a writing device designed to generate surprise and suspense, it's also a very real choice people make all the time. In a way the very nature of Allannon being the last druid and having to make these incredible decisions about what to say and what to let people discover on their own is a lesson in and of itself. And while I didn't really recognize it on my first reading, being able to see Allannon's point of view is another lesson that resonates with me to this very day. Most people do not like to learn things the hard way and yet often it is necessary; it is in my opinion the difference between handing a teenager his license for a car and making him take a test for it. And yet that is not to say that Allannon's way is absolute; in point of fact the tension inherent in the very fact that Allannon is keeping secrets is both one of the ways of driving the tension in the book and a life lesson. To me it shows that while you can manipulate people for the best of intentions, and even the best of results, that does not mean you will be forgiven or are even right.
I was also struck by the portrayal of Brona (called the Warlock Lord by now) who actually up to the very end is this formless, indefinite evil. It was quite a shock because at the time evil (especially the Hollywood variety) was never formless, never indefinite. In point of fact up to The Sword of Shannara I thought evil had to march up to you and announce its intentions, even plans, while twirling its mustache. The idea that you might have to deal with something you don't quite understand, that commands powers and abilities the extent of which are never fully explained, is unsettling, to say the least.
The last major theme that I got out of the book was that power is not limitless. Magic in this world is rare and even the strongest (and only) magical user that opposed Brona, Allanon, is not only no match for Brona but pays a price in using magic. This rather blew me away as I was at the age where one wants to think the exact opposite. And yet here I am confronted by the notion that this isn't true. That power isn't enough to win, that cleverness, creativity, and courage can be even more important than raw power.
These really are all things that changed me forever, and yet to be honest they are not the biggest reason this book changed my life. No, this book changed my life because it showed a scared and lonely outcast a way to escape from the world. It made bearable being not only generally smarter then everyone in my class, but also being far more interested in knowledge and learning than was 'cool'. It solidified reading as my way of coping with the world and pressures not only of growing up but growing up different than the vast majority of my peers. It showed me I could have an adventure from the comfort of my own mind, and while doing so my views could be challenged and questioned, and that in doing so I could made into a better person for it.
One thing I've not touched on is that many many critics have derided and dismissed this book as an imitation of Tolkien (I disagree), but I have also heard it said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. At least for me, even if The Sword of Shannara is flattery, it saved a life, my own.