Thursday, July 7, 2011

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

The 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.”

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

21 comments:

Kent said...

Im impressed Brian. Being capable of reading that tuff is the equivalent of consuming a half pound of butter in iron stomach competition.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I actually enjoyed the Iron Tower books.. Since I know exactly where the story came from.

It's not a Rip Off of lord of the Rings persay. What it is, is a fleshing out of the Battle of Fornost. Which included a band of Hobbit Archers.. exactly as Mckeirnan has in his book. It had the fall of a great city, lost princes the whole shebang. What it is, is a Middle Earth Posthumous Collaboration, which was unsaleable. So Mckiernan wisely changed the names, but the underlying similarities are so obvious it just came across as half assed.

The Silver Call however I've not read. Though I do actually own the whole series. Due to not knowing exactly where the various short stories fit.. I've not bothered actually trying to read the whole thing. (No, I didn't pay retail for any of it.. Goodwill is glorious and ghastly sometimes)

The one thing I'll give Terry Brooks on the other hand, is that so far he's improved as a writer in each of the 7 books of his that I've read. He learned from his overzealous cribbing and has, more or less created a totally different world. On another plus, compared to some authors like Terry Goodkind.. both Brooks and Mckeirnan are literary heavyweights.

Frankly however, I've never understood where exactly Lin Carter got off saying those things.. considering his own slavish imitation of Burroughs.. and the dastardly deeds he committed to the legacy of Robert E. Howard under the gazing eye of Big Papa Spraguey. It's not to say he wasn't write.. but it also strikes me as Pot and Kettle.

Falze said...

That all sounds about right. I still read them when I run through his Mithgar catalog chronologically, but they stick out like a sore thumb from his later, vastly more original, other works.

It's fun, juvenile fiction that, yes, completely rips off LOTR.

Go ahead and read the Silver Call, same tone, slightly more original, still derivative, not as original as the stuff that came later to Mithgar. Reasonably fun, though, again if you can appreciate juvenile fiction.

Atom Kid said...

I read the Silver Call Duology when I was a kid. I saw it in the bookstore and thought, "Hey this looks like Tolkien!" , so I bought it.

I wonder if that's how most of the sales were?

Falze said...

Heh. I think that's why I bought them :)

That was before the 'this looks nothing like Tolkien. cool!' phase, the Stephen King phase, and the 'does this series pile up at least a foot high in paperback?' phase*.

*Surely, thought the younger I, no one would pay to keep printing volumes of a series that wasn't at least pretty good.

Brian Murphy said...

Being capable of reading that tuff is the equivalent of consuming a half pound of butter in iron stomach competition.

Could be. Although candy and soda might be a better comparison--a sweet taste, a quick sugar buzz, then crash and regret.

It's not a Rip Off of lord of the Rings persay. What it is, is a fleshing out of the Battle of Fornost.

I'm not sure where you got this idea, Lagomorph. Do you specifically mean the events of The Dark Tide and the battle of Challerain Keep? I suppose I could see that battle as being the equivalent of the Battle of Fornost, but what about all the rest? The journey into Kraggen-Cor? Tuck vs. Gyphon and the Red Quarrel? The entire thing, even Tuck's wounding and return, is very much a LOTR clone in my eyes.

Carter is definitely guilty of pot and kettle. I do think he was a shrewd editor and critic, but a lousy writer.

I still read them when I run through his Mithgar catalog chronologically, but they stick out like a sore thumb from his later, vastly more original, other works.

Any of his latter stuff you'd recommend?

I wonder if that's how most of the sales were?

A lot, I'm willing to bet. The public was hungry for this stuff and snapping up Tolkien clones/epic fantasy left and right (to the detriment of swords and sorcery).

Lagomorph Rex said...

Honestly I don't remember them that well.. I just remember the band of Hobbit Archers.. and it stuck with me the most of anything.

I mean Its clear he was heavily inspired by rings to make it.. but I still feel the initial book was more based on the Fornost bit from the LOTRO appendices than Rings itself.

Maybe I'm due for a re-read sometime soon to refresh my memory.

Dave Cesarano said...

I couldn't read The Dark Tide, though I tried. I was also 12 and I just couldn't muster enough interest.

However, I blasted through Brooks... until I read First King of Shannara, which disappointed me. After Ilse Witch, I just quit.

As for a slavish Tolkien imitation, Brian, you might be interested in my post on Shannara. I think McKiernan and Brooks (and Jordan, for that matter) filled a demand for more Tolkien. People didn't want the story of Middle-earth to end. That's probably why so many fantasy books are produced to be these grandiose epics. Has the multi-volume epic become the standard of fantasy fiction due to Tolkien imitation? Or has Tolkien so redefined the genre that it requires the multi-volume epic?

Brian Murphy said...

Lagomorph: There is a big band of Warrow archers in the book... my impression was that McKiernan's Warrows, though very close to Hobbits, have a little Elf in them as well.

Great post on Shannara, Dave. People didn't want Middle-earth to end, and Shannara certainly filled the bill.

I'll recommend a link to you: If you haven't read Tom Simon's series regarding Shannara and the year 1977 in fantasy publishing, you really must. Here's the first part:

http://www.bondwine.com/reviews/39/1977part1.html.

Simon notes that in addition to The Sword of Shannara and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, we also received Tolkien's The Silmarillion in 1977. He argues that the latter was the missed opportunity for subsequent writers:

The Lord of the Rings was immensely successful, and has been endlessly imitated. The Silmarillion, which I believe had the potential to exceed that success, fell sadly short of its author’s ambition, and has scarcely been imitated at all. I consider that one of the great tragedies of modern fantasy.

Atom Kid said...

Just as a side note, chapter 1 of Trek To Kraggen-Cor is called "The Unexpected Parties". Ahem-

Taran said...

My response to Lin Carter's comment about Shannarah was not so much "Hypocrite!" as, "Dude, Terry, even Lin Carter thinks you're a hack. Not good. Not good at all."

Ted Cross said...

I don't feel ashamed at all to admit that I love these books and the Silver Call. I could care less that they are so derivative. They are far better than his later books, which I tried and gave up on. I didn't read them all, but the ones I did read were not worth it. These I will reread just as I do with LOTR and Sword of Shannara. Look down your noses at me all you wish.

Falze said...

Brian - as to recommendations - Into The Forge and Into The Fire are much in the same vein as the Iron Tower books, they're the back history leading up to the Ban, telling the story of the War of the Ban. I liked The Eye Of The Hunter, too.

None of it's world-beating stuff, but it's decent enough fluff. I like the person griping on Amazon that he STOLE something from...wait for it...roman mythology. Phew, good thing Tolkien never took anything from mythology like this thief!

Dave Cesarano said...

@Brian: Thanks for that link!

@Ted Cross: There's no looking down any noses. I enjoy Harry Potter, for crying out loud. I also deeply appreciate and enjoy much more challenging literature. De gvstibvs non est dispvtandem. If the only thing that's meritorious about The Iron Tower is that it's enjoyable, then fine. I might trash The Wheel of Time, and I have my reasons, but I don't begrudge people reading and enjoying the books. I just dislike the books for the effect they have on fantasy as a whole.

Martin said...

Oh wow, much of what you've said can pretty much apply to Conan pastiches.

"I’ve often wondered why [Conan] has such a low reputation... [Most pastiches] might be (at least partly) to blame. One problem is that they borrow surface elements wholesale from [Howard] and repeat them ad nauseum... The deeper problem is that they’re imitations of style, not substance, and don’t engage in any of [Howard's] underlying ideas. The result is a pretty vapid product ... without any anchors to the human condition... or applicability to real world events."

Eric D. Lehman said...

Haha, I forgot these existed. I remember thinking they were a terrible ripoff, and I was about 12 years old. Considering I gobbled up anything called 'fantasy' at that point, that does not bode well for a reread.

Rich said...

As a defense for Dennis, he wrote the Silver Call first and marketed it towards his publishers as a sequel to LOTR. When that fell down he had to go back change some names and create a story to explain the Silver Call. So of course the similarities are going to stand out it was supposed to be LOTR 2.0.

Dennis does tap into Roman mythology for his Faery series, however he does it in a very tasteful way. The Once Upon a... series is by far my favorite group of books written by him.

I like his style of "Red Slippers" as he puts it. He'll mention something curious in a book that may not be addressed for a few thousand years in his timeline in a seperate novel alltogether. All in all creating a massive puzzle picture of all of Mithgar that still has mystery yet.

Brian Murphy said...

As a defense for Dennis, he wrote the Silver Call first and marketed it towards his publishers as a sequel to LOTR. When that fell down he had to go back change some names and create a story to explain the Silver Call. So of course the similarities are going to stand out it was supposed to be LOTR 2.0.

Hey Rich, I'm not trying to be smart, but do you have any evidence of that you can point me to? All I can find is the Wikipedia entry which says as much, but it's not referenced, and I can't find any evidence on McKiernan's official website.

Daniel [oeconomist.com] said...

You're wise not to trust Wikipedia, as its entries get perverted for various reasons. But sometimes it's correct.

I'm not sure what sort of authority you'd trust. Most of what one finds on the web could have been (and indeed seem to have been!) derived from the Wikipedia entry. McKiernan has related this explanation in interviews (none of which I've found on-line) from very early on, but there would also be the hypothetical case of McKiernan misrepresenting the course of events. Perhaps one just had to be there.

Fantasy Review (from Florida Atlantic University) v9 asserts that the Silver Call were written a year or two before Iron Tower.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Daniel, the proper place for McKiernan to acknowledge his deep debt to Tolkien would have been the forward to the original books. Anywhere on his website would be appropriate too. It's pretty obvious that these books contain more than a "couple of things" in homage to Tolkien.

Allyn Gibson said...

"I'm not trying to be smart, but do you have any evidence of that you can point me to? All I can find is the Wikipedia entry which says as much, but it's not referenced, and I can't find any evidence on McKiernan's official website."

McKiernan is very honest in this interview about the origins of Mithgar, and he talks about how The Silver Call did, in fact, start out as a Lord of the Rings sequel, with the Brigga Path originally being called the Gimli Path, for instance.