My dad and I have a shorthand phrase we use when we see incompetent leadership in stories. Whenever it happens, one of us always jokingly says, “Classic Star Trek chain of command.” It’s the trope of idiots presiding over supremely competent middle management and the canon fodder beneath them. It’s so common in sci-fi and fantasy it’s almost unthinkable to predict something different, so imagine my surprise to see a story take a different turn recently while reading the fantasy classic, The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Such is the topic of today’s Story Shot. As ever, spoilers ahead.
How it works
The Sword of Shannara is a high fantasy novel with a plot similar to Lord of the Rings wherein a group of disparately-backgrounded men go on a mission to chase the Mcguffin that can save them all from the rapidly mounting evil that threatens world peace. One of these men is Menion Leah, a breezy huntsman prince who learns to step up to the plate throughout the course of the story. As a personal favorite of mine, there are a lot of things that could be said about him (for one, what an excellent name) and his character growth; however, for the sake of this post, what I’d like to focus on is his role in the rescue of the townspeople of Kern.
Kern is a lesser city of Callahorn, the nation which borders the land of the evil Warlock Lord and defends all the other nations that stand to its south. While on his way to warn Callahorn’s king about the massive army advancing upon them, Menion rescues a lady of Kern, thereby winding up in the town itself. With the looming threat, Menion dutifully warns the elders of the city that evacuation is necessary.
It is at this point that many stories would fall into one of a few familiar paths:
- The elders do not believe Menion. He escapes with the few he manages to convince, but the rest perish.
- The elders do not believe Menion. He turns the hearts of the people to himself and saves many, losing only those foolish enough not to rally with him.
- The elders are divided. Perilous time and many lives are lost from their indecisiveness.
This is not what happens in Shannara. Instead, the council listens, the town rallies around a decent plan, and over forty thousand people are saved with only the loss of some defensive soldiers and the city itself.
Why it’s effective
To be honest, my favorite thing about this portion of the story was my extreme relief and surprise to see competent people in leadership. As an American in particular, I think our society is primed and ready to tell frequent stories of authoritative incompetency if not flat out abuse, and while there’s certainly a literary (and otherwise) case to be made for that (after all, villains are often threatening because they are more powerful than the heroes), seeing a world where people in power are in power because they are good and good at their jobs was a breath of fresh air. I’ve always believed stories should point towards the world we want to exist, rather than inactively fixate on the one that does, so extra points for that as well.
From a story perspective though, as I realize the above is teetering perilously close to one of my favorite authorial soapboxes, I will point out that it also served several interesting story functions.
For one, it underlined the book’s thematic premise. The Sword of Shannara hinges on the cooperation of several characters operating across multiple nations for the common good. Because its world stands on the brink of destruction, the teamwork shown by the men and women of Kern proves the books’ point: when humans work together for good, even the darkest scenarios can be overcome. Were the council not to believe Menion or be divided, I’m sure the city’s downfall would have been an important lesson for the prince, but only at the cost of the book’s thematic message.
Secondly, it provided growth for Menion. At the beginning of the novel, Menion is a carefree prince more concerned with hunting and exploration than ruling a nation. By the time we reach this point of the story, however, he has grown more serious and dependable, to the point where he can act readily and rightly when needed most. It is at least the partial culmination of his arc, wherein he matures to be the prince and future king his people need him to be. It is, at least in part, the reward for the change he has been working towards.
Third, it strengthens the army that will likely face off against the Warlock Lord’s army in the end. I’ll admit, I’m not done with the book yet, so I can’t confirm this, but one can reasonably assume that by rescuing the people of the city, the heroes will have a greater fighting force in the end.
Lastly, in a book rife with struggle and strife, it provides a much-needed breath of relief and victory to keep the reader from getting failure-fatigued.
There are many reasons why authors wish to have their characters consistently fail, be cornered, or cut off from allies. There is a certain dramatic flair in having even their allies fail them when they’re needed most. However, sometimes having victory, having teamwork, and having hope, can serve equally powerful story functions, be it to point to the world we dream of, give the reader a break, or help a character or plot point grow.
So, how about you? Any stories you can think of with competent leadership? Any times where pre-final-showdown teamwork and victory were more satisfying than betrayal and defeat? Let me know in the comments, and if you want more mini craft lessons like this, make sure to sign up for my newsletter or blog in the sidebar (exit mobile only mode if on your phone). Thank you!