The Elves in First King of Shannara seem little different from their Human counterparts. Terry Brooks doesn’t overwhelm you with information on their distinctive language, or how their history and culture differentiates them from Dwarves or Humans. He refers to his Elves as men and women, just as one might describe the people of our world in terms of their ethnic or national origins. When compared with J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks (and every other writer) comes away the loser. Yet I regard him as a winning writer, and from his Bestselling status, I’d argue that many others agree with me. For where Brooks really shines is in breathing life into his characters, and three especially important characters in his novel are Elves. One of them is a young Man named Tay Trefenwyd.
Brooks describes Tay as “an affable, easygoing man who cared about the problems of others and had always done his best to give what help he could. He was not confrontational like Risca or stubborn like Bremen.” He “accepted people as they were, isolating what was good and finding ways to make use of it.” “Tay’s big hands were as strong as iron, but his heart was gentle.” He “knew when to stand his ground and when to yield. He was a conciliator and a compromiser of the first order, and he would need those skills in the days ahead.”
When Bremen arrives at Paranor, Tay heeds his former instructor’s warnings, and leaves the center of Druid learning. Bremen charges him with two duties. First, he must return to his homeland and convince the king of the elves to send envoys to the Dwarves, in the hopes that both races will unite against Brona’s imminent invasion. On his journey home, he must evade parties of Gnomes that have traveled in advance of Brona’s forces. When he reaches Arborlon, his friend Jerle Shannara agrees to help him in any way he can. The Elf King Ballindarroch also seems amenable, not only to sending envoys to the Dwarves, but also to outfitting a party to find the Black Elfstone, an object of great power that Brona must not be allowed to wield. But politics rear their ugly head among the Elves just as they do among Humans, and more sinister forces also invade Arborlon, upsetting everyone’s plans.
Throughout all this, Tay must exercise patience, as well as draw upon his inner resolve to complete his second task. As he searches for the Black Elfstone, he wonders where he will fit in after he has completed his quest. He feels like a stranger in Arborlon, and he cannot return to Paranor. He had planned on a life of celibacy, but now his feelings for the lovely Preia gnaw away at him. While Preia clearly returns his affection, she has pledged to marry his friend Jerle. Yet she seems like the only person who could give his future meaning, should they survive the war with Brona. But first he must recover the Black Elfstone, while evading the war parties of Gnomes that constantly harass them. And then there are the Skullbearers, who once were Druids like him, but gave themselves over to dark magic long ago, and have become like Brona: evil, powerful, and deadly.
Long after the key events and great battles in First King of Shannara fade away, I think I’ll remember Tay Trefenwyd. For I understand all too well what it is to feel like I don’t belong. I’d rather be conciliatory rather than confrontational. And I constantly wonder if I can ever meet others’ expectations of me, and even more important, if I can achieve the high goals I have set for myself. Against one of Tolkien’s Elves, a person infused with superhuman powers, who has amassed great knowledge and wisdom in his long life, and who hails from a culture much more impressive than my own, I can only end up the loser. But I can view another Man as a role model. And Tay Trefenwyd, while very much an Elf of Shannara, is also very much a Man.