BOOK REVIEW: Terry Goodkind, The Sword of Truth series (New York: Tor Books, 1994–2005).
Jan/Feb 2006 -- Can a sword-and-sorcery author inherit the mantle of Ayn Rand
? Terry Goodkind, who writes in that fantasy genre, has explicitly stated that he is an Objectivist. His official Web site
had a philosophy section with quotations from Rand about esthetics and other areas of her philosophy. Far more important, however, are the characters, plots, and themes of Goodkind’s novels. They are clearly and directly influenced by Rand’s work, and the book’s heroes occasionally invoke Objectivist principles.
Of course, several Objectivists other than Ayn Rand
have written novels, but Goodkind is far and away the most widely read Objectivist novelist since Rand herself. His books appear on the bestseller lists of the New York Times, USA Today,
and the Wall Street Journal
. Fans around the world eagerly anticipate them, and his stories are the subject of both official and unofficial chat rooms and Web sites. In part, no doubt, this success stems from the popular genre in which Goodkind writes. But the other reason is simply that he tells interesting stories about intriguing characters.
From Identity to Action
Although Goodkind has created a complex fantasy world, he did not design his novels to explore that world. According to his official Web site: “Terry has very expressly stated his own distaste for ‘world-building’ stories, where characters are vehicles used to explore the worlds the author creates.” Goodkind’s novels are used to explore people; they are character-driven.
Consider some of the main characters.
Richard Cypher is introduced as a simple woods guide, but from the moment he appears, the reader knows that Richard is more. He is, in fact, a man of great strength, both physically and morally. He is also descended from great wizards and can perform magic. Indeed, he is the most powerful magician to have been born in thousands of years. Richard becomes the Seeker of Truth, the latest and most powerful in that line of individuals who search for truth as their mission in life. His sword is called “Truth,” and the word is emblazoned on it.
Richard is slow to draw that sword, but, when he does, he fights with implacable deadliness. For example, in the eighth book, Naked Empire,
Richard is traveling with a group of people when they are attacked by a body of men greatly outnumbering them. “A man rushing onward threw his arms up to seize Richard before his sword could be brought to bear. The sword’s tip whistled as it came around driven by deadly commitment. The blade severed one of the man’s raised arms before exploding through his skull.” Interestingly, Richard is able to use the Sword of Truth and his other powers only when he reaches a state of anger. As it happens, Richard often experiences anger, though it is always a righteous anger at the injustices of the world.
Goodkind is far and away the most widely read Objectivist novelist since Rand herself.
In the course of the novels, Richard becomes more than just the Seeker of Truth; he also becomes the leader of the D’Haran house of Rahl. As a leader, however, Richard is different from any other. He not only inspires loyalty, as all good leaders do, but he demands that all who rally to him make their own decisions.
Another character who is more than meets the eye is Kahlan Amnell, first seen walking through the forest in a long white dress. Kahlan is the Mother Confessor, the last in a line of women who have great magical power. They are called confessors because a person they touch must tell them the truth. Confessors go into prisons to touch those who are charged with serious crimes. But there is an unfortunate side effect to this power: the person touched is bonded to the confessor for life, exists only to serve the confessor, and will kill himself on the command of the confessor. Thus, Kahlan must use her power very selectively—a point made regarding all of the positive characters in the series.
A third character, Zedd, seems to be the prototypical crazy old man who lives out in the woods. But this is only an image he cultivates, because he is hiding in plain sight. In fact, Zedd is the First Wizard and has tremendous power. He had to flee the Midlands when boundaries went up dividing Westland, the Midlands, and D’Hara (which together constitute the New World). These boundaries are impassable, except under the most unusual circumstances. Zedd fled to Westland, a designated land of no magic, to wait for Richard to come of age. He has always been Richards’s teacher, so once Richard becomes the Seeker of Truth they both hope that Zedd can teach magic to Richard. Yet events seem always to intervene whenever Zedd is about to teach Richard.
Rules and Themes
Each of Goodkind’s books has a theme expressed by a Wizard’s Rule, and in fact the title of the first book is Wizard’s First Rule. The first rule is, “People are stupid. They will believe what they want to be true or what they fear to be true.” This does not mean that people are necessarily stupid, only that they usually are. The second rule is: “The greatest harm can come from the best intentions.” This is the rule of unintended consequences from economics and politics, which is so familiar to Objectivists and libertarians.
Fortunately, Goodkind doesn’t just state these rules or insert them into his stories. The events of the novels illustrate them. For example, the first rule is known to those who wish to control people, and they use it to gain power. The second rule, regarding unintended consequences, is exemplified when Richard must take drastic measures to save himself and others that he cares about. The unintended consequence is that he unleashes forces from the underworld, and Richard must deal with those forces in later books.
An undercurrent of Objectivism
runs through Goodkind’s first five novels. For example, the stories see the rise of a great power called the Imperial Order, which demonstrates how faith and force act as destroyers of the world. The order and its emperor, Jagang, assemble a great military, augmented with evil magicians and good magicians. Because Jagang is a “dream walker,” he can invade people’s minds and take control of them, forcing people who normally use their magic powers for good to use them for his evil. After Jagang conquers a people, he subjugates them through a religion that proclaims the highest act in life is giving everything to the needy, a religion more explicitly altruist than even radical forms of Christianity.
A later novel, The Pillars of Creation, explores the topic of free will. Goodkind leaves Richard and Kahlan for a time to tell the story of Jennsen Daggett, a young woman hunted by troops. Jennsen must discover why they are hunting her and who are her real friends and enemies. In the novel’s climax she must make a pivotal choice. So, too, with every other character in the book, from major to minor. They are all beset by problems and, like Jennsen, must make their own choices.
Now, at this point, one may say: Goodkind’s rules and themes sound all well and good, but can a novel about people who have and employ magical powers be an Objectivist novel? Yes, because magic in The Sword of Truth
series is principally a metaphor. Goodkind himself has said that magic is a metaphor for technology. It is that, in part, but it is also a metaphor for excellence and efficacy. There is nothing mystical or anti-rational about the magic in Goodkind’s universe, as he states directly in his sixth novel.
Homage to Rand
Goodkind’s sixth book, Faith of the Fallen,
has proved to be hismost controversial among his fan base, for in it he makes his Objectivism
more explicit. Wizard’s sixth rule is, “The only sovereign you can allow to guide you is reason.”
Richard and Kahlan have withdrawn to a rural hideaway for a variety of reasons, although a battle rages between forces loyal to them and forces led by Emperor Jagang. When the war reaches a crucial stage, Richard is pressed to return to battle. There is no chance of victory because of the overwhelming numbers of the Imperial Order. More important to Richard, though, is the fact that his troops fight out of blind loyalty, not for love of freedom. In fact, they don’t even understand what freedom is.
Richard says, “The only sovereign I can allow to rule me is reason. The first law of reason is this: what exists, exists; what is, is. From this irreducible bedrock principle, all knowledge is built. This is the foundation from which life is embraced” (Faith of the Fallen,
p. 21.) Of course, “existence exists” is Ayn Rand
’s first axiom.
Faith of the Fallen
comes through in other ways as well, including the presence of situations that are very similar to some in Rand’s novels. For instance, a character named Nicci, who in earlier novels had played a minor role, here emerges as one of Emperor Jagang’s most powerful weapons. In providing the background for Nicci’s family, there is a scene shockingly reminiscent of those involving Hank Rearden’s family in Atlas Shrugged.
Nicci’s mother could be Lillian Rearden. Other scenes are also very derivative of ones in Rand’s novels. At one point, it even looks as though Goodkind is about to repeat a major part of The Fountainhead.
With an interesting twist, however, this becomes merely a feint, an allusion that serves as an inside joke to Rand readers.
In another section of Faith of the Fallen, Nicci takes Richard into the heart of the Old World, where the Imperial Order is building a grand monument to its religion. This society in many ways resembles the Soviet Union described in We the Living. While there, Richard lives, talks, and handles the mundane work he must perform in a manner that inspires his neighbors to improve their own lives. Eventually, he sculpts a statue of such great beauty that it sparks a revolution in heart of his enemy’s capital.
For my taste, some portions of this novel are too similar to several of Rand’s works, but it is still an excellent read, with an exultant conclusion.
The Pen of Truth
Terry Goodkind did not have the conventional training of a writer. Indeed, because he is dyslexic, he did not even read much in high school. Later, he attended art school, and, in addition to painting, became a cabinet maker and violin maker. Goodkind began thinking about the characters that now inhabit his novels, starting with Kahlan, while building a home for himself and his wife in the woods of the Northeast; he decided to write the stories later. Today, he remains somewhat reclusive, although he does book tours and the occasional online chat on his Web site. During most of the year, however, he spends fourteen hours a day writing, producing a long novel every year.
While I highly recommend the Sword of Truth series, I must caution potential readers about one issue. In many of the plots, Richard and other characters are enslaved, and often there are scenes with strong sado-masochistic overtones. Goodkind was taken aback when he learned that ten-year-olds were reading his books. He states that the books are written for adults, and I heartily concur.
With that caveat, I would say: If you have never read a Goodkind novel, consider doing so. Personally, I had not read anything from the sword-and-sorcery genre since I was a teenager, and I read very little of it then. Yet I am enthralled by this series. There are nine books in the main series and a prequel. They run about 700-800 pages but are definitely worth the effort. Terry Goodkind writes fantasy—but it is fantasy that is actually about life on earth. This earth.