Thankfully, it was consigned only to bookshelves and not foisted on an unsuspecting movie audience. If you've never heard of it, be glad. And you're not alone, as it seems to have come and gone under the radar for most geeks. Which is a shame; it could have warned us that trouble was ahead -- like Lenin's letter warning against Stalin, or the iceberg warnings sent to the Titanic.
Ah, Willow. I didn't see it on its initial release, but rediscovered it as a pre-teen. I was enchanted by it in those days, when I was all about dragons, crystals, swords and the Renaissance Faire. (I've matured in my medieval tastes, though I still admire a well-made sword from time to time. I still have one hanging on my wall, actually.) Though I had read The Hobbit, I had not yet tackled Lord of the Rings, and so Willow struck me as relatively original. Now, of course, I realize it's a blatant rip-off of Tolkien ... but oh, the folly of youth. Plus, Val Kilmer was really handsome in the flick.
I literally stumbled upon the sequel. I saw it advertised in a newsletter, put out by Barnes and Noble or the local Tattered Cover, I don't remember which. It was sold as a really big deal – a book actually written by George Lucas himself! And co-authored by Chris Claremont! A trilogy continuing where Willow left off! "When I wrote the story for Willow, I began with the pre-story," Lucas said, "but the full story was yet to be told." (Actual quote. It should sound familiar to Star Wars fans.) The first installment was called Shadow Moon.
I was thrilled. And I bought the hardcover as soon as it showed up on the shelves: $25.00 – a big investment for a pre-teen nerd. But the cover was stunning, a promise of awesome adventure, and I didn't begrudge it at all. I eagerly opened it, and sped through the first chapter -- itt was just what I wanted! MadMartigan and Sorsha married and sword-fighting on Tir Asleen's parapets. The brownies guarding a well-loved Elora Danan. Willow studying to become a great and powerful sorcerer. That chapter ended a bit suspiciously, with some reference to disaster at Tir Asleen, and Willow awakening in his bed at home wondering how he had made the journey there and back so quickly.
And then all narrative hell broke loose. In the span of a page, Tir Asleen had been obliterated from the earth, all inhabitants dead, save Elora Danan, who had been magically swept to safety at some new castle. Willow now wandered the earth, a strange and dark magician named Thorn Drumheller, accompanied by the brownies. From there, the book was a twisted fever-dream of demons, soul-binding, magical freezing spells, dragon eggs, a Willow impostor, and a fat and bitter Elora Danan. It made absolutely no sense. Reading it genuinely felt like I was ill with a high fever, hopped-up on loads of NyQuil, with something that felt like a 12-year-old Dungeons and Dragon fan had written it.
In retrospect, of course, the warning signs were all there. Wretched, incoherent storytelling, familiar characters transformed into hollow puppets of themselves. Bad dialogue. One snippet that burned itself into my memory was Willow saying how tasty his sandwich was. This in itself is innocent – but it occurred seconds after Willow encountered Elora Danan for the first time in thirteen years. A pretty dramatic moment, but not so life-altering that he couldn't enjoy a sandwich seconds after fleeing for his life. (I cannot believe how much of this travesty I actually remember; it's quite sad.)
I always assumed the series hadn't continued – but it seems it did, with Shadow Dawn and Shadow Star. Out of curiosity, I read a summary of them to see if it got any better. Perhaps in book two, events reversed and went back to the lighthearted fun of that MadMartigan chapter. No such luck, it sounds like they only got weirder, with Elora, the demon, and Willow becoming "The Three" and binding themselves to dragon eggs. The kind of storyline that gives fantasy a bad name.
At the time, I was mystified. How could George Lucas have co-written something so awful? How had this been the story he was waiting to tell? Was it Chris Claremont's fault? (In retrospect, I now wonder if Claremont wrote the first chapter and eagerly brought it to Lucas, only to be presented with the nightmarish remainder, and they just tacked it together.) At the time, I assumed that he had killed everyone off because he hoped to film it someday, and knew he would need a new cast. But the book's disappearance off the pop culture radar pretty much confirmed that wouldn't happen. I had forgotten all about it by the time The Phantom Menace rolled around. Even in a world where every Lucas fan read the thing, I doubt anyone would have harbored doubts that he would pull a similar stunt with the Star Wars saga. He had written that, ages ago, in the very same notebook he wrote A New Hope. No worries there!
Well, we all know how that turned out. And I can't help but see echoes of it in Indy's 20-year absence, and the script Lucas finally approved with the stamp of his name. I can't even begin to theorize what has happened to his writing ability, why no one ever seems to edit his work, or what world he lives in that he looked at his manuscript of Shadow Moon and declared: "Now that's the story I wanted to tell!"
I'm not trying to engage in Lucas bashing here – it's old and tired, ultimately without point. But I thought it was time a spotlight was cast on this intriguing little item from his past; a story that pre-dated the Star Wars prequels, a warning sign that the magician had lost his touch. And in all the Crystal Skull discussions I've had lately, someone pipes up, "I wonder what movie he will bring back next?" I always think of the Willow sequels sitting there, collecting dust on a Skywalker Ranch shelf. And I wonder ...