Lester del Rey (1915-93) was a science fiction writer and the editor of the old school. He began his career in the 1930s, during the first golden age of science fiction, writing and editing for several magazines and working alongside such luminaries as John W. Campbell and, later, Damon Knight.
In the 1970s, del Rey went to work for Ballantine Books. His fourth wife, Judy-Lynn, was already working for them and had built up a stellar reputation as an editor, with both Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick (giants of the SF field) singing her praises at length. Judy-Lynn had a canny business sense, and in 1976 had heard of a pulp science fiction movie being shot in England by George Lucas (then still riding high on the success of American Graffiti). Despite doubts from the publishers, she successfully negotiated for Ballantine to release a tie-in novel and drafted in Alan Dean Foster to do the job. The novel, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, was released in November 1976 - six months before the movie was released - and became an instant bestseller, playing a key role (though now largely forgotten) in building up hype for the film.
The successful work of the del Reys at Ballantine convinced the publishers to give them their own imprint. The imprint started off by reprinting earlier books: a new edition of Arthur C. Clarke's Prelude to Space was the first book published under the imprint in December 1976, followed by the Star Wars paperback in February. That paperback would go on to sell over a million copies over the next year or so, formidably boosting the reputation and negotiating power of Del Rey Books.
Still, these were reprints of other people's work. The del Reys wanted some books of their own to give their new imprint a big boost. Judy-Lynn had been working with an author named Terry Brooks for a couple of years on his debut novel, a large, Tolkien-esque epic fantasy complete with huge battles, elves, dwarves and callow heroes from a rural background searching for a magical talisman of huge power to defeat a dark lord. Brooks had written the novel between 1967 and late 1974, at which point Judy-Lynn had provisionally accepted it for publication. However, the rewriting and editing process took over two years. The unusual amount of work that went into the novel was down to the del Reys' confidence that the novel had enormous commercial potential (despite Lester's preference for science fiction to fantasy) if Brooks could get it just right, in their estimation.
The Sword of Shannara was published at the start of 1977 (with the precise date appearing to be between March and May of that year), preceded by significant advertising and marketing hype. The book immediately hit the New York Times bestseller list (the first work of fantasy to ever do so) and sold tens of thousands of copies in both hardcover and paperback - the novel was, unusually, simultaneously released in both formats. The book also had the phrase "epic fantasy" on the cover, giving the subgenre its defining (if still debatable) name.
The del Reys scored a second major success within a matter of weeks when they released the paperback edition of Lord Foul's Bane, the debut novel by Stephen R. Donaldson. The book had been published at the start of the year in hardcover by Holt, Rinehart & Winston but, as was not uncommon in those days, the paperback reprint rights were put up for sale. Del Rey snapped them up quickly.
The two very different novels, by two very different authors but published by the same company within weeks of each other, pretty much defined the epic fantasy subgenre as we know it and showed that a surprising degree of variation was possible in a genre that would appear, at least initially, to be limited in its scope.
The Sword of Shannara
Of the two books The Sword of Shannara was the bigger immediate success, despite being critically derided. The novel is very similar to The Lord of the Rings, starting in the pastoral landscape of Shady Vale were a group of callow youths are recruited by the druid Allanon to help fight against the machinations of the Warlock King. An elaborate backstory extending back over thousands of years is revealed, whilst the book features a map depicting the area covered by the story. The book is very similar to The Lord of the Rings, with the exception that the heroes are attempting to find the titular sword rather than already possessing it (as with the One Ring). At a key moment the heroes are separated, with the main character Shea having to proceed into the Northland alone to recover the sword and defeat the enemy. His comrades, meanwhile, lead the defence of the extremely Minas Tirith-esque city of Tyrsis against the invading armies of the Warlock King.
The Sword of Shannara was successful for several reasons. First of all, it was written in a very easy-to-read, comfortable and laidback style, especially when compared to The Lord of the Rings. It is a very approachable story. Secondly, no book quite like this had appeared since The Lord of the Rings (excepting, possibly, A Wizard of Earthsea, and that had very different goals). Fantasy fans wanting more of the same had gone without for over twenty years, so the book, despite its faults, satisfied that hunger. There was also the marketing, with substantial numbers of adverts appearing and the del Reys trading on their reputation in the field to help bring readers on board. The simultaneous paperback publication play a big role as well, encouraging readers to jump on board immediately rather than having to wait a year or more for the paperback.
Also a key fact was that The Sword of Shannara was a stand-alone, rather than the first chunk of a longer story. Sequels (eventually) followed, but The Sword of Shannara was a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end.
That the novel is enormously flawed is of course obvious: the book is far too similar to The Lord of the Rings in structure and in many of the particulars of the plot and characters, with numerous one-to-one correlations possible. The biggest difference also contributes to the novel's problems: the language and dialogue are extremely simplistic, there is limited thematic development and the book really doesn't succeeded in being anything more than a disposable popcorn read. To his credit, the author admitted and acknowledged these flaws, taking the later books in a very different direction to just being Tolkien clones. The later novels also play more with the one really good notion that Brooks inserted in the novel: that the Four Lands are actually a far-future, post-apocalyptic version of the Pacific North-West, with occasional ruins from our age being visible.
What the book did do was that it established that epic fantasy was a commercial genre with legs and tremendous commercial potential.
Lord Foul's Bane
Lord Foul's Bane was a very different book. It centres on the story of Thomas Covenant, a man from our world suffering from leprosy who must undergo a vigorous daily routine of self-checking and medication. His life is appalling. When he wakes up in a fantasy realm called the Land, healed and free from leprosy, he immediately concludes that he has gone mad and is hallucinating. Controversially, he sexually assaults a woman who appears to give him guidance and help; his guilt over this incident comes close to undoing him. As the story continues familiar tropes appear: Covenant and a party of companions must journey across the Land to Mount Thunder to thwart the machinations of Lord Foul the Despiser. Eventually Covenant succeeds, but then finds himself awakening in the real world, once again suffering from leprosy.
Whilst The Sword of Shannara was purely an entertaining romp, Lord Foul's Bane has allusions to literature and is a considerably darker, more controversial work. The book operates on a number of levels, with Covenant serving as an unreliable narrator and the reader unable to be certain that what's happening is real or a fantasy of Covenant's, created to keep him sane. The book keeps asking questions about reality and fantasy, with events in the Land apparently mirroring those in Covenant's "real" life.
The book also foreshadowed the later rise of the so-called "grimdark" movement. The Sword of Shannara had moments of danger and darkness, but generally speaking was a PG affair. Lord Foul's Bane is a colder, more brutal novel. Covenant himself is not a heroic figure and could even be called an antihero at times. His rape of Lena just a few chapters into the novel was hugely shocking and turned off a large number of readers (fewer fantasy novels have been bought in such numbers and then abandoned after a few chapters due to this). The book was also planned as part of a series from the off; although the primary action of the novel is resolved within the book, Lord Foul remains an extant threat at the end, setting the scene for the sequels, The Illearth War and The Power That Preserves (jointly known as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever).
Of the two books, Lord Foul's Bane is the more challenging and difficult to parse. Despite this, it had much greater staying power than The Sword of Shannara. By 2004 more than 10 million copies of Lord Foul's Bane by itself had been sold, almost certainly a significantly higher number than Sword (Brooks has sold about 50 million copies in total of more than thirty novels, with Sword being a relatively small number of them). It dominated the sales of Donaldson's work, with the later books selling less (although still enough to hit the bestseller lists) and his non-Covenant novels selling negligibly in comparison.
The impact of Lord Foul's Bane was that epic, secondary world fantasy could be darker, grittier, more challenging and more difficult than the likes of Tolkien or Brooks, and used as a vehicle to tell other kinds of stories.
Of course, both Lord Foul's Bane and The Sword of Shannara were published in the same year that the original Star Wars movie was released. Although apparently science fiction, Star Wars had many of the familiar trappings of the traditional fantasy story: a young farmboy is taken off for a grand adventure by a sorcerer-mentor figure (who teaches him magic and badass swordfighting), linking up with an unlikely band of companions and then defeating the bad guys in a huge battle at the end (although of course key villains survive to ensure a sequel). The fact that the story was set in space with starships and lasers was almost incidental. More important was the central structure, which other films would borrow in a fantasy context. Films like Hawk the Slayer and Krull could almost be Star Wars movies, except for budgetary reasons it was easier to film them in forests and quarries and just have ordinary swords rather than lightsabres.
The direct impact Star Wars had on fantasy literature was more questionable, but certainly the frequent evocations of the same themes didn't hurt the commercial success of later fantasy writers at all. Indeed, George Lucas himself would attempt to remake Star Wars as a traditional epic fantasy with his 1988 movie Willow; when the movie did badly at the box office, scuppering plans for sequels, Lucas collaborated with X-Men comic writer Chris Claremont on a series of novels continuing Willow's story.
1977 established that there was a hunger for epic fantasy, as exemplified by The Sword of Shannara, Lord Foul's Bane and Star Wars. The long-awaited and posthumous publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion in the same year also contributed towards this. These books had opened the floodgates, and it was now up for other authors to follow through.