Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #32: Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword

"The world is flesh dissolving off a dead skull," mumbled the troll-woman. She clanked her chain and lay back, shuddering. "Birth is but the breeding of maggots in the crumbling flesh. Already the skull's teeth leer forth, and black crows have left its eye-sockets empty. Soon a barren wind will blow through its bare white bones." She howled as Imric closed the door. "He is waiting for me, he is waiting on the hill where the mist blows ragged on the wind, for nine hundred years has he waited. The black cock crows - "

Imric locked the door anew and hastened up the stairs. He had no liking for making changelings, but the chance of getting a human baby was too rare to lose. (p. 13)
Although I had heard of Poul Anderson and had seen his second novel, The Broken Sword (1954), praised by authors such as Michael Moorcock, I never got around to buying a copy of this book until a few weeks ago, after I read Richard Morgan's Suvudu article on his problems with J.R.R. Tolkien. In the furor that emerged there and on various blogs and forums, Morgan mentioned Anderson as an author who wrote a more "authentic" [my word for what Morgan was describing, although he might have used it in one of the numerous exchanges last month] fantasy that did not provide a cop-out, consolatory ending, but instead was the other Norse-influenced fantasy novel of 1954 that kept most of those sagas' Götterdämmerung elements in the narrative. Curious to know if Morgan's high praise of Anderson was merited, I imported a copy of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition of The Broken Sword to see what my initial impressions would be.

When I wrote my reflective essays on Tolkien, I kept referring back to the occasional problems that I would have with Tolkien's prose, or rather with the opaqueness that often would occur when Tolkien would shift to a more archaic, formal narrative voice. I found that this, combined with said language often being tied in to Tolkien's introduction of his invented historical events to the narrative, to be a distraction that detracted from the "present" story. Anderson also utilizes a narrative voice that resembles that of the old Norse sagas. However, this prose style enhances the story rather than weakening it, due to Anderson's story being set in a slightly-fantasized England of the earliest Norse sagas of the 8th and 9th centuries CE.

The quote at the beginning of this essay illustrates how well Anderson uses this literary mode. The elf lord, Imric, seeks to have a changeling replace the newborn human child of Orm the Strong, Valgard, as humans fostered in the elvish Alfheim are of great use against the elves' primary enemies, the trolls. But instead of spelling it out in laborious detail, as might be expected if Anderson had used contemporary prose styles, his use of a quasi-epic poetic style forces the reader to consider the import of each word. In the passage quoted above, the changeling Valgard is the product of a cruel rape. The troll mother's hate-filled lament takes on the form of a prophecy, with death's skull and suffering's barren wind conjuring images of devastation without any hope of redress.

This passage and a later one introducing the titular broken sword presage fell and horrific tragedies to follow. Just as many of the Norse sagas contained horrific weirds and mass slaughtering, so too does Anderson's take on this ancient narrative form. The stolen child, renamed Skafloc, and his changeling double, Valgard, have intertwined fates that involve each losing everything near and dear to them. Anderson is unrelenting with their characters, showing each to be pawns in greater games being played by the old gods against the growing menance of the White Christ, whose cross is the bane of elf, troll, and god alike, as well as them being tools of the elves and trolls in their immemorial battles for supremacy over the other. While at times these two characters come perilously close to being cardboard cutouts of dynamic, conflicted characters, for the most part I found myself caught up in their personality differences. Each is the mirror of the other. If Valgard be sullen and quick to enter the bezerker rage, Skafloc is a smooth, seductive operator. If Skafloc be comfortable with his role as Imric's foster human child, Valgard never manages to fit in with Orm's other children. Anderson masterfully uses their disparate character traits to drive the plot towards its damning, bloody end.

The broken sword itself is an intriguing plot element. A mysterious gift to Imric, its fell destiny as being the accursed weapon that Skafloc is fated to use to tragic effect stands out in comparison to Tolkien's Ring. Both are "evil" artifacts, but whereas Tolkien's Ring could be seen as a metaphor for the glamors cast by temptation, Anderson's sword, later forged anew, can be viewed as being a representation of fate and of the tragic suffering that humans will endure, whether it be at the hands of gods, chance, or humans themselves. Take for instance this passage after Valgard discovers his true origins:

"I am strong," he growled, deep in his throat. "When I was a viking, I broke men with my bare hands. And I have no fear in battle, and I am cunning. Many victories have I won, and I will win many more."

His hands fell slackly to his lap and his eyes darkened with horror. "But what of that?" he whispered. "What of that? Why am I so? Because Imric made me thus. He molded me into the image of Orm's son. I am alive for no other reason, and all my strength and looks and brain are - Skafloc's!"

He stumbled to his feet. Blindly he stared before him, and his voice rose to a scream: "What am I but the shadow of Skafloc?" (p. 241)
Here Valgard takes on the role of the accursed victim of fate, one doomed to kill those around him. It is a bleak, tragic life, one that is portrayed in turns as being sympathetic and loathsome. I found myself drawn to this solitary character, reminded of another Tolkien character, that of Túrin. But whereas Tolkien's Túrin finds momentary pleasures that simultaneously lessen and increase the magnitude of his black fate, Anderson's Valgard has no moments of cheer, no hopes of love, nothing but an almost nihilistic desire to have all symbols of his past erased by fire and his axe. Skafloc, however, with his fated encounter with Freda, balances Valgard's unrelenting darkness by his gradual fall from a diffident playboy type to a suffering, love-stricken fool whose love proves to be another example of fate's capricious cruelty. As a tragedy, The Broken Sword is one of the earliest (and best) produced in fantasy literature.

The conclusion to The Broken Sword fulfills the promise of the earlier plot revelations and of the characters' intertwined, mirrored personalities. As rage and suffering builds throughout the final third of this 274 page novel, the narrative becomes more taut, as the plot tension is distilled into short, terse paragraphs that pack a strong punch. The formerly-broken sword's trecherousness is revealed and the Skafloc/Valgard duo discover this in ways true to their characters. There is no sense of "closure," only that their tragic tale is but one small part in a greater, unfolding tragedy that is destined to spill out into all the realms at some indeterminate date.

Although I worried that reading The Broken Sword less than a week after finishing The Lord of the Rings might lessen the effect on me, I found the opposite to be true. I can see why critics of The Lord of the Rings (the story of The Silmarillion is a different matter to be addressed at a future date) blast him for not going far enough with his narrative at times, "settling" for narrative cop-outs that fail to meet the promise of the set-up. Anderson certainly does not shy away from showing the trials and tribulations suffered by his characters. They are not saints, but neither are they empty malevolent ciphers. Instead, by showing them as lusty, hearty characters, Anderson breathed life into Skafloc and Valgard and the characters surrounding them, enabling the reader to be caught up in their tragic tale. It is a shame that The Broken Sword is out of print in the United States, as I believe there is a market for this sort of dark, brooding fantasy, one that can serve as a complement (if not a straight alternative) to the sort of epic fantasy influenced by Tolkien.


  1. The Broken Sword is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. I first read Tolkien when I was 10 or 11 and I re-read Lord of the Rings regularly. It was because of Tolkien that I developed a love for the ancient epics. While in high school I read Beowulf, the Iliad, the Odysessy, the Aenid.

    I also read many of the Norse sagas and tales, but it wasn't until I was in my mid 20s that I discovered this book. Tolkien may have based his world on the sagas of old, but it's a highly romanticized version. It's a re-imagining, rather than a reflection of that world, and I think that's deliberate.

    The Broken Sword is more of a reflection of those epic tales, rather than a re-imagining. I still love Lord of the Rings, but The Broken Sword deserves to be much more widely read by fans of the genre.

    It's a shame that it's not in print anymore as I think it'd find great success in today's market.

  2. It is unbelievablethat The Broken Sword is not in print in the U.S. This sounds like a job for Paizo Press!

    I guess I began reading Tolkien at such a young age that his works are pure fantasy and fairy tales to me. But, in Anderson's work, wich I only began to read as an adult, I do see the influence of the ancient classics.