The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson
|Book Name:||The Broken Sword|
|Release Date:||Originally 1954. Reprinted 2003.|
I’m writing this time about an epic fantasy novel first published in 1954, featuring a desperate quest, a great war between the forces of light and dark, and a legendary broken sword reforged. And elves – lots and lots of elves.
No, not that one – this is The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson.
Anderson was born in 1926 in Pennsylvania, of Scandinavian descent, and grew up in Texas, Denmark and Minnesota. He gained a physics degree from the University of Minnesota, but worked as a freelance writer for the rest of his life. His wife Karen co-authored a number of his later works, and their daughter Astrid is married to science fiction author Greg Bear. Anderson died in 2001.
Most of his output was science fiction, but he also published a number of fantasy and historical novels, including The Broken Sword, which contains historical elements along with the predominant fantasy. Anderson was fascinated by the lays and sagas of his Scandinavian heritage, and The Broken Sword is saturated in this tradition. It starts in classic saga style with a viking called Orm settling on land in England, largely by means of slaughtering the land’s former occupants, following King Alfred’s victory over the Danes.
This isn’t just a tale of vikings and farmers, though. Imric, earl of Britain’s elves, takes the chance to steal Orm’s eldest son, leaving in his place a half-elf, half-troll changeling. The fates of Skafloc, elf-fosterling, Valgard the changeling and Orm’s family become caught up in the age-old war between elves and trolls, in which the elves’ only hope is the ancient, cursed sword Tyrfing, given by the Æsir as Skafloc’s naming-gift, whose iron blade can only be wielded by an elf-reared mortal.
This is set very much in the world of Norse myth, although other mythical races are involved in the story, especially the Irish Sidhe. The major figures from Norse mythology remain in the background, although three of the Æsir – Odin, Tyr and Skirnir – make brief appearances, while Skafloc’s quest to have the sword reforged takes him Jötunheim, the land of the terrible Ice-Giants.
Mostly, though, the action concentrates on elves and trolls, who occupy a level between gods and mortals. Anderson was writing in the 50s, at the height (or should that be nadir?) of the Cold War, and the real-world situation is strongly reflected in The Broken Sword. The troll-king, Illrede, expresses the dilemma clearly when asked why he doesn’t call on the Jötuns for help:
We dare no more call the ice giants to our help than the elves the Æsir…We do not wish to be more their pawns than we are already – the contending Powers beyond the moon…because if Æsir or Jötuns should move openly into Midgard, the other side would move against them, and then the last battle would be joined.
This greater conflict in the background informs the whole story, in particular the manipulations of Odin, who both helps and deceives various parties in order to achieve the reforging of the sword and the birth of a human hero to wield it. The gods have their own agenda, and aren’t to be trusted.
The war between the elves and the trolls could be seen as good against evil, but that hardly holds up to close analysis. Anderson’s elves are a long way from Tolkien’s noble, if flawed, beings: in spite of their beauty and grace, they are amoral, bloodthirsty and vicious. Even their beauty can be fearsome to mortal eyes: Ivory pale, with thin high-boned features, beast ears and blankly glowing eyes, they were a sight of terror to mortal gaze. And these are the good guys.
Nevertheless, The Broken Sword does bear striking similarities with Tolkien – but not so much with Lord of the Rings. What it’s most reminiscent of is Tolkien’s tale of the Children of Hurin: the mortal warrior fostered among elves; the cursed, treacherous sword; the unknowing incest between brother and sister.
Which is strange, because Tolkien wrote his story long before The Broken Sword, yet it wasn’t published till long after, making it implausible that either could have influenced the other. The explanation, presumably, is that both were drawing on the same influences, such as the Norse legends of the Völsunga Saga and the Hervarar Saga, which include several of the common elements.
The eponymous sword itself, Tyrfing, comes from the Hervarar Saga, which tells how it was made under duress by the dwarves to be a weapon that would never miss, never rust, and could cut through iron or stone like cloth. However, the vengeful dwarves also put a curse on the blade, so that it would kill every time it was drawn, and would turn on its owner at last.
In the saga, the curse works itself out at last, but Anderson takes it further. This is a sword that will play a part in the doom of the Æsir themselves, and its reforging is part of Odin’s strategies. Like Turin’s Anglachel (probably derived from the same legend) and Elric’s Stormbringer (Moorcock has expressed his admiration for The Broken Sword and may have been influenced by it) Tyrfing is a demon weapon of evil. Even Illrede, the troll king, describes its reforging as a deed more wicked than any of mine…
The style in which The Broken Sword is written, too, has similarities to Tolkien’s style in The Silmarillion, especially in the more developed narratives. Though the foreground characters – Skafloc, his sister Freda, Valgard and the elf-woman Leea – are well developed, much of the prose is more reminiscent of old legend: high and action-based, liberally strewn with passages more like Norse poetry, with its involved images and alliteration, than prose. A typical example is The night was gale and sleet and surging waves, a racket that rang to the riven driven clouds. Certainly not a book for those who like their prose flat and functional.
Nor is it a book for those who dislike extended descriptions of fighting. Anderson wholeheartedly adopts the Norse bloodthirsty joy of battle in his narrative style, and the book’s full of limbs hacked off, swords thrusting through bodies and heads flying from shoulders. This is entirely in keeping with the age in which it’s set. Anderson points out, in his foreword to the second edition, Cruelty, rapacity, and licentiousness ran free. The horrors that the vikings brought to Britain and France were no worse than those Charlemagne had already visited on the Saxons or those the First Crusade would perpetrate in Jerusalem; they could not be. And these arrogant, immortal beings do their best to outdo their mortal contemporaries.
Ultimately, the theme of The Broken Sword, like much of Tolkien’s work too, seems to be the necessity and superiority of mortality over the unacceptable power and thoughtlessness that immortality brings. The elf-earl Imric comments at the end of the book, in a rare moment of insight:
“Happier are all men than the dwellers in Faerie – or the gods, for that matter…Better a life like a falling star, bright across the dark, than a deathlessness that can see naught above or beyond itself…the day draws nigh when Faerie shall fade, the Erlking himself shrink to a woodland sprite and then to nothing, and the gods go under. And the worst of it is, I cannot believe it wrong that the immortals will not live forever.”
The Broken Sword is by no means a perfect novel. The uncompromising warrior ethic can get a little wearing at times, and the writing is very unlike what a modern reader would expect, with a high and far-off storytelling style and no consistency in the point of view. It can also be a little annoying that Anderson appears to have little concept of British geography. Although the book is supposedly set in England around eleven hundred years ago, the locations are entirely generic, and it’s rarely possible to work out where a scene is set.
Nevertheless, it’s well worth a read, both for its own exuberant sense of heroism and as a curiosity in the history of the genre. These are the same influences that Tolkien drew on, but used in a very different way. Forget the noble elves for a while, and meet the psychopathic elves.