The Broken Sword

Poul Anderson
The Broken Sword Cover

Poul Anderson - The Broken Sword (1954)


"'Can you not feel it? The monstrous slumbering power locked in that iron, held by those runes so ancient even I cannot read them - the power ravenous and resistless and - evil! there is a curse on that weapon, Skafloc. It will bring the bane of all within its might.' Her eyes were wide and frightened. She shivered with a cold not that of the dungeon. 'I think - Skafloc, I think it were best for you if you walled up that sword again.'"

Poul Anderson's 'The Broken Sword' was first published in the same year as Tolkien's 'The Fellowship of the Ring'. Both books are landmarks in Fantasy in very different ways. Ably informed by their authors' passion for and study of Norse mythology and Icelandic sagas, the books set both the subject matter and the tone of the Fantasy genre from then until the present day. Yet the books could not be more different. Compared to the bulk and meandering of Tolkien's masterwork, 'The Broken Sword' clocks in at a remarkably swift 274 pages, and in place of Tolkien's gentility is a savagery and brutality that harks back to the original sagas and myths that both books draw on. While the tropes and modes that Tolkien set in stone would influence the bulk of mass market Fantasy produced for decades, Anderson's novel, though less well known, anticipates the grimdark nature of modern masters like George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, whilst providing an alternative template to Fantasy for those put off by Tolkien's twee-ness that would be taken up by the likes of Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison. 'The Broken Sword' is frequently regarded as a Fantasy classic, yet after reading Anderson's disappointing 'Tau Zero' I had been avoiding more of his work. Yet where 'Tau Zero' is clumsily written with poorly realised characters, 'The Broken Sword' sings off the page, and while it would be a stretch to paint it as overtly feminist, in this regard it is easily more progressive than 'Tau Zero' and 'Lord of the Rings', having multiple strong female characters with agency.

'The Broken Sword' is about doom. Characters have to face the frequently bad consequences of their and their ancestors' actions, frequently hindered by supernatural forces much stronger than them. It opens with Orm, a viking who kills an Englander and all of his family in order to steal his land, save for an old witch who escapes. The witch, desiring revenge, directs a passing elf to steal Orm's newly-born son and replace him with a changeling, setting off a series of events that can only end in their mutual destruction. Skafloc, Orm's son, is brought up among the elves, learning their skills with fighting, hunting and magic. Valgard, his photo-negative changeling, his brought up as Orm's son, where his aggressive and surly nature isolate him from his family. Whilst Skafloc is beloved by the elves and goes with them to fight in their wars with the trolls, Valgard is manipulated by the witch into killing Orm and his sons and selling his daughters to the trolls in order to become one of their generals. The elves and the trolls are natural enemies and always at war, yet they can't let their fighting get too serious otherwise the gods and the giants will join in, leading to the end of the world. Yet the gods are already involved; on the day Skafloc was brought to Alfheim, a messenger of the gods presented him with a broken black blade, saying that one day he will have need of it. This is Tyrfing, forged by the giant Bolverk, a powerful weapon destined to play a role in Ragnarok.

The book unfolds beautifully, events following on from one another in inevitable certainty towards Skafloc and Valgard's twinned fate. The book is driven by Anderson's beautiful prose, (something I genuinely never thought I'd write); using almost entirely words with Old English sources, full of inversions, and evocatively poetic, Anderson accurately summons the feel and texture of the Norse myths he draws from as much as the subject matter. Characters even frequently burst into verse, like the skalds, which of course Anderson knows the rules for and follows. Which is not to say he shies away from violence. 'The Broken Sword' features enough bloody battles and brutal violence to satisfy the most hardened of Abercrombie fans. It also rattles along at an incredibly sprightly pace, largely due to the fact that Anderson is incredibly focused on the main thread of the narrative. Lesser writers would have used the diversion of Skafloc and Mananaan's flight from the ice giants to pad the book out, whereas Anderson hints at wider adventures tangential to the main narrative, allowing our imagination to play within the gaps left by the main story and freeing him up from getting bogged down in trivialities while he's building to the climax. The book also manages to tie together multiple strands of mythology. Anderson lifts from Norse, Irish, Celtic and Christian mythology when he chooses, yet has the talent to tie it together into one coherent world.

Of course none of this would work if the book didn't have strong characters to inhabit this coherent world. Skafloc and Valgard are perfect foils for each other, each cursed by being in the other's natural place, each manipulated by forces outside their control, ultimately their hatred for each other winds up being the last thing they have. The forbidden love between Skafloc and his sister Freda is all the more affecting because Freda is a well developed character in her own right. Freda is smart, resourceful and can handle herself in a fight, winding up with a fairly impressive troll body-count. In the end, she is the one with control over their relationship, and her tragic decision to return to Skafloc at the worst possible time is hers alone. Simirlarly, Leea, Skafloc's elf foster mother, though she is defined in the book largely through her relationship to Skafloc, but is cunning and wily. Leea and the rest of the female elves even get their turn to save the day, as they kill the trolls in their sleep and steal the keys to let Skafloc and the elf army into the castle. Leea and Freda even have conversations that aren't about Skafloc, allowing the book to technically pass the Bechdel test. Again it's not perfect but it's considerably better than 'The Lord Of The Rings' in this regard and many of the Fantasies that follow it. Then there is Tyrfing, the black blade, the broken sword itself, a weapon of evil that howls like a demon, must drink blood once it's been drawn, and ultimately turns on its user. The influence on Michael Moorcock would be clear even if his endorsement wasn't on the cover of the latest printing.

In the end, the gods manipulate elves, trolls and humans alike for their own means. Odin has been driving everything from the start, to fix Tyrfing and to breed Skafloc and Freda's son, whom he claims from Freda as a price for saving Skafloc, so that he can be a hero who will wield the dangerous sword for the gods. This ties into the book's main theme of fate. All the characters are up against hugely powerful forces, there is nothing for them to do but to choose how they will face them. Having left 'The Broken Sword' open for a sequel, Anderson never wrote it. But it's enough that he wrote this great book, one that we can be thankful for both its own merits and its influence on generations of Fantasy writers to come.