“Poul Anderson’s classic fantasy, The Broken Sword, knocks The Fellowship of the Ring into a cocked hat,” says fantasy author Michael Moorcock.
Well—We Writers are pretty big fans of JRR Tolkien.
Still, we at The Sanguine Woods are Michael Moorcock fans. While, we have not yet read Anderson’s book and so cannot comment fairly as to the accuracy of his statement, we do however respect Moorcock’s opinion, and in that spirit we offer following…
Two similar books were published in 1954. The first, in the US, was Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword . The second, in the UK, was JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring . Both these romances drew on familiar Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon sources, but Anderson’s was somewhat closer to its origins, a fast-paced doom-drenched tragedy in which human heroism, love and ambition, manipulated by amoral gods, elves and trolls, led inevitably to tragic consequences.
When I read it as a boy, Anderson’s book impressed me so powerfully that I couldn’t then enjoy Tolkien’s. Both stories involved magical artefacts of great power whose possession inclined the users to drastic evil. Both described Faery as a world of ancient, pre-human races no longer as powerful as they once were. Both had characters who quoted or invented bits of bardic poetry at the drop of a rusted helm. None the less, I couldn’t take Tolkien seriously. Aside from his nursery-room tone, I was unhappy with his infidelities of time, place and character, unconvinced by his female characters and quasi-juvenile protagonists.
Anderson set his tale firmly in the early part of the second millennium, in England’s Danelaw, when “the White Christ” was threatening the power of all the old gods. He described how, without witch-sight, one might mistake elvish castles and towns for high, bleak mountains and boulder-strewn fells. He made it easy to believe that Yorkshire limestone could be the sparkling escarpments of Alfheim. His women were as sharply drawn and thoroughly motivated as his men.
What’s more, Anderson’s Eddic verse was better. Admittedly, he didn’t fill his book with maps, chronologies and glossaries. He had no wise, all-knowing patriarchs. His only longbeard was sinister old Odin, using all his skills to survive. Anderson’s human characters belonged to the 11th century and were often brutal, fearful and superstitious. Their lives were short. Their understanding of the future was a little bleak, with the prospect of Ragnarok just around the corner. To be on the safe side, even Christian priests accommodated the Aesir.
The Broken Sword opens with a bloody reaving. A land-hungry Dane cruelly destroys a Saxon family. Soon afterwards, riding out under a still, full moon, Earl Imric, ruler of all Britain’s elves, encounters a Saxon witch, the sole survivor of the massacre. The witch craves vengeance against the Danes and tells Imric about the conqueror’s new-born, unbaptised baby. Knowing the value of humans, who can handle iron, Imric quickly returns home to create, with a captive troll princess, a changeling he can substitute for the baby he calls Scafloc. Imric thus sets off a chain of terrible events foreshadowed by the gift brought to Scafloc’s naming ceremony by the Aesir’s messenger, Skirnir. The gift is an ancient iron sword broken into two pieces. Ultimately, the sword must be rejoined. This portends no good for men or elves. Meanwhile, the unwitting Danes name their troll-child Valgard. The boys grow up. Merry, graceful and brave, Scafloc is a credit to his adopted people. Equally strong, Valgard is a brooding brute. Scafloc becomes Alfeim’s darling. Valgard be-comes a cruel berserker. Seduced by the witch and given greater power by Odin, Valgard soon adds fratricide and patricide to his crimes.
With Jacobean relish, Anderson thickens his plot with betrayal, rapine and incest. Our human capacity for love and hate is used to further the ambitions of Aesir and Faery alike. An elvish expedition to Trollheim alerts them to the threat of a troll army massing to destroy Alfheim for ever. Valgard discovers the truth of his own origins and joins the trolls. Fatally, Scafloc falls in love with a woman he rescues from Valgard. Inevitably, as the elves are vanquished, he embarks on a journey to reforge the broken sword. Ultimately all will be defeated by their own passions. Any victories will be bitter.
Tolkien’s saga reflected the sentiments of sacrifice typical of post-first world war fiction. Anderson’s seems to echo the existential mood of the west after the second world war. The Broken Sword has an atmosphere in common with the best 40s noir movies, themselves a reaction to the overblown romantic rhetoric of Nazism. With Mervyn Peake, Henry Treece and even TH White, Anderson influenced a school of epic fantasy fundamentally at odds with inkling reassurances.
In 1971, Anderson revised his book and weakened it. Victor Gollancz, which has done such an excellent job with its series of fantasy masterworks, has had the sense to publish the 1954 original. To read it is to understand much of the origins of an alternate fantasy tradition exemplified by such writers as M John Harrison, Philip Pullman and China Miéville, who reject the comforts of the Lamb and Flag and determinedly stick closer to deeper mythic resonances.<
Michael Moorcock, 2003
Another Review to Balance Things Out
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson (Fantasy Masterworks Number 32) was first published in 1954. According to the blurb on the back of the book. The sword Tyrfing has been broken to prevent it striking at the roots of Yggdrasil, the great tree that binds earth, heaven and hell together . . . but now the mighty sword is needed again to save the elves, who are heavily involved in their war against the trolls, and only Scafloc, a human child kidnapped and raised by the elves, can hope to persuade the mighty ice-giant, Bolverk, to make the sword Thor broke whole again. But things are never easy, and along the way Scafloc must also confront his shadow self, Valgard the changeling, who took his place in the world of men. A superb dark fantasy of the highest, and most Norse, order The Broken Sword is a fantasy masterpiece.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book. Poul Anderson wrote over 100 novels and won 7 Hugo’s in a fantastic career. I read a review on The Guardian website that said that this, the 1st version of this book was the American Lord of the Rings, which was also published in 1954. After reading all of this I was not sure what to expect from this novel. This book at only 228 pages or so is a reasonably quick read. What I ended up with was a bit of a surprise, this is a very mythical Scandinavian tale which now seems to be quite traditional, but was a very modern tale in it’s day.
Apparently there was a revised edition of this book published in 1971, and the general consensus seems to be that it did not improve the story and if anything it was worse then the original edition, and so Gollancz have gone back to the original edition for this Fantasy Masterworks edition. Also of note is that he is spelt Scafloc on the back of the book but Skafloc in the actual book itself.
The book is set in a chilly England where Elves and Trolls abound. This is the tale of Skafloc, the son of Orm who invaded England from his Viking homeland and took the daughter of a local noble to be his wife Aelfrida, he made a grudging concession to the English by changing his religion to Christianity. Just after Skafloc’s birth we meet Imric, a elf travelling near to Orm’s estate who hears of his birth and decides to replace him with a changeling (Valgard). We find out that Valgard is destined to destroy his adopted family, but this doesn’t turn Imric away from his plan. So we then follow Skafloc as he is nurtured by the elves. You can pretty much tell from the start of this book that things are not going to go well, and there doesn’t appear to be much chance of a happy ever after ending to this story.
We follow Skafloc as he is introduced to the lifestyle of elves and learns how to live as an elf, of course he does not have their long lifespan, but on the other hand he has the ability to use iron, which is anathema to the elves. At a very young age he is burdened with the gift of a broken iron sword that has an evil history associated with it. We learn as the story goes on that this sword is going to play an important part in his life at some point. As a teenager Skafloc helps the elves in their great war against the trolls, but unbeknownst to him, back in England his original family is slowly being ripped apart by the changeling who replaced him. This leads to an even greater mess when he meets the remnants of his family.
As the story heads towards an epic climax we can see the writing on the cards and when they meet in a final battle all bets are off.
This is a desperately dark story: you can tell from the start it will be full of tragedy. For a short book it’s a very dense read. I’ve not read many Scandinavian / Viking mythology books and found it quite a difficult read. But, the setting of this book, an England in the grip of winter is fantastic. You can feel the cold settling around you as you read. I found it quite difficult to read the first half of the book as it just felt rather depressing, but as I got further into the book the story gripped me, and I had to power through the last half of the book in one sitting, knowing things looked a bit grim for the hero, but still needing to find out what happened.
So what do I think of the book, it’s not the sort of story I usually enjoy reading. I find I have never really got along with the Viking legends and tales of the Alfar in the past, but I did have a fun time reading this. I enjoyed the writing and once I got the hang of the slightly different names, I had fun reading this book. The fights are great, and the surroundings very atmospheric. I think this is a worthy 7 out of 10 book, but not in my opinion in the same league as say The Lord of the Rings.