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The Broken Sword
Poul Anderson
Gollancz, 274 pages

The Broken Sword
Poul Anderson
Poul Anderson was born in 1926 in Bristol, Pennsylvania. His first publication was "Tomorrow's Children" (with F.N. Waldrop) in the March 1947 issue of Astounding, and his first novel was Vault of the Ages (1952). Since then, he has won 7 Hugo Awards (2 for short stories, 3 for novelettes and 2 for novellas) and 3 Nebula Awards (2 for novelettes and the other for a novella). From 1972-3, he presided as SFWA President. He died in 2001.

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Forty-eight years have passed since Poul Anderson first published The Broken Sword, a work broadly acknowledged as a classic of heroic fantasy. Though a seriously diminished revision was published by Ballantine in 1971, it is only now that the original book is being reissued, offset directly from the 1954 edition. While one might have hoped a hardbound version had accompanied this reissue, and that it was also available in the US, one must applaud Gollancz' (and I suspect other advisors') decision to duplicate the original, right down to the layout of the included verse, which by modern standards often appears unnecessarily compressed within the text. And any serious reader of fantasy will want to add this to their reading list, unless of course they are willing to expend the funds necessary to obtain an original copy in fine condition, which will set them back between $200-$300. For most, I imagine, the Gollancz edition will prove the preferable and desired issue.

Comparisons with a contemporary, J.R.R. Tolkien, are perhaps inevitable (both works were published between 1954-55). But whereas Tolkien drew upon the Eddic sagas to create a world whose purpose was largely consolatory and supportive of Tolkien's own Christian values, Anderson abandoned himself to the original moral tenor of the Norse sagas, and a magical realm in which both men and faerie often find themselves at the mercy of capricious forces whose aims and motives are far from being clear. And while both works can in part be viewed as a reaction to the horrors of modern warfare, Tolkien holds out an offer of hope, however melancholic, whereas Anderson's vision retains the spirit of Ragnarok. And, not only in spirit, but also in compositional structure, Anderson adheres far more closely to the rhythms and traditions of his Eddic sources. The end result can be viewed as an antithesis to Tolkien's, or at least a differentiation between dual traditions, pagan and Christian, whose modern separation here is perhaps an inevitable outcome after years of enforced cohabitation within the canon of fantasy literature. And through this divergence can perhaps be seen, in miniature, the uneasy, at times almost combative schism that has since defined differing approaches to epic fantasy since the 50s, epitomized in spirit by an almost monolithic camp of Tolkienesque clones opposed by a less commercially visible if no less vibrant aesthetic that has sought to strip heroic fantasy of its consolatory guises, and typified by authors such as Moorcock and Donaldson, or more recently Erikson and Stover.

Taking place within a fictional England during the period of Viking incursions and the Danelaw, the realm of faerie still exists dimensionally side-by-side with mankind, at times heard or glimpsed in storm or twilight, but ever driven to the margins of human habitation by the encroachment of the White Christ and his proselyting priesthood. Orm the Strong has carved out a home for himself along the northern Saxon shores, killing its original residents and through coercion, taking an English wife. But his actions have led to a curse being placed upon him, which will have dire consequences for the future. For the elf-earl Imric will be led to his house at the moment of his first son's birth, and he will steal the child and replace it with a changeling who will eventually destroy all that Orm has built. Meanwhile, Orm's son will be raised in fosterage among the elves, where he will gain great renown. But Skafloc and his changeling brother are tied to the destiny of a dark gift, delivered to the elves on the day of Scafloc's naming: a black and broken sword, forged through malice in the ice-clad caverns of Utgard beneath the hammer of the blind giant Bölverk, a weapon of grim and bloody heritage, gifted to the child by the Gods of Asgard for unknown reasons, against the day foretold he will need it.

From out of this backdrop the author will hurl a maelstrom of mayhem and slaughter that is notable not only for its panoply of faerie wonder, but also for its stark and unremitting grimness of tone. Epic in scale, driven by its vivid energy and imagination, Anderson deftly recaptures the spirit of his original Eddic sources, closely following their form and construction. Events are punctuated by a Wagnerian sense of proportion, wild storms backlighting the drama, dire fates dogging its participants. As much a tragedy as heroic adventure, the actors are tossed and bruited about by forces they cannot possibly hope to control, or even glimpse its meaning. A war is waged that will overtake all of faerie, in which the combatants are but pawns in the play of inscrutable gods. The reign of magic is intuited as coming to an end, with the emergence of man at hand. Yet any sense of redemption, of change ushering in a better destiny, is absent. Instead the land is gripped in a winter that freezes both body and heart, and death stalks the mind and spirit. And if any change exits between what is past, present and future, it is only in the loss of wonder.

Though not without its flaws, with the tale at times threatening to overwhelm its narrative boundaries, ending upon an abrupt note common to its historical sources, and driven by a sheer scale of drama that may seem at times oversized to more contemporary tastes, these faults are nonetheless overawed by the author's epic vision and boundless energy, as well as the authenticity of spirit that infuses Anderson's attempt to recapture a narrative form from its past. And, in a day and age in which epics grind themselves out through pages upon pages of repetitive door-stopper fantasy, the intensity of focus barely contained within this story is refreshing. Certainly one of the significant publishing events of the year, and one which all audiences of fantasy should rejoice in.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.


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