31 July, 2009

The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson. Book review

First published 1954. Edition reviewed: Gollancz, 2008, ISBN 978-0-57508-2-724. 228 pages.

The Broken Sword is a fantasy novel drawing on the Norse myths and sagas. It is set in the world of men and in a parallel supernatural world called ‘faerie’, inhabited by elves, trolls, goblins and similar creatures. The world of faerie exists in the same world as men, but humans cannot see faerie creatures or creations unless they are shown them by an inhabitant of faerie or have been trained in witchcraft. The Ice Giants and the Norse gods (the Aesir) live in a separate world, and occasionally pay visits to men or faerie. Mythological figures such as Odin, Tyr, the ice giant Bolverk and the Irish sea god Manannan play roles in the story. Insofar as the story has a historical setting, it is in the Danelaw of late ninth-century England. The main characters are all fictional.

The Norse chieftain Orm the Strong has taken land in the Danelaw (north and east England) by killing the former owners, has married an English wife and pays lip-service to Christianity. When Orm’s wife gives birth to a son, the mother of the murdered former landowner, who has powers of witchcraft, tells Imric Elf-Earl that the newborn child is neither baptised nor under the protection of the Aesir. Imric steals the baby, leaving a half-elf-half-troll changeling in its place. The stolen boy is named Skafloc and raised among the elves to be a mighty warrior and poet, though the Aesir’s naming gift to him, a broken sword of ancient and malevolent power, causes Imric much disquiet. The changeling, Valgard, is reared in Orm’s hall and grows up to become a fearsome berserker warrior. In faerie, a great war is brewing between the elves and the trolls, and this gives the witch her opportunity to revenge herself on Orm by setting Skafloc and Valgard on a collision course. This will see the sword reforged and will ensnare Skafloc, Valgard and all those close to them in a tragic fate which none, mortal or immortal alike, can escape.

How do I adore this book? Let me count the ways….. This is simply a superb evocation of the world of the Norse myths and sagas. From the opening sentence, “There was a man called Orm the Strong” to the last, “Here ends the saga of Skafloc Elf’s-Foster”, the book is told in a muscular, poetic style reminiscent of the great Icelandic sagas. It has the same ice-bright clarity, as beautiful as a glacier in sunlight and as pitiless, and the same economy with words. This is an epic adventure and a tragic romance packed into a mere 228 pages, with not a word wasted. Powerful emotions are conveyed in a couple of lines of dialogue or a look or a gesture, their impact heightened by understatement. Violence and war are sketched in bold strokes, with no need for pages of blow-by-blow gorefest. (This latter may in part reflect the era in which the book was first published; in 1954 most adults had only too clear an idea of the effects of fire, steel and high explosive on human bodies). The plot is beautifully controlled, full of intricate reversals, symmetries and parallels that remind me of the entwined animals in Norse art.

The characters are vividly and powerfully drawn. Valgard and Skafloc, ill-starred twins, dominate the story. Although at first they seem to be polar opposites – indeed, Valgard cries at one point, “What am I but the shadow of Skafloc?” – the contrast between light and dark is not as absolute as it appears at first sight. Valgard, half-elf-half-troll, is a loner alien to his human family, while Skafloc apparently takes to life with the elves like a duck to water. Yet Valgard has absorbed enough human feeling to experience genuine remorse at the death of his brother and to give his dead sister a clumsy Christian burial; and Skafloc, for all the glitter and glamour of the elf court, is achingly lonely for human love. Valgard’s bitterness and despair make him the epitomy of cruelty and hate, while the young Skafloc is all light and laughter; yet when Skafloc is denied his heart’s desire he succumbs to the same destructive nihilism.

The women are as individual and as strongly motivated as the men, and drive at least as much of the action. It is the witch, seeking revenge for Orm’s slaughter of her family, who sets the whole saga in motion. Leea, the icily beautiful amoral elf-lady, discovers both love and jealousy, as well as being an active and highly effective participant in the war against the trolls (without, I may add, any hint of a Xena-style caricature. Full marks to the author). Freda Orm’s-Daughter, loyal, loving and brave, is a thoroughly good woman whose attempts to do the right thing nevertheless bring a terrible fate on her and all those she loves best.

Was there anything I didn’t like? In short, no. This is simply a stunning book. I don’t give star ratings, but if I did this would warrant a galaxy full.

13 comments:

Rick said...

Wow. I guess you kinda liked it. I read a decent amount of Anderson without becoming a real fan, but I never read this book, and it sounds like he really hit his groove with it.

Meghan said...

"I don't give star ratings, but if I did this would warrant a galaxy full."

Wow. That is quite the recommendation. I admit I was doubtful at first as I have read a lot of fantasy and this fairy/orcs/elves ground has been covered in nearly every asepct. I may have to check this out though.

Carla said...

Rick - Um, yes, you could say I kind of liked it. I think it must have been one of his earlier books judging from the original publication date, and it's the only one of his that I've read so I couldn't say how it compares with his other works. Bear in mind that I have a great fondness for the Icelandic sagas and the Norse myths, so that struck a chord with me.

Meghan - I got a bit jaded with fantasy because I was encountering so much that seemed like a pale imitation of Tolkien - you know, an ill-assorted group of companions, a Quest, a wizard or wizardess and some elves, repeat for 20 volumes and counting.... This is completely different. It's more like Njal's Saga and the Kalevala rolled into one and mixed with the Prose Edda. The publication date is probably a clue; it was first published in 1954, the same year as the Fellowship of the Ring, so it couldn't be a Tolkien derivative just from the date. I can see the common sources they were both drawing on, but they have done something quite different with them. One word of warning - don't expect a happy ending :-)

Annis said...

I read quite a lot of Poul Anderson's fantasy back in the day, and it is very much flavoured by the Norse myth and saga tradition, much of which is classic tragedy- a flawed hero making bad decisions (does he make them because iit fulfills his fate or does fate cause him to make them?) which lead to tragic consequences.

In recent times I've tracked down his non-fantasy titles- "The Last Viking" trilogy about Harald Hardrada; "Rogue Sword" set in the Latin Empire of the thirteenth century, and "The Golden Slave", a novel about the Cimbri, a migratory northern European tribe who clashed fatally with the Roman Republic in the 2nd century AD.

Interestingly, although at face value straight historical fiction, these stories all have motifs central to Norse mythology.

Your review is a reminder to check out "Broken Sword" again :)

P.S. I recently read Robert Ryan’s “Death On The Ice”, a novel about Scott’s doomed last expedition to Antarctica, and was very much reminded while reading it of your post on the frozen hell of Norse myth!

Carla said...

Annis - I think it was a thread you contributed to on HFO that set me to looking for The Broken Sword in the first place, so thank you for that! I'm looking out for The Last Viking as well. I've always been interested in Harald Hardrada.

Poor Scott and his team. I hadn't made the connection, but yes, the expedition must have been a lot like the Norse Hel. I wonder if some Norse explorers had a narrow escape from something similar in the Arctic or the mountains of Scandinavia and that fed into the myth?

Rick said...

Poul Anderson was very much a proponent of 'the Northern thing,' and indeed arrived at it quite independently of Tolkien!

Meghan said...

I too get tired of everyone ripping off Tolkien. That's why I find authors like George RR Martin refreshing. His darker more realistic approach is a nice change of pace. I wish he'd finish his latest novel though...

Carla said...

Rick - I shall have to look out for more of Poul Anderson. I think I remember reading somewhere that Tolkien was especially influenced by the Finnish Kalevala, whereas The Broken Sword feels to me more like Njal's Saga. I wonder if slightly different sources contributed to the difference in style?

Meghan - From what I have heard of GRR Martin (haven't got around to reading him yet, though definitely intend to), I'm getting the impression that his work might be not dissimilar to The Broken Sword, in which case that will bump it up the list pretty sharply! I admit to being a bit overawed by the sheer length though. How many books is it up to now?

Gabriele C. said...

Definietely try Martin. :) R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy, as well if you don't mind a sprinkling of philosophy with your Fantasy. It's based on the Crusades like Martin's series is based on the War of the Roses. Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth and sequels might be up your alley, too - very bleak. That triloy is finished, too. ;)

Oh, and another one to try is the original RE Howard stories. They have little to do with the bad movies and popular stories written by others in the worlds of Kull, Conan and Bran MakMorn.

Love Anderson, btw. I've read a lot of his stuff, including the King of Ys books and some of his sciFi.

Rick said...

I imagine different source materials provided different results! Although the Kalevala gets much mentioned, I imagine that Tolkien was also heavily influenced by Welsh sources, which from your description play no particular part in Anderson's work.

But I have to say that the discussion here reinforces a bit the comments I made about 'northern gloominess' on my own blog. (Does this bias come of living in a Mediterranean climate zone?)

Carla said...

Gabriele - Brian Ruckley's trilogy is inching up my TBR pile even as we speak. I've been told Exile has some similarities with it, so that naturally raised my curiosity :-) Thanks for the suggestion of Bakker - haven't come across his work before.

Rick - Underlighting in movies isn't the fault of the Norse Edda :-) There's actually a lot of dry understated humour in the Norse sagas (and we have talked about the Exeter Book Riddles before), not to mention the occasional comic set-piece such as Thor in drag, so to some extent the gloomy impression is misleading. What is definitely a feature is the working out of an inexorable Fate, but Greek myth is full of that as well. It may be something as simple as the sunny holiday-brochure image of the Med that instantly pops into the mind as soon as anyone mentions classical myth, while the mental image triggered by mention of Scandinavia is more likely to feature wind-whipped fjords and snow-capped mountains.

Mananan mac Lir and the Tuatha de Danaan in The Broken Sword are borrowed from Irish myth. Welsh variants of the same names appear in the Welsh Mabinogion, indicating some sort of shared tradition, but in the Mabinogion they are kings and heroes rather than gods as such.

Annis said...

Gabriele's comment reminds me that in the 1930s Robert E Howard wrote a number of stories featuring Gaelic heroes, nearly all of them outlawed by clan and country. Turlogh Dubh O’Brien and Cormac Mac Art are reivers of the 11th century, who fight alongside Danes or Saxons in their battles with other northern seafarers. While he was able to sell two stories of Turlogh to Weird Tales - ‘The Dark Man’ and ‘The Gods of Bal-Sagoth’ - I don't think he had much luck marketing the Cormac Mac Art stories, , though i enjoyed the ones i found.

Brian Ruckley is good (and there are only 3 of them :)

Carla said...

Annis - I hadn't come across those RE Howard Irish heroes before, so thanks for the mention! Brian Ruckley is on my list :-)