In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews the pioneering fantasy novel by Poul Anderson
In 1954, a bold and exciting new work of fantasy fiction was published, influenced by Norse myth and describing a heroic quest, containing elves, giants, magic swords, enchantment, an epic battle, and plenty of singing. The novel was called The Broken Sword by the Scandinavian-American author Poul Anderson: a book which has been eclipsed by the more famous novel which appeared that year, The Lord of the Rings (or at least began to appear that year: The Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954).
And yet for many, including the giant of modern fantasy, Michael Moorcock, The Broken Sword is superior to Tolkien’s novel: in an illuminating article about Anderson’s novel, Moorcock writes that The Broken Sword ‘seems to echo the existential mood of the west after the second world war’. Instead of Tolkien’s black-and-white vision of heroes and villains, Anderson is all noir. Scandi-noir, we might now say.
The hero of The Broken Sword (FANTASY MASTERWORKS) is Skafloc, son of Orm the Strong but raised by elves as their foster-son. Owing to some conflict involving Orm, an elf and a witch make off with Orm’s son and replace him with Valgard, a troll-born changeling; Orm’s son is taken to be raised by elves, who give him the name Skafloc. Valgard is a berserker, prone to fits of rage, and will (minor spoiler alert: this happens relatively early on in the narrative) kill most of his family for merely trying to stand up to him – although, of course, they are his family by circumstance rather than by blood.
What follows is a dark fantasy – much darker than much of Tolkien’s world – inspired by Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon myth in which blood spurts, axes crunch through bone, and nobody is safe, much as in the more recent ‘gritty’ fantasy works of writers like George R. R. Martin (i.e. Game of Thrones), J. V. Jones, or Steven Erikson. The novel’s title comes from an iron sword gifted to Skafloc at his naming ceremony, a sword broken in two, whose parts must be joined together again.
But of these two masterworks published in 1954, it was Tolkien’s which won out and went on to influence a generation of fantasy novelists: Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and so on. And so the dark edginess we find in Anderson had to wait until writers like Martin and Erikson came along in the 1990s and pioneered what would later become ‘grimdark’, gritty fantasy featuring morally ambivalent characters.
What helps Anderson to avoid the Manichean view of much Tolkienesque fantasy is his debt to Norse legend and other pagan myth: there is none of the Christian allegory (e.g. Gandalf as Christ) which we can so readily detect in Tolkien’s universe (and even more readily in his colleague C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles).
The Broken Sword is about Norsemen who believe in Odin, Thor, and Loki; they are pagan, through and through. Even the songs have none of the tweeness we find in Tolkien. And not to give away too much of what happens in The Broken Sword, but the tone of the novel is elegiac and tragic: this is not a quest in which good will necessarily win out over evil, partly because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become difficult terms to pin down in Anderson’s universe.
Anderson knew his Scandinavian mythology: although he was born in Pennsylvania, he was of Scandinavian stock and spent some time in Denmark. (Even his surname is only one letter away from Denmark’s most famous literary son.) It’s been claimed that Anderson was also influenced, closer to home or at least in time, by a novel by H. Rider Haggard, whose Eric Brighteyes (1888), inspired by Icelandic saga, similarly focuses on two men who become sworn enemies of each other in a grand battle.
The true extent of Haggard’s influence on twentieth-century fantasy and adventure fiction probably remains to be explored, but it’s likely that Anderson knew of Haggard’s novel: he was still a firm fixture on novelists’ bookshelves in the mid-twentieth century, especially those pioneering the new genre of ‘fantasy’.
The Broken Sword (FANTASY MASTERWORKS), then, is an epic story of changelings, elves, witches, battles, betrayal, and violence, but what is remarkable is that Anderson manages to establish and make the most of his epic landscape in little more than 250 pages, rather than the 1,000 it takes Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.
And although for much of the second half of the twentieth century, Tolkien’s fantasy was the one that led the way for a whole raft of young novelists, that tide has now turned. Game of Thrones has replaced The Lord of the Rings in the world of big- or small-screen fantasy experience. Fantasy has, in a sense, grown up.
But Anderson had already shown us what such an ambivalent and morally complex fantasy world might look like. If you haven’t yet done so, it’s time to pick up The Broken Sword.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.