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Anderson’s Faerie Tale: The Broken Sword

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. Read the rest of this entry

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Crusoe in Concrete: J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reappraises J. G. Ballard’s 1970s masterpiece

‘Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant.’ This remark by J. G. Ballard, who has a claim to being one of the most important English writers of the second half of the twentieth century, strikes at the heart of what drives his fiction. And although it’s not his most famous book, for me the remarkable tour de force that is Ballard’s 1974 novel Concrete Island best demonstrates this.

Ballard has always struck me as a curious mixture of H. G. Wells and William Burroughs, in so far as he can be likened to anybody. Certainly, his novels and stories frequently have the clarity and simplicity of concept that we see in Wells’s fiction, just as the narratives driven by these concepts proceed to undo that simplicity by showing the complications that inevitably ensue. Read the rest of this entry

So Bad It’s Good: The Best Bad Poets in English Literature

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys some good bad poetry courtesy of The Joy of Bad Verse

I’ve long been a fan of Nicholas Parsons. No, not that one – although who could fail to appreciate the sharp wit of the Just a Minute host? – but Nicholas T. Parsons, the author of one of the best books of literary trivia out there (The Book of Literary Lists), an enjoyable history of the guidebook (Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook), and what I’d consider his Magnificent Octopus, The Joy of Bad Verse. This book was published in 1988, so you can consider this ‘review’ a sort of 30-year retrospective. It’s well worth tracking down.

Parsons’ The Joy of Bad Verse is a scholarly and readable study of the history of ‘bad verse’ down the age. What makes a bad poet? Patriotism, religion, and sexual desire appear to be among the worst culprits for serving as muse to the wellspring of the worst and the most wearisome of versifiers. But what Parsons’ book does, as well as offering some rigorous analysis of what makes a bad poem, is to offer up some of the best – which is to say some of the worst – examples of doggerel ever to have inflicted upon an unsuspecting reading public. Read the rest of this entry