Swiftly goes the swordplay: Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword

The Broken Sword was first published in 1954, the same year as the original publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, so it’s a pre-Tolkien fantasy, and certainly a pre-fantasy boom fantasy. Lin Carter, who is one of the people who created fantasy as a marketing genre, feels the need to go on about this at great length in the introduction to the 1971 revised edition, because Anderson used the same list of dwarves in the Eddas that Tolkien did and has a Durin—this would be more convincing if Durin hadn’t been mentioned in The Hobbit (1938) but it really doesn’t matter. The Broken Sword is indeed entirely uninfluenced by Tolkien, or indeed anything else. It has been influential, but the most interesting thing about it is how unique it still is.

First, this book is grim. No, it’s grimmer than that. Grim for Norse levels of grim. The truly unique thing Tolkien came up with was the eucatastrophe—where the forces of evil are all lined up to win and then the heroes pull off a last minute wonder and everything is all right. He took the looming inevitability of Ragnarok and gave it a Catholic redemptive spin. Anderson stuck with Ragnarok. There hasn’t been anything this grim in heroic fantasy since. There’s kinslaughter and incest and rape and torture and betrayal…and yet it isn’t depressing or gloomy. It’s also very fast moving, not to mention short. My 1973 Sphere edition, which I’ve had since 1973, is barely over 200 pages long.

No actual plot spoilers anywhere in this post!

The second deeply unusual thing is that it takes place on a whole planet.

The story is set in Britain, with excursions to other bits of Northern Europe, at the end of the tenth century. It’s also set in Alfheim and other parts of faerie that lie continent to our geography. So far so normal for fantasy set in our history, oh look, Europe. But unlike pretty much everything else I’ve ever read that does this, Anderson makes it all real. Faerie has countries too, and while the elves and trolls are at war here, there’s a country over there with Chinese demons who can only move in straight lines, and one with djinni, and there’s a faun homesick for Greece. I am always deeply uncomfortable with fantasy that takes European mythology and treats it as true and universal. What Anderson does is have mentions of other parts of the real world and other parts of the faerie world. He knows it’s a planet, or a planet with a shadow-planet, and he makes that work as part of the deep background and the way things work. He’s constantly alluding to the wider context. Similarly, all the gods are real, and while what we get is a lot of Odin meddling, Mananan also appears and Jesus is quite explicitly real and increasingly powerful. 

I loved this book when I was eleven, and I still love it, and it’s hard to disentangle my old love from the actual text in front of me to have mature judgement. This was a deeply influential book on me—I don’t mean my writing so much as me as a person. The Northern Thing is not my thing, but this struck really deep. I probably read it once a year for twenty years, and the only reason I don’t read it often now is that when I do that I start to memorize the words and I can’t read it any more. I can certainly recite all the poetry in it without hesitation.

The story is about a changeling—both halves. Imric the elf takes Scafloc, the son of Orm, and leaves in his place Valgard. Scafloc is a human who grows up with the elves, and Valgard is half-elf and half-troll, and he grows up with Scafloc’s human family. Doom follows, and tragedy, especially when they cross paths. The book is about what happens to both of them. The elves and trolls are at war, though some suspect the Aesir and the Jotuns are behind it. There’s a broken sword that must be reforged, there’s doomed love, there’s Odin being tricksy. There’s a witch. There are great big battles. There’s skinchanging and betrayal and magic. Even the worst people are just a tiny bit sympathetic, and even the best people have flaws. This isn’t good against evil it’s fighting for what seems to be the lighter shade of grey, and people trying to snatch what they can while huge complicated forces are doing things they can’t understand.

Fantasy often simplifies politics to caricature. Anderson not only understood history and the way people were, he made up the politics of faerie and of the gods and got them as complex as real history. I read this now and it’s all spare prose and saga style and he does so much in the little hints and I think “Damn, he was good! What an incredible writer he was!”

If you haven’t read it, you should pick it up now while there’s such a pretty edition available. If you have read it, it’s well worth reading again.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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