Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Broken Sword: A masterpiece from the fantasy forge

Poul Anderson is an author who seems to be largely ignored and unappreciated these days, save for those who are true fans of the fantasy and science fiction genres. Even in those circles he's known primarily as a science fiction author, and for good reason--Anderson was a voluminous SF writer (I say voluminous because he wrote a metric ton of it, and I don't have an accurate number) with much fewer fantasy/historic fantasy titles to his credit.

But Anderson was also an avid fantasy fan. He helped found the Society for Creative Anachronism, and according to Wikipedia was also a member of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (can I get a membership, please?). He was also a truly great fantasy writer, perhaps best known for Three Hearts and Three Lions, a book which serves as the inspiration for a pair of classic Dungeons and Dragons icons: The paladin character class, and the green-skinned regenerating troll, D&D founder/author Gary Gygax admits. Anderson also wrote some awesome Nordic-flavored fantasy, including Hrolf Kraki's Saga and War of the Gods, books to which I'll devote some blogspace at a later time.

But for my money, Anderson's best work of fantasy was The Broken Sword, published in 1954. If you haven't read this slim, 200-page classic of epic fantasy, rush out to your local used book store or purchase a copy on Ebay and do so now. It's a kick in the pants of "fat fantasy," a welcome relief from the bloated tomes choking the fantasy section of book stores these days.

The Broken Sword combines Norse mythology, inexorable tragic fate, faerie races vs. encroaching humanity, and Christianity vs. Paganism in a quick-moving, bloodthirsty saga. The basic plot is as follows: Imric, an elf chiefain, steals away the child Skafloc from his parents, Orm and Aelfrida. Imric replaces Skafloc with a changeling, Valgard, identical in appearnce to Skafloc but born from Imric and a she-troll. Skafloc grows up among the elves as a child of the light, while Valgard, feeling like he's an outcast, turns to the dark.

Meanwhile, an old witch with a grudge (Orm burned her home and slew her sons in a raid during his younger days) swears to continue the feud against Orm and his family. She enlists Valgard as a tool for her revenge, and Valgard slays Orm and his siblings. The witch also tells Valgard about his true troll heritage, and Valgard leaves to join the trolls' ranks, taking Orm's daughters/Skafloc's sisters, Freda and Asgerd, as tokens for the troll king.

Still unaware that Orm is his father or Freda and Asgerd are his sisters, Skafloc leads a raid against the trolls to test their strength, and winds up rescuing Freda and Asgerd. In a familiar tragic device, Skafloc and his sister, Freda, fall in love, which guarantees that their unnatural relationship will end in disaster.

Later the pair escape near death from the invading troll armies, and Skafloc learns that he is fated to free the land from their scourge, and recover and reforge the broken sword--a weapon of great power, but also cursed with an evil sentience that will ultimately spell doom for its wielder.

You can imagine the havoc that ensues when Skafloc learns his true identity, that his father and siblings were slain by his traitorous twin "brother," and that he's been sleeping with his sister. Skafloc's quest to reforge the sword, his internal turmoil and agonies, and the final epic battle are amazing and a joy to read.

There's also a lot more going on under the surface of The Broken Sword than mere plot. The reforged evil sword is a terrible weapon that represents military technology, like atomic power or gunpowder, that are as much a blessing as a curse. And once reforged (or conceived by scientists) the cat is forever out of the bag. At one point Imric decides to take it and cast it into the sea, but realizes that even this drastic measure cannot undo fate: "I do not think that will do much good though. The will of the Norns stands not to be altered, and the sword has not wreaked its last harm." There's shades of the Excalibur myth here, albeit much darker and more sinister.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the sword's properties--smelted iron--are anathema to the trolls, elves, and other races of Faerie. The broken sword can thus be viewed as the power of the one god--referred to by Anderson as "The White Christ"--driving out the many gods of the old pagan religions. This theme runs throughout the book.

Interestingly, Anderson paints a bleak picture of mankind in general. Men, while physically weaker than trolls and elves, will rule in the end, not because they are inherently superior, but because of their lust for science and the power it brings. And they care not for the consequences: "'All men are born fey,' said Skafloc, and there the matter stood."

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