Anderson, Poul: The Broken Sword

A changeling of a book on the modern fantasy shelves

Written in 1954, this is nevertheless a new Poul Anderson to me but I should point out that the “also by” listing runs to two, double columned pages. There are plenty there that I have read, back in the days when I first moved from books of myth and legend to the modern interpreters of that tradition. Accordingly, I’m curious to see if his writing has the same impact upon me as it did then.

Initially, there’s a curious sense of déjà vu. It’s not because of those endless trilogies I’ve read since, liberally sprinkled with elves and dwarves and boiled up with stock plot devices. Rather it’s because I read a great deal of Viking saga by way of research for my last novel. Anderson’s language rings with the power of those tales, the rhythms echoing with an ancient grandeur that’s inextricably woven into the tale, markedly superior to the self-conscious archaisms that can give more recent fantasy novels a contrived and artificial air. This is only the first of many things that strike me as so
very different to the mass-produced fantasy so readily available today. For instance, a great deal of the book is narrative rather than dialogue. In less competent hands, such narrative can become the stale recitation of tedious minutiae that bedevils all too
many quests and travelogues of personal redemption. Anderson in contrast whips his prose to drive the tale ever onwards, painting vivid pictures with adverb and adjective. Where he does use dialogue, its impact is all the greater for the sudden immediacy.
Perhaps one of the most striking differences between this and modern fantasy is the page count; Anderson wraps up a complex tale with many phases well inside 300 pages.

The story itself sits oddly among the more lightweight contemporary fantasies, harking back as it does to older themes and uncompromising harshness. This is the tale of a changeling, or rather two; of the half-troll, half-elf Valgard born of calculated rape and of Scafloc, stolen from his human parents and raised among the apparent compensations of Alfheim. This theft is the first in a series of evil deeds that culminate in successive waves of tragedy. Heroes are debatable and virtue has little hope of reward for its own sake. The trolls are true monsters and the elves are little better, as the amoral, unchancy inhabitants of a realm beyond human ken deftly spun from ancient northern European tradition. This is most emphatically not a fantasy of cosy consolation with
even the ostensible baddies finding their redeeming feature before the end.

Why should you read this book? To see how fantasy could be written and hopefully still can be written, when a writer draws inspiration direct from the great story telling traditions of past centuries rather than slavishly making an nth generation copy of someone else’s Tolkien-lite. To see how a story can be told when every word is chosen with care rather than merely strung together until the end product reaches the
requisite thickness of a house brick. I do not say this book is necessarily superior to the best of modern fantasy, which has qualities that this story perhaps lacks, in subtlety and optimism for instance, but it certainly knocks the weaker contenders into a cocked hat. I will say any serious fantasy reader will not only enjoy a rousing tale but will also have their horizons widened and their understanding of the genre deepened by reading this and indeed Anderson’s other early work.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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