The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson
Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) was selected by David Pringle in his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, and is highly praised by Michael Moorcock, whose character Elric of Melnibone and his demon-possessed sword Stormbringer are directly inspired by The Broken Sword. The audio version is narrated by Bronson Pinchot, who has an amazing vocal range and narrates with passion.
To get right to the point, this book is amazing and deserves a much wider readership. It’s one of the most powerful, tightly-written and relentlessly-dark high fantasies I’ve ever read. It’s chock full of Norse gods, demigods, Vikings, elves, trolls, goblins, sea serpents, evil witches, dark magic, mighty heroes, beautiful maidens, and above all tragedy, doomed love, and implacable fate. It taps into the same rich vein of Nordic lore that J.R.R. Tolkien did with THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but hews much closer to the dark and violent but heroic tone of those earlier sagas.
There are no jolly and peace-loving Hobbits smoking pipes here. Characters both mortal and otherwise are often cruel, passionate, and ruthless. Yet they storyline itself harks back to the most basic and fundamental heroic stories people have told throughout history. As such, it feels very mythic and archetypal, and the writing of Anderson is muscular, rich, gritty, and evocative to a degree rarely seen in the bland Tolkien-clone fantasy mega-series that have clogged the shelves for many decades. In fact, the recent popularity of grim-dark fantasy penned by writers like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Glen Cook, etc. can be seen as readers tiring of the same old formula and wanting a darker, more realistic take on fantasy adventure.
I see this as part of a broader shift in popular entertainment that coincides with the power of the Internet and online media distribution. In the past just a few TV networks and film studios controlled the types of TV programs and movies that were available to the public, but the advent of online film distribution caused an explosion of content, both good and bad, that has allowed for greater creative activity than ever before. Perhaps this is more apparent in the world of TV, where in the last decade the best writing and programs are drama series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Mad Men, Homeland, etc. These programs share a common thread of gritty realism, reinventing tired old genres, and a healthy cynicism and dark humor that was lacking in the stale offerings of the traditional networks.
The world of The Broken Sword is very complex, and Anderson throws in hundreds of exotic names of ancient tribes, lands, peoples, and faerie creatures that populated Europe many centuries past. The effect is to blur the boundaries between the actual Norse, Dane, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English peoples and ancient places with their rich mythology. The Aesir (Norse) gods Odin, Thor, Loki make appearances, as do Irish demigods, and there is mention of a fearful new white god, Christ, who is a threat to the elder gods.
Such is the skill of Anderson that it is impossible to distinguish which elements are fantasy and which are historical. He also provides a sense of immensely long history and ancient god-like figures who only rarely venture into the temporal realms of men, yet have active interest in their doings. The mix of such a plethora of mythologies in The Broken Sword can be a bit confusing, but the tight focus of the main story always prevents Anderson from getting lost in the infinite potential side-stories that he might have examined if he were writing a multi-volume epic to ensure a steady stream of royalties as most epic fantasy writers of recent years have resorted to.
The Broken Sword is the story of Skafloc, the human son of Orm the Strong but raised by elves, and the dark changeling Valgard, a half-elf and half-troll substituted for the infant Skafloc as a baby by a capricious elf named Imric. This sets in motion a series of tragic events that culminate in massive battle between an army of elves led by Skafloc and an army of trolls led by Valgard. There are other mythical creatures and gods involved in the conflict, but the most intimate battles rage in the hearts of Skafloc, who discovers too late that he has unknowingly fallen in love with his sister Freda, and Valgard, who is beguiled by an evil witch into slaying his brothers and parents, which drives him from human society and into the hands of the trolls, with whom he shares blood ties. The two become enormously powerful warriors, but at the same time are torn with feelings of guilt, self-loathing, and the inability to take joy in anything other than killing and vengeance. After discovering his love for Freda was incestuous, Skafloc seeks a weapon capable of opposing the vast troll armies led by Valgard and his powerful battle-axe nicknamed Brother Slayer. Skafloc takes a broken sword embedded with dark and evil magic, which is reforged by the giant who made it. It imparts incredible strength and killing ability to the wielder, but must drink blood once it has been drawn, which had tragic consequences.
The Broken Sword is one of the few books I’ve read where any page you turn to will yield incredibly vivid images and descriptions, but to give you an idea of the dramatic tone and writing style, here is just one example in the climactic final battle between Skafloc and Valgard:
Like a blind man Valgard turned away, wrenching the arrow from his hand. He howled, gnawed the rim of his shield, froth at his mouth. His axe began to shriek and thunder, striking at all before it. He was mad with killing lust. Skafloc fought with a bitter flame of cold murder within him, the giant sword was a living fire in his hands. Blood and brains spurted, heads rolled on the ground, guts were slippery under his horse’s hooves. He fought, he fought in a timeless whirlpool of death, where only the icy lightning workings of his brain were real. He scattered death as a sower scatters grain, and wherever he went the troll lines broke. Swords blazed under the moon, spears flew, axes smote, metal and men cried their pain. The horses reared, trampling, whinnying, their blood-clotted manes flying. Elves and trolls died in a storm of weapons and were crushed under the swaying struggle.
The Broken Sword made me want to go right back for a second listen, and that’s pretty rare for someone with 400+ books on his TBR list. It also made me much more curious to explore the incredibly rich body of classic fantasy tales that inspired it, including the works of E.R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, H. Rider Haggard, and earlier heroic tales like the Iliad or Beowulf, not to mention the almost limitless mythology and folklore of pre-Christian Europe. So you might consider this book a “gateway drug” that could easily get you hooked on ancient fantastic tales of heroism and adventure. Proceed at your own peril, brave warriors.
As Stuart said, it’s epic. And dark. Bronson Pinchot gives a fabulous performance in Blackstone Audio’s edition.