The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

When people talk about the great influential voices of early fantasy, they talk Poul Anderson. When they talk Poul Anderson, they talk two books first and foremost; Three Hearts and Three Lions and The Broken Sword. The former I first heard of in connection with it’s huge influence on D&D; the latter I first heard of as a primary inspiration (more than Tolkien) for Warhammer Fantasy’s High Elves. As someone whose very first collection of plastic peeps holding pointy things were indeed the High Elves, I have always wanted to read this book.

And now I have.

The Broken Sword is a tale in the style of the old sagas, something that the young Anderson probably heard young as the son of a Scando-American family that lived for a while in Denmark. It is centered around two men; Skafloc, the son of a thegn stolen away to be raised in Elfdom and Valgerd, the half-troll half-elf changeling left in his place. War between the elves and the trolls sweeps them into conflict, and The Broken Sword is the tale of the price each man would pay to end victorious.

It is not the fastest read to begin with. I doubt it would have been regarded as slow at its time, but it belongs to a time that permitted more exposition than is fashionable today and that shows. There is a lot of setting the scene and showing the societies the two men belonged to. But it is still plenty readable, if you like a saga-esque style, and when it gets going – well.

The way most non-Games Workshop nerds would have heard of this book is as a work of proto-Grimdark. Dear reader, that is correct. This is a world with little altruism and bloody consequences, a place that believes in the evil of that which loves only destruction but with little condemnation. A man has to do what he has to do, even if they pull fate’s attention to themselves.

I would add that while this is very much a man’s world, it does not forget its women. The mother and sisters of Skafloc/Valgerd – particularly Freda – play notable roles, as do a few others, most notably Leea, the misunderstood femme fatale elf. They don’t particularly break free from gender roles, and neither do the men, but it is not like they are as absent as they are in The Hobbit or The Worm Ouroboros or many other books of this era. And while their tales revolve around the men, they clearly have their own motivations – one could write perfectly good fan-fiction of Leea without digging too deep for the bones of her story, for instance.

In fact, all of the characters have well drawn motivations. The fantastical nature of The Broken Sword is appealing, but that doesn’t mean it loses sight of its characters’ humanity and desire to act. I can’t think of many books of the era that feels so resolutely human as well as fantastical, and I think that’s part of why I enjoyed it so much in the end. It is bleak and bloody and, most crucially, utterly alive. It is not a quick read but, in time, I found it an outstanding one.

Hopefully you do too.

Image credit to Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

6 thoughts on “The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

  1. I’ve wanted to read Poul Anderson for a while. Three Hearts and Three Lions is the one I already had on my TBR but thinking I might give this a go this month perhaps if it’s proto-grimdark. Also helps that it’s only around 200 pages as my attempts to keep posting a review every day throughout W&W bump up against the sheer number of books that involves reading…

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    1. I forget whether I pushed this when you were looking for grimdark books, or whether I was waiting to read it myself, but I think this could be right up your alley. And fwiw, I prefer this to Three Hearts (as did one other person on twitter back when I posted that review).

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      1. No we’ve not talked about this one before. I feel quite in the mood for these old fantasy stories at the mo; I know it’s not exactly fashionable and don’t really know who’s interested in reading my thoughts on them haha, but I’m enjoying them so I’m gonna carry on. Though there was a lot more interest in my Elric of Melniboné review than I expected, so *shrug*

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      2. My biggest review in the last six months on reddit was Gate of Ivrel by CJ Cherryh, which I totally wasn’t expecting (recommending by the way, very solid heroic fantasy with a great unique Gothic feeling and touches of Sci-Fi). I feel like there’s an appetite out there to hear people talk about the big names of fantasy pre-Commercial Epic Chonks a la Brooks and Jordan; in a lot of ways it’s a natural route for fantasy fans who’ve read most of the touted stuff of today already. I know I’ve got a bunch of interest in some of the reviews of very early stuff I’ve done, which I need to keep pushing on with. So I reckon roll with it.

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