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.