Friday, November 2, 2012

Sad Northern Songs: Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword

If there's one thing fantasy writers love, it's linking themselves and their work to mythology. Sooner or later a writer's going to namedrop Beowulf or Greek mythology in an interview, and finding a fantasy novel that doesn't have at least one bit of Celticism can be immensely hard.

This of course is hardly surprising, considering that the modern genre has deep roots in 19th century Romanticism and that movement's fascination with national consciousness and the(oftentimes simplified) myths behind that. Indeed works like E.R. Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros" are written to emulate the mythological tales that inspired it. And one doesn't have to go into detail in regards to Tolkien and his interest in creating an Anglo-Saxon mythology via-Middle Earth.

That being said, most fantasy writers don't really have that good of a handle on mythology. This admittedly might be partially colored by my time actually studying folklore(and all the Jungian interpretations of Snow White that you can throw a stick at) but I frequently feel that many writers know the words but not the music when it comes to mythic works. They can replicate the heroic warrior culture of Germanic sagas, but they have a hard time with the absolute sadness at the center of so many.*

Poul Anderson's 1954 novel The Broken Sword does not suffer from that problem. And indeed stands as one of the finest fantasy novels ever written.

Back in the European Dark Ages war wages across the English countryside. Scandinavian invaders burn the shore, Christianity has all but usurped the Pagan beliefs, and underneath it all magic races battle each other in an endless war. The elves and trolls, powerful under-empires that regard humans with little more than disinterest save for one ability. The power to wield iron weapons, which is the bane of them all. To that end the elves hatch a plot to steal away a human child named Scafloc and replace him with a half elf-half Troll changling named Valgard. And in doing so begin to set off a series of events that will end in tragedy.

Of course there's ultimately more to the story, but revealing details about Scafloc's human father, a vengeful witch, the machinations of various gods, and ultimately the cursed sword Tyrfing, but there's so many details crammed into this less than 300-page** book that this post could keep going for a while.

Ultimately though the book's central arc is Scafloc and Valgard's alienation towards the two worlds(the one of magic and the world of man) that drives the plot like a steamroller to it's conclusion, and Anderson handles it with all the grim skill that's to be expected for this tale.

Poul Anderson was of course something of a natural at this. Though probably best known for his science-fiction, his influence on fantasy(Three Hearts and Three Lions being extremely important to the development of Dungeons & Dragons) is probably his best work, and it's blessed with his natural talents at characterization. While oftentimes prone to the silly politics(in this case gung-ho libertarianism) and typically overwrought pulp prose, Anderson separated himself from his contemporaries with a sensitivity that most of the others lacked. Rarely in Anderson's work will characters be divided into clearly good and evil categories, and even the worst of characters will still be treated with a level of understanding that's rare to see in books from that era.

Anderson also had a deep love and interest in his Scandinavian heritage and folklore, which is seen time and time again in his work. Unlike many other writers though Anderson was able to get at the real heart of these stories, crafting melancholy tales of people trapped in fates they don't wish for and struggling(mostly fruitlessly) against them.

The Broken Sword takes all these qualities, boils them down to their bare essence, and proceeds to create a tale that could stand shoulder to shoulder with any Nordic Saga in it's apocalyptic fury.

*And really for sheer bleakness Germanic and Persian mythology stand on a depressing peak.

**This is always a plus as far as I'm concerned. The Broken Sword's an epic but there's no wasted pages in it whatsoever. I can only imagine how many books it'd take to tell this story today.