The Broken Sword, perhaps the best known and most renowned of Poul Anderson’s novels, is the third book of his that I’ve read, and with that I put a notch in the last of his Appendix N entries.
My feelings on this one are mixed. Of the three I’ve gotten to thus far, my favorite has been the High Crusade (which Gita just recently reviewed). The Broken Sword is a skillfully crafted example of what a fantasy story can be when a talented writer just lets loose and does what he wants. Goblins and dwarves? Of course. Christ plus a bunch of Norse gods? Sure. Throw in some Celtic godlings and crap while you’re at it! Cursed sword, changeling berserker, elf vs troll war, oodles of magic – get it all in! Why?! Because it’s fun and cool!!
Before we get into spoiler territory, let me just say that there’s a lot to unpack here. The Broken Sword has plenty going on. Anderson’s fluency with Scandinavian (and other) folklore is on full display, and though this one perhaps contributed less directly to the worlds of D&D and vanilla fantasy tropes than Three Hearts and Three Lions, that’s not for lack of creative and wondrous material.
Now let me get to some specifics. *Spoilers ahead!*
“Be nice to your sister”
Ok, let’s just get this out of the way first. There’s a lot of incest. Now it’s not really distastefully done; it’s reasonable for the characters given that they’re unaware of their siblinghood; it’s integral to the story. Yada yada yada. Sorry, it just bugged me. To expand upon that a bit:
I found the amount of ink spent not only developing but emphasizing the love between Freda and Skafloc to be excessive. We
get to have to read about their lovemaking, kissing, cuddling, yearning for one another, tickle fights, and all those tender moments. It may have been a little too much for me had it been a non-incestuous union, but in this case, yeah. I just got sick of reading about it.
This may very well be on me and the fact that I spaced out my reading of the book for so long (it’s only like 200-something pages, if I recall correctly), but I found the story a bit slow until the last quarter-ish. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of action and interesting happenings, but I felt like it was all setup and not really the main event. I mean we knew there was this magic sword waiting to be reforged and wielded; we knew Skafloc was (probably) going to find out eventually about his parentage and that he was banging his sister; we knew that Skaloc and Valgard were heading for a showdown. But none of that stuff happened until the end. That’s fine, I guess. Really that’s the point of the climax. But I felt like it was a long wait for the payoff.
Drow and gods and things
That said, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on. I found the sparingly employed appearances of the Norse gods to be exciting (Odin is a prick, by the way) and was pleasantly surprised to see Irish deities and spirits showing up, as well. We even get mention of shen and oni, though they’re not prominently featured (nor do they need to be). One of my favorite parts of the story is when Skafloc sets out to Jotunheim with a Celtic sea godling. Though I did find it a little lame when Anderson tosses in couple lines that basically say “and the two had many awesome adventures and kickass brawls, but I’m not gonna write about those, so.”
The story also offers the earliest use I’ve come across of the term “drow,” which these days just evokes Drizzt and his crew of OP, Forgotten Realm goth elves. So that was pretty neat.
The titular broken sword turns out to be the cursed blade Tyrfing, a weapon right out of Norse mythology. I’ve been saying for a while that Durindana needs more love, but really I welcome the namedropping of any non-Excalibur weapon. Nothing against Excalibur or the sword in the stone; they’ve just been done to death.
The Broken Sword also most likely played a role in the inception of Moorcock’s Elric character. It’s been noted that Moorcock was an Anderson fan and that his whole Chaos/Law alignment system smacks of Anderson’s Three Heart’s and Three Lions. So does his demon blade, Stormbringer (and also Mournblade, I suppose) strongly resemble Tyrfing in some regards: perilous, evil, a tool of malicious gods, and also granting a supernatural strength and fighting prowess. When wielded, Tyrfing’s grim influence affects Skafloc’s personality, driving him to cruelty , fury, and violence. So does Stormbringer possess its own demonic personality – a dark will that Elric must subdue and overcome.
It happens to the best – a scene that makes you scratch your head. I complained about this in my thoughts on King David’s Spaceship and Triplanetary.
There’s a part in the story where Skafloc has infiltrated the troll-occupied castle of Alfheim, the former seat of Imric, Skafloc’s kidnapper and foster father. He seeks to steal away the secretly hidden broken sword and have it reforged. As he makes his way to Valgard’s chamber, he encounters a troll sentry. They do battle and he slays his foe. Though he worries about being detected, no one seems to have heard. Ok, good.
So he climbs some stairs and proceeds to the lord’s quarters, where he finds Leea and Valgard. His antagonist is asleep, and he wishes he could kill him but decides he cannot risk the noise.
Aw come on, Poul. Maybe you wrote yourself into a corner and didn’t want to revise or overthink this, but just feels nonsensical. Skafloc has just brawled with a killed a troll outside in the hall and no one had heard. But now that he’s facing a sleeping enemy (I’ll note one of the strongest and powerful leaders of the troll army and one he’s got a grudge against), he’s afraid that he’ll make too much noise? Let’s not forget that Skafloc is almost elfin in his grace and agility while still a superbly strong human man. And he’s not up to the task of clamping a hand over Valgard’s mouth and quickly slicing open his throat? Meh.
Not really a major sticking point, but it stood out to be as a “wut” moment.
This may warrant a write-up of its own, as I’ve had longish Twitter debates on the topic, but Anderson writes of a different, older kind of elf than we see these days. Tolkien popularized the image of elves as tall, graceful, honorable, and good. That’s not to say that elves have historically been villains only, but it certainly used to be a more common role for them and fey in general.
But the Broken Sword is pre-Tolkien, and we get another look at elfin kind. When it comes down to troll versus elf, the latter comes out looking pretty good. They’re fair to look upon, often merry, and usually they don’t come across as especially cruel or sadistic. However they’re pagan beings – they cannot bear holy words or symbols, and they fear the White Christ. They perform unholy magics, such as being able to call upon the dead (though this is a rare and dark ritual). When they can get away with it, they steal human infants. They’re wanton both in bed and in battle.
Now Tolkien may not have meant his elves to just be guys with pointy ears who live in the woods and are good at archery and magic. To be fair to him, his portrayal of the elves of Mirkwood in the Hobbit was a little more sinister than the image we all have now of Orlando Bloom as Legolas. May not be his fault, but that’s what we’ve got, and that’s what D&D elves, for example, tend towards.
Contrast that again with Anderson’s elves, who favor cavalry and wield strange alloys unknown to man, because they cannot bear the touch of iron. They also don’t shy away from familial banging and other sexual depravity (so far as I remember Tolkien’s elves do some cousin kissing but not too much closer than that).
By the way, for some reason I always picture Leea as that evil elf chick from Record of Lodoss War.
Speaking of Leea, one interesting point about Anderson’s elves is that for most of the story we’re led to believe that they are incapable of love. We do see that Leea is fond of Skafloc and jealous of Freda. It’s not until the very end of the story, though, that Anderson drops a bomb on us. Imric makes a comment about elves being unable to love, and we get an aside from Leea about him being wrong. So really she aided Skafloc and Freda out of love for him.
Skafloc and his shadow
I remember not being particularly impressed with Holger, the protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions. Likewise I was underwhelmed by Skafloc. At first he was too arrogant and cocksure (thinking to know better than his foster father); next too enraptured by his sister; and finally too angsty and brooding. These were perhaps all understandable and human ways of acting, but I didn’t find them super attractive in a hero we have to spend so much time with.
He did have an interesting arch, ultimately. His transformation when wielding the cursed sword was tragic (but fun), as was the way he undid himself in the end.
I honestly found Valgard to be a more engaging character much of the time. More and more often these days we get villains who are evil because of their parents or because of society; because they’re victims. I think that’s fine, but it is often lazily done. Ultimately the choice to be good or evil is just that – a choice. And that is reflected in this antagonist. Valgard is clearly conflicted about his wickedness. There are a few times when he laments his evil deeds and shows remorse. But in the end he lays the blame upon his father, Imric, and curses his life. Instead of atoning and taking responsibility for himself and his actions, he decides to say “f it” and just be evil. So I did feel sorry for the guy – he was dealt a crap hand, and even in the end when he bests Skafloc and is about to claim the evil sword, it betrays and kills him right off. Dang – at least Skafloc got to have some fun with it! Still, he was a dick and he deserves what he got.
Anyway, those are the main of my thoughts on the book. I felt like the buildup was slow but worth it – the ending was tragic but satisfying. Not among my Grand List favorites, but definitely a cool story worth a read. On the classic 5-point scale, I’d give it a 4/5.