The Broken Sword

Poul Anderson

First published 1954. Edition reviewed: Gollancz, 2008, ISBN 978-0-57508-2-724. 228 pages.

The Broken Sword is a fantasy novel drawing on the Norse myths and sagas. It is set in the world of men and in a parallel supernatural world called 'faerie', inhabited by elves, trolls, goblins and similar creatures. The world of faerie exists in the same world as men, but humans cannot see faerie creatures or creations unless they are shown them by an inhabitant of faerie or have been trained in witchcraft. The Ice Giants and the Norse gods (the Aesir) live in a separate world, and occasionally pay visits to men or faerie. Mythological figures such as Odin, Tyr, the ice giant Bolverk and the Irish sea god Manannan play roles in the story. Insofar as the story has a historical setting, it is in the Danelaw of late ninth-century England. The main characters are all fictional.

The Norse chieftain Orm the Strong has taken land in the Danelaw (north and east England) by killing the former owners, has married an English wife and pays lip-service to Christianity. When Orm's wife gives birth to a son, the mother of the murdered former landowner, who has powers of witchcraft, tells Imric Elf-Earl that the newborn child is neither baptised nor under the protection of the Aesir. Imric steals the baby, leaving a half-elf-half-troll changeling in its place. The stolen boy is named Skafloc and raised among the elves to be a mighty warrior and poet, though the Aesir's naming gift to him, a broken sword of ancient and malevolent power, causes Imric much disquiet. The changeling, Valgard, is reared in Orm's hall and grows up to become a fearsome berserker warrior. In faerie, a great war is brewing between the elves and the trolls, and this gives the witch her opportunity to revenge herself on Orm by setting Skafloc and Valgard on a collision course. This will see the sword reforged and will ensnare Skafloc, Valgard and all those close to them in a tragic fate which none, mortal or immortal, can escape.

How do I adore this book? Let me count the ways... This is a superb evocation of the world of the Norse myths and sagas. From the opening sentence, "There was a man called Orm the Strong" to the last, "Here ends the saga of Skafloc Elf's-Foster", the book is told in a muscular, poetic style reminiscent of the great Icelandic sagas. It has the same ice-bright clarity, as beautiful as a glacier in sunlight and as pitiless, and the same economy with words. This is an epic adventure and a tragic romance packed into a mere 228 pages, with not a word wasted. Powerful emotions are conveyed in a couple of lines of dialogue or a look or a gesture, their impact heightened by understatement. Violence and war are sketched in bold strokes, with no need for pages of blow-by-blow gorefest. (This latter may in part reflect the era in which the book was first published; in 1954 many adults had only too clear an idea of the effects of fire, steel and high explosive on human bodies). The plot is beautifully controlled, full of intricate reversals, symmetries and parallels that remind me of the entwined animals in Norse art.

The characters are vividly and powerfully drawn. Valgard and Skafloc, ill-starred twins, dominate the story. Although at first they seem to be polar opposites - indeed, Valgard cries at one point, "What am I but the shadow of Skafloc?" - the contrast between light and dark is not as absolute as it appears at first sight. Valgard, half-elf-half-troll, is a loner alien to his human family, while Skafloc apparently takes to life with the elves like a duck to water. Yet Valgard has absorbed enough human feeling to experience genuine remorse at the death of his brother and to give his dead sister a clumsy Christian burial; and Skafloc, for all the glitter and glamour of the elf court, is achingly lonely for human love. Valgard's bitterness and despair make him the epitomy of cruelty and hate, while the young Skafloc is all light and laughter; yet when Skafloc is denied his heart's desire he succumbs to the same destructive nihilism.

The women are as individual and as strongly motivated as the men, and drive at least as much of the action. It is the witch, seeking revenge for Orm's slaughter of her family, who sets the whole saga in motion. Leea, the icily beautiful amoral elf-lady, discovers both love and jealousy, as well as being an active and highly effective participant in the war against the trolls (without, I may add, any hint of a Xena-style caricature. Full marks to the author). Freda Orm's-Daughter, loyal, loving and brave, is a thoroughly good woman whose attempts to do the right thing nevertheless bring a terrible fate on her and all those she loves best.

Was there anything I didn't like? In short, no. This is a stunning novel. I don't give star ratings, but if I did this would warrant a galaxy full.