Piecing Together Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword
by Brian Murphy
What in Ymir’s name was in the well water in 1954?
Three terrific works, one each of high fantasy, historical fiction, and sword-and-sorcery/heroic fantasy, all appeared that same fateful and wonderful year.* These included the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships, and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, respectively.
All very Northern, each inspired by Old Norse myth, saga, and history. All awesome. Some would say, each the best of their kind. I might.
But I’m not here to talk about that odd and extraordinary circumstance, but rather, Anderson’s novel specifically.
What makes The Broken Sword such a great book? And why does it deserve to be better known and more widely read?
Genuine Norse mythology is stepped in the Wyrd, a word that is a rough approximation of “destiny” or “fate.” A life is a string in a tapestry spun by the three Fates, or Norns; at some point the Norns also shear it off. No man can change his destiny. But that doesn’t negate free will, and in between there is life to be lived, important decisions to be made that shape one’s Wyrd.
Such as, for example, whether to reforge an ancient, cursed, and powerful broken sword, and wreak vengeance on your enemies. That happens in the novel, and it’s a sight to see.
The broad outlines of the novel are as follows. Imric, an elf chieftain, steals the infant Skafloc from his parents, Orm and Aelfrida. Imric replaces the child with a changeling, Valgard, identical in appearance to Skafloc but born from the unholy union of Imric and a she-troll. Skafloc grows up among the elves as a child of the light, while Valgard, unable to shake the feeling he’s an outcast, turns to the dark.
Skafloc and Valgard are in essence two halves of one person (in fact you might call them two pieces of one broken sword), approximating the opposing but also symbiotic forces of order and chaos that vie within us. Valgard struggles against his heritage; Skafloc against the pull of a powerful, evil weapon that he needs to battle the darkness that threatens to overwhelm the land.
Their tale can be viewed as a metaphor for childhood. Do we really ever overcome our experiences, our biology? Can we? Maybe, and maybe not. We have both free will and circumstances of history that influence who we are and what we do. What ceilings we reach, and the depths to which we may fall.
But our actions still have consequences. Choice in this book is complicated. But so is Wyrd, which also means uncanny or unexpected, and the supernatural.
Likewise the sword, Tyrfing, can be viewed metaphorically. You can’t unmake it; you can’t put (insert any powerful weapon, nuclear or biological) back in the genie’s bottle. You can hide them away, swear never to use them… but all men are born fey. Ultimately they will lead us to Ragnarok and our destruction. At one point Imric decides to cast Tyrfing into the sea, but realizes that even this measure cannot stay fate: “I do not think that will do much good though. The will of the Norns stands not to be altered, and the sword has not wreaked its last harm.”
It all seems very prescient today.
As circumstances draw the two half-siblings together, conflict ensures—great, gory, unforgiving conflict, worthy of Greek Tragedy. Or more accurately, of the old Norse Sagas, treating us moderns to the power inherent in these ancient stories.
I maintain that the Sagas can still be read and enjoyed, but they do present some obstacles to a 21st century reader. Not so The Broken Sword, which is very much a modern novel even as it harkens back to this older form of storytelling. The Broken Sword reads Saga-ish, bearing clear signs of its influence (Anderson was of Scandinavian descent and a huge fan of the Sagas, and often supplied translations to the likes of Amra). Its first line is typical of Saga literature; note the concern with lineage, as well as its brevity and directness, all hallmarks of the Sagas:
“There was a man called Orm the Strong, a son of Ketil Asmundsson who was a yeoman in the north of Jutland.”
And with that we’re off, with a lean, mean 200-page novel that burns like Muspelheim fire.
In 1954 an average reader would be more familiar with this type of storytelling than we are today. Saga material was widely available, and selling. Everyman’s Library reprinted its inexpensive version of George Webbe Dasent’s 1861 Story of Burnt Njal in 1923 and 1931; and in 1930 it brought out the second and final part of its reprint of Samuel Laing’s 1844 Heimskringla. Popular translations by William Morris were also available at this time, too.
Michael Moorcock is one of The Broken Sword’s greatest champions, famously declaring that it knocked The Lord of the Rings “into a cocked hat.” Moorcock’s most memorable creation, the decadent, haughty Melniboneans, are based on Anderson’s elves, wild and fey. For 17 years it was difficult to obtain a copy, which received only a single printing in hardcover by Abelard-Schuman. That changed in 1971 when Lin Carter commissioned the work for his Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. Anderson was unhappy with the original which he found written too purple and savage for his more mature sensibilities and used the opportunity to revise the text; some say weakening it. Analysis of the two is beyond the scope of this article and I recommend this essay by Ryan Harvey on the Black Gate website for a full recounting.
Gollancz made the wise decision to publish the original text of The Broken Sword in 2002 and again in 2014 as part of its Fantasy Masterworks series, because that is precisely what it is: A bloody, brilliant masterpiece.
If you haven’t yet read it, what in Odin’s name have you been waiting for? Put it at the top of your TBR, your 2023 resolutions, your life goals. It’s worth it.
*Some caveats/explanation: Bengtsson’s novel was first published in the early 1940s in a two-volume set, but only in Swedish, the author’s native tongue. Book one (The Long Ships is four short books) was first published in the United States in 1942 under the title Red Orm. But 1954 was the first time the complete book was made available to an English-speaking audience. The Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, not the entirety of The Lord of the Rings. All close enough.