Keely's Reviews > The Broken Sword

The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson
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Jun 12, 12

bookshelves: novel, fantasy, reviewed
Read from June 09 to 12, 2012

Every young medium, if it wishes to be taken seriously as an art form, must find a way to present mature stories. Movies began to take themselves seriously in the thirties, comic books began their struggle to elevate themselves in the late seventies, and videogames have been trying to achieve greater depth for the past few years.

Yet, like any rise from adolescence to adulthood, this reaching for maturity is always an awkward period. It is marked by overcompensation, by the striking of certain poses which are meant to seem mature, but which only make immaturity stand out more. Whether for child or art form, the signs of adolescence are the same: and obsession with darkness and death, violence, sexuality, swear words, and amorality. If these were truly the signs of a mature work, then my most mature creation would be the back cover of my eighth grade notebook, resplendent as it was with with daggers, bloody eyes, fantasy babes, skulls, monsters, and anarchy symbols.

We recognize that these are the signs of a naive child playing with the idea of being an adult, and yet these are the same things fans and creators of emerging art often point to as proof of their grim, gritty, amoral maturity. It's this obsession with an appearance of maturity which lacks all mature substance that I blame for the fact that today, sixty years later, I am not aware of any modern epic fantasies which can boast the tragedy, heartache, and moral conflicts of The Broken Sword. Certainly there are many truly adult fantasies out there, but they lie in subgenres other than The Epic: Urban Fantasy, New Weird, Historical Fantasy.

Once again, as with everything good or bad about the modern state of epic fantasy, it is the result of Tolkien's influence. There are many readers and even some authors of fantasy today who think that the genre began with Tolkien. Trying to understand fantasy solely through Tolkien and the authors he influenced is like trying to ride a horse with only one leg.

Much has been made of the fact that The Broken Sword was released the same year as The Lord of the Rings, and it's true that the similarities between the two books do not end there: both have distant, tall elves, deep-delving dwarves, a broken sword which must be reforged, an epic war between armies of light and darkness, a central character who is trapped between that conflict, and an interweaving of the Christian and Mythical Pagan worldviews.

Comparing the two works, it becomes increasingly clear how little of Tolkien's world was original--and how the original aspects tended to be the weakest. If Tolkien's work represents an incomplete attempt to recreate Milton's Adam in Frodo and save the heroic Satan in the guise of Aragorn, Anderson's interplay is less daring, but more successful. Taking a cue from Dunsany, he depicts a world where the old and new forms are at odds. Through humanity, they come into conflict, but it is not possible for the utterly aloof Christian god to touch or be touched by the intensely personal, meddling heathen powers.

While I found Dunsany's portrayal of that stark separation intriguing and mystical, it is less satisfying in Anderson's work. Like Kipling, he shows us a world where gods and faiths intermingle, the old dying slowly in the face of the new, but Anderson never addresses why the new faith has this power. I do not ask that he lay out the cosmology, but I would have appreciated more illustrations of the relationship which might have pointed at the intriguing depth Dunsany and Kipling portrayed.

In a curious turn, Anderson returned to this book fifteen years later, making changes throughout to the tone and word use, but also altering a few scenes to change the portrayal of the Pagan/Christian conflict. I read the original version, which has more powerful language and an unusual theological implication which, had it been explored, might have made this book very conceptually interesting.

Another problem in this book was Anderson's portrayal of women, though it was nowhere near as bad as one gets from modern epic fantasies. His women have character, wills, and power. They kill, they wear armor, they defy and manipulate men--Anderson clearly draws the women of his tragic epic from the tragedies of the Greeks and Shakespeare. Yet they tend still to be emotionally reliant on men, and are often lead to act out of their desires for and relationships with those men. More than that, every woman seems to be described at least once as wearing some clinging, form-fitting thing which makes evident her curves, revealing that it's important for an author to describe what is relevant to the story, not merely what his own eye habitually lingers on.

Strong women are not the only things Anderson takes from the great tragedies--his central story is a remarkably deep and sympathetic exploration of personal tragedy, full of purpose and pathos. The deaths, trials, betrayals and self-doubts are not thrown into the story haphazardly to feed a chaotic plot, like Martin's, they are vital and personal, each one built precisely to reveal some new aspect of a character's inner turmoil.

Despite being laid out like a classical tragedy, so that the downfall is evident from the beginning, looming over us, I never felt that this knowledge hurt the reader's expectation, because Anderson was a good enough writer to make sure that it wasn't about what external events happened to the characters, but what their internal reactions would be. There is no mystery about what event will tear apart Skafloc and Freda's love, what is vital to us is how it will impact them. It just goes to show that cheap thrills and plot twists are nothing compared to a good character.

Though Skafloc and Freda's struggles are poignant--moreso as we near the conclusion--for much of the story, Skafloc's antagonistic counterpart Valgard presents a more rare picture: that of the unsure, self-searching man who finds himself again and again on the side of darkness, without knowing what has brought him there--is it fate? his own true nature? mere bad luck? Like Tolkien's Gollum or Eddison's Lord Gro, I often feel drawn to these figures of personal crisis who demonstrate the vagueness of the line that separates heroism and villainy.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed not to see Valgard's story grow as things progressed. When he first asked himself whether he were truly born evil--a changeling child--or had some control over his fate, I eagerly anticipated his attempts to prove the fact, one way or the other. Yet, perhaps realistically, he ultimately found himself spitted on the question, unable in the end to test it. I wish that, even if Anderson chose not to explore the full range of this question, he might have had Valgard confront it in different ways, instead of returning always to the same view and phrasing. In the end, it was Skafloc who explored the fuller range of moral values in his quest to determine what truly separated a sword-wielding hero from a power-hungry killer.

Though this book is largely unknown to any outside of devoted fantasy fans, it is notable for being one of the books which inspired Michael Moorcock, especially in his Elric series, through which many of its tropes have trickled into modern fantasy. In Moorcock's opinion, it was this book, and not Tolkien's, which should have become the epic fantasy classic. It certainly would have sent the genre off in a different direction. Perhaps now, instead of a mirthless grasp at maturity, we might have recognized that since epic fantasy has already had great tragic depictions, modern authors are entirely free to write new and interesting stories free of the hollow pretensions that come with the label of 'serious author'.

Epic Fantasy is not, like some others, a young genre, finding itself, but a very old one that has lost its way. I can only hope that soon, we'll start to see the other side of this mid-life crisis, and that books like The Broken Sword may be written again.

My List of Suggested Fantasy Books
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message 1: by Keira (new) - added it

Keira Another fantastic review - I agree with you on the state of modern epic fantasy, and am happily stalking your reviews and adding those stories that pass your test to my own to-read shelf

Your note on the "obsession with maturity" reminded me of C.S. Lewis' statement on the same:

"To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."


Keely I actually added that quote to GR a while ago--funny that you bring it up. He's certainly describing the same problem I was trying to discuss in my review. Though it's funny that Lewis would have such an insight about not obsessing about maturity, but then turning around and writing such condescending books. Then again, I've found Lewis is very good at pointing out the flaws in others, but very poor at recognizing them in himself.

Thanks for the comment.


message 3: by Stardrag (new)

Stardrag Do you think Tolkien was more easily accepted because his work was simpler to grasp with characters who could be copied or distorted without much work?

Good review as always.


message 4: by Rob (last edited Jun 16, 2012 12:49PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rob Do you think Tolkien was more easily accepted because his work was simpler to grasp with characters who could be copied or distorted without much work?

I'm not Keely, but for what it's worth I think Tolkien is more easily accepted because he gave his works great dollops of nostalgia. He was a conservative and defiantly anti-modern man, and this informed everything he wrote. He couldn't possibly have known that Lord of the Rings would tap into a late-20th century reaction against modernity. But bucolic country-squire hobbits and grand elvish lords are just the thing for a society that lost faith in the future, and found genuine history discomfiting.

The Broken Sword has not a word of nostalgia. The fabled past it evokes is stark, weird, and cruel. It's no place to seek comfort. And yet, unlike George RR Martin and his peers, Anderson is not anti-romantic either; he doesn't rub your nose in vulgarity in the service of misguided realism.

For a similar approach to fantasy, I highly recommend Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy. Vance is more whimsical than Anderson, but he taps into the same primal power of fable and the authentically fantastic.


message 5: by Stardrag (new)

Stardrag Rob wrote: "Do you think Tolkien was more easily accepted because his work was simpler to grasp with characters who could be copied or distorted without much work?

I'm not Keely, but for what it's worth I thi..."


Ahh, it's cool, he didn't answer it anyway and I'd like to think the question was open to everyone. I used to be enthralled with George RR Martin's works, but grew distant after looking for resolution, which resulted in more chaotic scraps of a story.

Thanks for the answer and recommendation. I'm adding the first book right now. I might be able to pick up a sample from online somewhere of the first few chapters.


Keely I don't know if Tolkien is simpler, but I think his work is overall less challenging and more comforting. As Rob points out, Anderson has no nostalgia or convenient resolution, while Tolkien's work is more morally normative, giving us yet another 'us vs. them' conflict.

I just read my first Vance, Tales From the Dying Earth, and I'll be checking out Lyonesse at some point fairly soon.


Outis What is the "unusual theological implication" you talk about?

You're largely responsible for making me read this by the way.
I found it more interesting than enjoyable but it's certainly a noteworthy work and I wasn't aware of it.
So thanks.


Keely Perhaps you remember the scene where the Devil is in the witch's hut? In the original version, the devil implies that other 'dark gods' like Loki are actually just him in disguise, suggesting that the Christian notion that 'false gods' are actually demons tricking humanity is at least partially true in this world.

In the revised version, the devil does not make this claim, and when he leaves, he transforms back into Odin, suggesting that the Norse gods are real and that Odin was clever enough to use Christianity to fool humans into doing his bidding, setting the whole plot in motion.

I'm glad you at least found the story interesting. It's funny to think that I've inspired someone to read a specific book--I hope I didn't lead you wrong.


Outis You're better read than I am (in English lit anyway) so your links to notable works are definitely welcome, whether or not I agree with your assessments.


Yeah, I remember the scene. I assumed that's what you were referring to based on the link in your review.
Only I didn't know what you thought it implied.

Loki excepted, the gods of The Broken Sword seem to be sincere and some of them are depicted as more powerful than mere demons.
So I can't support your interpretation of the orginial version.

Here's how I read it: the god known as Loki (and presumably many other names as well) found a way to survive in a Christianized world by creating a role for himself ("the Devil" which is obviously different from the characters of the Greek and Hebrew scriptures on which the Roman Bible is based).

From my perspective, none of our interpretations qualifies as "unusual".


Keely Well, if pagan gods transferring back and forth into Christianity and using it for their own ends isn't unusual to you, I'm not sure I can help.


Outis Chrisitianity is full of pagan stuff such as "the Devil". Your word "hell" is actually the name of a pagan god, is it not?
Outside of fantasy, we obviously don't believe that the Devil is a literally a pagan god, only that the concept of the Devil is pagan. But this is a fantasy where gods are for real so...


Keely Certainly, plenty Christian myths have pagan origins, like 'Hel', who was a Scandinavian Goddess of the underworld. However, the concept of Satan is original to Christianity--archaeological evidence suggests that he was a trickster god in a pantheon alongside Yahweh and his wife, Asherah. Of course, the modern appearance of Satan (horns and hooves) is based on the Germanic forest god from which the Greeks got Pan.

What I think is theologically unusual about this book is its treatment of the interaction between Pagan and Christian forces. In most early fantasy in English, Yahweh is all-powerful and real, he is the creator, and all the fairies and magic and weirdness on Earth is either the result of demonic intervention, or they are just other creations of god.

There are a few books, like Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter, where Christian and Pagan magic are completely separate things--none has power over the other, but neither can they be intermingled. The Fairy world is simply another world which was not created by god.

In this book, not only do we have that sort of effect going on, but the different versions show interaction. Now, if the devil is mimicking gods and fooling people, then that means Christianity is still utmost--there is no real pagan force, just the work of demons--powerful though they may be.

But if Odin himself is capable of using Christian 'magic' for his own purposes, then that would put him closer to equal footing with Yahweh, suggesting that the two pantheons are both true, and both godly. While this concept has shown up more often in recent works, like the novels of Neal Gaiman, I find it unusual here because I don't know of any earlier English work of fantasy that explores that same implication of polytheism.


Outis Yeah, I said it wasn't unusual "from my perspective" because you may well be right from a historical perspective.
I guess the popularization of the criticisms of Judeo-Christian myths is more modern than The Broken Sword.

I disagree on three counts however:

In the original version of The Broken Sword, "the devil" is not mimicking gods. If you take the dialogue at face value, that being was Loki before playing his current role.
Also, the dialogue makes a distinction between three classes of creatures which are less powerful than the Christian God as well as "the Norns": gods, demons and men. So I never assumed gods were demons.

You seem to hold a dualist notion according to which demons and/or "Satan" are not creations of God.
But there's no contradiction between monotheism and creatures having supernatural powers. Such a notion is explicit in Islam and you don't get much more monotheist than that!
It seems to me that's the kind of theology brought forward by The Broken Sword: the creator God is supreme but allowed supernatural creations to use the world as their playground until he came into the world as Jesus to give people (or at least gentiles) the power to resist the supernatural creatures.

While I'm not aware of archelogical evidence for this "trickster god", I'll grant it for the sake of the argument. But it would be incorrect to link it to the Satan character since the name (if nothing else) is based on a misreading of what we call the Old Testament. It therfore stands to reason that this character is a later innovation.
Also, ancient evidence for something in the Jewish tradition doesn't make it non-pagan. Or the Egyptian mythological elements featured in Jewish scripture wouldn't be pagan either.


message 14: by Tarvo (new)

Tarvo  Csorba Are there any recent epic fantasies you have read that you could recommend?


Keely I have not been able to find any recent epic fantasies that are worth reading, no--all the ones I have come across were cliche and poorly-written. However, I do have some suggestions for interesting fantasy books linked at the end of this review, if that interests you.


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