I’ve been called out to write a review of The Broken Sword. I accepted the challenge, although without much enthusiasm. You see, I’m not a fan of Moorcock, whether he fawns over Anderson’s book or not. For me his prose is the epitome of good intentions paving the road to hell. Or maybe a slightly less dramatic, but very accurate saying: when your best just isn’t good enough…
And the same can be said for Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. If I read it when I first read Tolkien… If I haven’t read Nordic sagas before… If I wasn’t allergic to the word ‘quoth’ and ‘fey’ or to overconfident writers who write their afterword as if they were Metatrons giving us heathens the word of God… If cows could fly. Then I might have liked it. But as none of these things happened, I must admit I found Anderson’s work artificial and boring. I know, I know, The Ultimate Fantasies series, Fantasy masterworks, a classic, one of the founding stones of modern fantasy, blah, blah, blah.
The book is thankfully short. And there are a few gems of subtly intricate sentences, evoking the sense of poetic. But the story is grim, predictable, Wagner-inspired, and grim. Did I mention grim? Grimness becomes a goal unto itself. Grim faces fill the dark caves, dim interiors of human dwellings, and misty unrealities of elves’ castles, dreamt upon crags and moors. Horses are either coldly beautiful or from hell, normal animals apparently extinct. Byrnies are torn or sundered, or bloodied, as are the swords or axes or other deadly weapons. Winters are terribly long and dreadfully cold, autumns are dreary and depressing, while spring comes late and only as the promise of summer, which in its turn passes before we can properly notice it.
Predictability is a two-edged sword, pardon my pun. I know the book is old and back in the golden times when it was written the tropes might have been a little less worn and obvious. I do take it into account, I do accept the tale of incest and doppelgangers and even the game of chess played with human and faerie pawns. What I can’t accept is the soap-opera drama that has nothing to do with original Eddas and which brings to my mind Wagner. I will be blunt. I deem Wagner a fraud, and I even have an authority who can back this claim – Adorno. Wagner took the raw emotions, the fears and beliefs, the whole culture of Norse Eddas, and ruthlessly mashed it up and altered it for the benefit of his audience. Anderson’s inspiration is not Nordic culture, but Wagner, with his flare for histrionics, for building unbelievable stories only for their emotional impact. And that’s why The Broken Sword is an imitation. Tolkien’s dichotomous take on Middle Earth might seem juvenile, but there’s no denying that he found his own language and created a full, nuanced world surpassing the ambitions of his author. Anderson tried to do that – and, IMO, failed.
Plus, I was bored. All those portents, bad feelings, telling signs that nobody wants to heed cluttered the story arc so much that the main characters had no room to breathe. They were more sketches than real characters, especially elves and trolls, but even the main trio – Valgard and Scafloc and Freda – seemed more paper silhouettes than flesh-and-bone people. Even though the bone crunched and the flesh was ripped apart on every second page. Anderson paid a lot of attention to the sounds of battle, and he had a lot of battles to describe. Swords sung and sundered flesh and bone alike, blood and brains spurted, axes ground, trolls and elves screamed and died. Oh, and horses trampled a lot. Grimly.
And to think that it all came from the Viking Orm’s decision to spare one witch’s life. Anderson’s lesson in morality: if you decide to burn and plunder, spare not one life. Otherwise, be prepared that the life you spared might turn on you and bite your arse off.
Am I being unfair? Yea, a bit. The story can be engaging, there are some innovative (then!) ideas about elves and trolls and Sidhe. There are also poetic, imaginative scenes, such as the sword dance of the elves or the quest to Jötunheim. I believe it inspired many writers, certain Butcher books instantly come to mind :). But for me The Broken Sword was a disappointment. Not a classic I expected.