The Broken Sword
Poul Anderson

Category: Fantasy
Morality: D
Writing: A-

There are books that are original, and then there are books that are like nothing else you’ve read. The Broken Sword is one of the latter. It draws deeply upon Norse sagas and mythology for inspiration; the result is a powerful novel with a harsh, darkly pagan feel.

The story is set in England during the time of Viking invasions. Orm the Strong has wiped out most of the local Saxon population to make room for his own settlement. One of the few survivors, a witch, tells the elf-earl Imric about Orm’s new son. Because the son has not yet been baptized, Imric is able to steal him and substitute a changeling. The baby, named Skafloc, grows up among the elves as an honorable warrior. Meanwhile the changeling, Valgard, becomes a monster who eventually kills his father and brother and tries to take his sister, Freda, into captivity among the trolls. Here Skafloc intervenes, rescuing Freda and bringing her to Alfheim. Not knowing that they are brother and sister, they fall in love. The story inexorably moves towards tragedy as the trolls attack and overwhelm Aelfheim. Skafloc and Freda escape; but shortly afterwards, they discover their true relationship. Freda runs away in horror, leaving the increasingly grim and doom-laden Skafloc to seek the defeat of the trolls by any means possible.

Stylistically, this book is excellent. It’s written in a terse, archaic style that brings to mind the Norse sagas. The world is beautifully realized, with each of the cultures vividly portrayed: the beautiful, decadent elves; the barbaric trolls; and the ordinary human folk, caught between the fading paganism and advancing Christianity in an England where magic is hidden but not yet gone.

Morally, the book is much more problematic. Christianity exists and seems to be overpowering paganism, not only in the sense that people are converting, but in that the old gods seem to be failing. But the advance of Christianity has no effect on the characters. There is no sense of redemption or meaningful afterlife; the cycle of vengeance forces them inexorably to their doom. Then there’s the whole issue of incest, which is treated ambiguously: Skafloc, being raised among the elves, has no problem with it, while Freda is horrified. Yet she eventually returns to him at the end, basically acknowledging that she loves him more than her religion. The distant narrator makes no move to either condemn or approve her, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.

The Broken Sword is definitely not for young children; there’s violence and a fair amount of non-graphic sex, including incest. But if the reader is prepared to deal with a worldview that’s pagan and often morally ambiguous, it’s a powerful and well-written novel–and a glimpse into a world which makes Christianity seem very welcome.

Posted by Rose | April 23, 2003

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