Much has been written favourably comparing The Broken Sword to The Lord of the Rings, not least because they came out in the same year. The champions of Poul Anderson’s novel at some point correctly decided that it could piggyback the audience of J.R.R. Tolkien’s massively more famous work – if you liked that, you’ll love this! (And you’ll like that considerably less afterwards…)
I’m not going to do that; it’s been done, and by better writers than me. Although hardly the fault of Moorcock et al, I think it’s a shame that The Broken Sword hasn’t moved past its status as an alternative to Middle Earth to being appreciated in its own right as an excellent fantasy story.
Or, in fact, as an excellent story – there’s no need for a modifier. Because whilst much of the novel’s strength lies in its restructuring within standard genre tropes such as mythical beasts, magical realms, Medieval social norms and ancient relics, what makes it stay with you is universal. And I don’t just mean the hero’s quest, which is Campbellian, or the relentless pace at which the narrative seems to move (whilst somehow allowing for moments of brilliant, more static, prose, such as scenes of beautiful snow-caked harshness as Danelaw falls prey to winter), but also the most enduring trope of them all: ill-fated, forbidden, fatal love.
The Broken Sword is unsentimental in its depiction of humanity, which is portrayed as being as brutal and opportunistic as the elves or trolls, whose conflict is the major driving force of the tale. It is not, though, misanthropic, and identifies what we can do that even gods cannot, which is to love. That, the book claims, is one of three essential human experiences. The other two, fear and defeat, are so closely tied to the first that they’re all but presented as lower manifestations rather than equal parts of a trinity. Tragically, outrageously, this unique and beautiful facet is also the flaw, used to ensure the humans never become more than pieces in a chess game being played out between celestials – it is through our ability to love that the gods manipulate and control us.
More tragic is that the love presented is ill-fated not because it’s unrequited, nor is it forbidden by physical circumstances. The two lovers, Skafloc and Freda, adore each other with all the impotent fury of the heart: love as it is given to weakness, love as it inspires strength. And it is not that they are separated by threat of force, but by taboo that gives even us, the sympathetic audience, pause. The taboo is theoretically enforced, but by an absent god, so it is only the inner strength and might of Freda’s conscience that splits the union.
A union that has already been consummated, which makes it worse again. To have known bliss, before having it denied you, is the most cruel hell. Love is acid: those who have experienced it know, those who haven’t will never understand any description of the corrosive mark it leaves even after the burn has faded. How futile, to use mere language to try to convey how even the five senses are irreparably altered in love’s furnace!
To find a fantasy paperback capturing something of that is a surprise. There are moments when one lover realises the other must be suffering as much, and the desperate powerlessness presented rings true to anyone who has felt that arch sadness that echoes off the bone marrow, a bass tone deeply resonating in the empty cathedral of the heart. For all the other strengths of the book within the context of the genre – the exciting pace, the imaginative interplay and synthesis between the real and unreal, the flat, matter-of-fact Eddic brutalism in the prose that serves to highlight the moments of great joy – it’s the truth within the fantasy that makes Poul Anderson’s saga stand ahead of the pack.