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Literature / The Broken Sword

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"I will succeed to your throne ó but what good is that? What good is anything?"

A fantasy novel written by Poul Anderson in 1954. It was issued in a revised edition by Ballantine Books as the twenty-fourth volume of their Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in January 1971. The original text was returned to print by Gollancz in 2002.

The book tells the story of Skafloc Half Elf (actually a human stolen by the elves), son of Orm the Strong. The story begins with the marriage of Orm the Strong and Aelfrida of the English. Orm kills a witch's family on the land, and later half-converts to Christianity, but quarrels with the local priest and sends him off the land. Meanwhile, an elf, Imric, seeks out the witch to capture the son of Orm, Valgard. In his place he leaves a changeling called Valgard. The real Valgard is taken away to elven lands and named Skafloc by the elves. He grows up among the fairies there. Later, he has a significant part in a war against the trolls.

The eponymous weapon, named Tyrfing in the 1971 revision, was given to Skafloc as his naming-gift by the Aesir. He later travels to the ends of the Earth to have it reforged by Bolverk, the Ice Giant.

The novel is set during The Viking Age and the story contains many references to Norse mythology, Celtic Mythology, and even a couple of mentions of more exotic (to Europeans) mythical creatures. It was influenced by the 1891 novel The Saga of Eric Brighteyes, by H. Rider Haggard.

Anderson wrote the book during the Cold War, and it does reflect on the story. For example, the Elf-Troll conflict is basically a proxy war between two great powers, the Aesir and the Jotuns; the latter two do not fight directly because that would lead to Ragnarok, the final battle in which most of the world would be destroyed. The parallel to the real-world threat of nuclear war is obvious. Even the titular sword may be an allusion to nuclear weapons; Skafloc contemplates throwing the sword into the sea, but realizes someone - probably much less moral than himself - would eventually find and use it.

A partial adaptation of the novel, done as a serialized black-and-white graphic novel, was adapted by fantasy writer Tom Reamy and illustrated by professional fantasy artist George Barr. This was published during the mid-to-late 1960s over several issues of Reamy's twice Hugo Award-nominated science fiction fanzine Trumpet; the adaptation was never completed, though there were revived plans underway to do so at the time of Reamy's untimely death in late 1977.

Michael Moorcock has mentioned that The Broken Sword greatly influenced some of his stories. For example, Elric of Melniboné's sword Stormbringer was clearly based on Tyrfing.

The novel has been praised for its well-written female characters (particularly when its age is taken into account). It is also notable for using a very similar body of mythological traditions to The Lord of the Rings, but weaving a very different story for it. The novel's general tone is quite dark and violent, and the characters often feel like pieces on a vast chessboard - just like the ancient Norse believed, You Can't Fight Fate very much applies here.

Not related to the Broken Sword video game series.

This novel provides examples of:

  • All Myths Are True: Christ, the Norse gods, the Sidhe, and various mythological creatures all exist side-by-side, and all of them are real.
  • Asshole Victim: Valgard's crew are "the worst among vikings". Once they're no longer useful to him, Valgard leads them right into a Troll ambush.
  • Baby as Payment: The heroine (pregnant by a man she does not know is her own brother) is tricked by the Father-God, Odin, into surrendering her newborn son to him. As the child is doubly cursed - born in incest and not yet christened - appeals to the Christian God are useless, as Odin well knows.
  • Bad Boss: Valgard kills just about any underling who dares gainsay him.
  • Battle Couple: For a while, Skafloc and Freda team up to wage a guerrilla war against the Trolls.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: The Elves are a deconstruction of this trope. They are graceful and beautiful, but also emotionally shallow and amoral.
  • The Berserker: Valgard is an axe-swinging crazed Nordic warrior.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Trolls. Though somewhat subverted, since they really aren't any more evil than the Elves.
  • BrotherĖSister Incest: Skafloc and Freda hook up because they don't know they're related; the ghost of their dead brother breaks the news to them. Skafloc, having sophisticated Elven sensibilities figures they can work through this. Freda disagrees.
  • Cassandra Truth: Leea warns Skafloc that his love for Freda will only bring him misery. He ignores her — and regrets it, of course.
  • Changeling Tale: Skafloc is stolen from his mother and raised by Elves, replace by Valgard, who ends up living among the Trolls.
  • The Chessmaster: Imric is fond of complex and grandiose schemes... but even he's an amateur compared to Odin.
  • Cold Iron: Many supernatural creatures - with the notable exception of Dwarfs - cannot touch iron and its mere proximity causes them pain.
  • The Corrupter: The witch, posing as a beautiful young woman, manipulates Valgard into committing acts of evil. He catches on after a while and turns on her, but by then he's already beyond redemption.
  • Deal with the Devil:
    • The witch makes one with Satan himself. Freda makes one with Odin.
    • In the 1971 revision, the witch also makes a deal with Odin, masquerading as the Devil. Satan only appears to laugh at her mistake.
  • Death of the Old Gods: This has yet to happen to the Norse Gods, but the young hero met up with a satyr who recounts the fall of Olympus.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The novel realistically presents Norse values, some of which can be rather alien to the modern reader. Elven values are shown to be even stranger; they think nothing of incest, seem devoid of any deeper emotional bonds, and generally have a very egocentric approach to life.
  • Den of Iniquity: The hall where Valgard's viking crew live, drink, and fight each other among terrified thralls, whom they also use as sex slaves.
  • Downer Ending: Most characters end up dead or worse. In addition, it is practically flat-out stated that all the supernatural races, even the Aesir gods, are doomed to die out.
  • Elves Versus Dwarves: Graceful, sophisticated and indirect Elves versus gritty, blunt and strong Trolls. Both races have a similar level of technology and both use magic but, again, Trolls tend towards more direct application while Elves prefer to be more subtle.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Even Valgard's murderous outlaw crew think it's a bit too much when he orders them to plunder Orm's stead after he has already killed Orm and his sons. None of them dares to stand up to their leader, though.
    • Valgard himself protests at first when the witch suggests that he give up his foster-sisters as "gifts" to the Troll king, though he does eventually agree to it.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Even when he's still a child, dogs can detect something isn't right with Valgard and keep attacking him.
  • Evil Twin: The changeling Valgard is this to Skafloc.
  • Evil Weapon: The titular sword. So evil that Thor himself broke it aeons ago, to prevent it from striking at the roots of Yggdrasil, the mythical tree that binds the worlds together.
  • The Fair Folk: Skafloc's adopted family. The term "faerie" is used to describe the fantastic races that aren't powerful enough to be gods, including the trolls, elves, dwarves, goblins, sidhe etc.
  • Forging Scene: Involving the titular sword, unsurprisingly. It's quite creepy, as befits such an evil weapon.
  • Freudian Excuse: Valgard. Despite the horrible things he does, one has to remember that he was thrust into a society in which he didn't belong - and which quickly rejected him, and that he spent most of his life as little more than a pawn in the power games of more powerful beings.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: The 1971 version to the 1954 original. While keeping the events largely the same except for one significant point, the text was rewritten throughout to tweak the style. In a new foreword, Anderson even referred to his younger self as a different person. The original text was not reprinted for years.
  • Glasgow Grin: A variation. Valgard gets his cheek slashed open at one point, revealing the teeth behind.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: Although there are good guys and bad guys, even the worst characters have at least some redeeming features, and even the best people have (sometimes quite deep) flaws. Skafloc and his family are hardly perfect but, compared to the other characters, come across as A Lighter Shade of Grey.
  • Hellish Horse: Skafloc obtains a massive Jotun horse in Jotunheim. It is a massive, scary beast that can easily cave in a troll's skull.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Freda has ruddy hair, and is the protagonist's love interest.
  • Historical Fantasy: The book is solidly rooted in Europe of the Early Middle Ages, aka the "Dark Ages".
  • Horny Vikings: In all their gory glory. However, they are portrayed in a reasonably realistic manner (and don't wear horned helms into battle).
  • Humans Are Special: They are under the protection of the gods. Also, unlike the faerie races, they can look forward to an afterlife. Finally, most faerie races cannot touch iron.
  • Icy Blue Eyes: Valgard. And yes, they reflect his personality (when he's not in berserker mode).
  • Jerkass: Imric, in oh so many ways, but very likely the worst is his keeping the Troll-King's daughter as a slave for literally centuries, raping her regularly to produce changelings. When she is returned to her father as a hopeless lunatic, he mercy kills her and in grief-driven rage swears eternal war with the elves.
  • Karma Houdini: Leea is the only character who gets no form of comeuppance for her cruelty and manipulation (even the Aesir are left staring down their impending annihilation by Christianity by the end). Some of this may be because her crimes were relatively mild compared to the vast array of horribleness on display throughout the story, but given the Disproportionate Retribution karma prefers to dish out here, it still stands out.
  • Lack of Empathy: A defining trait of the elvish psyche.
  • Magic from Technology: Anderson notes that this magic employed by the faerie races could simply be a specific form of technology, that is they are able to manipulate their environment through forces yet unknown to us.
  • Magic Knight: Skafloc, Imric, Illrede and others. Squishy wizards are surprisingly rare in this novel.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Imric and Leea. Actually, most elves seem to be like this.
  • Meaningful Name: Bolverk means "evil-worker". Illrede is derived from ill (as in bad/evil) and rede (an old word for counsel/advice) - his name might be said to mean "bad news".
  • Medieval Stasis: Although they are actually technologically ahead of the humans, the faerie races have made very little actual progress in the last few centuries. As the author notes in the afterword, their conservative warrior culture has just about reached its limits in this field.
  • Mirror Character: Valgardís bitterness and despair make him the epitome of cruelty and hate, yet when Skafloc is denied his heartís desire he, too, falls into the same self-destructive nihilism.
  • Mirroring Factions: Elves and Trolls. Although Trolls look and act more stereotypically evil, the Elves are every bit as bad as they are. Perhaps even worse: Trolls do possess a crude sense of martial honour, while Elves are almost totally amoral.
  • Monochromatic Eyes: Elves had eyes that glowed a dim blue and pupils that were there but "hard to see".
  • Named Weapons: Valgard's axe Brotherslayer, and Tyrfing, the broken sword of the title (also a reference to Norse mythology, particularly The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek).
  • No Guy Wants an Amazon: Averted with Skafloc, who has no trouble accepting Freda fighting alongside him. The newly Christianised Norse would disapprove, though Freda notes her ancestors were shield-maidens and Valkyries.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Skafloc's and Mannanan's adventures in Jotunheim are mostly glossed over, the author claiming it would take a whole extra book to describe them properly.
  • Our Dwarves Are All the Same: The Dwarves here are similar to the ones in Norse myths. Notably, they are the only race able to handle iron, and as such are often enslaved by the other faerie races.
  • Our Elves Are Different: The elves in this story are faster, nimbler, practically immortal - and very cunning. However, they also have glaring weaknesses: they are vain, unable to form strong emotional bonds, cannot touch iron and are helpless against the power of gods (especially the Christian God).
  • Our Goblins Are Different: While lacking the trolls' strength, the Goblins in The Broken Sword can still be capable warriors if they have the motivation. They are also smarter than they look. At one point, Imric warns the scorn-filled Skafloc not to underestimate them, and later in the story a successful Goblin rebellion (against their Troll masters) is briefly mentioned.
  • Our Trolls Are Different: They're ugly, strong and crude, but they can also be quite intelligent. Also unlike your average fantasy troll, the ones in this book are a bit shorter than humans and can be powerful sorcerers.
  • Parental Incest: Leea is the sister of Skafloc's foster-father and suckled him as a child. She is also attracted to him. She later becomes the lover of Skafloc's identical changeling brother Valgard, who is her blood nephew.
  • Proud Warrior Race: This is Norse mythology, so it's to be expected. Unlike in most other fantasy worlds, the elves in The Broken Sword fit this trope, too.
  • Proxy War: The Elf-Troll war is essentially a proxy war between two groups of divine beings, the Aesir and the Jotuns, who do not fight directly for fear of triggering Ragnarok.
  • Raised by Humans: Valgard, who is an elf/troll changeling raised by the parents of the real Valgard.
  • Raised by Orcs: Skafloc is raised by The Fair Folk.
  • Reforged Blade: A key plot element.
  • Sex Slave: Valgard brings his foster-sisters as a "gift" to the trolls. This is considered a Fate Worse than Death.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Skafloc shoots down a raven that brings him bad news. He immediately regrets it. And with good reason — ravens are associated with Odin, so killing them is a bad idea.
  • Ultimate Blacksmith: The ice-giant Bolverk, the only one who can reforge the titular sword.
  • The Vamp: Leea, the icily beautiful elf-lady. She's more amoral than outright evil, though.
  • Top God: The White Christ, as the Christian God is called here, is the "God of Gods" version. No other divine being can match his power, though he also respects mortals' free will. The latter comes into play when Freda calls upon him to banish Odin; it doesn't work because she previously made an ill-thought-out bargain with the Norse god.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Skafloc can change his form to that of several animals using magic. He needs the skin of the animal in question to pull it off.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The fate of Skafloc's and Freda's child after have been claimed by Odin is unknown.
  • What Have I Done: Valgard gets a few moments of this, such as when he kills Ketil, as he remembers they had spent good times together between their fights. Eventually, he realizes he's beyond redemption and just stops caring.
  • Wicked Witch: The unnamed witch who puts the plot into motion by telling Imric about Orm's unbaptized baby (Valgard), fits the stereotype very well - she's old and ugly, lives alone, makes deals with dark powers, etc.. She does have a sort of Freudian Excuse, as Orm killed her family.
  • Wife Husbandry: Leea, Skafloc's Parental Substitute amongst the elves, later becomes one of his lovers, just in case his love-life wasn't messed up enough already.
  • The Wild Hunt: This version seems to be led by Odin. Skafloc spots it at one point, and it causes even him to shudder with fear.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: It was foretold, and so it happened.