Friday, January 27, 2017

Forgotten Masterpiece? Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword

So, while I've been on this sword and sorcery kick, I came across Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. It's often mentioned -- in passing -- in surveys of S&S, but I hadn't otherwise encountered it.  Reading it struck me with two things:

  1. Anderson's knows his Norse sagas and medieval literature. There's echoes of the Eddas, Kullervo, and Tristan and Iseult.  What's amazing to me about this is that Anderson wrote this book in 1954 -- and thus delved into this literature entirely independently of Tolkien's influence.
  2. This is good. The Broken Sword is perhaps the first swords and sorcery novel where I kept wondering, "What's going to happen next?" I mean, I knew it would be something bad -- you can tell just from the source material that tragedy is around the corner. But I was captivated by exactly how everyone's hopes and dreams would come to a crashing, crushing end.
It's also worth noting that The Broken Sword only tangentially belongs to classic sword and sorcery. Although Anderson was a founding member of the Swordsmen & Sorcerer's Guild of American (SAGA), his work is entirely unlike that of Howard, Leiber, Vance, or Moorcock. It's not just the endless parade of brawny heroes, evil magicians, and unpronounceable names -- the literary sources give Anderson's book a resonance and depth that those others simply lack. Still, unusually for a hack writer, even Anderson's style is impressive. I found myself giving a mental thumb's-up to the way he describes several of his scenes. 

I'm not sure exactly how "forgotten" this minor masterpiece is, though. On one hand, I never heard of it outside of a few references in survey essays. It did get reissued in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series edited by Lin Carter, but it doesn't seem to have made much impact on the field -- Howard and Leiber  get more play by far. On the other hand, though, my library copy of the book has been checked out about 15 times since 1971, which is about 15 times more than my library copy of John Dos Passos's Big Money has been checked since around the same period.** Fifteen isn't a whole lot of people, but it does indicate some interest.

**Here's a cautionary tale of literary fortunes, based on the Due Dates slip at the end of library books. Up until 1975, Big Money had been checked out forty times. After that? Zero. Nobody, absolutely nobody, has tried reading it. Dos Passos, thou art Ozymandias!

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