Thursday, March 12, 2015

Elves, Trolls and a Demon Sword

I've written about Poul Anderson's excellent hard science fiction before. I mentioned in passing at that time that Anderson was as adept at writing fantasy as he was at science fiction. I was, of course, correct. I usually am.

In fact, Anderson is responsible for two of the best-ever fantasy novels: Three Hearts and Three Lions (which I'll probably eventually get around to writing about) and The Broken Sword.

This latter novel was written in 1954 and it is an engrossing and emotional story. It's set during the Viking Age--Anderson mentions King Alfred in the novel's afterward, which would place it in the
late 9th Century. Christianity is spreading across Europe; both the old gods and the denizens of faerie (elves, trolls, dwarves and so on) are losing power. But these otherwise immortal creatures aren't gone yet--though they and their castles remain invisible to most men, they still have kingdoms and sometimes wage war with each other.

The elves, for instance, are eternal enemies with the trolls. This aspect of the novel is probably a metaphor for the Cold War. The Elf-Troll wars are proxy conflicts for the major powers of faerie--the Aesir (the Norse gods) and the Jotun (the frost giants). These two powers can't fight directly, because that would bring about the end of the world.

An Elf lord named Imric finds an opportunity to gain an advantage when he's able to swap a new-born human child for a changling. The human boy is raised by the elves and becomes a great warrior. Since he's human, he can handle iron, wear iron armor and go about in the sunlight--impossible tasks for most of the faerie folk.

The human is named Skafloc and as an adult he leads a large elf raid against the trolls. Here he ends up rescuing a human woman named Freda. The two fall in love. That's sweet, isn't it?

No, it isn't. The changling left in Skafloc's place grows up to be a berserker warrior who ends up murdering most of his family and carrying his supposed "sisters" into slavery as he joins the trolls. So Freda and Skafloc are brother and sister. They don't know this, so their relationship soon becomes... pretty icky.

How this is handled by Anderson, though, is part of what makes the novel so good. Anderson was a classy writer and doesn't do graphic sex scenes, which in this case is a doubly-nice thing. Also, it's clear to the reader that Freda doesn't know Skafloc is her brother, so falls in love with him without any intended perversion. We can't help but sympathize with her and understand her confused feelings when the ghost of one of her dead brothers eventually spills the beans about who is related to whom. She now knows he's her brother, but she had trouble thinking of him as her brother and can't just turn off her feeling for him.

The ickiness inherent in an incestuous relationship is there, but it does not spoil our respect for Freda, who is an innocent victim of circumstance. The Broken Sword is a novel in which unpleasant things happen, but is not itself an unpleasant novel.

As the story progresses, the trolls gain the upper hand in the war and things look bad for the elves. But there is hope--a broken, rusty sword was given to Skafloc at his birth by the Aesir. If he can get it repaired, it will have the power to turn the tide of the war.

There are two problems with this. First, the only guy who can reforge the sword is a giant living in Jotunheim--a dangerous place for an elf or elf-friend to be. Second, the sword is cursed and will eventually turn on the person using it. But Skafloc is determined to see the sword reforged and use it, even if it means his death. And after things go south with Freda, he doesn't really care if he dies anyways.

There's so much about this novel that makes it great. The battle scenes are truly exciting and Anderson's portrayal of the fantasy elements of the novel drips with a sense of true wonder. Skafloc's journey to Jotunheim is particularly notable in this regard. The characterizations are vivid and there's no shortage of people we care about. The portrayal of the faerie folk is also notable--immortals who are incapable of love, though they feel friendship and loyalty; who are inherently cruel and consider themselves above human morality; who are doomed to lose power and fade away as Christianity takes root.

How Anderson handles Christianity in both his fantasy and science fiction is something I've always appreciated. I have no idea what his personal beliefs were and make no assumptions about that at all. But, like Fred Saberhagen, he's one of the few writers of speculative fiction who acknowledges Christianity's influence on history and works on the assumption that deep religious beliefs will still be a part of humanity's make-up in the future. In his fantasy, Christianity has a special power of its own, shown most overtly in this novel and in the 1979 novel The Mermen's Children. Of course, showing Christianity to have power over elves and trolls has no direct real-life theological meaning, but I see it as an acknowledgement that the worship of Christ has had a definite and positive influence on Western culture.

It's possible that my own beliefs are affecting my view of all this. But there's one thing that any reader of The Broken Sword can agree on regardless of spiritual beliefs: an Elf-Troll war is an epic and awesome event.

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