Well if this story is anything to go by, grimdark goes back much further than I ever thought. THE BROKEN SWORD was written around the same time Tolkien was releasing The Two Towers to the world, so ostensibly belongs to that era of heroes and dark lords fantasy where good was good, evil was evil and everything was mostly straightforward. The Broken Sword is altogether not that. It’s set in Saxon/Viking England for the most part and tells the saga-esque tale of Skafloc and Valgard, man and changeling fighting on opposite sides of the supernatural war between Alfheim and Trollheim. It draws heavily on Norse mythology and features a bunch of Norsey stuff like the jötunn and the Wild Hunt and references and cameos from the pantheon of gods, but blends it with the dark interpretation of faerie that I much prefer to the whimsical kind.
So the premise of the story is there’s this viking, Orm the Strong, who kills the family of a local witch and sets himself up on the land. Understandably this makes the witch pretty mad, so she helps Imric, the elf earl of Alfheim’s English lands, steal Orm’s first born son and swap him out for a soulless changeling. Imric raises the mortal boy Skafloc in the elven court, while the creepy ass changeling Valgard is raised in Orm’s family. I find changelings horrifying and creepy and the concept unnerves me so it’s always a good way to start out some dark fantasy or horror for me. When war breaks out between the elves and trolls the two of them find themselves on opposite sides and there’s really a lot of dark, unsettling and violent shit goes down on both sides of the conflict as both Skafloc and Valgard test the limits of what they’ll do to attain victory. The titular broken sword refers to a weapon bestowed to Skafloc from the Aesir as a child, a cursed gift that he may one day have need to be reforged, but will ultimately bring doom upon him.
I really enjoyed this story for the most part. I was honestly surprised by just how dark, and specifically grimdark, this book was for its time. I’m starting to think my own (and possibly society as a whole’s) ideas about the origins of fantasy might be a bit lazy, oversimplified, and sometimes downright wrong when you consider this is from the same era as The Lord of the Rings. It’s full of murder and incest and there’s absolutely no clearly demarcated good versus evil. At a stretch you might say the elves are the good guys of this story, but given the first thing we see them do is steal a baby and leave his parents with a violent changeling with no soul then that really is a stretch.
There’s a lot of plot crammed into such a short book too, with some crazy twists and turns and a fairly wide-ranging supporting cast. There’s the witch herself, a withered old hag with a rat familiar that suckles on blood from her breast (dark and creepy and weird), who beguiles Valgard and ultimately leads him to commit some rather heinous murders. Although, before I move on from the witch I would quite like to say she never actually did anything to make him do the murders. She simply disguises herself as a beautiful woman who Valgard obviously wants to bang and he ends up killing another bloke out of jealousy. So yeah, admittedly pretty fucked up of the witch to begin with, but the murder itself is all on Valgard man. Kind of plays into the old trope about women being these beguiling and bewitching snakes who drive men to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, but actually Valgard was already a piece of shit, which the book definitely acknowledges to be fair. In terms of other characters, there’s Illrede the troll earl (love that the trolls have earls by the way hahaha) who’s a right nasty piece of work. And by the way, the elves are always calling the trolls ‘an evil race’, but as I’ve alluded to already, they’re little better themselves. They see humans as beneath their notice and couldn’t care if they live or die, they’re not averse to slavery and rape and again, Imric stole someone’s baby for fuck’s sake. Whether or not this was the author’s intention or not, I really saw little good in either the elves or the trolls and our ‘hero’ Skafloc is a bit of a shitty person himself, especially when he (obviously) ends up getting that cursed sword reforged. On the topic of Skafloc and his sword actually, if you’re a regular peruser of this blog you may know I’ve been reading through Michael Moorcock’s The Elric Saga books and there’s a looooot of stuff in this book Moorcock was definitely ‘inspired’ by. Elric himself has his own cursed sword Stormbringer, which also demands blood (and also souls) every time its drawn from its scabbard, but Elric himself also feels like an amalgamation of Skafloc and Valgard. Anyway, I keep getting side tracked trying to talk about the characters and I feel this is starting to get on the lengthy side, so I’ll just rein it in there, but there’s a bunch of other interesting side characters that offer a lot to the story, like Imric’s cold and crafty sister Leea and lovestruck Freda, who on the surface appears to be a bit of a damsel in distress but who’s actually capable of hunting down and murdering a bunch of trolls as well as any of the blokes.
It’s still a book of its time though. There’s much more exposition than would generally be considered acceptable these days and I’ll admit to getting slightly bored in places and skim reading through some of the more long-winded descriptions. I get the feeling some of the language was probably archaic even at the time and was part of the vibe Anderson was going for. I quite enjoyed tapping my kindle to find out what all these outdated words meant, so I actually thought that was quite cool. But oh my god Skafloc spouts so much absolutely garbage poetry. I found it quite amusing to begin with, but after the fifth or sixth poem I was over it. I’m a philistine though to be fair. I don’t understand poetry, never have, it does nothing for me at the best of times. But I thought this was particularly bad. In the afterword though, Anderson does write a bit about the skalds, the warrior poets of Scandinavia, and apparently he says he was trying to imitate the rhythm and meter of the real life viking verse. Doesn’t mean he managed to do a good job I guess, but either way there was just too much (subjectively) shitty poetry for my liking. Overall though a pretty good book, and one that’s definitely shifted my ideas of what fantasy was like in the 1950s.
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