The Broken Sword – Book Review

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The Myth

In C.S Lewis’ God in The Dock the author explains of myth, “…the only realities we experience are concrete – this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things?” He goes on to answer: “Of this tragic dilemma myth is the partial solution. In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.


The fantasy genre has time and again tried to help us experience as concrete otherwise abstract ideas. Take the most popular example The Lord of the Rings and you’ll immediately see not just how fine a story it is but also what this story might be trying to teach us. There have been arguments over the years on just how these stories should be read: should they be read as mere allegories, or should they be seen as simple stories that should just be enjoyed with no intended meanings lent to them. Is Frodo for example a picture of Christ or is he just Frodo – a construct of Tolkien’s mind, a hobbit alone?

Poul Anderson: Author of The Broken Sword

Over the years different authors have had different approaches to this, some leaning towards the power of the metaphor, others just towards telling a cracking tale with no moral or social commentaries attached. The Broken Sword was one of the originals, one of the first in modern fantasy; written by Poul Anderson – born of Scandinavian parents in 1926 in Pennsylvania, America – and published in 1954.

In Anderson’s foreword (The Broken Sword, Gollancz, 2002) the author seems to describe himself more as a historian, who won’t judge the truth or falsity of the tales he sets down, and less as a scientist or philosopher.

Anderson comments, “This is frankly a romance, a story of admittedly impossible events and completely non-existent places. Whether or not it is true must be settled by those scientists who argue the reliability of the annals of the faerie and those philosophers who are trying to settle what truth itself may be… For the benefit of the curious, however, it should be remarked that such parts of the story as deal with purely human beings are as accurate as the scanty records permit.

The authors of fantasy themselves may differ in their approaches to this genre and so inevitably will their readers. Whether you think fantasy tales should just simply be enjoyed as stories with no intellectual aspirations or you prefer to ponder deeper and regard them as allegories on life, stories like The Broken Sword will continue to entertain us for years to come.

The Story of The Broken Sword

Orm the Strong is fifth son of a great landowner. He decides early on to leave his inheritance to his brothers to prevent dividing their father’s sizable property. Orm instead goes out to look for his own fortune, saying to his brothers, “I will not be fifth man at the rudder, and so I will make you this offer: give me three ships, and outfit them, and supply arms to all who will follow me, and I will find my own land and quit all claim on our father’s.” (The Broken Sword, 2002, Gollancz)

He sets out, conquering at sea and acquiring more ships and more men to sail with him. Then he finally heads to land to seek a place of his own. The reckless Orm surrounds an Englander’s dwelling and burns it, killing the man, his brother’s and most of his household. But the Englander’s mother is a witch and survives the tragedy. She lays a curse on Orm that “his eldest son should be fostered beyond the world of men, while Orm should in turn foster a wolf that would one day rend him.” (The Broken Sword, 2002, Gollancz)

And so the story goes on to see Imric the elf-earl steal Orm’s newborn after spying the child suckling at his mother’s breast. To cover his tracks and prevent any from knowing what he’s done the elf-earl has a child of his own with a captured troll and replaces the human child with the changeling. The changeling looks exactly like Orm’s true son and no one notices the crime. He is called Valgard while Imric’s new foster child goes by the name Scafloc.

They both grow up to be powerful warriors, but while Scafloc does well with his new elf family Valgard is always ill tempered, and hated by everyone except Orm who overlooks his violence.

When the witch sees that Orm’s true son, Scafloc (now fostered by the elves), is prospering with Imric the elf-earl she decides to take her vengeance further. From his hunting, she lures Orm’s second son Ketil into a secluded house in the middle of a forest where she bewitches him with her love. Meanwhile his family begin to get worried when he doesn’t come back home and send out parties to look for him. Valgard, his brother (not his real one), preferring to work alone goes out in search on his own. He finds Ketil with a beautiful woman (the witch in disguise) and jealousy makes him want her for himself. They fight and Valgard comes off the better, burying his axe in his younger brother’s head.

He is in despair after he comes to his senses and hides the body. He goes back home and says to everyone that his search was fruitless. But Asmund, the last of Orm’s sons, does not believe him and goes in search himself. He discovers his brother’s body and brings it back home where he accuses Valgard of the murder.

Valgard kills him and when Orm moves in to avenge both his sons’ deaths Valgard also kills him. He then flees back into the forest to be with the witch, since now he has become a vagabond with no friends and family.

Now the witch reveals her true nature and also who Valgard really is – that he is the true son of the elf-earl, Imric, who substituted him for Orm’s real child, Scafloc. Enraged, Orm wants to kill her, but she convinces him to turn his rage instead on everyone else – on Orm’s family, because as it turns out they aren’t his real family anyway, and on the elves for using him the way they did. She then sets Valgard on a journey to make an alliance with the trolls who are enemies of the elves. It is in this alliance that he’ll find strength to destroy his enemies.

With nothing but sadness and bitterness in his heart concerning how he’s been used, Valgard takes the witch’s advice to see the trolls for an alliance. But first he must take the troll king, Illrede, gifts. He decides to use his sisters, Orm’s last 2 children, Asgerd and Freda, reasoning that they aren’t his real sisters anyway. He kidnaps them, killing the rest of Orm’s household, except his adopted mother, Aelfrida, Orm’s now widowed wife.

Valgard takes both his sisters to the troll King but then Scafloc, foster of the elves, attacks the troll stronghold – it’s just a routine campaign and a coincidence (one orchestrated by the hateful witch who cursed Orm) that he should attack the same place his sisters are being held.

During their escape Asgerd dies and thus Freda becomes the last (so she thinks) of Orm’s children. But she falls in love with her rescuer, Scafloc, and he seems to ameliorate her otherwise tumultuous life. And so the witch’s diabolical plan starts to reap its fruit at the union of Orm’s children.

 Tyrfing, The Broken Sword of Jötunheim

The trolls, meanwhile, make alliances with other races: dwarfs, imps, goblins, and winged demons from Baikal, and amass a force against the elves. Scafloc and his new love, Freda, thus find themselves in the middle of a great war. The elves are all but conquered and Imric captured and put in chains while Scafloc has no other option but to go into exile with Freda, leaving his doppelganger, Valgard, to reign over his captured lands.

Then Scafloc decides to use a sword that’s in the middle of the war between the Aesir and Jötun – mythical Norse gods. Tyrfing is that sword and it will turn the tables on the trolls. But the sword is evil and it is broken. So Scafloc sets out to Jötunheim, to the ice giant Bölverk who forged it. Bölverk repairs the sword but warns that the sword must draw blood whenever it’s unsheathed. So Scafloc sets back out to reclaim elf land.

Both he and Freda discover their true relationship as brother and sister, not husband and wife, and Freda, already overly burdened with the death of her family, flees from him. Scafloc, embittered, then engages in a bitter war against the trolls to reclaim all elf lands. He drives the trolls out of the land, in the process killing the troll king, Illrede, and setting his impaled head as his army’s standard.

In the final battle he surrounds Elfheugh, the last bastion of the troll’s defence in elf land, and confronts his dark double, the changeling, Valgard. This sets the scene for the final tragedy to be played out and the witch’s vengeance to be completed.

 Fans of Fantasy

Veterans of Fantasy will want to read this if they haven’t already, and it will also be a good one for newbies who may have finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicle of Narnia series and want some more books to read in this exciting genre. According to Michael Moorcock it’s “One of the most influential fantasy novels I ever read.” You can’t go far wrong if you add this to your reading list.

Sources: The Broken Sword (Poul Anderson, 2002, Gollancz. Originally published in 1954), God in The Dock (C.S. Lewis, 1971, Geoffrey Bles, London, This edition by Fount Paperbacks), The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R Tolkien), The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)
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