There is a common misconception that J R R Tolkien invented the field of fantasy fiction. Whilst it is true that in many ways he expanded the genre and brought it to a new and wider audience than ever before, it must be remembered that he was not entirely alone in doing so and was certainly not the first to make an important contribution. Before the reading public was introduced to the alternate world of Middle Earth, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard used the secondary world settings of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique for their heroic fantasy tales. Before them, fantastical creatures and other worlds appeared in the writings of William Hope Hodgson, most memorably The House on the Borderland (1908). Going back even earlier, the Victorian writer Lord Dunsany, who began his authorial career in the 1890s, was responsible for two major works – The Book of Wonders and The King of Elfland’s Daughter – that were a major influence on Tolkien and many of those who came after him. In 1946, almost a decade before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, there appeared the first of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, which are often compared to Tolkien’s epic due to their length, complexity and the depth of their author’s invention. In 1954, the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring was first published, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword was also released and over time it is a book that has proven in many ways to be almost as influential and universally loved as Tolkien’s masterwork.
Anderson’s novel is set during the Viking Age and the story contain many references to Norse mythology. The magical sword Tyrfing was broken by the god Thor aeons ago to prevent it striking at the roots of Yggdrasil, the mystical tree that binds all the worlds together. Tyrfing is needed again to save the elves, who are involved in a war against the trolls, and only Scafloc Half-Elf, son of Orm the Strong, can hope to persuade the mighty ice-giant, Bolverk, to re-forge the broken sword. In the finest heroic traditions of Norse saga, The Broken Sword records Scafloc’s quest to re-make Tyrfing, along the way also confronting his shadow self, Valgard the changeling, who took his place in the world of men. From this brief description it might seem that Poul Anderson’s novel shares many similarities with those of Tolkien but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Back in the 1950’s this book must both have been both groundbreaking and quite shocking with its raw, edgy and visceral prose. If Tolkien is the Beatles then Anderson is the Rolling Stones – or to use a more modern fantasy analogy, The Lord of the Rings is to The Broken Sword as The Wheel of Time is to A Song of Ice and Fire. George R R Martin is just one of the many modern fantasy authors who is an avowed admirer of Poul Anderson, as is Michael Moorcock, proving that they were not the ones who invented the darker, gorier branch of fantasy. Moorcock in fact once said that The Broken Sword was superior to anything Tolkien had ever produced and confirmed that it greatly influenced his stories (Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné series features a magic sword, Stormbringer, which has many similarities to Scafloc’s sword).
As for the man himself, Anderson, who passed away in 2001, had nothing but admiration for Tolkien. Anderson once said ‘We are all deeply in J R R Tolkien’s debt, writers perhaps even more than readers. He gave us the greatest fantasy of our time, which also stands tall in the whole of world literature’. Anderson also acknowledged that he was one of the ones who benefited most from the fact that the post-Tolkien boom enabled Lin Carter to reprint a series of older fantasies with Ballantine, among them The Broken Sword. However, unlike so many authors today, Anderson can genuinely claim to have presented an entirely different conception of fantasy from Tolkien. This is in spite of the fact that both drew a major source of their inspiration from the same wellspring – Northern European myth and legend. Elves for example appear in both author’s books but are presented very differently. Tolkien’s Eldar are grave and noble, powerful and poetic, brave and wistful – in other words an unattainable yet incontestable ideal, almost like angels. If anything, the elves that appear in The Broken Sword are closer to their equivalents in Norse mythology – beautiful, entrancing and pleasure-loving but ultimately without souls or much if any compassion. This all makes for a fascinating contrast between two master storytellers. To end with a final quote from Anderson concerning The Lord of the Rings: ‘… it endures, and undoubtedly will endure, as the plays of Shakespeare, or Alice in Wonderland or Huckleberry Finn, do and will’. In my view the same can emphatically be said about The Broken Sword.