The Broken Sword Critical Essays

Poul Anderson


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Broken Sword and the science-fiction novel Brain Wave (1954) were the first book-length works by Poul Anderson to be published. The first two volumes of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy also were published in 1954. The Broken Sword had much less impact than Tolkien’s trilogy on the development of fantasy’s major subgenres of high fantasy and heroic fantasy. It was nearly forgotten until the Tolkien boom of the 1960’s led to its reissue.

There are several reasons why Anderson’s book did not have the impact of Tolkien’s work. First, The Broken Sword was printed by a small publisher (Abelard-Schuman) and was not widely distributed. There was only one printing. Second, it was published very early in Anderson’s career, before his writing had fully matured, and it was not as polished, developed, or ambitious as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Third, because of Anderson’s scientific background and the commercial nature of his writing, he was considered less of a literary figure than was Tolkien. Critics took Tolkien seriously but ignored Anderson.

After being reissued in 1971, The Broken Sword did influence the fantasy field, primarily by helping shape the subgenre of heroic fantasy, where Anderson’s later fantasy work would be classified. The Broken Sword also directly influenced Anderson’s own Hrolf Kraki’s Saga (1973) and the three books of his Last Viking series (The Golden Horn, The Road of the Sea Horse, and The Sign of the Raven, all published in 1980).

Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is a mixture of high fantasy and heroic fantasy. The Last Viking series is more purely heroic in nature, primarily because of more realistic settings and the general absence of mythical beings such as elves and trolls. Anderson used Northern European mythology and history throughout all four books. Much of this mythology, as well as many of the fantastic creatures, appeared first in The Broken Sword, and many of the Viking characters in these books are reminiscent of Skafloc and Valgard.