Poul Anderson Sandra Miesel - Essay

Sandra Miesel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is not enough for [Anderson] to merely state the problem of mortal man in a finite universe. His concern lies with the effects of the problem: how should mortal man in a finite universe act? Rejecting passivity, he asserts that free action is both possible and necessary….

Mortals must resist entropy in both its guises, tyrannical stasis or anarchic chaos. The fight is all the more valiant for its utter hopelessness. (p. 6)

Anderson translates thermodynamics into metaphysics for his fantasies. Here, the physical equations relating order and entropy are replaced by a mystical struggle between the Principles of Law (order) and Chaos (disorder). But Law in Anderson's universe is order in the life-building sense of the term. It is nothing like the sterile emptiness of perfect equilibrium, a state that is as high in entropy as total randomness. Stasis may sometimes masquerade as Law, and pretend that any display of dynamic, creative order is Chaos. But in practice, tyranny is disorderly and turmoil static. Enantiadromia drives the two extreme states together as mirror images, leaving Law as the healthy middle ground confronting entropy.

The dialectic of Law and Chaos is drawn … clearly in Operation Chaos…. From segment to segment, the tempo quickens, concepts broaden, and emotions deepen. The protagonists, a witch and a werewolf, grow to meet the challenges posed by a progressively more dangerous array of supernatural foes…. (pp. 7-8)

Operation Chaos puts magic to the most practical use possible as the commonplace technology of the goetic age. Showing magic as a perfectly rational, orderly activity applicable to work, play, war, and homemaking produces that shift in frame of reference that makes fantasy so pleasureable. Prosaic settings for broomsticks and crystal balls are not only humorous, but they serve to throw the story's supernatural elements into higher relief.

Here content and theme unite: Operation Chaos celebrates ordinariness. (pp. 8-9)

Homely values are soundest; domestic happiness is sweetest…. Law is not constraint but protection for these humble realities. Without Law, the very concept of normalcy would vanish. Chaos is ever its foe…. (p. 9)

[In Operation Chaos Anderson follows] the traditional Augustinian view of evil defined as the absence of goodness. Evil is the decay, perversion, ruin of something initially good. It has no existence in itself….

Anderson embodies this concept in imagery both old and new. He designs his demons according to High Gothic and Northern Renaissance specifications—they might have stepped from the works of Schongauer, Grunewald, Bosch, or Brueghel. But making such a demon an idiot who speaks in crude hoodlum slang and travels between universes by exchanging itself for the contents of a garbage pail and a catbox puts infernal horrors in correct perspective.

Using the medieval three-decker universe as a starting point, Anderson's gifts of logic and poetry unite to produce [an] ingenious fantasy hell…. [This] hell is not a state of mind but an entire low-energy universe adjacent to the Middle World of men. (p. 10)

Tyrant, mob, and puppet giant attack a family in a dramatic skirmish in the unending war between Chaos and Law. Armed with innovative spells, the mathematical knowledge of a genius, and an heirloom sword the forces of love, loyalty, and courage prevail. This harmony struck among imaginative components—itself an example of Law—makes the climax the best section of Operation Chaos. (p. 11)

Anderson's Satan, exemplar of spiritual entropy, is a corpse-eyed Solipsist lost in the ultimate emptiness of his own monstrous ego.

Satan's foes respond to the challenge posed by his designs with outpourings of creative energy and efficient cooperation. They surprise their Enemy by acting in the face of hopeless odds. Courage is as alien to him as honor. They defeat the agents of Chaos by using familiar natural and preternatural laws….

The weak confound the strong in each episode, demonstrating that Law is more powerful than Chaos sub specie aeternitatis. Hell is barren disorder, loveless turmoil, tyranny, and anarchy combined. Heaven, on the other hand, is an "eternal high adventure" where patterns of advancement unfold without limit. Hell wants to curb spontaneity in its servants; Heaven encourages it. Results prove which policy is the wiser. Ironies multiply in geometric progression over the course of the novel while Heaven plays its marvelous cosmic joke on hell. (p. 12)

Enduring, not prevailing is man's lot in The Broken Sword. This "unrelievedly savage" novel provides the starkest possible contrast to Operation Chaos. It is a tumultuous saga that epitomizes Tolkien's definition of the Northern heroic spirit: "uttermost endurance in the service of indominable will." Here Fate, the force that sunders ties of blood, faith, and reason, proves too mighty a foe for the bravest and truest of lovers to survive. Only courageous death bears witness against entropy. (p. 15)

Going beyond motifs, Anderson mines the treasures of Norse poetry to give The Broken Sword a fitting emotional lustre. He has always favored this technique. His pages gleam with poetry—original, translated, adapted, or simply quoted. (Nearly all the works analyzed in this study feature some poetry.) When verse as such is absent, his poetic gift still makes its alloying presence felt in the sensuousness of his prose style. His talents are nowhere more lavishly displayed than in The Broken Sword. The text contains fourteen separate poems: lyrics, narratives, descriptions, and incantations done in a variety of lengths and meters, mostly treating...

(The entire section is 2416 words.)