Monday, December 8, 2008

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: The Broken Sword

First published in 1954 -- and, portentously, re-published in 1971 as part of the Lin Carter-edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy series -- The Broken Sword is one of a handful of novels that can lay claim to being the most significant influences on Gary Gygax and, thus, Dungeons & Dragons. The Broken Sword is set during the age of the Vikings and describes the tragic lives of two people: a boy stolen by the elves and raised among them to handle the iron they themselves cannot and the changeling who takes his place. Each comes to hate the world in which they were raised, with terrible consequences. The Broken Sword is not a happy book, but it's extremely well-told and reminds one, not coincidentally, of the Norse sagas from which Anderson drew significant inspiration.

Personally, I find The Broken Sword interesting, because it provides a plausible alternate avenue for the treatment of elves and half-elves in D&D, particularly the latter. Given that half-elves first appear in Supplement I, a book that also introduces several other Anderson-inspired game rules (such as the paladin class), I don't think this is implausible. Anderson's elves share many characteristics with Tolkien's, but then both authors looked to Norse legends as their models. Anderson's elves are far more passionate and martial than are Tolkien's. They're also more alien and removed from the affairs of the mortal world of which they are not a part. I very much like their portrayal and my own interpretations of the race owe a lot to Anderson, much as I suspect Gygax's did as well.

10 comments:

  1. There was actually a treatment of Anderson elves in one of the very early issues of Alarums & Excursions - of course, like a lot of rules modding was back then, it was broken beyond belief, but pretty much worked within the boundaries of what Anderson set out.

    Reading The Broken Sword in high school did a lot to change my perception of elves and what they could represent. While I don't think that it is as influential on Gygaxian gaming as Three Hearts and Three Lions, I do think it should be read as an antidote to Lord of the Rings and all the distortions of elves that have come in the interim.

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  2. Comparing Tolkien's treatment of the Noldor from The Silmarillion vs. LOTR vs. The Hobbit paints very different pictures of the elves: the Noldor from The Silmarillion seem well-aligned to Anderson's treatment of elves from The Broken Sword, as I read them :D

    Allan.

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  3. One of my favorite books in the entire fantasy genre -- no wonder Lin Carter chose to reprint it. In addition to the elves, it also features mortals adventuring alongside gods (a counterpoint to the "gods shouldn't have stats" D&Dg haters) and a cursed magic sword that was a likely inspiration on Michael Moorcock (who we already know was a big Anderson fan from his appropriation of the cosmic Law-Chaos struggle). Any fan of D&D or fantasy fiction who hasn't read this book absolutely needs to seek it out right away.

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  4. You know, it took me much too long to get around to reading 3H&3L. Now you make me realize I should actual read some more Anderson.

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  5. This is strangely prescient since I just finished reading this book on Saturday and was just wondering about the long term effects of introducing an "iron allergy" to elves in AD&D.

    As for the alien-ness of elves and how they seem to have morphed into "humans with pointy ears" in modern games thanks to Tolkien, I think that's a disservice to the man. In terms of the Lord of the Rings books and the Hobbit, you only get a very brief, barely there exposure to elves. Even Legolas, who travels with the Fellowship for a long way, is largely silent on his people and culture and not entirely without his alien moments.

    If anything, I get a very distinct impression of elves as being "fell and terrible beings" more than anything else from Tolkien, which farely screams alien to me.

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  6. I don't know about "Fell and terrible", but Tolkien's elves are definitely... odd. He does a fair job of making elves' perspectives seem a little off kilter to a human's.

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  7. While I don't think that it is as influential on Gygaxian gaming as Three Hearts and Three Lions, I do think it should be read as an antidote to Lord of the Rings and all the distortions of elves that have come in the interim.

    I look on The Broken Sword as a kind of prelude to the better -- and more influential -- Three Hearts and Three Lions. Also, given it's earlier date, The Broken Sword provides a plausible avenue for other interpretations of elves and dwarves that pre-dates the publication of The Lord of the Rings, which is why I mention it.

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  8. I've always liked Poul Anderson, mainly because of his use of Norse mythology. I loved his rewriting of The Saga of Hrolf Kraki!

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  9. Has anyone read the both versions of this book? First published in 1954, and then revised in 1971, I've only read the revised version, and would be curious to hear more about how the two play out vs. each other, if anyone can comment?

    Allan.

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  10. I suspect the only edition I ever read was the 1971 revision, so I'm afraid I can't comment. I get the impression the revision is expanded in various ways, but precisely how I couldn't say.

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