Monday, November 25, 2019

Going Back to the 'Tor' Well

Last Saturday, I riffed off of a post on the Tor Publishing website, and I am going back to that well for tonight's post. One of today's posts celebrated the birthday of SFF author Poul Anderson, an author I have only mentioned in passing in a couple of posts. Anderson wrote a wide variety of science fiction and fantasy works, ranging from Space Opera to Grim Norse Saga. He was also an early member of The Society for Creative Anachronism, and wrote a humorous essay, 'On Thud and Blunder' as cautionary advice to writers approaching All Things Medieval in a slipshod fashion.

My personal favorite novel by Anderson is 1954's The Broken Sword, published the same year as another notable 'elfy' book. The Broken Sword is the progenitor of 'grimdark' fantasy, a violent tale of a doomed protagonist bearing a cursed sword on a campaign of vengeance. Set in a Faerie-haunted Dark Ages Europe which is rapidly coming under the sway of a new god whose name the supernatural denizens cannot bear, the novel concerns a war between the two major powers of Faerie, the elfs and the trolls. The hero, Skafloc, is a human fosterling of an English elfin noble who kidnapped him to further his martial aims- humans can bear iron weapons and Christian exorcisms. The principal antagonist is Valgard, the half-troll/half-elf changeling (engendered in an evil fashion by the amoral elf lord) left in Skafloc's place, who grows up to be his soulless mirror-image. The two virtually identical beings, manipulated by fate, eventually meet in a 'you die, she dies, everybody dies' plot worthy of an Icelandic saga.

The book is refreshingly short compared to the interminable door-stop series that plague the Fantasy Industrial Complex. Anderson throws out paragraphs of exposition which, in and of themselves, put to shame most modern 'brick of paper' post-D&D fantasy 'epics'. This bit alone could form the basis of a twelve volume 'WAR OF GODS AND ELVES' series:

"The hardest fight was on a desert shore with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and shrunken and mad in their loneliness but still wielding fearsome powers. Three elf ships were burned after the fight, there being none left to man them, but Imric was the victor."

While the book deals with horrific crimes (the elfs it portrays are a far cry from Tolkien's superhuman good-guys), it doesn't revel in depravity- the transgressive passages are short and matter-of-fact, the sort of laconic passages one would find in a Norse saga or the newspaper police blotter. The hero is likeable and capable, but his descent into a doom-laden destiny prevents him from being a mere 'male wish-fulfillment' figure. The villain is thoroughly despicable, though his helplessness due to his soulless nature (and his realization that he is a 'counterfeit' of another being) lends him an air of pathos.

The Broken Sword is a quick read, the plot is a thriller, the action portrayed with gusto. As I mentioned before, it throws out more ideas, more eldritch imagery, than most multi-volume series by lesser authors. If you were intrigued by the gray morality of the television series Game of Thrones, you should read the book, it delivers the same punch with much more economy. While I love The Lord of the Rings, I think it had, overall, a deleterious effect on the genre, with the 'gotta write a trilogy' model taking place of the one-and-done model.


mikey said...

I never cared for the Fantasy genre - we called it Sword & Sorcery back then - but Anderson wrote a few classics of hard science fiction. Particularly noteworthy to me was Tau Zero - a wonderful novel that didn't play fast and loose with relativistic reality, overlaid on a dark tale of defective hardware and human weakness. Delenda Est was truly one of the greatest time travel tales of the period. The Star Fox and After Doomsday are also good reads.

He was one of that whole classic set of SF writers who influenced so many of us in the sixties and seventies...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

'Delenda Est' was a great read, I liked how he extrapolated so much from a scenario in which Carthage won the Punic Wars. Again, he accomplished so much in a long short story- nowadays, it would have been the basis of an entire series of novels.

One of my favorites by him is 'Fire Time', he really had a knack for xenobiology, and a knack for portraying both sides of a conflict precipitated by climate change as sympathetic.

Li'l Innocent said...

When I was just out of art college in NYC, I went (as many of us did in the late 60s) to California to see what it was like. I was living in Berkeley with a motley bunch of students/youths and hanging out with grad students up on the UC Berkeley campus.

One nice night I took a contemplative walk and saw a building magically alight up on the hills north of Telegraph Ave, its Disneyesque pointed towers glowing against the sky. It turned out to be a well-known hotel in the act of hosting that year's SF Con (Cons were not so omnipresent then).

I wandered in and saw Harlan Ellison accept IIRC two, maybe three Hugo awards. I came back next day and saw some al fresco combats between members of the SFCA, including Anderson in chain mail, conical helmet, wielding a sword, and wearing big glasses, like a scholar from some monkish haven of learning forced to take up arms. I forget whom he was fighting, but they walloped each other sincerely. It was all very cool; I'd been reading his work, among other people's, since I was about 11.

A favorite from the old pulp days was his 4-story series about a manly werewolf and a high-powered witch who meet as commandos during an alternate version of WW2. It came out in single-volume form sometime in the 60s or 70s. I've always enjoyed SFF that uses folklore imaginatively but respectfully, and OC abounds in that. I'm an illustrator, and devoted the best part of the year to doing a graphic novel treatment of the first part of the first story. This was all pre-digital. It never went anywhere, but it was sort of a labor of love, and a great pleasure to do.

Li'l Innocent said...

That ought to be EAST of Telegraph! I just looked at a map, and still have no idea of the name of the hotel. Maybe it's no longer there.

Li'l Innocent said...

Addendum #2: "OC" meaning "Operation Chaos", the title of the one-volume form of the stories. Sorry - it's been a long day.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

'Operation Chaos' started out as a lot of fun with 'Operation Efreet', but got a little too 'hippie-punching' toward the end.

Li'l Innocent said...

That's true -- quite a few of the Golden Age guys had a problem with the anti-war, go-with-the-flow currents of the period. It got to be a real schism; I remember one of the zines, F&SF maybe, running a sort of proclamation, or pair of proclamations pro- and anti-Vietnam War, each with signatures of leading SF names.

By the time I got into my illustration project in the early 90s, I was able to ignore those little conservative digs on Anderson's part. I thought his evocation of the Hell continuum in the last story was imaginative and hair-raising. It's hard trying to compete with the likes of Dante, Bosch, and John of Patmos, but he did ok!

By the way, Happy Thanksgiving. Hope the lovely orange kitty got some of that turkey.