- Nov 1, 2004
TWO CLASSIC TALES OF FAERIE -- ANDERSON'S THE BROKEN SWORD, AND WARNER'S KINGDOMS OF ELFIN
I thought it might be a good idea to review these two books together, since they are both about the denizens of Faerie, are in no way influenced by Tolkien’s conception of elves (although Anderson, writing before LOTR was published, was obviously inspired by some of the same sources), and are two of my favorite books -- albeit for very, very different reasons.
THE BROKEN SWORD, by Poul Anderson
In a somewhat amended edition published in 1971, Anderson described this book as headstrong, prolix, and unrelievedly savage. By the standards of 2006, the story is not remarkably violent, but the unrelenting nature of the plot and characters remains. Even more than Tolkien’s (immeasurably more famous) elves, Anderson’s are supernaturally beautiful; they’re also proud and courageous, lovers of beauty, fame, and prowess in battle; they are not diminutive, but of human stature. It is here that any resemblence, even with the characters in the Silmarillion, ends. Unlike Tolkien’s elves, these are supremely sexual beings, who will make love to anyone who takes their fancy, have no taboos against sex with humans or trolls -- although sex with trolls is definitely not about sensual gratification -- and no qualms about incest either.
In its basic outlines, the story is not particularly original; its relationship to the old Norse sagas is obvious. When a vengeful witch tells Imric the elf-earl of a newborn human outside the protection of the Aesir (his father, Orm, converted to Christianity only to please his wife) but not yet protected by the Christian rite of baptism, the elf determines to steal the child. Returning to his castle, he rapes the Troll King’s loathsome daughter, who has gone mad during years of imprisonment and ill-treatment in Imric’s dungeons, and uses his spells to bring a changeling child immediately to term. He then proceeds to exchange the two infants.
Home again, Imric arranges a naming feast for his foster son. During the festivities a messenger appears from the Aesir, bearing a gift for the child -- although the ambiguous nature of the gift leaves it open to question whether the Norse gods are favorably disposed toward young Skafloc or not. It is an ancient sword: unrusted, but broken into two pieces, and blackened with earth.
Years pass, and the two boys grow to manhood, one among the enchantments of Faerie, the other in Orm’s household. Skafloc the mortal has completely internalized his elven upbringing, but Valgard the changeling’s humanity is never more than skin-deep. When he finally learns the truth about himself it’s not difficult to sympathize with his rage against the elves for denying him his immortality, or his hunger for revenge, but the violence he inflicts on his foster family (and eventually every human with whom he comes in contact) is less understandable. His cruelty to his two sisters is particularly egregious; in order to curry favor with the Troll King, he takes Orm’s daughters along as tribute, surely aware that they would be raped and otherwise abused. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the elves launch a raid on the trolls’ stronghold, and Skafloc happens to arrive in time to rescue the younger girl, Freda, carrying her off to Imric’s castle. Because they have no reason to suspect their true relationship, they soon becomes lovers, and so the scene is set for tragedy.
Much of the story revolves around an extended war between the elves and the trolls. It is here that the broken sword comes into play. In order to find a smith capab le of forging the blade anew, Skafloc sets off on a series of adventures. But once the sword is whole again it proves to be, quite literally, a double-edged blessing. “Well I remember this blade,” says the giant swordsmith who created the blade and now proceeds to mend it. “We forged ice and death and storm into it, mighty runes and spells, a living will to harm ... [and] this is the curse on it: that every time it is drawn it must drink blood, and in the end, somehow, it will be the bane of him who wields it.” Undeterred, Skafloc takes up the sword and carries it into battle.
It should be clear by now that this is not a tale that will end happily. It is a story of violence, revenge, and dire mischances. But there is beauty, too, and high adventure. The prose is rich and evocative, somewhat reminiscent of Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elflands's Daughter but less ornate and self-conscious. (The difference, I think, is that Anderson was not nearly so infatuated with his own style.) It has the flavor of the old sagas, and was an altogether extraordinary achievement for a young writer, as Anderson then was. In fact, he never duplicated this feat. He went on to write a vast body of work in science fiction and fantasy, some of it light entertainment, some of it exploring important themes; his books sold well, he gained many devouted fans, and won several important awards; but the kind of magic he captured in The Broken Sword he never achieved again. Perhaps he never really tried; it doesn’t seem as though he thought as highly of the book as it deserved. Of all his work, perhaps The Merman's Children comes closest, but that one is, unfortunately, so much a product of the decade in which it was published that it doesn’t reproduce the timeless quality.
More than fifty years after The Broken Sword first appeared, many readers and critics regard this book, Anderson’s first published novel, as a masterpiece and a classic of the fantasy genre.
KINGDOMS OF ELFIN, by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Where Anderson’s elves are elemental, even primal, Warner’s are brittle and sophisticated, but they are alike in their total disregard for human morality. The fairies in these short stories are passionate egotists, enthusiasts, obsessives. By our standards they often appear a little mad. Though not incapable of intense attachments, they are generally a cold-hearted species. And while Warner’s version of how changelings are created is less brutal, it is no less blood-curdling.
For the most part, the elfin nobles are entirely caught up in ritual, etiquette, fashion, and intrigue. Their ceremonies and pastimes are often animated by a sinister sense of poetry or a particularly dark species of whimsy (like the fatal ritual of the larks that they use to select a new queen). But with an engaging inconsistency, they may sometimes surprise you by taking up some utterly mundane occupation like fishing or ornithology, or by falling in love with a commonplace farm laborer.
Slightly smaller than humans, able to put their invisibility on and off at will, Warner’s fairies all have wings, but her aristocratic fairies are not supposed to fly, an activity considered unbecoming in the leisured classes. Flying is left to the servants, the working fairies who need to be swift and agile to satisfy the demands of their masters and mistresses. Yet the allure of flight is on occasion too much, and lords, ladies, sometimes even fairy queens , can’t resist the temptation to go aloft. Most of the time, they commit these indiscretions in strictest secrecy, for the rules of courtly behavior are not to be taken lightly.
Because, naturally, they have their own code of conduct -- though morality doesn’t seem to come into the equation ever. Interactions with humans generally end badly, and in the vast majority of cases it is the humans that suffer. Even so, there is a kind of innocence in their heedless cruelty.
Women rule the elfin kingdoms; there are queens, not to mention their luckless consorts, but no kings. The queens of Faerie are so autocratic, exacting, and fickle, their husbands generally have a stiff time of it. It’s fortunate, perhaps, that the wives are so inconstant; it is easy to imagine that when a royal lady takes a lover, or establishes an official Favorite, it comes as more of a relief than a disappointment to her husband. At the very least, it relieves some of the pressure. Additionally, Warner’s elfs are often infertile and the succession is not hereditary (we come back again to those doomed larks), which removes one big obstacle to infidelity. Besides, fairies are largely incapable of human sentimentality. As a fairy nursemaid says in the first story, “Elfhame strikes cold at first.” She might just as well have said that there is an enduring coldness at the heart of things.
The stories in Kingdoms of Elfin are charming, but they are rarely ... nice. Without being particularly bloody or horrifying by current standards, they have more than their share of disturbing moments. Warner can verge on the precious one moment, and then hit you with a nasty little twist the next. Some of the stories are relatively light-hearted, some satirically humorous, several are tragic; it’s almost always impossible to tell which category the story will fall into until the final paragraphs. My personal favorites are “The One and the Other,” “Elphenor and Weasel,” and “Beliard.”
Not all of Warner’s fairy stories are included here. “The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,” “Queen Mousie,” and “Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine,” are mysteriously missing, perhaps others as well. But these three are available in other collections and anthologies, and have all the charm and biting wit of the stories collected in this volume.