Okay not really a hero.
A few notes about Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword.
It was written in 1954, you can tell it was written in 1954 because it couldn't be written today.
This is a work of high tragedy that is strongly influenced by the Norse sagas. If you like Game Thrones but would prefer that it be written by a non-sadist that can actually fit a story that should only take two hundred pages, into two hundred pages. This is the book for you.
Hell, forget Martin. I honestly feel that it is superior to Tolkien in every respect.
It's got pretty much everything. War, revenge, love, incest, magic, old gods, trolls, step-brothers born to be enemies and elves.
This book is beautifully written. I can't emphasis this enough. Poul Anderson was the product of a school system that actually had standards and felt it needed to actually educate it's students. Stunning concepts, I know.
The work reads like a saga. We are first introduced to Orm the Strong who was a minor son of Ragnar Lothbrok by one of his concubines. Orm went to one of his more successful brothers and asked for a few long ships with the proviso that once outfitted he would make no more claims against the family. His brother saw the wisdom of this sent Orm a-Viking. Orm settled in the Daneslaw in Britain. Stole a holding, slaughtered the family that inhabited it but made the mistake of not slaying the family matriarch who was a witch. Big mistake there. Moving on. He acquired a wife by the usual trick of pretending to be a Christian. They were rather remotely located so when Orm's wife gave birth to their first born son, there was window of vulnerability created because it would take days for the priest to arrive before the child could be Christened.
An interesting affect of Anderson's writing was that I actually pronounced the word in my mind as Christ-ened.
Imric the Elf Earl now enters the picture. An unbaptized man-child is something quite useful to Imric.
As an Earl his behavior is in keeping with his station. There are rights and privileges that he keeps and upholds. When he comes upon The Witch he demands without being demanding, food and drink. Which she provides as that is his right as an Earl. Along with information about where he could find the un-Christ-ened son of her most hated enemy, Orm.
As an Elf, Imric immediately recons the situation finds the boy acceptable to his purposes and proceeds back to his castle. He rapes an insane troll princess he keeps around for these occasions and using his magic they produce a Changling, (apparently within less than an hour), which he immediately takes back and exchanges for Orm's son, who will be named Vangard.
He fosters the boy and names him Skafloc. Raising him as an elf. Human's have certain advantages chief amongst them the ability to touch iron. The story then shifts to the tragic war between Skafloc and his changling stepbrother Vangard. And this is as far as I'm proceeding with the plot.
Imric was casually cruel. There was no sadistic passion to his cruelty it but more of a mischievous pleasure.
In other ways Imric displays many noble traits. Courage, loyalty, dedication. He cares about his people but his caring is more in the nature of being an artist.
This is very much a story of the West. Anderson himself was a reported agnostic but regardless of that, Christianity is treated very favorably in this story. I know that just makes it a product of it's time but still, I'm not used to that.
The fascinating thing for me is Anderson's depiction of his elves.
Tolkein's elves were intrinsically good if ethereal. They were the Golden People. Not so much closer to God but closer to Man before his fall at Eden. They toiled not and lived lives of unearthly beauty.
Anderson's elves on the other hand are not nice at all. They not creations of God. They have no souls and hence are fundamentally incapable of love or morality. They are the anti-Tolkein. However, they are very much in keeping with the old stories of faerie. This soullessness is a central theme of this book. All of the faerie are soulless. Both the elves and their enemies the trolls.
“There was something about the eyes. It wasn’t the shape or the color. The was no evil glint. But there was…
… a look. It was such a look that a microbe might encounter if it could see up from the bottom end of the microscope. It said: You are nothing. It said: You are flawed, you have no value. It said: You are animal. It said: Perhaps you may be a pet, or perhaps you may be a quarry. It said: And the choice is not yours.”
- Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies
The Broken Sword is an extraordinary book that I highly recommend. It is a taste of what fantasy was and might yet become.