Reading List: “The Queen of Air and Darkness”

If nothing else, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” (F&SF, April 1971) will now be my go-to example for the absurdity of overcategorising short fiction, since it won a Hugo as best novella, a Nebula as best novelette, and a Locus Award as best short. I’m not sure I’ve read any of the stories it was competing against in any of those categories, but it doesn’t strike me as exceptional work.

At the very least it’s a more conventionally plot-action-driven narrative than either the Russ or Delany stories. On a colony world called Roland — where, although no intelligent life has been found, settler stories about mysterious beings persist — a child is lost on a biological research expedition. His mother, Barbro Cullen, believes he can still be found, but in the absence of help from local authorities, turns to a private investigator, Eric Sherrinford. Together they set out on an expedition into the wilderness to investigate. Of course there is native life, and in fact interspersed with Cullen and Sherrinford’s journey are other viewpoints, most commonly the perspective of Mistherd, a human boy who was abducted as a baby, and raised to view the human colony as an enemy.

What such a summary omits is that the story addresses a question framed by Sherrinford at the very end: “We live with our archetypes, but can we live in them?” The pipe-smoking Sherrinford himself is clearly — and, as it turns out, self-consciously — modelled on the Consulting Detective; he reports that he’s been studying Roland stories of the Old Folk “on the principle of eliminating every imaginable possibility”, and insists that “when facts are insufficient, theorizing is ridiculous at best, misleading at worst”. Meanwhile, the Old Folk themselves are understood within the frame of Earth legends of faery, with the sections focusing on Mistherd, told in a quite different register to those focusing on the travellers; compare:

A boy and a girl sat on Wolund’s Barrow just under the dolmen it upbore. […] He played on a bone flute and she sang. They had lately become lovers. Their age was about sixteen, but they did not know this, considering themselves Outlings and thus indifferent to time, remembering little or nothing of how they had once dwelt in the lands of men.


In from the sea came freighters, the fishing fleet, produce of the Sunward Islands, plunder of whole continents further south where bold men adventured. It clanged in Portolondon, laughed, blustered, swaggered, connived, robbed, preached, guzzled, swilled, toiled, dreamed, lusted, built, destroyed, died, was born, was happy, angry, sorrowful, greedy, vulgar, loving, ambitious, human.

This difference is more than a stylistic conceit on Anderson’s part, since it turns out that the Dwellers have been playing quite deliberately on human superstitions as part of a long-term strategy to defeat the colonists. They can do this thanks to their psychic powers — Anderson attempts to provide a justification for these, but it’s not terribly convincing, and sits oddly with the introductory note to the collection I read this story in, which notes that “you will find nothing [in these stories] which most twentieth century physicists would flatly call impossible”, and leads to FTL being ruled out of bounds — and the movement between a more and less rationalist worldview lends a convincing instability to the story.

Less convincing is Sherringford’s deductive process, which starts from the rather dubious premise that “something must be causing” spacefaring humans to believe in fairies because as good “hardheaded, technologically organized, reasonably well-educated” people they’d never do that of their own inclination, although is revealed as a bit more nuanced over the course of the story:

His pipestem gestured at the stars. “Man’s gone to stranger places than this.”

“Has he? I … oh, I suppose it’s just something left over from my outway childhood, but do you know, when I’m under them I can’t think of stars as balls of gas, whose energies have been measured, whose planets have been walked on by our prosaic feet. No, they’re small and cold and magical; our lives are bound to them; after we die, they whisper to us in our graves.” Barbro glanced downwards. “I realize that’s nonsense.”

She could see in the twilight how his face grew tight. “Not at all,” he said. “Emotionally, physics may be a worse nonsense. And in the end, you know, after a sufficient number of generations, thought follows feeling. Man is not at heart rational. He could stop believing the stories of science if those no longer felt right.”

This does ring true, and is a nice way of getting into one of the tensions that seems to run through a lot of planetary romance (more on this as and when I write up The Heritage of Hastur and Golden Witchbreed), but it’s a bit of a shame — or an irony signposted too subtly for me to spot on one reading — that in working out this argument to its conclusion, Anderson removes from the Dwellers not just any sense of their own culture or concerns (that, at least, could be read as deliberate, we can’t truly know the alien), but any sense that they’re really a credible threat to humanity. More in sorrow than in anger, seemingly, Sherringford observes that “They tried to conquer us, and failed, and now in a sense we are bound to conquer them”, on the grounds that rationalist mechanistic technology has been proven — through the rescue of Barbro’s son — to be superior to the Dwellers’ alternative biotechnological pathway, which is reduced to failed magic. It’s another archetype shaping the story, but not fully acknowledged.

The Broken Sword

The Broken Sword cover In an introduction to D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths [pdf link], reprinted in his essay collection Maps and Legends earlier this year, Michael Chabon describes the appeal of Norse mythology: “it begins in darkness, and ends in darkness, and is veined like a fire with darkness that forks and branches.” This is presumably the sense in which the back-cover blurb of the “ultimate fantasy” edition of The Broken Sword — “a superb dark fantasy of the highest, and most Norse, order” — should be read. While Poul Anderson’s novel borrows most heavily from the details of Norse mythology to construct its plot, there are also significant elements drawn from Christian and English lore, not to mention references to traditions existing elsewhere in the world, and in an afterword Anderson goes to some lengths to argue that his depiction of the historical (as opposed to fantastical) parts of his setting are true to our understanding of them. (Although the non-Norse mythological elements are apparently downplayed in the 1971 reissue, relative to the original 1954 text which I read.) But the manner of the story’s expression, throughout, is pure Norse. The Broken Sword is, to borrow Chabon’s phrases again, structured by “veins of calamity and violence … like the forking of a fire or of the plot of a story”. As with Swords Against Deviltry, the ground state of the world is harsh and cruel, but Anderson provides no gloss; his tale is relentless. In the opening chapter, a Jutlander called Orm leaves home to seek his fortune in the world. He sails to England, where he claims land by burning down its inhabitants’ house in the middle of the night – with them in it — and claims a woman by threatening her father with a similar fate. And he is, relatively speaking, on the side of the angels.

In The Broken Sword, that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy so much as it means he’s a valuable piece to those gods who aren’t actively working towards the dissolution of all creation, or the corruption of men’s souls. More than in any of the other books I’m discussing this week, The Broken Sword justifies Moorcock’s attempt to label the category as epic; although there is less at stake than there is in, say, Stormbringer, the manner in which the stakes are treated gives them something approaching equal weight. There is a much powerful sense that the world is a canvas, or chessboard on which grand dramas are played out.

And they play out, predominantly, around Orm’s son, who exists as an agent of prophecy. A witch, whose family is killed by Orm, places a curse on the Jutlander that his firstborn will be raised beyond the world of men, while Orm will in turn foster “a wolf that [will] one day rend him” (2). The Broken Sword is in part the story of these things coming to pass. An elf-earl abducts Orm’s son, names him Scafloc, and replaces him with a changeling (who is, rather horribly, created via the earl’s rape of a captive troll). At a feast in Elfhiem, in honour of Scafloc’s naming, a new prophecy is offered: a messenger for the gods turns up with what appears to be the titular weapon, saying that it is a gift for a time when Scafloc will need “a good blade” (15). (Although it is reforged in the course of the book, The Broken Sword does not tell the sword’s story; it might be better to take the title as a reference to Scafloc and his changeling counterpart, Valgard, who are in many respects two halves of one whole.) And there are yet more markers of destiny, albeit not directly acknowledged as such: when Scafloc boasts that the three things he has never known are “fear, and defeat, and love-sickness” (28) it’s fairly obvious where the story is heading.

Or perhaps that should be stories, plural, because The Broken Sword is also epic in the sense that it subsumes just about every category of narrative you can think of. There is some abbreviated coming of age; there is a revenge tragedy, in which Valgard is manipulated by the witch into killing most of Orm’s family; there is a war, between the elves of England and the trolls of Finland, in which both Scafloc and Valgard are caught up, on opposing sides; there is a romance; and there is a quest to re-forge the sword into a weapon capable of turning the tide in the war. The style throughout is formal without being ornate; economic and serious, unafraid to elide periods of no relevance to the main narrative, or to usher in huge changes, or changes in fortune, without warning. (Something about the flow of narrative time within the book put me in mind of Geoff Ryman’s first novel, The Warrior Who Carried Life, which could also be fairly described as epic, despite focusing on a very few individuals.) It is the sort of story in which a king can speak “quietly” to his foe in the midst of a raging battle (187).

The characters are broad enough to match the great deeds they must undertake. Scafloc is the best of elf and human, carefree and mischevious, honorable, fast enough to chase down a stag on foot, but able to handle metals — and therefore weapons — that would burn his adoptive father. Valgard is his mirror, or shadow, growing up “strange, aloof, silent” (33) and before long painfully aware of what he is and is not. He oscillates between terrifying beserker rages and ragged fits of melancholy: “Night closes on me, the sorry game of my life is played out … I was but a shadow cast by the mighty Powers who now blow out the candle” (47). Around Scafloc and Valgard constellate a variety of other characters, mostly related to them in some way; for all that it ostensibly tells of great, world-changing events, The Broken Sword is a deeply personal book, in the sense that a blood feud is personal: the heroes and villains all know each other. Female characters in general get a raw deal (witch; weepy queen; kidnapped trophy), but probably the single most interesting character beyond the central duo is Scafloc’s nature-sister, Valgard’s nurture-sister, Freda. She is kidnapped by Valgard, to be delivered to the troll king as proof of his renunciation of his human heritage, but rescued by a raiding Scafloc. Subsequently the two fall into a relationship, even fighting alongside each other at one point, which necessitates some rather desperate attempts on Anderson’s part to justify why Scafloc never thinks too deeply about the fact that Valgard’s brother looks exactly like him (“Imric, to break his fosterling’s human ties, had brought him up not to be curious about his parentage”, 74), or why Freda never notices (“Eyes and lips and play of features, manner and touch and thought, were so different in them that she scarce noticed the sameness of height and bone structure and cast of face”, 74). To be honest I found the incest less disturbing than the near-fetishization of Freda’s youth (“His troubled mien vanished at sight of her — young, slim, lithe and long-legged, still more girl than woman”, 84-5), though this can perhaps be attributed to historical fidelity, and is certainly more nuanced than a comparable relationship in the Elric stories.

The reason the characters cannot notice the truth of their situation, of course, is that the story remains all; it’s also the reason I didn’t mind the contrivance. It strikes me that fantasy in the style Anderson chose here assumes a distance from the human not unlike that found in scientific romance. Both seek to portray a broad sweep of events, over and above the nuances of strictly believable human response. When a young Scafloc encounters an exiled faun, driven from his land by missionaries of the Christian god, it tells him, “I fled north … but I wonder if those of my ancient comrades who stayed and fought and were slain with exorcisms were not wiser … The nymphs and the fauns and the very gods are dead, dust blowing on desolate winds. The temples stand empty, white under the sky, and slowly they topple to ruin” (17) – giving us a glimpse of a changing land, and of a depth to time, that would not be out of place in a scientific romance. The not-infrequent and entirely unironic quothing — and the early passing note that Scafloc “learned the skaldic arts so well that he spoke in verses as easily as in ordinary speech” (20-1), which in a fantasy novel is the sort of thing that strikes fear into a reader’s heart — serve a similar end, even though it is hard to imagine an actual human behind it.

If you like, these strategies create a space in which heroics of the sort in which Scafloc and Valgard engage can plausibly happen; but to put it this way might downplay the importance of The Broken Sword’s landscapes, which achieve the same task literally, rather than metaphorically. The world in The Broken Sword is primal, empty, often stark, and often seen at night:

A moon newly risen cast silver and shadow on the crag and scaurs of the elf-hills, on the beach from which they rose, on the clouds racing eastward on a great gale which seemed to fill the sky with its clamor. The moonlight ran in shards and ripples over the waves, which tumbled and roared, white-maned and angry, on the rocks. (61)

I have nothing more in-depth to say about this quote; I just like it.

Michael Moorcock, in a review for The Guardian, suggested that The Broken Sword spoiled him for The Lord of the Rings, which was published contemporaneously with Anderson’s book. “I couldn’t take Tolkien seriously. Aside from his nursery-room tone, I was unhappy with his infidelities of time, place and character, unconvinced by his female characters and quasi-juvenile protagonists,” Moorcock wrote. “Anderson’s human characters belonged to the 11th century and were often brutal, fearful and superstitious. Their lives were short. Their understanding of the future was a little bleak, with the prospect of Ragnarok just around the corner.” Once again, that valorization of darkness; and while I don’t agree that said darkness is an a priori good in fantasy, there’s no denying that in The Broken Sword it works. As the manner of Valgard’s creation suggests, although the novel contains noble actions and moments of joy, the joy is always fleeting and there are few noble people — which perhaps explains the freshness that attends many elements of the book which are now cliché, and indeed which have been reacted against by later work: everything is pared down. Elves may be beautiful, but it is a severe beauty — “White and ageless, of thin-carved, high-boned features, with beast ears and eyes of blind mystery, they were a sight of terror to mortal gaze” (61) — they are as guilty of using Scafloc as the gods (changelings are useful to elves), and their society is built, as surely as any of the others in the novel, on a slavery which is never questioned. But it seems to me that the two writers, Anderson and Tolkien, have a similarity that outweighs their differences: a confidence to go back to the root essence of fantasy, and use it as the grist for their tales. Both works have a compelling coherence, a sense that all their different elements fit together; and both feel as though they have always been told, and will always be told.