Poul Anderson's "Northern Cycle": Part Two

Poul the Great during his twilight years.

Poul the Great during his twilight years.

Lo, for the day is again upon us: the dark day when Poul Anderson left us for Valhalla. So, let us gather 'round his grave-howe and pay our respects for another year, sword-brothers. Raise your mead-horns high! His like will not be seen again.

Last January, during the DMR Guest Bloggerama, I posted Part One of my survey of Poul's "Northern Cycle" of tales. That post ended with a look at Hrolf Kraki's Saga, which is set in the early sixth century A.D. The next tale takes place in the late 800s, during the reigns of Harald Fairhair and Alfred the Great.

The story in question is "The Tale of Hauk." This novelette is widely considered one of Poul's best Viking tales. Most of the onstage events occur in Raumsdal, Norway. Hauk is the son of Geirolf. Geirolf is an ageing Viking, nostalgic for the old days and bitter about the present. Hauk, a doughty fighter himself, is making his way more as a wide-ranging merchant than as a pirate. Geirolf disapproves. While Hauk is away, Geirolf dies the straw-death...but does not stay dead. Hauk returns and must lay his father to rest.

As I said, this story is a grim classic. Poul's use of language is spot-on and the finale is dark and brutal, but not without bittersweetness. This story holds hidden depths and repays multiple readings. "The Tale of Hauk" has been reprinted numerous times, most notably in the classic first volume of Swords Against Darkness.

Now we come to the literary Jotun-steed in the mead-hall: The Broken Sword. Poul's classic novel occurs at some point soon after Guthrum/Guttorm settled the Danelaw, though events in the world of Men only impinge upon it sporadically. Anderson’s tale is one of Elvish changelings, a cursed sword and a war that shakes all the Nine Worlds. Doom-laden and blood-soaked, this is a novel that any heroic fantasy fan worth his salt must read at some point in his life. For those wanting a little more in-depth analysis, I highly recommend Michael Dirda’s intro to the Open Road Media edition, which can be accessed with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature here.

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The next novel—almost a novella, really—is The Demon of Scattery, which Poul wrote in collaboration with Mildred Downey Broxon. Technically, the main story takes place decades before The Broken Sword, but the framing device places it within the narrative of the previous novel, with Manannan mac Lir telling the tale to Scafloc while the two sail to Jotunheim. Manannan recounts the story of Halldor, a viking of Norway, and Brigit, a woman of southern Ireland. The tale is set, as he puts it, “when the Lochlannach first came a-viking into Eire.” There is blood-letting, plunder and rapine. An ancient demon is summoned to wreak vengeance. All in all, this is a minor tale from Mr. Anderson, but I still enjoyed it. Considering the generally favorable reviews I see of it, it might be a good story to give to one’s girlfriend to get her interested in Poul’s fantasy fiction. It moves quickly and it is essentially a romance, albeit one with hard, bloody edges.

The final Nordic tale for this post is Mother of Kings, which is a sprawling fantasticated biography of Gunnhild, wife of Eirik Bloodaxe and—as the title says—a mother of kings. I have at least one friend who doesn’t much care for it. (Make that two—DMR) My recollection is that the bloodshed is up to the level of almost any of Poul’s “Nordic” novels, even if the pace slackens now and then. Gunnhild is certainly a fascinating woman who figured prominently in several sagas. Minus the incest, she could give GRRM’s Cersei a run for her money in the ruthlessness sweepstakes. I would’ve reread Mother of Kings to update my assessment, but I lost my hardcover in the Flood of 2012, so I just ordered a replacement in honor of Poul’s deathday.

That about wraps it up for this installment. The third and final one will discuss the man whom Poul considered the “Last Viking” …and will go a little beyond even that.

Poul Anderson’s “Northern Cycle: Part One

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