Sunday, 6 April 2014

Broken Sword, Broken Elves

As a teen I read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions but never got around to its slightly later-written companion volume, The Broken Sword, until recently. Both can rightly be said to be foundational works in fantasy literature and gaming, influencing both Moorcock and Gygax with their supernatural struggles between Law and Chaos. But what's also informative is what Gygax didn't pick up from this "Appendix N" novel and put into Dungeons and Dragons.

The trippy UK paperback cover.
The Broken Sword uses many of the concepts and adversaries from Three Hearts; elves, trolls, Christendom, witches, a magic sword, and the Law-Chaos divide. The mythic terrain changes, from a fantasy world based on Carolingian legend to a semi-historical Norse England. So does the point of view; instead of a transported modern hero we have an omniscient, archaism-dotted narrative of a Norse jarl's son fostered in Faerie and the changeling who replaced him.

The Law-Chaos war in Three Hearts is straightforward, but the main matter in this novel is a war between two powers of Chaos, the elves and the trolls. The conflict is tragic rather than heroic, because its Pyrrhic outcome heralds the weakening and fading of the hosts of Chaos. Our lawful world, as in Tolkien's and Moorcock's fantasies, must somehow be arrived at from these narratives set in a dim and unknown past.

Although cruel and evil, the fey races and their mortal allies cannot help but be read as the antiheroes of the story. Law is also more complicated; although Christian belief and oath protect against Chaos, the "White Christ" is far offstage, compared to the Lawful Norse gods - in particular, Odin - who are shown taking a more active hand to set Chaos against Chaos. This situation has parallels to the further complications of alignment in AD&D. Strife can happen within the camp of Evil (Chaos) as well as Good (Law).

Now, about those elves. Anderson's elves, trolls, dwarfs and other fey creatures inhabit a parallel world. They are normally invisible except to those humans who have been granted "witch-sight" through sorcery. However, their deeds sometimes manifest as omens, portents and misfortune for humans.

(As an aside, this would be a great campaign rationale. Ever wonder why the king with his retinue of knights can't go after those goblins threatening the village? They need the adventurers, witch-sighted all, to actually see the goblins.)

Fey creatures also cannot handle iron and are harmed by it. This means that a fostered human or changeling, as well as the dwarfs who are not iron-shy, become valuable tools in the elf-troll war. We catch a glimpse of this in the OD&D and Holmes D&D logic of elves choosing to be fighters or magic-users each day. Holmes apparently elaborated on the reason for this in a novel. Simply enough, the choice to wear iron armor and weapons would nullify the elf's magic. But although games like Runequest took the idea and ran even further with it,  AD&D dropped it cold.

If people complain that elves are overpowered in AD&D and later editions, perhaps one reason is that Gygax chose to go with the Tolkien view of elves as benevolent, superhuman beings. What would have happened instead if he'd taken up the Anderson view of elves as powerful and innately magical, but limited by weakness to the inexorable forces of Law and metallurgy? We'd have perhaps a darker D&D, one with the kind of fey elves that other new-old-school settings have embraced (here, here and here as notable instances.)


  1. I bought and read this fairly recently - in the past year or so. I really liked it, and I wish I'd read it sooner. The chaos vs. chaos conflict in it is pretty interesting, and the story has that hook to it that all of the Poul Anderson stuff does for me.

  2. Excellent post, and your aside about witch-sighted adventurers makes me want to immediately jump into planning another fantasy campaign. }:)

  3. The idea that iron messes with magic was the explanation used in the early D&D playtest as to why magic-users couldn't use weapons or armor. I'm not sure why that got dropped before publication. Dave let wizards use swords (and had special magic swords usable only by them) so the iron thing was probably from Gygax.

    1. Bronze gear wouldn't be too hard to come by in a campaign where MUs and Elves are present in a typical D&D campaign if the iiron limitation was present.

  4. Thanks for reminding me of this book, and especially the bit about witch-sight being needed to see elves et al.