Wednesday, February 09, 2011

In Praise of Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was one of those authors who I was aware of for most of my reading life, but only recently, within the last five years or so, began to appreciate. I can recall seeing his books on the shelves when I was a kid, but somehow, even when I was in the midst of my big science fiction period, I never tried one of his books. I did eventually try one of his Time Patrol collections about a decade ago, and while I enjoyed it, it still didn't lead me to reading more of his books.
Enter Michael Moorcock. In many interviews and essays, and in his book, Wizardry and Wild Romance, Mike mentioned what a tremendous influence Poul Anderson's book The Broken Sword had been on Mike's writing. This made me curious enough to finally track down a copy and give it a read. I got what Mike meant immediately. Coincidentally published the same year that The Fellowship of the Ring was published in America, The Broken Sword was the OTHER book based heavily in Norse history and mythology. Elves and dwarves and Norsemen. Oh My.
But Anderson's book was by far the darker of the two. The tale is rather tragic and the elves are dark and dangerous, presented more like their Norse predecessors. There is a lot of Poul Anderson's elves in the citizens of Elric's Melnibone. More about Moorcock and Anderson in a bit.
So I read the Broken Sword and was suitably impressed. I went to the trouble to find a nice copy of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of the book to add to my collection. And speaking of BAF, while I was at it, I picked up Anderson's recreation of the Norse sagas, Hrolf Kraki's Saga. Here my interest in Vikings and Norse history dovetailed perfectly with my growing appreciation for Poul Anderson. (Poul is pronounced somewhere between pool and pole according to Moorcock by the way.)
Further research led me to Anderson's other Norse related works, War of the Gods and The Last Viking trilogy, a retelling of the career of real life Viking Harald Hardrade. The first volume in that series, The Golden Horn, remains one of my favorite Viking novels. According to various sources, Anderson's library about the Norse was truly amazing. The man knew his stuff.
A chance mention of Anderson's Multi-Dimensional Tavern The Old Phoenix in an article about such pan dimensional structures and places caused me to track down the stories and one novel (A Midsummer's Tempest) which featured the place. Basically an Inn at a nexus point where many levels of alternate universes meet, it's a bar that almost anyone can wander into, so you might see Abraham Lincoln talking to Gandhi or Leonardo Da Vinci arguing with Albert Einstein. Funny thing was, when I read A Midsummer's Tempest (A book about an alternate universe where Shakespeare's plays are history rather than fiction) I noticed two characters that Anderson was paying a lot of attention to in the chapter featuring The Old Phoenix, but I didn't know who they were. Turns out one was from Anderson's book Operation Otherworld and the other was Holger Carlsen, the hero of Anderson's novel Three Hearts and Three Lions. I had read neither book at the time.
I am currently reading Three Hearts and Three Lions and enjoying it tremendously and I'm sure I'll write a full review, but for now I'll take us back to discussing Anderson's influence on Michael Moorcock. Mike recently brought up Three Hearts in another interview about his influences and I decided it was time to give it a read. As with the Broken Sword it's pretty easy to see how much Moorcock was taken with Three Hearts and Three Lions. It's about a battle between the forces of Law and Chaos and there is much talk about alternate universes, very much in the mode of what Mike would eventually write about Elric, The Eternal Champion and the Multiverse. Keep in mind, Elric was also influenced by Melmouth the Wanderer, Conan the Cimmerian, and Zenith the Albino, but there is a lot of Poul Anderson in the Eternal Champion saga.
Anyway, I just wanted to say a few words about Poul Anderson and how much I've been enjoying his work lately. His fantasy writing is really just a tiny section of his output. He wrote far more science fiction than fantasy and occasionally delved into historical fiction and mysteries. But those are subjects for another time.


Brian Murphy said...

Poul Anderson is one of the all-time greats, just criminally underappreciated IMO. And I'm just talking about his viking-inspired stuff (The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki's Saga, War of the Gods, etc.).

Lagomorph Rex said...

Mother of Kings is also a great addition to his Viking works.. There are also several Viking novellas spread around throughout various anthologies as well.. Swords Against Darkness has 1 or 2 I think.. and then maybe one of the Flashing Swords volumes.. and then another in one of the fantasy Anthologies of Anderson's very own.. Armies of Elfland or Fantasy..

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Very much agreed, Brian. And he was such a versatile writer. My buddy Cliff is a big fan of Anderson's SF, particularly the Flandry series.

Yep, Lagomorph, Anderson is in Flashing Swords and Swords Against Darkness and just to round out the swords trilogy he's in Swords Against Tomorrow. I think the all-Anderson anthology I have is just called Fantasy. A Baen book. Can't seem to put my hands on it just now