Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Anderson, Poul

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(1926-2001) US writer, mostly of sf, beginning with "Tomorrow's Children" with F N Waldrop for Astounding in 1947. A Nordic-twilight hue permeates much of PA's work; moreover, he has generated throughout his career a sense that heroic actions – though necessary and much to be praised – are essentially providential and that Heroes enact stories already told (see Twice-Told). This sense of Belatedness is not a note often struck in sf, and as a consequence much of PA's work has been understood as fantasy-tinged. In fact, his most significant work – novels like Brain Wave (1954) and Tau Zero (1967 Galaxy as "To Outlive Eternity"; exp 1970) – has been hard sf, as have been his main series, and much of his seeming fantasy turns out in the end to be sf, carefully rationalized (see Rationalized Fantasy), but retaining accord with, in W H Auden's term, "the Northern thing". Parallel to, or resisting, this melancholy is PA's adherence to the can-do optimism of the 20th-century USA and technology that we associate with John W Campbell Jr and his magazines – though this adherence had soured by the 1990s. If at times his fantasies slip into glib resolutions, it is because, even in the world of Magic, PA wishes reason and special knowledge to be useful tools; when in Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953 F&SF; exp 1961) a troll turns to stone, the hero instantly deduces that the troll's curse is in fact radioactive residue from Transmutation. This sort of thing is a staple of rationalized fantasy, but in PA's work it is, sometimes literally, a bulwark against Chaos. In the short story "Pact" (1959) as by Winston P Sanders, it is reason and the pursuit of knowledge with which the demon protagonist is punished by the human he has summoned and made a Pact with.

PA has been an intensely prolific author for nearly half a century, and several fantasies of strong interest have appeared. The Broken Sword (1954; rev 1971) is – especially in the original version – a violent, sometimes confused, plot-dominated tale set in a Dark-Age England occupied by humans and Wainscot societies of Elves and Trolls. Other residents of Faerie – the Sidhe (see Fairies) have an ambiguous role – also intervene in the human world, the affairs of which are additionally affected by the Aesir who, though neutral in the war between elves and trolls which propels the plot, have their own agenda. The human protagonist is kidnapped as a baby – an evil Changeling being substituted – and becomes a Hero of sorts, though the cursed, eponymous Sword requires him to kill each time he draws it. In the end, he plays a significant role in the cruel war (as does his Shadow self), falling in love with his own sister en passant, but loses all and dies (as does his cruel elf shadow). A later work, Hrolf Kraki's Saga (1973), which reworks traditional Icelandic/Western Isles saga material, is told with a similar full-blooded bleakness; it won a 1975 British Fantasy Award.

Published in short form about the same time as The Broken Sword, though considerably smoother in effect, Three Hearts and Three Lions is a more conventional exercise in rationalized fantasy, being clearly reminiscent of the Incomplete Enchanter stories published a decade earlier by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. PA's protagonist – conveyed to a medieval world replete with Witches, Dragons and erotic danger in the person of Morgan Le Fay – emigrates across a second Threshold into Faerie, returning to the medieval venue to discover himself the current Avatar of a Carolingian Eternal Champion, destined to fight on the side of Law against the forces of Chaos. The tale is brightly peopled – though PA's eclectic cast and Romance setting became seriously overused in later decades. His most original stroke may have been his portrait of elves as remote, aristocratic, hauntingly seductive to humans.

The thematically linked A Midsummer Tempest (1974) – set in an Alternate World where all Shakespeare's plays, particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600) and The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623), are chronicles of fact – romantically reverses the 16th-century Thinning of Merrie England: Oberon, Puck and Ariel – and Arthur and Charlemagne too – band together to protect Charles I and Faerie from Cromwell and his Puritans, who are defeated at Glastonbury Tor. The anachronisms in Shakespeare are taken as licence for a different level of technology – the Puritans in this reality are having an Industrial Revolution and Prince Rupert escapes by steam train. During the tale the protagonists arrive at a Club-Story venue, the Phoenix Tavern (a paradigm version of the Inn), where characters from divers PA novels meet and debate the virtues of various parallel worlds in a variety of Dictions – ordinary folk speak prose; those of high birth speak in blank verse. In The Merman's Children (fixup 1979), on the other hand, there is no rescue of Faerie from the Thinning of a world in which Christianity triumphs; the story, which complexly interweaves several Quests in search of the lost domain, is movingly elegiac.

Also closely tied to the kind of fantasy espoused by John W Campbell Jr for the magazine Unknown, Operation Chaos (coll of linked stories 1971) is set in an Alternate World where Magic works through the discovery and application of pragmatic laws. The cast (one of whom enters the debate in the Phoenix Tavern) is again populous and colourfully conceived, and includes afreets, various familiars and Demons (one of whom is an alternate version of Adolf Hitler); the male protagonist is a Werewolf and his female counterpart a virgin Witch (see Virginity). Again the war is between Law and Chaos; here, as in A Midsummer Tempest, the ending is not grim.

PA's later fantasies are perhaps less engaging, though The Devil's Game (1980), which features an apparent Pact with the Devil, is interestingly cast as a suspense thriller. His most important later work, written in collaboration with his wife, Karen Anderson (1932-2018), is almost certainly the King of Ys sequence: The King of Ys #1: Roma Mater (1986), #2: Gallicenae (1987), #3: Dahut (1988) and #4: The Dog and the Wolf (1988), all assembled as The King of Ys (omni 1988 2 vols). Celtic-Fantasy elements intermix with Recursive-Fantasy references to the cast of Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (coll of linked stories 1906) in the long story of the city of Ys – a Graeco-Punic outpost in Brittany – and its effects on late-Roman politics. In general, however, the most significant achievements of PA's later career have been sf. Most of his fantasies have been cast as requiems, though sometimes disguised as romps; and perhaps PA now feels that the Northern way of life they mourn has – as he has told us more than once – indeed passed away. [JC]

other works: The Fox, the Dog and the Griffin: A Tale Adapted from the Danish of C. Molbech (1966), for children; The Demon of Scattery (1979) with Mildred Downey Broxon; the Last Viking sequence of historical tales, comprising The Golden Horn (1980), The Road of the Sea Horse (1980) and The Sign of the Raven (1980); Fantasy (coll 1981); The Unicorn Trade (coll 1984) with Karen Anderson; The Night Fantastic (anth 1991) ed with Karen Anderson, stories about Dreams; Loser's Night (1991 chap); The Armies of Elfland (coll 1992).

Poul William Anderson


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.