Birthday Reviews: Poul Anderson’s “The Valor of Cappen Varra”
Poul Anderson was born on November 25, 1926 and died on July 21, 2001.
Anderson won the Hugo Award for Short Fiction for “The Longest Voyage” and “No Truce with Kings.” He won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Sharing of Flesh,” “Goat Song,” and “Hunter’s Moon.” Anderson won the Hugo for Best Novella for “The Queen of Air and Darkness” and “The Saturn Game.” Both of those novellas and “Goat Song” also earned the Nebula Award. His novel Hrolf Kraki’s Saga won the British Fantasy Award and his novel Genesis won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His novel Tau Zero was recognized with a Seiun Award and A Midsummer Tempest won the Mythopoeic Award. Four of his works won the Prometheus Award: Rader to the Stars, The Star Fox, The Stars Are Also Fire, and “No Truce with Kings.” He received a Forry Award in 1968, was named a Grandmaster of Fantasy with a Gandalf Award in 1978, a Skylark Award in 1982, was named a Grand Master by the SFWA in 1998, was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2000, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Prometheus Awards in 2001. He was the guest of Honor at Detention, the 17th Worldcon in Detroit in 1959. He has published under the pseudonyms Winton P. Sanders, A.A. Craig, and Michael Karageorge. He frequently collaborated with his wife, Karen, and with Gordon R. Dickson, Gergen, F.N. Waldrop, Midred Downey Broxon, and Gordon Eklund.
“The Valor of Cappen Varra” initially appeared in the January 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe, edited by Hans Stefan Santesson. It was reprinted by L. Sprague de Camp in the anthology Swords and Sorcery: Stories of Heroic Fantasy and by Anderson in his collection Fantasy and later The Armies of Elfland. Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois used the story in their anthology Bestiary! The story has been reprinted in a chapbook on its own as well as with other stories by Anderson. It has been included in the Anderson collection The Star Beast and Other Tales and in Wildside Press’s The Third Golden Age of Science Fiction Megapack. It was translated into German in 1973 and into French in 1988.
I was first introduced to Cappen Varra as a character in Robert Lynn Asprin’s anthology Thieves World, not realizing that he had a history prior to that story. In fact, 22 years before Cappen Varra showed up in Sanctuary, Anderson described his adventures amongst a northern tribe in “The Valor of Cappen Varra.” With the introduction of Cappen Varra into Asprin’s world, it seems Anderson imported the world of the earlier story entirely, although it wasn’t referenced again.
In “The Valor of Cappen Varra,” the titular character, a bard from southern Caronne, has journeyed north to perform for the northern King Svearek. Aboard ship with Svearek and his men, Cappen Varra has proven himself a rather weak sailor and when a storm comes up and dowses any wood which can be used for a fire, Svearek decides that Cappen Varra should row to a small island which appears to be inhabited by trolls to gather firewood. Knowing that he is protected from magic by a silver amulet, Cappen Varra is unafraid of the danger and faces a female troll full of swagger.
The meeting between Cappen Varra and the troll is highly stylized. Even as the troll announces her plans to eat Cappen Varra, she seems to be bound by rules… if he can say three true things about her, she can’t eat him until morning, for instance, or if he exhibits bravery, she can’t eat him. Cappen Verra, of course, knows he is safe because of his amulet and once he realizes that the troll has kidnapped King Svearek’s daughter, he vows to rescue her as well.
The stylization of the story plays to an older narrative tradition and Anderson’s frequent use of Scandinavian lore makes his story work while it would simply feel stilted in other hands. The ending seems to indicate that Anderson viewed Cappen Varra as a potentially on-going character, but he apparently couldn’t figure out more adventures until the opportunity to insert him into Thieves World, where he was a popular figure, came up a couple decades later. Eventually Anderson wrote a third Cappen Varra story, “The Lady of the Winds,” which appeared in 2001.
Reprint reviewed in the chapbook The Valor of Cappen Varra, by Poul Anderson, Aegypan Press, 2011.
Steven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.