Three Lions On the Shield

by Arthur B

If you're interested in core texts that have influenced almost all modern fantasy novels since the 1950s, Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson is where it's at. If you just want a good story, it's OK but not a lot more than OK.
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Along with the following year's The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson's 1953 novel Three Hearts and Three Lions is one of those fantasy novels which has probably influenced a vastly greater number of people than the number who have actually read the thing. Many are only vaguely aware of it as the novel whose metaphysical conflict between Law and Chaos inspired both Michael Moorcock's own take on those concepts (and thus, indirectly, Games Workshop's), as well as the original alignment system for Dungeons & Dragons, but its influence on Moorcock, Gygax and Arneson goes further than that. On the gaming side, it's hard to argue that Gygax and Arneson did not rip off Three Hearts' depiction of a troll entirely in describing such monsters for the original game, and ever since then long noses, coal-black eyes and regeneration of any wound not cauterised by fire have been the canonical features of trolls in D&D; furthermore, the capabilities and restrictions faced by the protagonist, Holger Carlsen, makes him appear to be the original model for the paladin class. And as far is Moorcock is concerned, Three Hearts and Three Lions is essentially the story he's been rewriting over and over again for the last five decades - its story of parallel worlds, and a hero with a lynchpin identity in both, is the direct inspiration for Moorcock's own multiverse and his concept of the Eternal Champion.

Anderson introduces our hero, Holger Carlsen, in a prologue that sets up the framing story. Carlsen, he tells us, was a young engineer from Denmark who emigrated to the United States as a young man, was a decent athlete and passable student in university, and worked as a colleague of Anderson's nameless narrator for some years. (The narrator is presumably a stand-in for Anderson himself, but at this point in time the real-life Anderson was living in Denmark.) When World War II breaks out, Carlsen becomes increasingly convinced that he is morally obligated to make his way back to Denmark in order to do what he can to help fight the Nazi occupation of his homeland; he eventually makes the journey (presumably as, in real life, the Anderson family fled Denmark for America), and soon enough he's hooked up with the resistance.

A career in sabotage and mayhem ensues, at the climax of which Carlsen and the rest of his cell are caught on a lonely beach by a Nazi patrol, and end up in a desperate gunfight to allow a certain individual with intelligence crucial to the Allied war effort to escape. Stunned by a bullet which was a couple of inches away from popping his skull, Holger wakes up in a forest, the likes of which have not grown in Denmark since the medieval period. A riderless horse (who we come to find is called Papillon) watches him impassively; it bears all the armour, weapons, and supplies one might expect a roving knight to be carrying with him, as well as a shield bearing a coat of arms of three hearts and three lions. It's not long before Holger discovers that he has, somehow, been summoned to a parallel universe - an alternate Earth operating according to the logic of the legends surrounding Charlemagne and his knights, in which the exploits of such historical figures as Barbarossa and Napoleon are considered outlandish fairy stories.

Somehow, Holger has taken the place of his counterpart in this universe, a stalwart champion who battles on the side of Law against Chaos. And just as Hitler is wreaking havoc across Europe in our own world, in this realm the hordes of Faerie are mustering to launch all-out war in the name of Chaos. Holger finds himself forced to choose sides and live up to the standards of his other self if he is to survive - aided by Hugi, a grumpy forest dwarf, Alianora, a woman who can turn into a swan, and (in the last third or so of the novel) Carahue, an honourable and knightly Saracen.

In some respects, Three Hearts and Three Lions was a bit of a throwback even at the time. The old "person from our world enters fantasyland" model was decades-old even at the time, and the desire to write a story reminiscent of the medieval romances has been a part of modern fantasy literature since William Morris did a passable impersonation of Malory in The Well at the World's End. Even the premise of a technologically literate modern person transported to a chivalric age was lifted from Mark Twain, as Holger himself acknowledges at one point. What I find makes Three Hearts special, however, is the way Anderson is able to play both on the cultural differences between the time periods that make Holger, as a World War II-era action hero, often a poor fit for a chivalric knight of Charlemagne's time, whilst at the same time trying to make a point about the common concerns of all people across all time.

To highlight the parallels between the world Holger enters and our own, Anderson draws on the idea of a cosmic struggle between Law and Chaos which occurs in all alternate realities simultaneously, and in which the events on one world can affect the course of the great war in the other. Under Anderson's definition, Law is not blind submission to human authority (politically speaking the man tended to wards libertarianism), but it is a philosophical position of mutual respect for all nations and cultures. Anderson states explicitly that if Law held sway absolutely in the world Holger finds himself in, Christian, Muslim, Jew and heathen would live together in harmony and there wouldn't be any of the Crusades and pogroms that (it is implied) are still a fact of life in this world - because Chaos is that force which pits humans against each other and fans irrational, xenophobic hatreds and disputes. Meanwhile, it is heavily implied that in our world the Nazis were the main manifestation of Chaos in the 1940s - and the ending implies that either Soviet expansionism or the Cold War itself is Chaos's next ploy for the 1950s and 1960s. (A little research of Anderson's political views suggests that he thought an American victory over the Soviets in the Cold War would not necessarily be any more desirable than the Soviets prevailing, so it's more likely hawkish factions on both sides who are the next big threat Anderson alludes to at the end.)

On the flipside, Holger's modern-day attitudes sometimes lead him into trouble. The holy favour of God that makes prayer and holy names and crucifixes and the like more than adequate protection against the forces of Faerie, Hell and Chaos are only effective if the person utilising them is currently pure of thought and deed; a single worldly, sinful thought is enough to render such protections ineffective and put Holger and his party in danger. Whilst a knight of the era might be well aware of this and guard his thoughts rigorously, fighting against the temptation represented by beauties such as the swanmay Alianora or the perilous Morgan le Fay, Holger isn't above indulging in a lustful glance or two in Alianora's direction, a blunder which usually leads to an attack by Chaos on the party.

The God thing, to be honest, might well serve to irritate some readers. Whilst World War II might be a secular war fought in a secular era, the world Holger is visiting exists in an inherently religious context, and in consequence the intervention of God cannot be ignored. Holger, formerly an agnostic, ends up converting to Catholicism after his adventure, and whilst Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all held to be broadly correct, outright paganism is at best misguided and at worst deeply suspect - it's not that pagans can't be good people, but it appears that their beliefs are just plain incorrect, and as a consequence they are more prone to being manipulated and corrupted by Chaos. It's an inescapable fact that the medieval mindset - and, in particular, the allegories of the Charlemagne and Arthurian cycles - was absolutely drenched in religious imagery, and that imagery was rooted the idea of a monotheistic God, and it would be impossible for Anderson to write a story evoking the style of those romances without addressing the subject of God. The sort of compromise he establishes in Three Hearts is probably the best way to say "the Abrahamic God absolutely exists in this setting and is the one true Lord", but if you consider yourself an especially fervent atheist, agnostic, or adherent of a non-Abrahamic religion then it might just piss you off. (Actually, if you're a hardcore member of an Abrahamic faith and you think the other flavours of Abrahamic religion are going to Hell you'll probably not be too happy with this either.)

Another aspect of the novel which sometimes rubbed me the wrong way is Holger's occasional application of modern-day engineering know-how to solve problems - like how he works out that if dragons breathe fire, they must be extremely hot inside, so chucking a bucket of water down their throat will do them a world of harm, or where he speculates that an elf-lord's Dagger of Burning is probably made of magnesium, or he realises that the "curse" on the gold possessed by a giant turned to stone by sunlight might be high levels of radioactivity. Like I said, Anderson himself notes that he's borrowing at points from A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court when Holger gets up to these antics, but acknowledging that you're rehashing someone else's idea doesn't change the fact that you are rehashing someone else's idea. It doesn't let up over the course of the novel either, which I feel is a weakness of the plot - if Holger is growing into the role of a medieval knight, he should start approaching problems as a medieval knight would, rather than continually looking at them with an engineer's eye, so as it stands Holger's ecstatic union with his counterpart personality in the medieval world seems a little less like the culmination of a gradual process of awakening that it's meant to be and more like a sudden deus ex machina. Furthermore, if you explain magic away with scientific principles then it just plain seems less magical and mysterious, though to be fair a lot of things in this world which Holger simply cannot explain scientifically and are very obviously the work of supernatural forces.

Another problem with Holger's worldview is that, well, he's an all-American action hero written by a guy from the 1950s. As I alluded to above, he is appreciative of the women. What is sometimes galling is the fact that all the women are appreciative of him; elven seductresses, Morgan le Fay, Alianora, all of them are out to capture Holger's heart. Both of the two major female characters in the book, Alianora and Morgan, essentially do everything they do because they fancy the plate mail pants of Holger, which is a point where the recurring themes of chivalric romances (those knights did spend an awful time fighting to keep their boners under control and letting their boners get them into trouble) happens to look an awful lot like standard modern-day sexism. It doesn't help that Holger occasionally thinks Women! to himself in the exasperated tone of every black and white man who ever complained about the foibles of those gosh darn incomprehensible creatures in a black and white movie or TV show of the era. Full marks to Anderson for at least making Alianora an effective combatant in a fight - remembering that, at the end of the day, swans are bloody vicious creatures - but yeah, not cool. Not cool in exactly the same way almost all genre fiction in the 1950s was not cool, admittedly, but still not cool.

Still, if you can stomach that there's a lot to like about Three Hearts. Anything which had as significant a contribution as Three Hearts to the homogeneous soup which is Dungeons & Dragons fantasy absolutely must be read if you want to understand where the fantasy genre currently stands, simply because there are almost no significant authors of English-language mainstream fantasy in a pseudo-medieval setting who have emerged since, say, 1980 or so who have not been influenced by D&D's crystallisation of the genre, either directly or indirectly. A book which is not only a major influence on D&D but on Michael Moorcock - and, through him, 2000 AD, Warhammer, Alan Moore, and more or less everyone intent on slaughtering fantasy's sacred cows - can only be described as a keystone of the genre, a shadowy titan looming over the entire scene eclipsed only by the sprawling, all-eclipsing arse of The Lord of the Rings. If you're at all interested in the genre's history there's basically no excuse not to give Three Hearts a look.

On the other hand, if you don't give a fuck about the history of the genre and you just want a good story, you're also in luck, but I wouldn't say Three Hearts is so vital that you should go chase it down immediately. It's a lot of fun, but there's also a lot of aspects which might be causes of irritation. So long as you can put up with occasionally-archaic dialogue, a hand-wavy religious compromise, occasional unwelcome demystification and stale gender politics it's a fun ride, but not a whole lot more than a fun ride. I like it, but at the same time I greatly prefer The Broken Sword - an exercise in writing a story reminiscent of Norse sagas, just as Three Hearts is an exercise in writing a story that's a bit like a Charlemagne legend - possibly because The Broken Sword doesn't bother dragging any modern perspectives into the story and just goes full Viking, kicking Wagnerian amounts of ass as it does so.
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