Poul Anderson is perhaps not one of the legendary titans of science fiction, but he has long been a favorite of mine. A writer with a background in physics, he came from the John W. Campbell school of Hard Science Fiction, but he also had a strong interest in the Middle Ages and was one of the founding members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. He is perhaps best-known for his Hoka stories, written with Gordon Dickson, but he wrote a wide range of tales from space opera to time travel to historical fiction to fantasy. He was one of the core contributors to Robert Aspirin’s Thieves’ World anthologies and his essay “On Thud and Blunder” is a must-read for writers of heroic fantasy.
Three Hearts and Three Lions is an earlier work of his which
displays both his love of the medieval period and his background in physics,
approaching magic from a hard science point of view.
Holger Carlsen must have had some spark of heroism in him, otherwise why
would he feel compelled to leave a good engineering job in America to return
home to Denmark when the Nazis invaded, and go on to join the Resistance?
Holger himself didn't know. It was something he felt he needed to do.
It was on a mission with the Danish Resistance, helping to smuggle an
important person out of the country, that his team was surprised by a German
ambush on the beach. Struck by a bullet, Holger loses consciousness.
Then things get weird.
He awakens, naked, in a forest, the kind of densely-wooded forest that hasn’t
existed in Denmark in centuries. He finds a large war-horse tethered to a tree,
along with clothes and armor which fit him perfectly -- all the stranger because
Holger is not a small man -- and a shield bearing the device of three hearts
alternating with three lions.
At first he wonders if his friends have carried him off to another country;
then he wonders if he’s in another time. Finally he comes to the realization
that he is in another world.
In this world, the legends of Charlemagne and his knights, like the Song of
Roland, are historical. This seems to work both ways; one character Holger
meets muses that their legends of Frederick Barbarossa and the Emperor
Napoleon’s champions might be similar echoes from our world. This world is
locked in a millennia's-old conflict between the forces of Order, represented
mostly by Christendom, and of Chaos, represented by the Faerie of the Middle
If that theme of Order vs. Chaos sounds familiar, it might be because you've
played Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax and Dave Arnesson borrowed a number
of elements from Three Hearts and Three Lions, including the Paladin
character class, based largely on Holger, the depiction of the Classic D&D
Troll, and most importantly, the Alignment System based on Order vs. Chaos.
Holger muses that the situation here is analogous to the one he left in
Europe with two diametrically-opposed world-views facing off against each other;
(or the one existing at the time Anderson wrote the book, when the Iron Curtain
had descended across Europe).
Since the 1960s I think we've gotten used to identifying “Order” with
totalitarianism and “Chaos” with freedom, but Anderson has a science background.
He associates Chaos with Entropy and the Heat Death of the Universe. The theme
of heroes fighting against Chaos and Entropy comes up in more than one of his
stories. In addition, Anderson was a Kipling fan, and I suspect was thinking of
the line from the poem “Recessional” which speaks of the “lesser breeds without
the law” – not primitive, uncivilized tribes, but nations like the Prussians of
Kipling's day and the Nazis a generation later, governed by Might rather than by
Although in the Carolingian world of Three Hearts, Christendom, as
represented by the remnants of Charlemagne’s Empire, stands as the champions of
Order, we are told that the Mohammedans are also of Lawful Alignment, and it’s
strongly suggested that the wars between Christians and Muslims are greatly to
blame for the weakening of Order and a big reason why the Faerie realms of the
Middle World have been encroaching in the past millennium.
Holger seems to be an important person in this world, although at first he
thinks he’s being mistaken for somebody else. The name Holger seems to be a
famous one, and he hears rumors that a Moorish knight has been seen in the area
asking after a knight bearing the three hearts and the three lions.
On the questionable advice of a suspiciously-friendly witch, Holger seeks
counsel from a Faerie lord, but this proves to be a mistake. The Faeries try
first to kill him outright; then to capture him through trickery. The fairy
lord summons Morgan le Fay, the powerful sorceress, who seems to have a history
with Holger. She tries to seduce him and comes close to succeeding.
Fortunately, Holger is not alone in his quest. He has gained the friendship
of Hugi the dwarf; a race allied with neither human nor Faerie, who has an
accent even thicker than Peter Jackson’s dwarves; and of Alianora, a human girl
raised in the wild by some of the more friendly of the magical creatures, who
has the ability to transform herself into a swan. Alianora is an affectionate
girl, and Holger finds himself attracted to her, but he doesn't want to take
advantage of her, especially since he chiefly wants to get home, and so he keeps
her at arm’s length.
Through their various encounters with magical creatures, Holger uses his
engineering experience and his scientific background to good advantage. When
challenged by a giant to a riddle contest, he manages to stall the brute until
dawn when daylight would turn him into stone. Holger is able to identify the
smell of ozone in the air and realizes just in time that such a huge mass of
carbon transmuted into silicon would result in an unstable isotope, and he
quickly leads his friends away before the radiation from the giant’s stone form
can harm them.
In another chapter, he comes to a village being troubled by a werewolf. The
wolf is trailed to the home of a local lord. Holger uses deduction, process of
elimination, and a knowledge of germ theory to identify which member of the
knight’s household is the true werewolf, and then arrives at a humane solution
to deal with the threat.
Holger is more and more certain that he is someone significant here; and he
has nagging echoes of memories about things. Who is the Knight of the Three
Hearts and the Three Lions?
NEXT: Advice from a Wizard; the Mysterious Moor; the Quest
for Cortana and the Knight’s Identity Revealed!