Three Hearts and Three Lions: Reader Response

I just finished Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. I’m not totally sure how I came across this title, but Wikipedia claims that it influenced the first edition of D&D in its conception of alignment and trolls. Not that it’s an especially D&D-like novel. Not that I would really know; I don’t think I’ve ever read a D&D novel. Anyway.

Here’s what it is like. It’s like watching someone go from one place to another, dealing with various monsters from the menu of European fairy tales. Then, at the end of the journey, the hero discovers his strength and defeats the bad guys. And it’s great.

Our hero is a guy, Holger Carlsen, Dane who half-emigrated to the USA in the years before WWII. He’s a pretty smart guy, a pretty strong guy, who, when WWII breaks out, discovers that he didn’t really mean to emigrate. He returns to Denmark to fight Nazis in the underground. In the heat of a particularly important secret mission, he gets knocked out and wakes up in Ye Olde Europe.

From there the questing, and the romance, and the fighting, and the discovering his true identity takes place. He uses his modern knowledge in some circumstances, gets lucky in others, and in some his friends help him make it through. His friends are mainly a dwarf and a swan may.

Each chapter is, essentially, one encounter loosely connected to the next. About a third of the way through the book, things shift, and what appeared to be one type of fantasy story—the type where the unwitting hero moves rapidly into circles of power and through his native wisdom, strength, and grace wins the day—turns into a different type of story. This is the type of where the hero doesn’t really understand much of anything, accidentally does the right thing a few times, and finds he’s leading the good guys against the forces of Chaos, and it’s not going so well at pretty much every step.

Here’s what I mean by that. In each encounter, Holger prevails by and large unscathed. He comes out of each one with a tiny bit more knowledge about who he is, and how he fits into this world where he finds himself. However, though he defeats his opponents, his material position slowly weakens. This is of little consequence in the middle third of the story, when Holger and his friends are wandering in the wilderness. It begins to matter rapidly and increasingly rapidly through the final third, so that by the final encounter, he’s barely able to stand before he attains his goal.

And then he gets what he’s after, the veil falls, and… and the novel ends. There’s a coda, but we readers only get the final climactic battle retrospectively.

This is a very good book. It seems nothing much happens, but it’s very well written, and the pace of it makes more sense on review than perhaps it does at the time. The characters are clearly drawn, and fun to journey with.

Also great is to see how Anderson links this character to The Matter of France. It’s not just a name, or a character history; Anderson allows the Christianity of the source material to come through. While the novel isn’t Christian as such, the characters all assume the power of Christ and God, the good guys rely on the Holy Name to give them strength, and the bad guys are weakened by encounters with those how believe and use these talismans. Upon returning to the mundane world, Holger joins the Church in an effort to return to the heroic realm where The Matter is history and not just legendary literature. This is some literature which I didn’t know about before, and which I’m now looking forward to reading.