Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Apr 9, 2016
Friends, fantasists, comrades. I am here to talk about what is probably one of the most influential books in the genre.

A big claim but consider this brief synopsis. During WW2, an engineer named Holger Carlsen joins the Danish Resistance. He is wounded while covering the escape of Niels Bohr, and awakes in a strange world where the arms and horse of a knight await him. He discovers in this world, much like that of Charlemagne's paladins, that the forces of Law and Chaos are at war. With the aid of a dwarf with a Scottish accent and the swan-maiden Alianora, Holger must discover his own role in this war, for his enemies are many and cunning.

Law and Chaos. Paladins. Scottish dwarves. These are very generic concepts today, particularly among fantasy gamers, but they weren't in 1961. It is here that these ideas, if not originated (although I suspect they did), gained prominence. They had a big influence on D&D, which in turn has influenced huge amounts of modern fantasy literature. And that's just the obvious. I wish I had the knowledge of the genre needed to make the following claim with confidence, but I think there's a case that in terms of the "vaguely historical/mythological adventures of might and magic" trad fantasy genre, this might be the most influential book not penned by Tolkien*. Bold words but I stand by them until something changes my mind.

Influential and of historic importance doesn't mean fun to read though. You don't see me recommending The Worm Ouroboros (I should probably do a review of that). Am I going to recommend 3H&3L?

Yes. This isn't a raving "you must read it" recommendation but it's good at what it does. It's a well-paced adventure with fun fight-scenes and some good glimmerings of humour. Watching Holger apply scientific explanations to the marvels he meets is strangely enjoyable - not my usual cup of tea - and there's a poignancy to his ponderings over what the rat is happening to him. I could wish the world felt more cohesive, but how was Poul Anderson meant to know there's be 50 years of willy-nilly rule of cool western European legend mash up after him?

My biggest criticism and reason I only liked, rather than loved - other than not quite gelling with the prose - this book is that none of the character dynamics really popped at me. Anderson played for that knightly romance feeling and, well, it's not a field that really serves character dynamics in this one's humble opinion. It's too fixated on the knight and the knight's experience of the unknown. Which is what happens here very well. The dynamics between Holger and Alianora, between Holger and the dwarf Hugi, they're fine, there's some fun moments, but it's not stand out. There's no sense of anything wonderful, there's only one truly memorable line (and that's a mild spoiler so I'm not repeating it). Not that there's anything uncommon to that with adventure-action fantasy.

And that's what this is. A fairly common adventure-action fantasy, for better and for worse. Anderson's ideas won't seem as wowing or fresh as they once were, and the prose has aged a little, but this is still gets the job done.

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