Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vintage Fantasy: “Three Hearts and Three Lions”

After rediscovering vintage fantasy fiction by Robert E. Howard last month, it got me thinking about some of the other classics I’ve read over the years. Among these is Three Hears and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, first published as a novella in 1953. This may not be one of the most well-known works of vintage fantasy, but its influence on the genre cannot be overstated.

This is the cover of my Fantasy Masterworks edition.
Here is what famed fantasy author Michael Moorcock had to say about the book (from the back cover of my paperback edition):
This book, with The Broken Sword, is the best Anderson ever produced, a great seminal work which should be read by anyone interested in the roots of modern fantasy fiction.
 – Michael Moorcock
Moorcock has admitted that Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced his own stories about Elric of Melniboné, another fantasy classic. Anderson’s tale contains all of the fundamental archetypes of fantasy fiction, and while it may seem cliché by today’s standards, it was original enough in 1953. Also, this novel is credited among the sources that influenced the creation of the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. It’s easy to see why since the whole story plays out like a good old fashioned D&D campaign.
This old school cover is cool too.
The protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions is Holger Carlsen, a Dane living as an engineer in 1930s America who decides to return to Denmark during WWII to join the resistance against the Nazis (significantly, Anderson too is a Danish-American who was in his teens when WWII broke out). When a bullet grazes Holger’s head during a gunfight, he loses consciousness, only to wake up in an age long past. Waiting for him is a warhorse, a suite of chainmail, a sword, and a shield bearing the heraldry of three hearts and three lions. Strangely, they fit him perfectly. He soon encounters a wood witch who divines that for Holger to return home, he must travel to the land of Faerie, and so his adventure begins.

Holger is befriended by a dwarf named Hugi, who plays the role of Holger’s sidekick, and a beautiful swan-may named Alianora, who serves as Holger’s love interest in the tale. As they travel to the Faerie realm, which exists in a perpetual state of twilight, Holger concludes he’s “fallen into a realm beyond his own time.” He comes to learn this world is parallel to our own where the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne exists alongside the realm of Faerie and creatures from legend, as if the fantasy world of the French Chansons de Geste (the Carolingian Cycle) had come to life. The fantastic realm is called Middle World, which sounds a lot like Middle Earth, but both Tolkien and Anderson likely derived the term from the Midgard of Norse mythology. The land is in a perpetual struggle between the primeval forces of Law (represented by the Holy Roman Empire) and Chaos (the forces of Faerie), and like the Nazis of Holger’s home world, Chaos seeks to make the whole earth its own.

This was one of the original covers.
Upon arriving at the Faerie castle of Duke Alfric, Holger learns that whoever he is in this world is a notorious enemy of Chaos. After things end badly at Alfric’s court, the story kicks into gear as Holger and his two companions flee from Faerie and encounter a veritable Monster Manual worth of beasties, including a dragon, a giant, a werewolf, a nixie, and a fearsome troll. He also discovers that whoever he is in this world was once the lover of Morgan le Fay – yes, she of Arthurian legend – and now his scorned lover is one of the queens of Chaos. The introduction of Morgan into the story seemed out of place at first, but then I was reminded that the French Chansons de Geste often crossed into the realm of Arthurian legend (and, without giving away the identity of Holger’s alter ego in Middle World, the chansons even include a story about the paladins of Charlemagne and Morgan le Fay).

Holger determines he must discover his true identity in this land so he can fulfill whatever destiny has brought him to this world. Along the way, he is joined by a mysterious Moor named Sir Carahue (also of Carolingian fame) who has been searching for Holger. Together with Hugi and Alianora, Carahue accompanies Holger on a quest to retrieve a magical sword named Cortanta, forged of the same metal as Durindal and Excalibur, which can help Holger withstand the gathering forces of Chaos (at least according to the old wizard who sent them on the quest). All of this makes it easy to see how Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced so many fantasy tales and role-playing games that came after it.

To me, the most interesting thing about Three Hearts and Three Lions is where it fits into the pantheon of vintage fantasy fiction. Anderson published Three Hearts and Three Lions a year before Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, yet sixteen years after the release of The Hobbit and twenty-one years after Robert E. Howard published his first Conan tale. Because both Tolkien and Anderson borrowed heavily from folklore, it’s hard to tell how much The Hobbit may have influenced Anderson’s tale. The dwarves and elves of Middle World bear little resemblance to Tolkien’s, though the story does have a riddle contest with a giant that’s a lot like Bilbo’s parlay with Gollum, and it’s reminiscent of the scene with the three trolls as well.

Of course, playing riddle games with a monster is as old as Oedipus and the mythological sphinx. The point is, each story and myth influences the ones that come after it. And as far as fantasy fiction is concerned, Three Hearts and Three Lions holds a special place in that lineage.

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