Three Hearts & Three Lions - Poul Anderson

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Three Hearts & Three Lions
Poul Anderson
Fantasy Masterworks
Gollancz Publishers
ISBN: 0575074981 (Amazon link)

This is one of the novels that the prolific Anderson said he would like to be remembered for, and one for which he does indeed seem to be famous, with Michael Moorcock on the cover of this edition proclaiming it "a great seminal work".

This feels very different from The Broken Sword, even though both play with Northern European mythos and help define what we call fantasy these days. Three Hearts & Three Lions is an Other World story. Bluff, practical engineer Holger Carlsen is a Dane resident in the US, who returns to Denmark during WWII, and who gets involved with the resistance there. One night, he ends up lying on a beach, in a fire-fight with a German patrol, covering the escape of Someone Important. The problem is that he gets knocked cold and wakes up in a forest, naked, but near a conveniently supplied warhorse, carrying an suspiciously well fitting clothes, armour, arms and a shield with a device of "three hearts sanguine and three lions passant or."

Being a practical sort Holger refuses to believe he's fallen into another world, even when he cannot figure out where he can be geographically, but equally, being a practical sort it isn't long before he's figured out He's Not In Kansas Anymore and saddles up to explore. The world in which he finds himself is one in which there is a on-going fight between the forces of Chaos, represented by all the creatures of Faery - dragons, elves, trolls, etc - and the forces of Law, represented mainly by the kingdoms of Men. This is at once utterly familiar of course, but refreshingly different from the Tolkien inspired hordes of modern Commercial Fantasy, particularly in regards to the Elves. I much prefer the older, wilder versions to Tolkien's, whether the capricious Sidhe I grew up reading about, or the courtlier Wild Hunt. Carlsen isn't long putting the pieces together and realising that wherever he is, it's populated by what he knows from the Carolingan cycle. Soon he's out questing for a way home, or to find out whose part he's now playing, in the company of a beautiful shape-shifting swan girl and a grumpy, heavily-accented dwarf.

This is huge fun to read of course, but as with much of Anderson's work, I always find it a little dated, stamped with 50s attitudes and sensibilities. This is also part of the charm of this book, but in each episode Carlsen's practical, good-old-American-engineering know-how gets them out of a sticky fix. Whether it's connecting atomic theory and the cursed gold on a troll turned to stone, figuring out why elf-lords have Daggers of Burning made of magnesium, or applying thermodynamics to the problem of a fire-breathing dragon, Carlsen always finds a way to apply his modern knowledge, but this sits oddly with his acquired knowledge - he can fight like a champion with his archaic arms, understands the language of heraldry, and remembers convenient bits and pieces of courtly lore as required. (When he can't remember what to do at court, he resorts to throwing out old cliches and snippets of the Bard of course.) Carlsen's split-personality parallels the uncomfortable bolting of Carlsen's 50s mechanistic view of the world onto a slew of timeless mythic episodes, and oddly I found Carlsen's ability to identify magnesium visually harder to believe than the shape-shifting Alianora!

Anderson structures the whole novel oddly in fact - the whole is presented in a third party modern day framing device, where a friend relates what Carlsen has told him. The first half of the tale proper is then told as a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court way, which then segues into a eternal battle between Law and Chaos with Carlsen as the current incarnation of the wielder of the Macguffin which will save the day. Surprisingly, this chimeric structure works reasonably well, and while I found the climax of the novel a little archetypal and distant compared to the bulk of the tale, I still enjoyed it. What I found much more surprising, given the romantic sub-plot, was how Anderson handles what happens to the Champion after the climactic battle. A very cruel ending indeed.


(And now, if you will excuse me, I'm off to find something authoritative to buy on the Carolingan Cycle, because although I keep bumping into disguised Rolands and Durindals in my fiction reading, I have to admit I've read bugger all of the sources.)

Posted: Wed - December 31, 2003 at 11:23 PM