Fantasy Book Review: Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a formative early work of fantasy fiction

In the early 1950s, shortly before J. R. R. Tolkien published his landmark novel The Lord of the Rings, the Danish-American author Poul Anderson wrote two short fantasy novels which would have less of an influence on the course of fantasy fiction, but which now read as considerably more ‘modern’, in many ways, than Tolkien’s three-books-in-one epic. One of these novels, The Broken Sword, was published in 1954, the same year that the first volume of Tolkien’s novel appeared. A year before that, however, Anderson had published another fantasy novel, which drew inspiration from Tolkien’s earlier The Hobbit but which moved fantasy into a new direction. That novel was Three Hearts and Three Lions. Despite its title promoting the ‘rule of three’ not once but twice, this was not a huge three-decker novel on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, nor the first novel in a vast trilogy. Instead it’s a novel that doesn’t even run to 200 pages in my edition (Three Hearts & Three Lions (FANTASY MASTERWORKS)).

Three Hearts and Three Lions focuses on Holger Carlsen, an American-trained Danish engineer (shades of Anderson’s own Scandinavian-American identity here) who becomes involved with the Danish resistance to Hitler during the Second World War and, after being shot, is transported to a parallel universe modelled on early French romances of Faerieland. It’s as if this land has been expecting him: he finds all the paraphernalia a good chivalrous knight needs, including a shield emblazoned with three hearts and three lions, and is soon befriended by a swan maiden and a dwarf and, later, a Saracen named Carahue, who has been searching for Holger (a number of the characters appear to know Holger already, although he doesn’t know them). Holger and the swan maiden, Alianora, fall for each other, but our reluctant hero resists the urge to consummate their passion because he wants to return to the twentieth century, so he resists her, intent on ‘doing the right thing’. They all embark on a quest to find the sword named Cortana, and to say more than this would be to attempt to summarise a short novel which really does pack a great deal into around 70,000 words or so.

The copy of Three Hearts and Three Lions which I own comes with a ringing endorsement from Michael Moorcock on the back cover, and it’s easy to see the influence of Anderson’s novel (and his other remarkable fantasy novel, The Broken Sword) on Moorcock’s own fantasy universe, or ‘multiverse’. There’s the same idea of crossing over into different worlds and alternate universes where familiar people go under different names (compare Moorcock’s idea of the Eternal Champion: essentially, every Moorcock protagonist is an incarnation of the same hero, with Elric being Corum being Dorian Hawkmoon being Jerry Cornelius and so on), and the fantasy world of Three Hearts and Three Lions, like the worlds of Moorcock’s early fantasy novels, is governed by Law and Chaos locked in an eternal struggle, sidestepping the Manichean dichotomy of Good and Evil found in the Christian fantasies of Anderson’s contemporaries, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

There’s another link with Michael Moorcock, although I don’t think this one is necessarily a direct influence. Moorcock has said that from an early age he realised that a story should have at least two meanings: one of his earliest influences was The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, and much fantasy, of course, takes the same form as Bunyan’s early ‘novel’, in being allegorical. Anderson makes it clear in the closing pages of Three Hearts & Three Lions that Holger’s adventures in Faerie land are meant to parallel the contemporary battle being waged between Hitler and the Allied Forces, thus lending his protagonist’s portal-story an extra layer of significance. If this threatens to spell out the ‘moral’ of the novel, then to see it narrowly as a moral is perhaps to miss the point. Three Hearts and Three Lions isn’t a fable or political novel in the way that a novel published just four years earlier, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is.

There’s also something thrilling about Anderson’s successful fusion of two things which it isn’t always easy to merge together in fiction: not only history and myth (Charlemagne figures in the novel, but the early discussion of Roland, his loyal paladin, is filtered through the early chansons and poems) but age-old literature and cutting-edge (for the mid-twentieth century anyway) quantum theory and scientific debate. As with The Broken Sword, which I’ve reviewed here, Anderson crams all of this into a novel of barely 200 pages. Three Hearts & Three Lions (FANTASY MASTERWORKS) is, like that other masterpiece, required reading for anyone interested in the development of fantasy literature in the mid-twentieth century.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

1 thought on “Fantasy Book Review: Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions”

  1. Good review. I read Poul Anderson as a boy sci fi fan – then had the great pleasure of sharing his company at the conferences of CONTACT-Cultures of the Imagination. (The Boy SciFi fan would never have dreamed that could happen.) We shared meals and talks; but my favorite memory, drinking good donated beer at 3 am in the Palo Alto Holiday Inn was watching a young graduate student as he stood between Poul and Geoff Landis of what is now NASA-Glenn Center as they talked about time travel. The student’s head swung back and forth as the discussion got into some very interesting scientific and speculative territory.

    After the discussion ended, Landis and the grad student left. I walked over to Poul to ask him a question.

    “Poul, you wrote about the future; and then you got to see it happen. What do you think?”

    He thought for a moment, then said, “It didn’t happen the way it was supposed to happen.”


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