Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Three Hearts and Three Lions book cover
Rating 9.5/10
I\'d give it 9.5/10 - nearly perfect!

There’s a certain irony that a novel whose primary theme is based around a Danish engineer being taken out of his own time and thrust into a fantasy world feels so out of place for when it was written.

Anderson’s seminal fantasy work, Three Hearts and Three Lions, was first written as a serialised novella in the 50s, an era of classical science-fiction fantasy the most pervasive of which has to be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The contrast between the books is stark. Whereas Tolkien’s epic feels formal and serious, Anderson’s is simply (to use a Fifties’ expression) a 'blast'.

The premise of the book seems clichéd now—an engineer, fighting in the resistance against the Nazis, is transported to another world. This realm is a pseudo-medieval place with features of European folklore and Arthurian legend. It is clear he is known in this world, but his own recollection is patchy and largely dormant. Gradually he recalls his own history and involvement with Morgan le Fay, and recognises a quest that awaits him.

It’s tricky reading the above and thinking this will offer anything new to the modern fantasy reader. It won’t. It will, however, give you a sense of where our wondrous genre came from. The story is naturally episodic, each chapter feeling like part of an ongoing TV series, and the hero, Holger’s, journey throws him into a series of encounters with giants, cannibals, faeries, witches and trolls. Throughout the quest all his modern sensibilities attempt to rationalise the world
(and you can tell Anderson’s SF influences here). This is both overt, such as when he uses thermodynamic principles to defeat a dragon, and covert, where his very twentieth century (OK, very 1950s) opinion on women influence the quest.

There are some stereotypes and clichés within the book—the depiction of the women slavering after Holger is pure male fantasy - but they augment rather than detract. Its humour and style are so far removed from LOTR that you can hardly believe they were written at the same time. Anderson’s prose is wonderful - it is energetic and fast, with his descriptions of the world superbly done. The Holy Knight that Holger becomes was a major influence on the Paladin class in the role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, as were many of the monsters in the novel (notably the troll).

Any grumbles? The story is very linear in its execution, but given it was a serialised novella in its inception that’s not surprising. The dialect that Anderson uses for the dwarf Hugi, and the swan-may, Alianora, grates a touch, coming over as a sort of crap Glaswegian style. I did start to warm to it in the end, although it would have been more readable written without it.

In summary, this is a classic of the genre by an excellent writer, with major influences for the half a century since it was created. It would be a great book to shove under the noses of those who think fantasy is all Tolkien-derivatives. It was a book out of its time in many ways.

I’d give it 9.5/10 - nearly perfect!

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