Three Hearts and Three Lions
by Poul Anderson
Originally published by Doubleday (1961)
Republished by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (2015)
In the 1940s, Danish native Holger Carlsen left an idyllic life in the United States to fight the Nazi forces that rampaged through his old country. In the midst of a heated battle, he is spirited away to a mystical realm that resembles the European Middle Ages, but with a twist: the magic and monsters of legend are real, and they threaten to overwhelm human society. Holger is given not only armor, a sword, and a horse, but the fighting and riding skills of a knight — and mysterious memories that haunted him at every turn. It turns out that Holger is a hero foretold to aid humanity in a great struggle against the chaotic, inhuman forces of the Middle World, and he has no idea how he would fill such big shoes.
Once Holger crossed into the other world, I noticed something different right away: the book strongly emphasizes Christianity, though it does not try to convert the reader in any way. Christianity was central to the culture of the Middle Ages, and Anderson has it seep into everything in the setting; holy icons are especially effective against fairy folk, for example, and prayers protect against some forms of magic. Even the conflict between Christianity and Islam plays a role in the plot, though it is not the main focus.
The characters prove to be simple, but distinct — the dwarf Hugi is blunt and practical, while the swan-may Alianora is helpful and devoted. Holger encounters the legendary witch Morgan Le Fay, who opposes him not through fights, but through seduction and cunning; Holger has to conquer himself as much as he had to conquer his enemies.
Anderson also shows that he knows the old folktales on a very deep level, interweaving them into crucial plot points throughout the entire novel — it made the tale feel deep and full. It was nothing at all like the fantasy stuff I was used to, where a legendary figure’s name would be used without capturing any of that character’s substance. It did not treat European folklore as a grab-bag of powers and names to use simply because they sounded cool; I could tell that this story came from the pen of someone who truly loved these tales.
Finally, Holger himself doesn’t angst or doubt himself; he is not forever talking about how great home is, or how great it would be to get home. He just saddles up and accepts his situation, going about the business of stopping the evil.
That being said, the book isn’t perfect. It has an episodic structure; Holger, Hugi, and Alianora go from one adventure to the next, and the quests can feel disconnected; however, Anderson makes sure that every digression relates to the plot and moves it forward; there is no true filler. Also, the ending left a lot to be desired, it felt too anticlimactic. It should’ve been much more of a spectacle than it was.
All in all, though, the good points outweigh the bad. The plotting, while simple, was quite enjoyable. It stayed away from complex political maneuvering and magical systems to give a story much like a fairy tale: a story that just felt right without getting bogged down in complexity. I recommend this book 100%.
Three Hearts and Three Lions can be purchased on Amazon.