Poul Anderson is one of those giants in the SF/F field whose work I have not sampled at length and did not really intend to until I was told that this was an influence on Gene Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series. Three Hearts and Three Lions was actually more of an influence on Gary Gygax and “Dungeons and Dragons” than Wolfe. But it isn’t just an inspiration for Gygax; Anderson also inspired the law vs. chaos themes in Michael Moorecock’s Eternal Champion stories. Three Hearts and Three Lions was first published in serialized form in 1953, making it officially fantasy before the Rings.
It is also a prime example of fantasy as wish-fulfillment. The hero, Holger Carlson, goes to his native Denmark to fight the Nazis during WWII after a successful career as an engineer in the United States, where he also proves himself a great football player who could have his pick of the local women were he not so shy. During a botched mission to transport a British spy out of Denmark, Holger is knocked unconscious, finding himself no longer in the midst of battle upon awakening, but lying naked in a forest with a powerful steed and knightly gear specially fitted for his robust physique awaiting him. Taking what he fears are not his own possessions, Holger sets off to find his way back home, finding himself in unusually good command of medieval arms and making friends with magical creatures, like Hugi, a well-humored dwarf who speaks in questionable Scottish brogue, and Alianora, a pretty young girl who can magically transmogriphy into a swan and speaks in a yet more questionable Scottish brogue.
If one guesses that Hoger will become a hero of renown -- that he will kill powerful foes and outwit monsters and have some really awesome sex -- he would be mostly correct. Holger receives special dispensation, one assumes, from God, although he is not the only character so blessed. He is both an ideal paladin and an engineer, divining the laws that govern the seeming magic of the world in which he finds himself as well as utilizing his knowledge of physics for practical means against a pursuing dragon and a seductive nixie. He is every bit the everyman hero, except that women throw themselves at him. Alianora, the spunky, cute young girl who turns into a swan, fights over his affections with prim, mature, curvaceous Morgan La Fey. So, yeah: wish fulfillment at its most 1950’s.
Only, it isn’t just about male wish-fulfillment. I get the impression that Anderson is too knowing to write anything so blunt. In fact, much of Holger’s internal narration is rather pointed. When Alianora, whose tiny, feathered dress is what allows her to morph into a swan, seems to warm up to a fellow traveler after he recites some corny poetry and compliments her beauty, Holger storms off to have a hissy fit. “Doesn’t that hillbilly swan wench know what she’s doing to me, parading around half naked? Satan take all women, anyway. They’ve only got exactly one purpose in this world.” I’ve done this. Admit it, guys, we’ve all done this. Only we’re lucky in that water sprites are not then given the opportunity to eat our livers as we drown.
And there is the other part of what makes Three Hearts and Three Lions more than much of what it inspired. The world created by Anderson is a recreation of that described by the medieval romances, a worldview in which the medieval writers unquestionably believed. Christianity exists, juxtaposed to the wild realm of Faerie, to provide law to a world that would otherwise fall into entropy, spurred by the whims of magical creatures for whom such a world would be tolerable, if not enjoyable to live in indefinitely. Anderson does not seek to show chaos as wholly savage, evil, or meretricious. Chaos in Three Hearts and Three Lions defines itself by the modern thaumaturgist’s governing principle, “do what thou wilt,” and it is in this sense that Anderson sees chaos in the regimented, fetishistic organization of the Third Reich, which ignores all reasonable morality and ethics in pursuit of its goals. “Kant be not proud,” and all, but there are some things that simply ain’t right.
Three Hearts and Three Lions is not vicarious ego wank, per se. In fact, Anderson surely intended what Tolkien and Wolfe intended with their fantasies: a challenge to his readers to see themselves as an heir to Western civilization, a defender of law against a world where nobody questions that might makes right. The reader should see Holger as an analogue for him or herself, but in no way that resembles narcissistic escapism.
Anderson is also a lovely writer. Broad characterization and quick pacing make for a fast read; Anderson’s world builds itself in the margins of description and dialogue rather than in large bulks of text. There are certainly imaginative sequences, particularly a fight against a regenerating troll which will be familiar to D&D fans. Three Hearts and Three Lions is never less than humorous, warm, and good natured. If certain fantasy authors had as much wit and imagination as Poul Anderson, the genre would be far less embarrassing and comprised of much shorter books.
I think I’m going to adopt “big women have no business acting kittenish” into my cache of quotable locutions.