Monday, September 6, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #40: Poul Anderson, Three Hearts & Three Lions

There was a man who had to be gotten out of Denmark.  The Allies needed his information and abilities rather badly.  The Germans held him under close watch, for they also knew what he was.  Nevertheless, the underground spirited him from his home and conveyed him down to the Sound.  A boat lay ready to take him to Sweden, whence he could be flown into England.

We will probably never know whether the Gestapo was on his trail or whether a German patrol simply happened to spot men on the shore long after curfew.  Someone cried out, someone else fired, and the battle started.  The beach was open and stony, with just enough light to see by from the stars and the illuminated Swedish coast.  No way of retreat.  The boat got going, and the underground band settled down to hold off the enemy till it had reached the opposite shore.

Their hope even of that was not large.  The boat was slow.  Their very defense had betrayed its importance.  In a few minutes, when the Danes were killed, one of the Germans would break into the nearest house and telephone occupation headquarters in Elsinore, which was not far off.  A high-powered motorcraft would intercept the fugitive before he reached neutral territory.  However, the underground men did their best.

Holger Carlsen fully expected to die, but he lacked time to be afraid.  A part of him remembered other days here, sunlit stillness and gulls overhead, his foster parents, a house full of small dear objects; yes, and Kronborg castle, red brick and slim towers, patinaed copper roofs above bright waters, why should he suddenly think of Kronborg?  He crouched on the shingle, the Luger hot in his fingers, and fired at shadowy leaping forms.  Bullets whined by his ears.  A man screamed.  Holger took aim and shot.

Then all his world blew up in flame and darkness.  (pp. 5-6)

Poul Anderson's 1953 novella (later expanded into the present novel form in 1961), Three Hearts & Three Lions is one of the more influential fantasy stories.  The creator of Dungeons & Dragons based his original schema around Anderson's Law/Chaos division and this may have been an influence on Michael Moorcock's Elric stories and Gene Wolfe's The Knight and The Wizard, which contains an allusion to Anderson's story.  Three Hearts & Three Lions is also one of the earlier examples of a portal fantasy (Mark Twain's satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court being perhaps the oldest of this form of fantasy story), a fact that actually can hinder some readers' enjoyment of this novel due to the plethora of imitators in the fifty-seven years since the original novella was published.

The quote above sets up the transfer of Dane resistance fighter/engineer Holger Carlsen from our world to a parallel Europe divided by the aggressive, Christian Holy Roman Empire-analogue and the wild, chaotic lands of Faery, which contain some malevolent spirits bound and determined to extinguish their western neighbor's holy powers.  Accompanied by a dwarf who speaks with a Scottish brogue and a shapeshifting woman with whom Carlsen falls in love, he slowly comes to realize that he is the long-prophesized knight of Three Hearts and Three Lions, the legendary Ogier the Dane of the chansons regarding Charlemagne's paladins.  Today, this is not a very novel concept, but a half-century ago, it certainly was influential enough on the D&D-related stories that followed.

Being influential does not equate to being a great story.  Anderson's novel reads in places like the fix-up it was, as some of the traveling scenes and adventures feel as though they were bolted onto the original narrative.  Anderson does introduce certain concepts here that he developed to greater effect in his 1954 Norse-influenced fantasy, The Broken Sword, including the power of Christianity and its relics and holy water to negate any magical use, but here it feels underdeveloped.  It certainly does not help that the prose is mediocre at best and at times really poor, as evidenced in that quote at the beginning of this review.  Three Hearts & Three Lions reads as if it were a good story off on a quest to find a decent prose medium by which it could be told, only to discover tragedy along the way.

Three Hearts & Three Lions may be viewed as a "masterwork" because of its influence on latter writers, but when a lot of its influences involve the inclusion of such incredibly cheesy tropes such as having a pugnacious dwarf that speaks as though it had wandered out drunk from a Scottish pub and with an ultra-noble paladin whose very hair and eyes might have been cast from Nordic Central, it is difficult to see much in the way of merit about this tale when its worst elements have begotten scads of horribly-derivative hack-and-slash fantasy in the fifty years or so since its initial publication.  Maybe I am not the ideal reader for this type of story, maybe Anderson is just too hit-or-miss with his narratives (as I did find The Broken Sword to be a much more realized fantasy story than this one), but I just could not help but to find Three Hearts & Three Lions to be one of his poorer efforts, one that I certainly would not raise up as being an exemplary fantasy quest novel.

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