Three Hearts, Three Lions, One Forgivable Metachronism

Pathfinders of GameLit series #4

Beware: Here’s a spoiler alert for this 58-year old novel….


As luck would have it, I finished reading Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson around the same time we started binge-watching Professor Dorsey Armstrong’s Arthurian lecture series from the Great Courses.** The 1961 novel is an early portal story and one of Gary Gygax’s stated influences for Dungeons & Dragons. The main character, Holger Carlsen, is a resistance fighter in Denmark during World War II, and one night, during a daring operation helping a scientist escape Nazi capture, he’s shot and knocked unconscious. When he wakes, Holger slowly comes to believe that he has been knocked into a parallel world of magic and intrigue. 

As if Anderson foresaw the perks afforded video game characters, Holger finds gear that fits him perfectly, a sword that somehow feels right in his hands, and a horse that seems to be just waiting for him to show up. He’s a modern man, an engineer and scientist, so he doesn’t quite believe any of his senses – not at first, but then a brush with danger convinces him that it’s better to wear armor and look like a fool than to not wear it and end up dead. This is one more step toward understanding that, beyond all notion of possible explanations, Holger has found himself in a version of medieval Europe. Just as he is embracing this idea, he receives his first quest! As he moves further into this strange world – both physically and intellectually – more details begin to seem familiar. Clues pile up until Holger finds the truth of his strange situation. 

Three Hearts and Three Lions, 1st edition cover, 1961
Three Hearts and Three Lions, 1st edition cover, 1961

At first he suspects that he is Holger Danske (aka Ogier the Dane) – one of Charlemagne’s fabled knights. He’s got the black horse, a sworn enemy called “The Saracen,” and memories of a sword called Cortana. In a twist that seems both fresh and inevitable, Holger Carlsen and Holger Dankse turn out to be none other than Arthur Pendragon come back to save his world from agents of Chaos. With deft strokes, Anderson reveals to both Holger and the reader all the little ways that Holger’s true identity is shining through. Morgan Le Fay even makes an appearance, as does a Merlinesque character named Martinus Trismegistus, and of course a world-famous sword in need of recovery. 

Poul Anderson (born November 25, 1926, Bristol, Pennsylvania, USA – died July 31, 2001, Orinda, California, USA)
Poul Anderson brings us to strange old worlds (when he’s not taking us to space.)

Fortunately, my knowledge of history rarely gets in the way of engaging fiction, but thanks to Dr. Dorsey Armstrong from Purdue University, the AMAZING professor and editor in chief of the academic journal Arthuriana, I know that the historical “Arthur-like-figure” lived at the very beginning of the medieval period. He didn’t wear shiny plate armor, wield a grand sword named Excalibur, or sit at a round table with his noble knights. And unlike Anderson’s Holger/Arthur, he didn’t speak Norman French. Arthur, champion of the Britons, probably spoke Welsh. He fought for his homeland against an invading force of….. English-speaking peoples.

Knowing about the historical Arthur certainly doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of this novel. I’m already suspending my disbelief about faeries, trolls, undead, and blood magic, so why not the historical King of Camelot? As a legendary folk hero, Arthur’s deeds and characteristics vary in the telling depending upon the source, even those who wrote in time periods much closer to their subject. It’s Poul Anderson’s savvy with blending arcs of time and space for this story that makes it a great early example of portal fiction with game-like objectives, and consequently endears him to our hearts.

Box cover for Pendragon (role-playing game), 1st edition, copyright Chaosium, illustration by Jody Lee, 1985
Box cover for Pendragon (role-playing game), 1st edition, copyright Chaosium, illustration by Jody Lee, 1985

His narrative instinct about an immersive Arthurian experience would bear out a couple decades later, with the 1985 publication of Greg Stafford’s Pendragon, the tabletop role-playing game in which characters take on the role of chivalric knights. The game’s standard d20 mechanics allow characters to engage in combat and adventure, but also incorporate skills like Pride and Modesty to deepen the roleplaying aspect and allow for exploration into other Arthurian concepts like courtly love, royal bloodlines and inheritance, and the knightly code of ethics. The game has gone through several publishers and editions through the years, but has landed in the good hands of Stewart Wieck’s Nocturnal Media. Their latest edition starts the campaign earlier than previous versions, in the year 485, when Arthur’s father King Uther is still in power. As Poul Anderson well knew, this rich mixture of history and legend is perfect for an immersive roleplaying adventure. In fact, all this jousting and jostling for the Lady’s favor has us itching to don a suit of (time period appropriate) armor and roll some round table(top) dice.

** Seriously, we love our Great Courses Plus subscription. It offers a staggering number of university-level lectures across a wide gamut of disciplines. Lately, we’ve seen great deals on it for around $10/month popping up in our social media feeds. Also, many great podcasts, like one of our favorites, Lore, offer affiliate discounts, too. It’s quickly becoming one of our favorite sites for streaming content.


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