Three Lions On the Shield

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Along with the following year’s The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson’s 1953 novel Three Hearts and Three Lions is one of those fantasy novels which has probably influenced a vastly greater number of people than the number who have actually read the thing. Many are only vaguely aware of it as the novel whose metaphysical conflict between Law and Chaos inspired both Michael Moorcock’s own take on those concepts (and thus, indirectly, Games Workshop’s), as well as the original alignment system for Dungeons & Dragons, but its influence on Moorcock, Gygax and Arneson goes further than that. On the gaming side, it’s hard to argue that Gygax and Arneson did not rip off Three Hearts‘ depiction of a troll entirely in describing such monsters for the original game, and ever since then long noses, coal-black eyes and regeneration of any wound not cauterised by fire have been the canonical features of trolls in D&D; furthermore, the capabilities and restrictions faced by the protagonist, Holger Carlsen, makes him appear to be the original model for the paladin class. And as far is Moorcock is concerned, Three Hearts and Three Lions is essentially the story he’s been rewriting over and over again for the last five decades – its story of parallel worlds, and a hero with a lynchpin identity in both, is the direct inspiration for Moorcock’s own multiverse and his concept of the Eternal Champion.

Anderson introduces our hero, Holger Carlsen, in a prologue that sets up the framing story. Carlsen, he tells us, was a young engineer from Denmark who emigrated to the United States as a young man, was a decent athlete and passable student in university, and worked as a colleague of Anderson’s nameless narrator for some years. (The narrator is presumably a stand-in for Anderson himself, but at this point in time the real-life Anderson was living in Denmark.) When World War II breaks out, Carlsen becomes increasingly convinced that he is morally obligated to make his way back to Denmark in order to do what he can to help fight the Nazi occupation of his homeland; he eventually makes the journey (presumably as, in real life, the Anderson family fled Denmark for America), and soon enough he’s hooked up with the resistance.

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