Three Hearts and Three Lions

Last updated
Three Hearts and Three Lions
Cover of the first edition
Author Poul Anderson
Cover artist Edward Gorey
CountryUnited States
Genre Fantasy
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date
June 16, 1961 [1]
Media typePrint (Hardback)

Three Hearts and Three Lions is a 1961 fantasy novel by American writer Poul Anderson, expanded from a 1953 novella by Anderson which appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction .



Holger Carlsen is an American-trained Danish engineer who joins the Danish resistance to the Nazis in World War II. At the shore near Elsinore, he is among the group of resistance fighters trying to cover the escape to Sweden of an important scientist (evidently the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr). With a German force closing in, Carlsen is shot – and suddenly finds himself transported to a parallel universe, a world where northern European legend concerning Charlemagne ("The Matter of France") is real. This world is divided between the forces of Chaos, inhabiting the "Middle World" (which includes Faerie), and the forces of Law based in the human world, which is in turn divided between the Holy Roman Empire and the Saracens. He finds the equipment and horse of a medieval knight waiting for him. The shield is emblazoned with three hearts and three lions. He finds the clothes and armor fit him perfectly, and he knows how to use the weapons and ride the horse as well as speak fluently the local language, a very archaic form of French.

Seeking to return to his own world, Holger is joined by Alianora, a swan maiden, and Hugi, a dwarf. They are induced to follow the seemingly attractive elvish Duke Alfric of Faerie, who in fact plots to imprison Holger in Elf Hill, where time runs differently. Holger learns that Morgan Le Fay, his lover in a forgotten past life, is his ultimate adversary.

They escape and, after encountering a dragon, a giant, and a werewolf, reach the town of Tarnberg, where they are joined by a mysterious Saracen called Carahue, who has been searching for Holger. Based on the advice of the wizard, Martinus Trismegistus, they set out to recover the sword Cortana. The sword is in a ruined church, guarded by a nixie, cannibal hillmen, and – most dangerous of all – a troll.

While on this perilous quest, Holger and Alianora fall deeply in love with each other. However, Holger avoids physically consummating this love – though Alianora wants him to – as he intends to return to the 20th century world he came from. But with the perilous Wild Hunt on their tracks, Holger and Alianora pledge their love and he promises, if surviving the ordeal ahead, to remain always with her. However, the decision would be taken out of his hands.

Once the sword is recovered, Holger discovers he is the legendary Ogier the Dane, a champion of Law. He vanquishes the forces of Chaos and is transported back to his own world, right back to the battle in Elsinore – and with a burst of superhuman strength, vanquishes the Nazi troops and enables Bohr to escape and play his part in the Manhattan Project; thus, in two worlds Holger/Ogier has fulfilled his destiny of fighting evil forces and preserving Denmark and France. The magical forces involved have no consideration for the hero's love life, leaving him stranded away from his beloved Alianora. Desperately wanting to return to the other world, he seeks clues in old books of magic. His enduring affinity with the medieval world in which he met her is expressed by a decision to convert to Catholicism.


The Coat of Arms of Denmark currently includes Nine Hearts and Three Lions. Historically, the lions were always three but the number of hearts was often changing, until fixed at nine in 1819. National Coat of arms of Denmark.svg
The Coat of Arms of Denmark currently includes Nine Hearts and Three Lions. Historically, the lions were always three but the number of hearts was often changing, until fixed at nine in 1819.

The novel is a pastiche of interwoven stories. It draws on the corpus of Northern European legends, including Ogier the Dane, the Matter of France, Arthurian romance, Oberon (Duke Alfric in the novel), Germanic mythology, and traditional magic. It uses related literary sources such as Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene , William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream , Robert Burns's Tam o' Shanter , and Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court . It also shows influence of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit with references to Mirkwood and wargs. It has some similarity to C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe .

The dividing line between the Empire in the West and threatening Faerie to the East seems to mirror the Cold War dividing line between the West and East blocs, running through the real Europe at the time of writing. [2]

This story makes reference to the perceived connection between science and magic during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The protagonist, Holger Carlsen, is introduced as a mechanical engineer in the preface titled "Note." Occasionally, he makes use of his knowledge of science as a way to make sense of the magical world in which he finds himself, and as a way to solve problems. For example, The Rubber Handbook, "The Burning Dagger" (made of magnesium, Bertrand Russell's Theory of Types, the experiments of Rutherford and Lawrence experiments with radioactivity, among others. Thus, it also taps into 20th century modernism.

Other works

Holger later appears as a minor character in Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest , where he is seen in a mysterious "Inn Between the Worlds" - having managed at last to leave the 20th century and wander the various alternate timelines by using the spells from a Medieval grimoire, but having little control over where he would get and a small chance of locating the one he wants. At the inn he encounters Valeria Matuchek - a character from another Anderson book, Operation Chaos who instructs him in the sophisticated scientific magic of her world and giving him a better chance.

In addition, Holger appears (with many other classic science fiction characters, despite Holger being a classic fantasy character) in the tournament at the end of Heinlein's The Number of the Beast .

In 2014 Harry Turtledove wrote, as his contribution to Multiverse: Exploring Poul Anderson's Worlds , edited by Greg Bear and Gardner Dozois, [3] a short story entitled "The Man who Came Late". The story takes place thirty years after the events of Three Hearts and Three Lions. Altogether it has taken Holger Carlsen that long to get back to Alianora: first, magic took him to Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943, where he was a member of the Resistance; at the end of the war, it took him five years to find a Medieval spell which would take him across the timelines; then he spent a lot of time in blundering blindly from one timeline to another; after getting better instructions from Valeria Matuchek, he still had to overcome the magical opposition of the Chaos forces, which did not want him back in their world; and when at last reaching the right world, he still had to travel on foot across the continent of Europe, seeking for her in town after town and village after village. When at last they come face to face, it is too late. When he had not come back from his battle, and had clearly disappeared from the face of the Earth, Alianora was deeply heartbroken - but eventually accepted the proposal of a village smith, a good and solid man even if not very exciting, settled into the life of a rather prosperous village housewife and gave birth to two sons and a daughter - to the last of whom she passed on the magic May Swan magic tunic. Thus Holger became "The Man who Came Late" (a title is derived from an unrelated Anderson story, "The Man Who Came Early"). Though still having a strong feeling for him, Alianora has no intention of abandoning her family and the life she had built. At the end of the story Morgan la Fay reappears, seeming poised to catch Holger on the rebound.

Michael Moorcock cited Three Hearts and Three Lions as one of the works which greatly influenced his own fantasy, similarly set in a universe where the forces of Law and Chaos are pitted in an eternal war with each other [4] [5] . Specifically, Anderson's theme of a man snatched suddenly from our world to a fantasy world where he is regarded as a great hero of that world's past and expected to perform new heroic acts - while himself having only the most vague memories of that past life - is shared with the otherwise very different 1970 Moorcock novel The Eternal Champion .


Floyd C. Gale in 1962 rated the novel version of Three Hearts and Three Lions four stars out of five. [6]

The novel influenced the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons , especially the original alignment system, which grouped all characters and creatures into "Law" and "Chaos". The game drew from the novel's depiction of the troll, whose body “regenerates”, healing itself extremely quickly when wounded. [7] Other creatures from the game that were influenced by the novel include the swanmay and the nixie. The novel also inspired the paladin character class. [8]


The 1953 novella is a Retro-Hugo nominee. [9]


  1. "Books Today". The New York Times : 31. June 16, 1961.
  2. Ward C. Burton, "The Cold War Reflected in Popular Literature" in Barbara Eisenberg (ed.) "A Retrospective Look at the Twentieth Century Society and Culture: A Multi-Disciplinary Round Table".
  3. Multiverse: Exploring Poul Anderson's Worlds ,
  4. "Mike's Recommended Reading List" Archived 14 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  5. Librarything on Elric of Melnibone
  6. Gale, Floyd C. (February 1962). "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 190–194.
  7. "Trolls, however, are not identified well by the Professor; these game monsters are taken from myth, influenced somewhat by Poul Anderson." Gygax, Gary (March 1985). "On the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D games". The Dragon (95). pp. 12–13.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  8. DeVarque, Aardy R. "Literary Sources of D&D". Archived from the original on 20 July 2007. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  9. "NESFA 1953 Retro-Hugo Recommendations". New England Science Fiction Association, Inc. Retrieved 2007-02-24.

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