What if you were a Hero of whom Legends Speak, and didn’t know it? Holger Carlsen is one of these heroes: Ogier the Dane, who first appears in the lays and chansons de geste of the late medieval period
Holger Carlsen is, so he thinks, a 20th century engineer, from Denmark but practicing his profession in the United States when World War II breaks out. Carlsen returns home to help the resistance fighters as best he can, but on one crucial mission—assisting someone critical to the freedom movement in their escape from German Occupied Denmark across the straits to Sweden and from there to England—things go awry. And badly. Or do they?
The two sides exchange fire and Carlsen, apparently, just misses a bullet to the head and wakes up, naked, in a strange wood. Nearby, there are a horse, clothing and knight’s gear of a size to fit Carlsen exactly, including a shield with the ‘three hearts and three lions’ insignia of the book’s title. Carlsen realizes that not only is the gear matched to his size and grip, but the horse knows him and as he handles the sword and lance, without realizing what he is doing, he manipulates them as easily as if he is indeed the trained knight he seems to be in this world. The trees and wildlife do not jibe with modern Denmark, or indeed any nation Carlsen knows, being a mix of trees too large to exist in our world, and animals that either no longer exist in Denmark (bears) or that never did exist so far as he knows (wolves and lions).
He realizes in short order that he’s been transported to an alternate reality resembling the time of legend from which our modern stories of Arthur, Charlemagne and other national heroes arose. Here there are witches, dwarves, shapechangers and Faerie, but most importantly for Carlsen, this world, as with his own, is sunk deep into a struggle between two powerful forces; however, here they are called Law–the human faction–and Chaos–the Faerie faction. He has no idea who he is in this world, although as fragments of memory come back to him, he realizes that he is indeed part of this world as well as the one he considers his own, though here his role is a larger one, and one more likely to resonate down through the ages.
The book is told largely from Carlsen’s point of view, as told to his modern (for the book’s setting) American friend upon Carlsen’s return to the “now” he still regards as his own time; the readers know only what he knows as he discovers it, so we are (unless we’re into medieval poems about legendary heroes) as mystified as Carlsen. He sets off to find out more about this world and who he is in it, with a swan may and a dwarf. As an engineer with a solid working knowledge of science, from astronomy to chemistry, Carlsen brings an interesting perspective to the traditional adventures one expects from a Dauntless Knight out of the land of Myth and Legend, as he applies the scientific logical rationale he knows to the fabled surroundings he now inhabits. For example, he forces his companions to leave the troll’s gold after the troll is transformed to stone by the sun when he realizes that transmutation of that sort may result in radioactivity–the source of myth about the sun’s wrath smiting anyone who steals treasure in this manner–uses a Faerie’s magnesium blade carried in lieu of ‘cold iron’ as a torch, ignited by friction on a grindstone, to drive away a water spirit holding him captive, and realizes that dragons must refuel like any other fire-producing implement in order to continue producing flame.
When he fulfills his quest in this other world, he is returned by the same somewhat mysterious means to that selfsame Danish beach, again naked, just in time to hold off the encroaching Germans long enough to ensure that the pivotal resistance fighter makes it to Sweden…and fortunately, his fellow resistance fighters don’t question why he paused to strip off all his clothes before returning to the fight. The American friend of the framing story, to whom Holger told his story, can only conjecture that his friend is, in fact, Holger Danske, not sleeping under Kronenborg Palace to awake in times of Denmark’s direst need, as Danish legend would have it, but rather sent away out of that time of antiquity and legend into a place where he will similarly remain until his country needs assistance from a Hero.
Fifty years on, Three Hearts and Three Lions is showing its age a bit, largely because styles and trends in epic fantasy have changed so much in the intervening decades. Overall, I still think it’s worth reading, if only because it serves as one of the building blocks of modern fantasy, though not as long, detailed or involved as the Lord of the Rings or Narnia series. Oddly, though, Three Hearts and Three Lions reminds me now of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as much as the other landmark works of modern fantasy. It’s got that same juxtaposition of what we’d consider modern science with legend, myth and fable, and manages it reasonably well, though without Twain’s sardonic take on that combination. Certainly, Poul Anderson’s got a number of other books I can heartily recommend, starting with A Midsummer Tempest.